This snow-dusted desert has been called forsaken more than once. Now Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh has abandoned the place, leaving his once-bustling commune in doubt about its future.
Rajneesh pleaded guilty last week to two federal immigration-fraud charges and returned to his native India. At a meeting Wednesday at the Rajneeshpuram commune outside of town, about one-third of the guru's 3,000 followers here indicated that they also planned to leave. Another third said they wished to stay, and the rest were undecided, a commune spokeswoman said.
If Rajneeshpuram survives, officials say, it will be a much smaller operation. With $80 million in assets, more than $35 million in debts and its chief attraction departed, the commune's remaining residents will have to find other sources of income, perhaps forestry or mining.
Rajneesh Investment Corp. President Dhyan John said the commune will sell much of its holdings, including 86 of Rajneesh's Rolls-Royces (expected to bring $5 million), jewelry, farm equipment and much of its land.
Stores in the commune's shopping district were offering greatly reduced prices this week, as much as a 75 percent discount on clothing. A stream of people made travel arrangements with the Rajneesh Travel Agency. Only about 100 of the estimated 3,000 homeless people brought here from skid rows across the country last winter remain, and some of them said they, too, are thinking of leaving.
At the Rajneesh Restaurant on Rte. 218, construction worker Samarpan Hasib found that the growing exodus of Rajneesh followers had left him in charge of the grill. He had never done the job in this three years at the commune, but then he didn't expect many customers. "The business is not going to be as good as it was, because this place depends on the tourist industry, and most people came to see Bhagwan," he said.
The gray-haired, bearded guru, 53, claims that 1 million people worldwide have adopted his philosophy of self-love, sex without guilt, laughter and what one New Yorker here, Ma Prem Maneesha, called the need to "grasp any opportunity to celebrate life."
In 1981, he established the commune on the Big Muddy Ranch and turned an overgrazed range into a thriving center of vegetable farming and shops. The commune earned millions of dollars from festivals that attracted as many as 15,000 Rajneesh admirers to this wide spot on a bad road 100 miles southeast of Portland.
Rajneesh drew media attention, particularly after several key lieutenants fled the commune 10 weeks ago amid charges and countercharges about wiretapping and poisoning plots.
John Rees, a specialist on extremist movements who publishes the Information Digest in Baltimore, attributed such intense coverage to the concern of free societies with persons who seem to exercise hypnotic control over large groups of people.
After voting themselves into control of this tiny town and changing its name to Rajneesh, the guru's followers -- who call themselves "sannyasins," or disciples -- restored the town's original name a few weeks ago. But Jean Opray, a longtime resident who fought the Rajneeshees' takeover, said today that she and her group would continue their petition to return control of the town to the county. Registered sannyasin voters still outnumber the original residents, about 70 to 20, and hold all the city council seats, Opray said.
Besides its financial and political uncertainties, the commune faces other challenges:
*A trial is under way in Portland in a $4 million defamation suit filed against three Rajneesh enterprises by former Big Muddy ranch foreman Robert Harvey.
*Several Rajneesh followers are testifying before a federal grand jury about Ma Anand Sheela, Rajneesh's former personal secretary. She is being held in West Germany for extradition on charges of attempted murder.
*Some commune officials fear that U.S. authorities will use antiracketeering laws to seize commune assets. In addition, many commune residents remain in trouble with the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Swami Prem Sunny, a former New York schoolteacher working the security detail one night this week, said he had made no plans.
"I'll stay to the end," he said, "whatever that is."