There/s a Lot of Life in >Them Thar Hills/
There/s a Lot of Life in >Them Thar Hills/

One may travel Highway 1 southeast of Lompoc thinking that the ranches all look pretty much alike. There is, however, more here than meets the eye.

Thirteen miles southeast of Lompoc there is a small sign by a tall, red post gateway on the north side of the road: BSunburst Sanctuary.C

After years of wondering about it, finally on Sunday, Sept. 21, at 7 o/clock on the morning of the autumnal equinox, I punched in a code at the gate and rode down a long row of overarching trees onto Sunburst Sanctuary.

The hour was early, the air damp, the sky gray. I was lured there by the prospect of a sunrise service and a walk through a labyrinth. I could see that the sunrise was going to be iffy, but still, the labyrinth seemed enticing.

There were a few cars parked in the parking lot by the lodge, a beautiful red wood structure. To the right, down BChalet LaneC was a row of eight neat little cabins, for sanctuary guests, it turns out. Straight ahead in a pasture was a small round mud-colored hut with a spiral entrance, obviously in the last stages of construction.

I took the path to the lodge. In the pre-dawn light, the natural garden was charming. On one side of the path, a small Buddhist statue; opposite, a statue of the Virgin Mary. Later their significance became clearer.

Inside the lodge, a rec room, a huge industrial kitchen, and a dining area flanked a large room outfitted with several cushions arranged on the floor in a circle surrounding a bouquet of flowers and three brass, bowl-shaped bells. Fifty or so chairs ringed the cushions. A man who was putting the final touches on the room preparations directed me through an opposite door to a collection of whitish rocks in the distance 7 the labyrinth.

Now began my understanding of what goes on at Sunburst Sanctuary. The labyrinth and our ceremonial walk through it were modeled after the structure and rituals of the Hopi Indians. Craig Hampton stood at the entrance of the rock-lined path, facing the eight people assembled. He had four ears of corn, which he placed on the four points of a rock cross. The four colors of the corn represented the four races of people of the Earth and the four elements of creation: earth, air, water and fire. It was my first clue to the religious philosophy of Norman Paulsen (originally BPoulsenC).

Norman Poulsen was born in Lompoc in 1929, the son of Justice Court Judge Charley Poulsen. Judge Poulsen was blind. He was well known for, among other things, his piano playing for the silent movies shown in the Lompoc Calvert Theatre.

His son Norman did not take to the law. From the time he was quite young, he was interested in spiritual matters, even more so after an accident, a 30-foot fall from a light pole while repairing electric lines. During the fall he had an intense near-death experience which spurred his quest for spiritual answers and led him to Los Angeles to meet an eastern Indian yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda, who had come to the United States to teach the techniques of Kriya Yoga meditation to the western world. As a child, Norman repeatedly experienced visions of a long-haired man with lustrous dark eyes. When he met the yogi, he felt that here was the man of his visions.

At the age of 18, he entered the yogi/s monastery and was his student for four years. Readers may remember Paramahansa Yogananda/s book that was popular in the 1950s: BAutobiography of a Yogi.C

After the death of Paramahansa Yogananda, Norman embraced the teachings of Christ. Norman/s book, BChrist Consciousness,C explains his concept of self-realization, the idea that at the core of every human being is a pure self, a consciousness of Christ, and the realization of this self is attained through the practice of meditation.

In the late 1960s, Norman met many young people in the Santa Barbara area who were searching for a way of life that would nurture their spirituality.

Jake Collier was such a person. Born on the East Coast, Jake was roaming the country looking for like-minded people who wanted to live an alternative lifestyle. He joined Norman/s small meditation group that met in a house trailer in Santa Barbara.

The group gradually outgrew the trailer. Norman found an old ice cream factory on Cota Street. He was an experienced mason and an excellent Bhorse trader.C As the group continued to grow, he continued to find buildings and land for almost give-away prices and turn them into profit-making enterprises. In 1969, the group named themselves BSunburst.C

In 1971, Sunburst bought 150 acres north of Santa Barbara on Gibraltar Road. There they began raising organic vegetables, the enterprise that would become their main source of revenue through the years. They bought the Tajigas Ranch on Highway 101 between Goleta and Gaviota on a lease option with the stipulation that they would plant 35 acres of avocado to improve the land. In 1976, the group opened a restaurant on Highway 101 near Gaviota. The restaurant served organic vegetables in a standard menu and thrived until the gasoline crunch of the late /70s hit. They sold out after five years.

Meanwhile, membership in Sunburst had grown exponentially. In 1978, the group had 350 members, and as their numbers expanded, so did their enterprises. On Milpas Street in Santa Barbara they operated a small cafe called the Farmer and the Fisherman, a juice factory, a bakery and a wholesale warehouse from which they shipped organic food all over the country.

Word about Norman Paulsen and his meditation commune spread as prolifically as did the organic vegetables. A chief of the Hopi Indians, White Bear, heard about Norman and came to Santa Barbara to meet him. Norman recognized that many Hopi beliefs were similar to his own and incorporated some Hopi rituals into his meditation ceremonies 7 to wit, the symbolism of the four colors of corn, the equinox ceremony and the labyrinth.

In 1980, Norman and the group went to Salt Lake City. They opened natural food stores there and in Nevada. In 1988, they purchased a store in Flagstaff, Ariz.; in 1992, they found a store for sale in Sedona and bought it. In 1994, they found one for sale in Prescott. The three Arizona stores, in addition to ones in San Luis Obispo and Solvang, are still in operation. Vice-president in charge 7 the kid from the East Coast, Jake Collier.

In 1992, Norman moved the operation/s headquarters again, this time to the 4,000-acre BSunburst SanctuaryC on Highway 1. Scattered throughout these scenic hills are the residences of the 25 members who live on the ranch, caring for the horses, cattle, goats and chickens and the organic vegetables grown on the Nojoqui Valley Farm located 10 miles away on Highway 101.

Norman Paulsen died in December 2006. To a visitor, he still seems to be there. His photograph on the lodge wall looks directly at the viewer, emanating strength and good will. People speak of BNormC as if he/s just in the next room. His wife, Patricia, speaks of the intention of the New Frontier Farm: to care for the Earth and the soil, surely Norm/s intention also. The meditation 7 the musicians, the leader and the people gathered there 7 reflects his beliefs, as though he himself were leading it.

Have the people of Sunburst changed from those halcyon days in the /60s in Santa Barbara?

Jake says they have.

BWe are not like we were then. Then 7 well, Sunburst was a communal experiment. Now, we all have jobs. We all pay taxes.C

Sunburst and its residents seem to have matured.

Allie Kay Spaulding can be reached at

October 12, 2008