Nearly 40 years ago the followers of an obscure spiritual movement made the Shenandoah Valley their home.
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Illustration by Neal Iwan
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Happy commune members.
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The Skymont football team.
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Jamming in an unheated cabin—note the plastic taped over the windows.
From the roadside, there isn’t much left of the commune once known as Skymont. Where there was once a lodge in which hundreds of people took their meals together, there is now only a solitary chimney. The area known as “the bowl,” which was first a sports field and later a field of sunflowers, is now just a depression in the ground—home for assorted weeds and a few slender sumac trees. The cabins, which pioneering commune members once inhabited without heat, are gone. The two-story barn, which was the favorite location for commune weddings, is also gone. What remains are a couple of frame buildings behind two strong, double-locked gates, several “no trespassing” signs and a crooked SKYMONT sign, mostly covered with duct tape.
You could live your whole life in the Shenandoah Valley and not know that at one time, hundreds of people sought out Skymont for spiritual nourishment, and many of them stayed. The property—146 acres abutting the Shenandoah River, 12 miles south of Front Royal—was originally a Christian summer camp until it closed in the 1960s and went up for sale. Its investors started leasing the property and its somewhat Spartan facilities to various groups. Robert Batchelor, an ex-Marine, was the property’s on-site manager at that time.
In 1969, a little-known spiritual movement named Subud chose Skymont as the site for its quadrennial world conference. Subud is an international spiritual philosophy that emphasizes the awakening of one’s “inner self” as part of the process of finding more fulfillment in life. The movement was started in the 1920s by a Javanese mystic who reported seeing a ball of light enter his body through his head. The man believed that he’d made contact with a great life force, and that that “force” could be transferred from person to person without diminution of its strength. The name Subud is a mixture of three Sanskrit words, and its symbol is seven concentric circles, intersected by seven spokes, which represent planes of existence. The Subud organization still exists and claims several thousand followers around the world.
According to Batchelor, Livingston Dodson, a mathematician and consultant to the U.S. Navy on nuclear weapons, chose Skymont for the conference. He was a regional chairman of Subud. “Someone showed him this summer camp that was for sale,” Batchelor says. “Livingston had a dream, a vivid dream, about where the mountains meet the sky.” Skymont matched his ideal.
The beauty of the site remains undiminished today. Located on a bluff overlooking the Shenandoah River, Skymont is near the river’s juncture with Overall Creek, a swift, wide tributary at the bottom of a chasm spanned by a two-lane steel arch erected in 1938. Today, the Overall Run Bridge is one of only two single-arch bridges remaining in the state. When the Virginia Department of Transportation floated plans in 1990 to replace the bridge with a contemporary multi-lane span, community leaders fought the idea.
In 1969, roughly 750 Subud followers arrived at Skymont for the World Congress. Movement founder Muhammad Subuh Sumohadiwidjojo was among the crowd. Batchelor, whose job was to manage the event, remembers it as a crazy gathering—Woodstock without the rock stars. “In 10 days, I served 21,000 meals,” he says. “I had to be creative.” Followers slept in the gym and ate under tents. Batchelor recalls that people were collecting money, but there was “confusion about who was collecting for what purpose. There were people making business decisions who had no experience.”
It was all a shoestring operation, and by the time the congress ended, the camp was bankrupt and ready to be shuttered. But many of the Subud faithful wanted to remain. According to Batchelor, 10 Subud members pooled their personal funds and bought the camp. “We were young and we were dedicated,” remembers Luzita Davila, who lived at Skymont for five years. “We just made it work.”
Today in her 60s and a resident of California, Davila found she “needed something” as a young woman, and Subud provided it. At the conference, she met the man who would become her husband. The two were married in the old gymnasium. “It was a beautiful, wonderful creation out of very little money,” Davila says. “Someone made a cake; someone made a dress.” The couple moved into what had been a camp cabin. “It was just four walls,” she says. “It was rough. It was hard living.”
That was true for everybody at the camp. The facilities were not designed for full-time, year-round occupancy. For one thing, there was no heat. “And a lot of us had come from California, where we didn’t know what winter was,” says Davila. Jobs were scarce in the nearest town, Front Royal. “You had Ph.D.’s making pizza,” Batchelor says. Additionally, there was more than a little skepticism among the locals as to what exactly was going on at Skymont. “It was the hippie aspect of things,” Davila says. “They were unsure of us.”
Ron Santmyers remembers the day in the early 1970s that he picked up a hitchhiker and drove him to Skymont. “It was back in the day that you could pick someone up and not worry about it,” Santmyers says. The rider turned out to be the actor Lewis Arquette. He had moved his family from Los Angeles to Front Royal to take part in the Subud World Congress.
When Santmyers picked up Arquette, the actor was on a break from a Broadway show in New York, where he was performing, and on his way back to Skymont. Arquette’s youngest son, David, who starred in the Scream movies and was formerly married to actress Courteney Cox (they divorced in 2011), was born at the commune. Lewis Arquette was also father to actors Richmond, Alexis, Rosanna and Patricia.
Richmond Arquette, the eldest, was 6 years old when the family moved from Los Angeles to Front Royal. He remembers being among hundreds of Subud acolytes. “Subud was the inspiration,” he says. “There were a lot of people and a lot of kids.”
It was summertime. While the adults were busy following their bliss, the kids ran free. “I was surrounded by friends, all the time, and we had a lot of freedom,” Arquette recalls. “We swam in the creek. We swam in the river.” A swimming pool, empty save for some swampy green water at the bottom, was a great place to catch snapping turtles and insects. The kids invented imaginative, intricate games. “Some of them would last for weeks on end, with long story lines,” says Arquette.
When others left, the Arquettes stayed. Their home was an unheated one-room cabin, with no running water. But, unlike most of the commune residents, Lewis Arquette was working in his chosen profession. In the 1970s, he had a recurring role as J.D. Pickett in television’s The Waltons, and would travel back and forth from Los Angeles. (Lewis Arquette’s father, Cliff, was appearing during this time as Charley Weaver on the television game show Hollywood Squares.) During this time, Lewis Arquette was also appearing on Broadway in Story Theater, which performed musical adaptations of children’s tales.
Other commune dwellers weren’t as fortunate. “It was very hard to make a living,” Davila says. Her husband commuted three hours daily to work. Nevertheless, she remembers Skymont with affection. “It was a great experience. I treasure it. I had my first two children there.”
Circling the front of the property, Davila remembers, was a horseshoe driveway. The first building from the entrance was the former camp infirmary, which commune dwellers called “the frame house.” Then came the lodge, where meals were served communally, next to which were tennis courts. The most substantial building on the premises was a stone house, called “the chalet.” There were also 19 cabins on the property, and eventually, a cemetery. “The land went up to a flat area with a meadow,” Davila says. “There’s a graveyard there. People get born. People die.”
The commune began to disintegrate in the mid-1970s. Lack of money wore down its residents. Farming was out of the question on the rocky, red-clay ground. “We tried everything,” Davila says. “We even tried a worm farm.”
In the late 1990s, an investor named Alan Fitzwater bought Skymont, renovated the three houses and two cottages that were still there, and tried to revive the site as a bed and breakfast. Fitzwater also helped lead a campaign that saved the Overall Run Bridge. But the B&B never materialized. Cabins on parts of the former property are now available for rent through Front Royal Outdoors and Skymont Vacation Rentals.
In November of 2006, the Commonwealth Transportation Board approved $11.3 million in funding to construct a new bridge over Overall Run. The bridge was completed in 2008.
The scenery that once enchanted Subud adherents remains as beautiful as ever and may be appreciated by anyone who ventures across the gorge at Overall Creek. The pilgrims are long gone, but if you gaze at the canopy of trees above and the stream below, you will understand why they came.