It is the largest undammed river in the United States, and when it is swollen like this, it is testimony to an untamed frontier and a reminder that nature, like faith, still runs free.
This is where Church Universal and Triumphant calls home, where taxidermists outnumber health clubs, the daytime speed limit on highways is whatever is "reasonable and prudent" and the road to the New Age is hard-packed dirt and gravel.
Eleven years ago, Elizabeth Clare Prophet moved her church headquarters and spiritual community onto the 12,000-acre Royal Teton Ranch, a half-dozen miles up the road from Yellowstone National Park in the tiny town of Corwin Springs. She brought with her from Southern California hundreds of followers and the Ascended Masters, saints in heaven who send their messages through her to Earth.
But then it came to pass that there was trouble in Paradise Valley.
Disgruntled former members spoke of abusive controls. There were reports of weapons being stockpiled. Environmentalists were outraged by changes to the habitat-rich ranch, formerly owned by the late publishing magnate Malcolm Forbes. And then there was the strange episode over building fallout shelters and forecasting a possible nuclear attack.
With more than 200 congregations internationally (including the Summit Lighthouse Study Group of San Diego), Church Universal and Triumphant wants to shake its cultlike reputation. It has ambitious plans: Become the next new denomination.
"I want to see our church so open, so wide, and so large and so big in its heart that there's room for everyone," says Prophet, 58.
Fifty miles north, in the county seat of Livingston, Kathy Schmook sips a glass of red wine and shakes her head in disgust. Schmook, a longtime critic who is working on a tell-all book about Prophet and the church, is far from convinced.
"Once a cult always a cult," she says.
In 1974, a widow left with four children and a spiritual community to run, Elizabeth Clare Prophet started Church Universal and Triumphant. It was incorporated the next year.
Her late husband, Mark Prophet, was the father of the movement, founding his Summit Lighthouse to publish the teachings of the Ascended Masters. Together, the two became anointed messengers for these enlightened beings, who had past lives on Earth but now were dictating their spiritual guidance from above.
These Ascended Masters included familiar sacred figures, such as Jesus and Buddha, and some rather unfamiliar ones, such as Saint Germain (whose past lives reportedly included Christopher Columbus and St. Joseph) and El Morya (formerly Abraham and King Arthur, among others).
For her church, Prophet fashioned a theology of East meets West, with heavy doses of karma and reincarnation.
She moved the headquarters from Colorado to Pasadena to Malibu, settling down on a campus they called Camelot. Then, in 1986, Prophet and her church left Camelot for mustard-colored meadows cradled between two majestic mountain ranges in southern Montana.
Hundreds followed. Some came to work and live at the ranch headquarters. Others moved onto land the church bought north of here, dubbed Glastonbury. And still others moved into nearby towns.
She brought with her the church's training center, Summit University, and a prolific publishing enterprise. The demographics of Park County shifted. Of the nearly 16,000 residents here, an estimated 10 percent belong to Church Universal and Triumphant.
They came to be close to Mother, to Guru Ma.
"It's very important to be near headquarters," says Raya Johansson, her voice thick with the accent of her native Finland. "If the headquarters moves, we will move."
Gravel crunches under the soles of the shoes heading to a large warehouse that serves as the ranch chapel. Inside, metal stacking chairs are lined up in neat rows on the cement floor and a sound system plays recorded chants.
But it is what's up on the altar that attracts many souls to Church Universal and Triumphant.
On the raised platform, under watchful portraits of Jesus and Saint Germain, is a shimmering supermarket of icons. Mother Mary, a nativity set, the archangel Michael, a red-caped Buddha and a golden Hindu Shiva sit among a dizzying array of deities.
A regal chair upholstered in ivory cloth is center stage, empty and waiting for Mother Prophet. There is a globe of the world and a copy of the famous World War II picture of the flag-raising over Mount Suribachi.
For seekers, most of whom were raised Christian, it is this universality of beliefs, where gods and country can share center stage, that is magnetic.
"I had never heard of anything like this before," says Christopher Kelley, who joined the staff of the Royal Teton Ranch eight years ago.
"I wasn't actually out there looking for churches," Kelley remembers. "I was looking for answers."
Monique Brunson was introduced to the teachings in 1983 when she was a community college student in San Diego and saw a poster advertising a lecture.
"It seemed to be all the things I've ever been interested in as far as spirituality," says Brunson, who moved to the ranch earlier this year with her husband, a webmaster for the church's sophisticated Internet site (browsers can learn about history, Mother and where to go to learn more about the faith).
She explains: "The concept that was taught about soul, the soul reincarnating and evolving, coming from God and returning to God, that made a lot of sense to me."
The teachings showed Brunson how to transmute her karma and become reunited with God. The synthesis of world religions made sense to her, too.
"I think there are so many different approaches to God that are accurate, that are tried and true," she says. "... It's just like it's in a different language, that's all. I like it. I find it very satisfying."
Like Kelley and his family, the Brunsons live in an apartment fashioned within one of the modular buildings that are lined up in rows, with petite yards and splashes of color from blooming flowers. A peek inside one studio apartment showed room for a bed and a small sofa, along with a half-size refrigerator, a two-burner hot plate, a tiny closet and a bathroom (residents can cook their own food or eat in the ranch cafeteria).
The headquarters is an odd assortment of these portable buildings, trailers and warehouses; the modesty contrasts against the stunning setting, like a Kmart blouse tucked inside a suit from Nordstrom.
Inside one building is the ranch's preschool, where a little boy arranges colored scarves on a statue of the Madonna. "I'm adorning Mother Mary," he says in a 2-year-old's sing-song voice. "I like adorning Mother Mary."
When he is finished, he glances up on the wall -- to a poster of Buddhas. Introduction to the blended theologies begins early here.
Even after 11 years, Church Universal and Triumphant remains a peculiar neighbor in these parts, where Saint Germain and El Morya seem as out of place as MTV at Buffalo Days.
But it is conduct, not theology, that has turned some residents into critics.
There was color-coded clothing for certain days of the week, children were educated in the church's own school and Mother had to give permission for staff members to marry.
The church bought thousands of acres, more than 25,000 acres in all, in Park County. It brought in the portable buildings, set up businesses (including ranching, farming and running a restaurant) and trucked in tons of materials for a massive underground fallout shelter in case of nuclear attack. Guards were posted in a small hut, nicknamed "Checkpoint Charlie" by some.
In 1989, Edward Francis, who at the time was married to Prophet, and another longtime member pleaded guilty to conspiring to buy weapons under false names (reportedly, they wanted them in case the shelters were overrun). Francis and Prophet are now divorced, though he remains executive vice president of the church.
Environmental clashes escalated over issues ranging from development of a hot-water well to leaking fuel tanks. And in 1990, Church Universal and Triumphant went underground in what is arguably its most bizarre chapter.
Hundreds of members, some arriving from throughout the country, headed into hurriedly completed fallout shelters amid predictions from Prophet of possible nuclear attack. Members paid thousands of dollars for spaces in these underground bunkers, from smaller basement varieties to the main shelter, which is carved into the hillside behind the Royal Teton Ranch and accommodates 750 people.
Followers climbed out hours later to find the world intact, but their already tarnished reputation was even more sullied. And today, many neighbors remain convinced this kind of behavior makes it a cult, not a church.
"I have observed and watched and listened for years," says the Rev. Maynard Mathewson of Paradise Valley Community Church. "They definitely demonstrate the characteristics of a cult."
"If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck," says John Sullivan, editor and publisher of the region's daily newspaper, The Livingston Enterprise, located about an hour from the ranch. "Most of the definitions of a cult I've seen are of an organization revolving around a single, unquestioned leader."
To its detractors, Church Universal and Triumphant has altered forever the environment here, both physically and emotionally.
"There's been an ongoing problem ever since they got here over whether we can trust what they tell us," Sullivan says.
"They've brought development and pollution and crowding to this area," says Julia Page, president of the Upper Yellowstone Defense Fund, an environmental group in Paradise Valley.
"When you criticize CUT, they twist it around and say we're criticizing their beliefs," Page adds. "This is America ... we don't criticize beliefs, we criticize behavior."
Teresa Keathley steps inside the ranch chapel and into the blur of sound, faithful voices chanting rapidly and rhythmically.
She is a long way from Mission Bay High School and the Class of 1967. She was Terri Rogers back then, one of the presidents of the Associated Student Body and part of the homecoming court. Her great-uncle was Charles Dail, a former two-term mayor of San Diego whose name graces the downtown Community Concourse.
But now Keathley commutes 50 miles each way to handle public relations for the church she's followed for nearly half of her 48 years.
"I love decrees," she says, adding a few moments later, "The sound is a creative and transforming power."
Decreeing, as this prayerful chanting is called, is the passion of Church Universal and Triumphant, and when it comes time for worship services, participants bring water bottles for drying mouths and throats and binders with color-coded pages -- yellow for wisdom, blue for power, pink for love. Leaders at a side lectern call out a decree number, participants flip to that page and they begin to chant the prayers: "Come, come, come Surya dear, by thy flame dissolve all fear."
A thunderstorm opens up over the ranch headquarters and rain is battering the metal roof, clashing with the rising voices. Round and round and round the audience goes. Diction gives way to speed. An auctioneer would be pressed to keep up.
There are decrees to dissolve fears. Decrees for protection. Decrees against journalists who abuse their power, against the Mafia, strikes, layoffs and communism. And decrees against "those who attack or try to impede" expansion of the faith.
Sometimes, they sound more like hexes than prayers.
One former member makes a sign of a cross and then an "X" to demonstrate one such decree. As her hand moves through the gestures, she begins speaking: "Smash, blast, annihilate, shatter, dissolve and consume ... "
Kelley, who this year became a spokesman for Church Universal and Triumphant, gives one of his easygoing shrugs. "I think the cult image was not completely undeserved," he admits.
Some people went too far. The headquarters also fed into it. "I think we need to normalize a bit," Kelley is saying. "... I think that's how we're going to lose our image as a cult."
That normalizing, as he calls it, began last year when Prophet announced she was turning over administrative direction to Gilbert Cleirbaut, a Belgian-born organizational expert. He would be president and she would remain the spiritual leader of the church and messenger for the Ascended Masters.
Working out of a renovated farmhouse at the ranch, Cleirbaut got busy. New elders were selected in a first-ever democratic church election. Old rules, like the ones about color and rock music, were relaxed. Permission was no longer required for dating.
"Some people were completely dependent, 'Just tell me what to do and I will do it,'" says Cleirbaut in his European accent. "And that's not very healthy."
In the past year, more than half the staff has been cut (down to about 210), and those who remain have been put on salaries with vacation, sick leave and health benefits. The church sold its farming equipment, closed its elementary school and opened its Glastonbury property to public ownership.
Church leaders won't release membership numbers, but a recent annual report shows that revenues, listed at $8.1 million in 1996, dropped nearly $1.6 million between 1994 and 1996, feeding speculation that the future is anything but rosy.
Cleirbaut, however, exudes confidence. The first years were focused inward, he says, and now it's time to change. "Basically, we want to become a more mainstream organization to reach out to the world."
Part of that reaching out happened this summer in San Diego, when Church Universal and Triumphant brought its annual conference out of Montana and into a Harbor Island hotel.
While he was in San Diego, Cleirbaut, who is a Canadian citizen, went public with a hitch in the "re-energizing" plan: He was having visa problems and had to step down as president. But it was only a temporary setback. He has resolved his immigration status and is back at the helm.
Prophet, meanwhile, told the San Diego gathering that it was Saint Germain who actually engineered all this change. He dictated the message through her, saying the words: "Let there be a restructuring ... Let us trim the fat."
Church Universal and Triumphant has left a trail of disillusioned former members.
"This is a very destructive organization," says Peter Arnone. "It has hurt many, many people."
Arnone was a 21-year-old college student from Buffalo when he visited the Prophets' spiritual community in 1970, back when it was located in Colorado Springs. Arnone joined in January of 1971 -- a new year and a new life.
"How great it was to be working for God, serving humanity," he remembers.
He left at Christmastime 1992, disgusted with the control that he says dictated what colors to wear, who to marry and even when husbands and wives should have sex.
Arnone, who now edits a newsletter for ex-members from his Livingston apartment, thinks the church is a cult. "Absolutely. You have an individual who is playing God and that's Elizabeth Clare Prophet."
Jan Carlson, who was in the group for a dozen years, agrees: "You don't think, you just do. You think you're thinking but you're not thinking."
Carlson and her husband began attending a study group in California in the 1970s. "It was really, really neat," she recalls. "... It was inclusive of all the religions in the world. There was an answer for every single question you ever had."
They left nine years ago and now she runs an antique store in Bozeman, Mont. There was too much control, too much hysteria, she said. Over time, she decided, the church, and its leader, were bogus.
"You have to be able to stop believing in her (Prophet) before you can get out of the church," Carlson says softly.
"I didn't know I was going to end up spending 15 hours a day doing wild decrees, not being able to talk to the opposite sex," says Harmony Gates, a member for six years. "That stuff came later."
Like Arnone and Carlson, Gates moved with the church from California to Montana, where she still lives. And like them, she believes the reports of change are nothing more than a smoke screen.
"I think they're dissolving and trying not to admit it," she says.
Come winter, the Yellowstone River will flow icy cold through this valley called Paradise, beside Church Universal and Triumphant. But the Yellowstone doesn't freeze through, a reminder that something can't be stopped if it's constantly moving.
"Checkpoint Charlie" is now abandoned. A fence that separated the Royal Teton Ranch from the world came down in August.
In September, the church announced it would sell, swap or set aside for conservation more than half of the ranch. The proposed deal would affect some 7,850 acres, most of which would be sold to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, a Missoula-based conservation group. In return, the church would get an unspecified amount of money plus approximately 1,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land.
Still, church officials deny rumors of demise -- or that they are moving out of Montana. They are simply shifting course, they say, to a new life cycle that concentrates on the church's mission.
But the fallout shelters will stay. A window of potential trepidation, what Prophet calls an accelerated period of returning karma, will continue until 2002. "Our insurance policy is if something happens, we are prepared," Prophet says. "I believe in life."
There are many differences between what people call a cult and what they say is a denomination. Control is one difference. Acceptance is another.
Will Church Universal and Triumphant move into the mainstream of society? Even its allies have doubts.
"Their theology is so different that they'll never be just another denomination," says J. Gordon Melton, a religion researcher from Santa Barbara who has visited the headquarters several times. "They're always going to be out there on the fringe, so to speak."