Almost an hour drive outside of Denver sits a property that stretches 145 acres and abutts National Forest property. It used to be a retreat center owned by the Korean Christian Church South and used by World Mission College, Eternal Purpose Foundation and Camp Koinonia but has sat unused for years. That is until a small group of people saw its value and bought it this summer. Now, it’s slowly becoming an “eco-retreat and playground” called Everland. Through an overarching narrative punctuated by immersive art installations, Everland will educate visitors while offering them a space for transcendental experiences in nature.
Although the existing facilities, like the 22,000 square feet “conference center” adorned with crosses, tell a story about the original property owners’ relationship to God, Everland is going to focus on its relationship to nature. The “eco-retreat” will reinvigorate the lightly developed property while practicing environmental stewardship through permaculture, composting toilets, fire mitigation and more. The three founders (or “co-creators” as they prefer to be called), Jonny Jenkins, Sophie Howell and Laney Odom currently live on (or will soon live on) the land in the existing structures and plan to live there for the foreseeable future. “It’s our home now,” Jenkins said warmly.
But the three of them aren’t going to build Everland alone. Their dream is about igniting other people’s “zones of genius” — or expertise — to co-create an imaginative and ecologically responsible natural playground for all ages. They also bring their own expertise to the project, with Jenkins coming from a real estate and event planning background, Odom coming from major festival organizing and Howell offering expertise in art curation and spirituality.
In their vision of this enchanted place, the 145 acres hold experiential amenities, immersive art installations, meditation areas, outdoor play spaces, nature nooks, gardens as well as sustainable accommodations and structures for events. That will be no easy feat, and although most of the hard work is up to them until they open to the public in the summer of 2020, they plan to use an open-source ideology throughout the life of the park to reach their goals.
“The first place we had to start is with the natural resources that are already on the land,” Jenkins explained. “Fallen wood is being gathered for fire mitigation and we are turning those logs into furniture and art pieces. We will eventually be looking for artists who specialize in making things with sticks and wood,” and other resources on the property as well. Once the snow melts in the spring, Everland will host permaculture experts from universities around the state to help guide them in creating a sustainable space to grow food and learn about the land while the professors will have the opportunity to teach through real experience in the field. And that’s just the beginning.
Once Everland opens, the property will continually change with the needs of the seasons, the needs of the land and with eco-friendly art installations. There will be a story behind Everland, told through commissioned art pieces that are meant to survive outside for the long-haul. “As a nature person, I want people to reconnect with nature,” commented Jenkins. “The more disconnected we become the more necessary it is to have a place that is organic.” But Jenkins also likes immersive art, like Meow Wolf. “For so long, we’ve looked at art. But when you go to Meow Wolf you are in the art. I want to do that, but I want to do that outside. I want to merge art and nature [at Everland].”
For Odom, the perspective is a little different but runs along the same lines, “I am most excited by creating a unique and inviting environment that will genuinely encourage people to connect with art, nature and hopefully themselves,” she reported. “Additionally, I am passionate about bringing a bit more edginess to the Colorado recreation and tourism scene. We have a lot of large resorts and dude or hunting ranches in Colorado and while those are great, it will be so exciting to add something completely unique to the mix while still highlighting Colorado’s beauty.”
The desire to create an eco-retreat of this kind was ignited in Jenkins from a young age, growing up on a small island off the coast of North Carolina and then throughout his adult life as he traveled abroad. While he was living in Taiwan and running an event production company, he came back to the US to go to his first Burning Man festival in 2013. Returning to Taiwan with a surge of inspiration, he helped build the regional Taiwan Burning Man* and realized that his “genius is so much more genius when it’s combined with other people’s geniuses.” Co-creation, as he put it, became the anthem of his life. It led him back to the US and specifically to Colorado where he started collaborating with Odom and Howell.
“Burning Man is such a temporal space. It’s very exclusive and not a lot of people have access to that level of inspiration,” Jenkins explained. “But every person comes back charged for something. So I wanted to create a container to allow some of that experiential and immersive art building that is cohesive to invite other artists to come create within.” He also mentioned that he’s always had a hard time swallowing the fact that most art made for Burning Man has no home after it’s used for a festival. Everland, though inspired by immersive art experiences like Burning Man and Meow Wolf, will differentiate itself by revolving around environmental stewardship year-round.
Although Burning Man is a large influence on Jenkins, Everland hinges on co-creation and Howell and Odom’s inspirations come from a lot of different places. Howell said, “my source of inspiration for Everland is the land itself, and the magical garden my mother created, I had a fairytale-like upbringing with a bamboo forest in the backyard, rose canopies, irises, building teepees and fires and making up stories, as well as places I have traveled: riads in Morocco, precious cottages in the French countryside with tulips growing along the roof, nature mandalas, the joy of climbing treehouses, a desire to create the type of community I would have wanted growing up.”
Currently, the eco-retreat holds eight cabins, an outdoor amphitheater, an event center, a caretaker’s cabin, a single-family home, hiking and biking trails, rock climbing and bouldering areas and a decent network of roads. If all goes as planned, Everland will one day have glamping options, art installations, tree houses, eco-playgrounds, skillshares, sound healing, yoga retreats, mastermind meetups, staycations and more that can’t be categorized. But don’t expect a fully-operating eco-retreat with all of those amenities in the summer of 2020, instead, you’ll have to be patient through a series of “rolling phased openings” as a result of the slow development and narrative-building that Everland’s co-creators insist upon. For them, the priority is long-term care of the land and quality of concept in the art.
Perhaps the most valuable thing Everland might accomplish, distilled into a single quote, provided by Jenkins and attributed to Plato is “You can learn more about a person from one hour of play than from a year of conversation.” If Everland becomes what the co-creators believe it can be — an eco-retreat that fosters innovation, builds community, supports artists and teaches environmental stewardship through playful discovery — then it may be a revolutionary model for other communities to follow.
All photography by Jeff Jones, courtesy of Everland
*Editor’s Note: This article incorrectly stated Jonny Jenkins as the founder of Taiwan Burning Man, but he helped build the community rather than starting it.