Sex and Death on the Road to Nirvana
For the past two months, Christie McNally and her husband, Ian Thorson, who had both recently been kicked out of a nearby Buddhist retreat she was leading, had been on their own, living in a cave, imitating the Indian and Tibetan sages in the ancient stories they had studied. They slept curled together on a futon he had dragged up the mountainside so that his wife wouldn’t have to lie on the earthen floor. Between them, they had one sleeping bag to protect them from the howling winter winds. They meditated for hours each day, believing they’d made a deep connection with the sudden storms and the wild animals, especially a family of coatimundi that visited and shared their meals. The sun heard their thoughts, too. McNally felt it rise in response to her pre-dawn meditations, and she woke in the dark to bring on the light. For sustenance, they sipped a little of the rainwater they collected and nibbled canned food they’d hauled uphill.
In the days before the sheriff’s office was notified of their plight, McNally, 39, had been worried that her body was not in harmony with nature. She’d been violently sick to her stomach and couldn’t eat. But as she recovered, her husband grew ill. For more than a week, neither could muster strength to clamber down the steep slope to fetch water. They took their suffering to be another karmic lesson.
When the EMTs finally showed up, helicoptering in from an Air Force base in Tucson and rappelling down into their cave, Thorson was already dead. Though he was only 38, he looked like an old man; over six feet tall, his corpse weighed barely 100 pounds. McNally was severely dehydrated, but she survived. The couple’s water jug was empty except for about a cup of brownish liquid. Bins of dried peas were stashed outside another cave. Among their few modern conveniences were a cellphone and a tracking beacon.
Everything about the case astonished authorities. This was a wilderness so forbidding, so haunted by angry spirits and infested with rattlesnakes, that even the local Navajo refused to spend the night here. But as the details emerged, it became clear that the way Thorson died was just the tragic conclusion of a saga of obsessive love and religious fervor run amok.
The story of how two educated people ended up living - and one dying - alone in a spiritual retreat in a tiny Arizona cave, like the ancient hermits, begins and ends with a man named Michael Roach. A 60-year-old boyish, impermeably cheerful one-time diamond merchant, Roach claimed to have achieved the highest levels of Tibetan Buddhism and had adapted the principles of that tradition into a uniquely American practice.