John Major Jenkins wants to make one thing clear: The world might end in five years, but it might not.

"It's really up to free will and our own choice as to what happens collectively in the future," says Jenkins, a 42-year-old writer who's spent more than 20 years studying and publishing books about the Mayan calendar.

The calendar used thousands of years ago by the native peoples of Mexico and Central America has triggered beliefs that the world could end when the calendar does—on Dec. 21, 2012. And judging by a two-day conference last weekend at the Jupiter Hotel featuring Jenkins' theories about the Mayan calendar's significance, there's a lot of local interest in even the possible demise of mankind.

More than 50 people—ranging from baby boomers to Shamanic practitioners and aspiring filmmakers—paid nearly $70 apiece to attend the conference, "Unlocking the Secrets of 2012."

The basic theory goes something like this: The Maya used a pretty complex calendar based on lunar, solar and astronomical cycles. It starts in 3115 B.C. and charts cycles of human civilization. Jenkins posits the Maya used hallucinogens like DMT and mushrooms as "sacred medicines" to receive spiritual visions they incorporated into their calendar and creation myths. (When he mentioned during the conference that mushrooms can increase a person's visual acuity, a 40-something jeans-wearing mom in the audience yelled, "Tell me about it!")

According to the Mayan creation myth, we're in the fifth cycle of human civilization. On Dec. 21, 2012, we'll enter the sixth cycle—which, coincidentally, is when the Mayan calendar just stops.

Jenkins—who lives just outside Fort Collins, Colo., and visited Portland as part of a three-city speaking engagement—attended only a semester of college. He says he profited from last weekend's conference, but that spreading Mayan philosophy isn't lucrative. While studying one of the earliest sites of Mayan civilization in Izapa, Mexico, Jenkins believes he uncovered two other connections to the Mayan calendar end date: It's both that year's winter solstice and the date when our sun aligns with the center of the Milky Way galaxy. But don't tell him that trinity of events is any coincidence, or that it's impossible it could mean the End of the World.

"Coincidentalists," as Jenkins calls scholars who think of these astronomical events as mere coincidences, "are a school of thought that just explains everything away."

So what exactly will happen in 2012?

For Jenkins and most conference attendees, this is a complicated spiritual question. "Galactic alignment," as 2012-enthusiasts call it, isn't just some exciting sky-show like a meteor shower or an eclipse. They believe in astrology as much as astronomy and think that human beings could undergo a serious spiritual transformation when the galaxy aligns.

Eden Sky, 30, traveled 140 miles from Yachats to Portland to hear Jenkins explain what galactic alignment means. And like Jenkins, she's out to spread the word about 2012, in hopes that she can influence humanity to change its materialistic attitudes and create a positive—not catastrophic—transformation as 2012 approaches.

"It's a matter of our collective karma," says Sky.

Jenkins admits that buying into this 2012 thing is a serious leap of faith—it's a combination of spirituality, astronomy and archaeology, and most academic scholars aren't willing to endorse his theories. He thinks it's because they don't want their long-held "perceptions distorted."

But some conference attendees weren't interested in the spiritual ramifications of 2012. They wanted to know how 2012 pertained to other theories—whether humans were colonized by an alien race, the possibilities of time travel, or how 2012 might be the date of a peak oil disaster. (Needless to say, the results of Tuesday's Portland city-charter election won't be especially relevant at that point.)

Jenkins admits it's easy to attach totally unrelated ideas, like global warming, crop circles and the UFO phenomenon, to the Mayan calendar because "these are mysterious, irrational things that we haven't been able to wrestle into a box, so they are all kind of glommed together in the same category."

But both Jenkins and Sky agree that humankind is in a downward spiral, and if we don't change soon our future looks bleak.

"I pray a lot," says Sky.