Searching for spirit in Sedona.
We swung off 1-70 onto Route 179 heading north toward Sedona, Arizona. The desert scrub, saguaro cactus and mesquite had already given way to pinon pine, juniper, and ashen grasses. The Sedona visitor's guide states with somewhat prejudicial aplomb, "If you don't `ooh' and `aah' as you approach Sedona, you're either asleep or not paying attention."
My husband and I were ready, but nothing could have prepared us for the vision we approached through a gap in the limestone hillside: red rock cliffs glowing in the rays of sunset, precarious pinnacles, blunt mesas, and windrounded buttes towering over a rolling brushland plain.
We oohd and aahd appropriately--involuntarily. This first glimpse of Sedona literally took our breath away. The highway twisted around the fabulous rock formations, eventually following the narrow meander of Oak Creek. There, the golds, yellows, and oranges of autumn oak, sycamore, and cottonwood added their gleam to the earth's terra-cotta glow.
Captured in more westerns than most would care to count, Sedona's natural beauty echoes the Grand Canyon's. Its sedimentary layers of mudstone, sandstone, limestone, and basalt date from some of the same geological eras. But Sedona is smaller, more intimate and approachable. As we wound our way past Bell and Cathedral Rocks heading toward Capitol Butte and Coffee Pot Rock--Sedona's rugged geological "mascot"--we could hardly wait to hike out to those red rocks to explore.
Our first excursion was along Schnebly Hill Road, renowned for its scenic vistas. Crisscrossed by hiking trails leading through Bear Wallow Canyon, beneath the Mitten Ridge, Moose's Butte, and Teapot Rock to beautiful Munds Mountain, my husband and I thought it would be the perfect place to get a sense of our surroundings.
Coming from the East Coast, we had no expectation that Schnebly Hill Road, marked on the map with a thick, black line, would be a rutted, dusty dirt and gravel trail that severely challenged our rental car's agility and endurance. We bounced up, down, around and over boulders, dips, and harrowing curves, finally taking refuge in the first pulloff available. Far above the rutted roadway loomed a bulbous pinnacle called Camel-head. Gratefully, we grabbed our backpacks and headed up.
Twining our way through agave and twisted pinon pine, we scrambled up sheer rockface where the red stone clattered and slipped beneath our feet. Lizards, ravens, warblers, towhees, and a pint-size tarantula greeted us along the trail. Century plants sent bamboo-like stalks eight feet into the air. From the highest reaches, our view plunged toward downtown Sedona, where red-roofed homes and two-story shopping strips blended tastefully with the stunning natural scene.
A BUSTLING NAMESAKE
Sedona got its humble start when fruit farmers and cattle ranchers settled the area in the late 1800s. Its mellifluous name originates with one of its earliest residents, Carl Schnebly. In attempting to establish a post office for the town, Carl submitted two names: Oak Creek Crossing and Schnebly Station; the postmaster general deemed both too long for the cancellation stamp. Carl's brother then suggested the town be named after Carl's 25 year-old wife, Sedona. Sedona objected, feeling the naming of a town was an honor best reserved for the aged or the dead. Nonetheless, the postmaster general liked the name because it was short. Propriety or no, Sedona it was.
From our bird's-eye perch, we decided to scramble down into town to see what Mrs. Schnebly's namesake had become. Downtown Sedona, we quickly discovered, is a bustling, somewhat upscale, but nonetheless gaudy affair. Rows of tourist shops offer every kind of southwestern paraphernalia: gigantic Navajo silver belt-buckles; statues of cacti, cowboys, Hopi kachinas, and howling coyotes; jars of hot sauce and jellied jalapeno peppers. As we rummaged for souvenirs, tourist-office hawkers shrilled like carnival carnies, "See Sedona by helicopter! Biplane! Hot-air balloon!" A pushy time-share salesman tried to pressure us into a "no-obligation" tour. We strode down the sidewalk, flanked by cowboy-hatted, chapsclad tour guides and rows of Pepto-Bismol colored Jeeps. The vehicles, operated by the Pink Jeep Tour Company, can be found around nearly every curve and on every dirt track in town.
Another curiosity are signs of Sedona's vibrant New Age community. In gift shops are piles of quartz crystals, sage bundles "guaranteed to cleanse the spirit," and guidebooks pointing the way to "vortexes"--spiritual energy centers located at various rock formations around the area where, according to the books, one's personal energy can be renewed. I'd recently read that the New Age was dead but, apparently, not in Sedona. Believers flock in hordes to commune, meditate, and conduct rituals around the seven vortexes nearby. Particularly at dawn or dusk, worshippers are a common sight at Bell Rock, Cathedral Rock, or Airport Mesa, all three among the most spectacular locations around. We found hiking at the vortexes inevitably meant skirting offerings of sage, cornmeal, and curious arrangements of crystals and other sacred stones.
In one downtown shop, as I perused cases of turquoise and amber jewelry, I was startled by a spontaneous remark from behind the counter.
"Amber is very powerful."
I glanced at the pert, gray-haired saleswoman with a misty haze about her deep-set eyes.
She began describing in detail the healing nature of' the gems in the showcase and the meaning of the American Indian designs on the jewelry: a bear's claw for protection, the squiggly arrow called the heartline signifying the breath of life, and Kokopelli, the humpbacked flute player, primordial symbol of fertility.
"Everything has meaning and purpose. Most people don't appreciate it, but I sense something about you," she smiled.
Soon she was recommending a massage therapist and herbal healer, just up the road, and plugging the Hub, a resource center for Sedona's past-life regressionists, aromatherapists, and spiritual channelers. Feeling my jaded feathers slightly ruffling, I listened with more skepticism than I care to admit, but there was something genuine in the woman's fervent belief and willingness to share it. After she'd urged us to experience the vortexes, we finally said our goodbyes. As she opened her arms for an impetuous embrace, we amicably surrendered.
Vortexes or no, we had come to Sedona to get close to ... something. We spent some time exploring both Bell and Cathedral Rocks, but as far as renewing our personal energy, we found more satisfying, peaceful adventures away from the vortexes' inevitable crowds.
Instead, we followed Soldier's Pass Trail through the sunset shadows of Coffee Pot Rock to the Seven Sacred Pools, an American Indian watering hole comprising seven waterworn hollows gracefully descending to an oasis beside the dusty trail. Our most challenging hike was over Sterling Pass, a thousand feet up along a switchback trail that squeezed a forest of ponderosa pines, oaks, and maples into the crevice between two spectacular pinnacles, then descended to Vultee Arch, a natural sandstone bridge.
The West Fork Trail, one of the most popular in the area, we saved for a weekday when the crowds were at their least. Passing only about fifteen people throughout the day (on most of our excursions, we'd encountered not more than two or three), we hiked through autumn foliage shimmering against Oak Creek Canyon's sheer umber walls, challenging our waterproof boots as we crossed the shallow creek again and again. The official West Fork Trail ends abruptly when the canyon narrows and the creek completely fills the gap. When the water suddenly deepened to our knees, we reluctantly turned back, though some locals assured us, with proper equipment to manage the icy water, we could have traveled another fourteen miles.
Besides hiking on our own, we were particularly interested in exploring some of the local Indian ruins, so we joined a four-hour "cliff-dwellers tour" with Sedona Red Rock Jeep Tours. Our burly, bearded, and baseball-capped tour guide, Jim, seemed to know as much about the local geology as he did about guns. Packing a .38 on his hip--for rabid coyotes and rattlesnakes, he reassured us--he loaded us into a van, heading down I-17 toward Camp Verde, where the terrain turns from vibrant red to bone white. Between the dust and mesquite forests meandered the Verde River. We waded through the current in the tour company's hip-high boots, then clambered toward a low cliff cluttered with man-made caves. Jim threaded us through these low-ceilinged honeycombs, explaining their use by the Sinagua Indians who dwelled in the Verde Valley about a thousand years ago. Their name means "without water" in Spanish, referring to the local landscape and their logical solution: The Sinagua relied on irrigation to practice agriculture.
Other remnants of the Sinagua culture are evident throughout the region. One of the most popular is Montezuma's Castle Monument. Mistakenly named for the last Aztec emperor of Mexico, who ruled centuries after the ruin was occupied, the complex cliff dwelling was fenced off from close investigation, undergoing repairs when we arrived.
Frustrated, we headed to nearby Montezuma's Well. Part of a trio of National Park Service sites including Tuzigoot Monument, Montezuma's Well is a natural limestone sinkhole formed when an immense underground cavern collapsed some two million years ago. On the afternoon we visited, the well's deep blue, spring-fed lake played host to wigeons and pintail ducks on their fall migration. The well's walls contain more cliff dwellings and a three-hundred-foot cave penetrating to the river beyond. Beside the river, one of the Sinagua irrigation canals still directs a clear, cool flow toward modern farms, which have replaced their ancient fields.
As we settled in the shade of a sycamore beside the canal for a picnic lunch, one of the local volunteer rangers, Jack Beckman, appeared. Toting a brightly painted walking stick and pockets full of tales, he has hosted visitors to the well every day since his retirement twenty-six years ago.
Beckman will talk to anyone, making no distinction between adults or children, whatever their culture, language, or age. Wheedling his way into the heart of even the most dubious visitor with his amazing knack for storytelling, he shared the well's history, both popular and personal. Beckman told of his encounters with local Indians who still visit to receive its sacred water, each tribe from a different spot around the sinkhole and canal. After several hours spent sharing stories, songs, and crumpled snapshots from a plastic bag in his wallet, passing out polished bits of tiger's-eye and "Apache's tears"--named, according to Beckman, for Apache braves who, rather than be herded off to a reservation by U.S. soldiers, preferred to leap to their deaths from Sedona's twisted pinnacles--we could not help but feel Montezuma's name on the well all the more inappropriate. To us, this was truly Jack Beckman's Well.
One crisp, foggy morning, we headed a little farther afield, north to Flagstaff on historic Route 66, for a day of hiking in the San Francisco Peaks. Even the drive along Route 89A was spectacular. Snaking through the heart of Oak Creek Canyon, we passed surreal obelisks at the entrance of Slide Rock State Park, then climbed cliff-hugging hairpin turns to reach the very crown of Oak Creek Canyon. There a scenic overlook presented the entire expanse of the brilliant, autumnal ravine.
It's only about an hour's drive to the San Franciscos, yet we found the climate there completely changed. Snow already capped the dark volcanic cones hovering incongruously ever an almost level valley. We hiked the Kachina Trail on the southern slopes of Humphrey's Peak, meandering through leafless aspens and ponderosa pines, chilly meadows, and cluttered fields of volcanic boulders. The trail is named for the Hopi spirit guides, kachinas, who, legends say, make their home on these mountaintops. In the crisp, still air, my husband, an amateur musician, took out his flute to play a tune, only to be suddenly, stridently accompanied by a tuft-eared Abert's squirrel. Together they performed a jam session of melody and ratchety rhythms against the echoing volcanic slopes. I listened in amazementas. It was as if Kokopelli himself played the music, bringing warmth and life into the world, as the legends say.
We stumbled onto the most magical adventure of our Sedona sojourn, following a tip from our tour guide, Jim. On his advice, we went in search of a canyon called Red Truck Draw. The canyon's name sounded less than dramatic, but Jim promised if we drove "out that way" we'd discover a little-known "newspaper wall" filled with petroglyphs--etched figures on the canyon wall left by the ancient Anasazi, a lost culture of American Indians believed to be the ancestors of many modern southwestern tribes. Their sophisticated civilization and sudden, inexplicable disappearance approximately seven hundred years ago has left them a perpetual mystery. As we headed toward Red Truck Draw with no map, no road signs, in fact nothing more than Jim's casually aimed flip of the hand, we wondered whether we were starting on a wild goose chase or heading down the primordial path of prehistory.
"Just start looking up the canyon walls," he had said. "You should find them."
We turned off the highway near where he had pointed and headed down a dusty, ill-paved road, over a noisy cattle grate, then along a hard dirt track. Passing ranches and fields of prickly pear ripe with purple fruit, we finally hit a rugged washout we couldn't manage with our car. We hopped out and started off on foot. In every direction, sloping, arid expanses rose to black-shadowed mesas. To the north, an ominous bank of storm clouds loomed.
Following the ever-diminishing trail, we finally descended into an unremarkable crevice in the earth. Taking a chance, we started looking up at the tiny canyon's walls. There were the petroglyphs. The first were high up, far beyond our reach on the other side of a nearly dried-out creek: a spiral shape and the elongated stick figure of a man. My husband tried to climb the cliff but couldn't get much of a foothold, while I stood on the opposite side of the murky water, wondering how anyone could have hung on long enough to etch anything but desperate finger nail scratches into the stone.
Though certainly no "newspaper wall," our small discovery satisfied. Still, there was more canyon to explore. Despite the menacing clouds, we headed a few hundred yards farther down the rock-riddled gully, where we came upon a large, sharp-edged boulder. Providing reasonable shelter as well as access to the canyon's upper walls, it seemed the perfect place for a primeval artist to work.
On that hunch, we climbed the rock, this time finding clusters of images: rudimentary antelope, another lean stick man, a turtle shape, and, on the opposite wall, more spirals, strange snaking figures, and rows of dots. In a hollow beneath the largest boulder, human figures appeared to be dancing, though on the wall above, at the easiest place to reach, was a distinctly contemporary etching of an elephant.
THE NEWSPAPER WALL
The storm held off a while longer, so we ventured farther over the dry riverbed and finally came to what was, unequivocally, the Anasazi newspaper wall. Figures literally climbed the canyon's western cliff. There were antelope, elk, turtles, copulating figures, a man carrying a walking staff with a bundle on his head, clan symbols, spirals, and migration markings representing the mythological pilgrimages of these ancient people to all four directions of the earth.
We studied the figures, feeling the power of the place, the distinctly indistinct, yet magical surroundings. This was not the Grand Canyon; it was a crack in the earth barely large enough to require a name. Yet I felt as if I were stealing something precious as I snapped off a roll of film, reminded of the ancient taboo of many primitive cultures that taking a photograph is taking a person's soul; remembering also that, for American Indians, the earth and all its creatures, even rocks and physical land features, are living, breathing forces to be respected, honored, feared.
We climbed out of the canyon into the looming light of the oncoming storm, yet we never felt more than the slightest sprinkle. Perhaps the earth's forces were not troubled by our presence there. Perhaps they were pleased we had visited, even wished we had stayed.
Of course, after feeling we had made a monumental discovery, I found a coffee-table-style book at the Museum of Northern Arizona gift shop in Flagstaff whose title page was graced with a gorgeously composed photograph of "our" newspaper wall.
Arizona's mystique has long been of wide-open spaces, enchantment, freedom, rugged cowboys and Indians who knew the land as well as they knew themselves. But today most places have been thoroughly discovered, settled, developed, integrated, marketed, and commercialized for a booming tourist trade. Residents of Sedona express concern for the overdevelopment of their community, where resorts and retirement villages sprout like weeds, and the grind and boom of dump trucks and bulldozers overwhelm the raucous notes of ravens' songs. Although the town's economy is almost entirely based on tourism, many residents complain that the very flavor which lures so many to their home is being buried beneath the payload of the tourist boom.
Despite its awe-inspiring setting, Sedona itself no longer seems particularly wild. With its commercial strips, resort hotels, nouvelle cuisine restaurants, and New Age meccas, any remnant of a haven for spiritual questing has been thoroughly packaged and priced. But in the surrounding wilderness and encounters with the local people, there is still a hint of what has drawn so many seekers here. As with any truly transformational encounter, the spirit of Sedona must be sought beyond the usual realms. Its essence cannot be purchased or sold.
On our last evening in Sedona, we climbed the hill behind the Chapel of the Holy Cross, a stunning landmark church built in the 1930s by artist and sculptor Marguerite Brunswig Staude. Set against the red rock cliffs, the chapel's entire oblong structure frames a great glass window paned by a giant cross. With its panoramic vista, the chapel is a favorite spot from which to watch the sun slip behind the mesas and pinnacles of Cathedral Rock.
We traced the chapel's scrolling walkway, clearly built to echo the curving shape of the surrounding sandstone ridge. Hopping over the cement railing, we climbed onto the mudstone outcropping in the shadow of the church. The rocks were still warm, though the wind had picked up as the sun slipped lower in the sky.
Settling into the shelter of stone and juniper, we watched the chaplain locking up the church. Red-glass prayer candles flickered behind him. On the pebbled concrete plaza, children played balancing games, leaping along the wide benches, enjoying the chapel's magnificent height. Other couples joined hands and found spots on the cliffside near us. High above our heads, the terra-cotta pinnacles slowly transformed in the shadows of the dying sun into faces of curatorial, medieval Christian elders and wind-wrinkled American Indian chiefs, totemic shapes of bears and eagles with sharp, hooked beaks.
Slowly the fireball sank toward the horizon, reflecting its gentle power off the brilliant colors of the buttes. We thought we could hear the sun sizzle as it slipped beyond our sight behind the edge of the earth. With its last beam of light, we breathed in deeply our last of Sedona's spirit with a lingering "Aah ..."
Judith Lindbergh's travel essays have appeared in numerous magazines, journals, and on-line at http://pathfinder.com/Travel/green-photo. Her photography will be exhibited at the Hopper House Art Center, Nyack, New York, in November 1998.