Travel October 1997

White Snow, Red Rocks

Is Sedona, Arizona, cosmically energizing or simply refreshing?

Though Sedona, Arizona, was founded in 1902, Zane Grey, the hardworking western novelist, was the first writer to "discover" it, in the 1920s. Landscape on the Arizona scale challenges the resources of human speech; it beggared Grey, who had to resort to stilted terms from the construction industry to describe the mighty cliffs of the Grand Canyon: "Turrets, mesas, domes, parapets, and escarpments gave the appearance of an architectural work of giant hands." To use such language for the vastness of these badlands is to commend the horse in the lingo of the horsefly. There's an old story that a priest and a cowboy arrived together at the canyon's North Rim and stood silent a while. Finally the priest fell upon his knees and exclaimed, "O Lord, how wonderful are thy works!" The cowboy ruminated, spat, and muttered, "Don't it beat hell?"

The panorama of Sedona is less vast than the Grand Canyon, a hundred miles to the north, and allows a certain intimacy that the Grand Canyon's similar splendors discourage; still, it overwhelms language. An extra energy seems to fill the air near Sedona, honeycombed as the region is by north-south canyons whose streams have dug gaps 1,500 feet deep through the layered strata of the Mogollon Rim of the Colorado Plateau. The waters of Oak Creek, together with the prevailing westerly winds, have been incising the sandstones and limestones of the Mogollon Rim for the past 10 million years. The cliffs and abutments of these canyons make for mighty vistas, a violence of contrast between towers and caves of sandstone, red and buff, set off by pale-green prickly pear and dark-green juniper, azure sky and gray gravel. The huge, shimmering spaces, brilliant with scarlet, ochre, green, pale yellow, and grainy gray, capture the eye—but to rely on the eye alone is to miss much. The colors and the landscape produce an almost Islamic excitement in the senses, and the touch of the bone-dry air intensifies this sensuous irritation, so that a rise of 500 feet or a temperature change of only a few degrees is instantly felt, requiring a certain agility with regard to sweaters and gloves.
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My wife and I visited Sedona last February, before the spring season (March through May) got under way. (There's a late-summer season as well, but it can be monsoony.) The nights sparkled with cold; the days warmed and waned. On Valentine's Day the sun came up to reveal an overnight dusting of new snow across the desert, but as soon as sunlight crept down the canyon walls, it nibbled at the snow, which quickly evaporated from the flat places. Sedona itself lies at 4,240 feet, but at higher altitudes mature snowbanks still dawdled in the bottom of shaded canyons. Dozens of hikes, along variably difficult trails, are laid out around the area, and no two are alike. The erosion that carved the canyons has produced an infinite range of shapes, but it never takes much of a climb to get to a high place where you can peer out across an intermediate vastness and observe a spot with a different climate perhaps half a mile away. You can see a lot (but not enough) from your car. The radiance of the light, together with the thin, fragrant air striking the face, sensitizes the walker in this dazzling landscape to the immanence of natural instincts, which can also be aroused at dusk by the clamorous serenade of coyotes celebrating a kill or rejoicing in one another. Nearly everyone feels something more beyond what they can see.

The Native Americans regarded Sedona as a holy place. A Navajo guide said to me, describing a dream of the past, "It was a time when all was with the Spirit." World-weary New Age tourists have learned to throng, in clusters of parked cars, at the several unearthly locations in the Sedona neighborhood known as vortexes, which collectively make up one of the eleven "power points" of the planet. (The power points reached a moment of harmonic convergence in 1987, marking a new dawn. Guess what. Two years later the Berlin Wall came down.) As my wife and I were hiking up Boynton Canyon, we came to a large, nearly empty clearing, with logs laid like benches around its circumference, and cairns of all sorts set in front of them—little towers and long snakes of hand-selected rocks. This clearing is said to be part of the yin-yang vortex, where one can feel the energy from the center of the earth. Along came a man who had climbed to the rim of the canyon above and seen a place where there were crystals in the rocks, radiating in all directions, and emanating who knows what to crowds of eager energy-seekers. A couple we encountered in the clearing, judging from the way they were grooming leaves out of each other's hair, had been attempting to evoke energy by a different means. They were from British Columbia. They went their way, but we stayed a while to test the nature of the place—and I can swear that, without laying a finger on my wife, I definitely felt something.

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Peter Davison was The Atlantic's longtime poetry editor.

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