Travel October 1997

White Snow, Red Rocks

Is Sedona, Arizona, cosmically energizing or simply refreshing?

But cosmic energy, like other aspects of Sedona, has fallen into the hands of hucksters. Sedona is of course what is called a tourist mecca. It offers a variety of accommodations for a variety of tastes, ranging from fancy resorts whose rooms may cost $300 a night in season to motels and bed-and-breakfasts that can be had for $75. The main street, built along the west bank of Oak Creek opposite wondrous monuments of red-and-white rock, has, alas, come way down in the world, like the main streets of Estes Park and Central City: it's a place of malls, motels, real-estate brokers, and crafts shops selling undistinguished turquoise jewelry and "obsidian handmade flint-knapped knives." Other shops, like the Blue-Eyed Bear and the two large emporia of Native American crafts operated by the Garland family, display better goods and ask higher prices. The fanciest shops are mostly in the Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village, where they suffer a trifle from Spanish Colonial Gemütlichkeit.

Sedona's restaurants range from the attractively gaudy Red Planet Diner (with sci-fi decor); Oaxaca, a moderately priced Mexican restaurant; and The Sage, a charming vegetarian restaurant, to the Heartline Cafe, with its pretentious offerings; L'Auberge de Sedona, presenting high-priced degustations; and the Enchantment Resort, which serves complicated dishes featuring elk and ostrich. The resorts also offer facilities organized around horses, baccarat, top-of-the-line shopping, cigars, and vintage port. For other tastes Sedona offers widely advertised hot-air-balloon rides, helicopter tours, photo tours, red-rock tours, and pink-jeep tours (meant to be as bumpy as the E-rides at Disney World), and sells tickets for the Verde Canyon Railroad, down the highway. These forms of traffic are all a bit irrelevant if you came away to find only yourself.

And then there are the natives, like the Navajo guide, and the Latino waitress who appeared smiling at my elbow, as if by magic, each morning as I glimpsed the bottom of my coffee cup. In every restaurant, hotel, diner, shop, and other public place people were, as usual in the West, unfailingly cheerful and polite. But, though good humor is not to be sneezed at, my wife and I had not traveled so far for the company.

Away from town, on the trails along the canyons, we found it easy to call a hello to walkers we met coming the other way. But memory retains less of the conversations than of what the feet have walked on. It does your mind and body good to hear the thunk of your boot on the well-packed earth of a trail; to be conscious of steadying your stance on a gnarled tree root; to feel the little thrill of threading your way across the stepping-stones of a ford; to respond to the rush of new, thin mountain air into your lungs; to experience the nervous excitement of climbing down a place steep enough to make you wonder whether you should be face out or face in; to learn how sensitive you can be to heat and cold as you shed a layer of clothes along a sunny reach of trail and slip back into it after a shady bend; to rest, breathing hard, and listen to the splash of a stream and the hiss of the breeze; to spy, crossing the trail before you in the drying morning dust, the sharp tracks of deer or javelinas (as peccaries are called here) or the softer tracks of coyotes; to look up at the stars after dark—larger than remembered, and in new positions.

To penetrate a remnant of western wildness was to participate in what Thoreau called the preservation of the world. We went to Sedona not for society but for solitude. For our taste, there might have been too many people around—probably too many cars and certainly too many helicopters. But there is still plenty of space between the red rocks of Sedona to restore the body and the spirit, whether or not you feel it necessary to bask among the crystals in the radiations of cosmic energy.

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Peter Davison was The Atlantic's longtime poetry editor.

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