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.
Discuss this article in the Global Views forum of Post & Riposte.
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.

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.