The two-hour drive north from Phoenix to Sedona, Arizona is like a time-elapsed journey through changing ecosystems. At around 1,500 feet in altitude, Phoenix in April is very warm and dry, brown and yellow, but just at the cusp of blossoming into shades of desert green. For miles I saw dusty looking hillsides covered in familiar and huge saguaro cacti, along with many other types of cacti I didn’t know the name of: ones with tendrils fuzzy with needles, willowy ones with red flowers at the top of each branch, and short ones with intimidating spikes. From a distance, the saguaros are like stubble on a cheek seen magnified a thousand times. Trees without branches. Bodies without limbs. Upon closer inspection, though, they’re tall and solid and thick, like prickly totem poles of an ancient sun tribe.
After the elevation climbs to 3,000-4,000 feet over dozens of miles, cacti disappear abruptly, to be replaced by small bushes and squat junipers. The junipers become taller, turning into trees. More types of trees and shrubs poke out of the hills and valleys as I approached the Verde Valley and further north, Sedona. From Highway 17, the one that spans straight north from Phoenix to Flagstaff, you can’t see the splendor of Sedona. You don’t see it until you exit, go west, well within a few miles of it.
Then the landscapes explodes into comprehension. Wow, you think, this place is awesome!
Sedona is situated at about 4,500 feet, so it’s significantly cooler and more comfortable than the lower altitude Phoenix. Snow can fall there in winter, and recent snow and rain had left the area green and lush. Soft, thick grass was growing around the creeks and washes and cottonwood trees were in full leafed out glory. Along the Oak Creek, which runs through the center of town, the majestic, smooth-barked sycamore trees were still considering leafing out. The various red rock formations, named according to their shapes and sizes, like Cathedral Rock, Bell Rock, Snoopy Rock, are rich-colored sandstone spires that rise up off the juniper-green valley and focus the attention. I was hungry to see them all, to get up close, to absorb the beauty through my skin and retinas and the bottoms of my feet.
One of the reasons many tourists come to Sedona, besides to see its beauty, is to have a spiritual experience. Apparently, there are mysterious vortexes, or energy fields, that radiate out like an inverted tornado from several places around town. These energy fields are supposed to affect humans and other living creatures in both subtle and varying ways. Junipers are supposed to grow more “twisty” under the influence of the vortex. Certainly, the flora around the vortex areas does seem more lush…but that could be the power of suggestion.
People are supposed to feel a sense of calm and happiness, or a feeling of uplifting wellbeing, when standing at least a half mile from a vortex. I tried to find out more about the vortexes while I was there—because I was curious about when they were discovered, how they were discovered, how they can be measured and what they are, exactly. I didn’t have much luck finding out anything specific, though. (If you know more about the vortexes please leave a comment below). They are not exactly measurable, and they don’t affect everyone. I guess that if you want to experience them, you have to be okay with mystery.
One of the vortexes is supposed to be located at the base of the Bell Rock, a formation to the south of downtown Sedona. The first evening there, my family and I hiked up from the parking area to where the sandstone rocks stairstep up to a flat shelf from which we could see Courthouse Rock, Cathedral Rock and the entire town of Sedona below. The first thing I wanted to do was lay down flat with my entire body in contact with the rock, which was radiating warmth and goodness from a full day of sunshine. Despite pebbles and undulations underneath me, I was very comfortable and felt a sense of peace. My body sank deeply into the ground. My back relaxed. My feet tingled. I laid there for a few minutes, then sat up and we smudged ourselves with sage. Afterwards I meditated for a while.
The rock formations intensified in color with every passing minute as the sun set. At the peak, right before the sun disappeared behind a mountain to the west, the panorama was practically aflame with ochre, orange and deep burgundy. I closed my eyes and saw a blossoming of a deep red growing and glowing unlike anything I’ve experienced before. Someone played a drum nearby, which thumped low like a heartbeat behind us and added to the experience.
Sedona is certainly the contemplative hiking capitol of the country. Here, we saw individual and groups of people come together to do yoga creekside, meditate, drum, and just sit and ponder the spectacle of the desert. Psychics and energy healers set up shop about as often as you’d see a Starbucks in Manhattan. Local stores sell sage smudge sticks, crystals, magnets and copper healing jewelry. Even while hiking, you get a sense for the feeling of how sacred the place is. In one dried up wash at the base of Cathedral Rock, for instance, we walked through a field of cairns—in the creek, in trees, on stumps, on each other. It was an artistic collection of cairns, a sort of playful participation in the spiritual and new age tone of the town, created by those hiking the trail. In Sedona you are given permission to go deeper, connect with your spiritual side, and contemplate the mystery of nature. And if you drop down on the ground in supplication or embrace a juniper, no one will look at you funny. You hope.
One of my favorite hikes during our visit was to a special and sacred cave that the locals have tried to keep secret from the mainstream. It’s off a well-trafficked, marked trail, but the small side trail to the cave isn’t marked or mapped. As a matter of fact, the turn is blocked by tree stumps and branches. If you weren’t looking for it, you would miss it. The cave was where locals say that Native Americans living in the area would go to give birth. When you see the shape of the mouth of the cave, you can understand why they would have picked this place. It’s a steep and slippery scramble to cave’s interior. Once there, your perspective shifts from close and intimate to vast, steep and wide, and you feel as if you’re being expelled into the world as you look out onto the landscape. I have a phobia of steepness, so I literally had to slide back down out of the cave on my butt over rocks and sand, for fear of being flung out into the cacti and juniper a hundred feet below. The cave seemed to tell me that to find her was an exercise in intuition and trust, but to leave I had to get down, down, down on my back and belly and kiss the earth. I had to know the ground, to become intimate with the earth in order to fully experience the cave.
My journey to Sedona left me feeling calm, present, and transformed—if only for a few days. The residual feeling is still with me several days after returning home. I hope to go back again some year, perhaps in late Spring when the trees are fully leafed out or in September when the valley glows with autumn foliage. It’s a place where you can explore all the ancient places in your soul as you contemplate the sublime beauty of the high Arizona desert.