It seemed like a simple plan—visit 52 places in 52 weeks. But for author Ken Lamberton, a 45-year veteran of life in the Sonoran Desert, the entertaining results were anything but easy.
“Chasing Arizona” takes readers on a year-long, 20,000-mile joy ride across Arizona during its centennial, racking up more than 200 points of interest along the way. This book is an adventure story, a tale of Arizona, and a celebration of what makes the state a great place to visit and live.
Lost in a Vortex: Sedona
ELEVATION: 4,326 FEET | FOUNDED: 1902 | POPULATION: 10,031
In the first week of September, Karen and I drive to red rock country, land of sandstone and spirits, named in honor of the wife of settler T. C. Schnebly—another name inscribed on the very hills. Ours will be a few days of soul searching. Karen will seek enlightenment through a creek-side massage. I will find inspiration at the end of a fly rod.
At the village of Oak Creek, I slip the Kia into a traffic circle. My head snaps right three times looking for the way out. "Which way?" I ask, going around to the point where I entered. "That way," Karen says, without indicating anything, believing I can read her mind. Shortly after, I'm circling again in another traffic circle, roundabout, whatever ... then another. I begin counting roundabouts and soon can't keep track. Eight ... ten ... a dozen? We begin our spiritual odyssey on Labor Day weekend in Sedona, trapped in a vortex of circling motorists.
We make the Creekside Inn at Sedona bed-and-breakfast at sundown. Dennis shows us our room, the trails to the creek, the gazebo. A quiet place of grass and lantern light. Cedar shakes ripple darkly over walls of native stone. The B&B is a gift from our middle daughter Kasondra, who also paid for Karen's massage, which we hope will alleviate her two-week-running migraine.
In the evening, we walk to the galleries and shops on Sacajawea Plaza and something called "Moonlight Madness on Main Street." At the Center for the New Age, Melinda offers to sign us up for a UFO tour at Boynton Canyon. "Tonight!" she says. "We use military-grade night-vision goggles. Last night we had eleven unexplained sightings. Twelve the night before."
"I could probably explain them," I say, "if that's helpful."
Victor, a man with white hair and beard as crazy as his eyes, is doing readings. He clasps my hand in both of his. "She may not come back," he says, pointing with his eyes to a woman he just sent upstairs to his reading room.
Down the street, a young woman calls to us. "Visiting Sedona? I have maps!" Then: "You look like a million dollars!" She must mean Karen. My shirt doesn't even have sleeves, nor my pants, legs. I haven't shaved in days. Karen wears a silk scarf, black skirt and blouse, and turquoise jewelry, a gift from daughter Jessica. This is the second "visitor center" where we get the hard sell. Brynne calls herself a "rock nut" and fantasizes about finding her own meteorite. "We're in the iron triangle," she says. But tonight she's selling timeshares. Sedona Pines Resort. The Gateway to Adventure. She plies us with free wine tastings, jeep tours, rides in a UFO, and such. "All you have to do is attend a presentation at Sedona Pines." We laugh, tell her she's wasting her time, but she assures us we're perfect. Perfect marks, I think. When she offers us a free ticket on the Verde Canyon Railroad—which is on my list for this year—my interest piques. "I can get you first class."
"Okay ..." We're game. But the sale devolves as Brynne begins asking for details, like major credit cards. "We use Visa debit," Karen says. "We have zero credit-card debt."
"I have a Chevron card," I offer, "and a library card I borrow with."
More questions. Brynne types furiously at her keyboard. She's still sure she can make this work for us. But in minutes, the verdict is in: we don't qualify. "You two still look like a million dollars to me," she says.
At Mooney's Irish Pub we order "Late Night Food": "Everything closes after nine in Sedona," says our host, chef, and bartender. We eat chips and salsa in Styrofoam cups. "Sedona is a vortex for tourist dollars," I say to Karen, sipping an Oak Creek Amber Ale. "We come here to have our spirits uplifted, and we nearly sell our souls to a timeshare. No street music. No performances. No curbside barbecue. The only madness in the moonlight tonight is the marketing."
The next morning our hosts Dennis and Jody serve us eggs Benedict. Karen, not being fond of eggs, asks for just "Benedict." I chat with the couple about our evening with the money-changers in the temple. Karen has been reading a book she found at the inn called "Spirit of the Stones: A Retrieval of Earth Wisdom" by Amalia Camateros. She had a similar experience with Sedona during her first visit. "She found a small retreat center with a room for rent," Karen says, her nose in the book as she turns the pages, "but felt nothing relaxing about it. People here were lifeless, out of their bodies. Sedona was no different than Los Angeles. She calls it a 'spiritual shopping mall' pitching everything from vortex tours to visiting sites known for UFO activity."
"Yep," I say. "She's pegged it."
"They were offering to take people to meet aliens," Karen reads, "when they, in terms of their relationship to the land, were aliens themselves."
I like the alien part. I see an H. R. Giger alien, seated in the lotus position, bony tail circling its frame. "Find your center," the caption reads. "And burst forth through its chest."
At midmorning, we arrive at our first vortex. A ninety-foot dune-colored cross—my second giant cross this year—rises skyward from red stone: the Chapel of the Holy Cross. For the first time, Karen's headache is gone. We climb the long, curving concrete ramp through high outcrops of sandstone to the chapel entrance. Off to the right, a crowd has gathered. People stare over the edge to the valley two hundred feet below. I hear "Oh my God!" several times. Many take photographs with family members smiling before the multimillion-dollar eyesore. They're saying it's the mansion of Loan Cosmescu, the inventor of Lasik surgery. I become a tour guide for the profane: "If you stand over here, you'll see his million-dollar koi pond."
Karen and I sit in one of the back pews beneath a seventeenth-century hand-carved statue of Michael the Archangel with drawn sword. A recorded choir sings from some hidden recess in the nave. The chapel is smaller and sparer than I remember but carries charm in its simplicity. The ghastly beautiful black corpse of the crucified Christ is missing, replaced by a sculpture of a masked face.
I've read that the Chapel of the Holy Cross has one of the strongest vortices in all of Sedona. People say they feel inspiration and joy within the walls, an energy that evokes love, harmony, and oneness with all that exists in the world. Vortex or no, I could easily burst into tears. We sit in the back watching the visitors. Asians approach slowly and bow with folded hands. Hispanics cross themselves and genuflect before taking a pew. Anglos step into the sanctuary to pose at the altar and take photographs.
"The sacred and the profane," I write in my notebook.
A spiral stairwell in the narthex takes us down to the gift shop beneath the chapel. "It was too controversial," says Val, the woman at the register, when I ask her what happened to the cross. "People said Christ's body didn't decay. Marguerite didn't want to upset anyone, so she took it down. She died in 1988, and no one knows what happened to it."
Sometimes the purpose of great art is too disturbing.
Marguerite Brunswig Staude was the dreamer behind the Chapel of the Holy Cross. The idea first came to the sculptor in 1932 in New York City when, with the Lenten ashes from St. Patrick's smudging her forehead, she caught a glimpse of the Empire State Building under construction. She saw the form of a cross rising out of its scaffolding. Back at her California studio, she roughed out a sketch of a church and showed it to the son of the great architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright agreed to help her with the architectural design. "We scanned plans of Gothic cathedrals and searched for a way to bring the modern back to the classic background from whence it came," Marguerite would later say. After a year of work, the model of a cruciform church emerged. It became reality in 1956. The following year, an article in the New York Times said the chapel "represents the ultimate in fitting a structure to its site," inspiring a trend in design that continues among Catholic churches to this day.
This trend I can appreciate. But gift shops in the basement? Karen shops for cards. The cash register rings. I'm bothered by the commercialism, the rampant consumerism. I recall our daughter Melissa's senior trip to Vatican City. How disillusioned she and her Hispanic classmates became after seeing all the hawking of trinkets outside St. Peter's Basilica.
I fight the holiday traffic to get to the next vortex on my list. Karen tells me that Amalia claims the native people never lived in the Sedona area. "They only came here for a short time because they understood the nature of the place. Sedona was never intended to be inhabited, only visited for ceremony and prayer. For a new perspective. The vortex by nature is destructive. She calls it a 'cosmic washing machine.' If you stay too long, you become a twisted juniper."
"A twisted juniper?"
"She says all the juniper trees in Sedona have twisted trunks because of the vortices."
When we arrive at Bell Rock, Karen's headache has returned. We walk along a red path through flowering nightshade and juniper. I look over the trees suspiciously. They seem normal. The only things twisted are the tour helicopters whirling overhead. We commune with noise.
"You guys are dumb-asses," a cyclist in green and black spandex says as he approaches.
"A voice from the rocks?" Karen asks me.
"Not you guys," he says. "Those guys." He points with his head to a couple of tourists scaling the side of the cliff.
My vortex guidebook claims that the popular sandstone butte, which looks more like a sunburned breast than a bell, has an electric energy that releases the inhibitions of our more serious adult selves. Just what I need! Some people experience profound physical healing or increased vitality. Others may have an overwhelming desire to play on the rocks like children.
"According to Amalia," Karen tells me, "Bell Rock is home to an Anasazi shaman who imparts wisdom from the rocks for those who seek it. Maybe they're looking for him."
"They'll need it. Better first ask him for the knowledge of a safe way down."
While Karen takes in her creek-side massage, I drive a sinuous road high into Oak Creek Canyon with my fly rod. I pass the crossing where at twelve I landed my first rainbow, and my mind begins unreeling more than four decades of memories with this place. This afternoon, I'm alone. Hardwoods lean across the water, dappling sunlight in a light rain. The sweetness of blackberries fills the air, stains my lips. Their canes leave hooks in my legs, while I put a few in the mouths of Oak Creek's wild brown trout.
In the morning, I sip coffee watching a great blue heron be a perfect mime of stillness. It lifts away from Oak Creek on New Age wings. After a breakfast of stuffed French toast and fresh fruit, we head for the Cathedral Rock Trail: One last vortex for the twisted mind. For the first time in weeks, Karen hasn't started her day with medication. I'm frustrated, however. The trailhead parking lot is full, so we must take another road circling toward Red Rock Crossing and hike a trail on the opposite side of the famous landmark.
We start well, but then Karen promptly wanders off-trail. We bushwhack on slickrock, all hope of regaining the trail fading away as we push on and on. And on some more. In a place where the very rocks lean to the center, we scale Permian sandstone. Straight into our first twisted juniper. The gnarled tree winds up out of the rock. A creek burbles below us. Cicadas whirr. Vultures hang in the air, wings held in their practiced V. The season's last monsoon thunderheads rise, curl, and blossom out of every red-rock spire. The buttes remind me of Spanish missions whose walls hold an iconography only read by the light of stained glass.
I breathe in, relax into sun-warmed stone, and scribble notes. Out of all the scrambled manzanita and prickly pear, only the juniper pirouettes through time. Revolution. And then it comes to me. The mystery of the vortex. The vortex isn't so much a "cosmic washing machine," as Amalia says. Something that swirls around you, breaks you down, upsets your life. It's more like a gyroscope, and for the gyroscope spinning means balance. To live in this place—to live anywhere—you must find the center. The eye of the hurricane. The calm within the storm. The axis of the spin. Sedona encompasses spiritual energy and natural beauty, as if God's finger were stirring the landscape. It's best to burst forth from the center of the maelstrom.
Amalia would say the rocks revealed this to me.
She never seems to resolve the "spiritual shopping mall" conundrum. In the end, she buys into it. A note stuck into the front of her book advertises her services for "nature guided tours." Maybe this is her answer. Enriching others rather than getting rich. Jesus drove the money-changers from the temple. But he didn't stop them from buying and selling. They moved their operations elsewhere—like a gift shop outside the temple. We are, after all, material as well as spiritual beings. Perhaps this too is the center of things, the eye of the conundrum where stillness rules. Like purchasing Christmas cards at the Chapel of the Holy Cross. Or a rosary at the Vatican. As Karen says, "Where else should you buy a rosary?"