Sedona, Arizona Native American History A High Population Of Psychics and Surprising Barbecue, ON a late afternoon in Sedona, with the sinking sun beaming a powdery light over the mustard-red buttes, spires and mesas that surround the city like the ruins of fortress walls, everything looks better than good. Even the scenes that are banished from the postcards — the time-share developments, the trinket shops, the clusters of poky tourists — pick up an otherworldly glow. Those paunchy and ponytailed local hippies? All of a sudden, they’re glamorous: it’s as if they’ve been lit by Annie Leibovitz for a Rolling Stone cover circa 1978.
A few years ago, USA Today called Sedona the most beautiful place in America. At sundown, that doesn’t begin to cover it. And it’s not just the views. There’s a vibe in the air, something not quite audible, a kind of metaphysical dog whistle that calls people out to have a look around and to try to feel something that, if you’re not a committed New-Age pilgrim, is hard to put into words. Nowhere else in this country does a natural setting feel so much like the inside of a soaring pantheistic cathedral.
I wanted to feel something, too, even though — full disclosure — I lack the spiritual gene. I now have proof of this. I had my “aura” photographed in Sedona. It’s a good city for doing things like that. There are more places here to buy crystals, incense and healing stones than there are places to purchase, say, a bag of ice or a hammer. The friendly man who read my “aura colors” told me, for $47, what I pretty much already knew: that I’m a little bit stressed-out and that I don’t believe in much of anything (beyond the value of a cold dry martini before dinner). Many thanks, amigo.
Somewhat inexplicably, though, I found myself on my first evening in Sedona standing on a hill called Mystic Vista, taking in the mind-bending views and trying to soak up some “vortex” energy. Sedona is famous for its so-called vortex sites, spots where the earth’s energy is supposedly increased, leading to self-awareness and various kinds of healing. (Think of them as spiritual hot tubs without the water.)
I’d taken a New Age jeep tour with a company called Earth Wisdom. Four of us leapt out of the jeep and made the short hike up to Mystic Vista: me, a sixtyish guide named Larry Sprague and two long-haired seekers, a husband and wife from Arkansas. Once we were up there, we did some things that embarrassed me. Mr. Sprague hugged a tree. We all dowsed. In hushed tones, Mr. Sprague told us about ancient Native American rituals and the vision quests he’d been on.
I wasn’t feeling the vortex vibes, or much of anything else. But at sundown, the guy from Arkansas brought out a drum and starting tapping on it, Iron John-style. As if on cue, Larry-the-tour-guide pulled out a wooden flute and began accompanying him, playing cryptic Native American-inspired riffs. Anyplace else, this improvised duet would have made me flee back down the mountain. Up here, it sounded surprisingly groovy. It was a Sedona moment. I felt like I’d arrived.
THE whole history of America after the Civil War, Alfred Kazin once wrote, paraphrasing the essayist John Jay Chapman, can be condensed like this: it’s “the story of a railroad passing through a town, and then dominating it.” In the recent history of Sedona, that dominating railroad has sometimes seemed to have been a kind of star-spangled, Robert Altmanesque New Age parade.
It arrived here in force in 1987. That was the year of the Harmonic Convergence when believers flocked to mystical places across the planet, hoping for a global awakening of harmony and love. Some 5,000 of these believers crammed into Sedona. (It may or may not be a coincidence that Stevie Nicks was born only two hours away.) A few hundred of them stood in front of a formation called Bell Rock, waiting for its lid to open and reveal a U.F.O.
No flying saucer emerged, but word about this place began to spread.
“Even today, if you walked into a cafe and asked how many people had been adducted by aliens,” one long-time resident, the writer Eve Conant, told me, “I suspect one in 10 would raise their hands.” A popular Sedona diner is called Red Planet, where alien kitsch decorates the walls and, at night, you can drink a “Mothership Margarita” and bathe in the intense pinkish glow cast by neon lights.
The New Age crowd was assimilated into Sedona with a surprising lack of friction. “These people are interesting, and they don’t bother anyone,” said Ivan Finley, Sedona’s mayor in the late 1990’s. “And how can you quarrel with them? Even for those of us who don’t dance in circles, it’s hard to live here and not be a little bit spiritual. It’s a humbling place.”
Still, the United States Forest Service sometimes complains about the stone medicine wheels that people build — and leave — in the wilderness.
The New Age migrants were not the first to be drawn to this mystical place. Native American tribes, including the Yavapai and later the Tonto Apache, were drawn there as early as 1300 A.D. They were driven off the land by the United States Army in the 1870’s after gold was discovered in nearby Prescott. (You can find well-preserved cave paintings and rock art all around Sedona. The Palatki Ruins, a few miles out of town, are especially good.)
Sedona took its name, in 1902, from the given name of the wife of Carl Schnebly, an early postmaster. He’d initially wanted to call the place “Schnebly Station,” but Schnebly was, perhaps fortunately, too long for a postage cancellation stamp. (It’s hard to imagine, more than a century later, a minivan named the Kia Schnebly.)
The more recent influx of big money — Al Pacino owns a house — and skyrocketing housing prices do have a lot of local people worried, however. “Sedona is definitely becoming a place for the haves, not the have-nots,” Mr. Sprague tells visitors, in a weary voice, on his jeep tour.
Yet the best thing about Sedona — especially in the off-season — is that it feels like the small town that it really is. The city’s year-round population is still only about 11,000, a number that’s swollen by the more than 3 million tourists who visit every year, mostly in the summer. The number of high-end resorts may be increasing, too, but Sedona still feels, most of the time, pleasantly poky. This isn’t Aspen. There’s a tasteful, turquoise-arched McDonald’s on the main street here but no Louis Vuitton outlets in sight.
“This is still the kind of place where, when you go to the grocery store, you know a lot of people,” Ms. Conant said.
I’d come to Sedona with my wife and two young children in early February, the quiet season. Temperatures can drop below freezing at night but the sun warms things up nicely during the day. (This year was far warmer, and far drier, than usual.) The traffic jams that beset the city in the summer were almost nonexistent.
Even in February, though, Sedona can be a tough place to drive. The views are so stupendous that rubbernecking tourists, gazing upward at the red rocks, swerve crazily across the medians.
We were probably swerving, too, as we entered the city. We’d flown into Phoenix, two hours south of Sedona, late the night before. We got out of Phoenix early and spent the morning in Jerome, a terrifically crusty historic mining town that clings to a mountainside about 30 miles west of Sedona.
Friends had told us not to miss the abandoned Gold King Mine, now a rambling outdoor graveyard of rusting old mining equipment. They were right. This place may be the most perfectly unfussy museum left in America. For a few dollars, you can walk the grounds — it’s like touring the ghostly, hulking ruins of the early American industrial age. The children loved the rabbits and chickens that run free there, and the penned-up goats that nibble pellets out of your hand.
Just outside Jerome, in nearby Cottonwood, we made a U-turn when we spied a roadside taco wagon next to the Verde Hay Market (“Ranch and Vet Supplies — We Grow our Own Hay”). Little did we know that these killer tacos, slathered with grilled jalepeños and onions and thin radish slices, were the best Southwestern food we’d see for the next four or five days. Sedona has some good places to eat, mostly of the eclectic American variety (crusted this, braised that) you can find almost anywhere. But the traveling foodie who seeks sharp authentic regional flavors here is going to be disappointed.
IF you want a feel for old Sedona, show up for breakfast, as we did on our first morning, at the Coffee Pot restaurant (“Home of the Famous 101 Omelets”), a place so popular with local folk that you may have to park in the mall parking lot across the street and scamper across a busy highway to get there. It’s dinnertime equivalent is Cowboy Club Grille & Spirits, where you can follow an appetizer of rattlesnake skewers with a buffalo burger while taking in the cowboy memorabilia that’s spread across the walls.
After a hefty breakfast at the Coffee Pot, take a walk downtown, where you quickly get a sense of this city’s contradictions. The soaring red rocks rise above clusters of mostly tasteful housing developments and a downtown that’s lined with strip malls. (Beware the storefronts with signs saying “visitor’s information” that are actually full of aggressive time-share salesmen.)
One of the best things to do in Sedona while you’re getting your bearings is to take a jeep tour of the surrounding landscape. Most of the guides are very knowledgeable about the area’s history and its flora and fauna, and it’s a chance to scout for the best hiking trails.
In addition to the Earth Wisdom tour I took, I climbed aboard the popular “Broken Arrow” tour run by the Pink Jeep Tours company, a local institution. My children came too, and they screamed (mostly with delight) almost the whole way: these jeeps go over rocks and up inclines that you would have thought were impossible. The trails are so demanding that, according to Pink Jeep, Goodyear frequently supplies the tour company with free tires for testing. Adults will find that their backsides take a mighty pounding on this two-hour tour, but it’s worth it; the views are extraordinary. The other good news: Pink Jeep and most of the other jeep-tour companies are seriously conservation-minded: they stick to the approved trails and are quick to alert the Forest Service about jeeps or motorbikes that don’t.
This tour gives you a good sense of why Hollywood, in the era of westerns, was so taken with Sedona. Among the movies made here: “Riders of the Purple Sage” (1931), John Wayne’s “Angel and the Badman” (1947) and the James Stewart movie “Broken Arrow” (1950).
Unlike my wife, who whiled away hours in solo hiker heaven on the area’s terrific trails, I’m pretty lazy. As she discovered, Sedona has more than 100 hiking trails, and it’s hard to pick a bad one. I did take one serious hike on the deservedly well-known Boynton Canyon Trail, part of which leads up to a spire called Kachina Woman, which some people think supplies the Canyon’s mellow, shimmering energy.
There’s so much to do in Sedona, between the hiking, the jeep tours and shopping excursions at places like Tlaquepaque, a sprawling arts-and-crafts village on the city’s south side, that it’s easy to burn out. After two days of exploring and one night at the Matterhorn Inn, an inexpensive hotel in the downtown shopping district, we were more than ready for some R & R.
We found it at the appropriately-named Enchantment Resort, and its accompanying Mii Amo Spa, both tucked snugly into Boynton Canyon. This place is like a pueblo-style college campus, with rooms spread across several acres and easy access to swimming pools, hot tubs and restaurants, all of them with spectacular views.
Enchantment doesn’t come cheaply. Rooms start at $295 a night and go as high as $1,500 for a two-bedroom luxury suite. And other expenditures can add up. A bottle of Absolut vodka from room service is $135.
But it’s easy to lose yourself here: there’s “Camp Coyote” for kids to attend during the daytime, and at night Enchantment provides baby-sitters.
We spent a lot of time at the preternaturally beautiful spa. There’s a room called the Crystal Grotto to sit in and meditate. There are slips of paper and pencils outside the grotto. You write your worries on a piece of the paper and drop it into a basket. Later these are burned, releasing your cares. It’s worth a try, right? So I scribbled something about my credit card not being declined and tossed it in.
At the spa’s restaurant and juice bar, everything on the menu has the letters V, P, or K after it — for “Vata pacifying food,” “Pitta pacifying food” or “Kapha pacifying food.” I still have no idea what those things are. But the fruit smoothie I drank, with added echinacea and ginkgo biloba, did ward off my oncoming cold, one that had already flattened my children.
There are more types of cutting-edge massages, facials and yoga programs available here than you thought existed. And it you want a past-life regression session ($220), a psychic massage ($130 an hour), a “palm reading for empowerment” ($130 an hour) or a tarot card reading ($130), you’ve come to the right place.
Enchantment is serious about pampering its guests, and I recommend a stay here. Even here, though, the food is only vaguely Southwestern and occasionally mediocre. (An order of tacos came in bland crunchy shells that reminded me of my high school cafeteria. In the morning, the coffee is so weak that — as Woody Guthrie once sang about Depression-era stew — you could read a magazine right through it.)
Oh well. As a friend who’d grown up near Sedona told me: “This is a place to cleanse oneself, not pollute oneself. A place to shed, not gain.”
We did leave Sedona feeling cleansed and yearning for a return visit. But anyone whose aura is still out of whack after a week in Sedona can, before leaving, drop into a New Age trinket shop and buy something called “Vortex in a Can.”
According to the label, the contents have been “humanely gathered during the full lunar eclipse by nonsmoking vegetarians.”