Waiting for the woo in Whackyville

They make more movies in the little town of Sedona, Arizona (population 10,000) than they know what to do with. I can’t keep track of all the Hollywood movies that have been shot in and around Sedona. This may be because I am not partial to John Wayne flicks or old B movie westerns and have never watched any. The reason they shoot all these westerns in Sedona is because the landscape around Sedona looks exactly like a fantasy Hollywood western movie set should look like, what with sandstone red cliffs and canyons all over the place and all sorts of colourful landscapes that look great on the big screen. Not that long ago, Sedona was named as the most beautiful town in America. That’s why I went there, to see the wonderful landscapes. I didn’t know anything about the cowboy movies, New Age whackos and wingnuts who have taken over from the Duke, and I sure as hell knew nothing about any Pink Jeeps. More on the jeeps later. The wingnuts are almost as crazy as the jeeps, so we’ll mention them first.

The Arizona Tourism Board put together an itinerary for me, a fine boutique hotel snug on the creek that runs through the town and a dinner in the busy little downtown, some walks in the canyons and a jeep tour. Evidently Sedona gets more visitors annually than the Grand Canyon, which is an amazing statistic. I was there in off-season and the town was packed. I was told: “You ought to see summer; its nuts then.” But the reality was that the town was already nuts and it had nothing to do with summer traffic. The Tourism Board had mentioned nothing about the New Age phenomenon in its list of recommended attractions, but all you needed to do was drive around town for for a few minutes and you couldn’t miss the signs. Why, you could get a photo taken of your aura, join a meeting to discuss extraterrestrials, enjoy a psychic or astrology reading, have your chakra (whatever that is) balanced, learn about your past lives, buy some healing crystals, or indulge in a little bit of shamanic healing. None of this was mentioned in any of the tourism literature I had been sent. I suspect the local authorities were a bit embarrassed.

Given the short amount of time available, I was not able to indulge in any of these fascinating activities, even though I was very keen to learn whether in a past life I was related to Genghis Khan or Shirley MacLaine. I have written before that it is “ill-advised to drive in countries where they believe in re-incarnation,” but there I was in a rental car in a strange culture doing just that. Worse yet, I had long ago developed a habit of renting the ugliest colour of car I could find (purple preferably, if the rental company had one) for the specific reason of being able to locate my car in the parking lot because every other car in Arizona is painted white due to the unending heat. Nobody drives a purple car, but everywhere I parked in Sedona people would say: “Wow, that’s sure an ugly car you have there.” It was the same colour as the purple sign outside the UFO Centre, only the car didn’t have a little green man painted on the side. Next time I’ll ask for one.

Never mind the palm readers and sacroiliacs, if you go to Sedona you need to know about the vortexes in advance and plan accordingly. No one at the Tourism Board had offered me a semi-colon of information about the vortexes. Apparently, to many business people (those in the tourism industry, evidently), there is not enough profit to be made promoting vortexes so the tourism board just pretends they don’t exist. Vortex hunting is more of a “do it yourself” thing anyway. I only heard about vortexes at lunch the day I arrived when I made a bad joke to our server about the way the soup went down the hatch in a circular swirl. If I’d known earlier, I would have demanded a personal vortex tour. However, in that case, probably I would not have received an invitation from the Tourism Board to come to Sedona, so I guess I was pretty lucky to learn about those mystic experiences at all.

Evidently Sedona is located just at the base of the Mogollon Rim, an escarpment that runs east-west through the middle of Arizona and defines the boundary between the Colorado Plateau to the north, and the Basin and Range to the south. The Mogollon Rim is about 200 miles long, and ranges between 2,000 and 3,000 feet in height. In the Sedona region, erosion has gradually eaten away at the rim, moving it northward a distance of about four miles and leaving behind some of the most spectacular and picturesque canyons and buttes found anywhere in the world. The deep red color for which Sedona is famous is due to the presence of hematite (iron oxide, otherwise known as rust) that stains the sandstone of the Schnebly Hill and Hermit Shale layers. Iron, it appears, has many characteristics aside from turning your sword into rust if you leave it outside in the rain for too long. It’s magnetic, in more ways than one.

I looked it up on a New Age website. “A vortex is the funnel shape created by the motion of spiraling energy. The vortexes in Sedona are swirling centers of subtle energy coming out from the surface of the earth. They characterize Sedona as a spiritual power center. The energy of the vortexes interacts with whom or what a person is in their inner self. It resonates with and strengthens the Inner Being of each person who comes within about a quarter to a half mile of it. This resonance occurs because the vortex energy is very similar to the subtle energy operating in the energy centers inside each person.”

Wow. Who knew? There are apparently 15 known vortex centres in Sedona, scattered here and there willy nilly as vortexes are known to do, but I only had time to find one in the time between dinner and bedtime, when the forecast was for “darkness.” The nearest one to downtown was known as the Airport Vortex, apparently because it was close to the airport. If I’d know there was an airport in the town I might have asked to be flown there from Phoenix because driving a purple car in public in Arizona gains you some abuse. It may even be possible to levitate to Sedona but I didn’t get a chance to research that either.

The biggest problem finding the Airport Vortex was the shortage of maps and signs. There weren’t any. I found a couple of New Age directions online but they were kind of vague as New Age directions often seem to be. I found my way in my hideous purple car to the parking lot where there was supposed to be a sign but there wasn’t a sign about vortexes, just the usual trail names. I suspect the Chamber of Commerce stole the vortex sign and burned it in a cleansing ceremony. I climbed up the hill, expecting to meet other New Agers along the way so they could tell me the exact location where the vortex was located, but it was freezing cold and New Agers are well-known to be warm and fuzzy so I found I was on my own. I arrived at the top of the hill and sat down, waiting for inspiration. I noticed one tree next to me was seriously warped, even more so than Donald Trump, but by then everyone and everything I had met was warped to some degree so I didn’t pay much attention. A GPS location would have helped a lot, although of course I am famous for being too dumb to learn how to use a smartphone, so perhaps not. Here’s what I learned later about the Airport Vortex.

“It is a unique phenomenon that Juniper trees respond to the vortex energy in a physical way that reveals where this energy is strongest. The stronger the energy, the more of an axial twist the Juniper trees have in their branches. Instead of going straight down the branch, the lines of growth follow a slow helical spiral along the length of the branch. That is, Juniper trees twist in the presence of a vortex. The stronger the vortex energy, the more pronounced will be the twist. Airport Mesa Vortex, with one of the best sunset views in all of Sedona, emits a subtle electric energy that recharges the physical body and aids in opening our body’s energy centers known as the chakras. The energy at this vortex is superb for enhancing psychic abilities and expanding one’s spiritual consciousness.”

I suspect smoking a big fat doobie might have helped more. There are several facts about the Airport Vortex I can personally verify. First, it’s a great place to watch the sunset, especially late in the day when it is getting dark. Secondly, it is as cold as hell in the winter so you will freeze your butt off. Third, there is a tree next to where I sat wondering about the cosmos that is even more twisted than Phyliis Diller the morning after a night on the town so I think I actually found the right spot. Whether the tree is so twisted because of hematite (iron oxide, otherwise known as rust) or because too many stoners have expelled too much high grade cannabis exhalation in its direction is a matter that deserves investigation, best undertaken by the folks at the UFO Centre. It was so cold mid-winter I did not gain any degree of enlightenment, but I came close to frostbite which is much the same thing. I did manage to get a photo of what I suppose is the famous Juniper tree, and I think you will agree from the photo that it is pretty twisted.

We have not as yet officially discussed the Pink Jeeps. All I knew was that a jeep tour was on our itinerary and it sounded interesting. Drive around back country roads and enjoy scenic canyons and take photos and such. After all, the whole point of the trip as far as I was concerned was the amazing landscapes because editors love pretty pictures to go along with travel articles, and I had guaranteed a story to Arizona Tourism in order to get the invitation. Tours bouncing on the back of horses give me butt burn at the best of time, so what’s wrong with a scenic tour via a soft seat in a jeep, whether pink or not? It didn’t take long at all to discover I had the idea all wrong.

We met a charming, gregarious local guide at Pink Jeep Plaza in the morning after breakfast. If I’d known what was coming, I’d have passed on the bacon and eggs with hash browns and toast and two cups of coffee for breakfast and instead eaten a pureed banana with a tummy-settling glass of yoghurt. He told us we were booked into the Broken Arrow Tour, Sedona’s “most exhilarating off-road adventure” and the area’s only tour to feature four-wheeling action atop the regions iconic red rocks. The open-air Pink Jeep Wrangler, he said, was custom-built to safely tackle the rugged desert terrain with ease. Suddenly I sensed that the experience was going to be different than I had anticipated. No canyon drives with stops for photo opps, no packed lunch at a scenic viewpoint, no boring history about the topography. As it turned out, the overall plan seemed to be to either kill ourselves, or simply try to kill ourselves and see what happens, or pretend that we were not going to kill ourselves even though it looked like we were certainly going to do so.

To summarize, we drove to the top of several canyons and descended via creeks, gullies and vertical riverbeds lined with giant stones, trails that were meant for mountain goats, not vehicles of any sort, whether pink or purple. We started out with my heart in my throat and soon I found it lodged in quite another place. OK, the jeeps had big fat gnarly tires and ultra low, low gears, and the driver seemed to know what he was doing, and he peppered his driving with bad jokes, but the tour was even more nuts than the New Age whackos lurking far down in the valley below. What, pray tell, is the fun in scaring the snot out of yourself by crawling down the side of a mountain where one slight mistake will kill you and everyone else in the jeep if the driver happens to have a bug suddenly fly up his nose? I don’t even like driving to the grocery store with my wife unless it’s me behind the wheel and we have our seat belts fastened. Trusting a complete stranger using bad jokes to divert your attention from your impending doom while descending down the grand finale (the well named Road of No Return) is not something I would willingly have signed up for had I known in advance. But what did I know then?

Shooting great photos of the Sedona region is never a problem, and if you happen to leave your thumb in the image finder when your head smashes against the roof of your vehicle then the fine folks at the AZ Tourism Bureau are more than happy to supply you with professional images. I even managed to shoot some video footage while closing my eyes and gritting my teeth. The driver swore to me he had never lost a passenger yet, while I swore under my breath at him and his stupid adventure company. Everybody and their dog, and their cat named Woofy too, has a great photo of Sedona taken from a great height, although I doubt most of them were scared out of their mind at the same time. We actually stopped for a moment and I managed to snap a few shots of myself, just to prove I was there and not the born liar you think I am.

However, I was determined to find a killer photo for myself, not just one that showed the red rocks but one that personified the town in the endless amount of time (two days) that I had spent searching for its true mystical heart and soul. So that’s how we ended up at the Chapel in the Rock (formerly known as the Chapel of the Holy Cross), a tiny church that commands a majestic view of the Sedona Valley far below and its fifteen invisible vortexes that you can’t find with a map if there was a map.

Even in the off-season the Chapel was packed with visitors. The view is (pardon me, ha ha) “to die for.” Quoting from its website, “even after half a century, the chapel has a contemporary, almost out-of-time look, a sculptural feel, and a surreal effect as it juts out of two red mounds on a spur of rock that is 200 feet above the ground. The chapel’s most prominent feature is a cross that seems to have been wedged into the rock by some devout pilgrim. It is an unforgettable sight from all angles.”

To tell you the truth, I saw something much different and deeper from within the inside of the chapel than looking out at the view. Unlike the Airport Vortex, I felt something deep tingling in the back of my mind. Never mind all the pushing and shoving from the tourists packing the place, all determined to buy a plastic knick knack to prove they had actually been to Sedona, I actually felt the woo start to emerge like a tickle in my throat. The woo crept up on me like Carl Sandberg’s “little cat feet,” his poem describing the fog creeping up San Francisco Bay. The fog lifted from my brain and I could see Sedona as it truly was. I cradled my camera in the crook of my arm. I knew my time had come. I looked around and saw it in my mind’s eye. I could feel it coming and then: There it was!

The chapel was built high on a hill with the red rock mountains directly behind. The front of the chapel features some angels or other religious deities doing something or other that no one pays any attention to. Should you, for reasons best known to yourself, find yourself at the back of the chapel paying attention to the call of the woo, you may come to understand the photographic possibilities. The light from the front window of the chapel bounces off the glass of the back windows, creating a mirror affect. I hope I am not being too technical here. You can only notice this optical effect from near the top of the stairs leading down into the gift shop below. Stay with me now. Here comes the payoff.

I descended a few steps and paused to look. I could see a reflection from the front windows on the windows at the back, with the red rocks of the mountain looming behind. A man was standing outside in the parking lot, looking at the hours of operation on a sign and possibly figuring out how to open the door. All he had to do was move forward a foot and turn sideways and I had my shot. Hanging on to the railing with one hand, I held up the camera to my face, hoping against hope that my new friend in the parking lot would move forward. People shoved by me on their urgent need to buy a postcard or ash tray or other item vital to their future existence, some of the elderly muttering at me for blocking their access to the railing which they needed to grab in order to make their way down to the souvenirs without a tumble.

“What the heck are you doing?” demanded a blue-haired old granny above me, giving me the stinkeye. I held my ground like a true professional in the face of danger should do.

“I’m waiting for the woo,” I replied through clenched teeth, hanging on.

“You’re waiting for the what?” she said, turning a bit purple in the face. “The right moment? You’re blocking the stairs.”

Then it happened. The magic moment arrived. My new friend in the parking lot stepped forward like an honest soldier, leaned forward to read the sign. The shadow of the angel at the front of the chapel suddenly appeared on his silhouette, only for a brief moment, but I got the shot. I turned on the review button, turned around and showed the ghostly LCD image to the blue lady. “There you go, the woo moment.”

She squinted through her glasses at the screen for a few seconds, trying to make out what she saw. Finally she shook her head, grabbed the railing and shoved her way by. “That’s what they call photoshop, isn’t it?” she offered as a parting shot. “You can do anything with computers these days.”

My memories of Sedona aren’t of the night time UFO tours, the red rock scenery, sunsets at the vortex, or crawling down the cliffs in a pink jeep hoping not to get killed, but of the moment the woo came to me in a flash of enlightenment at the Chapel in the Rock. I am sometimes tempted to go back and see if my friend in the window, to whom I owe so much for posing, is still trying to figure out how to open the door. If I didn’t have the killer photo as proof, I might imagine I’d simply imagined it, and no one would believe me.

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Michael is the author of Better than Snarge, Amazing Adventures and Transformative Travel. He lives in Vancouver where he types funny books using two fingers.

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Michael William McCarthy

Michael William McCarthy

Michael is the author of Better than Snarge, Amazing Adventures and Transformative Travel. He lives in Vancouver where he types funny books using two fingers.

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