The New Old West

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If the history of European settlement in America is short, and that in the West even shorter, the history of Sedona, Arizona, is the blink of an eye. The colorful resort town, surrounded by grand and spacious red-rock buttes and canyons amid bottom-lands of cottonwood and mesquite and agave, received its first white settler in 1876, its name and post office in 1902, paved streets and electricity in the 1950s, and incorporation in 1988. Like many places in America’s past, it grew up as a haven for the pioneers of an unorthodox religious movement. But the movement in Sedona wasn’t Puritan or Huguenot or Shaker or Amish or Mormon; it was—and is —New Age.

Sedona is an especially beautiful place in an especially beautiful state, and probably most of its recent settlers have been drawn principally by its scenery, mild climate, and relaxed friendliness. But many have been drawn by its spiritual offerings, specifically its “vortexes,” a handful of specific locations supposed to have powerful, if sometimes vaguely defined, miraculous powers. These have made it into a kind of New Age Lourdes.

I took a four-wheel-drive-jeep tour up into the canyons and mesas around Sedona; the Jeep was piloted by a woman named Elija. Elija pointed out not only where Gen. George Crook came through Soldiers’ Pass looking for Apaches in the 187Os, and where a sinkhole several hundred feet deep fell open during earthquakes in the 1980s, but also Airport Saddle (the local landing strip sits atop a neighboring butte), home of one of the vortexes. Elija explained to me that the vortexes were discovered in 1980, when a psychic named Page Bryant “channeled information about the area from her spirit guide. She learned there were seven vortexes. Three weren’t so significant; the big four were Boynton Canyon, Cathedral Rock, Bell Rock, and Airport Saddle.” We stood in the strong breeze on the top of an open ridge connecting a rocky dome and a butte, and Elija continued: “Sedona is a kind of contemporary pilgrimage ground and is significant for its earth energies. It’s a place where we have the opportunity for transformation.” What kind of transformation? “Only you will know. You have to go by your own experience.”

And why Sedona? The New Age there actually dawned more than a decade before Page Bryant’s discovery; the seminal moment came in the 1960s when a canny real estate agent named Mary Lou Keller decided to open her home to mysticalminded speakers and workshops. A small “metaphysical community,” as it’s sometimes called, was thus there and ready when Bryant made the place famous. Its renown increased further in 1985 when a writer named José Argüelles predicted that what he called a harmonic convergence would occur on August 16–17, 1987. Its effects were supposed to be sensible at several locations, including Machu Picchu, the Great Pyramids, Stonehenge, and Sedona, and this brought a crowd of more than ten thousand to see if they could detect whatever Arguelles had predicted.

At that point, in the words of Tom Dongo, the author of Everything You Wanted to Know About Sedona in a Nutshell , “the New Age era in Sedona shifted into high gear.” Dongo offers as good a summary as any I have found of what Bryant discerned: “The Sedona vortexes are a great mystery.…How a vortex ultimately affects a visitor seems to depend a great deal on the desires and beliefs of the person.…Visions of long-gone Indian civilizations are frequently reported.”

Today Sedona is a world capital for the varieties of beliefs and sympathies that count themselves as New Age, and for UFO sightings as well. Its main roads are lined with businesses with names like Crystal Magic and Doorways of Light and New Earth Lodge. There is no traditional main street; the town is too new for that. Rather there are one- and two-story storefronts along the two highways that run into Sedona, plus an attractive arts-and-crafts shopping area called Tlaquepaque, designed in the 1970s to echo the streets of Guadalajara. It succeeds surprisingly well.

The town’s founders were Mr. and Mrs. Carl Schnebly, who moved west from Missouri in 1901 to escape family problems and to be near Mr. Schnebly’s brother, who lived in Oak Creek Canyon not far away. When the U.S. Post Office rejected their first two names for the place—Schnebly Station and Oak Creek Crossing— because they wouldn’t fit onto a cancellation stamp, the Schneblys settled on Mrs. Schnebly’s first name, which her mother had made up. Carl and Sedona Schnebly lived a pioneer life, growing their own food and gradually expanding their home into a small madhouse. Both died in Sedona in the 1950s.

Also in the 1950s the still-tiny community began to gain a reputation as an artists’ colony. The master surrealist Max Ernst lived there from 1946 to 1953, and he said that it was one of only two places on earth where he would want to live, the other being Paris. An Egyptian-born sculptor named Nassan Gobran moved to Sedona in the early 1950s, and in 1961 he converted an old apple-packing barn into the Sedona Arts Center, which remains a focus of the town’s cultural life today.