- Historic Sites
The New Old West
The pioneer came late to Sedona, Arizona. It got paved streets and electricity in the 1950s and then grew up as a New Age mecca.
September 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 5
During my visit I stayed at Enchantment Resort, one of several high-level resort-and-spa complexes in the area. It is located near or in the Boynton Canyon vortex—the exact size and dimensions of a vortex are hard to pin down—and its spa capitalizes on this with allurements that include a massage that “facilitates the flow of peace, joy, and tranquility on the deepest level” and another treatment that “aligns your energy with the universal life force.” Enchantment Resort also employs a Havasupai Indian named Uqualla to give presentations about Indian spirituality and lead nature walks through the gorgeous canyon surroundings. Uqualla’s performances can be very theatrical, full of chanting and dancing and drumming and storytelling; a former chief dresser for his tribe’s ceremonial occasions (the tribe resides in Havasu Canyon, a Grand Canyon tributary), he now does business as an Indian couturier for socialites, and he loves to give runway shows against an elaborately lit canyon backdrop. He is nearly omniscient about regional Indian history and lore and as useful for hard information as for spiritual talk.
“The Yavapai,” he told me, “who were driven out by the U.S. Army in the 187Os, had the site of their creation myth in Boynton Canyon, right where Enchantment is, and some of them still come back for private ceremonies here from time to time. And you know, one of the things the whole New Age phenomenon has done is bring back a real awareness of the Indians who were once here, and of their beliefs.”
White settlement supplanted Indian communities; a tiny artists’ colony gave way to a New Age mecca; the latest change is the proliferation of upscale retirement communities and real estate developments and spa resorts, which threaten to dwarf the New Age presence. Like any spiritual movement, the New Age has its opponents. One local told me, “Page Bryant has very vocal detractors, but it’s partly her own fault. She made Sedona commercial, and then she started complaining to everyone about how commercial it was getting.” I asked a recent president of the chamber of commerce, Frank Miller, if he subscribed to New Age beliefs, and he answered very diplomatically: “All I can say is that whatever it is here, I’ve felt better since I moved here than I ever did before.” He moved there in 1990.
Whether artist, psychic, retiree, or vacationing sybarite, everyone attracted to Sedona must have been attracted at least in part by its amazing landscape. The land is warm, cozy, richly colored; there is nothing austere about it anywhere, and the same goes for the climate. Enchantment Resort, in Boynton Canyon, nestles in a lovely valley of oak and juniper and pine above which rise crimson-brick sandstone walls whose colors glow in different hues throughout the day and seem to warm into the evening. Look up at them, and you will notice at one horizontal crevice in the cliffside a Yavapai Indian brick dwelling from A.D. 1100 or 1200. You can even hike right up to it and explore it.
I did —it’s not a long walk—and it gave me a sudden feeling for the old West on which Sedona is superimposed. But for a real sense of that classic West, I availed myself of one of the most incomparable experiences the region offers, a drive to the Grand Canyon, a hundred miles north, and a helicopter trip not only over the canyon but down into it, or rather into Havasu Canyon, the feeder chasm, with a reservation at the bottom, that has been since 1300 the home of the six hundred or so members of the Havasupai Indian tribe. We flew from the Grand Canyon airport straight out over flat pine scrubland and then dropped over a rim and down and down between canyon walls to land in a dusty reservation schoolyard. Then we walked past horse pastures and gardens and along the Havasu Creek to the justly famous Havasu Falls. The water there carries lime from underground that gives it a surprisingly Caribbean pale blue-green color ( Havasupai means “people of the bluegreen water”). At the falls the water has bleached the red stone of the cliffs white. The dazzling turquoise-aquawhite scene used to be a favorite setting for menthol-cigarette ads.
When we got back to where the helicopter had dropped us off and as we awaited its return, sitting in front of the village’s one general store, I saw a mule train head toward us from up the canyon. The only way in and out of Havasu Canyon is by helicopter or by the trail that leads down eight miles from the rim, on foot or on horseback or mule. As the eight mules ambled toward us in a cloud of dust, I saw that one had four canvas bags lashed to its back. The bags turned out to be the United States mail. The mule drivers, who had begun their journey at dawn—at 6:00—and were arriving at 2:00 P.M. , lowered themselves from their mounts and lazily unpacked their loads of mail and parcels, beginning with a lone Federal Express package. Because there are only so many daylight hours in a day, they would have to wait until the next morning to start back up; they deliver the mail this way three times a week, as they have done since the U.S. mails first reached these parts.
The New Age West may be thriving in Sedona, but here, I found, the Old West lives on.