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.

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.

—Frederick Alien TO PLAN TRIP