Copyright Kathleen Ann Goonan
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Kathleen Ann Goonan



        My husband, Joseph, and I could not help but be influenced in our expectations of Sedona, Arizona by the psychics on cable TV.  Feet dangling as they perched atop red rock pinnacles amid breathtaking vistas, they brandished cellular phones and exhorted those in need of guidance to call them on a 900 number so they could access something called "The Psychic Vortex," which seemed to be a handy cosmic repository of important information concerning humans, such as whether or not one should quit one's job at Taco Bell.  Sedona is home to these powerful swirls of psychic energy, and to those who fervently believe in them.
     To be sure, everyone we consulted during our six-month stay in Yuma told us that Sedona is one of the most beautiful places in Arizona, as geologically breathtaking, in its way, as the Grand Canyon, just a hundred miles away.  Worth seeing even for non-believers.
        So in mid-April we packed Joseph's brother Paul, a lawyer, into the tiny back seat of our Jeep and set off from Yuma on the road to enlightenment, which, in April, led over an icy mountain just outside of Prescott.
        Joseph had made reservations at The Matterhorn, two-starred in the AAA guidebook, after calling four or five other places which were booked up.  The Matterhorn had one room left.  It was uptown, they told us, but not to worry about finding it--there was no downtown.  And we would have a balcony with a view of "The Rocks."  What more could we want?
        The Matterhorn proved modest but spotlessly clean.  Two double beds, a cot, and a balcony with a view of The Rocks were ours for just $70.00/night. After our wintry ordeal we fell into spotlessly clean beds, woke to brew coffee with the in-room coffeepot, and went down and stuffed ourself at a very good Mexican buffet next door.  The town appeared deserted.  It appeared deserted for most of the three days we spent in the area, as we left early to hike and returned after the shops and restaurants closed.
     Shelly, at the Matterhorn's front desk, helped us plan some Jeep/hiking trips, telling us which roads were good for four-wheeling.  When asked about the Vortex, she smiled.  "My sister takes that very seriously," she said, pulled out a photocopied map from beneath the counter, and circled several spots.  "The Airport Vortex isn't far," she said.  "It's a pretty good one."  We bought a hiking book and were amazed to find that several hikes had been thoughtfully labeled with a large "V," indicating an Official Vortex.  Outstanding!  All this help would save us a lot of trouble on our Vortex Quest.
        The Verde Valley, wherein Sedona, with its Aspen-like shops filled with high-priced silver jewelry, exquisitely simple clothes, and art for the discriminating nestles, has been a hospitable environment for humans for the past six thousand years.  Now, more than 10,000 people live in the town, having swelled the town's pre-fifties population of 500.  The first postmaster, Schnebly, named the town after his wife.  Many of the present inhabitants have long beards.  They seem to drink a lot of high-grade coffee and fancy wood-burning stoves.  They like the outdoors.  Sedona is the place to be if you like wilderness, for it's all around--red-orange buttresses jutting from pine-filled valley floors, cathedral-like limestone lacings which rise several thousand feet in sheer splendor; an open book of geologic history.
        The area is blessed with archeological sites galore.  We decided to visit a nearby pictograph/petroglyph site.  With the aid of about four different maps, one of which was so detailed it practically showed every fencepost, we sloshed down a red mud road for several miles.  In the early morning sun, red cliffs ahead of us glowed, revealing layers of gleaming, multicolored strata.  The air was damp and full of the scents of spring as it washed through our open windows.
        The Red Cliffs Pictographs site is in a small canyon (called the Red Canyon Ruins hike in our guidebook, SEDONA HIKES AND MOUNTAIN BIKE RIDES, Richard & Sherry Mangum, Hexagon Press, ISBN 0-9632265-2-5) with a farmhouse at the end of the road; apple trees were in bloom.  The walk is very short (.2 mile) and easy.  We found a self-directed guide in a box in the gravel parking which told us that the art we would see is being studied so that it could be recorded in the National Register of Historic places.
     Deep time eddied around us in the silence of the sunlit morning as we gazed on the ancient pictographs representing bears, snakes, and deer, some as old as five thousand years.  Then we walked past the farmhouse to the ruins, classic buildings of several chambers each, some still containing windows, sheltered in shallow caves.  The largest ruin, at the end of the trail, was roped off; we watched as one man, a local, sneered at the barrier and entered the fragile ruins.
        Our next stop was Fay Arch, a less than two mile round trip walk on the Fay Canyon Trail.  Our foray brought us presently to ruins built beneath a stunning stone arch, where we could see blue sky through fissures in the rock at one end.
        But enough deep time.  We were ready to be vortexed.  On our way to one of the V sites we read about the phenomenon.  Our book told us that the Vortex would spit those out who approached it with negative thoughts.  We trembled, but not too hard.
        At the guarded gate of an enormous resort called, modestly, Enchantment, we made a u-turn and parked off the road with about twenty other cars of seekers.  We headed up the trail.  The two brothers devised a somewhat negative game, grilling those who we passed on the trail.  I pretended not to know them.
        "Have you experienced the Vortex?"  The eyes of two thin young men lit in tandem.  In Vortex-gentled voices they said, "Yes."
        "What is it like?" persisted my husband.
        "It's . . . well, it depends," said one.  "You really have to be there," said the other.
        "But you know it when you feel it?"
        "Yes!" they agreed.
        "Who feels it knows it?"  he asked, quoting the mystic master Bob Marley, and they nodded, their eyes glowing gently with the discovery of secret kinship in Vortexism.  Off they went on their spindly legs.
        "Bob Marley felt the Vortex," said Joseph, a note of satisfaction in his voice.  We passed another woman; she was waylaid for research purposes.  All the women on the trail had bright, clear complexions, shiny, straight hair, and large, earnest eyes.  None of them were professionals; that is, they did not have cellular telephones with them to respond to 900 calls asking for advice.
        "There are male and female vortices," she told us.  "When I'm in a male vortex, I feel strong and invigorated.  I walk very fast.  Then I might round a bend and feel great peace, a flowing feeling.  There's usually water round.  That's a female vortex."
        We continued, perhaps too slowly, for we became enmeshed in the weed-eater and dump-truck vortex which emanated from Enchantment.  It was an unpleasant one, filling us with noise, clamor, and irritation.  Several people told us that we would hike past the hotel in a few miles and be in a beautiful canyon.  Paul said he would wait for us on some rocks.  After a few more yards, we realized that we were impure (some of us, anyway) and that the Vortex was spitting us out.  The Enchantment Resort, with all its hubbub, seemed to stretch interminably before us, and we turned and left.  On the way back to the trailhead we passed two barefoot Germans, a man and a woman.  No, they had never heard of the Vortex, but they were open-minded and hoped they would experience it.  "A little bonus," said the man, and laughed.
        "It would be easier to crank up Bob Marley and have a beer," said Joseph.
        "Yes," said Paul.  "Bob was always in the Vortex."
        We went back to town.  The Jeep underwent a car wash vortex, an act I would not have performed on my own.  I never understood the necessity of cleaning metal, especially when it is outside anyway and will soon be just as grimy, but as usual the ritual seemed to satisfy the men in some secret male way.  Paul went into a store run by an old Indian and asked him if the Vortex was an Indian thing while I bought a used hardback about space exploration for three dollars.  The Indian laughed.      "No," he said.  "It's a New Age thing based on ancient Egyptians religions."
        Schnebly Road (yes, the postmaster), just outside of town, had been highly recommended, so off we bounced in the superclean Jeep.  Schnebly Road changes to dirt about a mile from town, and climbs the edge of a spectacular valley on the boundary of the Munds Mountain Wilderness.  We were to come to know that valley well.
     This afternoon, though, we drove ever higher in the Jeep, past red rocks and fantastic spires, into a pine forest.  As the road rounds the mountain one side is a sheer steep drop, which the Pink Jeep Tour Jeeps spun past blithely, with great speed, while I cringed in one corner of the seat, overwhelmed by my one phobia:  driving along the edge of steep cliffs on narrow unpaved roads with no guard rails.  This does not seem to bother me quite as much if I am driving, but it is still not pleasant, and in any case, I was not at the wheel this time.  "Let's go very slowly" I suggested. To my credit I bravely remained in the Jeep instead of getting out to walk, as I have been known to do in extreme cases.
        We reached the broad, pine-forested plateau, and found that the rim road, which we had planned to drive, was closed to vehicles.  Patches of snow from the previous day lay beneath the pines.  The sun was setting.  We decided to go back down and watch the sunset from a spire we had passed.
        Finally, as we lay back against the spire at the head of Bear Wallow Valley, I experienced the Vortex as the stars came out.  I felt very cold.  I felt a deep whirring in the center of my chest.  I was suffused with enormous, inexplicable happiness.  Of course, who could fail to be happy when the stars were so bright?  I pointed out the airport Vortex, several miles away, on a high flat knob; the blue lights formed the top of a question mark of lights which were, unmistakably, moving:  car headlights leaving the top of a knob in front of the airport.  The airport seemed a worse place to have a Vortex than the Enchantment canyon, but these things seem to strike where they will.
     When we left, we stopped halfway down at a pullout and listened to some Indian chants from Window Rock, Capital of the Navajo Nation, on a station which plays an eclectic mix of Indian chants, country music, and public service announcements about keeping your winter wood at least a hundred yards from your house to keep mice from giving you the Hanta virus.
        When we returned to the Matterhorn, all was as we had left it, except the beds were made and the maid thoughtfully left coffee filters so we would not have to use paper towels; the hotel coffee was in a prepackaged filter and I had brought my own coffee.
        However, I had no cream.  I went out on the street in search of some and was stunned by the lack of activity.  It was about 9:30.  The very last car in town backed out of its parking place and roared away, its occupants loudly and vocally appreciative of my good looks, apparently, though I couldn't make out exactly what they were shouting.
        At the Mexican restaurant they were counting their money, but yielded to my pleading and sold me a styrofoam cup of milk for $2.00.  They also sold me some excellent guacamole.
     Back at the room, I found the men snoring.  I pulled a chair around a light-blocking corner, ate my guac and chips, some of which were colored red and green like Christmas, and read about aliens in the Norton Anthology of Science Fiction.  I figured this might prime me for the Vortex.  Finally, unable to resist, I wrote a brief Vortex-inspired poem, ground coffee, and fell into bed.
        Paul was up first and made the coffee according to my sleepily mumbled ratios.  "This is--stiff!" he remarked.  "It's almost solid!"  Even I had to admit, as I sipped the cup kindly brought to me in bed, as it was well known that it would be difficult for me to get out of bed without it, that it was a real beefy cup of coffee.
        Joseph studied the maps and laid out a plan of attack.  We would go to one remote canyon, then head up to some Indian ruins near Flagstaff, and go on to the Indian reservation and see if we could buy some jewelry.  But halfway up Schnebly Road, the Coffee Vortex attacked with terrible vengeance, reducing us all to snarling, yet puzzled, antagonists.  It did not take me, a former preschool teacher, long to recognize the signs of some sort of sugar imbalance.  I decided that the men should not drink such strong coffee, at least not at the same time I did.
        The Vortex decreed that we leave the Jeep, and fast, after we drove up and down the road several times searching for the mythical 3.8 mile point at which we would find a trail to what our Vortex guidebook tastefully called "The Muffins."  The night before, as we leaned against rocks at the head of the valley, we had gazed entranced at several huge rock circles which seemed to fill the valley, separated by tree-filled gorges.  Apparently they were known locally as The Cow Pies (or, probably, worse) before the guidebook writer undertook to cleanse their etymology.  I decided he probably had children and wished to protect their tender ears.  At any rate, entirely by accident, and certainly not with any help from him, we stumbled onto the trail out onto the massive red Pies.
        On top of the first Pie, one of the smaller monoliths, we saw the New Age circle:  a cairn of rocks surrounded by a larger circle of rocks.  Though I stood in the middle I felt nothing except waning irritation.  We clumped on, over winding paths past pine trees, and emerged onto the second Pie; and finally found ourselves on the massive third Pie.
        They were composed of what looked like enormous blobs of soft red rock, were fairly level on top despite their curvy unevenness, and at their highest stood at least a hundred feet above the valley floor.
        Through binoculars we watched someone hike through the jumbled, jagged landscape of the wall of the valley opposite the road.  This person had long hair and wore a fanny pack, but was too far away for us to determine sex.  We took turns using the binoculars and watched this person climb rugged terrain to get to a sharp V-notch considerably lower than the ridge's rim, which dropped almost vertically for a hundred feet or so.  He/she roamed back and forth below the V, attempting to freeclimb but always retreating after a few moves.  We were disappointed when the figure gave up and picked out a path behind some trees.  We looked out at the end of the ridge, which rose from a saddle to a large red monolith.  We wondered how the climber had gotten there.  We rose to find out.
        I clomped ahead in my ancient unkempt high-top Danners, feeling my usual resolve to Take Better Care Of Them, which would disappear as soon as they went back in the closet.  The red rocks sounded hollow at times beneath my feet.  Up and down gentle rises I hurried, until I came to a deep canyon from which peeked the tips of trees.  The drop was sheer and far.  I followed the canyon toward the head of the valley and finally reached the end of it, and went across.  There appeared to be a faint trail.  I made my way down it awhile, then shouted at my companions still casting about on the Pies, to let them know that the crossing was possible.  Despite the large boulders which had at one time or another--and why not right now?--crashed down upon the slope, the side of the canyon was fairly open, carpeted by prickly pears, pines, and various spined shrubs.  The air was clear and intoxicating; the sky was very blue.  People had piled up rocks to mark the "trail" but we soon realized that there were many trails lacing the terrain.  Occasionally our passage was dangerous, as we inched across narrow red ledges which dropped away into the canyon, but toward the end the land leveled out into broad red steppes.  As I rushed along, I realized that I must be in the grip of a male Vortex.  The day before I had felt tired, weak, and old; now I felt invigorated, filled with pep.  I was dying to know what came next.
        At the end, we split up.  Below the saddle, I caught a movement, and realized that someone had hurried into the bushes several hundred feet away.  The mystery climber!  Joseph began climbing the base of the monolith at the end to test his theory that the Matterhorn was right on the other side.  I climbed up the saddle and found Paul sitting there, gazing into another valley below us.  A red stadium-like sweep of red rocks turned into a carpet of pines; a highway pierced the view and a grand old iron bridge arched across a river.  We decided that we were looking at Oak Creek Canyon.  To our right, a large red buttress arched sideways.  To my left, Joseph called, "Look at this!"
        I could barely hear him, and reluctantly removed myself from the grand apex of yet another unadvertised Vortex.  I could tell it was one; across from me the lines of the vast, cliff-hewn ridge flowed downward in parabolic splendor and crossed in the middle, reaching out and focusing something in me; or maybe it was just that it would have been interesting to paint.  Chinese Taoist painters had been into Vortex Theory too, I realized.  I huffed up the buttress through the bushes; unfortunately the influence of the male vortex was gone, leaving me feeling old and tired once more and wishing that I had brought candy bars to chemically approximate that natural vortex high.  To my surprise, I saw the climber hiding in the bushes.
        "Hi," I said.
        "Hi," he replied shortly, unmistakably male.  I figured we had crudely disturbed the purity of his vortex experience, but I did not feel guilty.  That was no reason for him to be surly.  I reached Joseph, and found him amazed.  He handed the binoculars to me.
        Down at the Vortex Circle we had crossed about an hour before (stamped with a "V" of approval in our book), about a mile away, worshipers had gathered.  Even with the binoculars, they were hard to see, but they all appeared to glitter, and they were holding hands.  I thought of two possibilities:  they were actually emitting light, or they were a group of alien Elvi recently deposited, charged with the mission of converting the part of humanity which still resisted Elvis worship.  Either possibility was interesting.  I handed the binoculars back.  "Where's the Matterhorn?" I asked.
        "I can't get around this rock," he said, and I was glad that he realized it, for the sides were very steep.  I went back down to the saddle.  Behind me, Joseph stopped to talk to the hidden man.
        "What did he say?"  I asked, when Joseph arrived at the saddle.
     "Not much," he said.  "I asked him what those people were doing, and he said that he had no idea."
        It took us about an hour and a half to make our way back to the Jeep, and some of us were temporarily disoriented as we made our way across the vast Pies, which had not been nearly as confusing going the other way.  We knew we were going the right way when we stumbled across the Circle:  The Glittering Ones had painted a circle around the center cairn, a circle around the circumference, and lines radiating out from the center which attached the two.
        Mystery in our daily lives!  Whatever it was, they took their mission seriously.
        We got back in the Jeep and headed upward, Vortex-soothed, continuing toward the Navajo Reservation east of Flagstaff, by way of Schnebly Road.  As we approached the rock where we had watched the sunset the night before, we saw a large empty-Haul truck and many cars; then Paul said, "They're building a hang glider!  They're going to film it!"
        Excellent, I thought, for I had wished I could fly from that place the night before.  As we passed the film crew, we saw on of them filling a huge ice chest with whisky and other liquids.
        "Passing out drinks?" asked Joseph, leaning from the Jeep window.
        "Here," said the man, and handed us a soda.
        As usual, we got back to Sedona after nine, after adventures at the Navajo reservation.  We ventured onto the neat, quiet street which resembled a German village in cleanliness and in closing time, and managed to find a nice little restaurant where I had a salad and wine, and the brothers Bass Ale, which was on tap.  The booth tables, trimmed in inlaid wood, boasted pots of live red geraniums.  The smell of garlic heating in butter infused the air as they tossed our ordered mushrooms into the pan.  We were the only customers.  Then, beneath the stars, we walked back to the Matterhorn, looked at The Rocks once more, argued about whether the saddle we had been on earlier was behind them, and slept the dream-shot sleep of the Vortexed.


If you enjoy Kathleen's travel writing check out  MISSISSIPPI BLUES a unique science fiction novel about a journey on the Mississippi river.

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