Hot Air Balloons, Energy Vortexes and Other Arizona Stories

At dawn we found ourselves in Page, Arizona. Twice. Once in November heading North towards Zion National Park, and once in August, driving South into Sedona. Page is a place that when mentioned usually begets a raised eyebrow or a “Where?”.  While not considered to be a destination in and of itself, there are sights a plenty circling the small town.  Within spitting distance are scenic Lake Powell, the heavily photographed Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend, and if you’re a long distance spitter, Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks are a short drive away (desert short that is, you’re looking at a 2+ hour ride).

Our first time through Page we woke up in a Best Western then hit the road.  With a population less than 8,000, it doesn’t take long to realize when there’s an event in town — Especially if that event involves dozens of hot air balloons dotting the desert horizon. Wal-Mart and McDonald’s parking lots were being used as blow-up stations, where balloons were being brought to life and lifting off above us.

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Outside of town we stopped off at Glen Canyon Dam to see a blue oasis of pristine water clash against the desert landscape, then breakfasted on cheese, bread and sausage (we lived out of our trusty cooler during that trip).  While sitting on rocks and slowly warming in the morning sun the sky began to fill with balloons.

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November is pleasantly chilly in Page; hoodies are a staple and hot cups of coffee will warm your hands delightfully. August is a different matter, with temperatures in the high 80’s shortly after daybreak.  On our second Page rodeo we pulled into the Horseshoe Bend parking lot just after dawn, and were met with a blinking sign warning visitors to pack water and lots of it, to wear good walking shoes, a hat, to slather your body in sunscreen, to not attempt the trail if in poor health, not to jump off the rocks into the waters hundreds of feet below, and not feed the ravens lurking nearby…it was a lot of information for a 1.2 mile hike.  However, I’m sure many-a-sun-stroked visitor have required help to get back,  and in today’s day and age I can imagine the need for such signage.

The exposed gravel trail and uphill trek to the canyon viewpoint are easy peasy for young bucks like Carl and I, but many make the voyage on 90+ degree days, and without water they’ll find themselves in a dilly of a pickle.

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Horseshoe Bend is iconic, and an image you may have seen on the covers of faded paperback Westerns, or films like Planet of the Apes.  A stream of water cutting a loop through a landscape of solid rock, it feels like you’re at the end of the world, staring down at a river whose water you cannot drink, no matter how parched you are.  Little can be grown and the heat can be smothering, but some of the most beautiful places are also the most unforgiving, and it sure is beautiful here.

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Post Page came Sedona.  After a tour of the otherworldly Antelope Canyon we went South. Over the last four nights we’d set up camp in Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon and Lake Powell.  We were dirty.  We looked scrappy, like dogs who had been left out in the rain for too long, and it was likely we were very, very smelly. Sedona was intended to be a respite from the sleeping bag and a place of relaxation.  For two nights we’d sprawl out in a cushy bed, filling our days with yoga, visits to the pool, massages and hikes into the red rocks.

The town is a rich hippie’s paradise, full of chakra-adjusting, aura-imaging, crystal-obsessed, kale-advertising, energy-twisting shops and establishments ready to gobble up your money.  My main interest in Sedona stemmed from the words “energy vortex”.  The first time I heard the term I made a distinct pfffft sound. What is an energy vortex pray tell?  And who are the charlatans peddling such notions?  Well, straight from the mouth of Visitsedona’s website is this explanation:

Sedona vortexes (the proper grammatical form ‘vortices’ is rarely used) are thought to be swirling centers of energy that are conducive to healing, meditation and self-exploration. These are places where the earth seems especially alive with energy.

How will you know when you’re entering a vortex? According to the pros, you may experience a tingling in the hands and feet, an instant shift in consciousness, or sense an amplification in your current mood — Feeling happy?  Good news, now you’re happier! Feeling stressed or aggravated?  Woops, now you feel worse. During my research I only found one physical indicator that you’ve entered a vortex and that’s twisting trees, whose presence can be attributed to the spiraling energy in the area which creates a funnel shape in the air and leaves its mark on the nearby surroundings.

I’m merely the messenger here, it’s not me who made this stuff up.  I will admit that it’s easy to “give in” to these ideas though, especially if you’re just visiting Sedona.  There are four main vortexes, and unsurprisingly they’re located in some of the most beautiful spots of the city; if you’re looking at one of the most beautiful views you’ve ever seen you’re a wee bit more susceptible to believing magic is at play.

Upon arrival and check in at our hotel (the Amara, which I give five stars to) I took a shower and washed all the camping grime off my body, watching it  swirl down the drain.  I dabbled around the room donning a terry cloth robe, watching HGTV as I put on a dress, which was replacing the workout pants and thermals I’d been sporting for the last week. I sauntered down the halls to meet Carl for the hotel’s happy hour, grabbed a glass of wine, and enjoyed it poolside with a red rock view. We drank Pinot Noir next to a fire pit, watching as the rocks burned orange and coral in the evening sun. Small lizards flitted in and out of the rocks beside us.  It was perfection.

Happy hour has to end at some point and hunger must kick in eventually. On the way to dinner our Uber driver pointed out the most prominent rocks around us, “That one’s Snoopy” she said, and in my mind I traced the figure of Snoopy lying on top of his dog house.  “I see his nose!” I said excitedly, like a kid watching clouds come to life, passing through imagination and taking shape.

Our dinner spot was fronted by a recent James Beard award semifinalist, so the city was a-buzz about Elote Cafe.  Unsure if the restaurant would be swamped, we realized we’d lost all track of time and space (if you’d asked me at the time where I woke up three days ago, it would take me a good minute to answer that).  Hitting the spot up on a Tuesday our wait was only twenty minutes, and I must say, a twenty minute wait is far easier when you’re sipping down a prickly pear cactus margarita from the bar. Local prickly pear that is too, ooo la la.

Sitting down with a view of the Sedona sunset, the hits kept coming. First up was the elote, a cobb of charred fire roasted corn, topped with spicy mayo, cotija cheese and freshly squeezed lime juice (after which the cafe is eponymously named).  Hot and cool and creamy on the tongue all at once; perfection again.  Up next was lamb adobo and smoked pork cheeks. Both were great and I only have the fondest memories of them, but it’s the elote that’s the winner.

When the check came it was brought to us by a character.  A middle aged man in a chef’s apron with wild and curly silver hair and an ombred handlebar mustache (silver at the tips and chestnut around the mouth) he asked us how our meal was and thanked us for coming.  Carl instinctively said that was the head chef himself. Nahhh I commented then did a very non-discreet Google search on Jeff Smedstad, and kiss my corn kernels, it was the James Beard nominee himself.

Twilight was upon us when we left.  Sedona is not a particularly walkable city, but we decided that after a few courses we could use the walk; it was either that or pass out in front of the Elote door.  This lead to us witnessing some of the city’s art along the walk home. Apparently Sedona excels at selling some not very good copper sculptures to tourists; bear and dolphin figures were not uncommon, and frequently looked like an Etsy profile.  We also passed a brewery, and because Carl and I have a hard time walking past a new beer destination we found ourselves in Oak Creek Brewery, and also found ourselves making the mistake of ordering a slice of chocolate cake, which really meant “have half a cake. It’s four tiers so unbutton those pants”.

An hour later, with the fullest of bellies and most content of smiles, we somehow managed to pull on our swimsuits and journey to the pool area.  Sedona has no skyline, just a rockline, and we spent the rest of our night under the moonlight, with nothing but snoopy illuminated in the distance.

If I promise to dump my savings into crystals can I stay here forever?

At a 9:00am yoga class we learned how to “fire breathe” by a sun-tanned goddess of a woman who looked remarkably like Connie Nielsen, and who spoke with the most confusing of accents (is that South African Danish?).  Our ommming was a warm-up for the big show, hiking Cathedral Rock in search of an energy vortex.

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A short drive into the red desert led us to the trailhead.  At only 1.5 miles round-trip it was another short hike, but similar to Horseshoe Bend, it packs a wallop.  There’s a 600 foot elevation gain in the ¾ mile hike in, meaning you’ll spend a fair part of the journey scrambling up the rocks and using your hands to push off and up ahead.

Don’t let the “easy” tag hiking sites give the Cathedral Rock trail fool you: it’s hot, it’s steep, and at the very top you’ll be treading on ledges.  Those with a fear of heights, ye be warned.  At 11:00am, the sun radiating off the rocks creates a hot air pocket and the heavy air turned our water bottles lukewarm in minutes.

The vortex aura is said to surround Cathedral Rock.  Being nearby is supposed to drench you in its mystical powers.  The epicenter of the vortex, or where the energy is most powerful, is located in the gaps between the rock spires. To journey here you must reach the end of the trail, then do a bit more scrambling off to the sides.  Did I feel inherently different at the vortex? Notice any huge shifts in my spirit or physical well being? No. I was still the same old Gracie. This is exactly what I was expecting, I felt no disappointment at this.

Lately there have been a surge of stories published about great hiking journeys (“Wild”, I’m looking at you), which seem to promise the reader a life changing experience, from which you’ll come out a more whole person, or you’ll “find yourself” and who you were meant to be, blah blah.  While being fun to read, and while you’ll certainly come back from a six-month hiking trip with some fond memories, a newfound sense of strength and possibly an altered outlook, that doesn’t mean you won’t come back to the same home, job, city, etc. Travel isn’t a way to escape the fundamental “you”.  You won’t shed your skin and emerge some newer more vibrant creature, with better hair and newfound social skills.  Travel enhances the voyager, it doesn’t recreate them from the ground up.

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Sitting at the vortex and surveying the glowing land, yellow butterflies flew in and out of the rock formations.  My eyes would follow their movements, until they went out of sight.  Waiting for them to come back into view I’d draw my attention back to the land, then the butterflies, then the land.  This is what shifted my energy.  I don’t believe in crystals, I believe that being grateful for where I am, who I am, and those I’m with, is what brings me peace.  And between the rocks and the butterflies, I found some.

A few minutes later a couple in their early thirties hiked up to where we were sitting, looking not for the vortex, but for a particular spot to rock climb.  Their dog came up to me looking for some pets and I happily obliged as his humans pointed out holds in the rocks their hands and feet would soon find.

In the distance I could see The Chapel of the Holy Cross nestled into the rocks.  Completed in the 50’s, the art deco style of the Roman Catholic church feels imposing jutting out of the buttes; the neutral colors allow it to blend into the rocks, while the straight lines clash against the natural landscape; it’s the kind of place a Bond villain would call home, or Batman would vacation at. This was our next stop.

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We were sweaty and hot and dusty from the trail as we walked into the Chapel.  I felt a bit guilty walking into a holy place in this state, but on a 90 degree day the chapel was full of sweaty tourists and my guilt melted away within seconds. The minimalism of the church paired with the red light bathing the pews gives it spiritual power, but any sense of holiness I felt was quickly taken away by the machines dotted throughout accepting card payments for candle lighting.

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Still a place of arresting beauty, the presence of the almighty dollar couldn’t be shaken off, especially given the chapel has a lovely view of a four-car-garage mansion.

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Our last evening in Sedona, our feet were soaking in the pool as the sun set, and we once more watched Snoopy tuck into bed, as the rocks turned violet in the dusk, then disappeared into the darkness.

Sedona is tucked into the Coconino National Forest, which is responsible for flecking the desert landscape with trees.  I was not expecting to drive through a lush forest in Central Arizona, but exiting the city felt like we were driving into Northern California.  There’s a whimsy that comes from passing underneath green leafy trees after spending days amongst burning rocks.  Like you’re entering a secret garden.  It’s understandable that a place so foreign in its setting could lead people to believe their auras will become unscrewed or their chakras will be made more fibrous or whatever.

On a delicious note, Carl and I were on a journey within in a journey: Driving 5,000 miles around the country, we were determined to stop off at as many local donut joints as possible, in search of the most glorious of fried dough.  While in Sedona we’d noted it only seemed right that a donut shop in Sedona should be named “Sedonuts” and when we inevitably got a craving for the sugary stuff the morning we drove out of town, we were jazzed as a jam donut to find out that Sedonuts did exist.  Only a donut would make reversing course in Sedona worth it (traffic circles guide cars more frequently than stop lights, and cause bumper to bumper backups even on Thursday afternoons). When we pulled up to Sedonuts we were arriving as traffic warriors.  Mad Max, eat your heart out.

We ordered a mint chocolate chip and a glazed, gabbing with the young couple who own the place. They’d moved into the city just recently, intent on building the donut shop of their dreams.  Guys, you should be proud. Though not the absolute greatest donuts I’ve had, they were tasty, attractive, and very clearly made with love.

Hamilton blared on the radio after the trees of Coconino could no longer be seen in the passengers-side mirrors.  With Act I playing we drove east towards Meteor Crater, going deeper into the Arizona nothingness.  I’m a sucker for a good road-side attraction, and Meteor Crater fit the bill. The story of the crater is simple; formed 50,000 years ago when a meteor hit the earth, a crater now marks the impact point, and clocks in at 3,900 ft wide and 560 feet deep.  In short, it’s a really really big hole.

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Meteor Crater is privately owned, so while being the largest meteor impact spot on the planet, it’s not able to become a national monument (that’s reserved for landmarks owned by the federal government).  This lack of federal funding can be seen in odd places.  For instance, after paying the $18.00 admission fee you also get a coupon that can be redeemed at the on-site Subway (free cookie with purchase!) and entry into a recreation room, whose amenity list on the Meteor Crater site includes “Big trees and green grass”.  Rain chased us back to the car shortly after our arrival, but no matter, 15 minutes here would be enough time to see what there is to see.

Arizona is one of the more barren states – The ground is perpetually parched, afternoon thunderstorms can provide company in the otherwise lonesome west, and I still maintain that Phoenix has no right to exist (with an average high of 106 in July, the place is “a monument to man’s arrogance” as the great Peggy Hill once said), but it’s also a land of surprises: where balloons can rise from the desert and green trees can encapsulate red rocks.  Blink too fast, and you’ll think you’ve seen a mirage.

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