Twelve days ago I put down a fresh quilt in the back seat for Newt, packed the rear deck with cactus plants that I’d bought a few weeks ago and drove out of Sedona in the late morning. I drove north on Route 89 through Oak Creek Canyon and stopped at the Indian Craft market at the top. I have a serious turquoise habit and its getting expensive.
As soon as I got out of Flagstaff it was nothing but open space. The road extended for miles in front of me: a 360-degree view of red earth, scrub brush and greenish yellow hills that looked as if they’d been carved out of clay. The sun was shining brightly and I started chasing mirages—small oil slicks in the distance—but never quite caught them.
The trees altogether disappeared and the tallest things on the horizon were the power lines. I listen to Navajo Public Radio which includes traditional music as well as the high school basketball scores. I drive over Navajo Bridge which crosses the Colorado River, which looks like liquid emerald. This place is so remote that the visitors center closes for two hours at lunch. I cruise past the vermillion cliffs which, besides being brilliantly colored, also have a funny layered shape that gets wider at the bottom, like an earthen petticoat or the skirt of a can-can dancer. I drive past enormous boulders, some of which have stone lean-tos attached to them. Ancient shelters. I drive past the turnoff for the north rim of the Grand Canyon, which is still closed for winter.
I drive through Kanab, Utah and pull in to the extremely pet friendly XBarH Lodge where I’m warmly greeted by the owners. It’s a beautiful ranch nestled alongside red cliffs on 75 acres. The home has all the cozy grandeur of a mountain lodge with four bedrooms, a shared kitchen and den. The owners live in an attached cabin. Michelle, who I had spoken with on the phone, gave me a tour of the house. She’s wearing jeans, sneakers and a t-shirt with a cartoon dog that says “Find your happy place” and below it, the words Kanab, Utah. This is undoubtedly Michelle’s happy place and her joy is contagious. She and her husband, JC, bought this place in 2008 when it was a ranch filing bankruptcy. The whole thing happened in about a month but she said she’d never been more sure of anything in her whole life. She wears her strawberry blonde hair back in a ponytail and throws her head back when she laughs a genuine, wheezing laugh. She is a quintessential “dog person.” People with dogs will know what I mean. I have a dog but I am not a dog person. There are people—dog whisperers—and animals are their calling, Michelle is such a person. The place is super laid back, casual and friendly. But it’s also immaculate and extremely professionally run. I step into Michelle’s office which is decorated with cactus plants and has a dog bed that Newton immediately curls up on. We chat as black-chinned hummingbirds come to feed at the window.
At dusk I take a walk around the property, which has several trails. I sneak Newton past the chickens in the yard before he notices them and climb a sandy ridge which offers beautiful views of the lodge and surrounding valley. I look for the fossilized seashells that Michelle told me about from eons ago when the whole place was underwater. I drink a beer on the porch and watch the hummingbirds scurry for their last feeding before nightfall.
In the morning I drive to Zion National Park and I am completely unprepared for how gorgeous it is. Entering the park on the Mt. Carmel-Zion Scenic Highway makes me gasp at every turn. Wow,” I’m saying to myself aloud. “This is amazing!” You descend into the canyon on switchbacks. From the visitors center the only way into the heart of the park is by shuttle bus and I take the “strenuous” 2.5-mile hike to Hidden Canyon. It rises steeply to 850 feet where the narrow path winds up and around the rock face to a slot canyon. At times you have to hold onto chains that are bolted to the rock to steady yourself. I knew this starting out and it sounded like an adventure and it certainly was. It was manageable for this out-of-shape hiker, though climbing the first steep mile I wondered if I might collapse. But any good hike has a payoff and the view was spectacular with the Virgin River winding its way through the canyon and the shuttle buses reduced to the size of toy cars.
I couldn’t take Newton to the park but I wasn’t worried. Staying at XBarH is like staying with friends who leave you alone during the day to do your own thing and greet you warmly when you come home at night, says Michelle. At no extra charge she checked on and walked Newton several times during the day. “We’re not a frou frou place,” she says. We don’t have a pet chef of pet massage. But I always carry dog treats in my pocket and I give a great belly rub,” she says, laughing.
After I was done walking I dipped my feet in the Virgin River and watched kids splash around on the banks. It was pretty idyllic. When I got home, Newton was wagging his tail like mad and Michelle gave him a good report. She was probably feeding him treats all day but, hey, he’s on vacation too.
The next morning I got a late start. I didn’t really know where I was going after Bryce Canyon. Note: road trips can be a nightmare for someone like me who has trouble making decisions. Plus, I was talking to Michelle who is a fascinating lady. In her former life she was a genetic researcher and she was telling me about how she got out here for a vacation and fell in love with the desert. She also tells me about some of the more memorable guests she’s had at the lodge including a German woman her husband had picked up hitchhiking. Apparently they had trouble getting to leave. I tell Michelle she’s spoiled me on staying anywhere else with my dog. She is so kind and has such a ready laugh. I didn’t really want to leave, either.
I continue north on Route 89 and drive past diners, motels, RV parks, teepees, elk crossings, the Mugwamp Antique Shop and about two hours out from the lodge I realize I have left a load of laundry in the dryer. I’m kicking myself and wondering if I should go back. There’s really nothing of value –some old jeans and t-shirts—but I feel bad about leaving my mess there for Michelle to deal with and spending money on new things. I decide not to go back. I don’t need anything. They are only things. It’s only money. It reminds of a story my mom used to tell about how when my parents were first married, possibly on their honeymoon, and my they were driving and my Dad threw a $20 bill out the window to show how carefree he was. “And that was a lot of money back then,” my mom would say. I decided to go the carefree route and keep going. I stopped worrying about what I’d left behind.
I turn onto a scenic byway called Utah Route 12 to go toward Bryce Canyon National Park. If you ever have the opportunity to take this drive, do it. I’ll probably get flack for saying this, but it’s without a doubt the most scenic drive I have ever taken. Starting from the park, its 115 miles of pure adventure, a constantly evolving landscape with jaw-dropping views. Just before Bryce Canyon I stop at this place called Red Canyon that Michelle told me about. There are these goofy formations called hoodoos, towering mountains of rust-colored sand and there’s this amazing contrast between the bright orange rocks, the tall dark green pinyon pines and a cloudless blue sky. You can drive under two natural arches and you want to pull over every twenty yards because the colors and shapes are not to be believed.
At Bryce Canyon there are more crazy sand formations that look like spectacular sandcastle cities, fairylands or secret worlds. You drive on the main park road through ho-hum hills of white sand and pine trees and then you get to the viewpoints and it’s this shock of looking into oblivion at these orange, tan sand formations like so many terra cotta warriors standing at attention. It’s just astounding. You’ve never seen anything like it in your life. I hop out at most of the lookouts snapping photos like a crazy person.
In the late afternoon I stop at a roadside stand called Nemo’s in Escalante, Utah, for a bison burger and a scoop of lime rickey sherbet. They ask if they can give Newton a soft serve ice cream—apparently dogs love this—and I say sure. He goes nuts and devours it in two minutes flat while I gaze at the original pioneer house across the street and wait for my burger which is juicy and lean without being greasy. Very good. On the road again, I drive along the Escalante River. You can’t see the river but you can tell it’s there because there’s a strip of bright green, an explosion of spring through an otherwise dry valley. Suddenly I’m climbing switchbacks to a narrow ridge that I later find out is called the Hog’s Back. It’s so narrow and the view so vast that I have to keep looking ahead (and not at the scenery) for fear of getting vertigo. It doesn’t help that out west, there are reminders everywhere of people who have died in car crashes. There are crosses by the roadside, safe driving billboards sponsored by the deceased’s family members, signs for falling rocks and steep grades even ramps on mountain roads to catch runaway trucks whose brakes have failed. Driving out here, like everything else, is at your own risk.
After a quick stop at the surprisingly informative Anasazi State Park Museum, everything turns super green. The hills are covered with pines and there are snowy peaks in the background. We climb to a town called Boulder, Utah, at 9600 feet and the land turns barren. It gets cool, I see patches of snow and everything turns this bleak continuum of brown and straw color. It reminds by of Narnia after the White Witch comes. There are huge patches of bare birch trees that looked so fragile, like stands of Queen Anne’s lace. Winding past barren trees, steep drop-offs and lookouts, you can see the sunburned earth but you just drive right over it from your cool mountain perch.
I stop overnight in a little Utah town called Torrey in the middle of Capital Reef National Park. It’s the coolest national park that no one’s ever heard of. And by no one, I mean me. The hottest gig in town—Austin’s Chuckwagon Motel—didn’t accept pets. But I ask the woman behind the counter about the cabins across the street. “Do you know anything about those? Is it safe?” I ask, feeling like a total city slicker. “Oh, it’s safe here,” she says. “You could probably sleep outside and no one would bother you.”
I rent a one-room cabin across the street from the Chuckwagon General Store. The cabins are behind Torrey Trading Post in this woman’s back yard. Her name is Diane and she charged me $35 to stay there. The cabin is simply furnished and has satellite TV and electric baseboard heat. A very tidy bathroom is about 20 paces away. I’m thrilled, and Newt likes it too.
Torrey is the kind of town where you feel like you’re at camp. There’s a high concentration of decorative covered wagons and I saw a horse-drawn cart lugging tourists. It’s a pretty lively town, too, where most restaurants and the general store stayed open until 10 pm on a Sunday. The door handle to the general store is made out of an antler and they sell Idaho Spud candy bars.
Note as of 5/15/13: I’m back on the east coast now, but I’m behind in my updates. In the next installment, I’ll actually leave Utah, drive through the Rockies, fall in love with a Colorado coffee shop, sleep next to Nebraska’s biggest lake and get an eyeful of Iowa.
Everywhere you look there’s a cactus in bloom–bright violet, yellow, red flowers emerging from prickly points. And it’s getting hot. The last week in April the temperature spiked to 96 degrees and there wasn’t enough sunscreen in the world. I’ve been hanging out a lot with my friend Angie from the forest service. Angie is basically the woman who got me out here. I e-mailed her out of the blue and she called me back. She took a chance on me. We became friends soon after I arrived. She traveled for work for a week in April and I stayed at her house in the village and watched her dog, Milo. It was nice to be in the thick of things, to have a reliable internet connection and to sleep in a room that didn’t feel like barracks. Angie has a lovely house a few blocks from Bell Rock, one of the more famous red rock formations in Sedona, so it was a real treat. Milo and Newton get along famously. They wrestled like school boys even though Milo’s three times Newt’s size. The only time they argue is when one takes the other’s rawhide bone, an endless game of keep-away.
I asked a woman from pottery class to go to the local brewery with me on Tuesday when they have a drum circle. I don’t think I’ve been to a proper drum circle since my days at Wesleyan. What a motley crew showed up! There were the requisite dreadlocked hippies, but in addition there was a cast of characters that included a guy in a muscle tee who said he was originally from Brooklyn; a guy with skin the color of cocoa wearing a cowboy hat and long feathered earrings; a middle-aged woman in harem pants and a sequined belly dancing wrap; an elderly man in a wheelchair; a mohawked lesbian playing the didgeridoo; an African man wearing leather sandals; a women in a trench coat who looked like Joni Mitchell; a raver type wearing all black who was dancing by making elaborate gestures with his hands; two fresh-looking tourists who ordered Perrier at the bar; and many more.
All this writer wanted to do was document the scene but I hadn’t brought so much as a scrap of paper or a pen. I listened to the beat instead. There were at least 30 people beating their own drums, which varied widely in size and shape. My friend explained that someone, somewhere was keeping the beat, but it was difficult to tell who it was. The rhythm ebbed and flowed and people began to dance with reckless abandon. Nobody really cared what anybody else was doing. It was very Sedona. It was an easy place to let go of things and just focus on the feeling of the room, vibrating around you. The beat slowed and I thought the song was ending. “It never ends,” my friend said. Over beers and gourmet hot dogs before the crowd had arrived, she told me that she and her husband had separated a few weeks before. “I was love starved,” she said frankly, taking a bite of her hot dog. Once the drumming got going she got up to dance and became just another person in the crowd, letting go.
Two nights later I got my second dose of Sedona drumming when I climbed the trail to the saddle of Cathedral Rock and watched the full moon rise. A woman from the forest service had called to say she was going and I met her and her friends around 8:30 pm. Well over a hundred people were there. Some were wrapped in blankets in the night air, sitting and watching the spectacle of the bright moon on a clear night, others stood milling around a burning ember, the smell of pot in the air. The drumming was more mellow than at the brewery. Some danced, others “got primal,” as my friend put it, and would occasionally let out a yip, howling at the moon. As we hiked back down the trail, the moon was so bright that we turned off our flashlights and let our eyes adjust to the dark. A second wave of young, eager drummers was climbing up as we made our way down.
Sometime last week Angie got home and I realized that my days in Sedona were numbered. She kindly said I could stay a few weeks extra and generously offered for me to stay in her guest room until I left. May was fast approaching and I began to panic because I hadn’t figured out what I want to do with my life which I realized, suddenly, was part of the reason I came here. “I didn’t figure everything out,” I told Angie. And now it was time to pack up and head back east, where my future awaited me like a lump in my throat. I began to waiver about what day I would leave and what route I would take, unable to decide. The larger life questions that I hadn’t answered were focused on the road trip home and I began to dread it. But then I realized that I had been making big decisions all along.
While in Sedona I decided that I need to relocate, to live in a livelier town, work outside my home and interact with people like I had at the visitor center. It was a decision I’d been trying to make for well over a year. I needed to start living my daily life adventurously, like I travel. I had also pretty much ruled out moving out west. Coming out here had been a scouting mission of sorts, but one that i was only vaguely conscious of. The desert has always intrigued me. Adobe architecture, blooming cacti, mission-style furniture, Georgia O’Keefe, super sunsets—What’s not to love? Plus, the sun here is like a shot in the arm, the people are wonderfully strange and the pace is laid back. It’s a place full of wanderers like me. But it’s so far from everything and everyone I know back east. Am I really a Yankee at heart? Perhaps. I still pronounce the G in gila monster like the G in good, not like the H in happy. And I miss shady forests of old growth trees, misty mornings, the green of spring, open water–the ocean. Apparently my aura photo shows that I need blue to balance myself and I found that my favorite places in Sedona were by the creek. I need to live near water. So it was decided. Find a new place to live and a new job. Clearly I still had other big decisions to make and a full-time job to find, but this was a big start.
Planning the route home no longer seemed like a big deal and I set about drawing a red line across the country on a foldout paper map. To keep things interesting, I decided to try to avoid the interstate (or at least attempt to). I wanted to see if I could head east without it seeming like an endless string of rest stops. I would also try to stay in non-chain hotels, preferably B and Bs that were dog friendly, of course. I leave Friday for Utah, the land of national parks, followed by Colorado, a brief sojourn into southeast Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and then Connecticut. Happy trails to me.
Last week as I was getting home from pottery class, Newton got sprayed point-blank in the face by a skunk. Big time. It happened right in front of my car, so the car smelled awful too. In a rare moment of speed and agility, Newton actually pounced on the skunk and scared the devil out of it. It managed to get away but not before spraying a visible cloud of pure nasty directly in his face. It was poor timing because I was about to go inside and meet my new roommate for the first time. I told him it was nice to meet him and that my dog had just been skunked. He didn’t want Newton to come inside and I couldn’t blame him. It was after 9 p.m. and I didn’t have any of the special ingredients needed to wash him, so I prepared him to sleep outside, crossing my fingers that he would go with it (yeah right). I brought out his bed and several towels and blankets.
Newt was miserable, rubbing his face profusely. I’m sure the stuff burned when it hit him, possibly even in the eyes. It had been unusually cold and very windy all day. I got in bed and worried about whether he would die of exposure. I know, I know, I’m crazy. But I sat in bed Googling what happens if you leave an older, short-haired dog out in the cold. It wasn’t pretty.
He was barking intermittently, sometimes in despair, whimpering, and other times because he probably smelled something he wanted to go after. The whole yard was like a buffet of scents for him. It was going to be a long night. I tossed and turned, feeling incredibly guilty and smelling the lingering skunk scent on me, even though I had taken a shower. Around 2 a.m. I woke up to the sound of barking and realized that it was pouring rain. Since the car already smelled terrible I decided to put him in there. What better place for a wet, skunked dog than in the car? He slept the rest of the night without a peep.
I woke up before 6 a.m. which, for me, might as well be in the middle of the night. I brought Newt his breakfast and stood outside in the dawn with him. He was shivering. The roommate came out and I apologized about the noise and he said he slept fine. Then he drove off to work. I left Newt in the yard and made coffee, scarfed down some oatmeal and then we piled into the skunked car and headed for town. I forgot that my mug full of coffee was on top of the car and it fell off and crashed as we were heading down the drive. Could this day get any worse?
I stopped at Home Depot first, where they sell something called OdoBan which I had read about online while I couldn’t sleep. It got great reviews. People said it was like a miracle. I needed a miracle. I also bought several air fresheners. Then I headed to Wal-Mart and got three quarts of hydrogen peroxide, a few boxes of baking soda, a large can of tomato juice, some Febreeze and some groceries.
At home I mixed up a concoction that my friend Angie had recommended: one quart hydrogen peroxide, a quarter cup of baking soda and two tablespoons of dish soap. Newton already had his tail between his legs. I picked him up and put him in the bath and lathered him up with the potion. After leaving it on for five minutes I rinsed him and so much red dirt and dust came off that I thought he might be an albino. He was literally shining, he was so white. Then I let him dry. I still wouldn’t let him on the furniture and he wandered around in a daze while I ate lunch and proceeded to do loads of laundry, adding OdoBan to the rinse cycle. I even mopped the floor with OdoBan. I arranged air fresheners around the house. Then I gave him a second bath and tried to focus on his face, which had been on the wrong end of the skunk. I got peroxide in his eye and he kept blinking while I tried to rinse it out. For good measure I also covered him in tomato juice and he turned the color of strawberry ice cream. Then I dried him with a clean towel, put a blanket on the sofa where he curled up and immediately fell asleep. I also took a break and watched a few episodes of Modern Family. What a day!
During this ordeal there were times when I really thought things couldn’t get any worse. I would have paid any amount of money to get rid of the smell and was feeling so tired that it started to feel like the end of the world. That afternoon, I was telling my tale of woe to an old cowboy named Jeff, who comes every day to feed the horses at the ranger station. “Nobody died,” he said simply, and shrugged. He was right. And I’m happy to report that after seven days and several more peroxide baths, Newton only emits a hint of skunk smell and only at close range. The car still needs improvement but is much better than before.
Yesterday I took a day trip to Tonto Natural Bridge outside Payson, Ariz. I drove southeast on the Zane Grey Highway, climbing to 7,000 feet and passing through little towns called Strawberry and Pine–places where the local quilt shop is still in business and the Sidewinder Saloon is packed at lunchtime. All of the sudden the prickly pear cacti were replaced with ponderosa pines and I realized how much I’ve missed tall trees and a landscape dominated by green. I entered the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park and descended into a canyon on switchbacks. The first glimpse of the natural bridge is from a lookout point and you see an overhang covered in lush ferns and epiphytes with a steady stream of water pouring into the grotto below. I hike down to get a closer look at this enormous travertine bridge that hovers nearly 200 feet above Pine Creek. Along the trail there is yellow tape and signs warning of landslides and rough terrain. At the bottom of the canyon you can hike into the 400-foot deep cave. I made it and two-thirds of the way through but it was extremely slippery with water flowing underfoot and pouring from the ceiling above. Wind was whipping through the tunnel. I helped an older couple who were stuck on one of the rock ledges and they acted like I was some kind of super hero. “You’re climbing like a mountain goat,” the woman said. Gazing up at the walls of this cave, you feel as if you’re in a cathedral with gorgeous limestone buttresses. It was a good day.
I continue to make progress in my pottery class and took home my first glazed pieces yesterday. I’m working a few morning at the ranger station, weekends at the cliff dwellings and hanging out a lot with my friend Angie, who works with the forest service. She has an enormous hound dog named Milo and he and Newton are fast friends. Newt can walk under his legs with room to spare. They’re like Mutt and Jeff, except they are both mutts. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that the roommate and I will probably never be friendly. He has no food in the fridge and when he comes home he immediately goes and takes a very long shower or bath while playing a variety of music from heavy metal to New Age (??). Then he goes into his room and closes his door for the rest of the night.
I can’t believe I’ve been here six weeks. The time has certainly flown. I’m adding to my animal sightings: javelina (peccary), hummingbird, spiny lizard and I can’t remember the rest right now. I’m also helping the forest’s wildlife biologist with a report on the effects of grazing on certain plot of land. I write things like: “Noise from livestock management and structural range improvement activities could disturb roosting bats. Therefore the proposed action may impact the Allen’s lappet-browed bats but is not likely to result in federal listing or loss of viability.”
Ah, government speak. It’s fun though. I’m learning lots of new words like riparian habitat, pine snags, leaf litter, chaparral and more. I’ve tried the burritos at the Cilantro Food Truck, the enchildas at the fancy schmancy Tii Gavo restaurant at Enchantment Resort and pretended to be interested in membership in order to score a free day pass to the Hilton spa, where I spent the afternoon in the hot tub, by the pool and in the steam room–heaven! So, skunk and all, it hasn’t been a bad week.
Where to begin? The past few weeks have been busy, but in a good way. I managed to get a little additional time off work which has been terrific. Now I don’t feel like I’m working or volunteering all the time. Sometimes I even feel like I’m on vacation, which was one of my goals in coming out here in the first place. In my days off I’ve been doing lots of interesting Arizona activities including a workshop on spoon-bending using psychokinesis (click here to read about my experience in-depth), a visit to an old mining town, an informal pub crawl on Whiskey Row in Prescott and a tour of an experimental community called Arcosanti.
The most recent news is that I have gotten a roommate. Or, at least I think I have. He is a seasonal firefighter with the forest service and was supposed to move in last night. I was already asleep when I think he came in. Newton was barking. When I woke up this morning the only sign of him I saw was a bottle of Axe shampoo in the bathtub. I guess he’s traveling light. It sounds like the seasonal fire guys work 16-hour shifts and travel to fires throughout the western states. It’s a dangerous, tiring job that frequently involves backcountry camping and, as my neighbor says, sleeping on nothing but your helmet. So I don’t think I’ll be seeing too much of my roommate.
Spring continues to make itself known here. There are giant yellow butterflies on the trails, the trees by the creek are blooming and the yard is turning into a jungle of weeds. Today it is raining and very windy but the cloud cover and cooler temperatures are a welcome change from the dry heat we’ve had this past month.
Last week I finally went to Mystical Bazaar to get an aura reading and photo. A psychic healer named Premdevi took me into a room the size of a closet and sat me down in front of a computer. She told me to sit, relax and “let my aura settle.” When she came back a few minutes later, I placed my hand on a sensor. Then I waited in the shop while she printed my report.
My aura is orange-yellow and I’m told this means I’m adventurous, analytical, scientific and self-confident. I also got a 30-plus page report with charts and graphs that I have yet to really look through. After skimming it, I’m pretty sure it says that my chakras are completely out of whack, unbalanced and that I need more peace in my life. Ya think? According to the color wheel, my complementary opposite color is blue and I should seek it out to relax and balance myself. I’m overwhelmed by all of the information and I ask Premdevi what some of the graphs mean. She takes me to a corner of the store and points out the chakra balancing essences. I need to balance my fifth chakra–the throat—she says, and she hands me a sample of the elixir, telling me to rub it on my hands and breathe it in. It’s a combination of essential oils including spearmint and jasmine. It’s certainly smells refreshing, but that’s about all I can say. Before I impulsively spend a fortune on crystals, pendants and essences to balance myself, I think I’ll go home and read the full report. “Good idea,” she says.
On one of my days off I visited the town of Jerome, where the elevation (5,246 feet) is more than 10 times the population (446 souls). It’s a quirky little place that’s precariously perched on the side of a mountain. You climb switchbacks to get there and hold your breath to navigate hairpin turns overlooking the whole valley. At times, there’s nary a guard rail in sight. Then you get to town and you may as well be in another country. The houses are in a romantic state of decay, many of them are crumbling and it looks like they may just slide off the cliff altogether. I stop by the visitors center—about a third the size of a railroad car—and get a map of town. There are three streets, also switchbacks, filled with boutiques with names like the Cactus and Curiosity Shop, Ghost Town Gear and Scooter Trash.
My first stop is Nellie Bly, a magical shop that sells nothing but kaleidoscopes. I’m on a mission to find the work of my uncle, Alex Bouteneff of Lotus Scopes, who has some of his wares for sale here. I peer into at least a dozen scopes before finding my uncle’s brass beauties. I also take a million pictures of the shop and chat with the woman behind the counter.
I lunch at Quince, the best restaurant in town by most counts. (I’m told there’s also a good restaurant housed in the old asylum and a popular restaurant called the haunted hamburger). It’s a tiny place with 10 tables, a bar and turquoise walls covered in bright skulls and other Day of the Dead-type decor. You get the picture. The waiters wear t-shirts that say “This whole town is high.” I order the blue corn enchiladas smothered in green chile sauce and chipotle cream. Yum. The margaritas look fantastic (pomegranate, blood orange) but I pass, remembering the switchbacks on the way back home.
Many of the shops are selling tourist schlock but there’s a cool winery and tasting room called Caduceus Cellars and a few places with locally made crafts. I pop into a gallery and buy three surprisingly affordable neat paintings that are three-dimensional paper-mache molds. I chat with the artist, Jeneal Knap. She speaks in poetry and is so at ease with herself in her apron covered with paint, puttering around a cluttered studio. I linger, not wanting to leave, like she might be able to tell me something I need to know. Later, I look her up and find an old article about Jerome in the Chicago Tribune. Their quote from Jeneal is a great example of this. “We don’t see the land here as barren; we see the bones of the earth,” she said. “The land is doing something–it goes up and down and becomes part of the sky. The desert is always changing colors. We get the same feeling of openness that you get from the ocean.”
Here’s where things get weird. But bear with me. Last week I took a workshop at the Center for New Age on bending a spoon using nothing but the power of your mind. Like they do in The Matrix. It’s known as psychokinesis. The whole thing was very Sedona. I was promised when I signed up that I would have a bent spoonto take home with me at the end of the hour. The offer was too good to pass up.
There were three of us including the instructor, a psychic named Melinda. After a brief introduction, she taught us how to use a pendulum (in this case, a chain with a crystal hanging from it). I asked my pendulum how it would swing when the answer was no and when the answer was yes. It had to be obvious, and strangely, it was. For Melinda, the pendulum moved clockwise for yes, counter-clockwise for no. For me it was east-west for yes, north-south for no. Hmmm.
One at a time, we picked up spoons that Melinda had bought at Goodwill and asked the pendulum which of them we would be able to bend. That is how we choose our spoons. Then Melinda leads us through visualization. A red hot fireball, or whatever we want to imagine—a sun, a shooting star, a beam of light—is hovering over our heads. It is slowly shrinking, condensing but is gaining power, heat and energy. It moves through our bodies slowly, all the way down our arms, elbows, palms and pours through our fingertips into the spoon we are holding. We are one with the spoon. Oh, brother. Then we open our eyes and, at the count of three, we yell loudly what we want the spoon to do: “BEND! BEND! BEND!” Then we relax, shake out our hands and get to work bending the spoons with our hands. (Not with only our minds just yet).
The first spoon is tough to bend and I feel like I’m using a lot of force. Like I’m cheating. The second time I bend myspoon easily into a loop and I can feel that the metal is hot where it has looped around itself. Interesting. Then, wanting a challenge, I pick out a very thick spoon. At first I can’t bend the handle even when I use all my strength. But after the visualization, I bend it in half easily, right at the thickest part. I’m in disbelief. What is going on here?
The last exercise we do the same visualization with a fork, but after we ask it to bend, we don’t use our hands. We put all of our focus and energy into the fork and then, after telling it to bend, we hold it out of view and, as Melinda says, let the energy do its work. We wait three minutes or so and then look at our forks. I see no difference, no bending. Melinda insists that the tines of my fork have grown apart a bit, that there is a slight shift in the curve of the handle. I don’t see it and frankly, I’m disappointed.
Later, I realize it’s not about the end result. It’s not about, did I bend the spoon? Did I bend it enough? Did I bend it the way I imagined it would be bent? It’s not even about the spoon. It’s about having faith in what is possible. It’s about what you’re capable of when you focus on affirming yourself–affirming your abilities–rather than negating what you can do. If you’re just staring at a fork and trying to bend it, all you can focus on is that it’s not bent. It’s not bending. And you kind of sabotage yourself.
The mind is very good at distracting itself, at making excuses. The pendulum and the visualization were about giving yourself permission, Melinda said. Permission to forget all the bullsh*t, to clear your head and to have something other than your mind tell you that, “Yes, you can do this.” It’s your autonomic nervous system at work as opposed to your conscious mind, she said.
Driving home I realized that if I invested even half of the mental energy that I spend worrying, and fretting, and thinking about “what if” and “do I look fat right now” and all of these tangential attractions that are totally irrelevant… If I decided to ignore those, I think I would have a lot more positive energy and I would accomplish a lot more.
It’s better to focus on something, visualize it, put it out there…and then forgot about it. Let it do its thing. Let it work its magic. Don’t sit there and analyze it and try to watch it happen. Simply know what you want and see how the universe brings it to you.
The expression that came to mind was “a watched pot never boils.” The more you obsess about something the more you’re gonna focus on what isn’t happening. The pot’s not boiling. The pot’s not boiling. The pot’s not boiling. It would be better to have the intention of boiling water, putting a pot onto boil and them leaving it. Then you can come back and appreciate, “Wow, that pot is boiling! That’s terrific! That’s just what I wanted it to do.” As opposed to sitting there and saying: This pot isn’t boiling. this is taking forever. Why isn’t this pot boiling? Should I put salt in it? Is the flame high enough?
That’s what we do to ourselves all the time, all day long. We second-guess and doubt and it makes us miserable. The end result may be the same. The pot boils no matter what. But in which scenario are you more content? When you have faith that it’s going to boil and you don’ watch it like a hawk? Or when you’re sitting there waiting for something to happen? It seems like a pretty easy question to me.
Last weekend there was a big annual event at the V Bar V petroglyph site about half-a-mile from where I’m living. There were a bunch of exhibitions and programs about ancient life including a primitive fire starting demo, an ethno botany booth and guys making spear tips and tools by flint knapping. Each of them was an expert at what they do and it was interesting to talk with them.
A Hopi woman named Ruby made traditional piki bread from finely ground blue corn, water and the ashes of juniper branches. All day long she spread this gray batter on a flat stone that was heated over the fire and coated with the oil from ground sunflower seeds. The strips are so thin that you have to roll them up into a scroll that crackles like paper. She also added parched corn and a few handfuls of sand to a pot over the fire, stirring it continuously with a stick until it the kernels popped open. It was native popcorn! Or maybe the first corn nuts? They tasted great warm. The corn was important. Ruby called the kernels “her children” because they were heirloom seeds given to her by her grandfather. When she’s not doing demonstrations like this, she is a full-time basket weaver. Ruby is the real deal and a pretty cool lady to boot. There’s a neat three-minute video about her weaving on Youtube. She talks about how important weaving is to her and to her culture. “We’re weaving prayers into people’s lives,” she says.
There was also a tent where you could learn to throw the atlatl, an ancient tool hooked to the end of a spear that helped hunters throw harder and farther before the invention of more accurate throw and arrow. I was terrible at it. The guy at the booth told me to throw it like a baseball and I looked at him blankly. But after some practice I managed to hit the target—a picture of a bear—a few times. I also checked out a pair of yucca fiber sandals (pictured below) which looked pretty stylish for their time.
My volunteer assignment was to direct people where to park. I was working with a man named Jim who was originally from Connecticut and he teased me that after visiting here I would never go back. He had a wonderfully thick gray beard and a kind smile.
“Wanna see somethin, cool?” he asked me, walking to the edge of the dirt parking area. I followed and within seconds he was pointing out ancient shards of pottery and debris from stone tools scattered on the ground. I picked one up, a white piece of pottery about two inches wide with beautiful zigzags etched on it in black. I rubbed my thumb over the smooth surface, trying to grasp how old it must be. “What should we do with this?” I asked. “Just put it back where you found it,” he said nonchalantly. “That’s what we’re supposed to do.”
I walk a little further away from the parking area and place the shard gently on the ground. I try to make a note of where I put it so I can take a closer look later. That afternoon, I wandered over and combed the ground for signs of pottery but I couldn’t find it. Must have been buried by the dust.
In the evening an old-timer from the forest service cooked up a traditional Dutch oven dinner for the volunteers. Simmering in at least eight large cast-iron pots were two large roasts, two veggie stews of sweet potatoes and onions, two pots of peach cobbler and six loaves of hearty beer bread with tons of garlic (photos below). These heavy iron skillets–they each weigh at least 20 pounds–sit for three hours over hot coals with the lids on tightly. They are the cowboy’s slow cooker. Around 5 o’clock we feast, tired after a long day in the sun. The meal is hearty and delicious, especially the cobbler, with a scoop of ice cream on top. Then we set about cleaning the pots, scraping them, rinsing them with boiling hot water (no soap) and spraying them with oil. It’s a lot of work but the meal is worth it. It’s no wonder campers and forest rangers have relied on Dutch oven recipes for at least a century.
This week I signed up for a beginner’s ceramics class at the Sedona Arts Center and my first class was last night. It was absolutely awesome—I loved it! I love how you can never really mess the clay up. Or if you mess it up, you can just fix it. The instructor, Dennis, was laid back, witty and very hands on. He showed us how to hold the clay, how to tame it. He told us not to panic. To breathe. He would say things that would make great Zen koans like, “You control the clay, don’t let the clay control you.”
First he gave us a tour of the studio, the kilns, and the different glazes. There was a table covered in homemade cookies and wine brought by the regulars who were already busy at their pottery wheels. People peck at the table and sip wine between projects.
Then we learned the steps to throwing a pot on the wheel. I watched in amazement as Dennis “centered” the clay by pushing down on it as the wheel spun until it was a smooth disc, like an oversized hockey puck. Then he made a depression in it with two fingers and slowly separated them. Then, by gently applying pressure with two fingers (one on each side of the rim) and moving them upwards, he pulled up the sides into a tall cylinder. It looked like a magic trick, like pulling a top hat out of a flat brim.
Then it was our turn to try. The first step is to wet the wheel in the center with a little bit of water and them slap your ball of clay down onto the wheel hard and without reservations. The wheel is spinning fast and the clay bucks and spins in my cupped hands like it’s going to fly off the wheel. But eventually it calms down and begins to get in line. While pinching the rim to make the top even, the lip of my bowl gets a huge crease in it. I curse like a sailor and Dennis laughs. “She’ll fit right in here with the Monday crowd,” he says. “We can get rowdy.” Before I know it I’ve made a bowl and a flower pot and I am covered in clay up to my elbows. There’s even clay on my forehead and in my hair. But it’s a blast. I can’t wait to try it again.
On the way home from town as the light was fading, the red rocks appeared expertly lit, aglow against the dark blue sky. I gazed up at them, entranced. I even turned around so that I could see the light again but when I got back to where I was, the light had shifted. The moment had passed.