I went to Northern Arizona in June for six days, and I went alone.
I wanted to take a break from the verdant Pacific Northwest and gorge myself on big, flat, red, dry, hot land. I wanted to spend a few quiet days not doing anything with anyone. I wanted to write.
Mostly, I wanted to take time to be real. I wanted to observe myself: what would I eat with no one watching? How would I spend my money? What would I think about? How often would I speak? What music would I listen to? What would I get out of the car for? How fast would I drive? How often would my mood change? Would what I did in Arizona line up with what I did back home?
I boarded a plane, saw the Grand Canyon from the air, and couldn’t even get to the rental car counter without stopping to pull out my laptop and write about how good it was to feel the blast of dry heat and the weight of my school backpack, which was my only luggage. I picked up my 2019 Camry and, after swinging by L. Ron Hubbard’s gated house and Trader Joe’s, drove due north to my first stop: Sedona.
I wanted two nights in Sedona because I figured the vibes there would kickstart my week of authenticity. Sedona is a fabled hub of mystical energy, hemmed in by astounding red rock formations. They say there are vortexes all over Sedona, twisting the trees into fantastic writhing sculptures and calming and energizing seekers to the point of ecstasy. If I experienced none of those phenomena, I figured the land itself and the expectation of revelation hovering in the air alone would be enough to break me out of anxious, overpriced, disingenuous Seattle. I would find joy in Sedona. I would find holy rest in Sedona. I would find authenticity in Sedona.
I came to the Airbnb late in the afternoon. It was a big house made of the local red rocks. No one was home. As soon as I entered the common room, I was enchanted and annoyed by its tacky yet maybe-on-to-something-you’re-not-on-to New Age vibes. The room was littered with crystals, dusty animal pelts, Navajo arrows, books about mysticism, tarot cards.
Originally, out of being open to a new experience, I said I’d join the host at 7:30 in the tipi for an animal medicine fire ceremony, whatever that was. But I crossed the backyard to my place–a tiny, hexagonal hogan–and it was so hot inside, I couldn’t take a full breath. I saw a space heater and wished for it to become an air conditioner. It didn’t so I got angry. An “animal fire ceremony in the tipi” suddenly sounded awful. I texted her and told her I wouldn’t make it.
Instead, I drove to Cathedral Rock, site of a powerful electromagnetic vortex, and hiked up to see the sunset. The view was stunning, but I didn’t experience ecstasy. I was mostly worrying about whether my boyfriend and I had a good relationship and if it was wise to be taking six days off from working on my book.
The next day, I tried hard to experience Sedona’s vibrance and intrigue, but all I saw was an upscale tourist trap pandering to wealthy aging faux-hippies.
I used the bathroom in a vegan restaurant. Hanging above the toilet were three paintings for sale. They were titled Mermaid Phoenix, Medicine Baby, and Rainbow Rebirth. All were priced at over $300. I wonder how much fecal matter was on them.
On a shelf outside the bathroom were essential oil blends that, for a price, would do things like unlock my divine femininity and regulate my bowels. There were books about keeping cancer away with massage therapy, replacing antibiotics with garlic, and Mu, the Lost Continent of the god Pan, whose destruction, I learned, was the greatest catastrophe in human history.
All that stuff used to intrigue me more. When I was taking religion classes at Vassar, I liked dipping into fringe science and religion. The possibility of alighting on a life-changing immortality herb or mystical tradition through which I could understand myself always gave me pause, and at the very least, I was fascinated by the convictions other people had alighted upon.
But on this day, standing in the corridor of the vegan restaurant, it was all lost on me. The ubiquity and cost of the books and oils and psychics and crystals and vortex tours made it all hollow. I stared at them blankly and walked out.
I went to a shopping center done up to look like a Spanish mission, except the cloisters housed jewelry boutiques and art galleries. Salespeople followed me around and asked if I was looking for anything in particular.
I ate lunch at a small restaurant in a plaza. The waiter kept asking me if I was expecting anyone, and I kept looking up from my journal where I was writing about solitude and said no, I wasn’t, and could I get another glass of the menu’s cheapest glass of white wine please.
I knocked off all the sites on my list: Chapel of the Holy Cross (crowded, hot, small, sterile), Center for the New Age (silly, and too many security cameras), the history museum (closed), Uptown Sedona (fake turquoise jewelry and stupid t-shirts).
I sat in my car in a few parking lots with the air blasting, reading the margins of my tourist maps, finding nothing more of interest. I so wanted to experience something good and true and beautiful (and cheap), and I wasn’t.
Sedona was bogus.
I wound up in an air conditioned Whole Foods, because of course Sedona had a Whole Foods. I was frustrated with the town, but it was too hot to go hiking and I didn’t want to go back to my Airbnb yet in case my host was there to ask why I didn’t go to the animal fire ceremony.
There was a place called Foot Spa across the parking lot. A neon green foot sign blinked above it. I went in. A woman in scrubs opened the door for me and sat me down. She gave me a laminated paper with three massage options and I pointed to the cheapest one. Before I knew it, I was in a dim room with my feet in a bucket of hot water and a towel over my eyes, and she was pummeling my shoulders with ferocious kindness. I lost track of time.
Then I went back to the vegan restaurant for dinner. I ate a green salad and read Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver, which is set in Arizona. I didn’t like it as much as her other books, but it was good enough. I could tell she wrote it when she was a less experienced writer, and I worried that people would read my book and see that my own inexperience, except I wouldn’t even be as good as Barbara Kingsolver.
Finally, as the sun set, I went back to the Airbnb. There was still no one there.
I showered the sweat, sunscreen, and massage oil away in the communal bathroom.
I washed my dress and underwear in the sink.
I wrung them out on my deck as I watched the stars appear.
I read an out-of-date Arizona guidebook in a busted massage chair.
I mapped my route north the next day.
My boyfriend Matt called. I talked about my day. He talked about his day. Service was spotty, and the call dropped a couple times. I realized that I was alone in Arizona, like I wanted, but that this was the first solo trip I’d ever taken with a boyfriend back home. I was used to experiencing great trips with a twinge of sadness that I didn’t have a partner to share it with. That twinge was gone now. I still had my solitude, but now there was someone to share it with.
Everything I did in Sedona felt bogus, but that stuff was not bogus. That stuff made me want to write. Washing clothes by hand, sitting still, reading a book, seeing the stars, talking to someone, not worrying about unlocking something revelatory.
The week continued and I did gorge myself on landscapes. I drove north to Big Water, Utah, where my hosts took me outside to catch bugs in jars to feed the lizards in the terrarium under their coffee table. They spoke of their love of yoga, mysticism, and Trump in the same breath. I felt the cool graininess of the Navajo sandstone in one of the many slot canyons near Page, Arizona. I drove hours and hours to Cliff Dwellers Lodge, where my dad and I once ate avocado pie after a long day of trout fishing at the base of the Glen Canyon Dam. I ordered a slice and listened to the anglers as they came in from their days on the water. I bought a bracelet from a man on the side of the road near the Grand Canyon whose shirt read “WEIGHTS BEFORE DATES.” The bracelet broke and he measured my wrist before fixing it.
These also were not bogus.