Essay by Stephen Lyons
Planning – January 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine
MY WIFE AND I had just finished hiking Brims Mesa outside of Sedona, Ariz., when we spotted a woman at the trailhead wearing a purple velvet, or velour, dress that hung loosely to her bare ankles. A garish, glittery skull cap of the same hue covered her black mane. In her righthand she held a hawk feather, and around her neck dangled an assortment of necklaces, pendants, and a leather “medicine bag.” She was not smiling even though she was about to enter the famous red rocks of northern Arizona, one of the prettiest places in the galaxy.
Three more conventionally dressed people — in jeans, long-sleeved shirts, and soft pajama gear — tagged along. They had wide grins stretched out like silly putty across their faces and their moist eyes gleamed like Idaho star garnets. They were seeking something and, because of that I suppose, quite incapable of greeting us.
“How far is it to town?” I asked the purple lady. “Which town?” she answered dreamily, still not smiling, staring at a spot above my head.
Twenty years ago, before the desert became a commercial icon for selling everything from fast food to big trucks to bad art and easy religion, it was different around Sedona and most of the Southwest. My roommate and I used to come down from snowy Durango, Colo, during spring breaks at Ft. Lewis College looking for the first tender greens of March. We threw down our sleeping bags in the rocks and cacti, took off our shirts and shoes at Oak Creek Canyon, and scraped together enough spare change for a hot breakfast in Flagstaff. Any spiritual awakenings we stumbled across came free of charge, and we pretty much kept them to ourselves.
But times have changed; especially in Sedona, “Hub of the New Age Community.” The purple woman was probably a “healer,” or someone who could show “seekers” where the famed vortexes of Sedona were located and how to release their power. She could also make a tidy sum in the process. This is the newest cottage industry of the West, one I call “New Age Fundamentalism.”
A friend of mine says New Age Fundamentalists are the modern equivalent of 19th-century resource exploiters of the West, mining people’s gullibility and guilt, and cashing in on a generation without a belief system. In Sedona, New Age Fundamentalism is firmly entwined with an upscale tourist economy. Signs announce, “Vortex Information and Tours,” “Psychic Reader,” and “Therapy on the Rocks.” I soon learned that for a town that professes to value spirituality, you sure have to drop a lot of cash to acquire it.
One pamphlet promoted Light Body Flotation, in which you pay to float around in a tank of water filled with dissolved Epsom salts. The “floating rates” are $60 for the first float and $45 per hour following that. Another psychic, “…part Native American,” summed up her philosophy this way: “The spiritual healing and release from pain that I have seen over the years continues to fill me with joy, humility, and gratitude. My fee is $100 per session.”
Maybe this is all harmless. Maybe it’s OK that the local Safeway stocks Sedona, Journal of Emergence right next to TV Guide. Maybe this is part of millennium madness, a signal that we, like the Roman Empire, have arrived at the beginning of the end, where everyone dresses in pajamas, works at home, and communicates with rocks. Perhaps it’s inevitable that a portion of American society that has too much leisure time, too much wealth, and too little discipline would attempt to purchase and market spirituality.
As I wandered through boutique after boutique amongst necklaces, Kachina dolls, pottery, sculptures, purses, coats, and inlaid rings that sparkled and beckoned from display cases, I finally gave in to the general acquisitive free-for-all atmosphere. What caught my eye was a handmade silver belt buckle set off by a scallop-shaped fan with “Native American patterns.” I convinced myself I deserved it and I could spend $100, but I quickly learned I would need $400 for the buckle plus another $200 for the leather belt itself. My desire completely faded when the clerk told me proudly that, “We only sell lizard and alligator leather belts here.” I tried to imagine how many Western whiptails it would take to make a size 34 belt, but it was all too depressing to think about. It was time to go home to eastern Washington. I’d had enough spirituality to last several lifetimes.
Stephen Lyons writes from Moscow, Idaho. He is a regular contributor to Writers on the Range, a project of High Country News.