I first heard the name when I was painting a house for an elderly couple in Maine a few decades ago. It’s not unusual for people to escape Maine winters. What stuck in my mind was their destination of choice and the effect it had on them. As soon as they would say the word “Sedona”, they would acquire a look of deep contentment. It was as if they had found something in the hills of Arizona that didn’t stay in the southwest, but forever became a part of them.
Now I understand.
When I was signing books in Freeport, Maine this September, a guy approached my table. He was in a hurry, but not so much that he couldn’t talk hiking for a few minutes. He introduced himself as “Dennis from Sedona”. An avid hiker and writer of guidebooks, he bought my book and parted saying, “You should include Sedona on your book tour. If you come into town, you can stay at my place.”
After leaving Freeport, I drove literally all over the country — Albany, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, Door County and the Apostle Islands in Wisconsin, St. Paul, St. Louis, Kansas City, Denver and back to St. Louis. I had 10 days to explore before my next signing in Cincinnati. Where to go?
A saner person who had driven so much since July (before leaving Freeport, I had also driven from Maine to Atlanta and back) might have yearned to stay put somewhere. But I felt compelled to explore some more. I turned my van toward Albuquerque.
When I got to Amarillo, my van started pushing back at me. A 1985 Westfalia is a quirky vehicle. That’s part of its appeal. You can expect little things to act up on a road trip. So far, there were only two things that needed repair — a relay switch on my auxiliary battery (the one I use to keep my phone and laptop charged) at Murray Auto Electric outside Pittsburgh and a CV joint replacement at Walt’s VW Repair in Columbia, MO.
A new dilemma
Now my van (a.k.a. Morrison) started stalling after long stints without a rest. I pulled over for coffee in Amarillo and it stalled in the parking lot. I went in and got my coffee and by the time I got back, it started right up. It ran just fine until an hour later when I pulled into Palo Duro State Park for the night. It was Sunday and the locals came from miles around to tour the park. I was queued up in line waiting to get to the entrance gate when I stalled again. This time it wouldn’t start. I waved people around me, unpacked all my gear from the back and pulled the engine cover off. I didn’t see any obvious problem.
Back to the driver’s seat. Lo and behold, the van started. I moved my way up to the gate. Just as I arrived there, I stalled again. This time, it wouldn’t start. The kindly ranger at the gate offered to call a few rangers so we could push the van into the park.
“It’s two miles down to the bottom of the canyon”, she said. “If you don’t think your van can make it out, it will be an expensive tow.”
After another rest, Morrison started right up. I decided to head for the campsite in the valley. I reasoned that whatever was causing the stalling had to do with the engine running hard and long on a daily basis and that more frequent stops were required.
As soon as I set up camp, I started trying to reevaluate the problem. With the help of a mechanically minded former VW owner in an adjacent site, we pinpointed a faulty carburetor spring as the problem. A 24-mile round trip to a Napa shop in Canyon, Texas the following day to buy a new spring appeared to be the solution.
But, instead of installing the spring, I held it in reserve. I decided to see if taking the frequent stop approach would work instead.
In eastern New Mexico, Morrison really started struggling. Every time I climbed a steep hill, the speedometer would drop — 70, 60, 50 even down to 40 mph in places. The third time it happened, I pulled off at an exit and installed the new spring. That seemed to be the answer until I had driven a while and the power loss began anew. Now frequent stops were imperative.
The good news is that I made Albuquerque without further incidents. I had dinner with an old friend, then drove deep into the New Mexico night.
My drive into Sedona was, to coin a phrase, “epic”. The road down through Oak Canyon is one of the most spectacular drives in the country, every hairpin turn yields incredible cinematic views — towering rock formations make you want to leap out of the car and climb them — as you descend, you pass numerous trailheads that offer the chance to at least explore them first hand, all the while being accompanied by Oak Canyon Stream itself. It’s a fitting introduction to an area where every turn fills you with exhilaration, whether you’re traveling by car or on foot.
Trail magic right in town!
I was 1.3 miles from Dennis’s house when Morrison went into his final stall. I rolled into a roadside parking space in from to a hotel. This time, it seemed like there was no way he wanted to cooperate. After a dozen tries, I decided to let the engine cool down a bit. As I sat, a guy in a Toyota pick-up pulled alongside. He introduced himself as Danny, said he also owned a Westy and that when I got the van started, I should head over to his place, where he was also working on his van.
I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I had been in town less than ten minutes and along came a kindly soul offering exactly what I needed. I really shouldn’t have been too surprised by now. This 15,000 mile road trip has assured me that there are good people everywhere and that as a civilization (hopefully with added emphasis on the “civil” part), we are going to be just fine.
Right after Danny left, he called me, so I’d have his number on my phone. The good karma continued with Morrison reluctantly heeding another call, my exhortations from the driver’s seat.
Over at Danny’s, I hauled all of my gear out of the back so we could access the engine.
“Here’s the culprit”, he announced. “You’ve got a loose vacuum hose. I say, we figure out how to get that rigged up again and you’ll be good to go. But just for good measure, let’s take a few photos and send them to my friend Miguel. He’s a VW mechanic in Durango, Colorado.”
We got Miguel on the phone and he confirmed Danny’s diagnosis. After a trip to the auto parts store and some first class jerry rigging, my problem was solved.
By the time I arrived at Dennis’s (he was out of town and graciously offered me use of his digs), I was ready for solid sleep. His apartment had expansive mountain views and was just the place for me to sit and veg out after the long drive to get there. But that was the only complete decompression I allowed myself. I was in a hiker’s paradise and the trails were calling.
One of the reasons Sedona is such a popular destination is because it is believed to be one of the few destinations on earth where you can experience what is known as a vortex. There are many explanations of what a vortex is, but simply put, it is a place where you can feel the earth’s energy on a metaphysical level. More than one person describes a vortex of an amplifier that will enhance the energy you bring to a place.
My experience in Sedona was that although I didn’t visit one of the famed vortex sites in the area, I certainly felt the energy, both physically and spiritually. The beauty is indescribable. Sedona is a place of sublime beauty painted in terra-cotta, sage and cerulean blues. When you hike here, you see and feel the power of nature present and past all around you.
On day one, I did a short hike up Fay Canyon, past the “trail not maintained beyond this point” sign and up onto the ridge until I found an incredible view and complete solitude.
I had been there about ten minutes when I saw a guy standing back where I had come from.
“Come on up.”, I yelled. “It’s worth it.”
He worked his way over to me and we stood on the shelf of centuries old rock looking out at the canyon walls that surrounded us and beyond.
It turns out that the guy was from Vancouver Island and had spent some time in Maine as a college student. That was pretty neat, I thought later. But what was neater was that there was a time I would have said nothing, wanting to keep my discovery to myself. And if the guy had seen me and started working his way up, I would have rolled my eyes and painted him as an invader of my privacy. Instead I could myself extending a metaphorical hand and inviting him to discover what I had.
I spent another two days exploring trails around Sedona, including a spectacular 9-mile hike that included the Hangover Trail — so named because of the impressive formations that loom over you from above.
I didn’t want to leave Sedona. I woke up on Halloween morning knowing that. But I felt obligated to make headway back east. “If I leave today,” I reasoned, “I’ll have five days to make it to Cincinnati.”
I packed my stuff, cleaned Dennis’s house and made my way into town. I stopped at the Sedona Library, where (of course) the Research Librarian, who was responsible for arranging lectures and signings, had a strong Maine connection.
By the time I was driving up and out of town via Oak Creek Canyon (the same way I had come into town days ago), it was mid afternoon. This was one important indication of how I didn’t want to leave. The walls of the canyon fittingly blocked out phone reception. It was just me, my van and my thoughts. I reminisced about how much my impromptu trip to Sedona meant to me. And I thought of the elderly couple that spoke of the place with so much reverence. “This place and its people are truly magical.”, I mused.
As soon as I emerged from the canyon onto the desert plateau, my phone “blew up” with messages. The first was from a couple who had seen my van at a trailhead and ordered my book as a direct result. “We are psyched that it will be waiting in our mailbox when we get back to New York.” it said.
The second message was from a guy named Stan. “I saw your van at the library. I also own a Westy. You should join me and my friend for Mexican food at 5:00.”
I sat on the edge of the road debating things. It was 3:30. If I left now, I’d be back down at the restaurant by 4:30.
I pulled a U-ee and off I went. The Sedona vortex was pulling me back, a lot sooner than I imagined.
Meeting the guys for dinner was absolutely the right decision. They were both vagabond spirits — owning a Westy certainly indicates you love a good road trip and all it brings, including camaraderie with the like minded. We laughed and talked in good measure before we went our separate ways.
The next morning, I had two more errands to run. The first was to hike up Doe Mesa to give Sedona a proper good bye. It was another stunning morning. To paraphrase Thoreau, I wish I could have stayed in the rarified air forever, but I really had to head back down. As I was working my way down off the mesa, I caught up with a couple happily chatting up their past trail experiences including a trek across Scotland.
As we stood on the trail discussing how splendid a day it was to be outside, I mentioned that I had actually driven to the top of the canyon the day before, then turned around to come back.
“That was certainly the right decision to make”, she said. “Sounds like you have your priorities straight.”
“I’d like to think so.”, I replied.
On the way out of town, this time for real, I stopped at the Hike House, where they graciously offered to carry my book and offered to have me to come back and give a talk about my adventures. Even my parting stop held good tidings for my present and future. As I drove higher and higher through the canyon, I felt completely rejuvenated. Was it the vortex? The people? Perhaps a little of both.
Yes, making that U-turn had been the right decision. Everything I experienced after it was an a continuation of the same incredible experience I had from the moment I arrived in this desert paradise. And now my own feelings of joy, contentment and possibility will be stirred whenever I hear someone mention this enchanted place by name.
Hi Jeff! I loved this post. At a time of alienation and distance, you are making cool connections. I think your painted van is partly responsible for bringing on the conversations. Why did I doubt it? See you when you get back. I can’t wait to hear more incredibly fun stories.
Jeff, many years ago during a trip from Jacksonville, Florida to San Diego; we drove through Oak Canyon. Oh, that road with all those switchbacks was an experience! A good one. We didn’t have time to stop and do any hiking or sightseeing but because we had children with us and it was hot; we stopped at slide rock and let them enjoy that beautiful and different (to us) natural rock swimming area. It was wonderful. I’d like to get back sometime but probably won’t.
The southwest is a beautiful part of the country. As much as I love Maine, all those red rocks have a special place in my heart. I’ve been fortunate to go to Monument Valley, Arches N. P. , Canyonlands, and other memorable scenic places in that part of the this beautiful country. Loved your article.