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Know the West

How the writer learned that he is not very spiritual


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. In her right hand she held a hawk feather, and around her neck dangled a leather "medicine bag." She was not smiling, even though the sun was glorious on this January afternoon and 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 - jeans, long-sleeved shirts, and soft Patagonia pajama gear - tagged along, their eyes gleaming like Idaho star garnets. They were seeking something and, because of that I suppose, quite incapable of greeting us. The leader, maybe a priestess, was getting paid for this expedition and my wife and I were ruining the ambiance with our ordinariness.

"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 Fort 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. My, how times have changed - especially in Sedona, "Hub of the New Age Community."

The purple woman was probably a "healer," or someone who could show a "seeker" where the famed vortexes of Sedona were located and how to release their power.

A friend of mine says the trend is 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. Whatever you call the new spiritual seeking, it is a firmly established economy in Sedona, 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 have to drop a lot of cash to acquire it. Here are a few samplings from the many brochures I read:

The Psychic of Psychics, Robert Petro, a gifted trance medium often used by law enforcement officials, offers private trance readings. He takes Visa, Discover and MasterCard, and has a series of endorsements from satisfied customers on the back of his brochure. "... The most amazing prediction was ... you told me to see an eye doctor because something was harming my eyes. They found a tumor near my optic nerves ... if I don't have this taken care of I will be blind in a few years. I thank God for putting you in my path."

Another pamphlet promoted Light Body Flotation, which claims to deepen your meditation. Apparently 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. When I read the brochure, I learned that scientists estimate that 90 percent of all brain activity is related to managing our bodies in gravity and that the Dallas Cowboys have used this therapy.

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."

One could go on a Mystic Tour with Rahelio: "As seen on the TV show "Magic, Mysteries & Miracles," "''''she offers personal and planetary healing meditations, and Vortex, Medicine Wheel empowerments. And she can do vision quests and sweat lodge ceremonies. Three to three-and-a-half hours with Rahelio is $60 per adult.

One spiritualist has installed "44 transceiving stations at major sacred and vortex sites throughout North and Central America to reactivate the earth's energy grid and generate personal and planetary peace." Fifty-five dollars for a half day.

Brochures also advertise shamanic healing, spiritual transformation, more vortex tours ("in comfortable enclosed vans"), Dorian tours, spirit steps, ascension science workshops, universal divine pattern seminars, living spiritual forces retreats and kaleidoscopes ("A tour de force of your own design!").

Throughout our four-day stay I noticed that purple is a consistent color choice among Sedona women. (For men, the style is to wear their cowboy boots outside their jeans.) Purple directly contrasts with the strict building codes that require businesses to conform to the colors and shapes of the local red rock landscape. McDonald's, Burger King, Denny's, Payless, Bank One and Safeway are built in soft adobe colors without the usual assaulting neon signs and corporate colors. (Kentucky Fried Chicken is still housed in its familiar box.) Sedona's McDonald's is the only one in America with an arch painted teal.

The image of the flute player, Kokopelli, was everywhere, including on a T-shirt showing a wild mountain biker - flute in one hand - with the caption, "Bikopelli." Most tourist shops along the highway had some version of Kokopelli for sale. It was like discovering the mother lode.

Maybe this is all harmless. Maybe it's OK that vortexes and Kokopelli have their own sections at a bookstore in the shopping area named Tlaqueplaque. Or 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 talks to rocks. Perhaps it's inevitable that a portion of American society that has too much leisure time, too much money, and too little discipline would attempt to market and purchase spirituality.

Our second hike, up Boynton Pass Trail, led us along the pulsed electric fence of the Enchantment Resort (between $210 and $255 a night in the early spring). From the trail we skirted million-dollar homes while listening to the lazy pock-pock of tennis balls, and the steady thrum of minivans, BMWs, Lexuses and Mercedes as they slowed at the security gate for clearance.

Later that day, I wandered through countless shops becoming increasingly convinced that I am a pauper and that wealthy people have lousy taste. Maybe it was coming upon the $68,000 abstract painting by 11-year-old Alexandra Nechita, called the "Petite Picasso," or a portrait of a nubile, dark-haired beauty by the river, her protruding nipples signaling that she was ripe for the taking right there on the perfect sand: only $1,900 - cheaper than what Dick Morris paid. Necklaces, Kachina dolls, pottery, sculpture, purses, coats and inlaid rings sparkled and beckoned from display cases in boutique after boutique.

Finally, I gave in to the acquisitive free-for-all atmosphere of Sedona. What caught my eye was a handmade silver belt buckle set off by a scallop-shaped fan with Native American patterns at a store called Saddlebags. I convinced myself I deserved it and I could spend $100, but I quickly learned I would need $400 for the buckle (more if you wanted 16-carat gold mixed in with the silver) 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." When it became apparent that I would not buy anything, she quickly put the buckle back in a locked display case. I tried to imagine how many Western whiptails it would take to make a size 34 belt, but it was time to go home to the Northwest; I'd had enough spirituality.