The Altered States of Sedona

Travel Stories: Laurie Gough looks Arizona's New Age mecca in the vortexes and says, "Sacred energy of the Earth, come and get me."

04.14.09 | 10:07 AM ET


I‘m hiking in Boynton Canyon near Sedona, Arizona, and the woman behind me is berating her husband for not warning her to wear hiking boots, speaking to him in a voice which tells of ongoing bitterness, a voice which discourages calm discussion on the matter. It’s at this point I realize that the theory of Boynton Canyon being devoid of male-female tension because of its “vortex” is in error. Either that or we haven’t reached the vortex yet, the place where soothing energy is supposedly oozing out of the Earth.

Yesterday, the owner of Sedona’s Center for the New Age—a shop full of crystals, tarot cards, flute music and dreamy-eyed patrons—enlightened me on the various energy vortexes around Sedona. The owner, a woman in her late 50s, a fellow Canadian, told me that the vortex energy of Boynton Canyon is special. “There are two types of energies coming from the rocks: magnetic (female) and electric (male). Boynton Canyon has both,” she said. “It’s balanced, so you’ll notice people there are calm. There’s no male-female tension in Boynton Canyon.”

Wow, I’d said. Couples on the brink of divorce should hang out there. It could save a lot on lawyer fees.

“As for the other three vortex sites,” the woman continued, “Cathedral Rock is magnetic and therefore feminine. The energy at Bell Rock is so powerful, you’ll notice it before getting out of your car. The Airport Vortex is masculine,” she said, “so watch out. The strength of it might knock you over.”

I’d first heard about Sedona at a remote campground south of Sedona called Verde Hot Springs, where my husband and I had camped for six days. The local hippies made jokes about Sedona’s tourists, but at the same time, each had a story to tell in support of Sedona’s mystical reputation. Around a fire, a camper offered his vortex expertise, claiming that one vortex takes something away from you that you want but gives you back something you need. “Hey, kind of like the Rolling Stones song,” I’d offered. Another vortex overwhelms you with so much energy you might get sick; another puts you to sleep, another vortex strips you of your beliefs. I smiled and nodded politely, pretending I didn’t think him a total flake.

Sedona is known as the New Age mecca—or New Age tourist trap, depending on your astrological sign—and when April White Cloud tacked her ads around town declaring she was a master clairvoyant, psychic healer and shaman priestess, I didn’t trust her, or the town’s metaphysical claim to fame, for a minute. Nor did I trust the man in the glossy photo with the gray ponytail who claimed he would open the Third Eye, retrieve wandering souls and channel spirits for $200 a session. Among the month’s topics in the popular New Age magazine, Sedona, Journal of Emergence are: “The World Through My Dog’s Sacred Vision,” “The Eleventh Chakra in the Fourth Dimension” and my favorite, “Could It Be You’re Already Dead?”

Sedona was entirely different from other Arizona towns we’d visited, places like Bisbee and Patagonia, old-fashioned towns with real people who have real jobs. But perhaps, I reflected, it’s only right that screwballs have their own town. All the talk of altered states and parallel universes was a turnoff, but I was curious about the vortexes. I suggested to my husband, Rob, that instead of ditching Sedona immediately, we go searching for energy sites.

The vortex woman said that the best way to feel the vortex energy was to go on a guided trek. Since guides are on a “higher level of spiritual consciousness,” you have a more powerful experience. At $250, I figured Rob and I could find the vortexes on our own and maybe eavesdrop on a guided tour, let leftover sacred energy spill onto us. Surely the Earth wouldn’t care who had forked out cash and who hadn’t. As I left, the vortex woman called out not to worry about going guideless because the energy is so overwhelming, a person would have to be abnormally insensitive not to feel anything.

Sacred energy of the Earth, come and get me.

In the first half-hour of the five-mile hike through Boynton Canyon, our first vortex, we passed Enchantment Resort, which somewhat detracts from the nature experience as you walk by million-dollar guest houses. But soon, we were hiking at the foot of crimson cliffs and eventually into a snowy pine forest. First, we passed crowds of hikers on this popular trail, but the farther we went, the fewer hikers we encountered so the more we stopped to chat. Now, near the end of the trail, high up in a spectacular box canyon, we ask our fellow hikers, “So, do you feel anything?” “Yeah, my legs hurt,” someone says. “Yep, sure am thirsty,” says another. Nobody has found the vortex.

Back at our van after the hike, we meet a man who gives us a more detailed vortex map than ours, and we discover that Boynton Canyon’s vortex is just 50 yards from the parking lot, conveniently. The map shows the vortex to be on a knoll surrounded by twisted juniper trees. Supposedly the energy of the vortex twists the trees. I’d seen twisted junipers in the Southwest before, however, usually in windy places, like on top of this knoll. I sit down in the dusty red dirt up on the knoll to absorb some sacred energy, but all I feel is the midday sun burning my face. I’m a redhead, apparently an insensitive one, and have to watch my skin.

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Laurie Gough is the author of Kiss the Sunset Pig: An American Road Trip with Exotic Detours and Kite Strings of the Southern Cross. She has written for Salon, The Los Angeles Times, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Outpost, Canadian Geographic, The Daily Express, and In London, among others.

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21 Comments for The Altered States of Sedona

Love2SeeNewThings 04.14.09 | 2:02 PM ET

Just came back from Arizona myself and was nowhere near Sedona, but if the state in its entirety is supposed to have healing properties or detract one from killing a close friend or spouse - then I say skip it all together!  Out of 9 days, aside from seeing 2 tourist attractions the only sight I was able to see at sundown was another car while driving.  Another ode to nature - at night it seems darker than New York City.  So, if you are not used to driving at night I would forgo it and grab a cab - especially after a beer or two!

Lindsey 04.14.09 | 4:30 PM ET

Northern Arizona is vibrant and mysterious! Have you been to the Granite Dells just to the west in Prescott?

Shannon 04.15.09 | 10:59 AM ET

Thank you for your article I really enjoy reading it!

Love2SeeNewThings 04.15.09 | 12:56 PM ET

Hi Lindsey,

I would have loved to see more of Arizona; unforunately my host was not much of one.  Maybe it was control issues where she felt I could not go anywhere without her, but like I said in an earlier post - there was no mystical force in AZ that could have deflated my anger.

TambourineMan 04.15.09 | 3:52 PM ET

I’m with you, Laurie. Vortex, shmortex. I’ve been to all the sacred sites in your story and the only time I’ve felt anything is after smoking a J. Sedona is certainly beautiful, but I’m not a fan.

Love2SeeNewThings, sounds like you went to the wrong Arizona. Next time, ditch the host and do some camping out in Vermillion Cliffs National Monument near the AZ/UT border.

Titanium 04.16.09 | 4:06 PM ET

Nice story. But honestly the New Agers are only one segment of Sedona’s community. There are also lots of artists and retirees, many of whom are not alternative thinkers and vortex believers. You’ll find this kind of population mix in just about any strikingly beautiful place that hasn’t been reserved as a national park.

Love2SeeNewThings 04.16.09 | 9:36 PM ET

Thanks for the advice TambourineMan!

If I ever get the chance to go again, not only will I ditch the host and check out the areas everyone has suggested I will try to take a Hot Air Ballooning trip, as well as a White Water River Rafting adventure.

Vera Marie Badertscher 04.17.09 | 3:50 PM ET

Glad you saw the real power of Sedona—the incredible beauty.  Talk to an old timer, or 90 percent of the residents and they will tell you about hikes to ancient Indian ruins and petroglyphs, but they will tell you the true story of the supposed vortexes, which were invented by a guy about 30 years ago.  Some people cash in on the hokus pokus, but please don’t lump the whole of Sedona in that bunch. As Titanium said above, the New Agers are just one part of the mix. But anyone who does not feel transported by the beauty of the red rock cliffs and canyons just doesn’t have their eyes open.  Glad you had yours open.

TambourineMan 04.17.09 | 4:08 PM ET

Well put, Vera. Don’t know if you were talking to me or not, but I didn’t mean that I’m not moved by the beauty of Sedona. I certainly am. What I dislike about Sedona is the crowds (in town and on the trails), the strip malls, the overpriced lodgings, the mediocre restaurants, the U.S. Forest Circus’ confusing Red Rock Pass system, the list goes on.

Now, if any of you DO find yourself in HokusPokusVille, I highly recommend a trip out to the Palatki Heritage Site.  Nice pictorgraphs out there.

Vera Marie Badertscher 04.17.09 | 5:04 PM ET

Hi Tambourine Man:
True there is a lot of ugly sprawl spreading around up there, and you can find mediocre restaurants anywhere, but I hope that you also might have found some of the really excellent restaurants, first class art galleries, and some backcountry like nowhere else in the world.
Actually I was talking to the author of the article, but it applies to a lot of the remarks here that focus on the negative. I learned long ago that if you get 100 yards away from the parking lots and coke machines in a place of beauty like Yosemite, Yellowstone, etc., you’ll find what all those mobs thought they came to see but didn’t walk far enough to experience.

joshua 04.22.09 | 1:28 PM ET

Always love your stories, Laurie. Like you, I think the real majesty lies not in that which is beyond us, but rather that which we can see, taste, touch, hear and smell.

Linda M 04.24.09 | 11:04 AM ET

Is this story a reprint? I swear I read it a few months ago somewhere else, by the same writer…

memory foam 04.27.09 | 11:49 PM ET

I was glad to read this, as my experience in Sedona was fairly similar— the individual so called vortexes did not knock my socks off either. I did have a good overall feeling there. I think some of the new agers look too much for specific effect in very specific places, whereas genuine spiritual or deeper influences are often very holistic and not necessarily confined to a very small area. I do feel there are places that have genuine power—places I’ve been to in India, and Mt. Shasta are examples. Sedona maybe I can’t really judge as I only passed thru for a few hours.

Agesom 05.07.09 | 10:37 PM ET

Linda, you weren’t imagining things. It was in Perceptive Travel a year ago:

Good story though! Somebody needs to call them out.

African Sands 01.29.10 | 11:02 AM ET

I loved the article. I have never been to Sedona or in fact Arizona, but it is one of the places I have always wanted to go to. The concept behind the story is very familiar though, where a place of great natural beauty has a slightly diminished reputation because it has become over ridden by tourist traps all in a desperate bid to make money. As many of you say, if you just take the time and extra effort to go on a little further than the average traveller you can often be astounded by the great beauty and local flavour that you can experience. It makes persevering worth it!

Nici22Pc 02.21.10 | 8:58 AM ET

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Joshua 09.28.10 | 11:46 PM ET

Northern Arizona is beautiful, the landscape appealing.Red rocks abound and one gets pulled into a vortex… However, one likes or loves the landscape and natural beauty, one often finds a price paid for it if one chooses to live in such places or procure business. Largly these areas make their money on tourism,so regardless of the Phd one may have, or the experience you may have aquired,  dont come to these areas hoping to find work, or stack up some business on a hunch of profit. In Sedona it is saidit takes 2 Million to earn 1 Million dollars. I largely concur. The word has been out for a long time about holding dreams for such beautiful places to live-work or make ones life. Its all bought up and largely controled, said one fellow in business, and another tightly held his lips as I showed a receipt for a loss of a ton of money in some deals up here. But that is my story, and its a long and costly one. Yours may be totally different. Best of Luck. Neverless it is a costly place that forever boasts opportunity. There may be gold in there-them hills, but a certain caviet should be used.

Davis 12.02.11 | 10:36 AM ET

We can all have our own Sedonas.  Nancy and I drove down from Oregon to meet friends from Texas and San Francisco whom we hadnít seen for years.  Our hostess, an artist and writer, had a large family home up a canyon, large enough that we could spend time apart or together as the moment seemed appropriate.  There was a bit of desultory sightseeing and hiking, but mainly we talked about what had happened to us since we had last seen each other and what we were working on at the moment and we may even have engaged in a bit of constructive criticism of mutual acquaintances.  We made huge salads and light meals.  We had all known each other for years and had traveled to the same sort of places and we all loved Greece and the last evening there we had a large meal with a great deal of retsina at a nice Greek restaurant in town.

Andrew Vernon 04.03.12 | 5:49 AM ET

This is a funny take on things, and I agree that such places are often overhyped to attract tourists. Nowadays, people think that going on trips and staying in hotels will take their minds of the day to day stress. But I think that is ridiculous, because people still bring their phones along and all their troubles too.

Andrew - Hotels Ayrshire Scotland

Debra 10.09.12 | 9:59 AM ET

I spent 8 days here.  After I returned home, people constantly commented that I looked more relaxed than I did from any other travels I had done and that had changed…good changes.  I don’t know if it was the beauty, the hikes, a vortex, or some of the retreat appointments (Chakra balancing) that did it.  This is a wonderful place.  I hope some of the positive changes stayed with me.

Barend 12.01.14 | 6:56 PM ET

Sedona truly looks mesmerizing , I would love to hike around that are some day.

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