The Spirit of Arizona

As I sit in the desert twilight, swirls of sunset colors wash the air in shades of teal and pink, apricot and green. It’s that magical moment when day blends effortlessly into night, and I have a front row seat. I sip a tasty margarita by the pool at the J.W. Marriott Camelback Inn and watch a young family splash in the turquoise water, their ripples making exotic shapes and patterns on the water’s surface, a colorful kaleidoscope undulating before my eyes.

The mother explained moments earlier that she and her young son had flown from Oregon to join her husband for a few days here in Scottsdale following his conference. I smile as they laugh and play in the iridescent pool, their slick shapes growing shadowy as the sun disappears behind Camelback Mountain. Clearly they are finding pleasure in this exact moment.

Seeing them makes me miss my husband and sons and wonder what I’m doing here in the Sonoran Desert all by myself. Part of me can’t wait to fly back to Virginia, but the other part wants to linger in Arizona, where it seems I am learning some important lessons about myself—only I haven’t quite got them all figured out. Nevertheless tomorrow I will leave this tranquil desert environment and return to the hectic pace of life back home. What unfinished business, I wonder, am I leaving behind?


Travel to me is part escape and part discovery. When we leave our towns and cities behind, we seek escape. Yet we also hope to learn something: about the place we visit, the people there, and ourselves. I’d visited the Phoenix area previously for a writers’ conference and was charmed by its other-worldliness: the vast barren landscape, rugged mountains, and the sky that goes on forever. That trip only whetted my appetite, so last fall I decided to attend the conference again to try to find out what it is about the Southwest that tugs at my bones.

First I would spend a few days at The Boulders, a posh resort north of Scottsdale, where the conference would be held. Then I’d head up to Sedona, where I would stay at Enchantment Resort for two nights, and then return to Scottsdale for a last night at the Camelback Inn.

On my first trip to the area, I had been struck by how much effort architects put into creating properties that blend naturally into the landscape. This visit only reinforced my wonder. The Boulders Resort, for example, spreads across acres of gorgeous desert landscape, making it hard to discern the adobe buildings from the natural surroundings. My spacious casita, which overlooked a meticulous golf course, featured a lovely patio, a fireplace, a huge bathroom, and chic Southwestern décor.

Astonishing boulders dot the property, strewn like giant marbles abandoned after a game among gods. One lovely morning I scrambled up and down one boulder formation beside the spa on a nature hike. Our knowledgeable guide shared facts about the rocks, local flora and fauna, and the Hohokum, a Native American tribe who used to call this desert home. He pointed out indentations in the rock, the size of small cereal bowls, where the Hohokum ground their grain hundreds of years before.

On my last morning I got up at sunrise for a solo walk among the suguaro cacti. Breathing in the fresh cool air, strolling by boulders as big as houses, and listening to the twittering of the desert birds beginning their day helped me clear my mind after the intensity of the conference schedule. Finally I was on my own, ready to go exploring.

Sedona, my next stop, was a place I’d heard about and wanted to see with my own eyes. After driving two hours north, I crested a mountain and found myself face to face with one of the world’s most memorable sights. Jutting up to the heavens, Sedona’s red rock mountains explode in vibrant shades of rust, orange, gold, and brown. This spectacular landscape is the primary reason Sedona has been voted The # 1 Most Beautiful Place in America. I could see why. My jaw opened in wonder as I drove into this rugged mountain paradise.

I found my way to Boynton Canyon, where Enchantment Resort, a world-class destination resort, sprawls among the nooks and crannies of the canyon. Known for its beautiful setting, impeccable service, and award-winning spa, Enchantment is a place where right away you feel at home. And whether you’re there for a spa retreat or a journey of discovery, your inner sense of being will be lifted simply by the beauty of your surroundings. I loved my peaceful casita with a balcony overlooking the towering red mountains.

Enchantment offers a variety of activities, including hikes, cooking demos, yoga, meditation, kids’ events, and Native American programs. I joined a sunset hike one evening to nearby Thunder Mountain. Led by a guide, three women and I followed a trail that ascended slowly to a large table-like rock, where we sat and saluted the setting sun with a toast, thanks to the bottle of wine our guide brought along.

Together we watched the sun sink slowly behind a range of mountains, but the best show was how the red rocks changed colors in the waning light. Our guide pointed out rock formations with names and showed us places in the mountains where faces seemed to peer out. I saw them, too. One was a Native American, whose chiseled face looked as if it had been carved in the mountain cliffs.

Sedona is known as a spiritual Mecca that attracts a metaphysical population. If you go online and type in spiritual Sedona, you get half a million hits, each link promising to help you find the doorway to your soul. Some say it’s the beauty of the red mountains that awakens the spirit and inspires personal journeys toward wellness. Personally I was intrigued by the thought that an actual geographic location could bring out one’s spiritual side.


The next day I met R.J., a handsome Native American from Canada dressed in denim and sporting a long black ponytail. The resort activity schedule had said there’d be a drum and flute performance in a tipi on the resort, but when I arrived, R.J., who’s head of the Native American programs at Enchantment, strolled up to say the flute player had the flu. A family from Washington state arrived shortly after—Mom, Dad, and their 5-year-old son—and R.J. invited us to sit down at a picnic table beside the tipi for a talk about the canyon’s earliest residents.

What followed was a conversation I wish I had recorded. R.J. didn’t really talk. He delved—not just into the history of the area, but into my own personal spiritual beliefs. It’s almost as if I became the focus while R.J. patiently waited for me to open myself up a little so he could lead me down a path toward self-understanding. This was more than I’d bargained for!

What was even odder was the family seemed to be part of this whole process. It was one of those times where the universe creates a scenario wherein the sum becomes way greater than the parts. Here we were, five people chatting in a grassy meadow next to a tipi on a stunningly beautiful fall day. Gorgeous red cliffs surrounded us, standing like sentries at attention, and a piercing blue sky provided a colorful backdrop.

But there was more going on than simply the beauty of the place. Surrounding me like a cocoon, these people, whom I’d never met before were reaching out to help me. Even five-year-old Christopher seemed to be trying to teach me something.

I asked R.J. about vortexes, which some believe to be energy fields scattered around Sedona that promise a unique experience. He scoffed at the idea and said vortexes had been invented by a woman in the 1980s. “The spirit is here,” he said and pounded the dirt with his boot. “It’s sacred ground.”

When I admitted I’d found myself in a spiritual void lately, Chalice, Christopher’s mother, urged me to listen to the canyon. “Let the canyon say it,” she said with a serene smile, her cowboy hat and reflective sunglasses masking her face. “The canyon pulled you here. Be open to what it has to say.”

Chalice said her family comes to Enchantment every year—the resort boasts a 50% return rate—and she’d had spiritual experiences during each visit. One year she watched stars form into the shape of a question mark. “They moved,” she said. Another time she heard a noise and looked outside as a pack of white dogs rushed by. These were her dream spirits, she said, communicating with her.

“Spirit comes in many forms,” Chalice said with a knowing smile.

R.J. talked about how hard it is for people today to accept the spirit. “Children and old people are open to Spirit.” He paused and then frowned. “People want to get zapped, to have a sudden spiritual experience, but most people get little teaspoons.”

“Native Americans believe your sixth sense, your instinct, is your spirit,” Chalice said. “Trust it!”

“Pray for willingness to be open,” said R.J., whose spiritual teacher once told him to say, “God help me” over and over again every night before bed.

The conversation continued for about an hour, during which I listened, occasionally asking questions, feeling a growing sense of wonderment at how I had found myself in the middle of this strange gathering.

Amazingly, Christopher sat on his mother’s lap nearly the whole time, wearing a wise expression on his face. He didn’t squirm or interrupt. He barely moved a muscle. It was clear something spiritual was at work in that child, and his parents agreed, saying he was spiritually gifted. I thought about my rambunctious sons, who at that age wouldn’t have lasted five minutes sitting still.

As I look back on that conversation, I know it was an important one. These people became my teachers. Then the question became, Would I do my homework?


On a whim I decided to visit a Buddhist stupa in Sedona. A stupa, I learned, is a sacred altar, which, according to the brochure I picked up, is “the physical embodiment of the Buddha’s enlightened mind.” Now I’m not a Buddhist, but I have studied the religion a bit and appreciate the emphasis Buddhists places on self-discovery. The brochure says seeing a stupa “will imbue you with a blessing, will connect you to enlightenment.”

Since I can always use a little enlightenment, I felt compelled to visit. After driving through a tidy neighborhood, I parked my car and followed a path decorated with colorful flags and lined by small white stones. There perched on the side of a mountain was a beautiful adobe structure about two stories high, topped by a pointy gold tower. A bronze statue of a praying Buddha peered out from an alcove about ten feet above the ground, and a few bells rang softly as a breeze rustled through the leaves of small trees and shrubs. I was alone, and I have to tell you: it felt holy there.

The person who had told me about the stupa said I should walk around the structure ten times, but I had to walk clockwise. So after admiring the trinkets and gifts people left as offerings to the Buddha—and realizing I’d forgotten to bring something, I began walking around the stupa. After my third loop, I looked down at a sign with an arrow and realized I’d been walking around counter clockwise. Yikes. I probably inherited three years of bad karma by going in the wrong direction.

I turned around and started again. After about five loops tears sprang suddenly to my eyes. I waited for a voice to explain the tears, maybe even to share a little wisdom. None came. I kept walking around the stupa, and the tears ended as quickly as they’d appeared. When I returned to my car, a sense of peace enveloped me. Perhaps as the brochure says, I was touched by the “waves of compassion to all living things” that the Buddha radiates.

But there was an undercurrent of confusion. I wanted answers, not more questions. On my last day in Sedona, I would make significant progress in my journey of self-discovery.

I awoke that day feeling different. It might have had something to do with the treatment I’d had the night before at Mii amo, Enchantment’s destination spa. Called Shirodhara, the treatment was essentially a facial followed by the pouring of oil on my forehead, a process that stimulates the pituitary gland and relaxes the nervous system. I had seen pictures of this treatment many times and knew it would be an amazing experience.

It was indescribable. Warm oil poured on your forehead sounds very odd, but something comforting seems to occur and you feel suspended in a strange in-between place, like the River Lethe in Dante’s Inferno. You forget everything and remember everything. You’re dreaming, but you’re awake. At the end I felt tired, but all my senses were sharpened. When I sat in the lounge recovering, a fabric couch across from me appeared covered with faces: I could see Jesus, a child sucking his thumb, an elephant, and the North Wind personified. What did it all mean?

After checking out the next morning, I drove to Sedona and met Johanna, who owns a business called Sedona Spirit Yoga and Hiking. Together we would visit some of the vortex sites, do some hiking, and learn a little yoga. What I liked about Johanna was her non-nonsense approach to the vortexes.

“The vortex is the circle of your energy connecting with the mystical red rock energy,” she explained. In other words, the energy was all around Sedona, not just a few places. The hard part for some people is accessing it, she said. “You have to practice the 4 Rs: relax, release, receive, and renew.”

Johanna led me to the Airport Mesa vortex, where we sat down on yoga mats and faced an incredible view. In the distance we could see Bell Rock Vortex and Cathedral Rock Vortex. “The three combined to form what I call a tri-vortex experience,” she said. The sun shone, a breeze blew, and I felt like I was on top of the world.

We began by meditating. Johanna instructed me to breathe in and then let go of my busy “monkey mind,” the thoughts that swarm around your brain nonstop. I tried to quell my thoughts and admitted it was hard. “Meditating isn’t about achieving a totally clear mind,” she said. “You just want to make it a little clearer than it was.”

Next she told me to breathe in and then let go of my emotions. Suddenly tears began to stream from my eyes. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t let go of my emotions. This is the lesson I came to Sedona to learn, I realized. I told Johanna that feelings of grief and sadness have haunted me ever since my daughter, Sierra, died nearly twenty years ago. I wasn’t sure I could ever let them go, I admitted.

Johanna listened, and together we prayed and meditated. Although I didn’t hear any loud voices revealing shiny truths, somehow at the end of the experience I felt that I’d reached new understanding. The challenge for me will be to go to the next level, to do the work I need to do to free myself of the sadness I have held onto for dear life since Sierra died. It’s the only tangible thing I have left.

I know I’ll go back to Sedona one day. Johanna invited me to one of her retreats, and when I go, I’m sure I’ll make progress in my journey of self-discovery.

Jesus went into the desert and found what he was looking for. I did, too. There’s something about the starkness of that environment, the rough edges, that makes it easy to bare your soul. Or perhaps it’s the spirit of the Native Americans that permeates the land and reaches up into your gut and finds your weak spot. I found mine, and if you go, you might find yours, too.

Peggy Sijswerda

Tidewater Women Magazine, Editor & Co-Publisher.

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