Pull out your pocketknife, open the blade, and run it across your burnished arm. If you draw blood, you are human. If you draw wet sand that dries quickly, then you will know you have become part of the desert. Not until then can you claim ownership. ~Terry Tempest Williams
With the first reading of Terry’s bleeding sand quote in her lovely book, Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, I have taken to testing myself every trip to red rock country. I need to know if I am an interloper in desert lands ghosting through or can claim desert kinship and the earth will accept my roots. My soul says, I am desert but my head needs physical proof, hard evidence, liquid testimony. Once maybe twice, my flowing blood appeared to contain minute traces of red sand. It was just as likely the blood loosed sand grains stuck in my pores trapped while scrapping my flesh over difficult scrambles up the Slickrock. I didn’t take proper precautions for a valid experiment and isolate the variables. This trip will be different. I’ve come prepared.
The knife purchased for the occasion is still a virgin, still inside the plastic liner, still inside the box, still manufacturer sealed, uncontaminated by dust, dirt, particulate. The blade is 2.4 inches long, 420HC bead blasted, stainless steel. It is assisted opening so I don’t need to fumble come the time to experiment and risk it falling onto Earth. I will use it for one testing then retire it with the others in safe storage.
When I get a house again, they will be all be mounted, blades extended, behind glass, a showcase with a Katana arched overhead. I love knives as did my father before me. I have a collection upward of 30 many made with my own hands. I purchased full tang blades then created the handles out of exotic woods, metals, and antler, getting a much better price on high-quality high carbon steel than if I purchased a complete knife. I had neither the tools nor the skills to forge the blades. If I did, they would all be multi-layer Damascus steel.
Also different this trip, the location. I’m hiking the Sedona Red Rocks, not my beloved Southern Utah Red Rocks. Though both are red rocked they speak to me with distinct voices. Are they kin, the red rocks? The same tribe separated by hundreds of miles or two distinct peoples. I won’t know until I become as intimate with the land in the Sedona backcountry as I am in Moab and can feel its soul seeping into my exposed flesh. I won’t know until I have spent enough time to draw in a breath and recognize the tang of the early morning breeze cascading down the monoliths, across the plains, and through the gnarled juniper extending arthritic arms heavenward. Even when I think I know, I probably won’t know for sure. Identical twins though similar have unique essences not discernable to the casual observer.
We flew from Chicago to Phoenix, lovely and warm Phoenix then drove the 120 miles mostly uphill gaining a few thousand feet, cruising through a forest of giant saguaro people many over 200 years old. I would have liked to spend time with those old people, bask in their slender shadow spirits, share their secrets of thriving desert life, of coping in challenging conditions. Maybe crawl inside a dead or nearly dead old one and extract a stout rib for a walking stick. But visiting the ancients was our plan for the return trip. For now, I was eager to set eyes upon red rock.
The Unplanned Airport Loop
Originally, we thought about kicking the trip off on Friday evening but that would mean driving up to Sedona at night then sleeping in, possibly late, the next morning. The early flight Saturday morning forced us out of bed early and gifted us an entire morning viewing alien, alien to Midwesterners, Arizona landscapes.
We arrived at our hotel, the Sky Ranch Lodge Resort, a boutique type hotel on lovely grounds, just after the noon hour. Too early to check in. What to do? Why hike of course. Our hotel was conveniently situated adjacent to a 0.6-mile hike terminating a the Sedona Trail View Point, a minor mound to climb for a better view of the valley below, the rock structures perched magnificently beyond. We changed into hiking gear, meaning switching our shoes, grabbed a liter of water, and headed out for a get your hiking feet wet, 1.2-mile round tripper.
The short walk was uneventful and delightful. The trail which had been muddy from the previous week’s snow was mostly dry. There were sporadic benches we sat on for a great view of rocks and city. Much of the trail was littered with baby heads, softball-sized round rocks notorious for dumping mountain bikers out of the saddle. Baby heads are perfect for ankle rolls. A few were loose exacerbating the challenge. We spent a good deal of time looking down at our feet instead of up and out at the vistas which is why I made use of every bench along the way. Thankfully, we were meandering through a shaded, juniper forest so reveled in the divine scent. We arrived at the Scenic Point and scaled the much steeper final ascent to the rock dome.
Our first mistake, one that would haunt us the entire trip, we unthinkingly booked to coincide with Spring Break. People were everywhere and parking would be a hassle the entire trip not to mention traffic jams whenever driving near the main drag of the town. Ugh!
We scurried off the top of the rock dome with the speed and dexterity of eight-legged spiders climbing down a wall to escape a circling bird. Our nemesis was the noise. We needed to escape the cacophony only to be frustrated the main viewing area had grown more crowded and increasingly noisy. So many people. Too many people. We also heard a word here that would percolate up in Sedona on a regular basis. The word, vortex.
A vortex is defined locally as an energy site that enhances meditation, healing, and creativity. It means some very different in the Midwest. For us, a vortex is a spell of freakishly cold, Winter weather with the power to sap one’s will to live.
A local guide with an air of bliss in her countenance was talking to a group about the spot we all were as a vortex and she was sensitive to the underpinning energies. I half expected her to drop into a hand trembling trance to emphasize her point summoning dreaming spirits from their reverie. It seemed every place we visited had a vortex completing diluting the term. It came across more like a gimmick to dazzle tourists.
I have been to many wild places in my life and have tapped into my share of earth energy emanating from those places. I tingled when we drove through the grove of giant saguaros. I’ve experienced similar feelings of awe at some houses of worship irrespective of faith. Those structures were built on top of a place oozing holy earth energy and leverage this in the wooing of believers. Unfortunately, those get tied to the likes of organized religion rather than attributing the sense of the spiritual to Earth herself and we wind up with competing religious sects often times spilling into violence. That is a slap in the face of Earth from which the energy emanates.
I sat still for a few moments, eyes closed, soul open, and felt nothing, absolutely nothing. Not a sense of awe. Not an inkling of the divine. Which is much unlike the strong sense of the sacred I experience in many places across Southeastern Utah. But Utah is my love while Sedona is an ‘any port in a storm’ mistress used to satisfy base needs. Perhaps that distinction explains my feelings…or…my inability to sense the supposed vortex. I may also have been the many people mulling about raping the silence. It is hard to sense divinity when assaulted by violent noise.
Another, what to do moment. And what did we do? Why hike, of course. The 3.2-mile Airport trail loop began and ended at this point. We had easily done a challenging 5 miler through Devil’s Garden at Arches National Park four years earlier on our wedding trip so a mere 3.2 jaunt? Ha. Ha. Ho. Ho. Hee. Hee. Away we go for a little hikee.
History tells us, fifty or so yards into a trail shows a steep dropoff of people per square meter. Twenty yards into this trail the silence returned. We relished in the solitude and immediately felt bliss, were enchanted by the wide blue sky, the relative warmth, and seeing beings native to the area. We made the right choice.
Prickly pear bordered the trail in abundance with some beds punctuated by butter gold flowers with burnt orange hearts. Many see this particular cactus, possibly the most widely spread of all cacti, and think scrub or weeds or nuisance. I see resilience. I see perseverance. I see stark beauty. Sharp pointy stilettoes protecting themselves from evil intent on inflicting harm. Maybe, if I lived here, I would decay into the same mindset as I do with dandelions back home. Being a Midwesterner, Prickly Pear are a rare being with whom to interact.
I kissed the first red wall we saw. Catholics kiss the pope’s ring. I kiss red rock endemic to the American southwest. We each have our own perceptions of the Holy. My holy of holies happens to exist within a particular russet vertical gradation of Earth. It felt dirty. Not in a clay, dust, loam in my mouth way, in an, I’m cheating on my love way. I enjoyed it but couldn’t shake the lingering guilt of betraying an adored one so the joy was heavily attenuated. How do people have affairs and live with themselves?
We passed a couple of other hiking groups. One was typically backcountry friendly letting us know we were halfway through the hike which came as a shock because we figured, measured by sweat and fatigue, we were close to completion. The other, an older, bearded gentleman wearing a Hawaiian shirt, sandals, being tugged along by a scraggly little dog attached to a long leash, said nothing to us. Didn’t even nod in acknowledgment which is unheard of in the backcountry. We gave each other a side eye, knowing glance that said, what the fuck is he doing on a trail? Was there a rescue helicopter sighting in our near future?
The sun was high overhead now and our water was getting low. We continued to ration with both magnanimously deferring sips to the other meaning neither drank enough. Luckily, it wasn’t a much hotter day so the water wasn’t siphoned out of our pores leaving us dehydrated. The desert doesn’t suffer fools for long.
I slipped once on loose scree when not paying close enough attention to my footfalls and lightly brushed against a prickly pear. It was growing chest height atop a short wall. I felt needle pain deep in my chest but didn’t find any holes in my shirt or scratches on my skin nor any pinholes where blood escaped to the surface. The cactus, though, had a subtle shimmer as if a spider spun a gossamer web of opalescent silk over the pad. I snapped a few photos from varying angles including adding a polarizing filter trying to isolate the shimmer. The added filter removed enough glare to enhance the luster. It wasn’t until I uploaded the images to my computer and viewed in photo enhancing software with an infrared approximation that the shimmer was revealed fully. Blood. Soul blood was scraped from and oozed out of my body coating the cactus leaving the iridescent sheen.
The Northern section of the loop trail was populated by taller trees providing dappled shade from the sun, narrower views. It wasn’t hot, in the low 60s, but the effort at an altitude unfamiliar to our lungs added to our perception of the hike’s strenuousness. We were struggling physically and mentally with a desire to rest competing with a drive to finish. Our poor planning meant we hadn’t brought any trail snacks so besides being thirsty, we were getting hungry. At one point, we looked down upon a neighborhood and both voiced thoughts of scrambling to the road and calling an Uber. We didn’t.
Barefeet and a Katana
For most of the hike, I walked behind my wife. It seemed I was constantly on her heels which makes stepping more difficult because forward vision is blocked by another human being. When there is space between, the eyes look further out compensates when the further becomes nearer subconsciously adjusting footfalls so not to break an ankle. It’s a trick I learned mountain biking when speed requires forward vision not looking exactly the path the wheel takes. I had grown weary of looking down for two hours. I switched to be ahead of her and put a bit of distance between us ensuring she could use the compensation part of her brain. I didn’t get too far ahead that she couldn’t see me bopping along.
It was this point in our hike I encountered a lone woman on the trail walking toward me. She seemed to appear out of nowhere, was dressed in a style I can only approximate as bohemian hiker. She had neither pack nor water bottle. She carried long unkempt hair, sorta dreaded, piled high atop her head cascading over her left shoulder. She was absent of shoes either on her feet nor carried a pair for situations requiring tootsie protection. I was both intrigued at her closeness to cool Earth drawing energy through her soles and bewildered that someone would put the well being of their feet at risk on what was mostly a rock-strewn trail.
She was fairly tall but that could have been an illusion by her hair piled high. Her face was pinked. Exertion? Sun? Bliss? Her smile existed somewhere between rapture and complete vacuousness giving the impression she was deeply immersed in a cult and had lost all ability to reason from her own thoughts. She was staring off into the distance and when I said hi, which is universally expected when hikers cross paths, she said “Oh…hi” back as if was an entirely new experience. Or, she may have been a spirit being and was surprised because the spirit and physical worlds rarely cross-pollinate. Having bridged the gap more than once, I understand how it can flummox one’s perception of reality.
A few minutes later, my wife caught up to me.
“Did you him?” she asked.
“The guy with the big, curved knife. He popped up out of the bushes after the girl passed. He was barefoot and carried a big, curved, knife.”
“You mean a katana?” I looked down the trail from whence she came.
“Yes. He popped up next to me from nowhere then disappeared into the bushes again.”
“He carried a katana?”
“He scared me so I hurried to catch up to you.”
“What color was the handle?”
“The handle? There was a long blade. I didn’t notice the handle.”
When I think Katana, I think of the beautiful, white handled, dragonhead katana wielded by the immortal Duncan Mcleod of the clan Mcleod in his quest to survive The Game where there can be only one. I found myself wishing I had actually purchased the katana I saw on Amazon and brought it along on this trip. Ignoring the plight of getting a 40-inch blade on a commercial airline in a post 9/11, paranoid Trumpian world. I envisaged engaging the ruffian in a clanging sword fight protecting the love of my life from impending doom eventually taking the head of the barefoot stranger lurking in the woods saving future visitors from a gruesome gutting and the authorities swooping in to find dozens of corpses hidden in shallow hills on this side of the mesa. Barring that, I scanned the grounds for a thick stick to carry as a counter-terrorism weapon. If only I was carrying that stout saguaro rib I would be invincible.
For the next while of our hike, we made repeated glances over our shoulders. Not that it would make any difference. If he was able to emerge silently from the woodlands once he could easily do it again. We didn’t stop glancing until a set of three hikers we passed earlier, passed us a second time. We chatted them up a second time with a strange twist to the conversation.
The gentlemen of the threesome, jovial both times we met up, asked me, “Why the pink sunglasses?” The question felt accusatory. I sensed an implication a real man would not wear bright, pink anything.
I should have digressed into our visit to Whitesands the previous year where the intense color of the light pained my eyes even when wearing my prescription sunglasses. And how these, purchased in New Mexico, had warmer lenses providing needed relief from the eye strain. But I wanted away from him so just said I liked them. He then told me, with an even bigger smile, he had a pair of bright yellow before the group headed off.
There is a backwoods question asking, how fast do you need to run to outrun a bear? The answer is only faster than the slowest person in the group. This group was now nearer to katana man than we so we were able to relax and quit stealing glances over our shoulders.
Our last encounter on the trail was Hawaiian shirt dude with his rat dog. They passed us again and again without acknowledgment. This is the guy we side eyed wondering if he would survive a loop only to have him lap us in seemingly high energy while we were struggling to finish. We were embarrassed questioning our ability as hikers. Our conclusion, we were wimpy, wimpy, wimpy. Books and covers.
The hike finished without further excitement. Although, we did hear and then catch a glimpse of a grey bird singing from the tippy top of a tallish juniper. It called out twice then disappeared. It was the only wildlife we encountered on the trail. There were no squirrels, no coyotes, no lizards, no rattlesnakes, not even any insects. Was it too early in the season?
The mile tally for the hike came in at a touch over 5. Not bad for the first day at elevation in red lands. Our plans to seize the next day included another 5 miler, the one and only hike I scouted before the trip. My hope was for it to be an all-day lingerer. Until then we would check into the Sky Ranch Lodge, eat dinner at a local Thai restaurant where we would also carpe vinum (seize the wine).
I found myself enjoying the Sedona red rock more than I expected. I wanted to like this vacation location but loving the land was out of the question. There is room for only one love in my heart. Yet, there is no denying I felt an ache in my heart seeking carnal knowledge. Was betrayal in the air? The heart wants what the heart wants.
Too be continued…