I pray to the birds. I pray to the birds because I believe they will carry the messages of my heart upward. I pray to them because I believe in their existence, the way their songs begin and end each day—the invocations and benedictions of Earth. I pray to the birds because they remind me of what I love rather than what I fear. And at the end of my prayers, they teach me how to listen. ~Terry Tempest Williams
The Last Hikes: Cathedral and Bell Rocks
Vox Nihili / Vox Deus / Vox Avium
We are laying in a crotch at the top of Cathedral Rock hidden away from the trail’s terminus and buzzing people seeking, in their own way, communion with nature. How they can find it in a hive of humanity is beyond my ability to comprehend. To feel Earth’s heartbeat I need solitude.
The final ascent bringing us to the official end of the trail was the steepest section of the hike/climb. We scrambled on hands and feet the final stretch moving out of the sun and into the shade, a shade that felt cold with the constant breeze. I felt frigid when I took off my day pack exposing my sweat-soaked back. This cleft in the rocks opened with magnificent views of the valley far below. It was heavenly…but for the noisy crowd. People whisper in church, why don’t they exhibit the same reverence in the sacristy of wilderness?
Their noise was a chain saw slicing into the soft parts of my brain. Painful. I, we were unable to abide in Earth’s majesty despite being nestled high in her red bones. We escaped via a side trail leading to another climb followed by two short descents coming to rest in a crotch formed of two massive walls with a narrow spire in the center pointing heavenward. Obviously a male crotch. I chose left, she chose right. We both laid on narrow ledges facing the sun basking in vox nihili, the voice of nothing, silence, soul-soothing silence.
There are few opportunities in hectic life where one can vacate et scire, be still and know. Know what? Everything and nothing. Mostly nothing. Knowing that one knows nothing is liberating. It is freedom to see, to hear the soft praying voice of birds, vox avium, flying overhead, delicate blue-black angels slicing on curved wings against the rufus tinged walls and the rich, near cloudless, cobalt sky.
Their song reminded me of Canyon Wren’s descending liquid trill which cascades like a gentle waterfall ending in a splish. It is a song with the power to transport me from anywhere in the world to the quiet, gnarled canyons of the Colorado Plateau.I’ve listened to the sounds in the heart of Chicago and watched the buildings morph into canyon walls, the streets become vacant canyons.
But these are another species of bird. What is their name? I don’t know. And that’s ok because names are irrelevant, a mere hint masking the essence of the thing named. I sigh my own prayers hoping the birds will snatch them up and deposit them into the ears of whichever deity oversees Cathedral Rock.
Their wing shape arcs backward like swallows, giving them to agility to twitch in the air snatching insects on the wing. Canyon Wren tends to be solitary, is rusty, picks insects from cracks and crevices, is a secretive creature more often heard than seen. I can’t recall if I have ever seen Canyon Wren in the wild though I have delighted to their loveliest of songs many times. They are a kindred spirit for I too am ruddy with a penchant for solitude, especially in wild places.
The trail up Cathedral Rock is short, 1.2 miles in length rising 646 feet. It is the most popular hike in Sedona. We arrived fairly early, for us, yet the parking was already overflowing forcing us to park in the street. Even if we wanted to get lost on the trail, it would have been impossible with the human traffic jam and occasional dog snaking to the top, a trail twice as congested during our descent. I was more worried about people falling on me than I was nervous on any part of the trail even when I had to scoot down on my butt and drop my feet blindly. I hoped to linger on the descent but didn’t. Too many people making too much noise for me to feel anything other than agitated.
This was the first hike I didn’t feel a time guillotine hanging over my head making it the most satisfying spiritually helping me achieve a connectedness with Earth I haven’t experienced in a few years. It made me want to take up camping again and commune with all that is wild and holy. We lingered in the crotch for more than an hour barely moving, an hour feeling like seconds. It was also the first time in the trip I tested my blood. I didn’t use my special knife just one earmarked for every day carry. The blood was only blood.
Everyone we asked about hiking in Sedona told us we just had to visit Cathedral Rock. We had already completed the one hike I planned in advance, the Cibola Pass / Soldiers Pass / Brin’s Mesa loop so was open to any experience my wife chose. She does extensive research on places always finding us lovely hotels at a reasonable rate and knock ’em dead experiences. I put my destiny in her hands for the remaining hikes including our visit to the Chapel on the rock.
Chapel on the Rocks
A short drive from Cathedral Rock brings one to the Chapel on the Rock, a Catholic Church nestled in the heart of million dollar homes. A guide told us it is the second most visited site in all of Arizona to the Grand Canyon. Cars and people were everywhere. We parked on a gravel patch next to the street and walked the very narrow two-lane road sharing it with some large pickup trucks passing within inches of our shoulders.
The church is built on and into the rocks. From the street, the exterior cross dominates the architecture. The centerpiece inside the narrow building is an ornate corpus with 14 benches for worshippers. I am unable to fathom why this site is so popular amongst tourists. We were not enamored so did not stay very long. We spent more time walking to and from our car than inside the chapel.
Our favorite item in the church was a painting of Mary with almond, Asian eyes. It felt mystical. It was a nice change form the typical whitewashed, pale-skinned woman in most depictions. The eyes were blue which I took as an homage to white supremacist notions as was what appeared to be a wisp of blonde hair.
There is one road back into town. It was bumper to bumper, a twenty-minute crawl from the intersection of the Chapel’s road, through numerous roundabouts, to the street light where we turned left finally freeing us from the congestion. Luckily, we did not pick a hotel to the right as that would have added to the frustrating traffic mess. This alone is reason enough for me to never live in Sedona. On top of the traffic, there was a lack of emotional connection to the soul of the place.
While inching in traffic, between watching the guy we allowed to merge aggressively forcing out another person attempting to merge in, I had time to mull over our, so far, Sedona experience and compare to Moab. The Moab area feels much grander, less touristy. That may be because my visits have not coincided with a big event other than Jeep week. Even then, the traffic through the town wasn’t nearly as obnoxious as Sedona. Moab feels more earthy, more surrealistically earthy.
I’m a big fan of surrealism and the way it totally fucks with my myopic perceptions opening my consciousness to alternate views of realities. The Redrock formations in Sedona are beautiful, great mounds to explore and hike but they are not extraordinarily shaped. Bell Rock does, with some squinting and tilting my head at an obtuse angle, resemble a large bell. And with a large stretch, Snoopy Rock can be interpreted to be Snoopy laying on his back or, as I saw, two parapets of a castle wall. But, the shapes are not unexpected.
The bottom third of Utah boasts bizarre rock formations continually piquing my imagination. There are numerous arches, some massive and, at least one, delicate. The hoodoos impossibly balance large rocks on spindly spires. The synclines and anticlines breach Earth at unusual angles. There are more spires, pinnacles, and natural bridges, buttes, and gnarly canyons than can be explored in a lifetime. Plus there is Valley of the Gods in Northern Arizona which is spiritually the same land as Southern Utah. What it boils down to, Sedona is adequate for a one night stand, not much more, whereas the bottom third of Utah is long term relationship material, the one you bring home to momma with the hopes of her blessing in marriage.
Ring The Bell, Almost
The final hike before heading back to Phoenix and a visit with Saguaros is an ascent up Bell Rock. We need two long loops outside the trailhead before capturing the prize of a narrow parking slot. I purchase the $5 parking pass and take a trip to the pit toilet, a glorified outhouse.
Up to a point, the trail was well marked then we were greeted by a choice. Take the path well tread with people, their families, and pets or the path less chosen. We, without the need for a conversation, opted for the less chosen, changed direction and started tracking cairns. For a bit, they were plenty, guided us up the Bell Rock layers. Where cairns were missing, I tilted my head catching the slightly bending light reflecting off the rock worn smoother by repeated trail usings.
This tack took us up a few challenging ascents, tricky climbs over slickrock which would, on return, be a bit treacherous. I experienced moments of discomfort, an emotion never felt in my youthful goat days finding me bouncing over the loosest rocks on the edges of sheer drops without a twitch of fear. ‘Tis no longer the case. My mind has a bit more confidence than my body can execute. I slipped on a smattering of scree falling backward and slamming my hand into the unforgiving rock. Another time, I stumbled on a stone as big as my head breaking it loose. It tumbled away on the slope about 10 yards. It settled before the lip and a long fall that could have caused someone significant physical damage.
We kept on despite the increasing trickiness of the terrain until we came to a dead end. Additional upage would require ropes to traverse unless you were the young dude who managed to goat it up and out of sight. I found myself tempted to attempt but rationalized getting my wife up then either of us down was a reward far outweighed by the significant injury risk. Besides, we were in a lovely place with vistas of the distant plateaus, the massive rock across from us, and a worn trail between us and it in use by several people in groups of ones and twos. No use succumbing to my ego and being carried out on a stretcher. I like to think I’ve become smart with age but it’s actually more an inability to arm wrestle my fear into submission.
We lingered in the delicious shade. Not as long as we did at Cathedral Rock, just enough time to marvel at the grandeur and catch our breath. Our souls were not as famished as when our vacation started. The hikes over the previous days provided much needed nourishment. And descending carried two truths we were reluctant to confront. The truth the path we ascended had disappeared with the vertical position of the sun and we would have to figure out how to climb down while avoiding injury. The second truth, Bell Rock was the final leg of the Sedona experience. Leaving here meant leaving red rock and heading down to busy, congested Phoenix. I was very excited to spend some time with the old men saguaros but that also meant our vacation was winding down.
As expected the descent was troublesome and invigorating and adrenaline pumping and scary. We quickly lost the original path and were forging new territory skirting around large boulders, slipping on scree, poked and scratched by snaggletooth plants bent on human destruction. Walking toward voices whom we assumed knew better than we then path down. Soon enough, we came to the confluence where those followed the established path and those forging new trails met. It was here met a fellow descender in hiking sandals and carrying walking sticks.
He pointed us toward people in a gap on the main path, the path ending at the top of Bell Rock. We saw a hiker couple way up high. We had only achieved half to two-thirds of the full monty. I felt embarrassed at my own ineptitude and needed to assuage my ego with a Bell Rock conquering final climb. I wanted to ring the bell. There was no way I would let a rock, no matter how big, get the better of me.
“Babe, let’s give it a go. I bet the view from up there is awesome.”
“Nah. I don’t feel like it. Besides, we need to eat some lunch and get to Phoenix for the electric desert.”
And there it was, the time guillotine, razor sharp, dropped with a swoosh and a clunk severing my fantasy of unlimited exploration leaving only the reality that time was ticking away and we had places to be. We walked back to the car, the long way back, I had misread the signs, intersecting with mountain bike trails where I grew increasingly envious of the bikers and missing my steed back in Chicago.
We exited the even more crowded parking lot and the many cars parked illegally, suffered through the traffic slog, purchased a few souvenirs then headed out of the high country down to Phoenix. We stopped along the way and rose early the next morning to photograph a number of ancient saguaros.
Afterword – Transitioning
It’s predawn, the day after worshipping in the Cathedral, the morning before we almost rang the Bell. The sun and my wife have yet to awaken. I jump in the rental car returning to the trailhead for my favorite section of hiking abondanza. I’m the only car in the parking lot for a change. I find the Cibola Pass trailhead marker and walk off into the moonlit night barefoot maintaining a chilly connection with Earth still very cold from the passing night. The nearly full moon casts sufficient pale illumination that I can navigate the well-marked trail with minimal difficulty. I don’t get lost. I don’t twist an ankle. No sharp rocks incise my feet, nor pointy branches perforate my hands, nor bayonet yuccas pierce my side. I don’t feel the ooze of guts from crushing an insect…or lizard…or snake.
I walk until I feel connected. I take up an almost lotus position, the knees only bend so far, facing the Eastern horizon waiting for the sunlight to peek between the red rock giants awakening Earth and inspiring the birds to sing praises supplanting vox nihili with a natural morning raga. I am ready.
I thoroughly clean my calf and hands with an antiseptic wipe removing germs and particulate before unpackaging my knife and flipping it open with a light touch on the ribbed flipper. I use another antiseptic wipe to disinfect the razor-sharp blade before running it horizontally over flesh already pinked three days into our southwest excursion. There is no pain. The blood seeps through the one-inch wide slice more quickly than expected, the side effect of daily blood thinners and aspirin. The russet capped Sandhill cranes flying against a milky sky, flowing down my leg in a lengthening crimson swath. Flies appear nearly instantly dipping six legs and dung poking proboscis in the luxuriant red marmalade.
The moment of truth. I dip my finger in the meandering red river and rub the slick substance gently in a counterclockwise, swirl between my index finger and the palm of my hand. It is slimy and slightly gritty. There are definitely sand particles mixed in with my blood. There’s not enough to choke a vampire but sufficient to know I am transitioning. I’ve consummated adultery with Sedona rock, not my beloved Southeastern Utah Redrock. How can I ever show my face in Moab again without this betrayal gnawing at my soul? It’s like impregnating a prostitute instead of a wife desirous of children but having none.
Will the change continue when I leave in two days? The real test of my kinship begins when I return home and perform the experiment one week, two weeks, months into the future. If the sand is still present, I will know I am truly a brother to the desert. If not, my life will feel like my dreams are perjured adding to the feelings of being a weasely double-crosser to my beloved.
Our kinship with Earth must be maintained; otherwise, we will find ourselves trapped in the center of our own paved-over souls with no way out. ~Terry Tempest Williams