ORB HUNTING IN SEDONA
I read an article in my favorite magazine over coffee this morning. It had to do with nature and with magic- not the “disappearing rabbit” kind of magic, but the magic that only occurs when the soul is stirred; continuously stirred without intention, until a kind of ethereal confection emerges. The article reminded me of my previous weekend in the high dessert of Arizona.
My significant other Cindy was born in Phoenix. Her father, Dr. Grant Johnson, and his wife Faye now reside on a little ranch in the middle of the Verde Valley southeast of Sedona. We were there to celebrate Grant’s 80th birthday. It had been my second visit to Smoke Horse Ranch, located just outside the almost non-existent town of Cornville, Arizona.
Contentment personified. The horses, the mesa views, and the music of fast flowing Oak Creek below the ranch house all combined with Faye’s (who is quarter Cherokee) spiritualism and the general Sedona area mystique.
Smoke Horse is like a potter’s studio where the surrounding mesas’ rich red clay is molded by caring hands with sunshine and crisp morning air, then combined with desert mesquite, Arizona Sycamore, and towering cottonwoods. All this goes into the kiln, where the magic happens. A combination of ancient Native American vision, horse sense, and Sedona new world mysticism is baked into the conglomerate.
Pardon the mixed metaphors, but I must tell you that what emerges can only be described as soul food- the confection I mentioned earlier.
Arrival and the Yurt
I flew to Smoke Horse with Cindy and her daughter Crystal as the high desert was warming into summer but still delivering comfortable, cool mornings and evenings. The first evening, after cocktails, we were called to dinner. Mexican is the cuisine du jour in this corner of the country, and we enjoyed fajitas wrapped with homemade tortillas. They were served outside on the porch, overlooking the sun setting below a nearby mesa littered with old native Anasazi ruins. More on that later. I was looking forward to our first night sleeping at Smoke Horse, because we were being put up in the yurt, an outbuilding somewhat like a permanent tent, but with all the comforts of home.
The most prominent feature of the yurt, which I had remembered from my previous visit, was an enormous copper pyramid which Faye had installed above the bed to channel the energy of one of many vortexes that some locals will tell you surrounds the Sedona region. Cindy and I still laugh remembering the enormous headache I woke up with after my first night sleeping under it three years ago. Energy indeed.
Whatever your opinion on the mystical qualities and origins of the euphoria experienced under pyramids and vortexes, I am here to tell you that the yurt is a most soothing, comfortable place to lay your head. Cindy and I fell asleep to Mockingbirds piercing the stillness of the high dessert, the full moon visible through the yurt’s transparent peak. We slept through ‘til morning.
There is a definite morning routine at Smoke Horse;
Both Faye and Grant rise early; Faye to her horses and Grant to his office. I woke early that first morning as well, eager to check out Oak Creek in the canyon below.
I passed by Grant’s den, where he was returning his emails. A retired Psychologist whose career was spent in the Scottsdale School district, he still dispenses his home grown brand of therapy to appreciative friends, family and acquaintances. After tending his email, I knew this new octogenarian would set off on his daily 2 mile walk.
In the three years since I last saw him, Grant has slowed down a bit. At 77, he had split his own firewood, which heated the Ranch House, and walked several miles every morning to breakfast over the primitive roads leading from the ranch into town. Now, he merely walks two miles daily on the running track at a nearby park. Oh, did I mention the ballroom dancing? An ex instructor, he took Cindy and me along with his partner to a Friday night dance and never left the floor. Anyway, this morning he was glued to the tube so I decided not to disturb him and went out to the stables.
Faye was there, boundless energy and a keen enthusiasm for her chores. Her horses, Taurus and Fancy, are the most spoiled- er- best cared for horses in the Verde valley. She sang to them as she brought hay for Taurus and alfalfa for Fancy. Both got raw almonds (almonds?!). I could have eaten off the floors of the barn myself.
Watching her, I couldn’t help but feel that Faye was one of the most fortunate people I’d ever met. We all know someone like that; preparation had meet opportunity, all superfluous angst had been shed (or chivalrously negated by another), and true inner peace had taken root and grown.
Faye’s life had real purpose. Those horses meant so much to her. She had Grant to take care of, and he for her. Neither of them had the least desire to ever leave Smoke Horse. There was always much to do and good reason to do it.
When Faye wasn’t keeping the horses and the stable, she was tending to her beloved vision lodge and medicine circle, or was hunting the local garage sales for new treasure.
It was a long way from my reality, but that morning I longed to step into it. And then I suddenly realized I had, and I intentionally breathed in the dessert air while leaning on the corral fence, watching Taurus and Fancy watch Faye, singing her way through her highly discretionary morning chores.
Faye's Vision Lodge
After ensuring all was well at the stable, I hiked the steep path down from Smoke Horse to Oak Creek, lurching past Arizona Sycamores and huge stately Cottonwoods, towards the gush and gurgle of the swiftly moving river. As I approached, the creek passed over a nearby wash, alive with polished stones and constantly shifting earth. Cindy had told me many stories of her father and her fishing for trout when she was a kid, and then later, when the creek filled with red dense clay, bass.
I fashioned a walking stick from a nearby fall so I could better navigate through the protective brambles, and set out down stream, eager to find a quiet bend in the creek where surely Cindy and Grant had long ago chanced upon the big one.
By the time I got back to the house, Cindy was up and Grant was making breakfast burritos for everyone, using more of those incredibly thin home-made tortillas and plenty of salsa. This put me squarely in the world, and I took my morning coffee black- extra strong.
After breakfast, Cindy and Crystal and I went out to do a little exploring, driving to a prehistoric Indian settlement called Tuzigoot. Overlooking the vast Verde River bottom, Tuzigoot National Monument offers the visitor a timeline view of life before 1400 AD up through the early 1900s. Hike the short distance to the top of the pueblo ruins that were once condominiums for the Sinagua (Spanish for ‘without water’, a generic emblem for many early civilizations), and you can peer into a kaleidascope of two different eras. Look east and spy the sprawling Verde River Valley, which provided the Sinagua with land to cultivate and water to live.
Then, turn around and see the pioneer mining towns of Clarkdale to the north, its tailing fields just kissing the boundaries of Tuzigoot, and, perched atop a towering cliff to the Northwest, the Boom-Bust Ghost town of Jerome.
At a distance Jerome reminded me of a Tuscan hill town, except instead of Italian vineyards growing up to meet it, Jerome overlooked salt bush, yucca, and prickly pear cactus. Beyond Jerome you could see blacktopped switchbacks giving way to even higher elevations; high dessert Mesquite and Creosote giving way to Ponderosa Pine and Arizona Cypress.
Utter a sound, and you could hear the echo come back to you from space and time. To say the Sinagua passed on a rich legacy of an extraordinary Earthscape would abridge the reality I witnessed as I stood gazing out the primordial apartments of Tuzigoot.
Our last day at Smoke Horse, Cindy’s daughter Crystal inquired whether I was going to follow through on my request to Faye for an Orb hunting expedition, and with Cindy’s sister and nieces due to arrive that evening, we decided we would have plenty of cameras and strobe lights to capture the elusive critters. Lisa and her daughters arrived mid-afternoon, and, after drinks and dinner over another spectacular setting sun, we started to gear up.
To the uninitiated, Orbs are little balls of light that appear in low light flash photography. If you enlarge the image, they contain a myriad of shapes and colors and are quite beautiful. You can put this travelogue down for a moment and google them now if you want- I’ll wait...
OK, so here we are, Me, Cindy, Crystal, Lisa, her daughters Michelle and Jamie, all clicking our little digital cameras up into the sky over Taurus, Fancy, and the corral. Grant, somewhat dubious on the merits of Orb hunting, was in the den watching the NBA finals.
Faye, seeing we all were having only sporadic success, ran into the middle of the corral, and with horses Taurus and Fancy, proceeded with a welcoming sort of whoop whoop, singing and whirling about.
“Now try it,” she suggested to us. Over the next half hour, Orbs appeared by the hundreds on our digital screens as we clicked away. I finally grew satiated and, wanting to see the basketball game myself, left the Orb Fields to the ladies.
The Merlot-fueled Orb safari lasted well into the night, and when Cindy finally joined me in bed, she brought with her quite a collection of photos and stories to tell.
As one of my favorite writers, Mike Gaddis, bluntly put it in that Sporting Classics essay, "eventually comes a time you have to piss out the fire."
With plane reservations out of Phoenix at 7:00 the next morning, we left Smoke Horse before light. It had been a quick four day weekend and I didn’t want to leave. I had told Grant over a couple scotches the previous night that Smoke Horse had a very strong identity. But it was more than that. Something tugged at me from the direction of the mesa as I got into our rental car.
Some will tell you the Sedona region mystique is tripe. Some say it is trivial. I say it is tribal.
I’ve been near all four corners of the United States, in many areas with a rich Native American history, in some areas purported to have “other-worldly” qualities. I have spent time in the Yucatan’s legendary Mayan centers of Chichen Itza and Tulum. But I have never felt such an indigenous presence as here in the southwest. It pervades everything, this blanket of- faith that the ancients had. Anasazi, Sinagua, and later the White Mountain Apache, the Hopis the Navajos and countless others.
It enveloped me from the time I touched down at Phoenix Sky Harbor to the moment our wheels were up, heading home.
I can still feel it when I think back to Faye, singing and calling the Orbs to my camera. I don’t know what it is, but whatever it is, it has something to do with magic.
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