SCOTTSDALE — We headed to Arizona intent on discovering the places where the world really does fall away — what the Navajo call “tesbinegesagay,” or vast openness — and what the 19th-century Romantics referred to as the sublime.
Landing in Phoenix, we shook off jetlag in Scottsdale with a one-night stay at Sanctuary on Camelback. The terraced spa property, nestled in the north foothills of Camelback Mountain in the shadow of Praying Monk Rock, has sweeping views of Paradise Valley. After settling into our spacious casita with its tasteful modernist decor we headed to the spa complex for a couples massage.
A bamboo courtyard led to the vaulted reception area where votives and spotlights illuminated the black polished concrete floor and dark walls. A narrow floor-to-ceiling window aligned with Camelback and the rock pool in the interior courtyard. Soon the warm ginger-infused oil, the attendant’s skilled intuitive touch, and the cloth across my eyes weighed with stones pulled me into a deep relaxation. I floated back to the lounge where I offered up to no one: “I want to spend the rest of my life here.” A robed woman sitting nearby replied, “I was just thinking that.”
The next morning we headed north to Sedona. The Black Canyon Freeway gains more than a mile in altitude between Phoenix (1,117 feet) and Flagstaff (7,000 feet), and we soon realized we were on one of the most visually dramatic drives of a lifetime. The shadows of clouds lay over the red mesas like black smoke. As the land became greener the smell of cedar and sage penetrated the air.
Sunset was approaching as we rounded a curve on Route 179 north, catching that first awe-inspiring view of Bell Rock, one of Sedona’s mammoth red rock formations. Native American author N. Scott Momaday called Arizona a place where “monoliths stand away in space and you imagine you have come upon eternity.” New Age writers describe Bell Rock as one of four main energy points or vortexes in Sedona. Staying at Enchantment Resort, with its Mii Amo Spa, we found ourselves cocooned inside Boynton Canyon, another of the so-called energy points.
We woke at 6 a.m., watching the light spill red over the west walls of the canyon. Only the sky moved as clouds seemed to race across the utter blue. On a meandering walk to breakfast at the spa we discovered views everywhere. We ate blue corn waffles on the terrace adjacent to the pool and watched the sky roll by. After a morning hike and an afternoon of treatments involving red clay, crystals, and an astrologer, we swam that night alone in the pool under a full moon.
We made the climb to Flagstaff the next day as the temperature dropped steadily. Heat was replaced with brisk air that smelled of ponderosa pine. The Little America Hotel, with its spacious suites, forest walking paths, and huge outdoor pool and whirlpool, proved the ideal base camp for day trips.
Nearly 1,000 years ago a volcano erupted in the Flagstaff region, replacing meadows and forests with new mountains, including the 1,000-foot-high cinder cone known as Sunset Crater. Today, just 14 miles from Flagstaff at Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, blackened fields of lava flow, cinders, and volcanic mounds convey the calm of the moon. Native Americans consider this a sacred and cautionary landscape where a connection exists between the world below and the universe above.
We drove through the Cococino National Forest on Wupatki Loop Road, headed for the Wupatki ruins where Native Americans relocated after the eruption. Only the ribbon of road evidenced the modern world. The painted desert shimmered in the distance.
Visible for miles, Wukoki Pueblo perches on an outcrop, three stories tall and built of stacked and soil-mortared sandstone slabs. Standing on the wind-whipped plaza where the three families who dwelled here went about daily chores, we sensed the overwhelming sweep of the open land.
We visited Meteor Crater, the south rim of the Grand Canyon, and Canyon de Chelly National Monument, places where gusting 65-mile-an-hour winds added another layer of drama to the continual unfolding of a limitless universe of forms. Canyon de Chelly, a park owned by the Navajo Tribal Trust and home to nearly 40 Navajo families, is the most continually inhabited area in North America. At turnoffs on a self-guided drive following the north and south rims, we could see ancient ruins and geologic structures, as well as temporary dwellings and farmland on the canyon floor. The most dramatic lookout was Spider Rock, where two square cathedral-like sandstone spires rise a dizzying 750 feet from the canyon floor. The taller of the spires is believed by Pueblo and Navajo peoples to be home to Spider Grandmother, creator of the world. In every direction there was nothing but the natural world, undisturbed.
We headed for Route 59 west toward Monument Valley. Giant walls of rock mesas marked with striated bands of gray, white, and red appeared along the switchbacks. Then the valley appeared, its craggy spires and wind-sculpted buttes immediately recognizable from a score of films and commercials.
Thanks to a tip from area native Scott Laws, operations manager at Gouldings Lodge, we spent an afternoon visiting two nearby Utah sites. At Goosenecks State Park the solo attraction is a jaw-dropping formation known as an entrenched meander 300 million years in the making, carved into the desert by the San Juan River. Here, views extend for miles, taking in Monument Valley to the southwest.
In the Valley of the Gods, a 360,000-acre Cedar Mesa Cultural and Recreational Management area located between Bluff and Mexican Hat, we spent five hours driving and stopping to absorb the beauty. This narrow 17-mile deserted dirt road winds through an array of dramatic rock formations that in their isolation struck us as more profound and magnificent than their Monument Valley neighbors.
The Valley of the Gods lies at the base of the 1,200-foot Cedar Mesa bluff that formed when a sea invaded from the northwest 250 million years ago. The Navajo believe these 250-million-year-old sandstone formations are places of power in which spirits reside.
Standing atop a low butte I watched scudding late afternoon clouds shadow the towering rock faces and the endless span of the valley floor, just as they had done for eons past and would do long after my moment here. I felt the connection I’d traveled across the country to find, my quiet small place in the immensity of time and nature.