Friday, 20 November 2015

Sedona, AZ

I have a theory that modes of human thought are influenced by  geography to a greater extent than any of us may realise. I say theory, although vague assemblage of ideas might be a more accurate term, a vague assemblage of ideas which came to me as I noticed certain stylistic similarities between the art and architecture of the Classic Maya of Mexico and that produced by their very distant relatives across the other side of the Bering Straits in parts of Asia and northern China. The early twentieth century folklorist Donald A. MacKenzie saw clear parallels between Mayan and Asian cultures of such strength as to indicate pre-Colombian contact for which there is unfortunately no worthwhile evidence, despite the protestations of conspiracy theorists. However, looking at the art of the two unrelated cultures, you can't really blame MacKenzie, such is the apparent synchronicity of vision. My idea was that environment might influence thought in so much as that a society which develops in a river valley will yield persons thinking in subtly different ways - in certain respects - to persons of a society developing high on a mountain plateau; and maybe these divergent modes of thought are passed on by whatever mechanism in such a way as to mean that, for example, two very distant cousins separated by many, many generations, when asked to draw a sailor will both independently produce the image of someone who very much resembles Popeye through the inheritance of a shared visual language; and spoken language and the forms it may take prescribe what can be said and how it is expressed, so perhaps similar laws apply to thought and perception.

With no clue as to whether any of this actually applies to anything in the real world, I intuitively feel that environment really does exert its influence on human thought and ways of seeing. Having visited Mexico on a number of occasions, it has struck me that the pre-Colombian Gods - Quetzalcoatl, Tezcatlipoca, Toci and the rest - make perfect sense in context of the environment from which they were born; or specifically, it's easy to see how someone might subscribe to a belief in that particular pantheon whilst wandering around Tepoztlan or Malinalco or Teotenanco, for these are spectacular environments. At least they were spectacular environments in terms of my experience, and whilst my experience may well be the false impression of a visitor whose eyes have not yet grown accustomed to the surroundings as commonplace, I somehow doubt this on the grounds that I continue to be impressed by mountains in a general sense, no matter how many I see.

Certain landscapes, I would suggest, are resistant to ever becoming so familiar as to reduce to wallpaper, specifically those which we usually describe as epic or panoramic by virtue of features which will remain forever at the periphery of human experience, craggy peaks, desert expanse, or great oceans - places we can visit, but upon which we cannot quite make a home, not without significant difficulty. Mountains and the like therefore remain distant, removed from regular human experience whilst providing an ever-present reminder of forces at work with which we cannot immediately identify, and whether geological or supernatural - it doesn't really make a lot of difference. This is why Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt painted what they painted in preference to parking lots or drinking establishments at chucking out time: landscape as summation of the sacred.

I've vaguely subscribed to most of the above at least since my parents used to take me on holiday to the lumpier end of Wales as a child, even if I didn't quite have it all set down in such terms. I was reminded of it when I visited Mexico, and again more recently when passing through Roswell in New Mexico. The marshy uplands as one leaves the town heading for Ruidoso, passing through fog sporadically illuminated by distant gas flares all equate to a landscape which seems unusually conducive to belief in extraterrestrial visitors crashing their saucers. If it's going to happen, you think to yourself, then it would make sense for it to happen here.

Of course, none of this accounts for that which is understood by both science and psychology regarding Mexican Gods, crashed flying saucers, or the emotional upswell of feeling which some may choose to describe as religious experience, but then I'm not really talking about either science or psychology so much as the human experience of a subjective response to one's environment, because that is the part which most of us understand, and that is the part from which mythology is born, mythology amounting to an intuitive understanding of one's environment for which the issue of rationality may not be directly relevant, at least no more so than it is to a Bierstadt landscape. Mythology represents neither a scientific discipline nor necessarily an objective representation of what we experience, but it can be helpful in describing what we experience given that what we experience is generally experienced as meaning rather than material substance.

To get to the point, I had enjoyed a memorable fortieth birthday in Oaxaca, Mexico with my friend Rob; and a similarly stimulating forty-ninth - the transitional year, I suppose - in Roswell, Ruidoso, and New Mexico with my wife; and now as I was about to hit fifty, it was to be the Grand Canyon. I've lived in America for nearly five years, and it seemed like due time.

We flew to Phoenix, hired a car, and drove the hundred or so miles north following I-17 up to the small town - or possibly city given my not yet quite having grasped the American distinction - of Sedona. The Grand Canyon is another hundred miles north of Sedona, but my wife had stayed in this place some years before and said the experience would be worth the extra distance, and she was right. Leaving Phoenix, the land was much closer to desert than anything to which I'm accustomed, characterised by scrubby plants scattered across the rocks and sand, creosote bushes and forests of saguaro - arguably the most fundamental of all cacti, the kind we all remember from cowboy films we saw as children, the kind we drew at school based on images from Little Plum or Desperate Dan. The terrain changed as we headed north, switching abruptly to a landscape more closely resembling our corner of Texas with familiar salt cedar and nopal cacti replacing saguaro so completely that it seemed as though we had passed some ancient horticultural frontier which no plant had been willing to cross. I suspect it was probably our elevation above sea level, climbing higher as we travelled north, up out of the burning desert to that which, like San Antonio, is merely scorching.

It being our birthday - my wife forty-four and myself fifty on the very same date - we pulled in at a Denny's restaurant, having heard a rumour of there being free food to be had therein on one's birthday; and the rumour was true so we each had a free grand slam - a dish pretty much constituting the last word in breakfast for those of you still to pop your respective Denny's cherries - which probably represented some sort of seminal moment in the history of mooching.

We got back on the road, resuming our northwards trajectory and gradually acclimating to it still being only ten in the morning thanks to Arizona being two hours behind Texas. The distant mountains grew more impressive, more cinematic as we went on, presumably geologically working towards the general thrust of the Grand Canyon, culminating in a spectacular splash of red rocks as we approached Sedona; so spectacular that we stopped the hire car and got out to take photographs and swear in appreciation, little realising that even this scene would come to appear humble in comparison to that which lay ahead.

Sedona itself nestles amongst red rocks, immense outcrops of heavily layered red sandstone, alternately craggy or made smooth by wind and water. It was like no place I had ever been, and those cowboy flicks of my youth - a good few of which had almost certainly been filmed here - hadn't done it justice. It felt like a rehearsal for the Grand Canyon, also like certain places in Mexico in being at similar distance from anything previously experienced; and similarly remote with mile upon mile of mountain or desert scrub upon which no-one had yet attempted to erect a billboard advertising car insurance.

We found our hotel and settled in, then went back out after a short rest. Sedona, so it transpired, is nothing like a town or city by any European sense, but rather comprises dwellings, restaurants and the occasional store - mostly of adobe - hidden away in upland conifer forest and arranged along a spider web of roads and highways following the canyons and rivers. It feels mostly like wilderness, and each turn in the road brings a freshly astonishing panorama into view. We began to recognise certain flourishes of hill or mountain by shape. Bell Rock is easy to spot because it resembles a bell, sort of; and then there's Snoopy Rock which from one angle roughly duplicates the profile of Charlie Brown's cartoon beagle reclining on top of his doghouse. Another angle reveals Snoopy Rock's close set and top-heavy sandstone columns, features which seemed to justify our briefly rebranding it European Dentistry.

As if all this spectacle were not enough by itself, the terrain is of such quality as to appear in constant flux, changing each minute as the sun drags shadows across the mountain landscape, eventually culminating with evenings of splendour equivalent to epic Biblically themed paintings of the nineteenth century - plunging river valleys sinking into sepulchral shade as high peaks shine like gold in the deepening blue expanse of the heavens.

Pardon my adjectives.

Back in the sixteenth century, the Spaniards inhabiting Mexico  encountered rumours of the Seven Cities of Gold reputed to be found in the north, somewhere beyond the Rio Grande, and being big fans of gold they sent expeditions in search of the same. Needless to say, none of the legendary cities were ever located, and one enduring interpretation of the myth suggests it may have been only a rumour springing from numerous
hopeful Mexica pointing northwards and saying, sure - go that way. Just keep going until you find those puppies. Another interpretation is that the myth springs from a misunderstanding of an early traveller trying to describe the Grand Canyon, and although Sedona isn't quite so far north, it could equally well have provided inspiration for the story.

In the evening we ate at a passable Mexican place, discovering that Max Ernst had lived in Sedona for a while - which makes a lot of sense when one compares the texture of many of his paintings with that of the landscape; and then we retired, exhausted by a twenty-six hour day of which the latter half had been spent in a state of near continuous awe; and here is why I began with a lengthy preamble concerning the influence of landscape on human psychology. Both my wife and myself found it difficult to believe that anyone could become bored of Sedona, such was our reaction to the place. It doesn't seem like one could cease to appreciate the mountains or the canyons or the spectacle of it all, and so it probably isn't too surprising that the town should have become a Mecca for new age types, simply because this is a landscape which demands consideration of forces larger and less easily quantified than oneself. This thought was underscored when we stepped out from the hotel the next morning and found ourselves immediately awestruck all over again, just like seeing it all for the first time.

The new age presence in Sedona manifests as shops retailing crystals, books, and related paraphernalia, or else offering services which probably must mean something or other to those who hand over money for tarot readings, channelling, rebirthing, having their aura photographed or whatever. Ordinarily I might have found such things quite irritating, but in Sedona they are at least an understandable response to the surroundings. One specifically local response to the surroundings is the phenomena of the vortex, or vortices - supposed natural regions of poorly defined energy one may encounter whilst exploring the wilderness. These regions are apparently highly conducive to meditation, and a guidebook on sale at the Sedona branch of Walgreens promises that deep thinkers will experience greater clarity whilst meditating within a vortex. The book contains a map should you wish to go looking for one.

I am a little irritated by this idea. It suggests persons requiring that their powerful emotional reaction to nature hold some deeper meaning. It's someone stood before a scene of sublime beauty  deciding that it isn't enough, that it needs a bit of that old Harry Potter magic sprinkled on top to make it really interesting; but then again, in Sedona it seems all bets are off, and I find myself thinking well, if it works for you, then whatever... It is difficult to maintain one's customary cynicism in such surroundings.

As with Roswell, I can see why people gravitate towards certain modes of thought in this setting, even that certain modes of thought might be considered appropriate, no more harmful than an emotional mapping of the territory, a means of description beyond the dry statistics of geology.

With my curiosity operating at a reduced level of cynicism I purchased several books written by Tom Dongo, a Sedona author who describes innumerable incidences of mysterious forces and encounters allegedly occurring in the region over the past couple of decades. He writes with a pleasant, conversational style and doesn't really seem to care too much who believes him, and whilst I'm not sure I do, neither do I exactly doubt his testimony, peculiar though it may be, and I nevertheless very much enjoyed his books.

Anyway, on the Friday we went to see the Grand Canyon. Naturally it was spectacular, and so much so that no description can really be adequate. It is something one really needs to see for oneself. That said, the Canyon has about it some disconcertingly underwhelming quality relating to its being somehow too spectacular. The Canyon is a mile deep in places and eighteen miles across at its widest, meaning that standing on one side affords a view of more earth and rock than most people will ever have seen and from an angle which may as well be above, and at a greater distance than is generally facilitated by the natural curvature of the Earth's surface; so the view is probably not unlike what you might see from orbit, the novelty being that it's down here and is thus viewed with the naked eye. The result of this is that you can't quite take in what you're looking at, and it's difficult to tell which distant outcrops or peaks are in front of others.

Bess and myself walked along the edge roughly to the point at which the safety rail ends before being driven back by vertigo. We could see teenagers messing around on nearby outcrops beyond the safety rail, taking their selfies on strips of rock four feet wide with a mile drop either side, and the sight alone made us feel ill. The information sheet we'd been handed back at the entrance reported a statistic of around a hundred deaths a year at the Grand Canyon.

We sat for a while, some way back from the edge, trying to ignore the woman on the next bench singing her whining improvised hymn to Mother Earth - sung out loud because presumably the words would be meaningless without an audience to define her deep, deep spirituality as visionary and against the common grain by regarding it as slightly comical, the unenlightened fools. Then we got back in the car and came home, or came back to Sedona given that it had already begun to feel like home; and we both realised that, regardless of scale, the Grand Canyon had been substantially less breathtaking than the place we were staying. Sedona works on a more human level.

On the Saturday we pottered around a couple of sites south of Sedona, the somewhat misnamed Montezuma's Castle and the hilltop fortification of Tuzigoot, architectural remnants of local Sinagua culture of the fourteenth century, and somewhat refuting the received wisdom of pre-Colombian North America lacking anything resembling civilisation.

Then on Sunday we came home, returning to the established here and now. Obviously there was more to it than only that which is described above, and the details of where we ate and what else we did were set down in my diary, but mainly because I am otherwise unlikely to remember any of it given the contrast of the setting in which it occurred. I've lasted half a century, and I've seen the Grand Canyon, and I've probably been changed in some sense by the landscape of Sedona. I probably could have said this in significantly less than three-thousand words, but sometimes you just have to go the distance with your subject, particularly when there's no map which will ever really do it justice.

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