Finding Peace in the Desert - Erin Wilby

*Photo credit: Erin Wilby


On a crisp, sunny morning in March, my sister and I laced up our hiking boots and set out for the trail through Sedona’s red rock spires. We kicked up apricot-colored dust as we navigated the well-worn trail past prickly pear cactuses. Our destination was Cathedral Rock, a popular 1.2-mile hike to one of Sedona’s famed vortexes. The energy fields that emanate from the red rocks are said to be conducive to “healing, meditation and self-exploration,” according to the city’s tourism website.


I’m not a spiritual person. In my early 30s, married with a successful career, I bought into the delusion that I was in control of my life only to be knocked off balance by the loss of my mother. In my grief, I became a stranger to myself. I woke up each morning feeling I was living someone else’s life. Dressing in her clothes, sitting at her desk, sleeping beside her husband. I needed something to ground me, which is how I found myself in the desert with my sister looking for vortexes.


As we hiked, my sister and I breathed in unison, enjoying the quiet. We communicated with a nod, a look, a raised eyebrow, the way you can with someone you’ve known your whole life. Suddenly, our silent dialog was interrupted by a boisterous group of tourists armed with selfie sticks and smelling of last night’s margaritas. My sister and I shared an eye roll then pumped our legs, trying to put distance between us and the loud group. We arrived at the end of the trail, a small saddle perched between two towering red rocks. We took in the view of pinyon pine trees and rocks glowing orange in the morning light. But whatever healing energy the vortex put out was overshadowed by our cacophonous companions. My sister—ever the teacher—shushed them.


Perhaps it was naïve to expect quiet in Sedona. With its sunny weather and stunning scenery, the city has become one of the top tourist destinations in the United States. The town of 10,000 receives 3 million tourists per year. Visitors contribute $1 billion to the local economy and support 10,000 jobs, but popularity comes at a cost: overcrowding, traffic, environmental damage. Even the city of Zen is struggling to find balance.


My sister and I decided to try another trail, hoping the midday sun would scare away some of the crowds. It didn’t. As we hiked past a graying man in jeans, he growled to his wife, “I got to see arches in Utah and I didn’t have to hike two miles.” A statement so absurd, I chuckled to myself. The hike led to Devil’s Bridge, Sedona’s largest sandstone arch created by wind and weather erosion. At the end of the hike, instead of a vista, we hit a wall of people in a single file line. It looked more like the Black Friday check out at a Walmart than the summit of a hiking trail. What was going on? Was there an animal or hazardous crossing? No. People were waiting to have their picture taken on the skinny sandstone slab 75 feet above the ground. A group of college-aged friends posed on the edge of the rock for what would become a FOMO-inducing Instagram post sure to add to the trail’s overcrowding.


Wow, I thought, the internet has ruined us all. Twisting our human need to belong into a reward system of likes, comments, and shares. We do ridiculous things so we can post a picture that earns us admiration. But the feeling is fleeting so we seek out more dramatic photo ops, until our online personas have so influenced our real life behavior that we can no longer tell who is the true self and who is its facsimile. I gave my sister a tight-lipped half smile. We hiked down to a less crowded overlook to have a snack.


I took a bite of my gala apple and looked at my sister. “This trip makes me think of the birthday talks,” I said. She smiled, “Me, too.” My sister, my mother, and I celebrated every birthday by going out to dinner and discussing what the birthday girl had learned that year. We would talk for hours, turning the wild force of circumstance into teachable moments. This year was different. My birthday passed two months prior but I could barely say a word. The loss of my mother was too immense, too painful. The circumstances so messy and unsatisfying that I called into question the very practice of distilling my experiences into tidy parables. I couldn’t manufacture meaning out of my mother’s death any more than I could will a vortex to ignite me.


I was about to give up any hope of spiritual enlightenment in Sedona when on the way home from the hike we stopped at a local craft market. I tried on a turquoise ring with a braided silver band and chatted with the shopkeeper, who was also from the Pacific Northwest.


“What’s it like living in Sedona?” I asked.


“Sedona is an illusion,” she said. “Most people who own property here don’t live here. It’s their second home.”


She had moved to Sedona from Portland 15 years before with her husband. Upon their arrival, he asked for a divorce. “Sedona will bring up whatever is unsettled in your life. It is a place to go when you need healing,” she said.


I told her our search for vortexes had led us to loud tourists.


“You should go to the café down the street. You might find some of the Sedona energy you’re looking for.”


We drove down Route 89A, a seemingly endless stretch of strip malls, to a small brown building. The host led us to a large, fenced in patio and seated us in the shade of a large juniper tree. Yogic mantras used to focus the mind during meditation hummed through the speakers and water trickled from a fountain, creating a calming atmosphere. A sign on the host stand declared the café a wifi-free zone. At neighboring tables, people chatted over steaming bowls of curry. We ordered beet smoothies and hummus. I smiled at my sister across the table and lifted my hand to sign “I love you,” like our mother had taught us to when we were kids. My sister signed back and gave me wink.


The café was not a place of natural beauty. Just beyond the 6-foot fence was a highway dotted with big box stores, lanes crowded with traffic. But the café owners had walled off a little piece of the city and created a sanctum. I exhaled. My heartbeat slowed. The muscles on my forehead softened. I had found peace in the desert. It wasn’t in a red rock vortex or on the edge of a sandstone cliff. I found quiet where I least expected it: a strip mall café. Because no matter where I go there will be noise, illusions, loss. But I can create a quiet space within. To be. To reflect. To heal.

Erin Wilby is a Seattle-based writer and multimedia storyteller. Her personal essays explore family, gender. Through film, articles, and social media campaigns, Wilby advocates for gender equity, disease prevention, and education equity. She received her graduate degree from Johns Hopkins University where she studied behavioral economics, a background she employs in her writing to untangle the mysteries of human behavior. Read her work at www.erinwilby.com.

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