“Hey, do you know where the vortex is?”

A guy in his twenties with chin-length hair was calling uphill to where my husband and I were seated on a red-rock boulder. This kind of conversation is fairly typical in Sedona, Arizona, the New Age capital of the United States.

“I think we’re sitting on it,” I called down. It was nearly sunset, our last night in Sedona, and we had spent quite a bit of time consulting our vortex map to find the exact "power spot"—a concentration of the earth’s energy—at Airport Mesa, one of Sedona’s four “official” vortexes (there are also six other sites where people feel special energy). Unfortunately, there were no signs posted saying “Vortex Here,” so you had to go by soft indicators, like a severely twisted juniper tree (“the stronger the energy, the more of an axial twist in the tree’s branches,” advised one pamphlet). We had found a deformed juniper and sat down in front of it to gaze at the setting sun.

“No, I don’t think that’s it,” the young man said. “I think it’s higher up on the other side of the hill.”

Oh dear. No wonder I wasn’t feeling anything unusual.

Nothing but the intense dry heat of a three-year drought that has been making the entire Southwest a tinderbox this summer. There was a wildfire burning in nearby Oak Creek Canyon. We could see the smoke in the distance and a small plane flying over to douse it. Unfortunately, more fires started in this beautiful pine forest after we left, taking more than a week to control.

At this point, though, I admit I was more concerned with tracking down the magical vortex energy that many call “life-changing.” Would it change my life? I certainly wasn't the first to come here asking that question.

Sedona’s beauty is legendary. Set at the bottom of a canyon, the city is surrounded by immense red sandstone and limestone cliffs and mesas, sculpted by erosion into fantastic shapes that change from gold and orange to crimson and purple at different times of day.

For thousands of years, Native Americans in the area held sacred ceremonies in the canyon (none would consider living here; it was holy ground). In the 1950s, artists and film stars discovered Sedona. Its stunning backdrop was used for Westerns like “The Angel and the Badman” and “Johnny Guitar.” Walt Disney, who lived here then, is said to have based a Disneyland roller coaster on Sedona’s massive Thunder Mountain. Sedona now has 8000-10,000 permanent residents, with four million tourists visiting annually. A Northern Arizona University study done in 1995 showed that 64 percent of Sedona’s visitors were seeking a spiritual experience.

The word “vortex” came into use in Sedona around 1980, when a spiritual channel named Page Bryant used dowsing and her intuition to locate power spots in the landscape where the energy of the earth breaks the surface. People say effects of the vortexes range from subtle (a feeling of peace or delight) to tangible (a rush of new ideas or visions, a tingling sensation in your body) to extremely powerful (your hair stands on end). A massage therapist I went to on this trip told me, “I turned a corner while hiking and was almost blown off my feet. It was like walking into an electrical field.” Surprisingly, her experience didn’t happen at a known vortex site, and she had been in Sedona for two years and hadn't felt anything unusual before. So how would I be affected in just three days?

We decided to take one of the advertised vortex tours. One handout showed a joyous-looking woman named Suzanne McMillan-McTavish raising her arms in front of Cathedral Rock vortex, a full moon rising in the background. The testimonials all sang her praises, but we soon learned that Suzanne no longer gave tours, but trained guides. We were assured by the woman at the tour company office, though, that the tour would be “fully ceremonial and spiritual.”

My husband and I turned out to be the only ones on the tour.
Our guide Ron, a soft-spoken Californian with a graying beard, in a tie-dyed T-shirt and cowboy hat, had only been there for a few months. My husband, a skeptic on spiritual matters, was unconcerned, but I am a believer in all things metaphysical and felt a bit let down—how deep could his knowledge of vortexes be? But Ron was a sweet guy, well-acquainted with Native American spirituality, and described himself as a spiritual seeker.