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Tucson Weekly Crystal Clearinghouse

Sedona's New Age Movement Is Drawing Critic's Ire--And Satire.

By Leo Banks

JUNE 28, 1999:  THE UFO gift shop called Starport Sedona is buzzing this morning. Over here is a conversation between two middle-aged women, each detailing their own tale of abduction by space aliens. They're not whispering. Over there is a silver-haired fellow, of apparently considerable means, studying a wall map pinned with the latest UFO sightings.

Down on Main Street, you scan the leaflets posted everywhere and see come-ons from psychics, pyramid builders, angels, and a bearded fellow named Joa who promises to read your soul for $1.25 a minute.

"We live in the land of the woo-woos," says Thom Stanley, editor of Sedona Excentric, a monthly publication that pokes fun at all things New Age. "We started this newspaper because we'd go into restaurants and bars and everybody was talking about crystal crunchers. But nobody was writing about them."

Prior to 1989, Sedona couldn't have supported a publication like Stanley's. Then the town was little more than a pretty village in central Arizona's red-rock country, a gas and gift stop populated by well-off retirees and artists.

Now it's a six-stoplight tourist mecca that attracts four million visitors a year, many drawn by a belief in the concept of a vortex, a place in the earth said to emit healing energy. New Agers say that four such vortices exist in the area, and they make it easier for everyday humans to communicate with spirits, get in touch with dead relatives, or their own past lives.

But Sedona's crystal revolution hasn't been all insight and inner peace. Some of those who've hung out spiritual shingles are on the distant fringe of reality. Trance channeler Robert Shapiro teaches expanded perception, and claims to have instructed a young woman how to become invisible so she could visit her lover in prison.

Recent visitors could've attended a seminar by Gabriel of Sedona. If you can understand the topics covered, you probably don't need to attend. They included planetary divine administration, complementary relationships between ascending sons and daughters, ascension science and inter-universal physics, and the repercussions of the Lucifer Rebellion. The seminar closes with a chat by the Bright and Morning Star of Salvington, head administrator of our universe.

Many locals aren't enamored of the weird reputation Sedona has earned worldwide, and see other downsides to Sedona's continued popularity.

"The only vortex I ever felt was all the money being sucked out of my wallet," says painter and Tucson Weekly cartoonist Rand Carlson, who lived in Sedona two years before returning to Tucson.

Spiritual living is costly. A quarter-acre lot with a decent view can run $100,000, and the average price of a new home has risen to $285,000.

Because the rents paid by shop owners are so high, the price of goods is high as well. Even food shopping is affected. Some Sedona residents, including retired writer Alan Caillou, drive to a neighboring town to get a bargain on groceries.

"You can't buy a sweater in Sedona for less than $150," says Caillou. "I drive to the Wal-Mart in Cottonwood and get a sweatshirt for $30."

High housing costs force workers to move elsewhere. Waitresses, maids and store clerks, whose standard wage is around $7 an hour, can't afford to buy or rent here. They live in apartments and trailers in Cottonwood and Cornville, 18 and 12 miles away respectively. Sedona's economy is either Mercedes rich or back-break poor--three houses or three jobs.

Chamber of Commerce President Frank Miller says that growth--a modest 2 to 3 percent a year--would run higher except that much of the land surrounding Sedona is controlled by the U.S. Forest Service.

Even so, development is a divisive issue, and it isn't the construction of homes on acre lots that causes the upset. It's the boom in time-share apartments in which buyers purchase one week a year for the privilege of living among the red rocks.

"Time shares are freaking everybody out," says Stanley. "Instead of one home and two cars on the lot, you've got 150 people and 150 cars."

And traffic. Although refugees from such cities as Los Angeles and Boston giggle at the grousing about congestion, long-time Sedonans are horrified by it. The joke here is that old people have to shop one side of Highway 89 one day, and the other side the next, because the traffic is so bad they can't get across.

Blaming New Agers for Sedona's problems is, of course, unfair. But it happens, in part because they're a handy scapegoat, and because the two have been so inextricably tied. The publicity the town receives, in travel magazines and on TV, invariably portrays it as a Shangri-la for the soul inside an Alice in Wonderland storybook.

An example: The CBS News program 48 Hours aired a segment on Sedona in which fairies were discovered inside buildings. Producers also found a real-estate agent who checks to make sure the aura of a home matches that of the buyer.

Such publicity brings visitors who buy the pitch. And it really is a sales pitch. The Chamber, which used to ignore the New Age influence, has given in to it, and now trumpets "mystical Sedona" on its website. Even Gabriel of Sedona is a dues-paying member of the Chamber.

"People who snickered at the vortexes are now painting their jeeps in dazzling colors," says resident Jim Bishop. "I think more people are selling the New Age here than living it, to be honest."

Those who do live it are raising angry hackles. The Forest Service in particular isn't thrilled by the unauthorized use of federal land for religious ceremonies.

An example is the construction of medicine wheels on federal property. These large circles of loosely-stacked rocks are considered symbols of the earth's energy and a focal point for meditation and prayer. But the Forest Service says that disturbing natural features of the landscape is illegal and constitutes vandalism.

The latest craze is burying crystals at prehistoric rock-art sites, or leaving blue corn meal as an offering to the earth--both illegal if the site is designated an archaeological dig.

"A lot of them don't follow leave-no-trace practices," says Bill Stafford, a Forest official in Sedona. "But that's everybody, not just New Agers. We have worse problems with litter and people driving helter-skelter with four-by-fours."

Pete A. Sanders Jr., an informal spokesman for spiritual Sedona, believes in vortex power, based on his studies of physics while a student at MIT, where he graduated in 1972. He's taught medicine-wheel etiquette to New Age pilgrims, and recommends that instead of disturbing the landscape, they build wheels in their minds.

Sanders says he's troubled by New Agers out to make a buck, and those who "enslave people as devotees." But he also believes that elements within the Forest Service and the town at large are prejudiced against New Agers.

"I don't support all the things people here believe," says Sanders, author of four books, including You Are Pyschic. "But I allow people to have their own beliefs. People come here on spiritual pilgrimages the same way they go to Mecca or Lourdes."

But others are bothered by New Age adherents' use of Native American ceremonies. Medicine wheels are not a product of Navajo or Hopi cultures, and the sweat lodges that operate in Sedona aren't run by legitimate medicine men. What happens during these rituals often has only passing connection to any real tribal custom.

Margo Running, a masseuse and teacher-in-training whose ex-husband was Lakota Sioux, has tried to raise awareness and respect among tour operators, spiritual guides and schoolkids. But the turnover among those who market native earthways, as well as their isolation, make progress difficult.

In tribal cultures, the needs of the medicine man were met by those he helped. But in Sedona, Running says, money is the new buffalo robe.

"We took your land, killed your culture and cut off your hair, and now we want your spirituality, too," says Running. "To most Indians, this town is a joke. It's a matter of showing respect."

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