I'm hiking in Boynton Canyon near Sedona, Ariz., and the woman behind me is berating her husband for not telling her to wear hiking boots, speaking to him in a voice that hints at ongoing bitterness.
It's at this point that I realize the New Age theory that the canyon is devoid of male-female tension because of its "vortex" is in error. Either that or we haven't reached the vortex yet, the place where soothing energy is supposedly oozing out of the earth.
The day before, the owner of Sedona's Center for the New Age - one of those shops full of crystals, tarot cards, flute music and dreamy-eyed patrons - enlightened me on the various energy vortexes in the area.
"There are two types of energies coming from the rocks: magnetic [female]and electric [male] Boynton Canyon has both," she said. "It's balanced, so you'll notice people there are calm. There's no male-female tension in Boynton Canyon."
Wow, I replied. Couples on the brink of divorce should hang out there.
"As for the other three vortex sites," the woman continued, "Cathedral Rock is magnetic and therefore feminine. The energy at Bell Rock is so powerful you'll notice it before getting out of your car. The Airport Vortex is masculine, so watch out - the strength of it might knock you over."
SHAMANS AND SKEPTICS
I first heard about Sedona from hippies at a remote campground south of the city where my husband, Rob, and I were staying.
But when April White Cloud tacked ads around town declaring her status as a master clairvoyant, psychic healer and shaman priestess, I didn't trust her, or the town's metaphysical claim to fame, for a minute.
Nor did I trust the man in the glossy photo with the grey ponytail, who claimed he would open the Third Eye, retrieve wandering souls and channel spirits for $200 a session.
When I read through Sedona: Journal of Emergence - which features stories such as The World Through My Dog's Sacred Vision, The Eleventh Chakra in the Fourth Dimension and, my favourite, Could It Be You're Already Dead? - I felt cold.
Still, I was curious about the vortexes. So I suggested to my husband that instead of ditching Sedona immediately, we go searching for energy sites.
The owner of the Center for the New Age had told me that the best way to feel the vortex energy was to go on a guided trek. Since guides are on a "higher level of spiritual consciousness," you have a more powerful experience - at a cost of about $250.
I figured Rob and I could find the vortexes on our own, and maybe eavesdrop on a guided tour, letting leftover sacred energy spill over onto us. And as I left the centre, a woman reassured us that the energy is so overwhelming a person would have to be abnormally insensitive not to feel anything.
'DO YOU FEEL ANYTHING?'
In the first half-hour of the eight-kilometre hike through Boynton Canyon, our first vortex site, we pass Enchantment Resort, which somewhat detracts from the nature experience as you walk by million-dollar guest houses.
Soon, however, we are hiking at the foot of crimson cliffs and eventually into a snowy pine forest. At first, we're among crowds of hikers on this popular trail. But the farther we go, the fewer hikers we encounter and the more we stop to chat.
Near the end of the trail, high up in a spectacular box canyon, we ask fellow hikers, "So, do you feel anything?"
"Yeah, my legs hurt," someone says.
"Yep, sure am thirsty," says another.
Nobody had found the vortex. Back at our van, however, a man emerges with a more detailed map - and we discover that Boynton Canyon's vortex is just 50 yards from the parking lot.
The map shows the vortex to be on a knoll surrounded by juniper trees supposedly twisted by the energy of the vortex. I had seen twisted junipers in the Southwest before, usually in windy places - like the top of this knoll.
I sit down in the dusty red dirt up on the knoll to absorb some sacred energy. All I feel is the midday sun burning my face.
GRANDEUR, OF A SORT
But I'm not deterred. Rob and I decide that after exploring downtown, we'll head back into the hills for sunset.
Aside from the New Age circus, Sedona is physically stunning. New businesses in this rapidly growing town of 15,000 must have red-clay-tiled roofs and adhere to adobe architecture in muted shades of browns, greens and taupes. And when the sun sets it's an event of dazzling proportions: The last rays of the day ignite the towering red-rock cliffs that surround the city.
We decide to watch the sunset from Airport Vortex because it has tremendous views - and I scramble up the rocks ahead of Rob, thinking perhaps I'll feel more on my own.
It's a short but steep climb to the top of the vortex and on my way up I pass a middle-aged woman huffing and puffing coming down.
"I didn't feel anything," she says to her husband. "What a darn waste of time that was."
I keep climbing.
When I reach the top, the sun is in the process of painting everything a fierce red and I sit down on the sandstone rock. For a long time, I stare out across the dizzying grandeur of the high-desert landscape, the mesas, mountains and buttes, trying to probe the depths of my inner self, yearning for the earth's energy to mingle with my own, and a feeling gradually starts to come over me: hunger. I could go for a super-burrito right now.
The next day, we go to Cathedral Rock. With red rock spires towering over the flowing Oak Creek, it is the most photographed site in Sedona. And we hike along the brook through the trees until we find the vortex.
This time, I sit down and try very seriously to sense the surges of energy. Under the shade of a juniper tree beside the creek, I close my eyes, take a deep breath and empty my mind of its clutter.
Gradually, I begin to relax as tranquillity flows through me. The world around me is at peace. Then I hear something stirring - low murmurs drifting up through the funnels of the red ground straight to my heart. Hallelujah, Mother Earth has finally reached me.
The murmurs grow louder, however. So loud that I open my eyes to see a group of people sitting in a circle across the creek. They're chanting. They're also dressed funny, wearing black capes and wide-brimmed mauve hats. A moment before, I'd thought I'd just felt something spiritual and now I just feel distracted and crummy.
Which brings us to the fourth and last of the Sedona vortexes. At Bell Rock, also a popular site for sightings of unidentified flying objects, we stop just for the heck of it on our way back to our campsite. I have given up on feeling much of anything by now. In fact, I recall a friend saying the only vortex he noticed in Sedona was the one sucking gas from his car when he sat in traffic for 45 minutes.
As I climb Bell Rock, though, I look to the west. The sun has just fallen behind a mountain and its afterglow is lighting up the sky with swirling masses of mandarin and deep purple, while a single planet - perhaps Venus - seems to shine down to where I sit on the rock. A breeze cools my arms, pines give off the fragrance of oozing gum and coyotes howl for night to begin. Inside, I'm quietly exploding from the aching beauty around me.
This is the Earth's energy, I realize, and this is sacred.
Pack your crystals
Air Canada and WestJet have flights to Phoenix. By car, Sedona is two hours from Phoenix. The Sedona/Phoenix Airport Shuttle (928-282-2066; http://www.sedona-phoenix-shuttle.com) leaves Phoenix Airport for Sedona seven times a day, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Round-trip fare is $85.
Information about vortexes and a map to major sites can be found at http://www.lovesedona.com/01.htm.
Sedona Sacred Journeys 928-274-2427; http://www.sedona-spiritual-vacations.com. Custom tours and retreats. Prices vary.
Sedona Vortex Tours 928-282-2733 www.sedonaretreats.com/tours.html. Rates: $75 to $130, depending on length.
Center for the New Age 707-498-4270 http://www.sedonanewagecenter.com/Vortex/vortex_tours.htm. Rates vary by length, group size.