While standing in the hotel lobby waiting for our hosts to arrive, I saw pamphlets advertising the vortexes in Sedona, Arizona. Ads for "Personal Vortex Tours," "Shamanic Adventure," and "Private Spiritual Journey" stood out among brochures for Mexican restaurants and all manner of space- and art-related attractions. Though the town is now filled with galleries, homes, and restaurants, I learned that the Sinagua Indians had built their homes outside of Sedona, only traveling to the red rock sites for sacred purposes. So, I thought, I too must come here with sacred purpose.
I looked outside to see that a pickup truck labeled "Country Limo" had arrived, and two elder women were approaching the glass doors. Elizabeth Martina Bishop arrived wearing her knit toboggan and layers of sweaters over a long skirt, suddenly commanding the hushed hotel lobby with her cane. Cleo, with a long gray braid down her back and a perpetual smile on her face, followed close behind.
Elizabeth is the author of 82 books of poetry and holds seven MFAs in creative writing. I was here at her request, to witness her life and hear her story.
Local folklore suggests that the red mountains, such as Bell Rock, were placed here by aliens. Vortexes are said to exist on mountaintops and canyon valleys. I had a complete view of the range from the hotel balcony, where the air was cool and smelled of sage. The light here was intense, warm yet sharp with a cold wind. Just as I was peering at the mountains, the black shape of a huge military plane appeared, very low and very slow, coming directly towards me. It droned past, an enormous insect, circling the mythical mountains in an almost protective arc. As the plane whispered out of sight, I heard the sound of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite drifting from a balcony below.
Elizabeth's energy could be electrifying. She was ready to stay up all night talking about her life and work. Elizabeth told Stewart to "hang loose" while Cleo disappeared and we talked in their Southwest-themed rental until jet lag started to catch up with me. Though Elizabeth held sway as a prolific and talented poet, Cleo was her grounding force, and was an essential part of her story.
That night at Elote, sitting at a community table, I could hardly speak, instead listening to stories being passed along the table by people from all over the country as chips and salsa were served.
In the early morning, before the sun had risen, I slunk away to the hotel breakfast, where a couple of men in workwear and Stetson hats watched the news. "Frosty the Snowman stabbed in Tennessee," I saw, as I ate hash browns with salsa, gulping down orange juice. With news like that, I wasn't sure what this day would bring. It was black outside, wet with rain, and I could feel the presence of the invisible mountains, which had kept me awake most of the night.
When I saw Elizabeth that morning, I told her about my restless night, and how I had woken up every hour, on the hour. "Yep, that's Sedona," she said, but did not elaborate.
Cleo and Elizabeth eat at the same restaurant every morning. They sit in the same booth and order the same food. The Coffee Pot, part diner and part gift shop, is known for its variety of 101 omelets. The waitress knew Elizabeth and Cleo, and brought everything as needed. Elizabeth dunked three bags of earl grey in her hot water, telling me that she did this every morning without exception.
A passing man offered to take our photograph, and Elizabeth immediately took out one of her own books, "The Sleeping Lady of Malta," and signed it for him. I ate huevos rancheros, same as Cleo, and Elizabeth put half of her food in a box for dinner, their only meals of the day.
We brought rain to the desert. It hadn't rained here in months. Cleo, with a knowing nod, said, "Rain on the desert. It's a blessing." I felt the presence of ancient grandmothers within these two elders, so opposite from each other yet united in a deep love. They moved with a magical presence through Sedona, where everyone knew them or at least the sight of them, crossing the road in the rain with rolling bags of books in tow.
Cold rain fell throughout the day, with the deep red mountains passing in and out of the clouds. Stewart, the driver of the Country Limo, drove us around town, listening to Rush and Led Zeppelin. At the Sedona Artist Market where Elizabeth sells her books, she sat comfortably with Cleo, waiting for customers. Elizabeth showed me a children's book she had written, which features art of a cat that she thought "looked tired, maybe from astral travel." There were few customers at the market that day, but Elizabeth made several sales, drawing people in with her commanding presence, selling them with her words.
Our final stop in Sedona was El Rincon in Tlaquepaque, an Old Mexico themed open market. Here I got the taste of the Mexican food I had come to find- a tamal with "Christmas" or red and green chile sauces, and a rich, warm enchilada with rice and beans. There were cactus ornaments on the small Christmas tree. Our waiter's ancestors had walked roads here when they were dirt, and wore a sharp outfit to match his western sheriff descent. The restaurant was mainly a draw for tourists, but the spirit of Sedona lived here as it did in the rest of the town. There was the Sedona of red rocks, and there were the people who now inhabited the place that was once considered too sacred to live in.
I would soon part from Elizabeth and Cleo, yet I felt as though something else had taken control. The vortex had caught hold of me. The people in this town seemed placed here for a specific, sacred purpose. From Stewart roaming the streets in his Country Limo, to our bejeweled waiter and the mismatched travelers at the community table, everyone provided a deep lesson. There was an unspoken energy moving here. Elizabeth and Cleo were part of it. Everyone was part of it.
After waking at 5am the next day and riding to Phoenix as the light broke, I wrote in my journal at the airport before departing:
Thankful for Mexican food and grainy light. At the airport, planes take off as the Poet Laureate writes beside me. Elizabeth's book of poems in my lap. Caught in a vortex, it spins me around and shoots me right back out. Orchestration of planes. A Jeff Gordon jacket and cowboy hats. Strangers conversing with each other. A girl helps when papers fly out of my bag. I think I have everything. Spanish spoken behind my back. Late night, early morning with the saguaros and mountains, spits of snow in the scraggly brush. You write what you know. I dreamed of stepping carefully around broken glass. Take off, landing.