Changing Course in the Arizona Desert

A friend of mine told me a story about a child with a chronic illness who loved making travel itineraries. She spent hours online, finding far off places and then developing elaborate plans to travel to various destinations. There’s no way to know if she’d ever make it to Thailand or Greece, but it didn’t matter. Planning was her way to find control in a life she didn’t control.


My friend told me this story after I told him how much I love to make down-to-the-minute itineraries before a trip. At the time, I had just been diagnosed with chronic Lyme disease after many stressful years of misdiagnosis. My life, like the little girl’s in the story, was also not in my control. Every day I had unexpected pain, irregular heartbeats, and bouts of dizziness. My illness brought with it a barrage of unanswered questions. Should I call my doctor about a new symptom? Should I get a second opinion? Which treatment plan should I follow? Travel planning helped me maintain a sense of safety in a world with too many unknowns. My itineraries were concrete and final. If I wanted to know which attraction to visit, I looked up reviews and made a firm decision. The questions about my health couldn’t be answered, so I found answers somewhere else.



I was working on an itinerary for an upcoming trip to Arizona in March of 2016. Neither my husband, Zach, nor I had been to Phoenix or seen the Grand Canyon, so we decided to go. I’d developed an airtight plan, squeezing as much as possible into the short week we’d be away. Every detail was falling into place — except my health. Sharp pain was keeping me awake at night and my fatigue grew unbearable. Due to the setback in my health, I feared I wouldn’t have the energy or strength to do all the things on my jam-packed list, like horseback riding or hiking two miles down into the Canyon.


Three months later, we boarded our Phoenix bound plane. I did my best to keep pace with my high expectations. I rode a horse, went to a late-night concert, and hiked through the desert. We kept up with the itinerary and I stayed in control.


On the eve of our drive to the Grand Canyon, we went out to dinner with Zach’s aunt, who lives in the area. She asked us if we planned to go to Sedona to find the vortexes.


“Vortexes?” I asked. I’d never heard of a vortex. She explained how Sedona is an energy field and in certain areas there are vortexes that make one feel energized and invincible.



Being ill for so long I had forgotten what it felt like to feel “energized and invincible.” That night in the hotel I stared at our printed itinerary. Listed was a stop in Sedona for quick lunch and a drive-by past the famous red rocks. We’d limited the day’s activities to reach the Grand Canyon in a timely manner and reserve my stamina. There was no time to hike up rocks to search out elusive energy vortexes, but something called me to do it. For the first time on a vacation, I decided to go off book, to be spontaneous.


I reworked the day’s itinerary to give us enough time to hike and to find the Bell Rock Vortex, said to be the easiest to locate and most powerful in the area. When we arrived in Sedona, we ate a quick bite and then drove to the trailhead. There in front of us stood a giant bell-shaped rock, striped with sedimentary layers of bright orange and red sandstone. As we started up the hill I felt nothing, just my typical fatigue weighing me down. Then, all of a sudden it hit me like a rush of adrenaline through my body, and my legs and my hands started to tingle. I felt light and airy, like I was ever so slightly floating above my body. I repeatedly said, “Wow,” and asked Zach if he felt anything. Not one to be sensitive to anything that cannot be seen, he said, “No.” The proof, however, was in my vitality; I climbed higher and higher, and didn’t feel like stopping.


We located, “Meditation Rock,” a flat expanse halfway up the trail, and I sat down in lotus pose. The vortex seemed to conduct energy from Earth’s center, channeling the life force through my spine and out to my limbs. I felt healthy again. Looking around at the other hikers, I didn’t feel singled out as the weak, sickly one like I usually do. I had the strength to climb just like anyone else. Zach repeatedly asked me, “Do you want to turn around?”


“No,” I said. “Let’s keep going.” He was caught off guard by my unlikely endurance. Finally, I called it quits when faced with a particularly complicated rock climbing obstacle. It wasn’t for a lack of energy, but rather a lack of the appropriate shoes. We turned around, and as we entered the parking lot, I felt the lightness I had experienced on the hike fade away.



By this time, we were way behind schedule, but I didn’t care. I wanted to feel invincible again. We drove through the city and up a steep hill near the airport to the aptly named Airport Vortex. Compared to the previous vortex hike, this was a much steeper climb up to a large butte, but I was eager for another dose of the vortex elixir. This time it hit me like an electric shock halfway up the trail. I looked to my right and saw a twisted juniper tree, said to grow that way because of the power of the strange energy. It was more confirmation that the current running through me was real. We continued the climb to the summit.


The butte was one hundred feet or so from the base of the trailhead. I walked out to the very edge and sat down to linger in the energy field. I took in a 360-degree view of Sedona’s red rock formations from the top of Airport rock. My awareness was so heightened it was as if the rocks themselves were breathing. The clouds formed arrows aimed toward the highest peaks of the formations, especially Bell Rock, which was now off in the distance. The Earth seemed to be sucking in energy from the sky, while also pushing it up from the ground, and we were lucky enough to be caught in between.


Although, I am not deathly afraid of heights, I do sometimes experience vertigo when near a ledge. I also hate it when my husband tempts fate by getting too close to the drop off. But not this time. We stayed on the butte for thirty minutes, and I never once pleaded with Zach to step back from the cliff. For once I wasn’t caught up in the potential risks; it seemed I really did feel invincible. After the Airport Vortex the feeling stayed with me longer. Perhaps a high from the experience or the feeling of being held, if only for a short time, in Earth’s healing energy.


Back in the rental car, we began the remaining two-hour drive to the Grand Canyon. Our carefully planned itinerary no longer served us. We did catch a glimpse of the glorious gorge for a brief ten minutes before the shadows and nightfall consumed it.


We originally planned to end the evening with a romantic dinner at a lodge overlooking the canyon, but we couldn’t get a table. Famished and desperate to find food for our grumbling stomachs, we settled for eating appetizers at the lodge bar, while being serenaded by an amateur hard rock guitarist. The night didn’t end like I had planned, but instead it ended with us walking out to our car to witness millions of stars in the Arizona mountain sky.


I didn’t plan on being diagnosed with Lyme disease at age thirty-four. I thought I would boundlessly travel the world with no restrictions. I also didn’t plan on spending a day hunting for vortexes in the desert. Sometimes what we don’t plan ends up being the most important and influential trail markers of life, guiding us in different, and perhaps better directions.

Kerry J. Heckman is a freelance writer and therapist based in Chicago. She authors a wellness & lifestyle blog and writes about health, chronic illness, and travel.