Canyon Odyssey VIII: A few days in Sedona, Land of the Red Rocks

Day Nine: 13 August, 2007

Though I don’t eat eggs, and never have since I was small, I got up at 9 a.m. to help cook eggs for the breakfast burritos. That was the allure of being at Mathers: we could eat “real” cooked food, rather than peanut butter and jelly, tortillas, and pretzels. We packed up the campsite and said a solemn goodbye to the Grand Canyon, but we still had a few days left of adventure in Sedona before driving back to Camp Sombrero in Phoenix.

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Nine companions’ backpacks and duffel bags strewn onto “Carley’s Rock.”

As you may remember, the map of Arizona is pretty easy to follow: Phoenix is far to the south, Flagstaff (we stopped there for lunch and played soccer early on in the trip) is in the middle, and Lake Powell/Page is at the top. The Grand Canyon is, obviously, a huge Canyon running East-West between Lake Powell and Flagstaff, and Sedona is not far south of Flagstaff.

Around 10:30 a.m. we set off in the vans, and I soon was fast asleep, missing most of the trip.

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A stop in traffic in Flagstaff, however, around noon woke me up.

Apparently a flash flood in Flagstaff made trekking difficult — there was no power. We were driving through a thunderstorm to get to Sedona and the streets were flooded.

I remember gazing out the back of the van, peering out at the dark, desolate streets filled with water as we slowly drove by, the scene full of blinking yellow lights and other warning signals. Someone turned on the Backstreet Boys — the music of my 1990s childhood– and we forgot the storm while dancing and singing. We laughed about the lyrics that we were too young to understand back then, and laughed because we still knew all the words.

Teenage girls, amirite?

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What is that familiar looking shape in the distance? Oh, it’s a mountain, with a thunderstorm behind it. Of course.
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A second, potent thunderstorm hits as we reach Sedona. I stop to take pictures while we sing along to the radio.

The above two pictures are of the scene driving into Sedona. In the wilderness, we spotted a symmetrical, familiarly shaped mountain. I couldn’t place a finger on it. It was so perfectly conical, but I was more focused on the second, gigantic thunderstorm that was looming just off to the left, in the direction we were driving. I hate thunderstorms. I shall repeat: HATE THUNDERSTORMS. As we passed the mountain, with me taking a picture of the looming, black clouds off to the left, Margaret informed us that it was in fact a volcano.

Oh. No wonder it looked so recognizable.

In the second picture, we have hit the thunderstorm, rain and black skies abound. Elephant rock is right ahead of us (so aptly named because…). We were truly in the throes of “sudden-thunderstorm-flash-floods-imminent” season.

Everything in Sedona is made of red stone. I don’t mean the red stone of the Canyon, layered with billions of years of different colored rock but predominantly red. I actually mean the stone is red. There is no color pattern, no layers. It’s just red from iron deposits. Just like its mandatory for Bath, England to build its buildings out of the native yellow lime(?)stone, it felt like Sedona was voluntarily building everything we could find from its native red sandstone, because seeing it all around in its natural, extraordinary formations was not enough of a reminder that this was the land of the red rocks.

According to Wikipedia, the red rocks are the result of the Schnebly Hill Formation, a layer of  red sandstone that is part of the Supai group (also found in those red rocks of the Grand Canyon) deposited during the Permian period (298 – 252 mya). At the end of the Permian period, an extreme rise in volcanic activity over the next few million years resulted in the “extinction zone” of the rock layers, as Carbon Dioxide levels rose and the earth heated up, and 96% of all life on earth — animal, plant, and marine — went extinct. All life on earth that exists today evolved from those surviving 4 percent.

Oh.

Sedonians are proud of their red rocks, the formations made of the red rocks, and they want to remind you of that as you’re touring around — as you can see in the pictures I took. There is never any doubt, if you take a picture in Sedona, that you’re in Sedona.

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We weren’t sure if it was mandatory to build this entire house and courtyard out of red sandstone, but we decided everything should be red while designing it…just in case.
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Even if you’re not looking at the huge red formations behind the mall, we built it with red sandstone just so you don’t get the wrong idea about what colors our rocks are.
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To avoid the incoming storm, we sought shelter at the overdone shopping center. The building across the street didn’t get the memo about pink sidewalks and red cobble walls.

It was extremely hot and RED in Sedona’s campsite, so we decided after setting up camp to dabble in the nearby creek (flashback to Phantom Ranch). Not long after we got in the creek did another thunderstorm come rumbling throuhg, and so Sky took us to the downtown shops for a couple hours.

Until I understood the culture of Sedona, it was difficult to comprehend what we found when we started to explore the small shops at the strip mall. Many people apparently view Sedona as a spiritual / holy place, so it fits that the shops reflect those people. The shops were whimsical and mystical, with books on the zodiac, healing crystals, tarot cards, and other new-age thingamajigs. We spent an hour or so browsing, giggling to ourselves, and generally laughing at the people who believe wholeheartedly in the stuff.

I could definitely understand feeling spiritual. I had felt something like that on the trail in Grand Canyon, but I would describe it as “awe/wonder/cleansing” rather than “I want to hold a healing crystal to my heart in this place” or, “I want to thank God for enabling me to see this place.” By cleansing, I mean that the Canyon had opened up my mind and I was able to wipe blank my high school slate. I wasn’t the field hockey player or nerdy weird girl anymore, and my unfulfilled crushes on incompetent boys weren’t important. I could just appreciate the Canyon for what it was, and appreciate myself for who I was, especially when surrounded by new friends who didn’t know me.

Now, let’s jump back a ways because if you remember, I just recently discovered Lord of the Rings the spring before Arizona. Once I watched the films, I was obsessed. I have vivid memories of sitting home during a snowstorm, watching the orcs rip down the trees in Fangorn forest, and meeting the hobbits, and trying to figure out which characters I could trust. I got extremely attached and wrote a novel-length fanfiction that still gets reviews (no, I won’t tell you where it is). Now, when I was a young and impressionable high schooler, I was attached to my books and believed they held significance in the events of my life. Is this a naive idea? Well, not really. Most books were written about the human experience, even if the genre was clearly fantastical in nature, and I found many parts that were beyond my grasp but that I still understood.

For instance: when Frodo boards the grey ships at the end of the trilogy, I had a meltdown.
“WHY? WHY?” I was actually sobbing and really upset. My mom explained that it was “just what happens.” But that didn’t sit well with me. How could the main character symbolically DIE and abandon his friends? (YES I am looking at you, Divergent). It was selfish because he chose to leave the physical world and accept the rewards of the next, leaving everything he knew behind. What was the point of the journey if Frodo could never heal and integrate back into the world he saved? It was so tragic, that I cried every time I watched it, arguing with the author about his choice. But it was that story that moved me so well and inspired me to write one of my own.

Now, I had watched the films around the same time as I found out that I was going on this trip. I had never backpacked before, and I was excited to learn that backpacking was exactly what the Fellowship was doing trekking across Middle Earth. And when I found out there would be NINE of us? Sometimes fate points its finger directly at you. 

I finished the hike, and I felt like my journey was hitting a bittersweet note. We were in the “easy breezy” part of camping and enjoying Arizona culture. And I knew at the moment I stepped off onto the South Rim that everything was changed.

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That’s just another famous red rock formation. They’re all named, too

Once we’d returned, we began the burgers and hotdogs and Margaret read aloud (in groups) a test of 30 questions to find out what “magical being” we were (presumably purchased at the wonky spiritual strip mall). Alison was an “E.T.” apparently, set on the Earth to prevent nuclear war, and Meghan and Carley were pixies. Kathryn and I took the test too, after a few games of “Hats off” and mingling with Group 1. While Kathryn proved to be “just human,” I found that I was somehow a Wizard — a Wise One, who is afraid of dying by fire and naturally disturbed by events that include humans being persecuted for their beliefs. And I am supposed to KNOW…that is, possess some inner wisdom about humanity. I think it’s all BS, but it was fun to take the test. A lot of it makes sense for me.

“Hats off” is a game that I can’t really remember playing, which is sad. If any of my readers can remember a camp game called “Hats Off,” please let me know! I remember it was immensely complicated (or so I think it was). The game involved hats, crawling around with my eyes closed and trying to find objects, and I believe it was also related to Tag somehow. I don’t remember how one gets knocked out of the game, but it was definitely a process of elimination. Either way, I don’t remember now.

We cleaned up, and it was bedtime for me, except that in the middle of the night I awoke to hear Carley crying.

“Amanda,” she said, “Can you please go get Margaret? I don’t feel good.” I got up right away, since everyone was sleeping, and got Carley to come with me to wake Margaret in her tent.

“What is it? WHAT?” Margaret was angry she had been awoken, but softened up when she noticed Carley’s face. I went back to sleep, Carley felt a lot better in the morning, and she greatly appreciated me getting up, since Meghan was deeply asleep and would not wake when prodded.

Day Ten: 14 August, 2007

For the first time in many days, we did not have to pack up our campsite and start backpacking. We did, however, have to be awake at 6:30 a.m. to arrive at M Diamond Ranch for 7 a.m. I was excited — I was finally going to get to go horseback riding! And at a real ranch, in the Arizona back country! There was nothing better.

The ranch was a large, spread-out facility in the grasslands of Arizona. The land was reminiscent of a prairie. The ranch hands, I wrote in my journal, were “great.” There was Josh (13), Kevin (12-ish?), and Eddie (22). Yippah-yee-haw!

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“Are we still in Arizona? This looks a lot different than where we were 15 minutes ago.” …”yeah pretty sure we’re in Oklahoma now.”

Goodbye, mountains, red rocks, forests and canyons. This was (another) new zone. It was still just as hot and dry, but leafy bushes and low-growing scrub replaced the spiky cacti and the land was pretty much flat. Over 100 years old and family-run, the ranch boasted traditional western ranching culture, and a beautiful trail ride to come. I had flashbacks of starring in my middle school’s play, “Oklahoma!” Of course, instead, I was singing “ARIZONA… OKAY!”

They put me on the perfect horse: a fleabitten [for those that don’t know horses, “fleabitten” is a word to describe a flecked gray color, not literal flea bites] mare named Pepper. She and I desperately wanted to GO but we had to stay at a walk. She responded to my every command and after the ride was over, she tried following me out of the corral.

We took a long, slow, meandering trail ride, enjoying the scenery and watching the ranch hands show off their horsemanship skills by bounding through the trees and communicating expertly with their mounts. The younger boys explained that they didn’t go to school for several months out of the year, as they needed to be at work herding cattle.

Our riding was traditional western — western saddle with horn, western reins (they’re separate, not a loop), low stirrups (which I love) and one hand on the reins to steer, leaving your other free hand to … herd cattle or play harmonica, I guess.

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Two ranch hands doing their thing– i.e., being ranch hands and proud of it. This photo isn’t mine — I stole it from Group 1.
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Whoever thought of bicycle helmets really didn’t understand. Just like I don’t understand why this picture is being taken. Oh, look — the ground! It recently rained here.
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The bicycle helmet just really brings out the beautiful morning scenery.

The M Diamond Ranch practices wildlife stewardship by controlling grazing, removing invasive species and introducing native species to ensure the land can support itself and is not overrun. The trail ride was a good example of ecotourism, another thing the website boasts. The trail ride was both about experiencing the cowboy’s rural life, and the life of a ranch hand, and also about appreciating and respecting the environment around us. The ranch, one of the oldest continuously operating ones in the Verde Valley, is the only one that invites visitors. They certainly left us with a vivid impression of ranch life and western culture, as well as appreciation for wildlife and habitat that you don’t find in the Northeast.

To be truthful, I had hoped for more horseback riding, as that was one of the main selling points of the trip for me. However, the one trail ride was certainly enough. I had done enough horseback riding in my life until that point, and I would do plenty more in years to come. I was happy to have new experiences — especially backpacking in the Canyon.

The guides then hitched two draft horses to a wagon to pull us up a hill to the lunch pavilion. While the Ranch hands cooked our Cowboy lunch, an old man with a guitar played and sang for us, and one of our very own camp counselors gave a square dancing lesson! I sang at my table. For some reason, this left my friends (who’d never really heard me sing) in awe. They said I had a voice like a doll and that singing was something I was good at. Lunch was a nice treat: hamburgers, beans, salad, baked potatoes, and corn, and cherry cobbler for dessert.

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“I’m pretty sure we’re not in Sedona…we must be at an Italian villa. Those tall tree-things are blocking the view of Vesuvius, though.”
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Are you sure we’re not in the Grand Canyon? Well, I brought all of our Nalgenes just in case. You never know in the desert. Drink more water!

According to my journal, we went back to the Sedona campground after eating and separated from Groups 1 and 2 to do our own thing. We started off by running down to the creek, and Meghan and I sat in the water to cool off and slide down the smooth boulders over small waterfalls. I distinctly remember feeling trapped in the center of the stream at some point, as the water was running very fast, the rocks were slippery, and I was afraid (probably for no reason) of getting swept downstream and breaking a leg. So, I boulder-hopped instead, while some of my more adventurous friends wandered upstream and continued to ride the currents down into deeper water.

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Meghan’s money towel is the second best part of this picture. The first best part is being all together, rather than dead in the Grand Canyon.
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“I know it looks SAFE…but I’m not budging off this rock if the current is still moving. Oh, and I’m never taking this bandanna off, either.”
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Even the camp counselors agree: streams are fun!

Soon, yet another thunderstorm rumbled overhead. I jerked upward and noted the dark clouds rolling over the trees, and I was the first to “nope, nope, nope” out of the stream and change into dry clothes (in fact: the same clothes I used to sleep in the Canyon). We ran back to the mosquito-net enclosed picnic table, and while my friends got out the cards, I decided it would be a good time to update my journaling.

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The scene of the disastrous card game that I don’t remember. It couldn’t have been too bad, as we all have our Nalgenes intact and I’m wearing my green bandanna.

Apparently a card game ended in “disaster” for my groupmates, and I “wanted some quiet peace to write and read or whatever.” I don’t remember the card game, but I do remember why I was in such a solitary mood.

Next to me, as I journal (I had a habit of doing introspective things like keeping a journal while the other girls socialized), is Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon by Michael P. Ghiglieri and Thomas M. Myers, a book that Camp Counselor Allison had, I think, purchased in a gift shop, either in the Grand Canyon or Sedona’s spiritual strip mall. During the time of the trip, I picked up this book (Allison had left it out for us to pick through if we wanted) and read through the entire thing, and it has stuck with me.

I currently have this same book, albeit the 10th anniversary extended addition, checked out of the library. Though it sounds hokey, the book is amazing and very interesting to read. Does it sound dismal? Well, yes. And at times it is. But it is written by two experienced Grand Canyon enthusiasts: Michael Ghiglieri served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam, earned his Ph.D. in ecology, and has guided whitewater rafting trips on the Colorado at varying degrees since 1974, as well as guided trips in Africa, Peru, Turkey, and Papua New Guinea, as well as serves as a volunteer for the Coconino County Sheriff’s Department’s Search and Rescue team. Tom Myers has served in the Grand Canyon as a medical professional since 1990, and is an experienced river guide, hiking guide, and explorer of the Canyon.

The book chronicles all 500+ misadventures –that’s a better way to put it than “fatalities,” since the majority of fatalities are caused by preventable human error– that have occurred in the Canyon, beginning with John Wesley Powell’s 1869 expedition and going into contemporary era (2011).

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Forget Smokey the Bear. Seriously. New Grand Canyon Mascot “Mystery Skeleton” wants to remind YOU that “OOPS” could be your last spoken word. And that’s lame.

It’s funny to read the “10th anniversary extended edition,” published in 2012, and read about mishaps that occurred five or so years after we had left Arizona, but chilling to read about a body found frozen near the three-mile resthouse on Bright Angel Trail (1939), where we had joked around and hiked. Or about a father who, while joking with his daughter at the South Rim just about where we probably were taking pictures before and after our hike, pretended to fall out of view and actually did fall — hundreds of feet to his death. Or about 10-year-old Phillip Grim (pun noted) who in 1996, attempted to hike with his family from the North Rim to Phantom Ranch, and shortly after crossing Black Bridge, collapsed with little warning (he had given his water to his uncle to hold while bounding excitedly down the burning sands of the trail). His core temperature was 106 degrees, and he died shortly thereafter. The saddest part about this boy’s story was that he was less than a mile away from Phantom Ranch, and could have easily reached the cool stream where we’d played and the shade of the trees if he had walked just a few steps farther. According to the article I linked to above, temperatures at Phantom Ranch that day (mid-July) reached 116°. The day we hiked, temperatures on the thermometer at camp read 111°. Whether that was in shade or sun, it was still too hot. And I remember the horror of the direct sun distinctly. For young children, who do not understand mortality, running and activity can prove fatal in the brutal summers of the Canyon where they do not necessarily correlate in other parts of the world.

1996 was an especially doomed year for hikers. Phillip Grim was the third death between June and July. The first death was 15-year-old David Phillips, a boy scout on a hiking trip. The group failed to bring enough water. This story stuck out to me from the book and I remembered it years later, because the adults had stopped to rest (with little to no water left) and blamed the boys for running ahead, trying to reach the river and refill their water supply. David Phillips collapsed a mere 100 yards — in full view — from the Colorado and efforts to revive him failed. The others survived.

The stories are interesting because they begin as routine, sometimes carefully-planned hikes that quickly take a fatal turn and spiral out of control. Hikes much like ours. Sometimes I wonder if my discomfort and sickness during that second-day hike next to the Colorado could have turned out much differently if we did not stop in the shade or if we had started hiking later in the day.

I continued reading the book, which was divided into sections based on how the mishaps occurred, rather than going along chronologically, which wouldn’t be so interesting. First there are falls off the Canyon, then falls/missteps in the Canyon, then environmental disasters (read: heat-or-cold related deaths), murder, suicide, river-related deaths, and so on.

I like this book enough that I am now reading it a second time and recently purchased a copy (Please ship fast, Amazon) to add to my library of Canyon-related books. Why do I like it? I actually do like it — it’s not a “toleration” thing. The answer is simple, and it comes from a review from the Prescott Daily Courier:

“Man Meets Grand Canyon-and Underestimates It.”

One thing I know for sure: I am not naming my son Phillip.

Another thing I know: Yes, Teddy Roosevelt dedicated the Grand Canyon as a national monument, to be protected by the National Park Service, on January 11, 1908. He hoped that nothing would “mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon. Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.” He also insisted that it (along with the Grand Tetons, Yosemite, the giant California sequoias and redwoods) be preserved for “your children and your children’s children forever, with their majestic beauty all unmarred…and for all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American should see.” There are variations on these quotes, so I combined a whole bunch of different versions. You get the idea.

However, Roosevelt suggested that Americans come to the Canyon to gaze upon and respect it, not goof off and forget about the very real dangers. The Canyon (as many park rangers sigh) is not Disneyland. Just because millions of people come to the Canyon to see it and because it is a national park does not make YOU immune to falling off an 800-foot cliff face. And it isn’t just the ignorant who die, the authors insist, although there is a tendency for 20-something males to accumulate the most deaths. Even the most experienced can take one misstep or risk and have it fail. The most deaths occur from: being alone, and going off-course (overconfidence). Once panic and desperation (i.e., for water or an exit from the trail) set in, more and more bad decisions are made — your brain is literally cooking, so it’s not totally your fault, except that it is because you didn’t bring enough water.

Hopi mirth aside, our point here is that even these tough little men in armor who toted Toledo steel and conquered empires embodied the same two failings that nearly every non-Indian visitor to the Grand Canyon since 1540 has exemplified: an inability to comprehend the scale of Grand Canyon and a marked — and often fatal — tendency to underestimate it.

Well-maintained trails and park rangers and gift shops, however civilized, for instance, cannot prevent the sun from searing into the Canyon at over 100 degrees. Out of the three deaths I described earlier, two took place at well-maintained and popular areas –both places that I have been. David Phillips’ death was the exception because the trail his group took was for “experts” and not regularly maintained or monitered. The other two deaths were preventable, in full view of many people. None of the deaths in the book were due to poor maintenance or irresponsibility on the part of rangers.

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Black bridge, the site of the end of my least favorite part of the hike, was also the site of 10-year-old Phillip Grim’s demise in 1996. On day two of hiking, we took an evening hike to this bridge to see the ruins here. At 10 a.m. when we marched across the river under direct sun, the temperature read 111 degrees.

I finished reading the book in the throes of what I can only describe as a probable full-out argument, because I don’t remember much. Feeling irritated by the large group, and wanting some space, Alison, Kathryn, and I went back to the creek next to our campsite to make booklists for one another. In other words, share our favorite books and recommended reading with one another. I had not spent much time with Alison and Kathryn because they were part of the MACK hiking group and tended to keep more to themselves.

Ripping pages out of my journal, I handed sheets to Alison and Kathryn and we sat on large boulders in the stream, passing our lists around and adding books that we thought were important. My notebook page is full of the scrawls of three different hands.

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Now that I’m a librarian, a lot of the book choices make sense. Many of them are “core collection” science fiction/fantasy. I feel lucky that we all had a similar taste in books. Oh, and at that time, Eldest was the most recent book in the “Inheritance Cycle.” I ended up reading both Eragon and Eldest that following February, after finishing the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

Names such as Neil Gaiman, Douglas Adams, and Terry Pratchett were new to me on this list, but are common now that I am in charge of the science fiction collection at the Library.

And there was a title on the list that I could try in person — Fire Bringer, by David Clement Davies. She had brought along a copy with her and offered to let me read it. I thought, “sure why not,” but was skeptical because I was so hooked on Tolkien and Lord of the Rings and wanted to exhaust that world before starting another one. However, Kathryn and Alison assured me that this book I would love. It was anthropomorphic fantasy, about a young deer who is prophesied to save his herd from tyranny. I thought it sounded perfect. I was very much into the “chosen one” storyline and dystopian literature — from the City of Ember to Harry Potter, I liked dark worlds that needed a reluctant savior.

Eventually, Melanie and our other friends barged in on our rock conversation. We were still looking for solitude and were a little annoyed by this, trying to keep our circle closed, especially because our choices of reading were far off the wall from the young adult chick lit our peers would normally read (i.e., the Twilight craze that was about to hit) but let them in and chit chatted until it was time for the potluck dinner.

Kathryn gave me the book and I put it away in my tent."Battesimo Del Fuoco" & Fire Bringer

For the time being, we were in charge of dessert whilst Groups 1 and 2 took care of the main courses. While everyone else in our group played cards (again!), we made pudding-mixed-with-crushed-thin-mint-cookie dirt cups. It was, according to my journal, an excellent dinner — marinated chicken, scalloped potatoes, and broccoli.

After helping clean up, I began reading Fire Bringer. I’ve read it many times since that evening, but I still remember vividly my first impression of the book and its first haunting chapter.

It is an ordinary birthing season in the realm of the red deer (medieval Scotland). I am sucked into vivid descriptions of foggy moors and scrub-filled meadows, with dark forests and distant mountains flanking. The main character of this chapter is the Brechin, the captain of a corps of deer called Outriders, who patrol the herd’s stomping grounds and protect them from enemies. At dusk, while attending to his mate, who is about to give birth, Brechin is called into a meeting of outriders by the leader of the herd, Drail. Drail announces that he is going to lead the herd for another season and abolish “anlach,” the season when the deer’s antlers grow in and they fight for leadership. The outcome is that the strongest become leader, and they are challenged again the next year. In this way, the cycle of life continues naturally.

As you can imagine, the story is dark. In a twist of Murphy’s Law, Brechin hears the cries of his brethren as his fellow Outriders are ambushed and slaughtered by sharpened antlers, to ensure that Drail has no opposition. Brechin flees, attempting to save his fellow deer. Meanwhile, Brechin’s mate gives birth to a fawn with an oak leaf on his forehead. According to prophecy, the oak leaf symbolizes that the fawn will save the herd from its unnatural course. As Brechin is surrounded and the little fawn breathes its first, the chapter ends.

I remember crying during this first part of the book and it still moves me. After putting the book reluctantly down, I finally got some sleep.

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

Part Six

Part Seven

2 thoughts on “Canyon Odyssey VIII: A few days in Sedona, Land of the Red Rocks

Add yours

  1. Engaging post. Especially the pics of y’all in your bicycle helmets on those horses. (Funny thing is, I really WOULD need a bicycle helmet before I’d attempt to get on a horse.)

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