For my first and last fall break at USC, I made my way to the Grand Canyon. Many have gone and many have praised and prayed in this place. I did some on-the-ground research to find out what the deal with devotion is in that big old ditch.
Native Americans are undoubtedly the first devotees of this miraculous place. The Puebloans were the first known people to inhabit the Grand Canyon. The Cohonina and Sinagua also spent their time in the canyon, with European contact only occurring in the 16th century, which led to a rapid reshaping of the relationship between the man and the landscape. When Spanish Franciscans were exploring the canyon in 18th century, they said the landscape was“profound.” Upon looking over the edge on the first night, I could only agree.
As my friends and I took a day-long hike to the bottom of the canyon, I got a sense of why one might find the place sacred. Descending into the canyon, I noticed shadows on walls and wondered how often some of the rocks in shadow ever saw light. I thought about how the dirt changes color as you walk and how the rocks around me became a rocky gradient that was subtle up close and stark from above.
My friends and I sat for lunch at a spot called Indian Grove, and I thought about the people who explored the canyon before there was a trail carved into its side and I thought about the people who gave meaning to the land long before the government told anyone how to use it.
The Indigenous people undoubtedly found this land inspiring — their devotion evidenced by their respect and reverence for their use of the land. However, its sacredness has seemingly decreased with time. Its use as an attraction for the west made it a tool. The schedule on the visitor site online tells people when they can praise. The National Park bathrooms, though convenient and appreciated, let me know exactly who the owner was. While I was no doubt moved by the land, my ability to appreciate the land was controlled and restrained, which some Indigenous communities are rightfully upset by.
I wrapped up my trip with a quick stop in Sedona, a small town caught between massive sandstone formations that glow orange and red at sunset, a place known for the presence of spiritual vortexes and filled with the ghosts of a long-passed Hollywood interest as referenced in the song “Sedona” by Houndmouth. The lyrics: “hey little Hollywood/ you’re gone but you’re not forgotten.”
Another fascinating aspect of Sedona is the claim to “Spiritual Vortices” present in the land that have the capacity to “heal” individuals. Author and artist Jose Arguelles started a “New Age” movement in 1987, that saw hundreds of followers gather at the rocks in Sedona and listen to spiritual chanting. Arguelles believed in the power of spirituality to heal the public and found Sedona was the best place for this.
Walking the streets the city, which was riddled with Crystal shops, I find myself filled with the assurance that Arizona is very much a spiritual place, whether you experience a “vortex” or not.
From Native American tribes to the woman in the southwestern secondhand shop who tells me she is “the original Carrie Bradshaw,” I felt that people make sacred the landscape that Arizona has to offer regardless of how their love is channeled by the government. The devotion, at its core, is about and for the land.
Jesse Graham, an assistant professor of psychology at USC, is cited in a Time Magazine article called “Why There are no Atheists at the Grand Canyon” that explores the connection between the canyon and religious beliefs. Graham is correct about the potential for awe during a trip to the Grand Canyon, but I think the people who lived here before made this awe more than just a moment in time when you get out of your car and look over the rail at the beautiful landscape.
The people that found this land sacred before over 5 million tourists a year began to visit it, practiced perpetual awe — perennial love of the land.
Hopefully, you too, one day, can look over the rail and feel that same sense of spirituality.