SEDONA, Ariz. — There has always been something mystical and magnetic about the towering red rocks and mesas here.
First, the Indians were drawn to them. They still call the land sacred, the place where the Great Spirit Mother birthed the human race. Then, Hollywood discovered the buttes in 1920 and used them to film the Zane Grey epic, "Call of the Canyon." Ever since, dozens of movie cowboys have been riding off into the Sedona sunset. And more recently, hundreds of artists and retirees, inspired by the mild climate, verdant hills and soaring sky, have settled here.
But Sedona is no longer Shangri-La.
Tranquillity has been jangled by a new breed of pilgrim: seers and seekers who have turned this picturesque central Arizona hamlet into the nation's capital for metaphysical freethinkers.
"The New Age Mecca?" snorted Southern Baptist preacher Joe Berna. "It's a spiritual battleground!"
Indeed. Although an uneasy truce exists between many New Agers and town folk, conflicts have broken out between metaphysical groups; between New Age practitioners and conservative, fundamentalist churches; between New Agers and the U.S. Forest Service, and between forest rangers and the Sierra Club.
The Sedona New Age community is a loosely knit, liberally defined association of spiritual seekers, psychic counselors, craftspeople and shopkeepers.
Although many eschew the New Age label, the metaphysically oriented tend to favor Eastern religions and define deity as the universal spirit within humanity. They look for guidance from within and believe each individual creates his or her own reality.
Every month, thousands of spiritually hungry tourists trek to the spectacular formations by bus, limo, Jeep, hot-air balloon and llama. Their goal: tune in the psychic energy that purportedly pulsates from within at least half a dozen power centers, or vortexes.
Psychics say that Sedona rivals Stonehenge and the Bermuda Triangle as the world's top "power" spot, radiating an unseen mystical energy reputed to enhance consciousness, make it easier to recall past lives, even communicate with space beings.
The Community Church for the New Age functions as an unofficial Chamber of Commerce for the melange of metaphysical bookstores, Tarot card readers, UFO "contactees" and holistic healers. Not to mention the "goddess" groups that empower the feminine aspect of God within women, and trance channelers, or mediums, who purportedly receive messages from other levels of consciousness and ascended entities.
"This is the only city in the U.S. that has 80 channels but no TV station," quipped Jim Bishop, a big-city journalist who moved here six years ago to write and teach. "It's a metaphysical Disneyland."
"Transmute now--avoid the rush," said Joy Starr of Angels, Art & Crystals, advertised as "the best little crystal shop in Sedona." Many New Agers believe crystals possess special energies that can be programmed for such purposes as healing, consciousness-raising, prosperity and clairvoyance.
Just the sort of qualities needed in a place where the pursuit of good feelings has resulted in plenty of ill will.
At the center of it all are the New Agers, a small though growing minority of the city's 7,720 residents. Without visiting the metaphysical shops or taking the trails to vortex sites, the casual tourist would scarcely notice them.
Then add a spicy cast of characters:
* American Indians. They want the land and their customs left undisturbed. Reuben Snake, director of the Native American Religious Freedom Project, calls the New Agers "pseudo-Indians exploiting our culture" and trying to imitate Indian religion.
* Conservative local ministers. They are convinced that New Agers are Satan-inspired and that their freewheeling, anything-goes philosophy threatens to undermine the community's moral stability.
* Forest rangers. They are worried about the crush of tourists who are upsetting the environment, testily pointing out that the scenic power vortexes are on federal land. They complain that in erecting stone altars known as medicine wheels, conducting secret ceremonies by light of the full moon and blazing trails into the virgin wilderness for meditation sites, metaphysical enthusiasts are defacing the buttes' beauty and trampling the delicate desert's ecosystem.
* Environmentalists. They are suing the rangers. Local Sierra Club members shudder at the thought of asphalt paving, RVs and a dump station at stunning Red Rock Crossing, possibly the most-photographed spot in Arizona. The Sierra Club is seeking to halt a campground project there that the Forest Service says is necessary to control burgeoning tourism.
Meanwhile, Sedona's business community profits.
The town's 300 realty agents are turning brisk land sales, six Jeep-tour companies bounce tourists over scenic trails at up to $50 per hour per person, and owners of the new luxury hotels, resorts and restaurants are cashing in. Hundreds of clients and guests are moving to Sedona for good.