Soap Thief!

Okay,  I admit it:  I am a  thief.  Every time I stay in a motel, hotel or guest house, I take the shampoo, conditioner, soap and body lotion.  Fifty, maybe one hundred, bottles and bars of individually packaged cleansing agents — ranging from high-end organic to cheap chemical solutions I would personally never use — fill my luggage and overflow into my Jeep.  I even take the no-name mouthwash.

Now you see it . . .

Sometimes I dream of displaying these items in my guest bathroom as I have seen my aunt Barb do with her soaps from Norwegian and Finnish hotel chains.  Then I remember I live in a 500 square-foot, one bathroom apartment in New York City.  Other times, I consider giving baskets as gift to friends who have too many bathrooms and not enough people to fill them.  But then who would really appreciate a bathing basket of Quality Inn and Motel 8 shampoos and soaps?

In reality most of these hermetically sealed soaps and shot-glass sized bottles end up under my sink in a plastic shopping bag.  There they rest, along with assorted other items I rarely, if ever, use.  Why then am I collecting them?

The best answer I am able to provide is this: I want to feel as though I am getting my money’s worth.  If I spend $59, $89, $109 or more on a room for the night, I want to believe that I maximizing my money.  If all I do it sleep and shower, I think I am not getting the most out of the situation because I then have to spend money on food, soap and other essentials.

Now you don't.
(Although, I leave the shower cap)

If, however, in addition to resting my weary bones, I get free breakfast (and take extra for lunch), take a dip in the pool, maybe get a cookie at check in, well then, I think I have gotten a deal more for the same amount of money.  “Deal” being the key word.

So that’s the rationale, but here’s the problem: these bottles and bars are just more junk I really don’t need.  And besides, I consume too much as it is.  The last things the landfills need are more tiny soap bottles, wrappers or used tidbits from my travels.

Maybe instead of taking these things at the conclusion of a stay, my practice should be to leave an extra soap or two at the next few motels.  At the very least, it might amuse the cleaning staff and maybe even save the next person from a life of soap thievery.


Supersize Me! Lakewood Church, Houston Texas

The first thing I notice about Lakewood Church is the traffic.  It loops around the block and reaches back to the highway.  Security guards wave lighted airplane wands to direct drivers into specific lots.  As I approach, one guard says, “Oversized parking is down the street, hang a left at the sign and they’ll take care of you.”

I have come to Lakewood simply because it is the largest mega-church in the country, with an average weekly attendance of more than 43,500.  Somewhere between South Dakota and Washington State, I decided to challenge my stereotypes of religion and religious people in this country.  Secretly, I hope to find “hell and damnation” preachers, which I have witnessed on TV and in the movies.  Because Lakewood is a non-denominational, positivist church, however, I am not expecting fear mongering here.  The challenge, I suspect, will be stepping outside my own beliefs to experience this church and its congregants.

Lakewood Stadium

John Osteen and his wife, Dodie, started Lakewood in 1959.  Their son, Joel, and his wife, Victoria, now minister the church.  Under them, it has grown to occupy the former Compaq Center in downtown Houston, a 17,000 seat indoor arena.  On Sunday mornings this Christian, evangelical church hosts four services: two in English and two in Spanish.  On Wednesday evenings, they celebrate with an additional two services.  I choose to attend the 11 AM Sunday service in English, which is, unfortunately, the only language in which I am fluent.

Finding the oversized lot, I park and find myself in what appears to be a corporate concourse.  Spying a woman with bible in hand, I ask “How do I get to the service?”   “Wait here,” she replies.  “There is a free shuttle to the church that runs every 10 minutes.”  Mary, I learn her name later, becomes my new best friend in the congregation.  I secretly wonder why I befriend “Marys” at churches across the country.

Ready to film

On the shuttle, I sit a few rows behind Mary and other people holding thick bibles.  The van juts forward and exits the parking lot.  It appears to be heading the opposite way from which we came.  “Don’t worry, this really is going to the church,” Mary looks back from the front of the shuttle.  So do the other people in the van.  I wonder if something else awaits us?  Lunch perhaps?  Or maybe an abduction?  “I trust you,” I yell back across the other church members.

Several more turns and we arrive at the stadium entrance, which is, surprisingly, still a short walk via an underground concourse.  Crowds of people stream in.  Black, Latin, Asian, white, young and old.  This event is starting to feel like a rock concert.  Ushers in their Sunday best greet visitors and congregants.

Mary leads me to the main hall; It looks like a sports stadium.  A large stage occupies one end of the building.  Two rows of seats, full of smiling people – presumably the choir – reach up to the second tier behind the staging area.  Large media screens display church announcements, and television cameras stand ready to broadcast.


There is anticipation in the faces of the people who continue to fill the building.  I have never seen so many at a single church service.  And, the diversity of their makeup surprises me, especially in the South.  I learn later that Lakewood was founded as an integrated church and continues that tradition today.

The main event begins with a music video.  An upbeat tune plays against the backdrop of a man singing, “You make beautiful things out of the dust . . . . “  Images flash on the screen, the motion slows, then resumes.  A man digging his hand into the sand.  A husband embracing his pregnant wife.  A woman being baptized.  Parents holding babies and children.  An elderly couple touching.  The 30-second spot is emotional and energizing.  “. . . You make beautiful things, out of us.”  People jump to their feet and sing along.

In Praise

The atmosphere becomes electric.  A rock band enters and live music begins.  The congregation continues to sing along, with words – karaoke style — displayed above.  Emotion runs up and down my spine and tingles my neck.  Hands go up in the audience in praise of Him.  I put mine up just to feel what it’s like: a little uncomfortable, out of place.  Mary leans over and yells in my ear, “We have amazing music here!”

After a song or two, Joel and Victoria Osteen enter stage left.  He looks like a Hollywood actor, young, handsome, well dressed, sparkling white teeth, million-dollar smile.  Victoria is a blonde bombshell.  These are not the sweaty old men who preach fire-and-brimstone Sunday morning on the 700 Club.

“Are there any visitors here today?” Osteen asks.  Hands go up all over the audience, including mine.  “Welcome!” he says.  “We are so glad you are here today.”  People around me clamor to shake my hand as if I am a local celebrity recently returned to the flock.

“God loves you“ is a message repeated over and over.  “It doesn’t matter who you are, where you are from, or how much you have.  He loves you and will provide . . .  if you worship Him.”  The “if” in that statement is also continually repeated and I wonder, for a moment, if God’s love is quid pro quo?  More music.  Then, a guest preacher from Atlanta, another son of a minister.  His message is nice, but I am disappointed not to hear  Osteen.

Preacher Cam

After nearly an hour and half, I barely had to step outside my own beliefs.  In fact, I struggle to find anything controversial about what was said or done in the service.  To be clear, I don’t think this is a bad thing – the emotion of the church and vibe of the community is overwhelmingly positive.  But, for a church that pushed the envelope back when it was founded (for example by being nondenominational and integrated in the South), I wish it would continue to push.  Perhaps in the eye of success, the church fears controversy?

The service ends and I follow Mary back to the parking lot via the shuttle.  I feel jazzed on the ride back, similar to how I feel after seeing a Broadway show that rocks.  Once back where we met, Mary says, “Wait a minute, I want to give you something.”   She walks over to her car, then returns with a CD recording of the church band.  “Listen to this on your trip; it will lift you up.”

Arriving back at Uncle Ken’s house, Carola asks ,“How was the service?”  “It was nice,” I reply.  “Kind of felt like a rock concert, but I enjoyed the message.”  She nods, “See, I need my service to have a little more God in it,” repeating herself from the previous night.

Truth . . . or Consequences?

I stop in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, for no other reason than the name.  I like how it sounds.  Strange, off beat, unusual.  The town, originally called Hot Springs, renamed itself in 1950 to win a television show contest.  On the show, contestants had two seconds to answer a “Truth,” hardly enough time to even think of a response, or play the “Consequences,” usually some zany stunt like ridging a unicycle or stacking household appliances atop one another using a crane.  It was a big hit in the 1950s and 60s.

Truth or Consequences Municipal Building

T or C, as it is commonly known, is located half way between Albuquerque, New Mexico, and El Paso, Texas, on Interstate 25.  There is not much around except desert, low-lying mountains and military installations.  The town itself is small, still has dirt streets in some areas and has a barren, wind-swept feeling.  As I drive into town, I get the sense that more than one tumbleweed have rolled through these parts.

When I book my room at the Sierra Grande Lodge & Spa, the woman on the other side of the phone says, “Forget coming here!  You should play the lottery.  We just had a cancellation – something that never happens – there are no other rooms available anywhere in town for this weekend or next.”  When I try to explain to her the odds of winning the lottery and how I will save that $1 (though not really), she repeats, “You should play the lottery – you’re clearly having a good luck day.”

I arrive and immediately book a mineral tub soak and massage appointment.  The masseuse and I hit it of famously, and we spend the hour bantering back and forth about health, spirituality, and other new age topics.  Joy, her name which seems to fit, also teaches yoga and tells me how she ended up here on a road trip in the 1980s.  “Watch out if a house suddenly falls on you; it’s how it happened for me.”  Images of Oz run though my mind as she works my back.

As we engage in deeper conversation, Joy pulls out a card from a woman who “reads shaman stones.”

“I hate how everyone puts ‘shaman‘ in front of anything vaguely spiritual these days,” I think to myself, but I am intrigued.

“She’ll read your stones and tell you if you are on the right path,” Joy says.

“I could use a little of that,” I respond.

I get over the “Shaman” bit and call to book an appointment with her the next day.

T or C Reflection

That night I dine at Cafe BellaLuca, a modern Italian eatery a few blocks – walking distance – from the Sierra Grande.  Every table is full and the wait is close to 45 minutes.  “For a table?” I inquire in disbelief.  As a single diner, I am offered a seat at the bar, which overlooks the kitchen.  At first I baulk, not wanting to be on display in the adult high-chair section, but the location grows on me.  The chef chats me up as he prepares dishes for a birthday party, a group which takes up a very large table behind me.

I don’t recall the owner/chef’s name (or his owner-wife’s), but I highly recommend this place if you happen to be in T or C.  He flies in fresh seafood daily and prepares some of the most amazing Italian food I’ve had outside of New York City.  I order calamari, but someone else secured his last portion just moments before.  I watch the Chef make those small fried rings of delight and look for something else on the menu.  I settle on pesto pasta with chicken.  It melts in my mouth.  For climax, I take homemade tiramisu back to the hotel in a biodegradable “to go” container.  I eat it with my hands in bed.  Saliva and chocolate run down my cheek as I doze off for the night.

The next morning I wake early, take another soak, enjoy a nice breakfast on the veranda, then prepare myself for the shaman/medium lady.  I have no idea what to expect, or what I am supposed to reveal in my time with this woman.  As I drive to the address provided, using my trusty GPS, I conjure ideas in my head of what she looks like.  I settle on Mrs. Roper from TV’s Three’s Company with flowing floral dresses and wild, curly, supernatural hair.

As I pull into a trailer park just off River Road, where several neighborhood dogs bark indicating they know a stranger is near, I am greeted by Linda.  She is a woman in her fifties who resembles a grandmother more than anything else.  She seems a little nervous and greets me with a wide smile.  No flowing floral dress, no wild hair.  She is in plain clothes, which makes me a little more comfortable.  Linda welcomes me inside and offers a glass of water, where her two pug children race over to check me out.  One has an asthma attack on my shoe and the other appears so overwhelmed it grunts and sneezes all over itself for nearly five minutes.

“They’ll calm down,” Linda says to me, then continues to them, “Or they will be locked outside.”  On hearing this threat, both dogs stop, lift their eyebrows in what appears to be concern, then go back to grunting and wheezing.  She and I sit and the dogs find something more interesting outside to cough and bark about . . . a bug or tumbleweed perhaps.

Building Art, T or C

Linda gathers up two handfuls of assorted rocks, gems, and crystals and places them in my hands.  “Set your intention with the stones and then just drop them.”  I think about my journey, the health and healing I seek and then let the stones fall through my fingers like large drops of water.  They spread over the black leather tablecloth Linda uses for this purpose, some almost leaving the table completely.

“Very interesting,” she says examining the stones.  “You are close with both your parents, who are, I think, both still living.”   “Yes, yes, but they’re not like regular parents,” I say.  “I see that,” Linda says pointing to a smooth lump of turquoise and another lump of something dark green.  “They were kids themselves when you were young.  You’ve come a long way with both of them.  Good work.”

Linda continues, “How do I say this nicely . . . You have done a tremendous amount of work in getting rid of the old, huh, CRAP in your life,” she says pointing at a small lump of fool’s gold.  “But sometimes that shit sticks around because you dealt with it, but haven’t tossed it out completely.”  “Yes, that’s true!” I exclaim.  It is as if she knows my therapist and all the work I have done over the years.  “Now, what do you want to do with that crap?” she asks tapping the fool’s gold with a pen.  I think about this, look at her, smile, then pick it up and throw it across the room.  Linda cheers and the pugs chase the lump, grunting and coughing.  We spend the next three hours reviewing my life, journey, and next steps.  I toss several stones off the table and move several others to different areas.  It feels good.

After a reading of tarot cards, where Linda tells me I will soon meet a brown-eyed man (I’m still waiting), I say goodbye and climb back into my Jeep.  I exit the mobile home neighborhood, River Road, and the town of T or C.  I hit the interstate and think about the past 24 hours.  I mull over the idea that I have known all along that I am on the right path, especially in taking this road trip, but it is nice to meet people along the way who are there to help me heal.  And in the case of Linda, it is sometimes nice to hear from an external source – one maybe more connected to the divine than myself – that I am heading in the correct direction.

About an hour later, I get a call from my mother.  “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she says.  “I just bought another five pairs of shoes.”  I laugh, glad to have her – and her shoe obsession – in my life.

The Fetish of Zuni

There is something different about the people of the Zuni Pueblo in northwest New Mexico.  I can feel it, but not yet define it, as I enter this American Indian Reservation, located immediately over the border from Arizona on State Road 53.  Physically, it reminds me of others to the north and west: Run down houses and trailer homes are scattered in haphazard fashion.  Old tires rest obscenely on roofs, holding something in place – the roof maybe?  Late model autos, many with cracked windows and missing bumpers, dart in and out of dirt driveways.  Zuni schoolchildren walk along beat up, dusty sidewalks.

”]Zuniland is the largest of the New Mexico Pueblos with close to 10,000 residents, most of whom are involved in the arts. Carving, painting, doll making, and zuni fetishes, the animal carvings known throughout the US and world, come instantly to my mind.  But there is more to the Zuni, a rich complexity, which feels just out of reach to pale face people like myself.

I arrive at the pueblo’s visitor’s center, a nondescript structure in a line of run down buildings.  Several Indians wave and smile from behind makeshift vendor stands on the opposite side of the parking lot.  I wave back, but walk in the front door of the building.  The man behind the counter is a friendly, talkative, uh, white man.

“Welcome,” he says.  “Where are you from?”

“New York,” I reply. “I wonder if you can suggest things to do on the reservation?”

“Sure.  The tribe encourages people to sign up for a tour.  They offer two options: one is of the old mission, the other adds a walking tour of the village.  They both leave at three.”

“May I take pictures?”

“Yes, but only at certain locations and only with a photo permit, which is $10.  If you want that I’ll run through the rules for you.”

After filling out the photo permit and paying $20 for it and the tour, I ask about religious ceremonies.

“Not much happening until Sha’lak’o on December 6.  If you’re in the area you should come by. It’s really amazing.

“What is it?”

“Sha’lak’o is when the men who are given spiritual authority over the tribe dance the kachinas.”

“Kachina, like the doll?”

“Yeah, kachina are dolls, but in the Zuni religion they represent something from the spiritual world.  Men get dressed in colorful costumes and masks to dance the kachinas during certain times of the year.  The dances are beautiful and must be executed perfectly. Otherwise, there may be no harvest that year.  Sha’lak’o is the winter solstice ceremony, which is one of the most important.”

The man behind the counter and I continue our conversation for some time.  I ask about Zuni masks.  “That’s an interesting question,” he says.  “You would never see a Zuni mask for sale. It represents the kachina and that would not work for the tribe.”  About alcohol: “This is a dry reservation, but the leaders grapple with that.  There are three roads into town, and there are package stores to the West and North.  Only the East doesn’t have one. That’s because the bordering town is mostly Mormon.”

Zuni Mission Detail

At 3 pm a beautiful young Zuni woman with a wide nose and long, straight black hair named Roberta invites me on the tour.  Her speech is particular, in that she pronounces everything properly, as if speaking textbook English.

“Would you like to ride with me or drive yourself?” she asks.  “You are the only person for the three o’clock tour.”  Her affect betrays no emotion, but also resembles that of a Tassajara monk.  I admire it.

“I’ll go with you.”

As we climb into a beat-up green van she asks, “Where are you from?”

“New York,” I reply. “Ever been?”

“I have never been anywhere outside of the pueblo except Albuquerque one time for an afternoon.”

Her response surprises me.

“But my father used to travel for the tribe all the time, and he has been to the Brooklyn Museum to see some art work we gave.”

“Does he still travel?”

“No.” She replies.  “He has religious obligations to the tribe now and cannot travel anywhere.”

On the way to the mission, no more than a five-minute drive, Roberta waves at people on the side of the road.  Neither she nor I use the van’s seat belts, which look like they have permanently buried themselves in the torn cloth seats.  When the slightly rusted van arrives outside the Spanish mission, originally built in 1650, Roberta says, “You can go take photography and I will wait here.”  There is a cold wind whipping through the dusty desert streets.  I exit the van to “take photography” of the exterior.  I notice several children watching me intently from an adjacent alleyway.

Zuni Pueblo with Corn Mesa

Roberta unlocks a chain securing the thick, old, wooden mission door.  As we enter, I ask about the significance of the building, “Does this still function as a church for the tribe?”  “It’s just a building now, not a church,” she says.  “We have murals in here, but nothing else happens.”  I get the sense that this is simply a way for the Zuni to make some extra cash.

Inside the main door, we are greeted by a large black and white sign: “Photography Forbidden by the tribe.  All paintings are Copy Righted.”  The murals, which are the main purpose of the tour, are amazing.  High up, near the stucco ceiling, are painted figures, spiritual beings, in colorful traditional dress and masks, dancing.  The four seasons are represented through a changing desert landscape.

“You have the four seasons here from the Spring and Summer on one side to the Fall and Winter on the other,” Roberta says then walks to the front of the church to sit down.  “If you have any questions, I will answer them now.”

“Is there religious significance to the figures?” I ask pointing at the mural.

“Women are not allowed to know about the religion of our people, so of course I do not know.”

Another surprising response, and I wonder to myself why the tribe would provide a female tour guide when women cannot answer questions about religion, especially because we are viewing religious artifacts.

Roberta and I chat in the old church.  It is a fascinating conversation from my perspective, and I try to engage her in my experience – my life – but get the feeling she is not interested.  At some point in the conversation – she is telling me about Zuni marriage practices – it hits me.  Here is a people who are protecting their culture and religion from outsiders.  They are not interested in knowing another way to live; they are trying to live like their ancestors.  It is almost the opposite of what I seek to do on this road trip.

Awonawilona - Zuni Sun God

“I will drive you on the walking tour if you would like,” Roberta says.  “Great!” I say.  We climb back into the green beast and drive through the village which surounds the mission.  “You can take photography if you like,” she says.

Before leaving, I buy Zuni Fetishes.  There are two stores on the main road that are Zuni owned. The other six are owned by whites or Arabs according to the man at the visitor’s center.  When I stop at Turquoise Village, I am barraged by Indians outside selling fetishes from their pockets.   A woman and man approach.  “Please sir, we are trying to get some food, will you buy these?” they plead, showing me an eagle and several wolves.  I buy the eagle then two more fetishes from the store.  When I exit, a deluge of people shove handfuls of fetishes in my direction, all smiling and inquiring, “Where are you from?”  It’s overwhelming. I climb back into my Jeep and head east on the main road.

Somewhere before Albuquerque, I settle on what’s different about the Zuni people from other reservations I have visited.  For lack of a better word: pride.  You can see it in their eyes and hear it in their speech.  While I may be surprised by some of the ways in which they live, they appear perfectly content with who they are in this world.  Although I don’t think the Zuni are pleased with history, I don’t feel like I am visiting a defeated people.

Sedona: Does this Vortex Come in a Tablet?

“Do you know where this vortex thingy is?” a man asks heading up the red dirt trail.  “I think it’s up in that direction.  You’ll see a bunch of people meditating.”  I cough, then walk the other way.   “Oh, goody,” he says clutching a Canon Rebel and smiling at his female companion.

Energy Tourists at Boynton Canyon

Sedona, Arizona is a spiritual tourism mecca and one of those places that people say, “You must stop and see.”  I have come in search of energy.  More specifically, in search of the energy vortexes  said to be scattered around the area.  My visit comes at a time when I’m nursing a bad cold, complete with sneezing, fatigue, fever and cough.  I have three days to see four sites.  More than enough time if I can find the, uh, energy.

The problem in locating, precisely, these “vortexes of subtle energy” is that there are no x-marks-the-spot signs indicating “here is the vortex” or “this way to the energy.”  Instead, one must read online accounts and feel their way to the right place.  One website (John and Miki’s Metaphysical Site), the one I use to find the vortexes, says: “You’ll notice that the energy is strong as soon as you get out of your car” in certain areas.  “Strong” is a relative term.

Red Rock Crossing/Cathedral Rock

The first vortex I assail is Red Rock Crossing/Cathedral Rock, located on Route 89A to the west of town.  As instructed, I enter Crescent Moon Park, pay the $9.00 fee, and continue to the farthest point where I can park.  From there, I walk a short distance along Oak Creek through beautiful maple, juniper, sycamore and oaks trees.  Fall leaves are an intense golden yellow with splotches of orange and green.  On the path are pillars, six-inches to two-feet high, of smooth river rocks stacked precariously one on top of the other that people have carefully erected.  My cell phone abruptly stops functioning and turns off completely.  I click it on several times to no avail.

The website says this center “strengthens the feminine side” that exists in all spiritual beings.  I didn’t know that energy has gender, but I’m open to the idea.  As I walk, my heart beat increases, though I am not certain if it’s the DayQuil, extra weight I carry around my midsection, or the vortex.  The prominent emotion building in me is anger.  I scream, in my head, at the other tourists who linger in several landscape photos I wish to take.  My iPhone still will not click on.

I recenter myself – after all, this is a special place and I am trying to have a spiritual experience.  Breathing in the fresh air and scenic location, I build a small rock tower.  Not as nice or elaborate as some, but it adds to the multitude of altars.  I pray and set an intention to welcome more feminine energy into my life.  Then, I walk back the way I came.  Before making it back to my car, I notice a man sitting on a log.  He grumbles, then pushes over some of the rock pillars.  Apparently I am not the only one who feels anger here.

Boynton Canyon 

Sedona Road Runner

The next center I pay homage to is Boynton Canyon, northeast of Cathedral Rock about 4 miles.  In the parking lot, I notice “parking permit required” signs.  Other cars display papers in their windshields, and after minor investigation I see an automatic pay box where for $5 a day I can get a permit – credit cards accepted.  I hate being nickled and dimed, so grumble to myself while inserting my card.  Total amount to see the two energy sites is now $14.

I follow the Boynton Canyon Trail to Vista Trail, just a short walk.  Along the way, my cell phone, which I have clicked a few times, reboots itself.  I overhear someone comment, “I don’t know where this what-ever-it-is is, but let’s go this way.”  I go the opposite direction, not wanting my experience to be disturbed.

Juniper trees jut out of smooth red boulders.  A couple in front of me points out a roadrunner off in the distance.  On this trail, I notice a vibrational hum coming from the earth.  I hear it in other places, but it sounds deeper here.  The website, which I pull up on my iPhone, says this energy center helps “balance the masculine and feminine.”  Again I feel my heart beat faster as I approach the supposed site.

I never find what I consider the exact location of the vortex, but decide my visit here is complete after saying a short prayer in an area where others are praying, meditating and even napping.

Airport Vortex

View from Airport Vortext

The third vortex is due east of Boynton Canyon on Route 89A at Airport Road.  Up a short trail, the site overlooks the city of Sedona.  I see the same “permits required” signage, which makes my masculine blood boil.  Here I decide to use the same permit from the last location – and rush through the experience less I be caught.  Not until later, do I realize that the permits are good for all locations, all day.

Before walking into the area, I center myself to see if I can really feel the energy.  I’m expecting it to hit me like a tab of ecstasy or LSD.  It does not.  By now, I am exhausted from the short walks taken in the name of spiritual growth.  I pause, breath deeply, then walk 200 feet up the path to the overlook.  Other visitors surround me, meditating, talking, walking deep in thought.  Images of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead play in my head as someone shuffles by expressionless.

This location actually has a pile of rocks enclosed in a metal cage that appears to mark the spot.  Offerings – dollar bills, flowers, personal notes, pictures – are placed carefully in between the red stones and wire.  I consider reclaiming the dollar bills, but decide karma might not look so kindly on such an action.  I have nothing in my pockets but my phone and wallet.  I thumb through it for something to leave, but find nothing.  I offer another prayer and set another intention.

Once again I experience a light, rapid feeling in my chest – my heart center – sort of like a strong cup of Starbucks first thing in the morning.  Being that this is the third time in as many locales, I determine the experience must be due to the vortexes.  I meditate, finding a nice, smooth boulder on which to sit.  The few moments I spend are filled with incessant chatter . . . from my own head.

Bell Rock

Bell Rock, Sedona

The fourth and final vortex I visit is located south of town at a pull out just off Route 179.  Pulling into the parking lot, I leave the permit from the previous day on my dashboard hoping to skirt the $5 fee (which I do).  It means I have to rush through the vortex or risk a ticket should some meticulous cop cruise the lot.

Bell Rock is a short, beautiful hike to a very “Sedona” place.  It overlooks a large bell-shaped geological formation covered in smooth red boulders and juniper trees.  The website says of finding the specific location: “Notice the twisted Juniper trees.”  I see branches twisting on themselves in a circular fashion as if growing in a slight whirlwind.  People are abundant in this location.  I notice tourists with cameras, maps, and a familiar look in their eyes – almost as if they have just spotted big game on safari.

This vortex supposedly strengthens all three of the previous areas: feminine, masculine, and the feminine/masculine balance.  I don’t notice much in this place – maybe because I haven’t paid my fair share of parking or maybe because the DayQuil is just kicking in.  Either way, I pause, then say a prayer for the land and breathe in the fresh air, red rocks, trees and land.

I come to the conclusion that feeling energy in each of the locations is nothing like drugs.  In most cases it is not even as powerful as a cup of coffee.  But, if I am willing to pause, listen and breathe, I might notice something just below the surface of perception.

Before I leave town, I catch up with my new friend, Malaika, the Australian/vegetarian/dance instructor I met in Oregon.  She has spent a month in Sedona – full of adventure – and is about to head off to Florida in a van she bought for $4500.  We review her and my adventures, misadventures, love, and loss on the road. It’s fun to compare notes.  We agree to meet along the way, perhaps for lunch in Austin or a swamp tour in Louisiana.

My Book of Mormon, Part 4: Sacrament

Sunday Morning.  Salt Lake City, UT.  I wake late and stumble around the hotel room searching for clothes.  Fuck, no time for Starbucks.  My plan is to see the Mormon Tabernacle Choir followed by Sunday Sacrament at the ward Sister Steigelmeier suggested.  “They’ll know you’re not from here anyway,” repeats in my head as I pull on my Sunday best: dark jeans, a blue and white plaid shirt, and grey and orange New Balance sneakers.  I look like some sort of gay lumberjack.  “I hope I won’t stand out too much,” I think to myself as I speed walk towards Temple Square.

Inside the Tabernacle

Arriving at the Tabernacle, a blue starch-suit woman with black and white name tag stops me: “no backpacks,” she says.

“But it has my laptop and camera equipment,” I whine, “where am I supposed to leave it?”

“Bag check,” she points back the way I came.

“Look at her,” I argue pointing at a woman with suitcase-sized tote, “her handbag is bigger than mine.”

“No backpacks,” the starch-suit holds my gaze.

I squint at her, then walk the other way.  When I return she catches me again “I’m sorry about that, I realize your bag is smaller than many of the ladies’; it’s just we were told ‘no backpacks.’”

“It’s OK,” I joke, “just sexist.”  She smiles awkwardly.

Inside, I sit next to an older woman who recently lost her husband to a motorcycle accident; it’s still painful, I can tell.  She is about to embark on a mission, which, as a convert, she didn’t do in her youth.  She is excited I have come to check out the church.

“I hope you find what you’re looking for here,” she says.  After a brief pause, she asks “are you married?”

“No,” I reply wondering if ‘gay lumberjack’ is an accepted LDS look.

A smile crosses her face, “well, you should definitely stick around, we have many fine, young, eligible girls from all over the world here.”

I look at her twice – is she offering me women, I wonder – then just smile.

Awaiting our Exit - Tabernacle

The Tabernacle building is beautiful and the choir is amazing, if not slightly traditional for my taste.  After the program, I say goodbye to my neighbor and exit the building where I am greeted by a slew of young, beautiful women from all over the world; just as predicted!  They hold signs indicating their language of origin – Deutsche, Cantonese, Spanish, Armenian.    The hostesses offer to provide more information about Mormonism.  If I were a different kind of man in another lifetime, I might take them up on their offer.  But, I need coffee and breakfast.

Across from Temple Square I find a cheap all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet, where I eat, uh, all I can.  The French toast causes bloating and gas, which makes my jeans tighter than when I left the hotel.  Now, I’m a gay lumberjack in skin tight jeans.  No time to change – it’s off to Sacrament.

Finding my way into the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, where the service is held, proves challenging.  I try three entrances, all of which were open yesterday, then decide to follow a young Mormon family.  Gaining access, a guard sitting in a lounge chair stops me: “May I help you?”  I watch as others in their Sunday best walk past unimpeded, “I’m here for the service at 11.”  “Proceed,” he says.

I don’t find Sister Steigelmeier, but sit next to a woman who, noting my camera, says “you can sit here if you don’t take my picture.”  I don’t want to anyway, I think to myself, then say “no problem, I’ll put it away.”  Ms. Camera Shy and I will become close friends over the next hour as she takes it upon herself to translate the service.  I scribble questions on the program and she writes answers.  We go back and forth like this for the entire Sacrament.

Books of Mormon

Mary – I learn her name later – points out every inside joke during the service, of which there are many.  “He’s a pilot,” she whispers after one speaker jokes about the safety procedure on a plane ride.  “He’s from North Carolina,” she notes in a hushed voice after another man jokes about the previous speaker’s mission.  I experience the same feeling as in the bar the previous night when I realize that everyone in the room know’s each other and likely knows I am from out of town.

At the end of Sacrament, Mary asks if I have any questions. I do and she sits with me for thirty minutes answering them. Before I leave, Mary finds the a Ward officer and tracks down a Book of Mormon.  Handing it to me, she says “I hope you enjoy this and find what you are looking for here.”  “Thank you,” I say as I leave her, Temple Square and the Mormons.

My Book of Mormon, Part 3: Excommunication

Saturday Night.  Salt Lake City, UT.  After a long day visiting the Mormons and Temple Square, I’m curious to experience this town after dark, to see the other side that I know is there . . . . and I am interested to get the ‘gay perspective’ on the church.  I Facebook a friend who used to live here: “any suggestions on places to eat?”  He recommends a vegetarian restaurant that happens to be within walking distance of the hotel.  I set out on foot.

Wide Avenues, SLC

This is a driving town, not a walking one, which is demonstrated by the fact that the streets are wide – wider than I have seen in other municipalities – and laid out in an almost perfect grid.  Along the way, other people smile and say “hi.”  It catches me off guard being from NYC; I guess that with fewer people on the streets it’s better to be friendly than not.  The restaurant friend suggests is no longer in business, but I notice an interesting spot on the opposite corner: Sapa.

Unfortunately it’s too cold to eat on the back patio – a reincarnation of a Thai palace, complete with small wooden huts, buddhist statues and bamboo.  The woman seating me seems surprised that I don’t want to sit at the sushi bar – I prefer to dine on the main floor where I can breath in the atmosphere and people-watch.  I order their homemade Gyoza and the veggie Chapchae dish.  They are both delicious, especially the Gyoza.

Mentally, I divide the patrons into two groups – those with cocktails I assume are not Mormon, those with only water are; it appears to be a 50/50 split.  I spy an obviously gay guy working in the back.  Walking up and glancing sideways, I ask “are you family?” in a hushed voice.  It’s the secret gay handshake that allows us to identify one another in strange towns.  “Yes, honey.  What’s up?” he responds quickly.  I wonder if he is snorting cocaine.  “Where’s a good place to go out tonight?” I ask.

Street Art, SLC

Taking me by the hand he leads me through the restaurant to the entrance where he locates Q Salt Lake, the gay newspaper.  Thumbing through he talks to himself and me at the same time: “I know it’s here somewhere.”  Flip, flip, flip go the pages, which all seem to scream “gay this!” or “gay that!”   A group of six pink-cheeked Utahans walk in, looking both me and him up and down.  “No, that’s the bathhouse – do you just want to get laid or actually go to a bar?” he asks.  “A bar,” I reply.  One of the guys waiting with his group smiles at me.  I look at the floor.  Mr. Fabulous gives me two recommendations; one is within walking distance.

TryAngles is one of the few bars in the city that remains a private club.  These clubs are how bars got around the Utah prohibition laws, which only two years ago were abolished.  It’s an unassuming saloon with parking lot and entrance in the, uh, rear.  I pay the $2.00 membership fee, find the bar, and order my standard mocktail: cranberry and soda with a lime.  The waiter shakes his hand when I offer to pay; the man behind me in line comments that I must be from out of town.  I smile.

I find a position from where I can observe the room.  Only it’s not long before I notice that I am the one on display.  The men in the room are staring at me, hard.  It’s like I have arrived on the set of the Twilight Zone; their stares make me somewhat uncomfortable.  Are they judging or cruising?  Probably both.

Downtown SLC

I reposition myself in another area.  Guys look me up and down and then whisper to one another.  I make up things in my head about what they are saying.  Then, standing near the pool table, which not in use tonight, I start to laugh.  It’s one of those uncomfortable, I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening, laughs.  I walk away to recompose, performing a mine face-swoosh with my hand, then decide to break the ice by walking up to one of the main stare-ers.

He’s a little drunk – beer glasses in this bar are – comically – the size of footballs.  The men hold them and look almost like children with play steins in their hands.  We exchange niceties then he asks me “you in town for business?”

“No,” I say, “here to check out the Mormon church.”

A lopsided smile crossed his face as he asks “why would you do that?”

“I want to move out of my comfort zone,” I reply.

“I’m not LDS, but my roommate is,” he says pointing to a drunker dude next to him, who leans, err falls, into me.

The roommate’s story is touching and I am taken aback by what I hear.  He grew up in the Mormon church and, like many young LDS’s, served the organization and even went on a mission.  When they found out he is gay 12 years ago the church excommunicated him.  He says “it’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” but the expression on his face betrays other feelings.

“They threw you out just for being gay?” I ask.

“No, they threw me out because I don’t want to change who I am – they will allow you to stay if you’re willing to be reformed,” he says.

“Reformed?” I ask.

“Yeah, you know, reprogrammed.  You have to give up any gay friends and they will set you up with someone who will check on you to make sure you are staying on the straight and narrow,” he says putting air quotes around “straight and narrow.”

A moment passes while I digest this information.  The he says, “I am happy with who I am – with being gay – I don’t need the church in my life.”

As the evening progresses, I learn that many of the gay men I meet have either been excommunicated or simply drifted away because of the church’s anti-gay stance.  It seems to be a common point of pain that they are distanced from both their family and community.  Mormons are incredibly close-knit and to be on the outside of that is hurtful.  The pain of trying to live a lie of who they are, however, is greater.  These are, it seems, men in limbo.

I get the sense that if the church were to change it’s stance that these guys would return and become active and valued members.  In the meantime, they have found their own zion in a close-knit, imperfect community around a pool table in this private club within walking distance of the Mormon Temple.  I leave the bar, alone, well after 12am and well after my bedtime.

To be continued . . .