Operation: Relaxation

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 1, 2002

I had been grousing for months about turning 40. I was in the middle of a full-on midlife crisis, which was only made worse when my reporter husband packed up for a month to cover the war in Afghanistan and later spent a week in Cuba relaxing with his buddies. Both times I was left behind, exhausted, with two unhappy kids.

When my big day finally arrived, I had to work. Writing an item about flaming underwear at a freak fire at Bloomie's, I was seriously questioning the meaning of my life.

That night, after a nice but decidedly downscale birthday barbecue, my husband told me to check my e-mail. "You will be deployed via a civilian transport center @ 0935 hours," read the cryptic message. "Currently, your destination will remain classified."

I was told I would be met by "friendly forces" and that I needed to bring "personal hygiene items" and sunglasses. In bold capital letters, I was also given items to avoid: "STRESS. GUILT. WORK." Money-related worries "cannot be mentioned or discussed." This was sounding good. Very good.

A few days later, my husband handed me a Travelocity itinerary with an e-ticket to Phoenix. As I drove to BWI, I forwent the usual National Public Radio news and instead blasted Sheryl Crow, telling me to lighten up.

Arriving in Phoenix, I was surprised to find my two sisters, who'd flown down from Portland, Ore. They handed me birthday cards, helped me with my bag and hustled me into a rental car, then we took off north on Interstate 17 through the desert. "I hope you don't mind not getting the usual Restoration Hardware gift certificate," said my younger sister, Claire.

They asked how I liked my "deployment orders," which they had carefully modeled on the ones my husband received when he got word he'd be flying out with the 101st Airborne to Kandahar.

"You bring your hiking boots?" asked my older sister, Mary. I thought with sinking heart -- the baby hadn't slept well for weeks -- that I was way too tired for an Outward Bound kind of thing.

After two hours, Claire turned off on Highway 179 and we climbed into the hills, winding into a magical landscape of red rock spires, sandstone mesas and adobe-colored canyons covered with pine, cactus and cottonwood trees.

We had come to Sedona, Ariz., 4,600 feet above sea level, home to outdoor enthusiasts, artists and New Age pilgrims seeking life transformation. The sun-baked rocks glowed red in the late afternoon light. We pulled into Boynton Canyon, just north of town in Coconino National Forest, which has a resort and spa snug to its rocky walls. It's called Enchantment.

Now this was more like it.

We checked into our "casita" suite, one bedroom with two queen beds connected to a living area with fireplace, patio, tiled kitchen and a Murphy bed. We kicked off our shoes and opened the white wine the resort had chilling on ice as a birthday present.

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