At McCain's Ariz. Retreat, Ribs With a Side of Chi?

Cathedral Rock from Red Rock Crossing, Sedona -- McCain country, sort of.
Cathedral Rock from Red Rock Crossing, Sedona -- McCain country, sort of. (By Bob Ciemens -- Sedona Chamber Of Commerce)
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By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 3, 2008

SEDONA, Ariz., March 2 -- Crawford, Kennebunkport, Rancho del Cielo: These spots have acquired mythic status as places where America's presidents have chosen to vacation. The presidential retreat is heavy on symbolism, telling the nation how the commander in chief wants to be seen when not on the job -- which may explain why a number of them have opted for dusty ranches where they might engage in such Marlboro Man activities as chopping wood and riding horses.

Sedona's symbolism is a little more confusing. There are chakras involved.

John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, has for years spent weekends at his cabin not far from Sedona, the New Age capital of the country. Sunday, he hosted an afternoon of socializing at his homey ranch. He grilled ribs for reporters (dry rub and lots of lemon juice -- on the ribs, not the reporters) and briefly touched on the important issue of whether one can feel the "energy vortexes" of Sedona's red rocks all the way out on his property.

"I think we're a little away from Sedona," McCain said, grinning, and then playfully grumbled about the fact that "they" (the New Agers, presumably) chose to flock to one of the most beautiful places in the country instead of to, say, Brooklyn.

Senator, a reporter asked, is your chi in balance?

"I think so," McCain said, playing along. Then he got back to practicalities, pointing out where he and wife Cindy had planted fruit trees.

If McCain becomes president, America will likely get to know this place as many presidential vacation homes have become known: as metaphor as well as reality. George Bush's Crawford, Tex., ranch is not just somewhere to relax but a place for him to engage in the physical activities that say I understand the common man. I clear brush like the common man. (Crawford is not, as has been noted countless times, Poppy's place in Maine, with all those connections to money and Northeast privilege.)

The notion of the Presidential Ranch is practically an archetype by now -- in addition to Bush and Reagan, LBJ had a spread in Texas where he raised prizewinning cattle. McCain's ranch, in the vicinity of Page Springs and Cottonwood, off an unpaved road sprinkled with cactuses and scrubby trees, fits the bill as a hardy, homey place for a president (or, in this case, a candidate) to unwind. Though it should be said that McCain's definition of relaxing appears to involve less snoozing in a hammock and more schmoozing with reporters about things like the habits of woodpeckers.

Wearing a pair of jeans and a sweat shirt with a family photo printed on it, McCain pointed out a hawk's nest on the property he's owned for 24 years, and explained how his bone-down slow-cook grilling technique virtually eliminates the fat from his ribs. (Several reporters, skeptical by trade, remained unconvinced.) McCain's springer spaniel, Sam, hovered near the tong-wielding senator, gnawing on a rib McCain had taken off the grill. McCain's friend Sen. Lindsay Graham also gnawed on a rib, albeit with more delicacy.

At one point, McCain invited some folks into the rustic cabin's living room, which was decorated with family portraits and children's drawings. He showed off a 2005 copy of Architectural Digest with a picture of himself and Cindy on the cover, and opened a fancy box to reveal some sort of elaborate medal.

"Look at that, huh?" he said, looking boyishly wowed. "That's from Estonia."

There is something surprising -- perhaps even metaphysically provocative -- about the notion of Mr. Straight Talk in such close proximity to what may be the nation's highest proportion of crystal-wielding psychics. McCain comes across as a what-you-see-is-what-you-get guy, not terribly given to brooding or introspective meditation. He is superstitious, sure, keeping a lucky penny in his pocket, but it's hard to imagine him buying a "manifestation pyramid" at Sedona's Crystal Castle, or going in to get his chakras cleared.

Downtown Sedona, meanwhile, is a hotbed for seekers, spiritual healers, Reiki masters and people who claim to have been abducted by aliens. There are places to get your "aura" photographed (ours is orange, we discovered), and jeep tours that take you up to the red rocks to experience the so-called vortexes. The local paper recently printed a letter to the editor warning of "a day when this physical plane trembles before the coming Quantum Leap of the cosmos."

In 1987, pilgrims gathered here for what was supposed to be a "harmonic convergence," though whether something actually converged and how that affected the universe is a matter of some dispute.

In any case, Sedona is not a place for straight talk and ribs. Sedona is a place where everything is invested with a sense of the spiritual. Heck, folks here even see politics in spiritual terms.

"People are hungry and starved for love," said a 67-year-old ponytailed man who goes by the name Rama, which he said was given to him when he studied with gurus in India. Rama was selling tickets Saturday afternoon in a booth off the main drag for Earth Wisdom Jeep Tours, which takes tourists to see something called the "sacred wheel." He predicted that Barack Obama might be the answer to the nation's hunger.

Not so, said another Sedona resident, a psychic and "spiritualist minister" named Carrie Konyha, 40. McCain is the man. McCain believes in his own "inner knowing," Konyha said, and she might vote for him if she were in the habit of voting.

Meanwhile, a psychic named Scottie Littlestar, consulted for a reading, said she felt the energy of the name "Markman" coming off a reporter's energy field. The reporter noted that "Markman" sounded suspiciously like . . . McCain! Might that mean something?

Eh, probably not.

Back at the ranch, there was nothing supernatural, no electromagnetic vibrations, nothing Sedona-like save the beauty. Staff and press ate and admired a fast-rushing creek and made chitchat. Nothing spiritual. Just politics.

One could forget how close one was to the vortexes until McCain's former New Hampshire campaign co-chairman, Steve Duprey, said he'd been on a walk in Sedona on Saturday with some sort of spiritual guide, and they discussed personal energies.

"He started talking about how you feel your chi," Duprey reported. "It feels like toffee between your hands."

No doubt.

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