Today is a special day for Peter Gersten.
It’s his 74th birthday. 7 and 4 make 11.
Peter likes the number 11.
“If I worship, if I honor, anything in this world,” Peter tells me, as we speed under the terracotta darkness of Arizona’s mesas at eight in the morning. “It’s the number 11.”
Peter has a plan. At 11:11, on this, his “eleven” birthday, he will face his demons. He will be put to the test. “I’ll reap the rewards I programmed for myself,” he says. He speaks so quickly I struggle to take notes.
But first, Peter has to climb “the Crypt”: a jagged and uncordoned outcropping on top of Sedona’s Bell Rock.
Peter’s terrified of heights. But that hasn’t stopped him from climbing Bell Rock almost every day for nearly five years. He’s brought people to the base of the Crypt before. He’s watched them climb. But he’s never ascended those final steps himself.
It’s all part of Peter’s wider plan. He needs to bring 2,222 people to the top of Bell Rock by 22:22 of the Winter Solstice—12/21—of 2018, in order to reach what he calls the next level of “my holographic reality program.”
I am number 1467. In keeping with Peter’s love of 11:11, though, I’m also number 356 of his second batch of 1111. For this reason, I’ll be climbing today in front of Kennan Brown, who has to be 357. This is because Kennan’s daughter, Charis—climbing with us—was 357 of the first batch of 1111.
“Synchronicity,” Peter says.
Peter used to live in Sedona proper. But a few years ago, he moved to the village of Oak Creek, to an apartment complex in the shadow of Bell Rock. “I wanted Bell Rock to be the first thing I see in the morning, and the last thing I see at night.” On the three bedrooms of his apartment—he calls it the Clubhouse, listed on couchsurfing.com and open free to travelers as long as they agree to climb with him on their first morning in town—Bell Rock is rendered in paint, mosaic, leather, nails.
He keeps an altar with Bell Rock memorabilia—some his own, some left by travelers. A miniature Jesus stands alongside a plastic lizard, an iPad cover, a Bell Rock teabag.
On one wall: letters from initiated members of the Top of Bell Rock Club, papering the plastic from floor to ceiling, punctuated by orange origami Bell Rocks. Photographs of people drumming, juggling, dancing with wings. “We’ve even had a proposal up there.” He’s brought up old men, pregnant women (“We had to take the fetus out of her temporarily. But then we put it back.”) Peter dreams of facilitating a marriage, a conception, a birth.
On another wall: a clipping from Red Rock News. “Mayan calendar vortex jumper costs county $838.”
On December 21, 2012—the day of the prophesied Mayan apocalypse—the county had sent a helicopter to stop Peter from leaping into the portal he’d led friends to believe would open up there.
He dismisses my questions.
“The helicopter was for crowd control,” he scoffs. “I was never going to jump.”
At least, not until the portal finally opens.
Bell Rock is a vortex: one of several—locals disagree about the precise number — mesa sites surrounding Sedona, an Arizona town of 5,000 that has, in recent decades, become de facto pilgrimage sites for New Age seekers.
Every night, when the sun on sandstone makes the whole horizon gleam golden at dusk, different groups gather in the shadow of the vortex for drumming circles and starlight fire ceremonies; UFO-watching parties cast their binoculars to the sky. There are ayahuasca rituals—surreptitiously organized—and ostensibly Native American sweat lodges. It’s a Mecca without gates, a Lourdes without doctrine. Locals call it a “cathedral without walls.”
The organic-ayurvedic cafés stand alongside UFO-themed diners, and every strip mall has an aura-reading station, an incense stop. High-end resorts offer forest bathing sessions and creekside meditation; cheap crystal shops line the interstate . The vortexes—all on gargantuan, rust-dark mesas, thick with juniper trees—cast shadows on the horizon on all sides.
Different tour guides, locals, and travelers have different explanations for what vortexes are. They are energy centers, points of heightened magnetism, places where ley lines converge, where juniper trees contort, where brain activity is heightened, where chakras are opened. Some say that Bell Rock is Sedona’s main masculine vortex, Cathedral Rock its feminine counterpart. Others say Bell Rock’s energy flows upward, from the earth through the universe; Cathedral Rock’s energy flows downward, pulling you into yourself. One inspires you; the other makes you introspect.
Other people say they’re just beautiful, that’s all.
Local lore has it that the site was sacred to Native Americans; now, makeshift stack-stone cairns and medicine wheels—nearly all formed by white tourists—are ubiquitous in vortex parkland. Forest Services, conscious of the ecological cost of moving rocks, despair.
But three million tourists come each year for sage cleanses, channeling lectures, yoga retreats. They come for past-life consultancies, reiki healing, Tarot reading. From discarded dogmas, they cobble together a capacious, all-encompassing faith. One healer I meet recites a prayer to the Virgin Mary at his backyard medicine wheel; another uses quantum physics to explain how we can project our souls into other spaces and time with meditation. The owner of the café where I eat breakfast told me she decided to open the place after a spiritual experience with a Mayan guide in a Central American forest, where the trees “were singing” to her and greeted her “like an old friend.” A woman who gives me a past-life reading (list price: $250) combines it with a Tarot-like session, where the cards, made by an artist friend, have themes and images inspired by Celtic mythology. She encourages me to connect with my Jewish roots and past lives—the source, she says, of my unfulfilled spiritual hunger.
“But get rid of the bells and whistles,” she says—anything that in my apparent past-life rabbinical training might have given me too narrow a view of the divine. “You’re looking for the Big Something,” she says.
She starts to laugh. “Don’t you like that? The Big Something? I think it’s rather nice.”
Peter doesn’t believe in tour operators, past-life readings, psychics. He thinks they’re mostly charlatans.
Anyway, Peter knows what the vortexes are. They’re portals to the center of the galaxy, and to the only real thing there is.
Once, Peter was a criminal defense lawyer in the Bronx, with a part-time interest in aliens. (His email handle is still ufolawyer.) He doesn’t remember a time when UFOs, the paranormal, the supernatural, didn’t fascinate him—evidence that the material world he knew was colluding, in some sense, to obscure from him the truth.
“I was the shyest, the most insecure kid,” Peter tells me, in a sharp and darting New York accent. He used to hide under the stairs in order to avoid interacting with people. Believing in UFOs gave him a degree of confidence. He could see the truth about the world—that which everyone else around him was too afraid of confronting. It was only ever an illusion, a story, a game. A game whose outcome he had already determined. We are all holograms, programmed by our real selves into this material world. Everything we experience we have chosen for ourselves.
“I lose my job? My cancer?”—throat and nose, recently in remission—“My relationship goes south? It’s my responsibility. I already consented.”
He already consented, too, to ascend the final peak at the top of Bell Rock, the one he has avoided for nearly five years.
And so, on his seventy-fourth birthday, we’re all here to support him. Charis—a goddess workshop leader who lives five minutes down the road—and her father, a Bell Rock neophyte. Simon, owner of the Red Chopstick restaurant next door. Bearded twenty-somethings Dan and Antony, annual visitors to the Clubhouse, wrapped up in a conversation about last night’s sleep:
“I finally had a lucid dream last night. I dreamed that there was the most beautiful music I’d ever heard, and I knew it wasn’t real, that it couldn’t last. I tried to record it but I couldn’t. That’s when I knew I was dreaming . . . ”
We’re expecting Charis’s boyfriend, too, but he leaves a frantic voicemail just when we’re supposed to leave.
“There’s something wrong in my reality . . . I just can’t be around people right now . . . ”
“People are so unreliable,” Peter sighs.
It is nine in the morning in early spring; already, the sun is blistering. The air is suffused with juniper, with dust. The red of the pathway collapses into the red of the rock: striations of rust-darkened iron, limestone, quartz. Peter leads us, one by one, up the scramble. He knows exactly where to step, even where there is no path. He doesn’t even need to look down.
Halfway up the mesa, we meet a group of hikers from Iowa, in town for a bachelor party. One of Peter’s friends has run into them earlier on the path and advised them to wait for the Vortex Jumper to arrive.
Tyler, Tyler, and Skyler.
“Synchronicity!” Peter exclaims.
He waits for them to respond. They don’t say much.
Peter continues. “I need to take you up the mountain to claim my spiritual gifts.”
They look at each other. Then shrug and follow us.
Now we are eleven.
“Peter’s going to wet his pants,” someone jokes.
It is nine-thirty. I’m already sunburned.
“I left a crystal there once,” Charis murmurs as we pass a cave in the outcropping. “Someone took it. I don’t mind. I have another one in a different cave.”
She comes here to meditate. She’s been in Sedona almost two years. “Sedona chose me,” she says.
She’d been teaching online goddess workshops, traveling around America—a “gypsy,” she calls herself. Then a friend needed a subletter at precisely the right time, just for a couple months. Then another friend had a free room.
“Synchronicity,” she breathes.
For the first time in her life, Charis is in a place where she belongs. “It’s nice to be in a room of people you don’t freak out,” Charis says, as we scramble up a pathless precipice. “I have visions, like, all the time.” Sometimes prophecies. Sometimes daydreams. Sometimes a unicorn, glimmering in a field. It depends.
Once, Charis and her father, Kenan, were evangelical Christians. They “demonized”—in Charis’s words—her visions. She suppressed her natural gifts all through her childhood, fearful that they came from a place of evil.
Then came Kenan’s divorce from Charis’s mother. “A lot of the people [at church] I thought would be there for us,” Kenan says, “they weren’t. And I thought—if that’s all talk, then maybe it’s all all talk.”
He lost his faith. He found a better one. Now he, inspired by his daughter, considers himself a sole practitioner of Wiccan Daoism.
And Charis? “She’s just . . . Charis.”
Dan—the traveler visiting Peter, on his eleventh climb up Bell Rock—has a similar story. Once, he was Catholic; he believed. But he began to feel disillusioned by a church hierarchy he could no longer trust. He started having visions of demons: his priest replaced by the devil in the pews. He had to get out of there.
He comes to Sedona once a year. To see Peter. To reconnect with himself. To draw upon the energy of the vortexes. He’s not sure what the energy is, here, but he knows he feels it. Don’t I feel it, too?
He’s not fully on board with Peter’s philosophy, but he’s done some reading. It doesn’t seem so far-fetched, he says, once you do your reading.
“The holographic principle. You should google it.”
Peter leads us to the base of the Crypt. He spends forty or so minutes arranging us in different photographic configurations: individual photos, photos of the “new members,” photos of the women, of men. They’ll all be on Facebook, he says, by that afternoon.
Then it is 11:11.
He wipes the sweat from under his orange bandana. “Actors have stunt doubles. Can’t I just send a stunt double?”
But Peter has to do what he programmed.
He has me capture it on video. Peter and Charis, climbing the final ascent to the Crypt. Peter, stumbling a little, scraping his hand.
“He’s bleeding!” Charis calls.
But he makes it to the top. He waves. Charis takes the blood from his hand, anoints him. He closes his eyes; he bows. He poses for photographs.
“Shadow and light,” Charis says. “Shadow and light.”
When they get down, Charis explains the ritual to me. It’s a Hawaiian shamanistic techniques—she found it, like most of her rituals, in a book. She picks and chooses the elements she likes: whatever resonates with her.
“Santa? The Easter Bunny?” she says. “They’re a war on magic.” They make people think of magic as nothing more than “blue glitter.” But magic, Charis says, is a vital part of life. The energy of this vortex, its stillness, its strength—that’s where real magic lies.
Peter takes us to another outcropping, where a tin box—placed there by a previous Bell Rock regular, though Peter maintains it now—is filled with pens, notebooks, testimonies:
Please help me recoup my losses on my Belize investment. Please help my wife deal with her health issues and my sister’s cancer.
Please cleanse my soul, body and spirit so that I my find my true self again. Allow me to connect back with the universe.
I, Jolene, deserve and am receiving abundance, of resources, money, food, shelter, happiness, joy, peace, and love.
We write our own prayers down.
“You know?” Peter says wistfully, as we come down. “Once I was up there . . . it wasn’t so bad.”
He gazes off into the distance. “Nothing’s ever really as big as you think it is.”
My last night in Sedona, Peter asks me to go with him to Red Rock Crossing at Oak Creek, in the shadow of Cathedral Rock: the feminine counterpart to Bell.
He’s surprised when I knock at the Clubhouse door. “You’re a member now,” he says. “You don’t have to knock anymore.”
We make the drive at dusk. We sit with our feet by the water, waiting for the sun to set golden on the rock.
“I used to come here,” Peter says, “after December 21”—the day in 2012 he didn’t jump off the vortex.
He’d wanted to have 1,111 people up the mountain by 11/11/11; he’d barely accomplished 111. His cancer, though treatable, had sapped his strength—worse still, he could no longer taste the food he once enjoyed, because of the effects of the radiation on his tongue.
“My story was over,” says Peter.
No portal had opened for him.
So he came to Oak Creek, to another vortex. He’d watch Cathedral Rock at sunset. He’d watch the kids play with their pails. He’d feel the energy coming from that monstrous limestone, from the gargantuan outcroppings and the precipitous saddle-drops, the ones that make you feel so small. He’d listen to the sound of the bubbling in the water.
“Sometimes your story,” he says. “It’s not the one you programmed for yourself, you know?” The story you tell, the story you think you know—it might be an illusion, too.
I ask him, once again, about how he got to Sedona. This time, he answers me.
A vision quest. He fasted for four days, waiting for an answer—where to go next, after New York.
Why was he fasting?
“I developed an unhealthy obsession,” he says. “With a fantasy.”
I press further. He doesn’t look at me.
“My ex-wife,” he says. “You convince yourself you can’t live without someone. Once they’re gone. I mean—when we were married, it wasn’t . . . I was horrible. Horrible.”
But of course, everything Peter experiences, he programs for himself. His messy divorce. His grown daughter—who sends him joking Father’s Day cards telling him how glad she is he programmed her into his life. “The most curable kind of cancer.” He was always meant to survive it, he says.
He wouldn’t have jumped. Not really.
People got the wrong idea. The city council got the wrong idea—he told the sheriff, he says, when he came by to conduct an evaluation before the solstice date: It was never a suicidal thing. If a portal to a new galaxy had opened, if the UFOs had come and shone a beam down—then he would have jumped, he says. Only then.
He would have found a way to the center of the galaxy, to the place beyond all illusion. He would find a way to defeat the “mimetic virus”—that decay encoded in the machinery of our existence, the entropy that destroys our simulation. Maybe he still will.
Maybe that’s why he got cancer, he says. You defeat the mimetic virus within to defeat the mimetic virus without.
“It’s my story now,” Peter says. “It’s who I am.”
Peter’s new story is that he’ll bring 2,222 people to the top of Bell Rock. He’s ahead of schedule, even. He averages twelve people a week. He’ll definitely make it by the winter solstice of 2018, if he keeps up the way he’s going. He gets so many referrals, so many people he doesn’t know what to do with them. He posts daily on Facebook: the new members of his Top of Bell Rock Club. He’s getting so close.
He doesn’t know what will happen once he gets there.
“When I die,” Peter says. “I’d like to be a ghost. Taking people up Bell Rock. They’d get lost and they’d have a figure show them a way up the mountain, and then they’d go back and tell people and everyone would say— that guy’s been dead for years. “I’d like that,” he says.
The day I leave Sedona, Peter posts a note to Facebook. He writes about himself in the third person, as a “legendary character” called The Vortex Jumper, who will soon open that “2222-portal to the galactic center.”
It will be fascinating to learn what I programmed for myself in this lifetime since it is usually 111% better than what I can imagine it to be in this present moment.