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Illustration Credit: Thomas Pitilli

There was only one thought on my mind as I drifted 3,000 feet in the air, protected from a violent cactus-spiked landing by a wicker cage tied to a yellow and blue balloon. “Are those gunshots from the firing ranges?” I asked Captain Mike from Hot Air Expeditions. I had come to Scottsdale, Ariz., in search of the sublime—of the sort of experience that can render you paralyzed by your own mortal transience. To be in the presence of the sublime is to be near a terrifying majesty, and the Sonoran Desert, while considered young at only 10,000 years, was an intimidating sight, especially from some 200 stories up in the morning sky. Far, far below, foxes wended their way through thornscrub while, in the distance, a herd of burros kicked up dust at the base of centuries-old saguaro cacti.

They were utterly oblivious to the human drama happening half a mile above them, as a British couple next to me got engaged amidst tears and hugs. I was glad I hadn’t ruined it when I asked them earlier if they were on their honeymoon, promptly causing the man to giggle nervously and change the subject. If the sublime tethers the emotions of terror and joy, then that young man certainly felt it, judging by the panicked, but jubilant, expression he wore as he gazed down at the landscape after the proposal.

I, on the other hand, was terrified but not joyous. There was something ridiculous about a man popping the question while gunshots threatened to burst our floating bubble. My inner English major found humor in the connection between the figurative and literal meanings of “pop.” The rest of me was just worried about falling to my death. Thanks to Captain Mike’s navigation, we didn’t drop onto a shooting range, although we did hover for some time over the federal prison—long enough for me to become mesmerized by the moving cameras making their circuit around the barbed wire and wonder if providing inmates with a baseball diamond (and presumably bats) was a good idea.

Our landing gave me another opportunity to worry about not buying life insurance. The wind forced us to hit the ground at 10 miles an hour, skipping stones as we skidded along the ground like socks on waxed linoleum. Three large men hopped onto the side of the moving basket for counterbalance and prevented us from overturning. We had a lot to celebrate when they set up the breakfast table, and I hardly flinched when the Champagne was uncorked.

In the 19th century, Henry David Thoreau could still sequester himself in the woods outside Concord to experience nature’s sublimity. It’s nearly impossible today, when even the path to Mount Everest’s summit is littered with water bottles and soda cans. In Scottsdale, the arid environment and gun-toting Arizonans share an uneasy peace—while it’s legal to carry weapons, you can spend years in prison for destroying a saguaro. Greater Phoenix might rank as the fourth most populated county in America, but solitude, like any commodity in modern times, is available for a price.

The most spectacular view of my trip was from my balcony at Sanctuary at Camelback Mountain. Nestled at the base of Scottsdale’s most prominent landmark, many of the luxury resort’s suites afford dramatic views of the dromedary peak at dawn and dusk. A Frank Lloyd Wright-esque mix of modern and mountain, the resort’s low-key architecture serenely blends into its surroundings, with touches like Frette linens and Red Flower bath products, and amenities like a spa with reflecting and Watsu pools, adding a pampered element that would no doubt have met with Thoreau’s disapproval. But after my balloon experience, I basked in the feeling of being tended as if I were a Fabergé egg. I don’t know what Thoreau would have written about the spa’s signature body treatment, in which orange-blossom oil is raked through your scalp as if your head were a Zen garden. No doubt it would have challenged his ideals of simplicity. As would have the duck with black rice and cherry-braised cabbage at Elements, executive chef Beau MacMillan’s onsite restaurant. The Plymouth native’s deft touch with Asian ingredients, involves drizzling black-bean sauce on the meat to playfully evoke the sweet and savory flavors of Peking duck, or combining Chinese sausage with warm squash for a take on an autumnal salad.

On Sanctuary’s manicured grounds, there are no necessary inconveniences, like walking. Chauffeured golf carts are always at the ready to take guests from their massages to their suites. I had come to Scottsdale to find experiences outside of the tedium of everyday life, but all the hand-holding at Sanctuary seduced me to mistakenly believe that I—not just the opulent setting or services—was special. In Enlightenment philosophy, an experience with the sublime, an earthquake for example, makes people feel small, one of an innumerable many; it’s only the contemplation of that experience from a safe distance that allows them to transcend their unimportance. Floating in Sanctuary’s infinity pool, accessible all hours of the day and lit at night by a bonfire that gives its depths a blue glow, there’s no need to transcend your insignificance through thought; there’s no need to think at all, when you can dip a toe in indulgence.

The trip to Phoenix was a five-hour direct flight from Logan, but the growing pains of a city balancing the needs of its inhabitants with the majesty of its natural surroundings echoed those in Thoreau’s own abandoned experiment. From my window seat on the plane, I saw grids of civilization push their order on the landscape around the red-ridged mountains, encroaching on, but not quite colonizing, the peaks. It looked as if nature had taken a temporary restraining order out against man, but the potential for violence lurked in the backdrop.

Everywhere I went, I was constantly warned of the dangers of dehydration, of how easily the desert can lull you into complacency and catch you unawares. Even the briefest journey required a slathering of sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat and a pair of sunglasses. Thoreau might have ridiculed this kind of fearful communing with nature, but he would’ve also probably gotten skin cancer. Although Scottsdale’s resorts give the impression of nature at her tamest and most welcoming, I caught glimpses of the sublime as I flew out of Arizona, in the indifferent, uninhabited mountains that extend as far as the eye can see. And in the realization that, try as civilization might, nature won’t be subdued.

Hot Air Expeditions
2243 East Rose Garden Loop, Suite 1, Phoenix | 800-831-7610 | hotairexpeditions.com

Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain
5700 East McDonald Drive, Scottsdale | 480-948-2100 | sanctuaryoncamelback.com

Spa at Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain
5700 East McDonald Drive, Scottsdale | 480-607-2326 | sanctuaryoncamelback.com

Elements at Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain
5700 East McDonald Drive, Scottsdale | 480-607-2300 | sanctuaryoncamelback.com