It was almost good enough for one of those Auburn commercials. Just needed more umbrellas and geysers. Or planes that can land on water. Or less waiters in referee outfits.
By which I mean the random encounter the Mrs. WBE and I had Saturday night at “Stakes and Sticks,” the local sports grill-slash-off-track horse racing establishment in Sedona, Arizona. It was early in the second half–I think when Trott caught the 34-yarder to set up the Byrum field goal–that we noticed the table that had just sat down next to us was loudly celebrating Auburn’s good plays, and they noticed they the table they sat down next to had a guy in an Auburn hat doing the same. War Eagles were exchanged, both sides offered quick explanations for what we were collectively doing so far away from the Heart of Dixie (they were a contractor’s family and friends on a week’s vacation, hailing from Trussville), and then we settled in for the second half.
Unfortunately, this is the other part that didn’t make the encounter quite worthy of filming for promotional purposes: aside from the eruption of joy in response to Demond Washington’s kickoff return, most of what we got to share was the frustration of Georgia’s running game cramming the ball down Auburn’s throat and the Dawg defensive line stuffing any and all Tiger attempts to do the same; Todd and his receivers making just enough poor plays to undo the many, many good ones; and finally, the prolonged gut-punch of that last decisive sequence. (Loss of 1, goalline drop, 10-minute delay for horrific injury, sack, penalty, desperation heave is no way to finish a football game. Well, not when it’s your team on the wrong end of it, anyway.)
Our new friends seemed to take the loss a little tougher than we did. There were vocal complaints about the tackling, the coverage, the play-calling … the usual. Complaints were plenty justified for much of that half, of course, but I couldn’t help but feel like the greatness and tension of the game–the first one like this Auburn has played since at least last year’s Georgia game and maybe the 2008 LSU meeting–meant I’d have to wait afterwards to feel much in the way of aggravation.
When it was over, maybe good-byes were said and in a haze of shock (and, OK, the pint or two) I forgot they happened, or maybe I just missed them somehow, or maybe good-byes weren’t said. But whatever happened, I looked up after ESPN had cut away from Chizik and Richt shook hands, and the table next to ours was suddenly empty. No matter; when you live two thousand miles from the Loveliest Village, it’s not every day you get a “War Eagle” in response to a “War Eagle.”
Still, though, if they did make that commercial, I bet they’d leave that part out.
Take it from me: Sedona is a seriously weird place.
It doesn’t feel like a city as much as some strange social-science experiment in which Forces Beyond Our Control have smashed together a half-dozen different strains of U.S. culture just to see what would happen. The New Agers-and-UFO-chasers rub shoulders outside the upscale yuppie tourist crowd’s art galleries*, down the street from the West Coast nature hippies’ granola shacks and, further up the hill, the outsized mansions of the daytripping super-rich, who no doubt employ the local collection of Latino immigrants to keep them clean while away in Phoenix or L.A. or Vegas. What would happen, it turns out, isn’t the kind of city where’d you say there’s no there there–it’s not a straight tourist trap–but where’d you’d say what’s there is so disjointed and schizophrenic it’s almost like it isn’t. Look, even the McDonald’s is screwy.
All of that looks past, of course, the reason anyone ever decided to do more than pitch a tent in the middle-of-Arizonan-nowhere in the first place: the rocks. Yes, they are spectacular. Yes, the views deserve the overused adjective “breathtaking.” Yes, the hikes made up for whatever other issues I might have had with the place. Particularly the last one we took, 700 feet up to one of the “saddles” in Cathedral Rock, where you stand between these impossibly massive towers of stone and can look both ahead and behind you over acre after acre of stone and mountain and tree and God.
But of course, heartbreaking beauty’s not enough for some people, like the people who founded and maintain Sedona’s ubiquitous industry of energy “vortexes,” one of which were were told happens to exist at that very spot at the top of our hike. I have to say, I didn’t notice any overwhelming flood of unexplainable spritual energy flowing from the earth and rocks. I did, however, notice the woman sitting cross-legged on a mat in what would have looked like meditation if she hadn’t been jabbering away on her cell phone.
I know I seem pretty far afield of Auburn football at this point. Sorry. But driving home yesterday and thinking about both my weekend and my football team’s, I wondered if brooding over the Georgia loss (and the likely loss of a New Year’s Day bowl berth that may have gone with it, as I was doing) wasn’t all that unlike dreaming up a vortex in the middle of the Sedona rocks. This Auburn season has maybe not been an overwhelming success, hasn’t been the stuff of miracle-working, hasn’t been one that’s going to make the fans and talking heads anywhere outside of SEC country take notice.
But damn has it been fun. Damn if is this team isn’t as likable as any I can remember at Auburn. Damn if it doesn’t get just about as much out of itself as we could ask. Damn if you can’t look at the young talent already on the field and in the ever-more-impressive recruiting class and see Gene Chizik carving the pathway back to challenging for a divisional title, even given the 800-pound gorilla perched in the top spot.
Remember last year? Remember how Auburn was an afterthought, how miserable we all were, how it was so hard to see how it was going to change and even if it did, how long that change was going to take? It’s one year later, and if Auburn’s still not where we want them to finish, they are where we wanted them to be this season. Auburn is not Florida or ‘Bama, but only two schools in this conference are. There’s seven schools, however, in this conference’s creamy middle, and Auburn has played five of them plus another team that would belong there if it played in this league instead of the Big East. Auburn has gone 3-3 in those games despite playing four of them on the road, and the one they played Saturday could have been very different witha bounce or two here or there.
That’s enough. It won’t be in 2010 or 2011, probably, but this year, focusing on the disappointment of an Auburn defeat–especially one on the road in which Auburn outgained their opponent, finally solved their special teams troubles, and came within 20 yards or so of sending the game into overtime despite giving up 31 legitimate offensive points–for any longer than it takes to dry the tears (ours metaphorical, the team’s not, as it should be) isn’t necessary. It’s like trying to tack on an imaginary swirl of psychic energy to make an already special place even more special. Auburn football is something to be savored, enjoyed, looked forward to, rather than the something to be endured it was just a year ago. We’re not at the top of the mountain yet, but we can see where we’re going. We can enjoy the hike.
And for that I am grateful, even in defeat.
*There’s a reason I mentioned that the only establishment in town devoted to sports-watching was a pricey restaurant offering closed-circuit off-track horse wagering. There is money in them thar red hills. Or in the people that live there, I mean.