I once had a professor who announced to class that if he were forced to wipe one city from the map, there would be no struggle. The choice was obvious: Phoenix, Arizona. I thought that was pretty funny, because I knew nothing about Phoenix, and nothing about Arizona. I pictured a state of retirees and lawn chairs. Smoldering asphalt and heat waves smudging the horizon. Florida--with more cacti. In other words, our expectations were low.
It took us two days to hitch up and pull Elsie to Arizona. We spent our first night on the road parked at a rest stop somewhere outside of Santa Rosa, New Mexico. We parked between two idling semis, their diesel engines running all night to keep warm. Mel and I, on the other hand, slept in Elsie. No heater. Low 30s. We piled every blanket we had onto the bed and climbed underneath, and then threw Costello on top. I was already fighting a cold, which meant Mel had to suffer my incessant sniffling and coughing. Around 5:45 a.m., Costello decided to hop off the bed and vomit on the floor (thank god for Lysol wipes). Needless to say, we’ve all had better nights.
We pulled out before the sun could rise, and spent most of the next day groggy and red-eyed, but proud of ourselves for toughing it out the night before, saving ourselves the money others would have spent on a hotel room. Buttes and bluffs started to emerge on the horizon, and soon enough – Flagstaff, AZ, not far off – Humphrey’s Peak (the tallest point in Arizona) towered like a sentinel in the distance. Making good time, we allowed ourselves to wander off the path to Meteor Crater, just a few miles off of I-40. Some friends of ours back in Nebraska recommended it, and we felt like we’d earned a quick stop.
After pulling Elsie on a gravel road for six miles, we parked at the visitors center, groveled about the admission price, questioned just how embarrassingly cheap we really are, hopped back in the Suburban and drove away. Halfway back to the interstate, we decided we would regret not seeing the meteor crater. We turned back to the visitor’s center. We almost paid, then realized we’d have to leave now to make our check-in time at Dead Horse Ranch State Park, our first official campground on the road trip. Sorry, Meteor Crater. Maybe next time.
We turned south out of Flagstaff, pulled Elsie through her first stretch of mountain terrain, and finally arrived at Dead Horse Ranch State Park, just outside of Cottonwood, AZ. We unhitched at sunset, right next to the campground hosts and the bathhouse behind them. So busy unloading and getting everything set up for the night, we’d nearly missed the stunning view of Mingus Mountain and the Verde Valley right behind us. It was more mountain than we expected. We’d only just arrived, but I already felt an affinity for the landscape, exceedingly more dynamic than I had ever given it credit for.
We spent our first full day at Dead Horse catching up on work while a covey of Gambel’s quail sang and gorged themselves at the neighbor’s feeder. That afternoon, we took a brief jog around the park, running past the lagoons on the opposite end. Though we had to keep the space heater running through the night (Arizona was experiencing colder than normal temperatures during our stay), the temperature had reached mid-50s by the afternoon, and the jog was pleasant. Old men sat in their camp chairs around the lagoons, two or three lines a piece in the water. Ducks took flight. Cattails hugged the shore and swayed back and forth in the breeze. It was peaceful, and hardly the staid, arid desert I initially had in mind.
The next morning we rode our bikes into Cottonwood (pop. 11,424) and, at the suggestion of the campground hosts, ate breakfast at Randall’s Restaurant. It was your typical small-town diner, which is to say, it was both delicious and cheap. We ate heartily: pancakes, eggs, thick-cut ham. Then we hopped back on our bikes, rode in the wrong direction for roughly a mile, argued about it for somewhere between 20 minutes and two days, turned around and eventually made our way to Jerona Café, a coffee shop on the other end of town, where we worked the rest of the afternoon.
That night we spiked hot cider with caramel vodka (highly recommended) and walked a short trail near our campsite to the top of a hill overlooking the valley. There’s a very specific feeling, I noted in my journal later that night, that crops up when viewing a city from a distance. There was no wind on the hill, no distractions. I told myself I should write a poem about that feeling, but a poem would demand something more, something about loneliness or isolation our outsiderness. Maybe not. I don’t know, but I was content to leave the feeling undefined.
On our third day at Dead Horse, we drove a quick 20 minutes to Jerome, once a prosperous mining town, now a boozy arts community hanging by a thread on Cleopatra Hill at an elevation of more than 5,000 feet. Every house, every business in town has an unbeatable view of the Verde Valley below. Galleries and wine-tasting rooms have moved into the old buildings on Main Street. The Jerome Grand Hotel keeps vigil over it all, raised higher than every other building and street in town, accessible only via a one-lane road. An asylum during Jerome’s heyday, the building was later renovated and converted into a hotel and restaurant that stays busy year-round. We toured the lobby and first-floor, as far as we were allowed to go without a reservation.
Editors of the world, if you can hear me, please send me to the Jerome Grand Hotel for an expenses-paid travel article. Mel and I later split a quick burger and beer at a strangely decorated restaurant called Haunted Hamburger, and drove back to Dead Horse for the night. (Note: We later learned Maynard James Keenan, former frontman of the band TOOL, owns a tasting room in Jerome and a winery nearby).
We spent the next day in Sedona, AZ, another short drive from Dead Horse. I’ve recently sold a short travel article on Sedona, which I’ll link to when it’s up, so I’ll keep our time in Sedona short. Our first stop in town was at City Hall, where we met up with the mayor, Sandy Moriarty (look for our full interview with Sandy on the blog soon!). She gave us a nice primer on the issues currently facing Sedona – namely traffic lights and old white wealthy conservative men – and recommended we eat at HP Café, one of the oldest remaining locally owned restaurants in uptown Sedona. Before we made it to the cafe, however, we made a few more quick stops. First, I met up with author Pete A. Sanders, MIT honors grad and the area’s foremost expert on “energy vortexes,” popular with the New Age crowd in Sedona. After that, I met with Anahata Ananda, a self-proclaimed “shamangelic healer,” who told me about the awakening of our society’s deep slumber, and how her services help people cope. She gave me a long hug and said something about modalities while sitting beside a case full of tuning forks.
Next, we made a brief stop at the The Amitabha Stupa and Peace Park, where we walked clockwise around the stupa three times while thinking positive thoughts. I don’t know if it did us any good, but it certainly didn’t hurt. We then hit HP Café for lunch, where we ran into a group of people who had overheard my conversation earlier that day with the vortex expert. I’m a skeptic when it comes to the metaphysical, and our two tables enjoyed a good laugh about the interview over our lunch.
Before heading back to Dead Horse, Mel and I stopped off at the Sedona Airport Vortex. If it wasn’t clear, these vortexes are basically geological sites that supposedly provide emotional and spiritual uplift, or in Sander’s view, allow people to “tap their higher consciousness.” If that happened we weren’t aware of it, but the view from the Airport vortex was overwhelming. The red rocks of Sedona did not disappoint, and as the sun continued to set, the surrounding buttes changed color every 10 minutes. Everything was so vivid it looked almost fake, like we were staring at a landscape portrait of Sedona, instead of the real thing.
On our way back to Dead Horse, we stopped at another restaurant suggested by the mayor, this one called Harry’s Hideaway outside of Cornville. We split a roasted duck pizza and a beer from Oak Creek Brewing Co., and called it a night.
PLACES WE VISITED
- Airport Mesa and airport loop, Sedona
- Chapel of the Holy Cross, Sedona
- Whiskers Barkery, Sedona
- Jerome Grand Hotel, Jerome
- Amitabha Stupha, Sedona
- Maytag Laundry, Cottonwood
- Historic downtowns of Cottonwood, Jerome, Clarksdale
- Jerome State Historic Park, Jerome
- Hiking trails within Deadhorse Ranch State Park
- Tuzigoot National Monument
WHAT WE ATE
- Eggs, ham and pancakes at Randall's, Cottonwood
- Iced coffees and coffee cake at Jerona Cafe, Cottonwood
- Mushroom soup, grilled chicken panini at HP's Cafe, Sedona
- A Southwestern burger at Haunted Hamburger in Jerome
- Roasted duck pizza at Harry's Hideaway in Cottonwood
WHERE WE STAYED
- Dead Horse Ranch State Park outside Cottonwood