Monday, October 04, 2004

Mystic Sedona - and a big hole in the ground

Today was the first of two planned road trips. The planned course was to skirt Scottsdale then turn north and head up through Payson and the other small towns and mountains up to I-40. Then left and a short jaunt to the turnoff for Meteor Crater. From there in to Flagstaff. Then down the old highway into Sedona. From there we would have dinner, maybe stay the night, then head home ad our leisure. Some of it played out that way, but some of it was a bit different. The 'Skirting Scottsdale' thing may not have been the best of choices. It was an hour just to clear the congestion and get to something that could be called "On the Road". But I'm not sure we could have found a better route, so it was no big deal.

City swiftly gave way to hills and high desert and more hills and more high desert. I have to tip my hat to ADOT for the roads. Kate liked to gripe a bit, but most of it was four lane divided, or two lane with frequent and generous passing lanes. As one might expect, there were a number of hawks. At first they were all perched atop cacti, leading to jokes along the line of, "So Fred. Is coffee break over yet?" But soon enough we encountered a group of no fewer than a dozen of them all in a loose group, catching a large thermal (break's over boys – get some altitude and get back to work).

On the way out of Scottsdale I was thinking of stopping to get something to eat, but then I thought it would be nicer to eat somewhere other than the big town, and the map showed a few small places along the way. It seemed like a good idea at the time. The first town we were planning on for breakfast ended up being closed. The entire town was closed. All two buildings worth of it (one of actually looked like it was up to code). So we set our sites on the next town. Not much better. That left Payson. In retrospect, this ended up being a good thing. We fond ourselves having a pretty good darn breakfast, for a really nice price, in a place that felt very homey and comfy.

On the way out of Payson I saw a sign at the roadside, marking what must have been one of the classiest businesses in town: "Rim Liquor". It was just too good to pass up. I swung the car around and stopped to get a photo, chuckling all the while as I pictured myself sending a copy to Rol.

The drive north from Payson took us into higher country, and eventually into mountain roads and a forest of pine and oak. At one point Kate asked me to stop the car so she could get out and walk a bit. While she did that, I looked for a tree or bush with a parched look that I could relieve (myself on). After taking care of my business I turned to look for Kate. It looked to me as if she was hugging a tree. I slowly ambled her direction. When I caught up with her I found her brushing away a few tears. She had been (sort of, but not quite) hugging the tree. She also collected a few acorns from the oak we parked next to.

A few miles further down the road was Long Valley, where we found a café in the middle of the forest and stopped for fries and onion rings.

Further north we began to drop down from the mountains and make our way back into flat high desert landscape. Were keeping our eyes open for the back road to Meteor Crater, but missed it. It was an unmarked, unnumbered road. I was surprise it was even on the map. And there was no sign telling us which of the little side roads it was. So we resigned ourselves to taking the main road in. This ended up being a fortunate thing for two reasons.

The first of those reasons was Jacks Canyon. In the middle of what had become a vast expanse of very flat land, there was suddenly a sign, some guardrail and a flash of open space on either side of the road. I hit the brakes and turned the car around, crossed the bridge again (slowly) and pulled over to the side of the road. We walked over the bridge and took a good long look. Later research revealed that this was one of several Jacks Canyons in Arizona, and not the one that pops up when you search for it in a web browser. (In fact we saw another Jacks Canyon sign much later in the day and wondered if our little canyon really did have such long legs.)

As one might predict, if you looked directly below the bridge there was trash, and at least one plastic bag full of clothes that had spilled its guts over the rocks (what it is with that? Is there a special unit of ADOT that dumps an obligatory Arkansas Samsonite at every bridge? Is this how the illegal immigrants mark the path to freedom and riches in America?). But if you looked further out into the canyon, it was gorgeous. The rocks were gorgeous, sort of like The Grand Canyon in miniature. There were some trees in the canyon, as if all the trees that were once on the plain had come together here to seek some sort of refuge. In top of one of the trees was an old crow, who was voicing every once in a while, then flew off in pursuit of a buddy who passed overhead. It is difficult to convey the whole thing in writing…it was just a canyon. But it was a REALLY COOL canyon.

The next landmark on the road was Winslow. Perceptions are funny things. I saw a town that was quaint, rustic, hiding its secrets and taking a decades long nap (the kind that feels really good and gets you caught up on rest for days). Kate saw a place that depressed, abandoned and confounding the proper order of death and decay.

Neither of us saw any flatbed Fords.

We were no sooner on the freeway out of Winslow when we saw a sign advertising Meteor City, a few miles before the exit for Meteor Crater. I was willing to pass it by as a useless tourist trap. But Kate had other ideas. The idea of a tourist trap tickled her fancies and she just HAD to stop. She even said something about how wonderful it would be, hope against hope, to find a Concrete Teepee or two. So we pulled up in front of a big geodesic dome, with a couple of smaller structures to the side that I ignored at first. Then, with mock dismay (and genuine surprise), I noticed they were concrete teepees. We went inside. As predicted, it was the typical tourist trap. It was an explosion of merchandise, ranging from 'shit cheap' to way too much, from kitsch to sublime. And, of course, there were the rocks. Sigh. Kate and her rocks.

After some time spent wandering the aisles and smiling, frowning or arching eyebrows at the offerings, we finally we split the difference between the extremes and took our treasures to the cash register. I got Kate a Katchina doll (later research, some done at the Heard Museum, identified it as a generic corn maiden). For myself, it was a shot glass with a comic rattle snake glued to the side. I declared that, given the visible attitude of the snake, this was destined to be no mere decoration, but a well used appliance. To that end, it was later baptized with a generous shot of (what else?) Tequila.

After a cursory examination of the old cars parked on display out front, we turned the Camry back to the freeway and headed to the crater.

When you think of a crater, you think "hole in the ground". It isn't until you approach it that you realize that all the stuff that used to be "hole" had to go somewhere. If I had been paying attention as we approached the crater, I would have noticed an increase n the number of large rocks littering the desert, and realized that were part of the debris field. I noticed this later when looking out from the top of the crater. But what was obvious when driving up to the crater, as well as impressing and awing, was the earth thrown up to form the circular hill surrounding the crater. As for the crater itself, it was an odd reaction on first seeing it. I was expecting something larger, something more spectacular, something that grabbed hold of the eyeballs and made you stop breathing for a second. None of that happened. It was...a hole. But the longer I was there, and the more I looked at it, the more I realized how my perceptions and judgments had deceived me. It really WAS that large, and it really was that impressive. Beyond that, I'm not sure I want to describe it. Want details? Hit the internet and look it up. I'm sure the photos there are better than the ones I took.

Of course there was a gift shop, and of course we had to get a few things. Keeping with my pattern, I got a shot glass. This one was a little baby alien, standing on the rings of his own personal little planet, hugging the shot glass.

We hit the road again, somewhat reluctantly, heading for Flagstaff. Once there, we skirted the edge of town by staying on the freeway, then got off the freeway just south of town. This put us on the road down Oak Creek Canyon. It has been more than a few years since I drove the canyon. I told Kate it was gorgeous, and breathtaking and had the most glorious hairpin curves. Then I started to doubt myself, wondering if my fond memories and more recent hype lived up to the reality. Then we came to the scenic overlook.

Like many people, the phrase "Scenic Overlook" means little more than "Place where stupid people slow me down while the are looking slowly and carefully where to turn, then having a bit if a problem remembering just how to turn without slowing down traffic in three contiguous counties all at once." So my initial reaction WAS to drive past it. Big mistake. Lucky for me, I overcame my initial impulse to drive on and I headed for the scenic overlook (making only one false move, and only causing the reaction described above in a few of my fellow drivers).

Unlike the initial reaction to the crater, this one was right on track from the start. Oh... wow... I really mean it. OH FUCKING WOW.

I suddenly understood why I had been gushing about the canyon before. It seems there was a bone in my head that retained the true memory of this place. This bone was tickled, it took over, and without revealing any deep secrets, it caused god's own truth to come falling out of my mouth. Again, as with Meteor Crater, you can look up photos on the internet. The Arizona Highways magazine might be the place to start. But I will gush for a few moments. To call this a "Scenic Overlook" is to tie two words together in an attempt to label something that leaves these words, both separately and combined, pale and trembling and clutching each other in awe and reverence. "Overlook" – There you stand next to a rock retaining wall, looking first to a canyon rim about a half mile away, then down into a precipice that plunges to a dizzying thousand feet or more. "Scenic" – Flaming rocks and spires and terraces. Deep crags and mighty pines that perch against all odds on slopes and ledges that defy the most adoring descriptions. Back when I had first describe he canyon to Kate, I caught the "Yeah….sure" vibe from Kate. She knew I was gushing about something that would end up being little more than a small hollow scooped out of a mud puddle. Then we got there, she was confronted with the reality, and when I heard her draw in her breath and say, "Oh...Andy", I knew I had scored dead on with the woman. It is these little moments of moral victory that are all that keep me going at times.

Of course we weren't alone. There were the other tourists and gawkers, serious travelers in search of a restroom, and the Navajo women selling trinkets. And then there was the crow, nestled in the top of a pine tree. He was large, and loud and gorgeous. No doubt he was a bit overfed on the leavings of the tourist, and we could only hope he was also over happy from the odd "Bright Shiny Thing" to be had from a careless vendor. In the midst of all this geologic beauty, it was odd and amusing to be spending so much attention on this crow. But it was fun. Crows are always fun.

We had arrived with perfect timing: Shortly before closing time, but not too soon to get our fill of the scenery. After we got that fill, we followed the last of the vendors across the tire rippers, turned left as they all turned right, and headed down the canyon. The canyon proper and the road that wound down it also lived up to the expectations I had set. It was all turns and brake lights and well respected guard rails. Toward the bottom of the canyon, I noticed a small sports car in my rear view, getting closer. I worried that I was getting in his way and if he would be able to pass me. But then he pulled over, just as the 'good' part of the canyon ended, and turned around, heading back to the top of the canyon for another run at it. Smart man.

We were now in the tame part of the canyon. The road straightened out and became closer to level. Trees surrounded us, and there was the occasional cabin. At one point the canyon opened up a little and there was a pull-off to the side of the road, and a rather striking panorama of rock formations around us. We pulled over to take in the view and get some photos. But in addition to the view, there was something else. Between the odd passing car, the canyon was very silent. But there was a stream at the bottom of the canyon, hidden in the trees, and you could hear the water running. It had been a long time since Kate had listened to running water (come to think of it, the same is true for me), and she stopped to enjoy and savor it. She commented on it once, then was silent. I guess it rated right up there with her tree hugging moment from earlier in the day.

About this time the sun was finally setting and dusk was beginning. We got in the car and headed for Sedona. I was still going with the plan of finding a place to spend the night, and I was looking out for likely spots. We passed a few homely looking inns, and if I had known what lay before us, I would have pulled into one of these parking lots and checked in. But, alas, I was looking for a better bargain than the 40-something dollars advertised and kept driving. Silly me. I obviously had no idea what sort of beast Sedona had grown into in the fifteen years since I had last visited. This became obvious when we turned the corner and hit...

...Tourist Mecca. Neon heaven. Restaurant row. The strip mall from hell. It was shocking and glaring. It was pure façade and glitz, all consumption and too much makeup and bellies hanging over tight belts and mystic shit and worthless Chinese merchandise and god know what else. All desire to stay the night evaporated. I later learned that this section of town was a new development and was built to very narrowly target the tourist trade, so it was no wonder that is was such glaring schlock. But at the end of it all, almost hidden (and gratefully so) was a little coffee shop called Raven Heart. It was either that or Starbucks, and neither of us could handle Corporate Coffee in the wake of the shock of driving into Sedona. So we parked a full block away (amazing that we got that close – and it wasn't even the weekend), and walked to the shop.

The coffee was good, but the view was better. The terrace overlooked one of the older parts of town, a strictly residential enclave nestled down in the bottom of the canyon. It was rather pretty, with the occasional street lamp or porch light, and the odd Pink Jeep winding through the trees on its way back from one of the many tours of the surrounding area, offered by the Pink Jeep Touring Company (or something like that). The terrace was also just far enough removed from the main street that we were insulated from the noise and lights. It was nice – perhaps this was the Sedona that was being sold in the brochures and web sites. We enjoyed it almost so much that for a moment I was tempted to look for somewhere to stay. But the temptation passed, and we got back on the road.

Eventually we came to the Sedona that I remembered from years ago – shopping centers and fast food joints. It was the part of town that honestly engaged in business, making no apologies and not pretending to any other purpose, and sort of tolerated the upper new age part of town as some sort of an unavoidable evil (or at least a distraction). From there, it was down the canyon, onto the freeway and to Phoenix. It was interesting passing through some of the places that I always marked as noting more than void landmarks to my true destination and here Kate comment on them. Chief of these was the town of Anthem.

I had always dismissed it as mere fluff – a spot on a map that mattered only because of the factory outlets that lined the freeway. But it seems the town is much "more" than that. It was built as a bedroom community to Phoenix, with some sort of a Family and Community theme to it. Hearing this much, I had sneaking suspicions that it took its name from the Ayn Rand novel of the same name and, to that end, was really a shrine to greed and status. Kate went on to explain that not long after the town really got rolling it was rocked by scandal. It seems that the contractors that built the first developments didn't do their job on the Rock and Dirt part of the job, and homes were settling into the shifting sands of the deserts, cracking foundations, breaking water and sewage lines, etc. This only led me, in my cynicism to hold harder to my theories about the name of the place. Why is it that people who read Ayn Rand just don't get it? Why don't they understand that the Sign of the Dollar that stands above Galt's Gulch is only true to its meaning if there is integrity on the getting of the wealth? Alas, they go to the ball to dance with the dress, and not with the woman who wears it.

Then home. A trip to the grocery store to get munchies for supper and a six pack of Nut Brown Ale. Yum. A relaxing evening, good coffee, then to bed.

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