Discover an America you never knew existed with a road trip winding around Arizona. Leyla Messian discovers there really is “gold in them red hills”!
photographed by Elyse Glickman
Leyla Messian is a correspondent for Lucire. Elyse Glickman is US west coast editor of Lucire.
In the era of freeways, bullet trains, and the Dreamliner aircraft, it is easy to forget there was once a time when we had to take our time to get from point A to point B. If we pick up an old travelogue from the 19th century, there’s an attention to detail that adds intimacy to the big picture. The tiniest pink wildflower, the faded pastels of an old farmhouse, the riot of colour in a high desert sunset: these are treasures we find on the slow road to Sedona.
A farewell to four lanes
We leave the freeways far behind in Wickenberg, a town about an hour northwest of Phoenix, and enter the realm of two-lane highways. Highway 60 cuts through the stark desert panorama of burnished sable and grey volcanic stones and turquoise sky. Soon, we hit Highway 89, and the road begins to skew upwards. Desert shrub gives way to mesquite and ironwood trees. As we pass through tiny towns with names like Congress and Yarnell, the radio plays mostly country music and church sermons.
Yarnell, a village partly destroyed by a lightning-ignited fire in 2013, is a mix of dusky bungalows, Craftsman cottages and a few trailer parks surrounded by bougainvillaea and high desert trees. It has a quiet Main Street where abandoned businesses are slowly coming back to life as antique shops, wine-tasting rooms and coffee houses. If Norman Rockwell were sitting in the back seat of our humble Honda, he would recognize the group of kids signalling for us to pull over. It is hot and dusty outside, but their cheap lemonade provides welcome refreshment. This is a throwback to a time when parents let their kids just be kids, and play outside free of media-fuelled constraint. No helicopter parents in sight, and no smartphones in hand.
We ask them how much money they have earned from their lemonade stand, and they tell us, ‘Fifteen dollars,’ and when we ask them how they might spend their profits, they tell us they plan to reinvest in more supplies to keep the project going. We notice the ‘going out of business’ sign in a window behind them, and we know that Yarnell will once again prosper.
Winding our way further up, brown and gold gives way to varying shades of green. Nestled off the highway among shrubs and trees, tiny trailer parks and retirement communities (and their residents) rest in the shade. Welcome to Kirkland, Arizona. Beyond the church steeples, gun shops and signs calling attention to various veterans’ organizations, we pull into the Middle of Nowhere. The Burro Inn has a sign reading, ‘Finally—a drink in the Middle of Nowhere!’ The bar’s parking lot contains several huge pick-up trucks and a Harley. In back of the building, we find a cistern labelled ‘Horny Water’. But inside, there are no bikers. We encounter only a posse of retirees with “attitude”, a large sleeping dog, and another sign reading, ‘Gramma’s Whore House’. After asking us if we are from New York, an old guy in a Vietnam veterans’ cap asks us what we are drinking. Since we are driving, we politely decline, but he offers to teach us how to drink and drive.
Travel with a twist
The road to Prescott slices through the mountains and hangs on precariously to cliffs. We negotiate numerous hairpin turns and begin to notice only the tops of pine trees and the broadening sky. The temperature begins to drop as we leave the world of cacti and mesquite behind. Now the scenery reminds us of Norway in summer. Pull-out areas designed for spontaneous photo sessions appear every few miles. They not only remind us to slow down for safety’s sake, but also to savour the timeless natural beauty of the Prescott National Forest. The best view reveals Sedona’s fabled Red Rocks in the far distance. The gold striped mesas between pine covered mountains make us wonder for a moment if we are looking at the Grand Canyon.
Prescott is a slice of Americana at its best. Its historic downtown encompasses a shady plaza, and one of the four streets flanking it holds a bustling bar scene called Whiskey Row. Boutiques, antique shops and trendy eateries dominate the other three main streets. We explore Spice Traveller, a purveyor of exotic herbs, spices, and condiments, and stumble upon the hidden Superstition Meadery downstairs. Twenty dollars buys a generous sampling of twelve different meads, including Marion Berry, Ragnarok (barrel-aged) and Blueberry Spaceship Cider. We imagine ourselves in a speakeasy until we turn around and look through the window into a mad scientist’s lab. Behind several huge teardrop-shaped glass tanks of fermenting honey, a solitary mead maker works hard to create a new palette of flavours.
We leave Prescott at daybreak in order to view the sunrise expanding across the two-lane highway. Steaming mugs of coffee keep us focused on the hairpin turns. Next stop, Jerome. A copper mining town in the mid-19th century, it has evolved into a hippie-artist village of sloping streets lined with jewellery shops, vintage boutiques, art galleries, bars and a smattering of high-end steak-and-burger restaurants with killer views. The road leading into town snakes between clapboard homes with chipped yellow and turquoise paint, where rusting classic cars from the ’40s and ’50s park snugly between them. This road is painfully narrow, and the homes appear to be dangling off the cliffs. We are tempted to reach out and touch the windows and balconies as we drive by. It is easy to find parking on weekdays, so we spend some time trekking up and down long staircases that connect the main streets. We admire sunflower gardens, patches of herbs in flower boxes, and pricey silver-and-gemstone jewellery inspired by nature.
After enjoying an ice cold beer with a crowd of hippies, tourists, and bikers at the historic Spirit Room, we check in at the Jerome Grand Hotel, perched on a cliff high above the town. The former hospital is rumoured to be haunted by the spirits of 6,000 insane miners who died there. We don’t meet any ghosts, but we admire the antiques they might have used. The mahogany bed is comfortable, and the 1940s-style bathrooms are serviceable. It’s neither a spa nor the Ritz–Carlton, but it is packed to the rafters with character and warmth, as well as a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside.
The road then drops steeply into the Verde Valley, and into history that predates the founding of the United States. We first stop at Tuzigoot, a 1,000-year-old architectural site built by the Sinagua Ancestral Puebloan people. It was restored, starting in the 1930s, but only a fraction of the original two-storey, 87-room structure survives. Still, we sense the presence of an industrious civilization that transformed the desert into miles of fertile farmland. En route to the next site, we stop for coffee in Cottonwood’s Old Town Café, which draws crowds for its aromatic baked goods and brimming lattes. Three doors down, we discover Paradise Point, which has its own coffee nook setting hidden at the end of a long, shady passage. The tiny venue also boasts a massage room discreetly tucked away amid a selection of artisanal patries and fresh-baked pie.
We have lunch at Concho’s, a Mom-and-Pop cantina frequented by locals who are particular about their Tex-Mex fare. It’s easy to forget how generous portions are in Arizona at restaurants catering to ordinary people who are not on Hollywood-mandated diets. There are several vegetarian options, including green corn tamales and Mexican-style potato empanadas. Neither of us expect to finish these entrée-sized “snacks”, but somehow we do. We manage to roll ourselves out of the restaurant, and head towards the Lolomai Campground, in the middle of the Verde Valley’s emerging wine country.
Highway 89A carries us to Page Springs Road, and we stop at a few thrift stores along the way. From there, we take a peek into the Page Springs Cellars and sip wine at the Echo Canyon Vineyards, the first winery in the region. It begins to rain when we finally arrive at the Lolomai Campground. Very few people are there, and we hear nothing but the rush of the rain and the chatter of birds. Two friendly cats greet us as we pick up towels and a map of the property. We pass a pond where river otters make their home, and examine several different types of cabins. Campers can pitch a tent, rent a rustic one-room cabin, or go “glamping” in a fully outfitted log cabin. We chose instead to spend a few hours swimming in the comfortably cool creek under a canopy of trees. Nothing beats floating in two feet of crystalline water as raindrops fall on our faces.
Feeling fully refreshed, we grab a few bulbs of Lolomai-grown purple garlic and set out for Sedona, for the indulgent part of our road trip. The sky has turned from blue to red to purple as we reach L’Auberge, and nightfall has hidden the easy-to-miss driveway leading down from a busy thoroughfare to the property below. Here lies a secret valley sheltering a little ivy-covered log cabin village scented with sage and rosemary. We hear the calming sound of the creek splashing over stone; so silent, yet welcoming. Although they offer to give us a golf-cart ride to our cabin, we choose instead to walk up the wooden staircases and stone paths that connect the cabin-lined terraces.
After taking advantage of the private outdoor wooden shower provided in each cabin, we climb the path leading to Uptown, Sedona’s boutique-laden main drag. After a brie and eggplant pizza and craft beer at the Sedona Pizza Company, we stroll back down the softly lit pathway to the spa. We spend an hour soaking in the outdoor salt water pool. The spacious balconies in the rooms, as well as the terraces surrounding the main lobby, are ideal for a glass of red wine, or a freshly brewed coffee in the morning, accompanied by home-made pastries.
Although Sedona is not known for its restaurant scene the way Santa Fe, Aspen and other destination mountain towns are, this situation is in the midst of changing. Black Cow is the essential spot for rich, hand-turned ice cream and old-fashioned baked goods. Tacos de Fuego is the go-to place for a quick, authentic Mexican lunch, while raw and vegan food enthusiasts will appreciate a hearty breakfast, lunch or a luscious hot or cold energy-boosting beverage at Chocolatree. Unlike similar restaurants in Los Angeles, Chocolatree is blissfully attitude-free. Their hand-crafted chocolates taste like the high desert; honeycomb, prickly pear, and blood orange fillings remind us where we are. Basic yet decadent, the flavour and texture will impress the most finicky cocoa connoisseurs. But ‘man does not live on chocolate alone’, so we purchase a bag of raw, gluten-free, and slightly spicy chia and seed crackers for the arduous drive back home.
Our first splurge dinner is at Salt Rock, located in the Amara Spa and Resort, next door to L’Auberge. Mezcal plays a starring role on the cocktail menu, the smoky flavour accentuating a variety of fruits and indigenous herbs. We enjoy a series of small plates, in which Canadian-born chef Massimo de Francesca makes locally foraged and sourced ingredients his own. A plate of meaty wild mushrooms and a vegan dish featuring noodle-like enoki mushrooms are particularly stellar. Their silky corn soup is another fine example of meatless perfection. The staff will cheerfully accommodate vegans and vegetarians as well as steak and seafood lovers.
As if a couple of hand-crafted tequila and mezcal margaritas weren’t enough, we decide spur of the moment to visit the Oak Creek Brewery and sample a pint of their acclaimed beers and ales. Tonight we encounter a drum circle in front of the fermentation tanks. Regulars invite us to borrow their instruments and join the fun. A pint of wheat beer goes a long way towards helping us catch the beat.
The next day, before checking into the Hilton Sedona Resort at Bell Rock, we take a Pink Jeep Tour of Sedona’s incredible Red Rock formations. Bundling up in Indian blankets to offset the gusts, we bounce along rocky trails and climb over steep hills to view such iconic formations as Snoopy Rock, Prudential Rock and Cathedral Rock—all of which have found their way into several Hollywood westerns. We notice several twisted trees shaped by dramatic weather patterns specific to the area, though some visitors insist they are products of vortex energy.
A few thrift stores (and vintage jewellery purchases) later, we visit the quaint (if slightly pretentious) Tlaquepaque craft village. We listen to flamenco guitar while sipping yet another nicely crafted margarita, and admire designer cowboy gear and a few unique pieces of silver jewellery created by local designers.
The Hilton Sedona Resort at Bell Rock offers spacious suites, some with a Jacuzzi and all with Red Rock views and cozy fireplaces. It is family-friendly, yet not overrun with noisy tots. We indulge ourselves with massages and facials at the Eforea Spa, and the experience is relaxing, aromatic, and relatively free of new-age patter. We spend close to an hour soaking in the large Jacuzzi, and another 30 minutes in the saunas steaming ourselves free of desert dust. The yoga class turns out to be a great place to meet locals and get tips on where to eat and shop. We end our stay with dinner at Cucina Rustica, an elegant yet cozy spot operated by chef Lisa Dahl. We enjoy wildflower-encrusted desserts and cocktails that preceded and followed one of the most flavourful pasta sauces I have had outside of my own kitchen.
A trip through history, en route home
Route 179 is our last two-lane highway before our return to the four-lane, fast-lane world. It takes us deep into the Verde Valley’s past. The highway turns into a one-lane gravel road leading to the V-Bar-V Heritage Site. We walk a quarter mile to a wall of ancient petroglyphs which make up a calendar devised by indigenous people for farming and other ceremonial purposes. While we admire the complexity of the geometric forms and figures of animals, another visitor tells us about her strange sighting of an apparition at the nearby Montezuma Well. ‘There was a man with long, black hair, rowing a canoe,’ she explains. ‘It was not a modern person. I felt the presence of something deep, ancient and far away, yet so close.’
We follow the signs to Montezuma Castle, a small but dramatic pre-Colombian ruin. Built between AD 1100 and 1300, the “castle” housed hundreds of Sinagua farmers in a pair of five-storey, 65-room cliff dwellings 100 ft above the valley. Their descendants, the Yavapai, operate the casino a few miles away. We enjoy potato and grilled vegetable burritos at Gabriella’s, just across the way from the casino. This humble restaurant offers a substantial vegetarian menu and several amazing salsas.
Before us lay the I-17 back toward Phoenix, 150 miles of freeway exits, outlet malls, fast food and truck stops. We know we must ultimately return to our modern, fast-paced lives back in Los Angeles. The red and green mountains recede as the metropolis beckons. We bring back memories of northern Arizona, via those squiggly, slow two-lane highways, a perfect antidote to all things fast-paced, pretentious and high-pressure. •
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