I couldn’t believe my eyes. A blanket of white fog shrouded one of the world’s most scenic views. Here I was face to face with the Grand Canyon, and instead of oohing and aahing over the vast landscape, I was dodging raindrops as I strained to see something, anything through the thick chowder.That morning as I drove toward the canyon, intermittent rain fell. I was sure this was my punishment for going to see the Grand Canyon without my husband at my side. A few years ago Peter attended a conference in Las Vegas and had a chance to go to the canyon. “Don’t go,” I told him then. “Wait until we can see it together.” Peter, good soul that he is, acquiesced and went to Hoover Dam instead.
Flash forward to October 2010 when a writing conference in Arizona offered a tempting side trip to the Grand Canyon.
“Do you mind?” I asked Peter.
“Go ahead,” he said.
Now as I stood on the canyon’s South Rim, squinting my eyes in the hopes of seeing something, anything through the fog, I wondered if in fact my original wish would come true. I might not see the canyon today if this stormy weather continued.
Suddenly the fog began to lift, like a curtain rising on a stage, revealing a vast empty space below my feet. Peering down into the deep canyons, I glimpsed the Colorado River snaking along the bottom, a silver ribbon that reflected the occasional sun’s rays. As the blanket of fog ebbed away, spots of brilliant blue sky peeked through, and like a magical painting, the vast panorama that has thrilled Grand Canyon visitors and residents for thousands of years appeared before me. I missed Peter for a moment and then surrendered to the beauty of the magnificent landscape with its multi-layered rock formations, craggy cliffs, and the canyon’s sheer enormity.
Every time I visit Arizona I find something new to love, and this trip was no different. My travels would take me from the Grand Canyon through the cozy college town of Flagstaff, on down to Sedona to revisit favorite haunts and discover new ones, and finally to Phoenix and Tempe where treasures old and new awaited. In fact, Arizona is a lot like a modern day treasure hunt. Around every corner, it seems, you can find what you’re looking for.
CAPACITY FOR CHANGE
Unfortunately, the fog didn’t lift for long at the Grand Canyon. Clouds descended and cold rain started to fall once more. Our plan to ride bikes around the rim of the canyon was thwarted by the rain, but the friendly owner of Bright Angel Bikes, Wes Neal, offered us a guided tour from the comfort of his warm, dry van instead. As weather permitted, we’d get out and walk to the canyon edge, looking for “clues of the past,” as Wes put it. He patiently showed us how you can trace the earth’s existence back two billion years—half the earth’s lifespan—by studying the three main types of rock found in the Grand Canyon: sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic.
Wes also pointed out temples, the tower-like rock formations, and shared stories of the Hopi people, who for hundreds of years have managed to eke out an existence in this rugged environment. As we looked out across the canyon, the clouds made variegated patterns on the canyon floor, and here and there rainbows sprouted from the darkening sky. While the inconstant weather may not have been the most conducive for sight seeing, I rather liked the sense of turbulence it evoked, a reminder of the earth’s own volatility and capacity for change—and ours as well.
Back in Flagstaff I enjoyed some down time at my comfortable accommodations at Little America, part of a chain of eight hotels scattered out west that offer a pleasing combination of rustic ambiance and modern luxury. Behind the hotel, a lovely nature trail meanders through the woods and provides a pleasant opportunity to be alone with your thoughts. Other lodging options in Flagstaff include the 100-year-old Hotel Weatherford, an historic link to Flagstaff’s gun-slinging past. Beware, though, that music spills from two bars within the hotel most nights, so the proprietors can’t promise a restful night’s sleep—at least not until after the bars close at 2 a.m.
Route 66 zigzags through Flagstaff on its way from Chicago to Santa Monica, and a self-guided walking tour gives history buffs the chance to learn more about this mythic ribbon of highway. Also passing through Flagstaff is a major east-west rail route, so passenger and freight trains rattle through town with regularity.
Flagstaff’s population of 62,000 swells to 87,000 during the school year as Northern Arizona University students pour in. Their presence also contributes to the hip, trendy vibe here, as well as the city’s affordability as a vacation destination. At 7000-ft. elevation, Flagstaff has four distinct seasons with snow in the winter and mild, refreshing days in summer. Flagstaff makes an excellent home base for visiting the Grand Canyon, as well as other sights in the area such as Sunset Crater and Walnut Canyon National Monument.
MAN’S MYTHIC JOURNEY
The city’s youthful vibe ensures the presence of plenty of restaurants, coffee shops, taverns, and brewpubs, all affordably priced. For example, Criollo Latin Kitchen offers Latino-inspired cuisine—from seasonally inspired paella to a citrus-cured salmon tostada. I enjoyed the Rellenos Vegetales, a colorful combination of black beans, corn, and butternut squash stuffed into a poblano chile and served with spicy tomato polenta and warm chevre vinaigrette. Another excellent restaurant, Tinderbox Kitchen, specializes in American comfort food. My dinner was to-die-for: duck leg confit with jalapeno mac-n-cheese topped with truffle oil. Also don’t miss Bigfoot BBQ for finger-lickin-good ribs, pulled pork, and beef brisket. Trust me, I tried them all!
Downtown Flagstaff offers excellent shopping. Gene’s Western Wear with rows of multi-colored cowboy boots lured me in. I tried on a few, but couldn’t find a pair that fit my wide feet quite right. Across the street the Basement Marketplace offers clothing, home décor, local Arizona wines, and more. You can also find galleries featuring local crafts and Native American art downtown. One special find was Fizz Bath Shop, where you can create your own bath salts using all-natural essential oils and choose from an assortment of hand-crafted soaps and lotions. I bought Headache Rub Healing Balm scented with peppermint, eucalyptus, and lavender, a soothing combination even if you don’t have a headache.
Other sights in Flagstaff include the Arboretum, a 200-acre botanical garden with spectacular views of the San Francisco Peaks, and the Museum of Northern Arizona, which showcases the region’s diverse Native cultures. The museum’s amazing exhibits cover everything from anthropology to geology and include a variety of art and artifacts. Don’t miss the ceremonial kiva decorated with a colorful modern mural depicting man’s “mythic journey,” painted by Hopi artists. Among the illustrations of Native American myths and symbols, I was surprised to find Buddha depicted, sitting in a half-lotus position. When I asked the docent about it, she said one of the artists believed that Native American spirituality shares many of the same beliefs as Buddhism does. Food for thought, for sure.
Perched on Mars Hill just west of Flagstaff, Lowell Observatory, founded in 1894, offers visitors a close encounter with the night sky. Turns out Flagstaff’s high elevation and unpolluted atmosphere mean it’s a perfect location for astronomical research as well as plain old stargazing. The night we visited was clear and cold. Stars were thick in the sky, and the Milky Way arced overhead emanating an ethereal glow. Inside the observatory we viewed Jupiter, which loomed large, filling the viewfinder of the 24-inch refracting telescope. In contrast, Uranus, which we viewed next, seemed to be as small as a pea, but when I squinted, I could make out two of Uranus’ 27 moons, tiny specks hovering nearby. The docent expressed doubt that I could see the moons, but after looking through the telescope, he admitted I was right. Eureka! I felt as if I’d discovered them myself!
SENSE OF PEACE
Driving to Sedona the next day we followed scenic Rt. 89A, which snakes through Oak Creek Canyon. Golden aspen trees, brilliant in the sun, contrasted with the dark-green conifers, and rushing streams pulsed along the road. Parking areas overflowed as hikers took advantage of the gorgeous fall weather. Hiking is huge in Sedona, and a great place for beginners to get started is the Hike House, where owner Greg Stevenson can help you find the perfect trail based on your ability level.
“The goal is to marry your abilities and desires with the perfect trail experience,” Greg said. His high-tech program creates a list of trail options, and Greg’s no-nonsense advice will point you in the right direction. Before heading off on your perfect Sedona hike, check out the adjacent store, where you can find hiking boots, walking sticks, and more. Last stop? The Hike House’s Energy Café, where mouth-watering muffins, scones, and trail mix can provide all the energy you need for your great adventure.
While I wanted to go on a long hike, the best I could do was a short one behind Enchantment Resort, where I was staying. After finding a path behind Mii amo, the resort spa, I followed the 15-minute Vista trail up to Boynton Canyon Spire, a monolith that rises above the resort. Once there I climbed onto the spire and looked around at the amazing red rock views. A sense of peace overcame me, and I enjoyed the simple pleasure of the fresh breeze washing over me as the sun set slowly in the west. Later I would learn the spire is a vortex location, and while I’m not sure of the veracity of vortex claims, I’ll admit that a pleasant feeling seemed to permeate my being when I was there.
I was thrilled to be staying once again at Enchantment Resort, a world-class destination with every modern amenity imaginable. Each morning, for example, a newspaper and an ice-filled bucket with cold, fresh-squeezed orange juice sat on my doorstep. The casita’s décor is Southwestern chic—think rustic but elegant, and newly renovated suites are enhanced with a hip, modern vibe, infinity pools, mini-kitchens, and outdoor patios. I loved my casita with its astonishing views, comfy sitting area, cozy gas fireplace, large marble bathroom, and custom toiletries. Here I began to miss Peter again, wishing we could enjoy this lovely spot together.
That night I dined at Yavapai, Enchantment’s award-winning restaurant. Starting with my favorite splurge—foie gras, served with a hint of wild strawberry preserves, I began an exquisite food journey that took my taste buds on a thrilling roller coaster ride. After recovering from my decadent starter, I chose a healthier entrée, barramundi, a flaky, white fish from the South Pacific, served with fennel, radish, and jalapeño orange-ginger jam. The combination of sweet and savory flavors created a well-balanced dish, and I ate every bite. Yavapai’s décor reflects a southwestern ambiance, and large windows reveal stunning views of Boynton Canyon. Here you’ll find food for the body and for the soul.
Sedona’s other top-class lodgings can be found at L’Auberge Sedona near downtown. You can choose the romantic Creekside cottages nestled in a small canyon, where the merry sounds of Oak Creek serenade you, or new Red Rock View cottages, which perch high on the hillside affording sublime views of the red rocks. Dining at the award-winning L’Auberge Restaurant on Oak Creek is a treat unto itself. Lobster bisque, grilled filet mignon, and sinfully good flourless chocolate cake rounded out my indulgent dinner followed by a walk along the whispering creek. In this romantic haven, I discovered I missed my husband again and began planning a return trip one day to experience Sedona together.
One afternoon I jumped aboard a Pink Jeep and commenced to explore Diamondback Gulch, a desert landscape full of jaw-clenching rock climbs, bumpy plunges, and lots of blue sky and desert flora and fauna. We picnicked on blankets in the middle of nowhere, and thoughts of life in the fast lane were replaced with quiet reflections of whether where you live influences who you become. Many people travel to Sedona seeking life-changing experiences, and while some may succeed in their quest, I prefer to think that we carry the capacity for change with us wherever we go.
My feelings of contentment and the sense that I was discovering new vistas—both within and without—culminated in my spa treatment at Mii amo, Enchantment’s destination spa. There I experienced a heavenly Sedona Clay Wrap, one of many therapeutic treatments offered at this state-of-the-art spa. After a soft exfoliation, my therapist gently applied the mineral-rich Sedona clay, known for its detoxifying and anti-inflammatory properties, enhanced by the addition of cocoa powder, which lent a lovely smell to the experience. After being wrapped loosely in a warm cocoon, I showered off the mud and then enjoyed an amazing massage. Using an herb-infused lotion, my therapist intuitively manipulated the parts of my body that seemed to need her touch most—truly a transcendent experience. When my treatment ended, I felt like a new person. It was as if the essence of Sedona has seeped into my soul somehow, and I could only hope it would lodge there forever.