“Oh, I thought that was a real lizard!!!”
In which the mooses arrive in their sunshine paradise, take the long way to Sedona, gawk at the “famous” Haunted Hamburger in Jerome, and eat rattlesnake.
“Did you get any sleep? Or were you too excited?!” were Rich’s first words to me, via e-mail, this morning. Of course I was excited as a little brat on Christmas morning. I hadn’t traveled farther than Montreal in thirteen years, and it was time to get the hell out of the East for once. I’ve been dying to see the southwest since I started reading Tony Hillerman’s novels in the late ’80s. I needed sunshine and dry air, badly. And I needed to experience this with Rich.
After all the past week’s fuss and worry, our excitement in the airport security line was limited to Rich and I both thinking at the same time “hey, the guy in front of us looks just like Maurice Minnifield [from Northern Exposure]!”. We took off our shoes and were herded through the metal detector. No bells or whistles. No flashing lights. No one felt the need to strip search either of us, and apparently they found nothing sinister about our GPSr, camera gear, or benchmark datasheets.
Both flights went well, too, and both were early. Our flight attendant Paula was not a bitch as we had first guessed from her appearance, but was actually rather entertaining and seemed to respect the intelligence of the passengers. We had an unremarkable lunch at the Nathan’s concession at Atlanta (chicken fingers: decent; fries: flaccid). Our airline snack-packs (featuring Pasteurized Process Cheese Spread, Havarti-type Flavor) were far superior. Adventure in the skies was not what we were aiming for, so again, we were pleased that the flights were uneventful save the repeated crashing of the—how dare I say it—Linux-based entertainment system.
Our bags must have been the last to fall onto the carousel at Phoenix. At least they arrived, in one piece and were still sealed. My first step outside into sunshine and 104° was heavenly … and … palm trees! Somehow I don’t think they’re a native species, but they sure were pretty.
After a small hoodwink at the rental car counter, we chose our Nissan Altima and drove off. The fly on the windshield would tell you there was a little more to it than that. Yes, we two computer-geek-engineer-types needed about ten minutes to figure out how to work the trunk, the parking brake, and the push-button ignition. And we still never figured out a good system for dealing with that damned proximity key!
I-17 out of Phoenix was an indoctrination by fire: six lanes of heavy, close-following 75mph traffic, unfamiliar exits, and typical ignorant driving shenanigans. At least Rich was driving. All I wanted to do was look at the scenery! North of the city, though, it all calmed down. I was able to watch as the mighty saguaro stands began to blend in with more lowly vegetation as we continued north, and then were absent altogether. We began climbing via several winding, soaring passes, the road now two lanes each way and the tractor-trailers, for the most part, staying to the right. We left I-17 at Cordes Junction and followed AZ 69 to the Prescott Safeway, where we filled the car with supplies; namely, what we thought were many, many liters more than we would ever need of water and Gatorade.
I couldn’t wait to see Mingus Mountain. The charm of the name aside, Rich had promised an awesome winding, switchbacking narrow mountain road with stellar scenery in all directions. All we had to do was locate AZ 89A, which has now apparently been rerouted at its junction with AZ 89 just north of Prescott. Rich panicked when he saw the newly paved, widened road that stretched on as far as we could see. “What happened to the road? I can’t believe this,” he kept muttering. After several miles, the new route joined the old, and all was well. From the level expanse of the Prescott Valley the road climbs over the forested mountain, surprises at every curve. Near the summit, a brief search for a missing benchmark yielded nothing but an opportunity to stretch our legs. But the real treasures were still ahead. Rounding more curves, at innumerable overlooks (of which very few, unfortunately, had room for parking) views of the Verde Valley, the famous red sandstone rocks, and the San Francisco Peaks spread before us. It felt like we’d nearly descended the entire mountain by the time we found an overlook with parking. But several surprises awaited us here: we could see not only the green valley, red rocks in the distance, and gray mine tailings on the hillside, but also a plump lizard ready to welcome me to the desert, propped up on the wall, looking at us!
Or, he would have been looking at us, had he real eyes instead of painted rubber ones. Well, it was a good gag, and both Rich and I fell for it. And the lizard, of course, featured prominently in our photos at that overlook.
The lizard set the stage for the comedy that was to follow in Jerome. Nothing particularly hilarious happened here; I just found the town itself to be bizarre, creepy and intriguing — but I wouldn’t want to explore it myself at night, or even late in the afternoon when long shadows fall on those streets. The town is built right into the side of the mountain, streets basically atop one another in levels. There’s a colorful new-artsy feeling to the town that barely overrides the ghostly whisperings of its former life as a rough-and-tumble copper mining town. We both remarked simultaneously that it reminded us of Jim Thorpe, PA, but creepier.
One easy benchmark awaited us just off 89A (which is barely a lane as it passes through Jerome) and directly across from the Haunted Hamburger. A Jerome fixture brought to light by our favorite Food Network host and yours, Rachael Ray, the Haunted Hamburger supposedly serves great hamburgers. I only had my photo taken in front of the sign, so I can’t vouch for the food. I could easily believe, though, that it’s haunted!
I had prepared some additional Jerome benchmark-hunting data, but we decided to pass them by in favor of exploring Tuzigoot National Monument, a Sinaguan pueblo ruin near Clarkdale, further along Route 89A toward Sedona. But we were too late! The monument had closed for the day about thirty minutes before. I was disappointed, but it was certainly possible that the wind might blow us that way another day, at an earlier hour.
The drive into Sedona was more shockingly beautiful than I had ever expected, even given the many rave reviews I’d heard from Rich over the years. And forget television, that did nothing to prepare me. All around us rose monoliths, spires, buttes, cathedrals of the famous red sandstone, mixing with pastel desert green and beneath a solid sheet of blue.
All this natural beauty certainly needs something weird to balance it out, or it would be too perfect. It’s no surprise that Sedona has far more than its share of palm- and aura-reading specialists, psychic healers on every corner, and new age centers offering vortex tours. We were set to take our own vortex tour the very next day, so I wasn’t concerned about bypassing these charlatans.
We made our way through the dusty construction area on Route 179 and eventually found the Desert Quail. It’s just a motel, but very clean and pleasant and even charming (as evidenced by the Gambel’s Quail family motif on the exterior wall near the lobby). Our hunger overrode our strong desire to lie down at that instant and take a nap. I don’t remember which one of us had to drag the other off the bed, but it was for the best.
The receptionist had recommended Maria’s. “Authentic?” we’d asked. “Oh, yes,” she assured us, “home-made, Grandma’s cooking, make-you-sick authentic Mexican.” She kind of indicated, and I kind of showed that I understood, that the part about making us sick was a joke. It was right up the road, which was another selling point as it was already well past 6:00pm and we’d traveled enough for one day.
An hour or so later after tossing our bags on the spare bed and taking a quick look through the maps and local menu offerings (we can never resist), we sank into a booth at Maria’s. Inside this dark, warm, cozy, homey Mexican restaurant nearly adjacent to the Desert Quail I felt immediately at home, and suddenly even hungrier than I’d thought. I barely noticed the coming and going of several other patrons while we ate and talked. The meal was a combination of old favorites, new tastes, beer in abundance, Rich’s warm and wide and affectionate smile, conversation on many levels — all the things I’ve come to expect from our relationship and all the adventures we share together. The pitcher of Dos Equis (plenty of limes) and the requisite chips and salsa came out first, followed by our rattlesnake appetizer. (I had to try it!) The meat was cut into strips and was perfectly seasoned, just slightly salty and spicy, and accompanied by a sour cream dressing. Rich’s carne asada burrito and my shredded beef taco and cheese enchilada (all tender and again, perfectly seasoned), and more beer, took us through the next hour or so, until we finally realized that the place was closing for the night and that it was past our bedtime, regardless.
I remember stretching out that night in bed and relishing the delicious feeling of ten days of freedom ahead of us, countless miles of highways and back roads, and something to look forward to at every stop. Sleep was deep and fulfilling. And comfortable though we were, rising early the next morning was easy. The sun was shining brightly long before 6:00am, and there was so much to see and touch and discover that I didn’t know where to start, but knew we should start soon.