Sedona was on my bucket list for years. I finally got there in November of 2023. It was everything and nothing like I expected.
I am not a fan of the desert, so I was wholly unimpressed with the dry, flat, barren area surrounding Phoenix. As I disembarked my plane and headed toward the hotel, I asked myself: "Who could live here?" "Where are the mountains?" "Is there any grass here?" Way off in the distance I noticed a jutting rugged mountain sized red rock, but that was about it. Everywhere I looked it was flat and desolate. Housing tracks and shopping centers provided the only elevation change. Luckily, it was November so it wasn't hot. The weather was pleasant as I unloaded my car and settled in for the night in Scottsdale, just down the road from the Phoenix airport.
The next day I would head to Sedona. I had done a little research and read that the Sedona sunrise was second to none so I decided to leave at 5AM to try to catch the 7AM sunrise. I threw on a sweater and headed out into the dark desert night.
Getting there was a whole adventure in itself. It started with a nearly straight shot out of town until I hit the winding highway 17 over the northern Arizona mountains. My headlights shone on nothing except the black tar road and the occasional sign that said "Stay in Lane" warning me to think twice before I veered off into the desert to do some nighttime off-roading with the coyotes and lizards. There was construction being done on the road, but no one was working this early, so cones and reflectors were my only guides around many twists and turns. The road was 2 lanes each way, and I passed no more than four or five cars for over and hour. When the road peaked at the top of the mountain, I noticed a perfect crescent moon hanging in the sky above the darkness. I could tell exactly where the sun was because it shone so brightly on one side of the moon. I found it comforting. Off in the distance beneath the moon, the perfectly straight horizon had a blue glow. The sun was headed up to greet the desert. I better hurry.
After a downhill drop of over 15 miles, I hit the endless rotaries. Round and out. Round and out...about every mile or so for what seems like 10 miles. Then I started down another highway until a road sign popped up to tell me that Sedona was only a few miles away. I grew excited, peering down the road for any sign of the town I had longed to see for so many years. The sun slipped up higher on the horizon making it light enough to see without headlights.
And then there it was.
In all it's red rock glory.
This was Arizona? Where did all these colorful mountains come from? The mountains were large and looming and had layered rock striations - black, cream, brown --with their tops almost always red. Some shot up like spires, others looked like they had been shaped with human hands, like lumps of clay. And trees! Big beautiful trees in all shapes and sizes showed off their yellow and orange fall leaves over green lawns and old west style buildings. Large saguaros popped up on rocky cliffs and along roadsides, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups. As I drove through town, I noticed some mountains were lighting up with the sunrise while others were still in the early morning shadows. I drove to the first trail head I could find and hopped out.
Wow! Was it cold!
Quite a temperature drop from Scottsdale. I discovered later I had climbed over 4,000 feet in elevation. That explained the cold crisp air that bit my nose and fingertips. I had only a sweater to cover me, but it didn't matter. I was here. I walked down the dusty red trail and looked up at the jagged rocky mountains. The colors were starting to become more vibrant as the shadows faded. I heard a whooshing sound out in the distance. What was that? Over a hedge of trees in front of me, a giant hot air balloon began to rise, like a carnival moon. It had yellow, red and orange stripes and the whooshing sound was the hot air being released into the balloon. I stood in awe as it lifted less than 50 yards in front of me, the orange flame appearing and disappearing above the basket as the balloon rose above the tree tops and drifted away. I heard the muffled sound of happy tourists chirping like birds in their rising nest. What a view they must have, I thought.
I popped out of that trail and drove a half mile down the road to another trail that looked like it would have a great view of the red rock mountains. As I headed up the hill, I could see the hot air balloons off in the distance. They seemed to be stationary in the air, hanging in place, in the shimmering light blue morning sky. After a few hundred feet the path dropped back down and became very rocky. As I descended, my shoes covered in red dust, I thought: "My dog Cali would have loved this!" and my eyes welled up with tears. Cali had passed away just a few months before this trip. Losing her was like a heavy backpack I carried with me everywhere. I could see her happy face as she walked the trail with me--long pink tongue out, floppy ears dancing as she looked back at me with a wide eyes and an even wider frothy smile. I could hear her collar tags jingle, hear her panting. I could feel her pulling on the leash. The memory was so vivid, I started sobbing. But I didn't stop walking; I kept going, letting the tears fall, wiping them away with my sleeve, and taking deep breaths. Her presence was so strong there; I can't explain it.
I grabbed a big breakfast of sweet potato pancakes at Jose Cafe and headed for uptown Sedona in the morning sun. A "Monster Sale" sign caught my eye and I followed it to a house that was tucked away in an older, but very well manicured neighborhood. It was Saturday and there were only a few people there, not the usual madness I am used to at California yard sales. Sedona has only about 10,000 people so there isn't as much competition. This was a house sale, not a yard sale. Each room was full of vintage maps, blankets, dolls, doilies, glassware, sheet music, books and costume jewelry. Prices were circa 1970 and the senior ladies running the sale were well organized, polite and cheerful. They were dressed up for the occasion in colorful blouses and pressed slacks. Hair pins held their gray hair back in strands and their wrists were covered in metal bracelets. They said they were cleaning house because "They had too much stuff." "Time flies!" they said. "Jim used to love these old maps." "I remember reading Swiss Family Robinson as a child." The nostalgic chatter continued. I got a small bag full of CDs and antique books for $1. I hoped I could fit it in my backpack and get it all home.
While I wanted to see the sunset in Sedona, I did not want to drive back in the dark. The twists and turns around flashy construction signs had been enough excitement this morning. Plus, I had an early flight to catch the next morning to head home. So after stopping to walk on one more red dust trail that featured pocket gophers and a winding crystal clear creek, I headed back to Scottsdale. It takes about two and a half hours to make the journey and I was glad I still had plenty of sunlight and would not have to depend on the light of the moon and the tiny high beams of my rental car.
About an hour into the drive on highway 17, traffic stopped quickly in front of me. I slammed on my brakes and wondered what was going on. On google maps there was no sign of traffic. Something must have just happened. Cars began to move forward slowly and then pull over to the left lane. After we crawled forward a few hundred feet, I noticed debris in the right lane next to me and in the dirt alongside the road. Pieces of plastic maybe? I heard a siren coming up behind me and saw flashing lights in the rear view mirror. As my eyes returned to the car in front of me slowly rolling forward, I saw the handlebars of a motorcycle lying in the roadway to my right. Then, a broken helmet. Chrome and metal pieces I could not identify were scattered around. A few cars were parked off the roadway. Standing on a dirt berm near the side of the road were two women. One woman reached out to hug the other woman as they looked down into the canyon. A man a few yards away from them was frantically gesturing, waving his arms at the cop. Come here! Over here! Another man behind him was pointing down into the canyon. The cop pulled up, jumped out of his car and ran down the hill out of sight as the man continued to point. The women hung on to each other tightly, not able to look.
Oh no. I said. Someone just died here.
I knew by what I had seen on the road and on the faces of those at the scene that it was very, very bad. Frantic horror is the best way I can describe the contortion of their faces. I began to cry and pray. "Help this person survive God and if they can't survive, please help their family."
It took me almost a half hour to stop the tears as I continued to wind down the desert mountain road toward Scottsdale. The farther I got from Sedona, the more the earth seemed to flatten out, get dryer, more barren and harsh. The autumn colored ash and juniper trees were replaced with prickly, scarred saguaros and rolling tumbleweeds. Red dust turned gray. A reminder that we will all face the barren darkness. No one escapes. Like a desert moon though, we will rise again.
-Hope A. Horner, Copyright 2023
To use, report or print article contact author on Twitter (X) @HopeNote.