Tales of the Desert

Arriving into Phoenix, the sun was shining, and the sprawled city was spread out across the desert with mountains surrounding it in the hazy distance.  First impressions of Phoenix are that you need a car as cabs are stupidly expensive, but it’s easy drive around.  The roads are wide, laid out in a grid pattern, there’s plenty of freeways to speed things up.  You hear Spanish constantly, and see it written on signs, as often as you see English.  

I decided to stay ‘downtown’, however it turns out the hotel I booked was 5 miles out of downtown (ie the CBD) but it had a pool and was a steal for the price.  I spent the first day there sunning in my bikini, feeling very relaxed after the mad party that was New York. 

But what is a girl to do on a Monday night in Phoenix?  Turns out not a lot.  Phoenix CBD on a Monday night is… dead.  I caught the bus into the city ($1.75 as oppose to a $25 cab ride!), and walked into the city.  It reminded me of one of those apocalypse movies where everyone is dead but one lead character who wanders round the deserted streets with a bewildered look on their face, wondering what the hell happened.  I swear there was tumbleweed blowing across the street.  I found one pub open, I was the only customer, and so sat and chatted to the 5 staff that were working solely to make me an $8 salad and pop open the tops of a couple of Corona Lites.  

The next day I picked up my car, a burgundy Chevy with Minnesota plates, nestled in the furthest reaches of Budget’s underground carpark.  After 10 minutes of trying to move the seat forward (the air was blue after 5) and instead discovering loads of other buttons that made the cushions puff out in different directions and contour to your body (all very clever inventions but seeing as my feet could barely touch the pedals, completely bloody useless), I stomped off across the cavernous garage to find a rather sweet, slow-moving old chap with a cane and a ‘Budget’ namebadge saying ‘Bert’, and we made our way slowly back to the immobile car imitating the tortoise and the hare scenario to perfection.  Gawd bless Bert though as he leaned in, waggled a button on the seat in a different direction and voila!  Then I tried to put the car into Drive.  Once again, I was foiled as the car didn’t move an inch.  Luckily, Bert had only managed to move about 3 feet from the car in the two minutes I’d been faffing around and kindly told me that I had to stomp quite firmly on the brakes, not gently as I'd been doing, to release the automatic clutch.  Bert knew his stuff!

It took me another few minutes to realize the lights also had an automatic function, meaning you never have to switch them on and off, and… my favourite… cruise control! The car itself is an ugly beast, it looks a bit like the deformed lovechild of an old-fashioned fire-engine and the Batmobile.  The rearview mirror appears to be for decoration as you can’t see anything past the enormous headrests in the backseat, and there are a number of blindspots making any type of parking or three point turns into Chevy ballet as I have no idea where the car begins or ends.  As far as I can tell it spans several dimensions.  It actually fell under the 'compact' category, but seeing as most of the cars on the road here are behemoths then I can understand why.

It drives well for a big car though, and I don’t have any issues handling it on the wrong side of the road.  As parking, not driving, is my particular bug-bear it’s been an interesting exercise.  I think I’m near something and I’m miles away and then I’ll think I’m miles away and barely have room to open the door.  Thank god they have massive parking spaces here.  I’ll have to give the thing back in a few weeks and probably just got the hang of it.  Haven’t hit anything yet though and I’m insured up to the eyeballs.

I went out and bought a Garmin GPS, instead of paying the $99 to rent it, so I now have my own WITH European maps.  By the next day Phoenix was rapidly disappearing in my rearview mirror and I was on the open road through some amazing desert scenery to Sedona, in Red Rock Country.  There was something truly magical about that first drive.  I love road trips, I quite enjoy my own company and I was completely immersed in the landscape around me.  The States has so many areas of natural beauty, and I picked a terrific starting point.

In Sedona, I decided to check out my hotel first, which was just past Sedona on the freeway.  I say ‘just past’, turns out it’s a good half an hour drive.  Thanks hotels.com who have obviously never been to Sedona in their lives and haven’t got a clue where Munds Park is in relation.  The ominously named ‘Motel in the Pines’ looked like a horror movie set: dilapidated, nestled in amongst the pine trees, power tools scattered everywhere as the manager was doing some work.  Oh, and then there was the manager.  Over-friendly, bordering on sleazy.  I was shown to my room (just as dilapidated), and I immediately scoured the wallpaper for hidden peepholes.  

Nothing can quite prepare you for the drive into Sedona, between the towering red monoliths that rise out of the desert on either side of the highway.  There are people that speak of vortexes here, places of massive natural, or spiritual, energy that spiral up out of the earth – there are 7 in Sedona I believe – and if you can tap into it will amp up those positive vibes, connect with your own spiritual energy, and make good things happen.  More likely these powerful places are results of electromagnetic fields generated by the rocks, but I hiked through one of the more potent vortexes and I didn’t feel a thing.  Maybe I’ve got energy and positive vibes to spare!  

I covered a fair bit of ground in Sedona, making sure I spoke to the right people to do the most scenic and recommended hikes.  These are the ones I did:
  • Fays Canyon – there is a natural arch about half a mile in to the right which is really easy to miss – look out for the small cairn (tower of rocks) by the creek bed and continue  up a steep slope.  You can also climb to the top of the arch which is hairy as there is a lot of shale and huge drop-offs – the views are ok but not the best Sedona has to offer.  Going further back into the canyon is also rewarding, scramble up the slope by the percolator-shaped rock for stunning views of Bell Rock.
  • Devil’s Bridge – unless you have a decent 4WD you have to park and walk to the start of the trail which is mile and a half, but a pleasant stroll with good views.  You could get lucky and pick up a lift.  The bridge is about 30 to 40 mins into the trail. Walk under it first to for some nice photo ops and then climb up to stand on top of it for some of the most amazing views in Sedona.  If you have to walk to and from the first carpark to the trail it can take over 2 hours.
  • Cathedral Rock – this incredible rock structure dominates many Sedona views and is a must-do – however you need to be physically fit, have decent footwear and not be afraid of heights to attempt it and you’ll have to use hands and feet for some of the tougher bits.  Climb up to the left of the structure following the trail of large cairns, and emerge between the left hand pillars and main body of rock for spectacular views over the canyon behind.  This is the seat of one of Sedona’s vortexes too so keep your mind open for that natural energy and let the good vibes roll!  Factor in a couple of hours for this hike depending on fitness and how often you to stop to take photos, as it’s Scenery Central.  I also met a really wonderful gal here, more on that below.
  • Doe’s Canyon – an easy and pretty trail up to a 360 degree vista on an escarpment.  Takes about an hour up and down.
  • West Fork – I didn’t do this in the end as the trail was very busy and I was on my way to Williams to check out the Grand Canyon, but it’s supposed to be one of the most beautiful hikes in the area, with towering canyon walls and plenty of condors wheeling overhead.  There are a few creeks to cross so you’ll need decent footwear that you don’t mind getting wet.   The full trail is about 13 miles so it is possible to walk in and camp overnight, and walk out the next day.  It’s situated just out of Sedona on HWY 89 which is also reknowned as being one of the top 8 scenic drives in America.
  • Airport drive – THE place in Sedona to check out the sunset.  Don’t bother going right up the hill to the big carpark with the rest of the tourists, but instead park on the left about halfway up the hill and climb the rock for 360 degree views.  This will not only give you views of the sunset itself, but more importantly those wonderful shots of a gorgeous purple sky over the rocks to the North, East and South which you can’t see from the main airport viewpoint which is only West facing.  Parking is limited here so get there early, or you can park in one of the side-roads further down the hill and risk your chances walking up the windy, narrow road.  Most drivers are courteous and will swing out pretty wide but it’s still pretty nerve-wracking.

The main highlight of Sedona apart from the trails… my 17,000ft skydive!  Strapped to a young man who looked vaguely like Jesus (I took this as a good sign), 5 of us took off in a tiny plane, having to use oxygen when we hit about 15,000ft.  The price included an aerial tour of Sedona, with the Grand Canyon a line in the distance and views over the one snow-cap in Arizona.  It wasn’t as scary as I though, climbing out onto the step, the land distant below us, the wind blowing like a harpy all around us.  That initial rush as we launched into thin air is indescribable.  17,000 feet meant we had over a minute of freefall, plus Chris and I were both very light so we probably had longer than that.  We did a spinning around thing where I screamed a lot, but I think I laughed the whole way down.  My ears were so cold they felt like they were going to fall off during freefall but that was the most uncomfortable thing.

Once the parachute opened, Chris performed another few acrobatic moves (cooooool!) and then we drifted like gossamer down to the ground.  I’d do it again in a heartbeat! The name of the company is www.redrockskydiving.com

I bet some of you readers are wondering if this is a bucket list, huh?!  It’s not, it’s just that whilst I’ve got the time, freedom and money I’m going for it!  Life is too short to skimp on the thrills, no matter how expensive they sometimes are.  

I also met a wonderful and intriguing young lady called Lilou at Cathedral Rock.  She encouraged me up a rather daunting climb (it was easy once she showed me how) and it turns out that she has her own website and is paying for her travels through sponsorships, and by interviewing inspiring people.  Go to www.JuicyLivingTour.com, and if you have a ganders at Lilou’s “Energy Transmission from a Vortex to You” video that’s where we climbed up Cathedral Rock together.  She’s not only a star in the making but a lovely woman, and she’s going global.  She’s inspiring in her own right and well worth checking out.