Across the American Southwest

In May, my friend Jill and I decided to take a road trip to Flagstaff, Arizona. We decided to stop in Marfa, TX and White Sands National Monument in New Mexico along the way. It was a long drive and you have to appreciate all sorts of terrain to get through it without cracking completely. It's a two day drive from Austin through the desert and mountains so we left very early to be able to stop for lunch in Marfa and take a look at the shops.

We stopped briefly at the Chinati Foundation and walked the grounds. From afar, Donald Judd's "15 untitled works in concrete," 1980-1984 looked like unfinished building works. Up close they are jarring - perfectly juxtaposing the surrounding soft desert landscape. Though I would have liked to have gone in to the outbuildings of Chinati, they were closing within minutes of our arrival so we continued on our way. 

Along Route 90, back up to HWY 10 you will pass the lone Prada Marfa, a permanent art installation resembling a Prada storefront. It is definitely worth a gander. The building is made of biodegradable materials that will eventually return to the soil. I wonder how long that will take. Until then it seems to serve as a reminder of the absurdity of ever changing high fashion and its temporary and fickle nature. 

We continued on to Las Cruces for the night. I have nothing good to say about Las Cruces, NM. I was bitten by a spider in the night and in the early morning we could not find the coffee we desperately needed to get going.

We took US 70 E which takes you along a stunning route through the Tularosa Basin. The flat expanse is the northern most part of the Chihuahuan Desert. The 225 square mile of White Sands make up just a very small part of this valley. It's blindingly white gypsum sands are exceedingly rare. The place is just gorgeous. Jill and I could have spent hours there if we didn't have hours to go to Flagstaff. There are shoulders throughout the park where you can stop and frolic around in the dunes. As the sun peaks in and out of the clouds it lights up the distant dunes setting them aglow. Look down and see the sand trails from lizards, birds and snakes. I think I'd like to camp here sometime. I bet the stars are AMAZING. There are a few trails in the park that you can hike as well. 

As we approached Flagstaff from the East that evening, we were treated to an amazing sunset behind the ever-growing Humphreys Peak. 

As we drove into Flagstaff, the landscape changed from the flat expanse of desert we had been driving through for hours to pine covered hills. Flagstaff is home to the Lowell Observatory and is a designated dark-sky city - the first city with this designation, actually. The streets are lit with dim, yellow downward-facing lights that allow for a sky full of stars at night! However, if you're not used to it, it can make the first few nights of navigation a bit tricky.  It's well worth it. How I wish Austin had the same reverence for the sky! 

The first day we woke up early and I headed into downtown to get us some coffee. It's a small college town nestled in on the edge of the Colorado Plateau and it is an amazing home base from which to explore the area. Downtown is made up of quaint old buildings filled with shops and restaurants. It would be a great place to explore by bike. In the first few days, however, we learned that you are at the mercy of the trains. About 100 of them pass through on any given day and they run smack through the center of town. We were stopped several times a day! 

We decided to go to Arizona Snowbowl the first day to ease into our week of hiking. When visiting Flagstaff from a lower elevation it is important to note that the humidity is so low that you must drink more water than usual and because of its altitude it is best to ease yourself in to hiking at this this elevation. 

In winter, as the name suggests, skiers head to Snowbowl for the powder. But in the summer, you can enjoy easy to moderate hikes along the slopes. We missed the opening of the lift by about a week which was disappointing. It takes you to the top of San Francisco Peak. Only a 25 minutes drive from downtown Flagstaff, it was the perfect escape for our first day. We chose the Aspen Loop Trail which, as the name implies, took us through gorgeous groves of silver aspen trees along the gentle slope of the San Francisco Peak. It's a 2.5 mile loop that stays relatively flat - no steep climbs here. We were saving ourselves for The Grand Canyon and Sedona hiking. 

Next, we tooled around Flagstaff, visiting the little shops and art spaces. In one, I discovered Beth LaCour's lovely paper vessels. She has a plethora of work including ceramics and lights. I encourage you to check her out! 

Day two was devoted to the Grand Canyon. I hadn't visited since my father took us there around 1994 to see a killer meteor shower.  We decided on the South Kaibab trail on the South Rim of the Canyon.  From this trail, you can hike all the way down to the river though it is highly recommended that you plan to camp at least one night before returning up the trail. Though Skeleton Point is only 3 miles down, it is suggested that you do not attempt to hike past this point if you intend a single day hike. Why? The trail is steep and while going down is easy, coming back up is much more of a challenge. Also note that there is no water on the way down so bring plenty with you. Luckily I borrowed a friend's Osprey water pack which we filled and drank from throughout the hike. We hiked to the Ooh Aah point - only a mile down! It was still an incredibly challenging and rewarding hike! There were storms rolling in across the canyon bringing rain and loud bursts of thunder. I was wearing a down vest and a hat - which I would recommend due to the sun and wind. This hike took us about 2 hours. If you plan to go further, it is imperative that you not only bring water but some salty snacks for the walk. Despite the relatively cool temperatures that day, we were sweating a lot. There are lots of stories of people who hike unprepared and suffer the consequences - heatstroke, dehydration, and in the extreme cases, death. Hike smart! 

After the Kaibab we walked around the visitor's center and took the bus to the main village area and poked around the shops. They have gorgeous Native American jewelry and lovely books and souvenirs. 

The next day was a bit of an unexpected adventure. We planned to spend the day in Sedona. From Flagstaff, we took HWY 89A, the DIVINE Oak Creek Canyon Scenic Drive which took about an hour. The terrain is completely different to Flagstaff and Sedona - you descend from the ponderosa pine forests of the plateau above into the lush greenery of the canyon. I'm glad we got to do this drive more than once. There are also trails and lodges along the way and all the while the red rocks peek through the forest hinting at the landscape to come...

 Clear Creek Trading

Clear Creek Trading

Arriving in Sedona we were blasted by an unexpected hailstorm. Luckily we found covered parking relatively quickly but, as evidenced by the summer clothes-clad tourists in flip flops and tank tops, the sudden drop in temperature was a surprise. We decided that hiking after this downpour was out of the question so we checked out some shops, the most interesting of which was Clear Creek Trading Company. It had such a interesting collection of things -feathers and pelts of local birds and animals, clothes, fans, skulls and beautiful moccasins and jewelry. We spent a good 45 minutes here wandering around. It's as much a shop as it is a local artist gallery. 

 A gorgeous feather-adorned bison skull at Clear Creek Trading Company

A gorgeous feather-adorned bison skull at Clear Creek Trading Company

After getting our fill of shopping, we drove on through Sedona and headed for Jerome, a little town that had been recommended to us by numerous people. We didn't know what to expect as much of what has been written about it focuses on it "ghost town" reputation. It was so much more! 

We seemed to follow the storm as we headed to Jerome. The valley opens up and you can see the San Francisco Peaks of Flagstaff in the distance. Jerome sits on the slope of Cleopatra Hill which is adorned with a giant letter "J" - something a lot of towns in this area of the US do. Jerome was established as a copper mining camp with a sordid reputation. Once a thriving community with over 15,000 residents, today the roughly 500 residents rely on the tourism it attracts through its artist community and ghost town status. The town is peppered with crumbling facades of derelict buildings from its early days. We parked at the base of the town and walked the winding uphill roads to the Jerome Grand Hotel. Built in 1926 as a hospital (not an asylum as the hotel restaurant's name would have you believe), it's the largest building in Jerome and it's said to be haunted. There was eye candy around every bend. If you enjoy shopping and exploring abandoned architecture, I highly recommend taking a day trip here. We thought we would only stay an hour at most but we wound up exploring every street and going into most of the shops and galleries. The first we visited was a beautiful little shop called Lola. Despite its terrible reviews on yelp, we had a blast in this shop. The owners both chatted with us the entire visit and the shop is full of interesting things - Jill bought a beautiful antique pewter perfume bottle for $10 and I bought a handmade turquoise bracelet for $13 - great place to stop for gifts! The owners told us of their intention to sell the place - it's a storefront and home and sure enough, we found the listing on Zillow the same day. It's still for sale if you are interested in retiring to this sleepy little town!  

 The windows of Jerome Artists Cooperative Gallery

The windows of Jerome Artists Cooperative Gallery

Next we stopped in the Jerome Artists Cooperative Gallery.  The bright and lofty space features mostly paintings and photographs from local artists but there is also jewelry, stained glass and pottery as well. The views from their enormous windows have stunning views! 

We wandered around the town and discovered the long-closed Cuban Queen Bordello (also said to be haunted) protected by a gorgeous rusting wrought iron fence. We popped into the Connor Hotel gift shop where we chatted with the exceedingly friendly manager. He gave us a key to one of the better rooms of the hotel and let us go up and have a look. What a beautiful hotel! 

We continued wandering up the town, admiring the beautiful homes and steep stairways. Each home was unique and most boasted lush gardens with fruit trees and flowers. It was a great time of year to visit. We talked to a local woman out for a stroll about the strong sense of community of the place. Most residents, she explained, volunteer to maintain the city's sometimes crumbling infrastructure. 

We left feeling excited and invigorated and vowed to come back to lovely Jerome! 

The next day, we drove deep into the Coconino Forest to explore the Lava River Cave. Now, if you don't know me, I should explain that the idea of this excursion fascinated but also terrified me. I haven't been in a cave since I was a kid at summer nature camp. I have definitely not intended to go since seeing The Descent which scared the bejeezus out of me. Having never seen the film, Jill looked forward to the trip with no trepidation! Ignorance is bliss...

The drive there took us on unpaved roads through the Ponderosa Pine forests near Flagstaff. We were instantly worried when we noticed a school bus trailing behind us. We really wanted to be alone for our own descent but sure enough, the bus stopped at the cave entrance. Children piled out and sat down for lunch. The entrance is literally just a hole in the ground next to a plaque, a map and a sign-in, sign-out book to keep track of visitors that might not have made it out safely. There is no visitors center or staff on-hand which made it that much more exciting. A few people had decided to visit that day including a man and his son and their pit bull, who wore a lantern around his neck! Adorable. He wasn't so gung-ho about the trek but with a little encouragement from his owners and a few resigned looks back at us, he followed them into the cave. 

We were told to dress warmly. Even in the heat of the summer the cave stays just above freezing at it's deepest point. I wish we had taken note of the map at the mouth of the cave. Convinced we had trekked through most of the cave, we turned back having only seen about a third of it. The cave forks about a quarter of the way. Take the left fork unless you intend to crawl on your belly. The passage into the next chamber is very low. 

The cave itself was formed almost a million years ago by a river of magma. Websites we studied recommended two light sources per person so we wore headlamps and carried flashlights. Both of us agreed that it would have been neat to have had a lantern to stop and admire the giant chambers within in all their glory. I was pretty much terrified the entire hike and my heart sank when Jill suggested we turn off our lights to admire the darkness. I listened carefully for tell-tale sounds of troglodytic man-eating creatures. Thankfully, the visit went smoothly.  Pictures do not do it justice. It's amazing, especially if you have any interest in geology.

That night, back at home, we watched The Descent. We held hands through the entire film.

At last the weather was nice enough for a day in Sedona. So back down Oak Creek Canyon we went. 

The hike we chose was to Devils Bridge from the Chuck Wagon trailhead. Altogether the hike was about 3 miles round trip but at points it was very challenging. We parked along Vultee Arch Road. Devils Bridge trailhead, while closer to your destination, requires an all terrain or high clearance vehicle. Our way only added about 1/2 a mile to the hike. It was a gorgeous trail, flat and brushy at first and then climbing into the famous giant red rock formations of Sedona.  When we reached Devils Bridge there was a line of people waiting to get a photograph taken on the famous landmark. It's a popular destination in Sedona but with good reason. Here's what we learned from our hike: bring loads of water, wear and bring sunscreen to reapply through the hike, wear a hat to shield your head and face from the intense sun, and carry a first aid kit! Poor Jill injured her leg on a tree branch and I ran back to the car to get our first aid kit. We wished we had just brought it with us! This trail branches out in quite a few places but I think they all end up in the same place. 

We then headed to Bell Rock for a quick hike and killer views from this peaceful vantage point. 

 View from Bell Rock

View from Bell Rock

That night, we visited Jill's cousin who lives in the area and she treated us to a lovely home cooked meal. We made a fire in her backyard and enjoyed the full moon. She has studied the Native American cultures in the area and worked for the Grand Canyon so she had lots to tell us about where we had been.

The next day we spent packing and getting ready for the trip home. We headed into downtown Flagstaff for our one meal out on the town at Criolo. The lovely vaulted brick interior was very inviting and the food was delicious. It was crowded because of their happy hour specials but we didn't wait very long. 

The next day we headed south out of Flagstaff towards Tucson. I really wanted to see the giant saguaro cacti of the Sonoran Desert in Southern Arizona. When they finally start springing up around you on the highway, it's really quite spectacular. They can grow to be over 70 feet tall and live over 100 years! They become engorged after a rain and provide water for many of the animals of the desert. Their gorgeous crown of blossoms feeds the migrating bats that come up from Mexico.  

We planned to stop in Carlsbad that night so we could visit some local hot springs near Truth or Consequences on the way. We ended up at Faywood Hot Springs, a tiny campground/hotel in the middle of nowhere and took a relaxing dip before continuing on to Cloudcroft. Admittedly, our route made the journey longer, but far more interesting!

By the time we reached the base of the mountain at Cloudcroft, it was pitch black. The winding mountain roads were making us nervous. A coyote raced across our path as we climbed, narrowly avoiding being swept under my tires. When we stopped in Cloudcroft at a local convenience store we were told to go no more than 30 miles per hour down the other side as the elk were out in numbers. It was enough to cement our decision to stay there for the night. We asked about accommodations and ended up in the very strange Alta Vista Chalet Motel. Most other hotels were booked up for the night so we couldn't be too picky. We were shown into our enormous 4-bed room and talked about our travels. The next morning we were delighted to see we were right in the middle of the Lincoln National Forest! After some quick searching online for things to do, we drove to Dave's Cafe for breakfast. I had the huevos rancheros with both red and green sauce (referred to as Christmas-style in NM) which was absolutely delicious! 

 Tularosa basin and White Sands from Sunspot Highway

Tularosa basin and White Sands from Sunspot Highway

Heading back out the way we came, we headed along the winding Sunspot Highway. From there, one of the first vantage points is of the Tularosa Basin below and the shimmering pale expanse of White Sands. It's really neat to see it from this high up. We chose Bluff Springs for our hike because it boasted a beautiful waterfall. 

 Bluff Springs

Bluff Springs

What is wonderful about this road trip is the changing landscapes throughout the trip. Getting through west Texas is the hardest part as it's seemingly endless and flat. Break it up with Marfa or Balmorhea and it makes the ride a little less tortuous. Once out of Texas, though, you are treated to gorgeous landscapes - forests, deserts, mountains. It is truly magnificent and makes you appreciate the diversity of American terrain.