While in Arizona this past April, I continuously found myself overwhelmed and speechless- same goes for trying to describe our trip. It was the most absolutely beautiful place I've ever been. I would move there in a heartbeat if it meant I could have a 20 foot saguaro in my front yard and be just a short drive from towering red rock, flat desert land and enough natural wonders to discover for the rest of my life.
I've invited Garrett (my boyfriend) to set the scene of our adventure. This post is going to be a long one. I hope you guys enjoy it as much as I did putting it together and it inspires you rethink your next excursion.
The reality of the desert has a way of challenging an easterner – or at least his easy-come preconceptions of it, born primarily of Clint Eastwood movies where leather-skinned tough guys (always hiding a heart-of-gold behind a cold iron squint) dispense their own brand of homegrown justice through the barrels of ivory-handled Colt 45s.
There’s a life to it you don’t see in the Westerns. The hard-packed dirt of a Hollywood set, dead and uninviting, is, as it turns out, as fictional as The Outlaw Josey Wales ever was.
Life in the desert is deliberate. Nothing can cling to the Sonoran sand that isn’t full to the top with determination to do so. From the very dirt that builds it, the desert is a fighter.
It’s vibrant. Not like home – not like our uniform green forests. Not like the maple – new in the spring and silent in the summer, waiting to pitch a drama-queen orange-red fit each fall, throwing its leaves to the ground and starting over.
The desert is slower.
To the saguaro that line U.S. 17 heading North from Phoenix, the Maple must seem a childish thing. The iconic plant, which only grows in the Sonoran Desert, might live for 200 years. By the time they are ten-years-old, they’ve grown less than two inches, but by the time they’re 200, they can hit a full 60-feet.
They line every hill, quiet sentinels who alone can claim living memory of America’s final expansion westward.
We took 17 in a rented a car -- a Jeep that somehow upgraded from the Hyundai I think I paid for – and left Phoenix. You can really make waves on that highway. It’s fast -- 75 miles an hour the whole way, and with nothing but space unobstructed on either side, 95 is more realistic.
There can’t exist a place on earth in which the scenery changes more dramatically than from Phoenix to Flagstaff, Arizona. Climbing more than 8,000 feet above sea level, the red-brown Sonoran gives way almost imperceptibly to the long green streak of Camp Verde. On the highway, in the air-conditioning, entire eco-systems can slip past your notice until the scrub land you thought you were seeing is suddenly an endless expanse of green.
If you keep climbing, carried along by last chance gas from once-every-hundred-mile stations, you’ll make Sedona, and that’s a place more adequately told by a paintbrush than a pen.
It’s red – all of it, red all over. There are colors in the massive monoliths that are unknown to the east. Colors that exist nowhere else in nature.
But it’s more than natural wonder that seems to find an exclusive home in the high desert of Northern Arizona. There’s a feeling too. Or at least a romantic projection of one. A feeling that simultaneously binds place to past. A feeling rendered in American hearts seeing a sign for Route 66, a part of a thought that rides a steam train through the “last town that I-40 bypassed.” And a highway exit for Los Angeles that makes you know for sure: I’ve never been this far away before.
At the risk of showing my hand as a fan of pulp fiction, Louis L’Amour saw it too:
“There is a wonder of a land out there … a wide wonder of it, with distances that reached out beyond your seeing where a man can ride six days and get nowhere at all.”
The West, like perhaps no other place in the world, is still able to command and call forth the unquenchable American spirit that is as restless as it was destructive. To us, denizens of a still-young nation, the West carries a malleability that has long been paved-over back east, and within it, just for moments, you can think yourself a pioneer, and convince yourself that maybe, just maybe, you could do this.
SCOTTSDALE TO SEDONA
Camp Verde, AZ
Chapel of the Holy Cross
Chapel of the Holy Cross
Drive from Scottsdale to Flagstaff to Page
The best burger I've ever had.
Upper Antelope Canyon
GRAND CANYON RAILWAY (WILLIAMS, AZ) TO GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK
last full day - rest, exploring, photoshoot in the desert
PHOENIX, AZ TO CHARLOTTE, NC
“It's strange how deserts turn us into believers. I believe in walking in a landscape of mirages, because you learn humility. I believe in living in a land of little water because life is drawn together. And I believe in the gathering of bones as a testament to spirits that have moved on. If the desert is holy, it is because it is a forgotten place that allows us to remember the sacred. Perhaps that is why every pilgrimage to the desert is a pilgrimage to the self.”
-- Terry Tempest Williams