Winding Toward Sedona

Entering Sedona
Entering Sedona

If you find yourself going to Sedona from Flagstaff, AZ, take highway 89A instead of 17 to get there as I did last week on my way to Phoenix. One of best mountain drives I have traveled in a long time. The video below gives you a small taste, but falls short of the experience of the elevation and extreme winding roads. Unlike some rocky mountain passes where road edges tend to be shear drops, 89A on the way to Sedona is lush with trees and guard rails! Nice concept, these guard rails on steep-sided roads.

As for Sedona, I am about to make a lot of people I know disagree with me. I loved the geography and the landscapes but Sedona itself was wholly depressing to me. Yet another beautiful natural setting, culture, and town completely neutered by money and privelege. I have seen too many of these amazing locations lose their culture, diversity, and personality from developers and money coming to town and conducting real estate genocide. Too pristine, too clinical, and too soulless for my tastes. I know many who love this place and embrace it as what they believe is a spiritual and soul-enhancing place, yet I see it as merely another Rodeo Drive built in the desert.

That said, I would like to come back some time to explore nature outside the town boundaries. Fortunately there are several national forest campgrounds on the winding drive in, and some good BLM land for boondocking south away from Sedona. Both would make excellent bases while exploring.

Continuing the drive I had mapped out to get into the mountains and away from the interstates, I stumbled on the delightful mountain-side town of Jerome, AZ. Like something one might drive through in Europe and the Alps, Jerome’s downtown buildings all seem to hang off the mountainside along the narrow and always winding road through town. A delightful drive, although I wish to be a passenger and not the driver some time when I can come back to explore Jerome. Too narrow, winding, and always a sheer drop off the edge to do much gawking (and forget about taking pictures!) as I steered VanGeist along the route and successful avoided rolling down the 1,000’+ sheer drops.

From there I wandered on to Prescott, encountering more winding mountain roads after Jerome more like those in the Rocky Mountains, meaning frequent sheer drops without guardrails and not as fun as the winding, moutain-side drive going into Sedona.

This part of Arizona I stumbled onto serendipitously is definitely on my list of places to return and spend more time. Maybe even stay a night in the Jerome Grand Hotel perched high up the mountainside with an amazing view, and wander the unusual and unique shops in the town. Certainly would be a good, physical workout!

Click video to play (and see options along bottom). Click on any image in the gallery to open a slideshow.

Quartzite Time

Beautiful in its own way
Beautiful in its own way

If you happen to watch (or read) Nomadland, you glimpse part of Quartzite, AZ, probably the best known BLM camping area in the U.S. This is my first visit, and I arrived with preconceptions of what it would be like. After finding a spot, setting up, and wandering about a bit, I quickly realized my expectations were way off.

Quartzite is also a town where a surprising number of permanent homes and residents exist. With a population close to 4,000, a median age of 69, and median income a bit over $20,000, it seems primarily a retirement destination. Yet I do wonder if those in houses really live here during the summer when temps average +100 degrees and often well exceed that mark. In the RV and van life world, this is the mecca of cheap, long-term in-vehicle living especially suited to the winter season. Many such dwellers will live here in the winter, then migrate north into the Arizona mountains, then back to Quartzite the next fall and winter.

It is a stark place, yet has a beauty apparent after you settle in, stare out the van window for some quiet reflection, then take time to wander through the landscape. Right now it is quiet here, although after Thanksgiving when the snowbirds descend en masse I imagine quiet would not be a useful description. Vegetation and wildlife survive despite the struggle evident by the disfigured saguaro cactus and long-dead weathered trees. The landscape of mostly scrub bushes, gnarly trees, and more rocks strewn about than I have ever seen, are obvious hints little rainfall happens here and few days of relief from blistering sunshine. Whatever vegetation dies here lives on in another form, the wind, heat, and low humidity weathering and preserving remains, vestiges of former plant lives in fascinating shapes and extreme textures. I expected a typical desert, but there is far less sand and soil here than you might think. In the eon-long war waged here between sand and rocks, clearly the rocks won long ago.

As someone who enjoys rock hunting, Quartzite is a treasure trove where one could spend hours hiking without ever looking up, step after step leading your eyes to one cool rock after another. On this morning’s two+ mile hike, I over-weighted my down vest’s pockets to the point I worried about tearing them and had to jettison a few choices I picked up. Truth is, if I stayed here long, I would undoubtedly fill boxes of rocks to take home.

This stopover of three days happened between time in Phoenix to resolve a van coach heating issue and an appointment in San Diego next week for some seriously cool van upgrades. It gave me a chance to check out BLM Quartztite since my tentative winter plans may include spending several months here. Better to dip my toes first now before showing up unaware for a long stay later. Where I am now is in Hi Jolly Campground, one of the free, 14-day-max-stay areas. There are LTVA locations (long-term visiter area) where one can stay up to seven months at a stretch, and I will settle in one of those campgrounds for the longer visit. LTVA spots are $180 flat fee regardless of stay, but offer the luxuries of onsite trash facilities, water, and dump stations, whereas the 14-day free spots require one to leave and go into town for those supports.

On my walk this morning I slowly felt my notions of this landscape change from desolate and stark, to appreciating the beauty and variety it offers if one takes the time to immerse, open the mind and senses, and let go of any preconceived notions and restrictions defining beauty in nature. From the amazing textures of weathered wood, to the variety of rocks, to the living vegetation that is surviving despite the odds, this Sonoran Desert landscape is a wonderland in its own way.

Lost in Wanderlust

Solitude is creativity’s best friend. – Naomi Judd

Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go. – Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Solo traveling with few hard dates or appointments leaves time for contemplation and to wander through whatever doors open along the way. Solitary time is fertile soil for growing any creative endeavor.

Over my first 30 days wandering in VanGeist, my intent was not a full month of self-discovery, but to focus on setting up VanGeist and honing daily rituals for life on the road. Unfortunately, the bane of those who first begin van life, “vacation mode,” settled in like a barely known relative ignoring all hints to leave.

Whether from the wind-in-the-hair feeling of unfettered freedom, or absent the bond of home routines, vacation mode rarely lasts a full van life month. Not that there is anything wrong with wandering and playing and visiting wonderful places, all while treating oneself to amazing local foods. But now, for me, time to change.

VanGeist’s odometer tells the story: 3,300 miles since starting September 20. Averaged over 30 days, that is a lot of road time. While I am happy with my efforts to set up VanGeist to suit my needs, and have certainly immersed in nature both where I have been before and new to me, two of the important reasons for this adventure of near-full-time solo travel have yet to appear.

Over the previous six months, my work to stabilize diet, lose weight, and increase walking/hiking combined to allow me to be in the best physical condition since…well, more years than I care to admit. But who goes on vacation restricting foods to mostly vegetables, little fat or sugar, healthy protein, and no alcohol? If you must know the answer, it is NO ONE. Such is part of the dark side of prolonging vacation mode. And for the record, I believe part of the blame should go to Trader Joe’s and their October pumpkin-everything madness.

Also AWOL during this inaugural month was any serious writing time. That was probably the key, hoped-for activity from my new, solitary travels. Momentum from expected time spent in secluded spots should have built toward honing skills and taking me closer on the path to publishing. But such efforts, other than blogging and journaling, were clearly MIA.

If all this sounds like I have not enjoyed myself these past 30 days, that would be misleading. I have had a blast and enjoying every day, so no regrets per se. But I feel a strong tug to “come home” from the vacation and get to work. Guess it is time to trade in the Bermuda shorts and Hawaiian shirts for working clothes.

Coffee & Motorcycles

I love it when I stumble on a shop or store pulling off a hybrid approach to things.

This morning in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I stopped at Rust is Gold, a coffee shop (excellent coffee, btw) blended with the owner’s and worker’s two passions: racing and working on vintage motorcycles, and good coffee. They mostly work on their own bikes, but locals know them as a place to stop and borrow a tool or chat about a repair, or even collaborate on an upgrade.

I’m not a biker, although I wished I’d learn to ride in my youth. If I had, I’m sure I would have owned a string of motorcycles over the years. Much, much later in life I took a quick, intro course a local motorcycle shop gave to screen would-be riders who wanted to learn to ride later in life. Nope. Wasn’t anywhere near coordinated enough to learn all that. Plus, as I’ve heard from motorcycle friends, back in the day it was easier and safer to learn to ride. Now they tend to discourage people from learning since it’s significantly more dangerous to ride these days.

Anyway, if you are a motorbike fan, then enjoy the gallery below of their set up. If not, and in the area sometime, stop in for a great cup of coffee.

Ghost Ranch Hiking

Ghost Ranch entrance

The famed northern New Mexico Ghost Ranch excels at workshops and retreats, yet also provides some excellent immersive nature hikes. During my visits over the years, I’ve slowly chipped away at the list of hiking trails with just a few left to explore. Yesterday under partly cloudy blue skies and temperatures pleasant in the sun, but one-layer short in the shade, I thinned the list by hiking the four-mile Box Canyon Ti b’uiu’u trail.

An enjoyable, gentle hike, the path wanders through the grassy plains between towering mesas and then beside a meandering creek as the elevation rises and the canyon narrows. In between two mesas, the trail plays hop-skotch with the small, wandering stream adding a whimsical enjoyment in finding different ways to cross the creek. This rock or that one? Or for fun, jump from bank-to-bank or from that big rock.

Along the trail there were also a handful of unexpected sweat lodges, and although not old, they added historic ambiance to the hike.

To read more about the Ghost Ranch and see photos from a previous hike on the Chimney Rock trail, check out this post from 2019.