Packed inside our little car that has five seat depressions and barely an inch of space between them, we make our way off the reservation, back to the highway, and back to our casino flanked RV. The fuse inside the motor home has blown, like it always does during the heat of the day. But luckily we’ve returned to calm dogs, dry laundry and a vehicle cabin that is still cool enough from the AC working all morning. I trudge across empty RV lots and load the last of our laundry into the washers and bring the clean loads back so we can start separating and folding and tucking everything away in the RV’s assorted cabinets. Mostly we just sit around and do nothing while the laundry cycles, the sun arcs back toward the horizon, and the rain storm we’d been watching approach all day, finally passes over, just barely wetting the ground before moving on for good.
Unfortunately, the resort-worthy pool is closed for renovations, but the brochure boasts of a grand entertainment room in the “clubhouse.” Ian and I decide to check it out. After walking across the RV park to reach it, realizing we didn’t bring our face masks, and walking back as quickly as our tired legs will carry us, the laundry is almost finished and the afternoon is quickly becoming early evening. We all decide it’s time to go.
We arrive at the ranger office of the Petroglyph National Monument an hour before the park closes, which is only enough time for us to visit one trail thats about a fifteen minute drive north. We cruise past neighborhoods that are nestled beneath the dark mesa walls on Albuquerque’s western side. The streets have names like Golf Course Road, Paradise Blvd and Cactus Trail Road. Only half of us want to be here at all. So when we park and begin walking a dusty trail in 100º heat, with a dismal paucity of petroglyphs on the volcanic rock cliffs, we decide to take the first exit off the trail, and head back to the car. (Our foray among ancient communication relics is not without excitement however, when a lizard skimpers across our path and gives the kids the satisfaction of seeing wildlife that was first on their “hope to” list).
By way of the two main highways that traverse Albuquerque, we criss cross the city 3 times from the northern edge to a southern neighborhood. There, a darkened and empty Twisters Burgers and Burritos (the pandemic suffering burger joint used as the drug dealing, hidden-in-plain-sight, business headquarters of Pollos Hermanos Fried Chicken across all five seasons of our favorite TV show) is waiting for a hopeful boy to try the locked doors and settle for peering in through the windows and snapping a picture. Then we head north again, this time hugging the foothills of the Sandia Crest on the Eastern border of the city, and climb up Montgomery Blvd into the mountains (among neighborhoods so fancy that the Walmart “Neighborhood Market” where we stop to buy dog food and use the bathroom looks more like a Whole Foods). At the end of a cul de saq, high above all the other houses, stores, schools and chaos, we find a million dollar home built on the edge of a cliff, so its wrap-around balconies and twelve foot picture windows are hidden from our view on the street. But we know what they look like from the many scenes filmed here, so a super creepy photo from the driveway of this private home is enough before we head back down and across town one last time. In Old Town we have made a dinner reservation at a restaurant built inside a 240 year old house. More to see and experience than seems attainable in our (unplanned) one Albuquerque day. We are held together by our hunger, exhaustion and the curves of the large alabaster booth where we get seated.
After a dinner of green chili cheese burgers, taquitos, tamales, enchiladas, and chile relleno (and no drinks… my basic requirement to make any restaurant experience gratifying. But ever since I lay my head down that first refrigerator infused night, alcohol has not so much as crossed my mind nor graced my lips), we step outside into darkening and cooling evening air.
Savoring the old architecture all around as we digest, we glimpse a shop on the cross street that is still open. Its glowing yellow lights illuminate dream catchers, woven tapestries and painted pots. We can’t resist entering. The shopkeeper captivates us with stories of every handmade item we touch. There are flutes that he makes himself and uses to record the numerous CDs on display, Navajo silver jewelry that his uncle brings in, embroidered bracelets that his grandmother makes, leather goods made by his brother and on and on. There’s a story of his grandfather who twice has been taken from their late night festivals in an ambulance having suffered a heart attack from dancing too much! We buy a flute, a CD, twin bracelets, a pair of earrings, a ring, a leather pouch and a few more postcards. Some of these are gifts we will bring home to cousins, aunts and girlfriends, but most of our purchases are for our own memories.
Getting lost on the way home brings us by a car wash, a horizon of neon signs and a line of tractor trailers confounded by a closed on-ramp. Finally we make it to the highway and leaving the city we catch our last nighttime glimpse of its lights spread out beneath the mountains beyond. Ahead is a perfectly straight road shooting on for miles into the desert. Michael takes our little sports car, and all of us squealing inside, out of the city peaking at 104mph.
The next morning we turn in the rental car and head west again, pushing our grand canyon plans to the following day so that we can arrive at our next destination before sunset. We hope to have time to cook, explore, and relax. We drive for a couple hours, feeling confident with our new tires and our excellent time as we cross into Arizona and past signs for the Petrified National Park just a little past noon. Our first pit stop is at a small village of buildings that calls itself “Indian City” where motorists like us browse and buy minerals, jewelry, incense, moccasins, tapestries, bags, t-shirts, jackets, figurines and every kind of Indian, New Mexico or Arizona souvenir you can dream of. I buy a hunk of my birthstone and head back outside to hang with the dogs in the heat, while the rest take in their fill of tchotchke and stretches their legs.
When we reach Flagstaff our route departs from the protracted interstate 40 and south a few miles on I-17. Then we exit the highway for good. Almost immediately the landscape changes. Texas is the land of the big sky, New Mexico on the edge of still being earthly. In Arizona (and beyond) we feel we have entered the land of giants. Towering evergreen trees surround us as we unexpectedly enter the Coconino National Forest. We haven’t seen a tree taller than our own heads in 4 days now. I had thought Arizona was all desert sand, cactus and brush grass. But all around us is lush green forest, familiar, and yet nothing like home. The only reason we are here at all is that a well traveled friend had told me, “Go to Sedona.” So only a couple months before our departure, I’d re-arranged our route and booked a little camp site in Rancho Sedona RV park (they made me wait till August 1st, just two and half weeks before our leaving date, while they updated their website! Unnerving!). Whenever interested people asked me about the upcoming trip, if I mentioned our stay in Sedona, their refrain was the same. “You will love Sedona.”
I’m just beginning to understand why.
We drive on for about fifteen minutes. I’m in the passenger seat, navigating as usual, and going between looking at my phone’s map, fielding a few “how much longer?” questions from the back, and taking in the scenery. Suddenly the little chubby blue line on my google maps does something I do not expect.
“What is it?” Michael asks.
“The road ahead.”
I can not count the number of times I have googled our route, but with hundreds of miles between each stop, I have never zoomed in this close. Where I’m from, roads just don’t do this. But I’ve seen this once before a few nights earlier, so now I know exactly why a road does such a thing…
We turn a corner and the mountain drops out from under us. Towering cliffs are above and below. Ancient trees escort us to the edge of the cliff and we make our first descent. At first the road curves deceptively simply, my hands are gripping the door handle and dash board. With every nerve and muscle I am clinging to the mountain around me. Up ahead, I can’t see where the road is headed. I look down at the map, clearly a bad idea, but I feel I have to know. We are turning now, and the safety of the mountain out my window slowly gives way to guardrail, a few scraggly trees holding on to the edge, and then nothing. When I look out the window I see a thousand feet of vertical forest. The cars on the other side of the road, the one’s climbing out of the canyon, have the mountain on their side. We have a cascading blanket made from the tops of trees. Some people, I hear later, take their sports cars, Range Rovers and Jeeps and drive this road on a leisurely Sunday afternoon. But we are in a fifteen year old monstrosity, 31 feet long and almost 12 feet high. On a normal road, a turn in this RV feels as vertigo inducing as a ride in a rickety elevator. On this road the turns are more like being on the scrambler ride at the county fair. I feel that if I dare to breathe we will lose our verticality. But scared as I am, I can’t close my eyes. The trees begin to unveil red mountain buttes that look like gigantic red fingers reaching out of the earth. As we climb deeper into the canyon, these sandstone monuments soon surround us. We are a beetle surfing a tidal wave.
I simply can’t believe they put a road here.
We turn again, this one is sharp. I imagine the shape of my daughter’s bobby pins that she uses to keep her hair in a bun for ballet class. The turn gives way to another cliff, but this time it’s on the driver’s side so there is a lane between me and the cliff. I take a breath. Two more of these harrowing turns at between 20 and 30 miles per hour, two more chances to breath, and finally the trees below get a little closer. There are signs counting the thousands of feet as we descend. 1000’ so far. The road still bends and winds and turns back on itself, but the drama has lessened slightly. We still have a few thousand feet and 8 miles more of road to reach Sedona. By this point I am calm enough to video what it’s like to drive this terrain, both so that I never forget it, and so that Michael has some proof of his bravery and mastery.
We are making our way down a crack in the earth formed by prehistoric tectonic movement, and millions of years of erosion. The oak creek, what gives this canyon its name, makes an appearance through the trees. I even glimpse a house of wood and windows nestled into the landscape here. As we cross a tiny bridge, I spy a naked woman bathing at the creek’s edge. The spirit that called her there makes a sound in my own heart as I pass by.
Campsites, retreat centers and resorts advertise their existence below with entrance signs at the end of long driveways. Most of these signs are accompanied by the word, “Full.” We aren’t the only ones who’ve discovered this American Pandora.
Michael laughs as we cross over the Oak Creek again on a bridge with uneven pavement. “What would you do if you were driving?” he asks me.
“We would die.” Is my grateful response.
Nestled back at home, I look back on that drive, and the same one the next day as we climb back out of the canyon, and many more like it in the days to come… and the flat tires… and our joy… and I can’t help but believe… that angels are real.
emails from the writer…
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