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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

I Went From Phoenix Arizona All The Way To Tacoma

Spent an extended holiday weekend with my cousins in Phoenix. We get together every few years for a bit of catch-up time, usually either down there or in Portland for family gatherings, but generally, I go down when the weather up here is a little cooler. Just my luck, after months of unseasonable cold, and seasonable wet, I pick the first really decent stretch of good local weather to go away for four days.

No matter. Things always turn into a bit of an adventure when we get together. This time around we'd planned to do some hiking up in Sedona, and after looking at the weather reports decided Saturday would be the better in terms of not being super-hot, even though there was "a chance of rain and thunder showers".

You can see where this is going already, can't you?

We set off around mid-day Saturday, borrowing Dave's (my cousin Kim's boyfriend) brand-new Chevy Tahoe (at his insistence), since we were heading for a hiking trail on what appeared to be a rather rough unpaved road just west of town. He also suggested a "really cool scenic route into Sedona with spectacular views!" and provided us with some easy-to-follow directions to find the road. I ended up driving, which was fine by me. I love driving, particularly roads I've never been on before, so I was totally up for the adventure.

Things started off pretty smoothly. Except for a bit of congestion just outside of Phoenix heading north on I-17, we managed the trip up in about two hours (AZ has a 75 mph speed limit, which helped), and the exit to the suggested road was clearly marked. Once we went off the pavement, however, Kim, sitting in the back seat grumbled, "this looks just like the sort of "road" Dave WOULD suggest", but it also looked reasonably well traveled, flat, and wide enough for adequate passing of oncoming vehicles, and in fact we saw several camp-sites with largish RV's parked, so I figured, if they could get in here it couldn't be that bad. And for about two-thirds of the 12 mile detour, that turned out the be the case.

The last four, on the other hand...

We came around a bend, and found ourselves on the top of a ridge with a quite spectacular view of the large mesas just to the north of Sedona. However, once we began heading down into the arroyo, things started to get a little hairy. The road narrowed considerably to a one-lane, heavily rutted and wash-boarded track with sheer drop-offs of easily 1,000 feet. After a couple minutes of this, we came to a lookout point, and Kim's quaivering voice came from the back seat, "do you want to stop and take a picture?"

I looked back to see she'd shifted from the right-hand to the left-hand side, as far away from the precipice as she could get, her eyes were both the size of silver dollars, and she'd actually turned a bit pale.

Now, I'm no rocket scientist, but I can tell when someone is scared out of their wits. Clearly discretion would be the better part of valor in this case.

"Naw, that's okay," I replied. "Besides, it's getting late, and we want to finish the hike before it gets dark, so why don't we just keep going?" There was an obvious look of relief on her face.

Meanwhile, my other cousin, Kristie is in the front passenger seat laughing like a loon at her sister's obvious discomfort; she's actually enjoying our predicament.

"Ooh, look at that one Chris, isn't it beautiful?" she says, pointing out a particularly interesting bit of scenery.

While from the back seat comes, "don't you DARE take your eyes off the road!"

So, I dropped the Tahoe into "low 4" and crept slowly down the oversized goat trail, honking the horn at each blind hairpin curve to warn anyone coming up the hill of our approach; which turned out to be a smart move, as apparently almost nobody takes this route INTO Sedona, but lots of trucks, tour jeeps, dune buggies, motocross cyclists, and a few genuine crazies in small passenger sedans do make the trek up FROM town, and we met at least a dozen of them coming up from the opposite direction, which forced me to edge uncomfortably close to the steep drop off in order to leave passing clearance.

By the time we made it down to the flats, I had one cousin bouncing up-and-down like an excited retriever puppy, and another quivering anxiously like a nervous chihuahua. I was just happy to be able to release my hands from the death-grip I'd had on the steering wheel for most of the previous half-hour.

So, Sedona. Not really much to look at so far as the town is concerned: pretty touristy, albeit in a very muted, earth-toned, new-agey kind of way; even the local McDonald's has begrudgingly caved in to the town's strict building regs by sporting teal arches instead of their standard mustard yellow (and of course, figured out a way to turn even that concession into a marketing gimmick: there's actually a big sign on your way into Sedona touting the fact that this particular location is "the only McDonald's IN THE WORLD with teal green arches!"). We drove through the central business district and headed west to the park entrance, paid our $5 parking fee and dropped the Tahoe back into 4WD for the kidney-pounding four mile drive to the trail head. At least this time we were on the flats, with only a couple of dry-fords to cross and some extremely bumpy spots to negotiate.

We finally got to the parking lot for the trail head, and literally at the moment we parked and got out - it started raining. Within 30 seconds the rain had increased to a full-on downpour, with the three of us huddled under the rear hatch door debating our options. At this point there really weren't any: the rain didn't show any sign of letting up, and it was already late enough that twilight was starting to creep up on us, even despite the hovering gray clouds. So, we quite sensibly decided to call off the hike, got back into the Tahoe and headed back into town.

And suddenly, it was like something out of a movie: the rain was literally coming down in sheets, like being poured from a gigantic bucket; at times it was so dense that the wipers, even at maximum speed, couldn't squeegee it off the winsdhield fast enough to be able to see through. Lightning was flashing all around, so close I could barely get to "two-mississippi" before it deafened us. Pea-sized granules of hail began pounding the roof and hood. The red desert clay of the road was splashing up to the doors every time we hit a puddle. The dry-washes had already become raging torrents, and we had to ford creeks that only a few minutes before were nothing but rocky indentations across the road. The outside temperature gauge on the rear-view mirror plummeted from 74 degrees down to 51 in literally a matter of minutes. I am NOT making this up, and NOT exaggerating either. I'd thought the earlier drive down into Sedona had been a bit of a nail-biter, but this excelled even that, and was literally one of the worst half-hours of driving through inclement weather I've ever experienced.

We finally made it back to the road. The hail had stopped, and the rain had let up somewhat. Strangely, the tourist jeeps were still coming into the park, passengers huddled under the open sun-roofed backs, cheap disposable plastic rain parkas clinging to their wet skin and clothing; they looked like they've just been picked up at the dry cleaners.

By this time, we'd pretty much called it a day, but decided to have dinner before heading back to Phoenix (we had - briefly - considered staying the night and trying the hike again the next day, but the weather report wasn't looking any better for Sunday, so that idea was scrapped rather quickly). I'd done a little research beforehand, and found a place that looked promising: Elote Cafe, just south of the center of Sedona, tucked away behind the registration desk of a rather nondescript local hotel. Online commenters gave the place rave reviews, so it seemed like the only opportunity we'd have to salvage something out of our day's misadventure.

We were not disappointed. The Carne Asada turned out to be the best skirt steak I've ever had: melt-in-your-mouth tender (which, with that cut is no easy feat), and with a generous dollop of blue cheese melted onto the top for good measure. Definitely worth a visit if you're ever in that area, although get there early. We walked in the door right when they opened at 5:00 p.m. and the place (not big to begin with) filled to capacity within 15 minutes.

And of course, it continued to rain in torrents with lightening flashes illuminating the growing darkness outside, throwing the mesas to the west into sharp relief. When we left about an hour later, it was still coming down so hard that we were completely soaked by the time we crossed the 50 feet from the restaurant entrance to the car. The cousins had to crank up the heat in order to get warm - such a rare occurrence we actually had to hunt around for a few seconds to find the right set of switches on the dashboard to turn off the A/C and turn on the heaters.

The drive back was equally uneventful; the rain stopped almost exactly at the moment we turned back onto the main highway, and by the time we hit the outskirts of Phoenix about an hour and a-half later, the temps had gradually climbed back up the the mid-80's with clear skies all around. When we pulled into the driveway and got out, I noticed, somewhat to my dismay, that the intervening rain had washed away every trace of evidence of the rollicking four-wheeling we'd done earlier in the day. I didn't even have any pictures to show for our trouble.

Needless to say, Dave had a good laugh over it when we told him the story, although knowing Kim I have a feeling he didn't exactly get the last word in on the subject.

But still, an adventure is an adventure; you take them where you find them.

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Posted byCOMTE on 10:21 AM

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