When The Desert Calls
I’m not really sure where my fascination with the desert began. When I was a young teenager in the ’80s, I recall listening in the dark of night to the eccentric radio host Art Bell as he transmitted on AM radio from what he called “Dreamland”, which was actually a small studio in the middle of the Nevada desert. Eerie space-age music would start to play as his producer’s deep, baritone voice would begin the show – “Broadcasting live from the high desert, this is Coast to Coast with Art Bell. Call in and talk to Art. West of the Rockies 800-882-3455, East of the Rockies 800-882-3456. And now <dramatic pause> Art Bell!” I remember thinking it had to be a matter of great importance why they needed to know which side of the Rockies we were on when we called. My more cynical adult self now thinks it was much less conspiratorial. Probably just filtering out all the snooty Californians and such.
Whatever it’s genesis, my love for the desert has persisted. So when Nicole said maybe this year we should go back to Scottsdale, I didn’t hesitate. I booked us as always at the Westin Kierland, which is right in the middle of incredible shopping and restaurants. Any trip to Scottsdale for me is also going to mean a trek to spiritual Sedona. The towering red rock formations are not to miss for any diehard desert wanderluster. We reserved a VRBO for the weekend in Sedona.
We arrived at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport with no hiccups. We threw our luggage in the rented Camaro (if “Bitchin’ Camaro” crossed your mind just now then you are cool and you have good taste in music) and zoomed off for the resort. We always choose October for going to Arizona (and Palm Springs) because the weather is perfect. The heat of the Summer has passed and 80s in the days and 60s at night are the norm. Top down weather fo sho.
We spent some time by the pool relaxing before going to dinner in old town Scottsdale at the excellent Virtu. This place had been on my list to try for awhile. Gio Osso, Italian born and bred, started Virtu in 2013 and it has received wide acclaim. The server recommended we start with the Polpo, slowly braised octopus that is flash grilled before going to the table. It was excellent. We then had a pasta dish before proceeding to the main entrée. Osso has set up his menu Italian style (starter/pasta/main) but the food is definitely a mixture of Italian and Southwest American. I decided on the branzino for the main course and it was amazing. We ended this excellent meal with gelato from a local Italian bakery. We couldn’t have had a better finish to our arrival day.
The Pool and The Beast
The next day was pool day. We were advised at check-in that guests are not to take their own spirits down to the pool. Oh those silly rabbits. We stocked our small cooler bag with vodka, in an Aquafina bottle with the label torn off, grabbed our Yetis and headed out, magazines in tow. We grabbed two lounge chairs near the pool and poured ourselves some “water”. Add in some warm sun and this beats anything Calgon could serve up. Vodka, take me away.
After a bit, my reading was interrupted by a sound. I had heard it before. It didn’t take long to figure it out. It was the unmistakable sound of I-talk-loud-by-the-pool-guy. Now there are varying species of this beast. This one was unfortunately the I-am-also-smarter-than-everyone subvariety. I could only hope he would fall asleep, or a meteor would hit him in the face. “Oh desert Gods, I have been faithful for so many years…please grant me this one wish…a meteor, now, in the face of this beast.” Alas, no celestial intervention on this day. Time for Plan B. I reached for the Aquafina bottle and moved to the pool.
We got into the pool and the water was perfect. I continued to read about the Arizona wine country and how Arizona wines are starting to gain notoriety in the industry. Mistakenly, I had always thought Arizona much too hot and dry for making good wines. However, winemakers had found areas throughout the state that were the perfect elevation and had the perfect terrior for growing grapes. And wineries had cropped up throughout the state, even in extreme southeastern Arizona. Who would have thunk it? We had our eye on some wine tasting rooms just west of Sedona and I was now even more eager to get to that part of our journey.
“No, this is my THIRD tech consulting company. Timing was horrible for the first two!” My spine began to quiver. The beast had entered the pool. Time to go. As we left I heard him trying to figure out the name of the backup quarterback that came into the game for Texas after Colt McCoy got injured years ago in the national championship game. “Whoever that guy is, he’s the backup in Cleveland now, the Browns.” His hapless listening victim says “I thought so and so was their backup?” Beast says “well, ya, he is…but this guy is there too.” I couldn’t help but feel like I was leaving a sinking ship.
Hush Public House and Joe Arpaio
That night we would dine at Hush Public House in northern Scottsdale near the Kierland area. The decor is contemporary but this definitely has a locals/pub type feel to it. The bar runs the length of the dining area and there are TVs at each end, with the required sports programming in full view. We had the good fortune to dine next to locals Mike and Debra. Mike grew up in Scottsdale and is nearing retirement as a school teacher. Debra is a lifelong journalist for a newspaper in a nearby suburb. When asked about their city they are eager to cough up info. I ask Mike what is the difference between the Phoenix/Scottsdale area of his youth and now. “When I was growing up this area was 400,000 people. Now it’s over 4 and a half million”, he says (laments?). “Why?”, I ask. In unison they both say the weather. I tell them that I am familiar with the weather here and that in the Summer it is very similar to what the surface of the planet Mercury must feel like. They explain that the interlopers are undaunted by it and instead are drawn to the desert climes that permeate the area during the other 9 months of the year. “So they just endure the Summer to hold out for the rest of the year?” I ask. “That’s it” they respond.
“So what is the big industry here?” I ask. They both agree that it is tourism. Manufacturing and mining have always been biggies, but the major change they have noted has been the exponential growth of tourism through the decades. It has brought billions of dollars to the state and there’s no sign of it slowing down. This, combined with the ever-increasing population of the area, means the future looks bright for Arizona. And you will most definitely want to wear shades.
As dinner winds down, I ask Debra about the fate of the infamous Joe Arpaio, former sheriff of Maricopa County who was so controversial for so many reasons. Known for being hard on immigration, he may have actually gained more notoriety for the “tent cities” he created – tents in the desert that housed inmates and clothed them in pink undies. After losing a re-election bid in 2016, Arpaio was convicted of criminal contempt but then was swiftly pardoned by President Trump the next year in 2017. “Can’t believe you just asked me that…I just spoke with him on the phone this morning”, she says. “He’s running for sheriff again.” At the age of 89. Not even a gnarled piece of driftwood in the desert has that kind of staying power. Apparently what the desert takes it sometimes gives back to live again. THAT will be an election campaign that yours truly will be keeping tabs on.
The next morning we packed a small bag and headed for Sedona. The drive is just under two hours north, through raw desert the entire way. Saguaro cacti are everywhere, many looking like they have arms beckoning you along. We rise gradually in elevation until we arrive in Sedona at just over 4,000 feet. The arrival is not like it used to be. Sedona is no longer a hidden gem. As we get within a few miles, the traffic starts to get worse. About a mile out it is one lane and slow and go.
We go to lunch at the go-to Sedona restaurant Mariposa. Perched on a rising mesa, there are 360 degree views of red rock formations. Stunning. If you have not had the Yucca fries there, you must have them before you leave the planet.
We finish lunch and head to our VRBO, a small bungalow with a patio nestled in the pines. It’s perfect. It also has an outdoor grill. My heart is full. We decide to get some wine and groceries and stay in for the night. I pour some wine and fire up the grill. Shish-k-bob for Nicole and skirt steak for moi. Add in some twice baked potatoes and creamed spinach and we have a feast. We dine outside as the light starts to fade and give way to night. One by one the stars awaken.
Later, long after the wine was gone, but the vodka was not, I gazed at the midnight sky as I have since I was a kid. That boy with the telescope so long ago would be in awe of the sight on this night. The desert heavens, arid and free from city lights, were on full display. It seemed as if the sky was trying to cram as many stars as it could into the black backdrop. The Milky Way stretched across the sky, enveloping Cygnus completely with it’s dusty haze. Right before I turned in for the night (or is it early morning?), a shooting star streaked directly above. A wish is made. As I often do when traveling, I wonder how many before me had been in that spot and looked at that same sky. American pioneers? Anasazi? Those even further back in time that remain unknown and unnamed?
The next day is hiking day. We arise, collect our water and sandwiches, and head for the popular Cathedral Rock hike. If we doubted it’s popularity, we didn’t once we arrived. Parking, of course, was a problem. The lots are small and they were full. Cars lined the neighborhood street that leads to the trail head. We parked about a half mile from the trail head and set out.
Cathedral Rock is an iconic formation and dominates the landscape around it. You can get excellent views of the surrounding areas after you climb it. Make no mistake, it is a hike. There are some areas where you will be going nearly vertical. You won’t need hiking gear or anything like that, but if you are not willing to climb then you may want to choose another trail.
We then head to Fay Canyon trail, a mile in/out hike along a dry creek bed. A nice surprise is that we pretty much have it to ourselves when we get there. The canyon walls tower above you on both sides as you wind your way deeper into the area. You really get up close to the formations and can see the different textures that had been carved into them over the eons.
At the terminus of the trail we sit down and have lunch on a huge rock that had been jettisoned there some time in the past. The water from our backpack is welcome, as is the chardonnay that Nicole had secreted along. Love her. As we trek back out after lunch the sun is starting to descend below the rim of the canyon, giving us great opportunities for pics along the way. I highly recommend Fay Canyon if you go to Sedona. It’s very isolated, not a difficult hike, and you get up close and personal with the incredible red rock formations that dominate the Sedona area. You can find it on any of the numerous Sedona trail maps found throughout the town.
Sunsets in Sedona are a thing. The small Sedona airport sits atop a plateau in town and there is an observation area nearby. It will cost you $3 to park there but it is worth it. You get excellent views of the sun going down and the changes in color on the rock formations and clouds. Definitely a must-do when you go to Sedona.
Cottonwood…The New Sedona?
The next day we head for Cottonwood, a small town about 15 miles from Sedona and somewhat on the way back to Scottsdale. As I was referring to earlier, the Arizona wine scene is pretty darn good and Cottonwood is known to have a handful of excellent tasting rooms. We started at the Merkin Vineyards Osteria and Tasting Room. Merkin and it’s sister venture Cadusceus Vineyards are owned by the lead singer of the band Tool, Maynard Keenan. Merkin’s tasting room in downtown Cottonwood is also known for it’s handmade fresh pasta dishes so this was a perfect starting point for us. I ordered the mixed flight (a mix of reds and whites) and Nicole had the white wine flight. The wines were good and the pasta was even better. The cacio e pepe with prosciutto was outstanding and I would have ordered more if I had wanted a pasta-induced coma.
From Merkin we walked down the main drag a bit to Arizona Stronghold. This will be our starting point next time. The pours were healthy and the wines were excellent. Combine this with outdoor private patio seating in the back and excellent service and AZS is hard to beat. These guys know what they’re doing.
We pretty much fell in love with Cottonwood and as we head back home we agree this will likely be our desert base next time out. Cottonwood is the Sedona of 25 years ago. Discovered but not overrun. At only 15 miles away, you can still go hiking in Sedona and then at the end of the day leave all the Griswold Family Trucksters there and return to Cottonwood. We think John Candy would approve of the plan.