Monday, May 16, 2011

The Red Rocks of Sedona...Red of Road Trip Hell

This post explains my insane and constant yearning to explore Native American ruins, my ambiguous feelings about Sedona, and my fear of small town roundabouts.

These are the red rocks of Sedona, Arizona. Pretty, aren't they?

But we had no intention of viewing them on Labor Day. Nor did we intend to go 15 mph down the curvy US 89 A, passing the camera back and forth in an attempt to catch all their glory through the bug-bespattered glass of our car windows. It happened because of bad choices and worse luck.

On a dark and stormy, just kidding! It was a warm and cloudy desert morning, and we were leaving Albuquerque early (but not early enough as it so happens), blazing our way west on the I-40 and thumbing our city noses at the historic Route 66 near Gallup, and all its superior scenery.

I had high hopes for the trip home, because the destination was only home, and Matthew had promised we could stop off at the Homolovi Ruins just east of Winslow, Arizona. Nothing makes my heart pitter-patter like a good Native American puebloan ruin unless there just happens to be an archaeological dig happening at the time we visit.

The kids had high hopes that we would afterwards stop at a park in Flagstaff and run around in the clear mountain air like city folk do-gawking at every flower and hummingbird and kissing trees and small animals as we pass.

Our hopes were too high. This I now know. If we had anticipated nothing more than stinky gas station restrooms, plain sandwiches thrown at us in the car for lunch and stale chips scraped off the van floor and assigned likenesses to various presidential profiles, we would have had a fair day. I shake my head sadly at our impossibly high hopes.

Let me set the scene. There was a teething baby in the car - a sweet-natured baby but a teething one nonetheless. There was a young boy with an often and urgent need to go potty, and a little girl whose best dream was to play in a park on the way home. And there was a preschooler with candy from a birthday party.

I was at times smooshed between my baby and my son in the rear seat, and at other times risking my life and an embarrassing traffic ticket by stumbling over various obstacles and abandoning ladylike posture to climb into the front seat beside my husband. And when I was in that front seat, I turned into the road trip Nazi, shushing every little request for food or water or Scooby-Doo videos in an attempt to keep the baby asleep as long as possible. Meanwhile, Saint Matthew was driving the car.

Fate gave us an early handout at The Petrified Forest National Park before it spent the rest of the time laughing faintly but persistently in our ears.You see, we had to take that turnoff because a. the baby woke up so b. I agreed to finally allow the car to stop moving for a potty break.

Matthew filled up, and I took the kids to the restroom. Afterward, I snuck into the visitor's center with the kids when Matthew wasn't looking. At the Information Desk stood a thin dark-skinned man in a spiffy forest ranger uniform, a long black braid down his back.

"Where do we see some petrified wood?" I whispered, glancing over my shoulder.

The ranger examined me a moment and then decided to answer my idiotic question. His voice had an unusual lilting quality to it, as if he had lately been speaking an ancient Native American dialect.

"Well, we have some out there for viewing, but here's a map of the park," he said, pointing to the large picture on the wall five inches from my face. "There are several hiking trails."

"Oh, we couldn't possibly get out of the car," I said with a shifty glance around me.

"Are you headed to Flagstaff?" He asked. I nodded. "Then you just take the 180 instead. It's only 45 minutes longer."

"And can you see the Painted Desert from there?" I asked innocently.

Again I got that strange unfathomable look. "Yes," he answered slowly, "and the largest pieces of petrified wood are here," he added, pointing to a spot on the map near some public restrooms.

"That's five feet from where we are!" I said excitedly.

"No, we're here," he answered, moving his finger a good several inches. "That's on the other side of the park."

Oh, my husband won't drive that far off the freeway," I told him. "It's a chronic road trip problem."

I studied the map wistfully, and then I saw a marker that made my heart skip - Puerco Pueblo!

"Is this a Native American ruin?" I asked. "I love ruins!"

"Yes," he answered, glancing anxiously toward other tourists poised with equally stupid questions. Then he pulled out a pamphlet from beneath the Information Desk. "There's a map there," he said, pointing to the back of it and then deserting me.

I hustled the kids out into the bright sunshine and beat it out to where large logs of petrified wood lay in a courtyard, glistening in the sun with their jewel-toned ribbons of color. The kids started pounding them. Then I saw Matthew approaching.

"I forgot the camera," I told him. "You want me to go get it?"

"No, it's time to go."

"Ahwww," said me and the kids.

"Honey, there's a Native American ruin here!" I said as we walked. "Let's go see it."

"Is that your stop?" he asked bluntly.

We piled into the car, and Matthew backed out of the parking space.

"Why can't we see both?" I tried desperately. "Two Native American ruins! And the Painted Desert!"

"No," said Matthew. "It's this or Homolovi, but not both. So which is it? Better be quick."

It was too much pressure. I had contemplated Homolovi since the evening before. The site was a complete unknown to me; I couldn't remember reading anything about it. The mystery of it drew me like a magnet. Yet, here we were in the Petrified Forest near the Painted Desert-our first time ever in all the trips made to Albuquerque that we had actually stopped on this spot to use the National Parks Services bathrooms. What should I do?

It didn't matter; it was too late. Matthew had turned left away from the entrance to the park.

"Is that where you pay?" I asked, looking to the right where cars were lined up.

"Yep," Matthew answered. We were pulling out onto I-40.

I felt instant remorse that I didn't take the opportunity to see petrified wood in a colorful desert and a ruin to boot. But I still had Homolovi. It might be great, or it might be...well, a handful of stones scattered around. I spent the next hour imagining what I might find there...until we finally saw the sign.


"It's closed."

I looked up.What looked like a giant rectangle of red tape cut diagonally across the brown park services sign that read Homolovi Ruins, and it said in capital letters: CLOSED.

Fate smacked me in the face and laughed hysterically in my ear. Why do you think the baby woke up and everyone needed to use the restroom at the Petrified Forest? it mocked. You had your chance, silly girl.

I had no response to that, so I threw a tantrum.

"No, nooo! Why...why?" I moaned, pulling my hair with intermittent pauses to shake my fist in the air. Then I threw the Petrified Forest pamphlet on the ground and turned on Matthew.

"Why did you make me choose?" I wailed. "If you had just said it was okay to see them both, then it wouldn't have mattered!"

"I gave you a choice, and you made your decision," he replied.

"I know I made my decision, but I had it in my head we were going to see Homolovi. And now it's closed, and we won't see anything at all. And it's so hard to get you to stop; you never want to go anywhere!"

"I did agree to stop," said Matthew, finally irritated. "I told you we could go to Homolovi, and you had your choice between that and The Petrified Forest."

I railed some more, but it doesn't matter. It didn't help repair my dashed hopes that lay all over I-40.

The baby fell asleep. I climbed into the front seat, my bottom and feet in the air for a few minutes before I could right myself. Then I pulled out the map again to look for something, anything left to me, and while I looked at Homolovi marked by the highway, I had a flashback to another trip home from Albuquerque. I had pleaded, half-jokingly, for Matthew to stop at this ruin just off the highway, and when we had approached it, he had said in mock sadness, "Ahh, it's closed. Look at that."

"It's been closed for a while," I said, dazed. "I just forgot. We should have seen Petrified Forest-we were already there."

The only thing left was Wupatki Ruins just north of Flagstaff. But we would have to drive 40+ miles up to it and backtrack again. Even I couldn't ask Matthew to do that. Besides, even though I had seen pictures of those beautiful ruins, you have to hike to get the best view of them, and you can't even enter some of them unless you pay for a guided tour.

While I was contemplating this, the sign for the Meteor Crater popped up.

"You want to go there?" asked Matthew. "If you want to go, I'll take you. Really this time."

Yes, because there was another time when we had pulled off on that gravel road to find some restrooms and eat lunch, and since we were already there, Matthew had agreed to see how far it was to the Meteor Crater. After driving fifty feet, however, he had turned the car around. "It's too far. We better get back on the road," he'd said.

But it was poor consolation. I watched the exit get closer and closer. Matthew would have to change lanes. I couldn't decide; it wasn't what I had wanted...

"Well?" said Matthew. "Tell me now. It's right there."

"Uhhhh...."I responded.

And then a semi sped up between us and the necessary lane change, and we passed the exit.

"I couldn't decide," I said mournfully, looking back.

"Are we at the meteor?" Berto, our son, piped in at this point.

"No!" I snapped. "If we were at the meteor, there'd be a big hole in the ground, and I'd say, 'Look, kids, there's a big hole in the ground.' Do you see a big hole in the ground?"

Berto looked around just to be safe, and Matthew gave me a reproving look.

I was obviously on the doorstep of road trip hell.

And Ella was asleep. This upset me more, because she had asked for lunch before the Closed Homolovi Ruins exit, and I had told her to wait-we'd be eating when we stopped. Now she was asleep with only Tostitos and candy in her belly. I threw everyone else their sandwich.

"Here," I said. "We're not stopping."


And we weren't, because the friends we were supposed to meet at a park in Flagstaff never called us back. No running barefoot through the grass, doing cartwheels in the sun and kissing squirrels and butterflies as they flitted past.

"Look, you want to stop at Montezuma's Well?" said my generous husband. "That's still on the way."

"We'd have to go down through Sedona," I said, not sure if we should push our luck.

"I'm pretty sure there's an exit off the 17," said Matthew.

"But you have to go back north," I replied. "It's easier just to wind down through Sedona and take the exit off the 89."

Never mind that I had no clue what exit that was and whether it was near Cottonwood or Clarkdale. The map in my hands didn't list Native American sights, stupid thing.

"I've got to stop somewhere for gas," said Matthew. "Am I stopping in Flagstaff?"

We were almost there, and the baby was still asleep. I hesitated. For no reason did I want to wake my sweet baby who spent his alert moments crying and reaching out his arms pitifully to me from his car seat. Still, should we really go down through Sedona? Dare we tempt the road trip gods again? I only vaguely remembered the trip we'd taken to see Montezuma's Castle and Tuzigoot for my birthday a few years before. The Well was somewhere around there. It was the one thing we'd missed that day.

"Listen, I promise I'll take you to The Petrified Forest next trip to Albuquerque."

"Really?" I said, my voice lifting in renewed hope. "Thank you."

"Okay, so is that good then? Or do you still want to see Montezuma's Well?"

"I still want to see the Well," I blurted. "Daniel's asleep, and it's easier than taking a separate trip, isn't it? Then we could stop in Sedona for gas instead."

I could almost see Matthew steeling himself, and I felt a twinge of anxiety; I had made the call that would make or break the trip.

Five minutes later we navigated a major intersection with 89 A that had no stop lights, only two stop signs but plenty of impatient cars. The scenery once we hit that road was beautiful, all lush trees and some other greenery that resembled what we city folk term "weeds", but pretty, very pretty in a country setting. We soon came on the famous Red Rocks of Sedona. We had plenty of time to view them, too, because the speed limit quickly dropped to 30 mpr. Then the lines disappeared in the middle of the road, and we traveled downhill smack up against those red rocks that created sharp turns. The speed limit dropped to 15 mpr, and holiday traffic became heavy.

At first I uneasily commented on the lovely scenery, unnerved by Matthew's marked silence and the knowledge of my own bad decision. But as we began getting views of gorgeous Oak Creek and all the luxury cabins and resorts nestled on its banks, my muttered expressions of false enthusiasm were interrupted by the van.

"Ku-thunk..ku-thunk," it said.

Matthew gritted his teeth.

"What's going on?" I asked nervously as we navigated the cars lined up on either side of the road.

"It doesn't like down-shifting right now," said Matthew, braking as someone pulled off (ku-thunk, said the van). "It's been doing that for a while."

Matthew braked down the steep grade often and every time the van protested - "ku-thunk!". We were moving with all the grace and speed of a slug. Meanwhile, wealthy people waved merrily at us from the spacious decks of their luxury cabins overlooking Oak Creek.
"My boss has a time share here," commented Matthew.

"I think I see him," I replied.

"Can we stop and play?" asked Ana.

"We'll see, we'll see," I responded with misgivings in my heart.

"Papa, I need to go potty," said Berto.

There was nary a gas station in sight. We traveled a few more miles, sure we would spot one. We couldn't just park along the road; you had to have an official Red Rock pass to do that. Finally, we stopped at a coffee shop. There seemed to be plenty of those around as if espresso were the bizarre mutant offspring of Oak Creek and its luxury accommodations, and the people of Sedona were doing their darndest to find all those little coffee blends good homes.

The van still needed gas, and I was waiting for my own turn to use the little girl's room. Even when we started off again and approached Main Street Sedona, we didn't see one. That major thoroughfare supported only two kinds of businesses: the coffee shop and the art house.

"How can they support this many coffee shops?" I wondered aloud.

"It's all these roundabouts," Matthew growled as we navigated another one. "They think they can trap you."

He was right. Stop lights are apparently passe in Sedona. Every fifty feet there was another roundabout to slow us down, make us dizzy and allow pedestrians to jog past us gleefully, sloshing their premium coffees and waving their latest abstract paintings at confused drivers. Matthew finally found a gas station; he just had to ride a roundabout the whole way 'round before he could get to it. Then he had to backup to the pump.

"Everybody out," he ordered. "And you," he pointed at me. "Use the restroom."

I'm not usually one to disobey orders, but I wanted to get one clear shot of the famous Red Rocks. While I was snapping the camera with Daniel in my arms, Matthew shoved the kids back into the van and parked in front of the gas station. I quickly turned to enter when a sign posted on the door halted my progress.

I looked at Matthew and pointed: Restroom Out of Order.

Road Trip Gone to Hell.

I hopped back in the car and said to Matthew, "Just get back on the 17. Forget the Well."

"Dang right," he responded, or something in that line, anyway.

Ana sat up. "Aren't we stopping at a park?" she asked for the twentieth time that hour.


"Well, can we go to one when we get home?" she whinnied like a little heartbroken mare.

"No," said Matthew sharply. "We just need to get home and relax."

"We can go to a crummy city park any old day, Ana. I wanted to see a Native American ruin," I whined.

"You mean we're not going to a park at all?" Her voice had reached the crescendo before the tears. She began to weep bitterly.

"Seriously?" demanded Matthew, jerking around in his seat. "You're going to cry about this?"

"Honey, they thought we were going to a park before we even left Albuquerque," I reminded him. "I'd be crying too."

To make everyone feel better, I proceeded to narrate everything that had gone wrong on the trip thus far. After saying "stinks" and "Native American ruin" and "park" twenty times apiece, I summed up with, "And it's just been a stinky, stinky trip!"

"Finished?" said Matthew.

I was. And soon we were on the 17 toward home going 35 mph, because, of course, every city family was heading home at exactly the same time on Labor Day like some mindless mechanical cattle. I wanted to say, "Stupid city people!", but I could not. To thy own kind be true, they say.

Not long afterwards we passed the brown sign for Montezuma's Well, but none of us had the heart to try and salvage the trip.


  1. Um, I'm going to echo my last comment from your 5/15 post. I feel your pain. But what rewards here! Look at that photo. I've never been out to AZ, and this post wants me to go more. It also makes me realize I'd better plan that trip well! ;)

    1. Plan that trip well, Jayne! But come see me on your way :-).


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