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Roaming in Arizona

Unforgiving, relentless, scorching light. In Arizona the sun pentrates, burns and shrivels all but the toughest plants. Its brightness is piercing and its intensity withering. In a dry desert setting, surrounded by mountains, sits Phoenix, the capital city of Arizona. Here the sun brings simmering heat and the darkened rooms offer more than just shade and air conditioning.

As I sit in the plane, 26,000 feet above the earth, my partner sleeps with his mouth open in the seat beside me. I roll my new ring around on my finger and think of placing the ring in his open mouth, or perhaps a few drops from the tiny bottle of Tabasco sauce that came with this morning’s breakfast at the Arizona Biltmore. But he looks so peaceful. I recline the seat back and think about the past few days.

Four days ago we landed in Phoenix, dressed in pants and sweaters far too hot for the warm day. We changed into shorts and packed up our sweaters. Renting a jeep, we headed north to Flagstaff. The highway from Phoenix rises out of the desert and climbs steadily up to the Mogollan Plateau. Small towns along the highway are filled with flat, square, pueblo-type homes. Built of sun-dried brick and mortar, they are made to protect the inhabitants from the simmering heat. Southwest walls are bare and empty of windows; anything to keep out the penetrating sun. Blinds and thick heavy curtains are drawn over every window to stop even the smallest amount of light from entering a room.

Our first stop is Walnut Canyon, three hours north of Phoenix. The canyon is the site of 87 cave-like cliff dwellings built into the walls of a 400-foot deep limestone gorge. As we climbed in elevation, we began to notice small patches of snow in the gullies. By the time we reached Walnut Canyon, snow was falling heavily. We unpacked our sweaters and scurried into the visitors centre to take a look at the trail maps. The centre sits on the edge of the canyon. A large glass window takes up most of one wall, but the snow flurries created a sheet of whiteness that cut off the view completely.

As we watched the snow swirling below us, my partner reached for my hand. I looked up from the window to meet his eyes. He stroked my cheek and a serious expression came over his face. His eyes were warm. “Sarah.” He paused and looked down at my hands. “Will you…” The park ranger leaned over a railing just above us and announced, “The visitors centre is closing now. We hope you’ll come back tomorrow.”

We hurried through the snow back to our jeep and drove into Flagstaff on Route 66. Our reservations that night were at The Inn at 410 in Flagstaff. Owned and operated by Howard and Sally Krueger, the Inn sits on a hill just off the main street of the town. Built in 1894, the old house was converted to a bed and breakfast in 1991. We were greeted by an open door and a smiling young man who rushed to take our bags. He showed us to the “Southwest room,” located in the original section of the old house. Fully renovated, the room has a private bath, gas fireplace and over-sized Jacuzzi tub. The snow was still falling and the day had been long.

Curious about my partner’s question at Walnut Canyon, I was determined to salvage the romantic mood disrupted earlier in the day. I filled the Jacuzzi and poured two glasses of wine. We got into the large tub and my partner reached over me to turn on the jets. But nothing happened. He pushed the button, I pushed the button. Nothing. Frustrated, he got out of the tub and wrapped himself in a large terrycloth bathrobe provided by the Inn. He went searching for another switch, a button, anything to get the jets working, but found nothing. He called the front desk for help and before I could finish my wine, jump from the tub and climb into the other robe, our innkeeper was knocking at our door. We didn’t have time to turn the lights on. Firelight flickered and danced on the walls. Soft music played in the background. I tightened my robe and went to meet Howard, the innkeeper. He was kind and a little more embarrassed than we were. He couldn’t get the tub to work and apologised profusely.

The next morning we woke to the smell of hot rolls cooking in the oven. Thirsty and hungry, we dressed and hurried to the dining room, where they served fresh fruit with coffee and orange juice, followed by baked oatmeal with cranberries, cream and the fresh home-made rolls we could smell from our room. When Howard learned we were heading to the Grand Canyon, he fetched his maps and showed us the route he and his wife, Sally, travelled. The dining room was elegant and combined with Howard’s friendly personality our morning was relaxed and enjoyable.

Following Howard’s instructions we drove northeast. The change of vegetation is stunning. From barren desert with dust bowls, rolling tumbleweed and cacti, to pine forest and dry mountain settings with vegetation clinging to life amid rock and rubble. We followed the highway north as it wound its way through the San Francisco Mountains. Once past the mountains, we crossed the Coconino Plateau. At the rim of the plateau, the land drops off and slopes down to meet the Painted Desert below. The desert is surrounded by eroded sedimentary hills. Colours of every shade paint the hills and sweep down into the desert, where rain and snow have washed different colours of sediment out over the flat plain.

Turning west, the highway meanders along a ledge between the rim of the Plateau to the desert below. We discovered an abandoned dirt road leading from the highway towards the desert. Weeds, cacti and brush camouflaged the road. Parking the jeep, we hiked down towards the desert. Dirt and prickly pear filled our shoes. Huge gullies dropped away from the trail. It came to a sudden end as if the land had been swept away. A deep, dry, gulch separated us from the road as it continued its way down the hillside. The sun was hot and the air still. Shade was hard to find. We listened for sounds of life, a bird, a rustle, the murmur of a bug. Nothing. I threw a rock and its sound disappeared into the vast empty desert below us. My partner stood beside me. His camera shutter clicked. Again the sound disappeared into the silence. Beautiful in a stark and eerie way.

The highway rose up onto the Plateau and wound its way along the edge of the Grand Canyon. We stopped at many of the lookouts to peer down on the Colorado river far below. Reaching the Grand Canyon village by late afternoon, we were too late to hike down the canyon or dine at the hotel for lunch. We snapped some photos, enjoyed a cold beer and left; both of us try to avoid tourist-filled areas.

Heading south to Sedona, we found the perfect setting for a car chase. The highway (89A) zigzags down the side of a huge canyon. There are switchbacks every few hundred yards. A tiny creek winds through a valley filled with cottonwood, willow and oak trees. Sedona sits at the end of the canyon where it opens out to the desert beyond. Our reservations for the night were at Canyon Villa Inn, located just south of Sedona.

We arrived just as the sun was setting and our innkeeper, Les Belch, gave us a brief tour, taking us poolside for a glimpse of a Sedona sunset. Les pointed to the east and told us that in Sedona the greatest views aren’t found looking towards the sun but away from it. He pointed to Bell Rock, a huge spire rising out of the dusty desert setting. The red rocks glowed as the setting sun touched their peaks. Night approached quickly and Les showed us to the “Spanish Bayonet” room — the most romantic room at the Inn. Our balcony faced Bell Rock with the Courthouse Butte (pronounced beaut as in beauty) across from it. With king-sized bed, gas burning fireplace, and a Jacuzzi tub I hoped for the best. We were invited for hors-d’ouevres and cocktails in the dining room and he left us to unpack and get comfortable. That evening we drove into Sedona for a romantic dinner. The night was chilly and we went back to Canyon Villa to enjoy the fire and the warm jets of the Jacuzzi — they worked beautifully.

Next morning we dined with other guests in the dining room. We were pleased to meet another couple from Toronto and four people from New York. All suggested we take a path from the Inn that connects with trails leading to the Buttes and Red Rocks beyond. The day was gorgeous; not a cloud in the sky. We hiked and climbed, the red sand covering our shoes and filling our pockets. Enjoying the view from the flat surface of one rock outcrop, we listened to the stillness of the desert. A slight breeze brought the sound of someone chanting a few buttes away. Sedona is known for its holistic community. Aging hippies and palm readers fill the shops. The majestic buttes and spires give it a magical quality.

Leaving Sedona late in the afternoon, and dusty from our hike, we headed to the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix. Arriving early in the evening, in hiking boots, shorts and t-shirts, we felt a little out of place. But the manager took no notice and gave us a brief tour of the grounds, treating us like royalty. Inspired by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the Biltmore first opened in 1929. It boasts a 92-foot-long water slide, an 18-hole championship putting course and a 22,000-square-foot spa, fitness centre and beauty salon. With 736 guest rooms, it’s the largest resort in Arizona. We were shown to our suite with living room, dining area, and full kitchen. The marble bath with double sinks was larger than my dining room.

After taking in the grounds and wishing to spend more time at the resort, we tried to get our flight changed. But alas, luck and the airline were not on our side. We dined at Wrights, the Biltmore’s fine dining restaurant, where executive chef John Zaner has created a fresh, flavourful menu of New American cuisine. My rack of lamb was exceptional and the strawberry banana soufflé was ecstasy in a bowl. Waddling out of the restaurant and into the cool evening, we noticed steam rising from the hot tub beside the pool. In no time, we had our heads propped on the edge of the tub, our legs floating in front of us and our gaze resting on the stars glittering above. My partner put his arm around my shoulder and kissed my cheek. He leaned close to whisper into my ear and I knew this was the moment. He spoke softly. “Sarah. Wake up. The plane has landed.”