In the Heart of Red Rock Country

I wasn’t able to catch them just before sunset as I hoped. I spent too long eating a not-so-great burrito at a little place in Flagstaff. And the time change confused me – I was actually on Mountain time without daylight savings and not Pacific time as I thought. Arizona must do things its own way as we recently found out.

It had been a long day. I left Santa Fe that morning, 300 miles to the east. Sandia Peak, a 12,000 foot mountain overlooking Albuquerque with a 2.7 mile-long tram ride to the top was a must-stop, and I had a nice lunch at the 22-degree top. Snow, no, frost was everywhere. It has crystallized due to the extreme cold and stuck out in shards off rocks, layered onto pines. I edged closer to the barriers between me and a steep tumble and shivered while taking a couple of pictures. It was a sight. I’ve never been that high in the air while not in an airplane.

Albuquerque was set into the foothills of the Sandia Mountains. I drove along the stretch of Route 66 that cut through the town, finding classic Route 66 motels, restaurants, cafes. University of New Mexico appeared on my right with plenty of funky stores and classic restaurants alongside. Old Town Albuquerque, a collection of boutiques and restaurants housed in buildings dating to the early 1700s, sat a little west of town but some event occurring in it ground traffic to a halt and only let me see the periphery of it.

I-40 climbed as it got out of town, leaving me with a beautiful view of the town in a valley, a mountain range behind it.

The desert stretched before me, rolling at times but rather cloudy as a fierce wind blew up dust. A tumbleweed crumbled into pieces as I drove over it.

Hours later, mountains appeared ahead. Pines replaced cacti and sand as the highway climbed. The quaint, western town of Flagstaff with its crisp mountain air and quirky collegiate charm sat at the feet of the San Francisco Peaks, a former volcano.

I stopped for dinner. I couldn’t see much as I drove into town. I settled into my place to stay for a few days, a friend’s parents’ vacation home and fell asleep on the pull-out bed.

Calling these rocks red is like calling the ocean blue.

Sedona is set below the plateau of Flagstaff, the steep, spectacular Oak Creek Canyon on the north end leading to the expansive open sculpture garden that is the Red Rock Valley.

They tower majestically, rising up from the valley floor gradually in numerous shapes and configurations. One, named Bell Rock, looks more like the bulbous minarets on a mosque. Courthouse Butte next door is a broad, proud block. Other formations appear throughout the canyon among which a resort town has spread.

The rocks stand guard above it. Each has layers of color, usually lighter at the top with a block of dark red sandstone below before they give way to a desert landscape below. Some are darker, some are lighter. Some have fingers that reach out. Patches and layers of the darkest red rock occasionally appear amid the shrubs and bushes.

I took an evening hike among the two closest to where I was staying one day. I turned right, going down the trail in front of Courthouse Butte. I stopped to take a picture. As I turned back towards the trail, a snake lay in the middle of it two feet away from me. It was just a small corn snake and it quickly slithered away but I nearly jumped out of my shoes. Everything that moved, every long stick, every shivering shadow became a potential rattler from then on.

The trail wrapped around Courthouse Butte, exposing a line of rocks to the east and a spectacular vista to the left. People hurried past me, trying to climb onto a shelf of Bell Rock before the sun disappeared. I made my way around the end of the 4-mile trail.

The sun started to set, turning the rocks a smoldering maroon. The full moon rose behind them.

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