The thirty-minute traffic jam in Sedona Arizona made me think about tourist destinations that have become victims of their own success. Sedona probably has the most picturesque setting of any town in America. Nestled against the majestic vermillion and ochre sandstone carved and jutted cliffs, with each building painted in some version of adobe, sage green, mesquite brown and deep red, the town has worked hard to be sensitive and harmonious with its surroundings.
But it’s breathtaking beauty has also drawn millions of tourists to a town of only about 10,000. Gone are the days when the town was “a brothel and a few ranches.” And with only two roads in and out of the center of town, residents now have to plan their daily activities around the traffic jams that can snake five miles down to Oak Creek.
No thanks. I might as well have been on the FDR Drive. After sitting bumper to bumper for twenty minutes, I shelved my plan to visit the upscale shopping district of Tlaquepaque Arts and Shopping Village (do I really need artisanal home decor inspired by the fresh air and sunshine of high desert living?) and made the 30 minute drive back to Cottonwood, where we were staying for about a third the price of hotels in Sedona.
Fortunately I had already accomplished what I had come to Sedona for, which was to attend a concert of the Piano On the Rocks International Festival, conceived and passionately directed by pianist Sandrine Erdenheim-Sayo and my beloved Spanish teacher Elizabeth Peña. I was thrilled to hear the world premier of Their Own Voices:Stories of Migrant Women by composer Anna Rubin, who brought to life the stories of Mexican and Honduran women she had met doing immigration advocacy.
Cottonwood, settled in 1879, has a sweet little restored western “Old Town” with a mish-mosh of craft stores, thrift shops and wine tasting rooms for Arizona’s wine region, bars, galleries and souvenir shops. Very little upscale about it, Cottonwood seems to appeal to the easy-going retiree set (does that include me?), perhaps the crowds who fill the RV parks which blanket Arizona. My favorite historical facts about Cottonwood that I discovered on the Chamber of Commerce website are that John Garrett was the first mayor because “no one else wanted the job” and that “Charles D. Willard settled in the area [in 1879] bringing with him a mechanic named Neff.
But my favorite historical site by far in this area is the old copper mining town of Jerome, just to the west of Cottonwood. Once left practically for dead, this former ghost town came back to life in the past thirty years. The ramshackle wooden former saloons and bordellos, boarding houses and taprooms still cling to the side of Cleopatra Hill with stunning views across the Verde Valley. Just climb the rickety staircases that link the winding streets and you can still imagine the clanging of the mineshaft and the bars filled with drinking songs and ladies of the night. OK, so there are some galleries and coffee shops and probably a yoga studio or two, but Sedona it most definitely is not.
One thing I’ve learned on this trip is that while the national parks are well known, the state parks may be the local workhorses and equally worth a visit. We camped one night in Dead Horse Ranch State Park, next to Cottonwood. The views of the Verde Valley were spectacular and the facilities excellent. On a quiet Monday morning, we took a stroll around the lagoon (a former irrigation ditch) in the park. Friends were strolling and chatting, a few joggers passed us, a white-haired wizened man stood sentry by a fishing pole he had lodged in a cottonwood tree by the lagoon.
“What’re you catching?, “ we asked him. “Aww, I ain’t caught nuthin’ in a week or more,” he said, failure never discouraging a true fisherman. “what’s in there”, asked Pete.” Catfish. Too warm for trout.” “Good luck,” we said, as we meandered on, enjoying the views of the ever present and timeless Arizona mountains.