Rene Cizio

I drove from Tucson to Sedona with thoughts of red rocks, epic hikes and meditation in the energy vortex. The plan was to sleep in my van on public land to be close to the Earth, in solitude, and start the new year. Plus, there was a hike I hadn’t been able to do the last time I’d visited, so this would be my opportunity. I expected a perfect trip — except that it wasn’t. Not by a long shot.

It started with the rain. The weather was unusually overcast and drizzly, but I figured it would clear up soon enough. This was Arizona, after all. It was a four-hour drive, and I planned to enjoy every minute of it, leaving early enough to arrive with sunlight for a short hike.

The drive through the Sonoran Desert has got to be my favorite. Seeing the wide-open spaces populated only by saguaro cactuses and occasionally a tiny town was bliss. I paid particular attention to each city I passed, wondering if it might be a place I’ll live someday. I loved it that much.

It got busy once I neared Phoenix, and the big-city feeling took over. I used to feel relief at such places, but I feel less so each day. I’m learning to make peace with and even embrace solitude and open space. A few years ago in Colorado, I hired a guide to take me to the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings near Durango. At the top of the mesa, we looked out over the Four Corners, where Arizona, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico meet, and I nearly hyperventilated. All the open space made me feel afraid and claustrophobic somehow. I was living in downtown Chicago at the time and needed to have the people of the city around me to feel safe. Now, though, after a yearlong Western road trip, open deserts bring peace.

Even though the saguaros disappeared a few miles outside Phoenix, the views were still spectacular and filled with spice-colored open vistas. As the road gained elevation, the views included more open ranges with mountains in the distance and small communities in the valleys below. This is the stuff of Western road trip fantasy.

There’s a certain point where you can feel yourself enter the vortex near Sedona. Just like the last time, it pulled me. You feel the energy shift, become higher, clearer, filled with possibility. I stepped on the gas.

Then, there I was, back in the bright red-orange wonder of Sedona. The beloved sandstone formations encircled me. To my left was Boynton Canyon, up ahead were Coffee Pot Rock and Airport Mesa, and in the distance, I knew Bell Rock, Courthouse Butte and Cathedral Rock awaited me. It was even more spectacular than I remembered.

Since I’d last been here, I’d seen many stunning places in Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming, Texas, Montana, Washington, Oregon, California and Mexico. I didn’t know if I would still find Sedona as awe-inspiring as I had. In fact, it was more so — except for the rain, which was dampening my plans.

At Bell Rock, there wasn’t anywhere to park, so I tried Coffee Pot Rock across town, but there was a line just to get into the parking lot. Only in Sedona do you have to wait in line to go on a hike. Where I’m from, you can’t pay many people to get on a trail; to be fair, though, there aren’t many places you’ll find trails like these.

Instead of slowing, it was now raining at a steady clip. I looked up at the gray sky, took a deep breath, shrugged and drove to Boynton Canyon. I knew I’d find street parking there, even if I had to park a mile away. Once there, the rain let up and I was finally on the trails again. I happily bobbed along, hopping over red mud puddles and humming to myself. Then I looked up, and a buck was just a few feet away. Its antlers were about 8 inches long. It was young, but big. We looked at each other. It had the sweetest black eyes but also antlers that could have shish-kebabed me.

“Hey, buddy,” I said. The buck tilted its head, examined my character and kept going across my path. Once, in Yellowstone, I saw two hikers in my binoculars exiting the forest mere feet away from a bison. They had no idea the animal was nearby. We’re never really solitary when hiking, even when we suspect we’re alone. After a few minutes, the rain picked up, and I surrendered to the weather and went to find my campsite for the night.

The public land just outside of Sedona has incredible views. It includes several large areas for people to park and camp for free. It’s right off the main road, but it’s lower and back far enough that you don’t hear any traffic. But none of the roads are paved, and after a full day of rain, the road was thick red mud. An electric sign at the entrance read, “Travel not recommended.”

As a solo woman, that gave me pause. I didn’t want to get stuck, but it was now nearing sunset, so I found a decent spot that seemed solid enough near a few other vans and RVs. I slid into my space and settled in for the night. It was as quiet as a tomb, except for the occasional vehicle passing by looking for a camping spot. Eventually, the sun set in the distance and nobody else came except the darkness.

In Sedona, the darkness is a presence. The last time I was here, I stayed in the city, and it was dark. This time, a dozen miles outside the city, there wasn’t any light, and dark took on a new shape. At 4 a.m., it was just 32 degrees outside, so I put on a hat and gloves and listened to the rain thumping on the roof. It stopped after a while, and the clouds cleared just above me, revealing the stars. For a time, they were the only thing in the entire world.

I’d planned to drive to the trailhead for Devil’s Bridge at sunrise. They say the views on the top of the natural red bridge formation are unparalleled. You’re like a king when you walk across it, looking out over the open expanse of red rocks. But it had rained most of the night, and, much to my surprise and dismay, there was snow on the mountaintops. With disappointment overtaking me, I decided against the hike.

Now, crestfallen about my failed hiking plans, I drove to Bell Rock to watch the sunrise. Finally, there was parking, and I was able to sit and watch the sky brighten, bringing to life the rock formations around me that I only suspected in the darkness. They were coated in snow, red sandstone peeking out most unexpectedly, my breath fogging the air around me.

I watched as other hikers began to pull into the lot, fully suited for an arctic adventure, before taking off intrepidly into the desert sunrise. I envied them, but I wasn’t prepared for hiking in this weather. Instead, I got into my van and drove to the nearest coffee shop. What can I say? Coffee and a bit of warmth go a long way with me.

About halfway home, I stopped at Agua Fria National Monument, where there are over 70,000 acres of great prehistoric sites. I drove about a mile into the muddy, unpaved road and gave up when I nearly slid into a 4-foot-deep ditch. Still, I saw the ruins in the distance and wondered about the people who created them.

I continued into Phoenix to visit Taliesin West, the house famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright built as his winter home in the 1930s. It’s supposed to be filled with trails and beauty. Unfortunately, it was closed for a private event and they wouldn’t let me take even a peek, although I could see the cultivated expanse of land around the place and imagined its beauty up close.

Disappointed that nothing was working out for me and my entire holiday weekend wasn’t going to include anything worthwhile, I headed home. I still had two hours of driving, saguaros once again lining the roadway, the sun now shining brightly overhead. I wanted to check off a bucket-list hike but failed. Instead of being upset, I thought about the nature of hiking and how it brings me close to the Earth. The Earth isn’t always the same, and the desert needed the rain. Because of it, the cactuses will bloom more fully in the springtime, and I long to see that.

The hikes will wait for me. But now, as I drive back to Tucson near Saguaro National Park, I feel the presence of the giant saguaros all around me, green arms raised high. They are as alive as the rocks in Sedona, and surely there is something special about this Earth — because it is the only place these rare life forms are made manifest.

Soon, I’ll be heading east, far away from this desert. So, for now, I pull off the road to watch the sunset. It is yellow and pink, shifting to blue and purple, and there is nothing else like it.

As I think of my trip, I remember the darkness, the stars, the snow on the red rocks and the company of towering cactuses along the way. I know the old adage is true: It’s the journey, not the destination. I wanted the hikes as an output, but the journey, especially in Arizona, is a reward in itself.