In late October, the sun does not rise over the craggy rim of Arizona's Oak Creek Canyon until after 9, torching ponderosa pines and red-rock pinnacles with the fire of autumn. Golden light floods the creek-side dining room, where I savor an omelet of sour cream and green chiles and a tall mug of coffee. The only sounds are a haunting Native American flute and the snap of pi~non logs in the hearth at Garland's Oak Creek Lodge, where I have watched pumpkins turn into jack-o'-lanterns for many a Halloween.
Garland's is a hideaway within a hideaway, a cluster of 16 log cabins tucked into the folds of a narrow gorge seven miles up the canyon from Sedona (pop. 8,500), whose ruggedly handsome setting has made it a magnet for crystal-gazing New Agers as well as less-mystical tourists. For a dozen years, my husband, Neil, and I have returned each October, driving seven hours from our palmy home on the Southern California coast to celebrate autumn with a week made perfect by tumbledown leaves, crystalline air, wilderness hikes and early Christmas shopping among Sedona's plentiful art galleries and crafts studios.
As with any same-time-next-year rendezvous, some of our moments in Sedona are heart-pounding, others as cozy as a favorite sweater with elbow patches. We can count on an invigorating chill in the morning air and the heady scent of pressed apple cider. We know the arc of the high-backed rocking chairs in our usual cabin and which drawer of the pine dresser sticks. By the second day, a tabby drops by to nap in the sunny circle of our hooked rug. It refuses to awaken when we leave and, hours later, welcomes us home with a yawn.
Riding a saddle of land at an elevation of 4,500 feet 25 miles south of Flagstaff, Sedona is a younger, less sophisticated, less trendy Santa Fe. While courting culture, it keeps one foot in the frontier. The town is spread out along Arizona highways 89A and 179, surrounded by the Coconino National Forest. Low-lying houses of wood and adobe--with an understandable abundance of glass--sprawl across the terra-cotta terrain and, at midday, seem to fade into it.
Sedona's mild mountain climate and arty atmosphere confound those whose image of the Southwest is saguaros and cow skulls. It blends the sinewy beauty of the Grand Canyon with a decorous fringe of juniper and pi~non and abundant small-town charm. The spring-fed waters of Oak Creek wend through town like a parade, the route lined with cottonwoods and towering sycamores that shimmer with gold in autumn.
Scenery dominates Sedona the same way a national park overwhelms its scattered lodges, tackle shops and grocery stores. Those ubiquitous rocks and buttes--often seen on television as a backdrop for car commercials--are mostly red sandstone, eroded into bells and cathedrals, teapots and layer cakes, some of them 1,000 feet tall. At sunset they blaze like a hungry hearth; at dawn they glow like coals.
Weather happens, and fast. Purple clouds tear above mesas and monoliths in this vast sculpture garden. Rainbows drip after thunderstorms. It is a wild, western setting that has been a favored movie location since Zane Grey's "Call of the Canyon" was filmed here in the 1920s.
I love Sedona for its traditions and quirks: the funky artists' co-op gallery called The Barn; the battalions of rosy Jeeps that disperse tourists across the pancake rocks; the sudden plunge into a luxurious Provencal setting at L'Auberge de Sedona resort, where plump geese doze on the sunny footpaths, like so many down pillows; the wonder of Schnebly Hill Road, where the pavement abruptly ends and a dirt road rambles on through scrub and woodland to link with Interstate 17, the main route between Flagstaff and Phoenix, two hours' drive south.
Although Sedona sounds like a cry in the wind or a whisper from a Spanish ballad, the origin of the town's name is more prosaic. Founded in 1902 in what was then the Arizona Territory, the settlement was named for Sedona Schnebly, the wife of the first postmaster, T. Carl Schnebly, whose initial suggestion--Schnebly Station--was, happily, deemed too lengthy by the U.S. Postmaster General.
When we first visited Sedona in the early '80s, it was a simpler place, a town where the most popular lunch was a Nuttyburger (a hamburger with peanut sauce) at a restaurant called the Turtle, which now is the Orchards with a menu of pasta and salads. The old-time hangout on Main Street was the Oak Creek Tavern, where the Cowboy Artists of America was founded over rounds of beer in 1965. We used to drop in to watch Saturday football games on the big-screen TV and join locals in rousing channel-changing battles between fans of Notre Dame and the Big Ten. It may still be the cheeriest place to shoot pool, but we haven't been back since they gussied the facade and changed the sign to the Cowboy Club--Grille and Spirits.
These days, we try to avoid going into town on weekends in order to miss the traffic we are there to escape. And we skip high-noon visits when tour buses jostle for parking space. The early morning and after 4 in the afternoon are my favorite times to stroll the adobe-and-tile courtyards of Tlaquepaque, a winsome enclave of arts and crafts shops near the center of town that is reminiscent of its Mexican namesake near Guadalajara.
For two decades Sedona has attracted New Age faithful, who say there are powerful centers of earth energy here. Especially on full-moon nights, they gather for meditation at Bell Rock or Cathedral Rock or in secluded Boynton Canyon, near the elegant resort called Enchantment. But this fascination with vortices did not originate with them. The ancient Anasazi who built the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde also believed in the earth's spirit, although their term for energy fields was sacred ground .
Sedona's pervasive Native American presence, ancient and contemporary, adds dignity and surprise to everyday life. Last fall I was admiring a grandstand of kachinas at Garland's Indian Jewelry when a tall Navajo strode in wearing jeans, leather jacket and wire-rimmed glasses. He quietly spread a dazzling belt--etched scallops of silver linked by silver knots--on the counter.
The manager turned it in the light, slipped it on and asked the price.
"Twelve hundred dollars," the Navajo replied.
There was no raised eyebrow or hesitation. As the manager wrote out a check, the door opened and a dark-haired girl ran in, a baseball cap backward on her head.
"Can I have some money for . . . ?"
She paused when she saw the silver belt.
"Wow," she said softly. "Is that yours, Daddy?"
"It was mine," he said, handing her pennies for the gum-ball machine.
We never arrive in Sedona with a shopping list, nor have we returned home without something that reminds us of the place all year long. Besides the inevitable strands of flame-red chile peppers called ristras , we have been intrigued enough to buy burnished burl sculptures, old Indian baskets and even a Mogollon Indian pot of uncertain provenance but irresistible patina. We have purchased an oil painting and a watercolor from galleries in the Hillside Courtyard and Marketplace, where an outdoor sculpture show is usually on view, and browsed in countless emporiums where voices are hushed, sage-scented candles flicker and a cappella chants murmur in the background. Last year we admired a bronze bell on a nine-foot stand, which I could envision in the garden of our La Jolla home. But Neil hesitated. "If it were a third that size . . ." he equivocated.
Of course, I went into the shop. Yes, there was another bell by the same sculptor. Yes, it was about a third as tall. It rode home in the back seat of our car.
Among our annual stops is Garland's Navajo Rugs, owned by another branch of Sedona's Garland family, which has been a dominant commercial force in town for two generations. A squat, red rock fortress reminiscent of a reservation trading post, the shop is remarkable for its patient and knowledgeable staff, its cache of 5,000 rugs and its back room of rare baskets, pots and ceremonial robes, where serious collectors gather.
Early one Saturday, as Dan Garland was telling us about the butterfly motifs used by a young Hopi potter, a dusty pickup parked out front and a Navajo family came to the door. Dan, who speaks Navajo, ushered them to a side room, where they sat in a circle sipping coffee. He asked about their health and talked about the chances for an early snow. He studied the complexity of the rugs they brought and the tightness of the spun wool. A price was agreed upon. I almost expected a pipe to be passed.
When the temptations of shopping or the tourist throngs threaten to overwhelm, the surest refuge is a hike on one of the hundred-odd marked trails in Oak Creek Canyon and the red rock cliffs just outside of Sedona. (U.S. Forest Service maps, available at the ranger's station in town, rank the trails from, literally, Easy to Very Strenuous.) After those leisurely breakfasts of October, we sit by the hearth and plot our hike-of-the-day.
My first, wimpish thought is of the nearly flat woodsy trail that rambles amiably along the banks of the west fork of Oak Creek, 10 miles north of Sedona. Concave walls as smooth as seashells rise on either side, their color so intense that shallow pools seem to run red. This is where I baptized my hiking boots years ago while fording the stream on steppingstones; it may be the most enchanting wilderness stroll in America.
But Neil inevitably insists that we move onward and, even worse, upward. Of all our grand and scrappy hikes, last fall's assault on Wilson Mountain (elev. 7,122), north of Sedona in the Coconino forest, remains seared in memory.
Carrying apples and water, we had left our car near the trail head. The beginning was easy enough: a springy forest path cutting through groves of oaks, alligator-bark junipers and big-tooth maples. Swirls of rocks--some red and some pale Kaibab limestone--formed crooked chimneys and candlesticks. Blue jays nattered above, and somewhere a ground squirrel was whistling. Then the canyon walls closed in and the trail turned serious, breaking into steep switchbacks--a ladder up the mountain. The wind hooted in the pines, a sound matched by my heavy breathing. Finally, above 6,000 feet, the trail spilled onto a broad lava shelf and disappeared.
Red-tailed hawks circled below. In the hazy distance was the croquet-wicket silhouette of Midgley Bridge and, even farther away, the glimmering runway of the little Sedona airport. Dark clouds began forming, like bunched quilts of blue and purple with the odd stormy stitch of chartreuse.
We shared an apple and scanned the plateau for cairns, those piled stone directional markers that are hard to distinguish in this rock-on-rock terrain. Beyond a screen of stunted pi~nons, we found a scrap of trail zigzagging down the mountain.
At the bottom we felt tired but triumphant, having hiked more than six miles. But we had underestimated the distance to our car; it was four more miles on hard macadam before the gold of sundown glinted on a familiar windshield. We rode to our cabin in silence for a hot shower and wine.
At dinner, a lodge guest from Tucson greeted us warmly.
"I saw you two hiking along the highway this afternoon," he said. "That road's steep! I started to offer you a ride but I thought it might embarrass you."
On a perfect day in Sedona, he would have stopped the car.
GUIDEBOOK: Mystic Sedona
Telephone numbers and prices: The area code for Sedona is 520. Hotel rates are for a double room for one night. Restaurant prices are for dinner for two, food only.
Getting there: America West, United and Southwest airlines have daily nonstop service from Los Angeles to Phoenix. (Sedona is about 90 miles north of Phoenix, via Interstate 17 and State Highway 179, and 25 miles south of Flagstaff on State Highway 89A.) Sedona-Phoenix Shuttle Service, 282-2066, offers frequent daily service, $30 one-way, $55 round trip.
Where to stay: Garland's Oak Creek Lodge, P.O. Box 152, Sedona, AZ 86336; 282-3343. Sixteen log cabins with decks, fireplaces in serene, old homestead setting seven miles north of Sedona in Oak Creek Canyon. Open late March to mid-November. No telephones or TV. Rates: $150-$170, includes breakfast and dinner. Slide Rock Lodge in Oak Creek Canyon, Star Route 3, Box 1141, Sedona, Ariz. 86336; 282-3531. On the creek by the natural water slide in Slide Rock State Park. Some fireplaces, no phones or TV. Rates: $79-$99. L'Auberge de Sedona, P.O. Box B, Sedona, Ariz. 86336; (800) 272-6777. Elegant French country inn and cottages on banks of Oak Creek in heart of Sedona. Fireplaces. Rooms in uphill wing (Orchards at L'Auberge) are less expensive and offer stunning red rock views. Rates: $130-$385. Enchantment Resort, 525 Boynton Canyon Road, Sedona, Ariz. 86336; (800) 826-4180. One hundred sixty-two rooms (Sedona's largest), surrounded by red rock cliffs in Boynton Canyon. Rates: $195-$505.
Where to eat: El Rincon, in the Tlaquepaque village off highway 179, 282-4648. Mexican-Navajo menu, winning margaritas, adobe decor; $20. Joey, 160 Portal Lane, 204-5639. Italian bistro, fresh pasta. Dinner from 5 p.m., and Sunday brunch, $30. L'Auberge de Sedona, 301 L'Auberge Lane, (800) 272-6777. Gourmet French cuisine in charming dining room or on creek-side terrace. Fixed price, six-course dinner: $49 per person. A la carte (three courses) for two, $100.
For more information: Sedona-Oak Creek Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 478, Sedona, Ariz. 86339; (800) 288-7336. Arizona Office of Tourism, 1100 W. Washington St., 1100-A, Phoenix, Ariz. 85007; (602) 542-8687.