As the spring heat closed in on the Arizona desert, it was time for me to move to higher elevations and cooler temperatures. As I left Ehrenberg for the last time this season and headed north toward Sedona, I contemplated my route: I could take the ‘easier’ Interstate route, or the windier, slower backroads. Interstates bore me, so I decided the extra 26 minutes Google said it would take, would be well worth it. Plus, I’d get to explore real towns along the way, not overly engineered and architected Interstate truck stops and rest areas!
With a quick glance at the Google map, I noticed the yellow lines of highway 60 to Prescott and 89a from Prescott to Cottonwood were quite squiggly in the green areas marking National Forests. Oh well, I’ll have some mountains to climb! I’d spent my first several months as a full time RVer driving all over the Sierra Nevadas, I’d driven Hells Canyon in Eastern Oregon and many other mountain roads, those squiggly mountain passes looked unthreatening. How bad can they be? I’d heard from a friend that the length limit was 40 feet– I’m just 29 feet. Piece of cake!
“Piece of cake”, famous last words, right???
As my RV labored up the first pass, leaving the ninety-degree desert floor, germinal with the first delicate signs of super-bloom, behind, I spotted the first real tree I’d seen in four months. I was so enraptured that I considered stopping to give it a giant bear hug. I might have if it wasn’t in someone’s yard. I thought twice and realized a tree-hugging Rver with a duct tape repair job and California plates may not fare well, trespassing in Arizona: I resisted my urge and moseyed on.
Matilda trudged up the windy mountain road through Prescott National Forest. 4000 feet. 5000 feet. 6000 feet. The Chaparral grew bushier and the Piñon Pines and Juniper taller. I was in the forest!!! Ahh. Hello Forest, I’ve missed you! I rolled down my window and inhaled the crisp winter air. And as the musty aroma of conifers and damp forest permeated my senses I felt my face erupt in a spontaneous smile. I’m home!
As I ascended to 6000 feet, I felt a marked drop in temperature. It was at least 15 degrees cooler than the desert I’d left just an hour earlier. I grew concerned that I’d jumped the gun on my “great desert escape’ as I eyed snow dusted peaks just above me. Maybe it is too early to go north. Maybe I’ll get stuck in a snow storm. Maybe I’ll freeze! The doubt only thickened as I passed dirty patches of snow stubbornly clinging to the sides of the road, desperately holding their place in the late winter landscape. Well, I’m not turning around to fry in the ninety+-degree heat in the desert. Forward…!
Eventually I reached the summit and slowly descended the narrow, curvy pass into Prescott. Yes, I’d driven on Sierra Nevada routes, but these were some narrow roads and deserved extra caution. Slooooow, I went…
I’d hoped to spend the night in Prescott, but it was Saturday and the historic city was busting at the seams with tourists. In the outskirts of town, the Prescott National Forest was laden with California-like rules and regulations about where you can camp. Camping is only allowed in designated campgrounds; which were full. One of the things I’ve learned in my first season as a snowbird is that winter in the south is treated like summer is, everywhere else. The summer months are too hot to leave the comfort of air conditioned homes, so people flock to enjoy the outdoors in the winter, when the temperatures are tolerable, making it impossible to avoid crowds at the popular tourist towns, hiking trails, parks and campgrounds during winter months.
Prescott, AZ served as the capital of the Arizona territory until 1867 and currently has a population just under 40,000. Its rich history (which includes a stay by Wyatt Earp’s older brother Virgil in 1879) and a quaint old-fashioned downtown, packed with touristy shops and cafes, attract visitors from all over the country. If it wasn’t the height of tourist season and I wasn’t in a 29-foot RV, I might have gotten out and explored. Unfortunately, the narrow streets of old-west mountain towns are not conducive to driving- and especially parking – giant RVs.
So, on l went; next stop Cottonwood! I’d heard of many fulltime RVers and VanDwellers going to Cottonwood. Surely there’s bound to be plenty of camping there!
Up another narrow, squiggly pass and back down again. My new front brakes were emitting burned brake smell and smoke billowed out of the nose of Matilda. “That’s normal. Flash told me that would happen,” I told myself. Down and down and down I went in my 12,000 pound steel box on wheels. My brake pedal got spongier every time I pressed the brake. More smoke and more rank odor of burning break pad filled my cab. I started to get nervous. Will my giant, heavy, barreling-downhill-RV stop when I need her to? I slid my new, still-to-be-tested-in-rough—conditions, transmission into low gear. Ok, that’s better, at least I feel like I have more control.
Just as the majestic red rock of Sedona came into view, thousands of feet below, the white smoke became even thicker. I was too nervous to go on. I pulled over, inspected underneath, and confirming that it was my brakes causing the smoke and not something else, I thought it best to sit and let them cool off before proceeding down the second half of the 6000 foot mountain. I pumped the brakes and noticed the sponginess was dissipating. “That’s a good sign”, I thought.
Ok, this isn’t too bad. I was armed with the confidence that my whole brake system had just been inspected, my front brakes, rotors and calipers were brand new and my rear brakes were in good shape. And, I was still able to slow down, it just took more pressure on the brake pedal to do so. I had no cell signal, so I couldn’t call someone for help or advice. I didn’t have much choice…
After sitting for about thirty minutes, I decided to press on. I slowly exited the turnout, and in low gear, proceeded down the pass at 20-30 mph. Being in low gear slowed me enough to not make the descent treacherous, but my heart pounded as my now-white-knuckled hands clutched the steering wheel. One of the thoughts I had, as I glanced at Capone laying innocently in the passenger seat, is that I need doggy car seat so I can strap him in while we drive. The thought of anything happening to my clueless copilot was too much..
As I spilled closer to Sedona, I drove through the tiny mountain micro-town of Jerome. If I wasn’t so stressed I might have actually enjoyed the historic town, etched into the side of the mountain. It reminded me of some of the hilltop towns I drove through on my trip to Greece a couple of years ago; tiny narrow streets carved into rock, framed by houses and tiny shops. In Greece, I was in a small compact car, not a 29’ RV, which admittedly, made it more enjoyable! I’m really thinking I need to downsize!
As I gingerly maneuvered through the crowds of tourists licking waffle cones and converging outside of historic taverns and eateries with names like the Haunted Hamburger, Mile High Grill and Asylum Restaurant, I kept testing my brakes to be sure they weren’t giving out. They were spongy again, but were definitely slowing me down.
I finally made it through the crowds in Jerome and began my final descent into Cottonwood. A slow and tedious eight miles at 30mph with no turnouts to let the growing line of cars behind me pass. As I neared the edge of Cottonwood, one angry follower in a giant Ford pickup truck crossed the double yellow line to pass me, waving the middle finger salute as he passed. Excuse me for inconveniencing you in my pursuit to stay alive!
His action made me ponder my own impatience: I used to be that person! Always in a hurry, always cussing the slow people in front of me, “how dare you not consider ME! How dare you hold ME up!” Driving an RV has taught me, not only how to slow down and enjoy the journey, but in that moment, when that man aggressively raced past, flipping me the bird, I realized it also showed me how easily we get caught up in our own wants and needs and don’t stop to consider what someone else may be going through. When I tailed an RV on a windy mountain road, I never considered their safety and comfort; all I cared about was getting to my destination five minutes sooner!
I’ve contemplated this before; in our fast, anonymous world, we encounter more strangers than at any time in history. Nameless bodies, we pass on the crowded streets, blurred drivers whizzing past us on the Freeway, or faceless people we flip off and fly by on a windy road without a thought to the person behind the wheel and what may be going on with them. My Bird Flipper hadn’t even considered that I was frightened for my safety, my dog’s safety and the safety of everyone else on the road. If he’d known that, would he have been more patient? Kinder? Waving, instead of gesturing profanity at me? I wonder. (I realized, I probably should have turned on my hazard lights… lol).
By the time, I entered Cottonwood and the endless annoying traffic circles, the brake pedal sunk all the way to the floor and I was barely able to stop. After sliding into at least one circle a little too close to a passing car, I exited, pumped my brakes a few times and voila, they were back; firm, and strong. I pulled over anyway to let them cool off a bit. They’d stopped smoking but the noxious fumes were still strong enough to give me a headache!
While I sat there waiting for my brakes to cool, I checked freecampsites.net for a place to camp. I wasn’t exactly feeling confident in my brakes so was looking for something easy and close by. (When I was back to the safety of flat ground I did some research on how to drive a Class A or Class C on mountain roads. Read what I learned here.)
Back on the road, with a firm brake pedal once again, I drove north on 89a exploring a couple of forest roads along the way for a campsite, to no avail. I wasn’t in the desert with sprawling, flat, BLM land anymore! The off-road sites big enough for Class C RVs were few – and occupied. So, I’d bumble back onto another rutted/wash-boarded dirt road, keeping my eye out for the next one, as the sun slid toward the western horizon. Now I was racing against the clock.
Finally, I pulled into Dear Pass Trailhead, one of the campsites.net recommendations. It was packed! I followed the dirt road (Angel Valley Rd), deeper into the red-tinted mountains to see if I could find something away from the crowd. The rutted narrow dirt road coerced me further and further with the promise of open space in which I’d find a spot big enough for Matilda. There were a few campsites, but they were all full to the brim with trailers, vans and tents. Darn!
Angel Valley Road was harrowing, to put it mildly, and as I propelled down yet another steep and narrow road, I had to ask myself how I kept ending up in those situations; do I have a secret death wish? I just had brake issues and there I was on another steep downhill slope. I had to wonder… But in all fairness, how could I have known? And it’s not like I can just turn all 29 feet of Matilda around anywhere. I was committed, so down I went.
I ended up at the entrance of what looked like a private community or commune of some sort. (I now know, it was Angel Valley Sedona, “a sacred retreat community for healing, transformation and empowerment.” If I’d know that at the time, I might have stopped. Looking at their website, it may have been the serenity and peace I needed at that moment! Check them out here). Some say there are no mistakes, maybe the universe sent me there for a reason!). It was a dead end- but at least a place to turn around! So, back up the bumpy steep road (in low gear) and back to route 89a, I went. Cottonwood was a bust. I guess I’m going to Sedona!
As I drove into Sedona, Mother Nature’s grand architecture rose from the earth before my awestruck eyes. Wow! Just wow! The sun had barely set and the full moon hovered over the rust-imbued landscape giving it an other-worldly glow.
Night was settling in quickly and the last thing I wanted to do was search the treacherous, narrow roads in the dark. After exploring a couple of forest roads and nearly getting wedged into a narrow place, I finally settled on a large flat-ish spot on a forest road about 5 miles out of Sedona, just off the busy 89a. It was 7:30 pm. My 3 ½ hour drive had turned into 8 ½ hours. I was DONE.
I settled in, getting my rig as level as I could, leashed up Capone and went for a much-needed moonlit walk to exercise out some of the day’s stress. It felt good to be back in the forest, among the trees and the brush. There’s so much life! The bats bobbed above as they dined on insects, the birds chirped and sang their last tunes of the day before settling into their safe nests for the night and critters scurried in the brush at my feet. The moon cast enough light to see the ground without a flashlight; and I kept my eye out for rattlesnakes.
Back home in my RV, I made a quick salad of romaine lettuce, kale, tomatoes, red beans and vinegar and oil dressing, fed Capone and called it a night. Settling into my warm and comfy bed, it didn’t take long for sleep to win over the noise of the nearby highway…
As I drifted off a feeling of peace and gratitude warmed me; it was a good day. I was content in knowing that every day I’m not rotting away in an apartment, passing the time on junk-tv and dreaming of freedom, is a good day! I felt happy to be alive – really alive!