Days 16 & 17: Flagstaff & the Verde River

Road Miles: 56.8

Total: 1422.9

Trail Miles: 0

Total: 88.2

Sites: Verde River / Red Rock Ranger District of the Coconino National Forest

Locals: Onager (aka Tiny Dancer)

I took a zero in Flagstaff to hang out with family before moving on. My awesome niece, who was getting ready to move to Phoenix to start an awesome new interior design job, treated me to a giant tasting flight at Dark Sky, one of Flagstaff’s newest breweries. They are making some great beers there – check them out! Meanwhile, Freya was at the mechanic, getting the tires rotated and hopefully the transmission issue figured out. No luck on that, though, so I decided to just keep babying her down the road, figuring life would be easier once we got east of Albuquerque, out of the mountains.

We picked Freya up and got back to the house just in time for it to start DUMPING snow. Like out of nowhere. Lots and lots of snow. Welcome to Flagstaff! After a couple of hours, it started to let up, and the sun fought through the clouds just enough to produce one of the most gorgeous sunsets I’ve ever seen, giving the freshly-dropped snow a surreal rosy glow. I fired up my Heater Buddy for the first time, wishing I’d paid better attention when I’d last seen one used. It smelled funny, which I thought was maybe because it hadn’t been lit up before, but it was freezing in the van, and I had to have it. So, I made sure the carbon monoxide detector was working, moved it closer to the heater, advised my family that if they didn’t see any sign of life from the van in the morning to go ahead and collect the body, and went to sleep, hoping for the best.

The next morning, I got up to find a sweet care package on the porch, but everyone was still inside. Turns out the dryer wasn’t working, so my sister-in-law had actually taken my clothes to a laundromat in town to dry them, then brought them back on her break. Isn’t that amazing? I love these guys, and am so lucky to have them for family! After the hugs and goodbyes (so many goodbyes – I am always saying “goodbye”), I started south toward Cottonwood, where I was meeting up with Onager to hit the Verde River.

I took scenic route 89A, which goes through Sedona. It was slow going at first because they were actually blowing up some large boulders in the course of road construction. Dynamiting boulders? This sounds like an awesome job. Where do I sign up? Although I’ve never seen a road sign telling people to turn off their cell phones as they go through a construction area before… that was pretty crazy. Anyway, “scenic” doesn’t really describe 89A adequately. There are some turnouts where you can pull over to take in the views of the red rocks, buttes, bluffs, and cliffs that go on for days, but a lot of the best views are seen in transit. I’d like to come back and explore this area more on foot. Spring seems ideal; the contrast between the bright green trees and the deep red rocks was stunning.

I finally got to Cottonwood around 4p. Onager told me that the only way to get to his spot was by 4WD (or kayak), so I threw my backpack together since Freya is neither. Originally we were going to kayak, but he’d landed a job interview (and the job – woohoo!) that afternoon, so we didn’t have time. Right before we took off, he told me that Maynard James Keenan, the singer for Tool and A Perfect Circle, had a winery and the tasting room was in Cottonwood. Did I want to check it out? Hello! Wine is only just about my very favorite thing ever. Also, I love Tool. So, I grabbed some business cards from my winery gig, and we hit Merkin to be treated to a giant tasting. Apparently no one had ever asked about an inter-winery deal before. Which is interesting, because as it turns out, there are about a half-dozen tasting rooms in central Cottonwood, with others nearby. I had no idea this was an up-and-coming wine area. More reasons to go back and explore more!

Finally, waaaaay later than planned, and each of us now the proud owners of a bottle of Merkin, we headed down to the Verde. We were no longer hoping to catch the sunset so much as hoping to get there before dark. The road in is pretty gnarly, and Freya would definitely have died. We saw some antelope on the way, which was so cool. I’m used to seeing deer everywhere, but I almost never see antelope. 

It was just about dark when we arrived. Onager had fishing gear, and since I’d never really fished before, I asked him to show me how. But when he held up one hand, “this is a worm,” then the other, “and this is a worm threader,” I almost passed out. Nooooo! That needle was huge, and I could almost feel every bit of that worm’s suffering as it was threaded onto the hook. “It’s for a good cause,” he said, tapping the little bell that alerts you when a fish goes for the bait. I opened a bottle of wine, thinking “I am going to be a very shitty fisher.”

There was an existing pit, so we got to have a fire. Fire! We almost never get to have those in the West, because people keep burning down forests. But, the quintessence of camping is having a fire. No one gets excited about gathering around a headlamp to hang out.

The little bell rang, and we sprinted over to the line to find a little mudfish at the end of it. Actually, this was the second mudfish. But whereas the first one had been easy to get off the hook, this one… not so much. “Dammit. It ate the worm.” I am confused because I thought they all did – isn’t that the point? The next several minutes are spent trying to extract the worm (and hook) from this poor little flappy fish. I fret for its life as I watch its eyes glaze over, “oh no! I think it’s dying.”

“It’s definitely not having a good day.” He resorts to more extreme measures – tools are brandished, and finally the little guy is free. I hold my breath as he plops it gently back into the water, and wait, anxious. After a couple of seconds, it wiggles a few times and darts off, probably to spend some time thinking about its life choices. “See? He made it!” I exhale a big loud sigh of relief. Then open another bottle of wine.

I consider my hypocrisy, especially as I delve into a delicious dinner Onager made that featured some wild boar he brought back from his last hunting trip. I eat meat. I eat fish. I love them both, can’t imagine NOT eating them, and hot damn! This pig tastes amazing. But I guess for me the difference is that whereas we weren’t going to eat the mudfish, the boar became dinner, among other things. Also, while the worm and fish don’t have the good sense to just go ahead and die quickly and painlessly when they are punctured or hooked, the big game didn’t suffer – one shot, one kill. I don’t know; I still feel kind of like a hypocrite. But by now, it’s very late and I’m exhausted. I take a healthy sip of wine, decide to put the moral dilemmas aside for the time being, enjoy the great meal and company, and relax into the peaceful sound of the Verde’s flow.