Arizona: Ultimate destination package

Taking a Pink Jeep Tour of the famous Red Rocks in the Coconino National Forest in Sedona, Ariz.

Taking a Pink Jeep Tour of the famous Red Rocks in the Coconino National Forest in Sedona, Ariz.

SEDONA, Ariz. -- All of the hours spent leading the famous Pink Jeep Tours through the backwoods and across the dramatic Red Rock formations of Sedona have made Matt Auberle a bit philosophical.

Since February 2009, Auberle has been driving visitors through Coconino National Forest, his Jeep often canted at a 45-degree angle on the extreme terrain, his left arm casually draped across the window frame as if he were on his way to Safeway on a summer day. He tells guests on the popular Broken Arrow tour the history of Sedona’s ubiquitous Pink Jeeps, points out the famous formations and explains the geological history behind the multicolored rock striations.

But lately he’s taken to asking guests this question: “Why do we find this beautiful?”

His question set off a debate as we stood on Submarine Rock – which, oddly enough, really is shaped like a submarine – and tried to wrap our brains around the enormous Colorado Plateau, the geological formation that sprawls across four states. Is it the wide-open spaces? The juxtaposition of the rock formations against the desert floor?

I kept thinking about Auberle’s question. Usually the answer is self-evident. Take Pebble Beach. We get that – the rugged coastline, the crashing waves. But there hasn’t been an ocean in Sedona in millions of years. Despite Coconino’s name, much of this “forest” consists of arid, high-desert scrub populated by lots of slithery critters. Even the Colorado Plateau’s most famous landmark, the Grand Canyon, once was regarded as a wasteland. Now 5 million visitors flock to the canyon rim each year to stare slack-jawed into its depths, and God knows how many writers and artists have drawn inspiration from it.

• • •

Business takes me to Phoenix once or twice each year, yet not once had I taken the time to visit the Grand Canyon, or even Sedona, roughly halfway between the canyon and the city. I’ll get around to it, I thought. On each visit, I made a mental note: Next time, I’ll take a few personal days, head north out of Phoenix and just be a tourist. I’ll see it all: Sedona and Flagstaff, the Pink Jeeps and the Red Rocks, drive the curves of Oak Creek Canyon and revel in the kitsch of Route 66, ultimately arriving at the Grand Canyon.

But I never did. It’s understandable that humans postpone doing difficult things, but why do we also put off wonderful stuff? So when the boss decreed there would be a special issue dedicated to Arizona, I decided it finally was time to make that road trip.

Scottsdale’s Troon North Golf Club, one of the best options in a metro area rich in resort golf, seemed like an ideal place to start the northward trek that would end at the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. The club’s affiliation with the nearby Four Seasons makes it all the more appealing.

So too do the views of the surrounding valley from the elevated setting of Troon North’s Pinnacle Course, where architect Tom Weiskopf made good use of the arroyos and other natural hazards to create strategic options.

To the occasional visitor, the desert can be a bit disorienting. So on this occasion, it was interesting to see how Weiskopf used natural desert landmarks as target lines – whether it be the Tom’s Thumb rock formation on No. 14, Black Mountain on No. 15 or, of course, Pinnacle Peak on No. 10.

The next morning, a local friend led me on the two-hour drive north to Sedona, where one of the first landmarks upon arriving is the Hilton Sedona Resort & Spa. The red sandstone clubhouse fits naturally into the landscape, its panoramic windows looking out on the Red Rocks.

Those views become only more inspiring as a round progresses on the resort’s Gary Panks-designed layout, which really picks up steam toward the tail end of the front nine. The high point is the 10th, which is not just one of the state’s most photographed holes, owing to the Red Rock backdrop, but also the best par 3 on the course – a mid- or long iron to a green that slopes hard from left to right. Its recognition probably has deflected attention from the quality of the rest of Panks’ work, particularly the hugely entertaining back nine, save its closing hole, which seems engineered only to get players back to the clubhouse.

The golf scene for Sedona tourists received a dramatic upgrade earlier this year when Seven Canyons began accepting public play. The club was established as a private retreat for the well-heeled, and it still has that feel, from the gatehouse to the seven-figure villas.

Auberle had told me that Seven Canyons would feel like playing in Coconino Forest, which in fact surrounds the property. There are instances when the course feels a bit cramped because of the proximity of some of the holes, but there are many more moments when it is truly a pleasurable walk.

How cool is this property? While playing, you’re bound to see planes and helicopters overhead, giving visitors a close-up view of the soaring Red Rocks.

As is too often the case, that day I had rushed directly to the first tee upon arriving, so after the round Seven Canyon’s new managers asked if I’d like to take a quick look at the practice range. This is sort of like saying: Would you like to see the collection of Monet originals that I keep down in the basement? It seems that the original land plan reserved some of the property’s very best real estate for the practice range, which is lined by canyon walls. So stunning is the setting that the practice tee reserved for Weiskopf, the course’s architect, also serves as the club’s wedding site.

• • •

The truth, though, is that most people arrive in Sedona with hopes of doing more than merely honing their iron games. The town’s connection to the spiritual world – skeptics might use the term mystical – is well-documented.

I arrived with a healthy amount of skepticism but even more curiosity. Over dinner and microbrews at Oak Creek Brewery and Grill in Tlaquepaque Plaza on the north side of town, our photographer, Tracy Wilcox, and I quizzed beverage manager James Werner about Sedona’s unique lure.

“In 2000 during the millennium, I went down to Bell Rock and there were about 300 people gathered around,” Werner recalled. “And every one of them thought that mountain was going to lift up and a spaceship was going to come out of the earth.”

In case you were wondering, Bell Rock, one of seven vortices around town, didn’t achieve liftoff that night. But that hasn’t stopped seekers such as Joe Ruesga from flocking to Sedona to nurture their spirituality.

Ruesga had just made the six-hour drive from Palm Springs, Calif., when we found him one morning meditating at the vortex just down the hill from Sedona’s tiny airport. Finally he rose, stretched, did some awkward judo moves, then did the odd knee swivel recently made famous by Miguel Angel Jimenez. Ruesga conceded that he was a little bummed; he hadn’t experienced the same level of energy at the Airport Vortex that he felt previously at other spots around town. But something seemed to be happening. One minute, the compass application on my phone was working; the next moment, it went blank. Werner had told me this might happen.

The power of the vortices remains a mystery, even to longtime Sedonans. Some believe that the vortices attract or emit energy.

“Others say it’s just because it’s pretty here and all of the elements of nature are in harmony, so you feel more healed and balanced,” said Jamie Jones, co-owner of the Center for the New Age in Sedona, and author of a book about the vortices.

Jones, a mother of three, author and a former elementary school teacher, readily admits she is “skeptical” about certain items on the New Age menu. For example, channeling and talking

to spirits?

“That’s just a little out there for me,” Jones said. “However, I have people who work for me who talk to spirits all day long.”

Her specialty is reading auras using a specialized camera that denotes auric energy levels as colors. (I know, readers, it still sounds kind of out there to the uninitiated.)

Major corporations hire her to do aura readings, and she has used her unique skills on reality TV shows. So, hey, why not me?

“Wow!” Jones exclaimed as she ripped the cover sheet off a Polaroid photo and studied my aura. “You should be working here!” (First thought: It’s nice to have a backup plan if this golf thing doesn’t work out.)

On the Polaroid, my face was barely visible behind a multihued cloud, most notably blue and white. This, she later told me, indicated that I’m “an old soul with lots of angels around me,” and suggested I had the potential to channel with spirits.

Am I buying all of this? Who knows? Even Jones conceded she didn’t expect something so intuitive from “a golf guy.” But her follow-up questions indicated she had discerned a lot about my past from that one photo.

• • •

Leaving Sedona for the final leg of our trip, we took Werner’s advice and drove down to Jerome, a one-time ghost town that has reinvented itself as a tourist destination, lined with restaurants, specialty shops, even wineries.

The people of Jerome have a healthy sense of humor. At the Haunted Hamburger restaurant, for instance, customers are promised “burgers and spirits.” A plaque on Main Street told part of Jerome’s history as a 19th-century mining town: “. . . drinking, gambling, brawls and frolicking with ladies of the night occurred around the clock in two dozen magnificent saloons.”

That apparently included the one at 136 Main St., where another plaque reminds visitors that the building used to be known as Jennie’s Place, so named for owner Jennie Bauters, said to be the wealthiest woman in the Arizona territory when she was murdered in 1905. But it remains a popular address. Bauters’ brothel is now home to Nellie Bly Kaleidoscopes and Art Glass, which attracts

kaleidoscope buffs from around the globe.

On our drive north, there’s one last golf stop to make – in Williams at Elephant Rocks Golf Course, so named for the giant boulders that line the entryway. Elephant Rocks, the closest public course to the South Rim, has been an institution in Williams since the Great Depression. Don’t let its unusual name or municipal pedigree dissuade you. It has earned its solid reputation thanks largely to redesign work done by Panks over the years.

We were left with just a day and a half to explore the Grand Canyon – not nearly enough time, but Tracy and I game-planned how to make the most of it. We decided we had one of two options: ride the shuttle buses with the masses or rent bicycles. Guess which option Miss “My Goal Is To Bike Every Path In Florida” selected?

In fairness, it was a good choice. The round trip to Hermit’s Rest is only about 22 miles, but that’s more than enough if you’re not used to the mile-plus altitude or the hills. And we breezed past groups waiting for buses at various points along the rim.

Every time we stopped at lookout points, I kept thinking of the scene from the eponymous movie in which Danny Glover’s character, Mack, advised his friend, “Man, get yourself to the Grand Canyon.” The point of his soliloquy was that such a natural wonder, formed over millions of years, lends perspective to our own lives. Compared to the canyon, Mack says, “It’s a split second we’ve been here, the whole lot of us.”

In other words, it’s humbling. And maybe that’s part of the answer to Auberle’s question.

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