Savoring the Contrasts of Arizona

A driving tour reveals dramatic changes from the mountainous north to the desert south

I SUPPOSE it all goes back to my childhood, when my grandparents took a winter driving vacation to Arizona.

They brought back a treasure trove of exotica, including a hunk of petrified wood. I can still remember holding it as my grandfather explained to me how the wood had been buried for thousands of years and had turned to stone. For years afterward, my brother and I had a pennant from Tombstone, ``The Town Too Tough To Die,'' tacked to our bedroom wall.

So when my wife and I and her parents decided to take in some sun together last February, and they suggested Arizona, I had to say yes. Together we toured the Grand Canyon State, from the mountainous north to the desert south.

My childhood expectations were not disappointed. I found Arizona to be a land of contrasts: extreme differences in climate, in altitude, in landscape, and in cultures - Anglo, Spanish, and Native American. And I found there the epitome of the legend of the Old West as we have come to know it in the 20th Century.

We flew to Phoenix and drove north to Sedona the next day. Turning off I-17, we followed Route 69 to Prescott and turned back north on US 89A. We crossed the mountains at the old mining town of Jerome, which at its height had a population of 15,000 but became a ghost town in 1953 when the main copper mine shut down.

Life has returned to Jerome, however: Almost all of the original buildings are still standing, including those of the mining company, and many have been restored and converted into shops and galleries. The state historic-park museum in the old Douglas mansion provides an overview of the local mining industry.

The town itself, perched as precariously on the mountainside as any village in Switzerland, gives a stunning view of the valley below, where the Tuzigoot National Monument is situated. A pueblo built by Sinagua Indians, the ruins at Tuzigoot include more than 110 rooms, from which a variety of artifacts have been excavated. Many are on display in the nearby National Park Service museum. The Sinagua lived here from about AD 1000 to 1425, when they fled the area for reasons still not understood.

Proceeding up US 89A, we came to the breathtaking scenery of Sedona. Here, seven layers of sedimentary rock colored in beautiful reds and beiges have eroded into spectacular formations with such names as Coffee Pot Rock and Cathedral Rock. We hiked a bit in the Red Rocks area; Jeep tours are also available. Besides the view, the town features lots of art shops and a golf resort. The ascending drive toward Flagstaff along US 89A through the narrow, 16-mile Oak Creek Canyon itself is simply not to be missed.

As we approached Flagstaff, we began to see and experience snow, which continued as we went west to Williams, where we turned north to the Grand Canyon.

We arrived at the Canyon only to see what a tourist brochure described as a ``rare winter air inversion.'' In other words, we could see across to the north side of the canyon just fine, but when we looked down, we got a bird's-eye view of a mile-deep fog bank.

The clouds in the Canyon parted just long enough for us to catch a brief glimpse of the Colorado River far below. A small herd of mule deer watched us peering into the mist.

We headed east the next day, skirting the Painted Desert, to Winslow and the nearby Meteor Crater. Forget the fact that NASA once trained astronauts here, and ponder a bit the force of a meteor collision with Earth that carved out a hole in the ground 4,150 feet in diameter, with the rim 570 feet above the bottom of the pit and 150 feet above the surrounding plateau. Not far away is the Petrified Forest National Park, where one can get a good look at the Painted Desert and walk among bizarre rock formations studded with the petrified remnants of ancient trees. Park museums explain in detail how the wood became stone. Don't collect any samples, though: It's illegal to take specimens from the park. Wait to buy a legal souvenir at a curio shop near one of the park gates or in nearby towns.

After overnighting near the park, we drove south to Tucson, where the weather was now sunny and in the high 60s. West of the city we visited the Saguaro National Monument, containing huge stands of the famous saguaro (pronounced ``suh-WAH-ro'') cactus, reminding me of every Western movie and TV show I'd ever seen. With good reason: Nearby is Old Tucson Studios, where a host of movies, television shows, and commercials have been filmed. The visitor can witness a staged gunfight or two, or maybe even a live filming. Located near the Saguaro National Monument, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum features a collection of the flora and fauna of one of North America's great deserts.

About 15 miles south of Tucson is the Mission San Xavier Del Bac in the Tohono O'Odham Indian Reservation. The Franciscans mission church, built between 1783 and 1797 is an outstanding example of Spanish mission architecture. The interior is undergoing careful restoration of frescoes painted by Indians.

I could not forgo a day trip southeast to Tombstone. The town looks much as it must have on the day the Earps and the Clantons fought it out at the OK Corral in 1881. You can even choose sides: Tourist guides offer wildly varying versions of who was right and who was wrong.

On Day 6 it was back to Phoenix and a day at the zoo followed by a dip in the hotel pool. All too soon we were back in the snow. Now a small piece of petrified wood stands on our mantelpiece - a reminder both of Arizona and of my grandparents.

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