Thunder and lightning rolled through the campsite. Rain and wind pounded the windows of my car, and I was glad. “Criminals are lazy,” I thought. “The weather will keep them away.”
The reality is that I probably had little to worry about, being camped off of a U.S. Forest Service road near Sedona—one of the wealthiest and most benign parts of the Arizona. But this was Apache territory of old, and hapless travelers can still find trouble in the hills, albeit from other outlets. When the only thing separating you from desert-roaming bandits and a shallow grave is a car door, you’re never totally at ease.
This was the third, maybe fourth stormy night on the trip. South Dakota, Montana, Arizona…in over 4,000 miles, I’ve been lucky to mostly avoid bad weather.
I woke up in the middle of the night to clearing skies.
The camera can’t see what you see. It can’t see the panoramic view of a rising Big Dipper through the windshield. It can’t see the streaks of lightning slicing through the starlit sky, but if you ask it to, it can try.
Through blurred vision and a broken tripod, I tried to frame the scene being painted around me. But in Sedona, the scene is impossible to frame. This is a place of magic, and I understand now why so many people come to this green, southwestern valley looking for life’s secrets.
But I didn’t come to Sedona for secrets. I came to Sedona mostly by accident, stumbling in just before dark after a failed attempt to see the ancient Pueblo ruins of Montezuma’s Castle to the south, which itself followed a failed attempt to hike the Havasupai waterfalls near the Grand Canyon. (Permit city, up there. Montezuma’s closes at 5:00.)
By the end of a long, road-heavy day, Sedona just happened to have the closest free campsite.
Eventually, I passed out for good in the back of the roving, green Ford Escape. Back there—wedged beside boxes, trunks and pieces of a mountain bike—I can usually carve out enough space to lay out on the pair of sofa cushions I brought from home. It doesn’t hurt to have bear mace and cold steel nearby in case of trouble.
When I woke, the stormy, star-crossed night sky had transformed once again; this time into a blue-and-gold sunrise. As I stumbled shoeless from the back of the Escape, setting off the alarm in the process, I took a minute to soak in another frame:
The red rocks had been hidden in the night. The balloons, I assumed, were a tourist and helium filled tradition.
I started up the car, bumped down the dirt road and headed back to Montezuma’s Castle.