Paradise Is an Hour and a Half Away
(Reprinted from Oct. 9, 2011, E J Montini, Arizona Republic)
Sedona, AZ (October 13, 2011) – We don’t live in paradise but we can get their by car in under two hours.
It’s about 100 miles north on Interstate 17, then west for 10 miles or so on SR 179.
You should go.
We spend so much time arguing with one another in a purgatory of our own creation. (Or worse, a hell.) And the whole time heaven is right here in Arizona.
Once you arrive it only takes about five minutes to drive through it, a little longer if you stay below the 35 mph speed limit or stop at one of the scenic pullouts.
But don’t stop. Not your first time through.
The road is a couple of miles long and there are roundabouts on either end, so drive the entire loop. South to north. North to south.
When you’ve finished take a moment to consider that while we fight constantly about politics or immigration or education or health care or whatever, the most beautiful roadway you will encounter in this life or any other is a brief, winding stretch of Arizona’s State Route 179 between the Village of Oak Creek and Sedona.
It is heaven, although that is not technically how state officials characterize it.
Jennifer Toth, who heads the Arizona Department of Transportation planning department, described it to me this way: “We went through a very long needs-based implementation program in which we really looked critically at the context of the road and what was outside of the roadway prism in order to decide where the road should be.”
I know. I didn’t understand a word of that, either.
The gist of it is this: State road builders knew they were dealing with one of the most spectacular spots on earth and they were determined to make a work of art.
And they did.
The federal government has declared 7.5 miles of SR179 to be a “Scenic Byway,” its highest rating for beauty. But the best part of the route is the few miles between the roundabout at Bell Rock Boulevard in the Village of Oak Creek and Back O’Beyond Road at the southern end of Sedona.
There simply is no more lovely drive anywhere, and we own it. Our tax dollars built it.
Our state Department of Transportation did not screw it up. Just the opposite.
Those few miles in which SR 179 traverses a pristine stretch of the Coconino National Forest would cause even the most devoted cynic to admit that government projects can to rise to the level of perfection.
The northbound lane was the original road. The southbound side was constructed over the past several years. The road is “bifurcated,” meaning split.
Drivers going in opposite directions don’t see one another. They see open country covered by velvety soil, junipers, creosote, cacti and gigantic, otherworldly rock formations like Bell Rock, Cathedral Rock, Courthouse Butte and Lee Mountain.
“We had a landscape architect on the staff,” said ADOT’s Jennifer Toth. “He was a Sedona resident and knew the area really well from hiking. We traipsed the alignment and made adjustments and thought hard about where some of the scenic pull offs should be situated.”
Long-time residents of Arizona sometimes see Sedona as a pretentious, effete town where the wealthy built mansions that they rarely visit. Or as a place where celebrities travel with their personal gurus to experience the “vortexes” of energy they are convinced emanate from deep below the earth. It’s true. But none of that matters.
Those few paved miles of heaven belong to you. To all of us. Untouched. Undeveloped. Perfect.
I was there not long ago.
And while we can’t stay for an eternity, even the sinners among us get to pass through. We get to stop along the road, breathe in the cool clean air and watch lumbering clouds pass over rock formations like slow moving ships, their hulls nearly scraping the jagged peaks.
And we get to know that everything our eyes take in, at least from that small stretch of paradise, is ours.