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TRAVELING IN STYLE : NEW AGE, OLD WEST : Sedona's Ancient Mountains, Mesas and Lingering Native American Mysticism Are Perfectly in Tune With the Chill of the Arizona Autumn

October 15, 1995|Judith Morgan | Judith Morgan is co-author, with husband Neil Morgan, of "Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel" (Random House).

In late October, the sun does not rise over the craggy rim of Arizona's Oak Creek Canyon until after 9, torching ponderosa pines and red-rock pinnacles with the fire of autumn. Golden light floods the creek-side dining room, where I savor an omelet of sour cream and green chiles and a tall mug of coffee. The only sounds are a haunting Native American flute and the snap of pi~non logs in the hearth at Garland's Oak Creek Lodge, where I have watched pumpkins turn into jack-o'-lanterns for many a Halloween.

Garland's is a hideaway within a hideaway, a cluster of 16 log cabins tucked into the folds of a narrow gorge seven miles up the canyon from Sedona (pop. 8,500), whose ruggedly handsome setting has made it a magnet for crystal-gazing New Agers as well as less-mystical tourists. For a dozen years, my husband, Neil, and I have returned each October, driving seven hours from our palmy home on the Southern California coast to celebrate autumn with a week made perfect by tumbledown leaves, crystalline air, wilderness hikes and early Christmas shopping among Sedona's plentiful art galleries and crafts studios.

As with any same-time-next-year rendezvous, some of our moments in Sedona are heart-pounding, others as cozy as a favorite sweater with elbow patches. We can count on an invigorating chill in the morning air and the heady scent of pressed apple cider. We know the arc of the high-backed rocking chairs in our usual cabin and which drawer of the pine dresser sticks. By the second day, a tabby drops by to nap in the sunny circle of our hooked rug. It refuses to awaken when we leave and, hours later, welcomes us home with a yawn.

Riding a saddle of land at an elevation of 4,500 feet 25 miles south of Flagstaff, Sedona is a younger, less sophisticated, less trendy Santa Fe. While courting culture, it keeps one foot in the frontier. The town is spread out along Arizona highways 89A and 179, surrounded by the Coconino National Forest. Low-lying houses of wood and adobe--with an understandable abundance of glass--sprawl across the terra-cotta terrain and, at midday, seem to fade into it.

Sedona's mild mountain climate and arty atmosphere confound those whose image of the Southwest is saguaros and cow skulls. It blends the sinewy beauty of the Grand Canyon with a decorous fringe of juniper and pi~non and abundant small-town charm. The spring-fed waters of Oak Creek wend through town like a parade, the route lined with cottonwoods and towering sycamores that shimmer with gold in autumn.

Scenery dominates Sedona the same way a national park overwhelms its scattered lodges, tackle shops and grocery stores. Those ubiquitous rocks and buttes--often seen on television as a backdrop for car commercials--are mostly red sandstone, eroded into bells and cathedrals, teapots and layer cakes, some of them 1,000 feet tall. At sunset they blaze like a hungry hearth; at dawn they glow like coals.

Weather happens, and fast. Purple clouds tear above mesas and monoliths in this vast sculpture garden. Rainbows drip after thunderstorms. It is a wild, western setting that has been a favored movie location since Zane Grey's "Call of the Canyon" was filmed here in the 1920s.

I love Sedona for its traditions and quirks: the funky artists' co-op gallery called The Barn; the battalions of rosy Jeeps that disperse tourists across the pancake rocks; the sudden plunge into a luxurious Provencal setting at L'Auberge de Sedona resort, where plump geese doze on the sunny footpaths, like so many down pillows; the wonder of Schnebly Hill Road, where the pavement abruptly ends and a dirt road rambles on through scrub and woodland to link with Interstate 17, the main route between Flagstaff and Phoenix, two hours' drive south.

Although Sedona sounds like a cry in the wind or a whisper from a Spanish ballad, the origin of the town's name is more prosaic. Founded in 1902 in what was then the Arizona Territory, the settlement was named for Sedona Schnebly, the wife of the first postmaster, T. Carl Schnebly, whose initial suggestion--Schnebly Station--was, happily, deemed too lengthy by the U.S. Postmaster General.

When we first visited Sedona in the early '80s, it was a simpler place, a town where the most popular lunch was a Nuttyburger (a hamburger with peanut sauce) at a restaurant called the Turtle, which now is the Orchards with a menu of pasta and salads. The old-time hangout on Main Street was the Oak Creek Tavern, where the Cowboy Artists of America was founded over rounds of beer in 1965. We used to drop in to watch Saturday football games on the big-screen TV and join locals in rousing channel-changing battles between fans of Notre Dame and the Big Ten. It may still be the cheeriest place to shoot pool, but we haven't been back since they gussied the facade and changed the sign to the Cowboy Club--Grille and Spirits.

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