Mel’s 40th Birthday
(Sedona, Arizona)

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm not big on birthdays. Unfortunately, Mel is also keenly aware of this fact and has lowered her expectations over the years to feeling lucky if I remember, and downright giddy if she receives a birthday card or some other bauble. It's against this backdrop that I decided to plan something big for her 40th -- time to use those years of lethargy to my advantage!

What to do? Mel's good friend, Sarah, raised the bar pretty high by inviting us along on her 40th birthday trip to the Alaskan backcountry. We enjoyed this greatly and hoped Sarah and her husband Chad could be part of any birthday plan for Melanie. So, a trip, but where to? Mel indicated in veiled conversations that she'd be interested in going somewhere warm -- this winter has been particularly biting. Another requirement was not sleeping on the ground.

We're a pretty active group. Lounging at a beach is good for an afternoon, but we could hike for days and be even more content. Especially hiking to places off the beaten path with vantages not likely to be gained without moderate effort. I do some work for Arizona Highways magazine, so I have no shortage of inspiration. Sedona and Tucson both sounded promising. The L'Auberge de Sedona looked really nice and was in the heart of uptown Sedona. Sold!

Next, instead of a boring birthday card, I wanted to up the ante and create a photo book with memories and photos from 40 of her closest friends. This was much harder than I thought it would be! I received all sorts of things: Photos, hand-written notes, flyers, illustrations, and even a complete page layout. I took stock of everything, semi-organized it sequentially, and transformed it into spiral-bound booklet she was sure to love.

Finally, I planned an impromptu surprise party to spring all of this on her. I'd take her to dinner while the kids covertly decorated the house.

On the day of Mel's birthday, I unremarkably intoned that I'd pick her up at 6 o'clock and left for work. So far so good. As the day wore on, the weather went from bad to worse; freezing rain, sleet and snow all conspired against me. A 20-minute drive to dinner turned into an hour. Party guests outside of a 5-mile radius couldn't be expected to brave the conditions. The good news? We had the restaurant to ourselves. We ordered and I presented the photo book. Bad idea. The waitress spent the next half-hour trying to decide if it was safe to visit our table because she couldn't be sure if Mel was crying from anger, or joy. The food was really good, but we took most of it home. The grand party I had planned turned into an intimate gathering with close friends and more pints of Graeter's ice-cream than we could consume.

Two weeks later we found ourselves on a plane bound for Phoenix where we rented a car for our drive to Sedona. The weather would again factor into our plans; instead of sunny and warm, the forecast called for buckets of rain. Let's look at the bright-side -- not everyone gets to see rain the desert! Over the next 24-hours, central Arizona would set the single-day record for rainfall. Good thing we bought all that rain gear we didn't use in Alaska. We didn't need to be in Sedona until later that evening, so we meandered down Highway 87 through the Tonto National Forest with a couple of strategic detours along the way.

The first stop was the Pine Creek Loop & Ballatine Trail. We walked a 3-mile loop through a native saguaro habitat. The size of these desert sentinels is impressive; we saw several over 40-feet tall. Our next stop was at the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park. This park may be small, but it makes up for it with some truly grand scenery. We were able to successfully navigate the canyon floor before scrambling up the slippery red rocks, just as the park was closing. We encountered another family as we were climbing out. They had at least one young child and a stroller which they had managed to get down the trail much further than I would have thought possible. We collectively arrived at the trailhead at roughly the same time only to discover that the gate had been closed and secured with a chain and padlock. The surrounding fence wasn't razor-wire, but it was a problem for a child in a stroller. I hopped the fence in search of a park ranger. I was almost to the ranger station when I began to hear hearty laughter echoing across the valley. The moral? One cannot always assume a closed padlock is actually locked.

I'd like to say the remaining drive to Sedona was uneventful. By this point, we were in the Mogollon Rim area which varies in elevation from 5,000-8,000-ft. The roads at this elevation are especially susceptible to freezing whenever there is precipitation. We encountered two overturned cars within 10-miles of one another, and we were the first car on the scene for the second crash. Miraculously for the driver, we'll call him "JC", the car flipped into perfect position on the uphill side of the mountain. The other side of the road featured a perilous drop-off. JC walked away without a scratch. We waited with him until the emergency responders arrived.

We arrived in Sedona, at last, and checked into the resort. Someone then decided that what we needed was to get wet. The pool and hot-tub was a short walk from our cottage. By now, those buckets of rain the forecasters predicted had turned into barrels. We donned our robes, put on our rain slickers, and headed to the pool.

By the morning, the rain had turned into a cold mist, which was a marked improvement. Chad was adamant that we attend a morning yoga session; when in Sedona, do as the Sedonans do. This was a new and strange experience for me. Can't say I'm eager to try it again, but I did enjoy the instructor's flute solo at the end. I had researched a few different day-hikes in the area and decided that Bear Mountain would be a good candidate. It was 6-miles round-trip -- 3 miles up and 3 miles down without any swollen creeks to wash us away. (Many of the photos are from this trail.) By the evening, the sun had peeked out. Hoping to see a grand sunset, we grabbed our headlamps and climbed nearby Doe Mountain. It wasn't to be, but we did get to use our headlamps for the hike down. Afterwards, we were in the mood for some southwest cuisine. A local recommended Oaxaca for dinner and we were not disappointed.

I had one more trick up my sleeve, and this surprise was for the whole group. I had booked us on an early morning hot-air balloon ride. The balloon company had been grounded for the previous three days, but I was hopeful the inclement weather would soon pass. In the morning, I slumbered onto the deck to check our fate and was greeted by the twinkle of early-morning stars and calm winds. Yes! We were picked up in the lobby by Red Rock Balloon Adventures and driven to the launch site. If you ever get the chance, a balloon ride in the desert southwest is a real treat.

After the balloon ride, we had time for one more trek. Many of the trails in the area were closed or impassable due to high water, so we stopped in at The Hike House to consult with the locals. A new trail system not yet on many maps was nearby and highly recommended. The Hangover Trail is a combination mountain bike (rated double black diamond) and foot trail. Typically, I don't like bike trails for hiking, but this one was an exception. In fact, if we hadn't seen it first-hand, I wouldn't have believed sections of this trail were even possible to bike on. We encountered a few different ecosystems all on the same loop. Munds Wagon trail follows the pine forest floor via a creek bed while the north side of Hangover is predominately in the shade with clumps of manzanita. The saddle area on Mitten Ridge is exposed red rock and breathtaking -- we could have stayed there all afternoon.

By nightfall, we were thoroughly exhausted and hungry. We grabbed a wood-fired pizza at the Sedona Pizza Company, where Mel orated a heart-felt toast. I have a hunch that this was the first of many informal valedictions yet to come. After dinner, we headed back to L'Auberge to get what little sleep we could before our early morning departure in Phoenix. As far as birthdays go, I'm off the hook for another 40 years!

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