We drove deep into the high desert, married not more than 14 hours, 2,000 miles, two flights, and one rental car ago. Arid, sandy landscapes dotted with cacti and sage gave way to craggy red rocks and pine forests as we made our ascent into the mountains. We had been here once the summer prior, and seeing the serpentine road carved into the mountain ahead gave us both the rush of excitement we needed to overcome our travel fatigue. The 12-mile stretch of highway that lay before us attracts thrill-seekers from all over the world for its 127 kinks, hairpins, and switchbacks. Our black Dodge Avenger was not the most adept at handling the sharp curves, but the A/C worked fine for the late August heat, and we were grateful for the free upgrade from the compact car for which we had registered.
Winding our way up, we crested the mountain getting our first glimpse of the green valley and red cliffs rising up on the distant horizon. We began our descent down the other side of Mingus Mountain, drawing closer and closer to our destination. We stopped to take in the view at an overlook. The red, rocky cliffs that flanked us framed our view of the lush valley perfectly. It was a beautiful day, the only blemish a dark cloud speeding over the mountain from the direction we had just traversed. Partially blocking the sun, it’s thunder rattled down the rocks into the valley. Instead of running for cover, we simply watched in awe. It is monsoon season in the high desert. These storms spring up in a flash, pour down life-sustaining rain, and disappear into the desert summer.
We piled back in the car to finish our journey down the hill, coasting and curving back and forth. Tyler readied the camera. We knew it was just around the bend. The green sign sped toward us, reassuring us that we had finally arrived at our honeymoon destination. It read, “Entering Jerome, Elevation 5246, Founded 1876.” Jerome, Arizona. The billion-dollar copper camp. The mile-high city with 50-mile views. The most vertical city in the United States. The wickedest town in the west. Our home for a week.
Jerome is a surreal place. It was founded upon the discovery of an unfathomably large vein of copper and other mineable resources that would eventually be exhausted, leaving a cathedral-sized hole in the earth under the city. At Jerome’s inception, Arizona was not yet a state, and Jerome was a true, lawless Wild West town. De facto control was concentrated in the hands of the mining companies that comprised the bulk of the economy and attracted the most skilled miners from all over the world. Like many Wild West towns, the ills of prostitution, poor sanitation, and violent crime characterized Jerome in its heyday, giving it the reputation of being the wickedest town in the west. The town of Jerome even burned to the ground and was rebuilt three times in the 1890s alone. By 1953, the last of the mines had closed, forcing most of the town’s residents to seek work elsewhere, leaving Jerome a truly abandoned ghost town.
People from counterculture movements in the 1960s and 70s took advantage of the opportunity to repopulate this hillside town far away from the surrounding cities and isolated by the harsh desert landscape. A town where they could live on the margins of mainstream society and cultivate a colony of artists, musicians, craftsmen, thinkers, doers, and creators. Locals will tell you that although Jerome has been home to a handful of celebrities, everyone is the town is an artist. Fame or lack thereof is irrelevant to the common pursuit of creation. This town, in spite of its dark and sordid past, and in many ways because of it, has become an enclave of the offbeat, and its energy unlike anything Tyler and I had ever experienced until our first visit a year prior.
I could have spared you the history lesson, but it is all immensely important to the residents of the town, so much so that every interaction with a Jerome artist, shop owner, restaurateur, winemaker, innkeeper, or vagrant hippie is a lesson in history, political science, geology, meteorology, anthropology, and civic pride. The locals are brimming with information about the place they call home, and are more than eager to share it with visitors.
Though there are two hotels and various bed and breakfasts, we chose to stay in an apartment for the week. We liked the idea of the privacy and the comforts of home this option would offer. The Flat at Flatiron Café is a comfortably small, comically awkward studio apartment above one of Jerome’s most popular eateries, and in one of its most unique structures. The café below sells t-shirts that quip “New York, San Francisco, London, Paris, Jerome” pointing out the fact that like the world’s greatest cosmopolitan cities, Jerome also has a “flatiron” building. This would be our chosen home base to watch the world go by for a week. From our bed we could look down through the oversized picture window and see the triangular building cleave the road in two, watching tourists huff and puff their way uphill and the locals open their businesses in the morning and close down in the evening. Our living space boasted beautiful handmade furniture crafted by local artisans from railroad ties and other scrap, rustic embossed tin ceilings, creaky hardwood floors, and even an old restored Studebaker sign that adorned the wall. There was a small kitchenette and a sitting area. Our view out of the northern (downhill) side of the building overlooked the rooftops of Jerome, down into the hazy green of the Verde Valley with the famous red rocks of Sedona on the distant horizon radiating their amber glow.
After checking in and cleaning up, we decided to find sustenance. Fortunately for us, we didn’t have to look far. Right next door to our flat is Belgian Jenny’s Bordello Pizzeria, named for one of Jerome’s most infamous (and most wealthy) madams. The owner, Tom Pitts, is something of a local legend. He has everything on his resume from president of the Verde Valley Wine Consortium to president of the Jerome Chamber of Commerce, to unofficial town historian, restaurateur, bard, and one gets the sense, de facto mayor. The menu at his restaurant greets diners with an ominous warning: “THIS IS NOT A FAST FOOD RESTAURANT.” In fact, it’s just the opposite. Once Tom seats you, no matter how many or few patrons are dining, expect to talk to him for at least 30 minutes before he even takes a drink order. Once he brings your drinks it is another 15 before he will even consider a food order. He talks while the food cooks, he talks while you eat, and he talks when you’re finished. He even talks after you’ve paid him and thanked him for the wonderful meal. It is not inane chatter, and it is not for the impatient. Tom loves everything about Jerome, and he loves to make sure that visitors leave knowing it is more than just a quirky ghost town chock full of hippies and weirdos. Of equal importance, the full Italian menu is prepared from scratch, and it is nothing short of excellent. Our bellies full of pizza and wine and our heads spinning from the heap of knowledge that Tom hurled at them, we retired to our flat to rest up for the coming week.
Our first full day in Jerome, we explored the town on foot, walking up the mountainside to the Jerome Grand Hotel, the largest structure in the town that was once a hospital for those on the elite side of the mining business. Also, it’s allegedly haunted, which is a common theme for places and spaces in Jerome. We strolled back down hill to the Haunted Hamburger (again, allegedly haunted) restaurant for a mid-afternoon drink, and then explored the old miner’s apartments-turned-shops where we find bodegas specializing in everything from wine to hot sauce to tattoos, a store dedicated to selling the merchandise of a singular band, and an artisan whose sole medium is glitter. Yes, glitter. Only in Jerome. We then venture down to the Jerome artist Cooperative where we purchase our first of many pieces of art we would bring home from this trip thanks to our generous family and friends. The print is by local artist Raina Gentry and entitled “Robot Love.” The colorful piece depicts two robots holding hands. Quirky. Fun. Perfect for our new home together.
Parched from all the walking and browsing, we decide that it’s time for a wine tasting. It surprises many people to learn that Northern Arizona is home to a burgeoning wine industry, but in fact, this was our prime reason for choosing this town for our honeymoon. As Tom told us, indigenous peoples were successfully growing grapes and making wine there thousands of years ago. Noting that the landscape resembles those of well-known wine regions in Spain, Italy, and southern France, this is no surprise. Prohibition stamped out the industry in Arizona until very recently. Now, award-winning wines are being produced in this region. We stopped into Caduceus Cellars, the tasting room for two wine labels owned and operated by international recording artist Maynard James Keenan. We came in for a tasting and walked out with two new local acquaintances and three bottles of delicious vino to ship home.
Later that night, we attended a ghost tour of the town with Tours of Jerome. Much to the chagrin of the two young, tow-headed children in our group, this tour was less kitsch and camp, and more walking history lesson. Tour guide Reckless Rick regaled us with gruesome stories of unfortunate events in the town and the resulting hauntings in some of Jerome’s most famous homes, bordellos, jails, hospitals, and inns. After our tour, we retired to one of only two bars in the town of Jerome: Paul and Jerry’s Saloon. It was here we once again ran into Reckless Rick and his fellow tour guide Shotgun Sadie (or Richard and Pat, as we learned), who invited us to sit down to share a drink with them as they talked shop from ghost tours to small town politics. Our new friends, and bartender/owner George, Sr. made us feel like part of the town, privy to its ancient history as well as yesterday’s dirty laundry.
Our next morning, we explored the neighboring communities of Clarkdale and Cottonwood, both down in the valley mere miles from Home Sweet Jerome. Historic downtown Cottonwood is dotted with cafes and antique stores, and one wonderful book and record store. Against our better judgment, we purchased ten or so vinyl records knowing that somehow we would have to get them home in our luggage. We distracted ourselves from this concern with cool and refreshing Bourbon Pecan gelato from Crema Café before heading back up the hill to Jerome.
That evening we were itching to crack open some of our Arizona wine, but wanted to do so outside so that we could enjoy radiant sunset on the red rocks and the cool crisp breeze that blows over the mountain and down into the valley. Unsure of local ordinances, we disguised our libation in empty Diet Pepsi cans and headed for the park in the middle of town. We sat at a picnic table where we could watch people shuffle up and down Main Street while we sipped our beverages. We observed the nightly ritual of tourists packing up and leaving the town to settle into its quiet evenings with its 450 permanent residents. This would become an almost nightly ritual for us, especially after we learned that alcoholic beverages were perfectly legal in the park as long as no glass is involved and it is before 10 PM. Fair enough.
As I have mentioned, there are only two locations for nightlife in Jerome and they are literally yards from each other, and both directly across from the park. Back to Paul and Jerry’s for us. We love a good dive, but this bar, like most buildings in Jerome, reeks of history. This place had all the trappings of a real Wild West saloon: swinging doors, a grand solid wood bar, tin ceilings, tin type photos on the wall, ancient light fixtures, well-worn billiards tables, a couple loners bellied up to the bar, and a stoic yet polite bartender. Also, your plastic is no good here – it is a cash only bar. The only indications of the 21st century were the Red Bull refrigerator and the jukebox. After ordering drinks, husband and I took advantage of the free billiards until he got tired of losing. At this point, I was challenged to a friendly game of “Jerome Eight” by a local. I learned that this is a game of regular 8-ball rules, except that the 8-ball shot must be banked off a rail or another ball. Challenge accepted. Also, I won. Multiple times. I made an agreement with my new friend Randall to never speak of my victories, lest my new friend be shamed by the other local pool sharks for losing to a tourist.
Wednesday morning brought a new adventure. We rolled out of bed, slathered on the sunscreen, and drove west to Camp Verde to paddle down the Verde River. After a seven mile drive out into the valley on a one-lane dirt road, we arrived at the Sedona Outdoor Adventures outpost. We looked forward to beating the desert heat with a leisurely float. The guide warned us that the monsoons had made the river swift and muddy, and that we would have to use some elbow grease to paddle to the bank where we would exit the river. We floated and splashed, laughed and relaxed for 45 minutes, then beyond a patch of rapids, we spotted our exit. I successfully paddled to the side. Husband kept going downriver. Amid a string of profanities, and splashing, he negotiated his way to the side as I traipsed through the heavy riverside brush to retrieve him and his raft. Perhaps a metaphor for marriage? No matter how far your partner floats downstream, leave no man behind. As we walked back upriver to our exit, I saw the guide, (who had come to take us back to the starting point) standing high on the bank watching this comedy of errors with mild amusement. Somehow, I convinced Tyler to make one more run down the river. This run was less eventful with the exception of a lost pair of flip-flops, a fire ant nest, and a minor knee-scrape. Poor husband. He and nature weren’t getting along that day.
In search of food, shade, and A/C, we drove back through Camp Verde to make a donation to the Cliff Castle Casino on the Yavapai-Apache reservation. Though it was not on the grand scale of Las Vegas casinos, we enjoyed feeding our money to the “one-armed bandits,” drinking complementary sodas, and taking a break from the desert sun. Here, the tables were turned on our husband and wife luck. Tyler got a taste of redemption from his river mishaps by winning back all the money that I was losing. As we played, we made the observation that we were the youngest patrons in the building by at least 20 years. We later learned from Paul and Jerry’s bartender, George, Jr., that some locals call this casino the “Crypt Keeper” instead of the Cliff Castle due to the age of most of the clientele. No matter. We had fun and more or less broke even.
Back up the hill to Jerome, we cleaned up and headed out to dinner at Quince Grill and Cantina, a regionally commended southwestern restaurant captained by Executive Chef Vlad Costa, who had coincidentally acquired the flatiron building just months before our trip, and thus was our “landlord/innkeeper” for the week. This tiny restaurant is constantly packed, and some of its patrons make the trip to Jerome for no other reason than to indulge in the Baja-Tex-Mex cuisine. The space is adorned with bedazzled cattle skulls, Dia De Los Muertos sugar skulls, hand crafted crosses and other interesting art by Verde Valley natives. We highly recommend the “Christmas” burritos which are served swimming in both red and green house-made mole sauce. On the recommendation of several locals, we decided to check out the other bar in Jerome: The Spirit Room (allegedly haunted). Wednesday night is their open mic night. Much to our surprise it was not tourist karaoke, but local singers, songwriters, and musicians pouring their hearts out on stage in earnest. While sipping drinks and listening to live music is our ideal evening, it would not be the highlight of this one.
Enter Papa Snake. A tall, lanky, gray haired biker in a Harley Davidson shirt and a baseball cap lurched into the Spirit Room. He went from table to table asking people how they were. My response? “Perfect.” He slowly turned and looked me directly in the eyes. In a low, serious tone he growled, “Perfect? Well that’s pretty G—D— good.” We both couldn’t help but chuckle. What followed was a marathon evening with Papa Snake (who refused to tell us his real named but was outed as a benign “Glenn” by one of his local pals) and his lady friend who he swore up and down looked like Helen Hunt. We spun webs with this pair about love, marriage, and children, family pasts, world travels, and all manner of other things. The more Papa Snake drank, the more lovey he got. Same for Helen. It’s surreal to witness a burly biker named after his old cobra tattoo giggling like a school girl over newlyweds and weeping over his pride in the professional success of his “baby brother.” What a pair they were, chatty, genuine, and fun. As we left to walk home for the evening, they hugged us and made us promise to come back to Jerome soon. We assured our unlikely new friends we would try our very best.
Thursday morning, we set out across the valley to visit the town of Sedona and hike among the legendary red rocks. Earlier in the week, the glitter artist had strongly urged us to take the longer, “back” route into Sedona, citing the more breath taking views of the rock formations. After negotiating his sloppily scrawled map and fearing that we would end up lost in the desert, we saw the sign: Entering Sedona. The Glitter Guru was right. What a wonderful tip, and further reason why we advocate for interacting with the locals when you travel. You never know what gem of traveling advice you’ll stumble upon. We parked at the trailhead and set out on our hike to the Chapel of the Holy Cross, a chapel built directly into the side of the red rocks, and a four-mile round trip hike. The first mile or so was easy, then we began to feel as if we had grossly underestimated the desert sun and heat. We eventually made it to the chapel, the only ones brave (crazy?) enough to have hiked to the destination in the late summer heat, instead of arriving on a nice, air-conditioned motor-coach like everyone else.
It was worth it. The chapel, although stark, is extraordinary. The Windows behind the altar capture a striking vista of the red rocks, and the quaint “urban sprawl” of the town of Sedona. After exploring the small chapel and its gift shop (A/C and water!), we mustered the strength to hike the two or so miles back to the car. We then drove into Sedona to explore the strip of gift shops, candy and confections outlets, and the new-age crystal, tarot, meditation, yoga, energy vortex market that has come to characterize its downtown. A couple chocolate covered strawberries later and we were ready for a meal. After spending all day in the desert sun, we were in no mood for hot food, so we located the nearest sushi bar and promptly placed an order that may have temporarily exhausted the west coast fish supply. Resisting a food coma, we schlepped back to Jerome, a hot shower, and a glass of wine in the park and bed.
We had scheduled our Friday to be a day or relaxation after all of the outdoor adventures. We got off to a late and leisurely start and made the trip to Page Springs Cellars for our couples massage, winery tour, and tasting. It was as heavenly as it sounds. The massage tent is positioned between the acres of grapevines and the crisp, cool, and clear Oak Creek. Our massage therapist Shawna treated us each to an hour-long deep tissue massage paired with cold stone therapy that felt wonderful in the desert heat. We relaxed, listening to the staff work the vines on one side and the creek babble along on the other.
After our massage we strolled up to the winery and tasting room to meet up with our tour group. Late summer in the Verde Valley is when the wineries harvest and crush their fruit, beginning the fermentation process so the finished wines can be barreled or bottled in winter. It is a wonderful time to tour a winery and learn first-hand the intensity of labor and multitude of processes that go into making wine. We got to see each facet of the process from the harvest of ripe fruit, to the destemming of the grapes, to the crush, to the fermentation. We learned about the equipment and the cost of operation, about the unique characteristics of Arizona wine, and about how wine blends are selected and perfected by this boutique operation. At the end of our tour we returned to the tasting room to sample and, of course, purchase some more wine. Here we also purchased yet another print by artist Raina Gentry. This one, equally colorful, depicts a blackbird clutching a cluster of grapes in its talons. We drove back through Cottonwood on our way home to Jerome, stopping at Concho’s Mexican restaurant in Old Town Cottonwood. This eatery was nothing exceptional to look at, but the food was fresh and delicious and the service was outstanding. Back at headquarters, we regrouped and headed to the park for our nightly sit-n-sip.
Tonight was special. We met local artists and professional know-it-alls Les and Tony. These are guys that most people wouldn’t give a second look. Slightly older-than-middle-aged men armed with tall cans of Coors and opinions about everything from international political economy to salvage diving, these two gents engaged us in good conversation for over an hour. While they acknowledged that many people would call them hippies based on their appearance and where they live, we learned that these are two of Jerome’s extraordinarily intelligent men who have seen and done a lot in their lifetimes and, refreshingly, have nothing to prove. They are content to simply be and let the waves of life wash over and around them, and they know that the town of Jerome allows them that lifestyle free of judgment. With full brains heavy hearts we headed to the flat and to bed, knowing that then next day would be our last full day in Home Sweet Jerome.
Saturday morning we slept late in preparation for our imminent all-nighter and then meandered downstairs to eat brunch in the Flatiron Café. At brunch I discovered on my Facebook feed that Caduceus Cellars would be releasing around 500 bottles of their most coveted wine THAT DAY and that it would be available ONLY in the tasting room. Yes, fortune smiled upon us that day and we promptly dashed up the street to purchase a bottle to save for our first anniversary, or maybe for our fifth, or tenth. Given that this bottle was quite the investment, we plan to let it taunt us from our wine rack as long as we can stand it. We lingered in the tasting room as the jovial bartender poured tastes of this and that, and oh we had to try this, and we can’t leave without trying that. Have a glass of this one, share a glass of that one. There's nothing like a good wine buzz right after brunch.
We spent much of the afternoon walking it off, revisiting shops we had vowed earlier in the week to return to. Finally, we resigned ourselves to the task of packing for the long voyage home. Two suitcases, two carry-ons, seven bottles of wine, four tasting glasses, ten vinyl records, two matted art prints, one poster in a tube, and five postcards would later that night make it home to North Carolina without incident. Again, fortune smiled.
After we packed the car, we returned for one last pizza/lecture by Tom Pitts at Belgian Jenny’s Bordello Pizzeria. We both hoped dinner and conversation would linger on forever, but it was time to go home. We went up to the flat for one last goodbye, shed a couple tears and thanked the flat and the town of Jerome for the memories, locked the key in the apartment and hit the dusty trail. We weren’t due at the airport until 4 AM and concluded that there is no better place to while away a late night than a casino, so back to the “Crypt Keeper” we went to gamble the remaining $100 of our $2500 honeymoon haul. This time, we chugged coffee and both of us managed to lose a few dollars. In the wee hours of the morning we ventured back down the desert highway to Phoenix to catch our plane home. Our only consolation for leaving our funky desert paradise for a full day of travel was that neither of us had to work the following day, Labor Day. At this point I patted myself on the back for my superb forethought in planning our honeymoon.
In registering with Traveler’s Joy, we opted for memories in lieu of material gifts, and what a wonderful decision it was. If you don’t need more “stuff", Traveler’s Joy is for you. If passive travel is just not your style, Jerome is for you. Our honeymoon was full of adventure, life-enriching experiences, learning, great food, funny stories, and most of all, the handful of people that embraced us as part of their community for the week we were there. Jerome is a special place, full of special people. This rugged mountain town changed us, made us more intuitive, more adventurous, more receptive to shared experiences, and, we believe, set the tone for our marriage. We are looking forward to many anniversary trips, maybe even family vacations there in the future. Who knows? Perhaps one day, if we should be so fortunate, we will call it home. For good.