Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Sweet Summer Dreams in the Verde Valley

This story was written for Arizona Office of Tourism's Arizona Insider "Guest Blogger" program. The post, which ran July 14th, 2014, was edited and chopped up a bit strangely, making my story a lil' clunky/klutzy in their version. I thought I'd share my original here:

Sweet Summer Dreams in the Verde Valley

Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ
Brassy big band tunes waft over us from the landmark gazebo, packed full of percussion, strings and horns. Sinking deep into the dark edges of the park's soft summer lawn, we look up at the endless stars that echo the crowd of lawn chairs and blankets below. Cool breezes rolling down from Mingus Mountain add a faint hint of chill to the night air. Though, for a moment it feels we are part of a movie or some bucolic small town dream, in reality, it's the Town of Clarkdale's free Summer Concert Series and just one aspect of this season's magic in the Verde Valley. With live music scheduled on select Saturday evenings through September, it's not at all unusual to witness spontaneous acts of waltzing, two-stepping and foxtrotting in the historic town park.

Summer Concert Series, Clarkdale Park, Clarkdale AZ
The Verde Valley, named one of Lonely Planet's Top 10 US Travel destinations for 2013, is comprised of several historic, high desert communities, each springing forth from the 19th and 20th centuries to utilize some abundant natural resource or fill some urgent local need: mining, ranching, agriculture, military presence and bootlegging. Jerome, Clarkdale, Cottonwood, Sedona, Camp Verde and Cornville each have its own distinct personalities yet remain cohesive. The rivers connect us and flow through us, tangling us together as Oak Creek and Beaver Creek make its way toward the Verde. The region’s ideal climate has long made it an idyllic human habitat as evidenced by ancient dwellings throughout the area, including Montezuma Castle and Tuzigoot.

Verde River as seen from Verde Canyon Railroad, running red during summer monsoon season, 

A variety of attractions, adventures, art, wining and dining provides a wealth of intrigue for visitors. 

Cathedral Rock, Sedona, AZ

Scenic Sedona is the best known Verde Valley town, straddling the border of Yavapai and Coconino counties. Highlights include its expanse of national forest girdling the town, its many hiking and mountain biking trails, resorts, world class spas and cafes. This red sandstone wonderland is renowned for its spiritual energy, vortexes and new age sensibility. But Sedona is not just a postcard or a movie set. It's also a real place behind the scenes, where people live and work. It's where we go to the dentist and where we see movies!

Buddha Beach, Oak Creek, Sedona, AZ

Summer is our warmest season, and for this reason the most popular for riparian fun. We locals spend a good percentage of June, July and August along the shady river and creek banks, picnicking, paddling, splashing, floating or just totally submerged neck-deep in the cool water. The Verde Valley is enjoying some fresh renown as a river fun zone, with day-use access areas being improved from north of Clarkdale through Cottonwood, continuing past Camp Verde. Cottonwood’s Dead Horse Ranch State Park provides great trails, camping, fishing and river access. Verde River Adventure Center in Clarkdale rents kayaks, tubes and other inflatables, providing guide and shuttle service for easy day trips.

Verde River, Beasley Flats, Camp Verde, AZ

Another great way to enjoy the river canyon scenery and wildlife, without getting splashed, is to take a train ride aboard Clarkdale’s Verde Canyon Railroad. Running year-round on a varied schedule, this heritage railroad dates from 1912 and provides a comfortable climate-controlled way to catch a glimpse of the very rare ribbon where riparian and desert ecosystems meet. Starlight rides are a sensational seasonal specialty, heading out in late afternoon and returning through sunset and moonlight.

A flight at Caduceus Cellars, Jerome AZ

While in Clarkdale be sure to visit the newest additions to historic Main Street: The Copper Art Museum and Four-Eight Wineworks, book-ending the area’s mining past and wine future. The Verde Valley’s booming viticulture scene began in the 1990s in Cornville, a sleepy rural town near Oak Creek. Along the winding Page Springs Road, you’ll find the starting point for the region’s growing wine notoriety. Vineyards cascade down the sandy hillsides and wine-tasting rooms cluster like grapes. From here, the wine flows throughout the valley like the creeks that connect us.

Camp Verde, a river town with an adorable historic Main Street, is home to cowboys, horse ranches, pecan farms and Fort Verde State Park. If games of chance and glow-in-the-dark bowling suit your style, Cliff Castle Casino is an entertaining diversion run by the area’s Yavapai-Apache tribe. More daring yet: zip-lining over lions and tigers at Out of Africa Wildlife Park!

Old Town Cottonwood has enjoyed a renaissance over the past decade. Once best known as the bootlegging epicenter of the Southwest, by the 1990s this part of historic Main Street was a sleepy, going-to-seed, slow-down spot. Today, this vintage stretch of 89A is not just a place to tap your brakes. It's worth pulling over for serious exploration. Packed with pedestrians, wine-tasting rooms, antique shops and galleries, great restaurants and fun lodging, Old Town makes a great starting point for an area visit.

And there, mile high, twinkling and winking in the cool nighttime, Jerome watches over all from its lofty perch on Cleopatra Hill. This former ghost town is an exceptional place to enjoy a sunset glowing Sedona red in the distance. Ideal to explore by day or night, Jerome is home to great architecture, shops, museums, wonderful places to eat and historic, haunted hotels where you can rest your head. 

 The town’s popular ARTwalk takes place the first Saturday of every month; from 5:30pm-8:30pm galleries and studios stay open later than usual into the tranquil mountain evening, serving refreshments and conversation with real live local artists. We lived in Jerome for a number of years and enjoyed the tightly-knit community, a crazy mash-up of native long-time locals, hippies, artists and big city escapees. In the 1960s and '70s counterculture types arrived in Jerome and essentially saved the town's history and buildings with their gumption and elbow grease.

Jerome, AZ

With its milder, high desert temperatures, glorious landscapes and vibrant communities there are endless amusements in the Verde Valley, a variety to keep visitors delighted all summer long. As residents, we see a lifetime’s worth of beauty, adventure and cinematic moments everywhere we look.

Clarkdale Classic Station

Ellen Jo Roberts is an artist and shutterbug who lives in Clarkdale, Arizona, where she spends the workday as the group coordinator for Verde Canyon Railroad. Read more of her writing on: Ellen Jo is a part of the Arizona Office of Tourism’s Guest Blogger Program.

It Just Doesn't Matter

"It just doesn't matter! It just doesn't matter!"
- Bill Murray, Meatballs c.1979

Mother's Day is sometimes hard to swallow. While I love all of the moms in my life, especially my own, and want to celebrate them, I also can't wait for the day to be done and the hoopla to fade away for another year.

There's something awkward about it for me, about people telling me I am a great mom to my pets and other such silliness. It's not my day, and I'd rather not be included in it. You don't need to try to include me in it! Please! I know my dogs are not the same as children (though they do fill a niche in my soul to nurture and care for something).

Though we've been married since age 23, Chad and I never had kids.
I never managed to get knocked-up, even by accident. It wasn't for lack of interest or effort.
It just wasn't in the cards for us.

In our younger years it was about money- Not enough of it.
Then we realized there would never be enough of it.
So we did go for it pretty seriously for a few years in our mid-to-late 30s, but perhaps waited too late.
Fertility is a tricky thing. A scant 48 hours every 28 days, losing potency as the years pass.

After a few years I got checked out, scrutinized by bloodwork and other horrifying, invasive tests only to discover there was not a thing wrong with me on the child-bearing front. Of course my uterus was awesome and my ovaries wealthy! Knowing this didn't make the situation any easier to swallow. Ultimately the idea of medical assistance or scientific intervention was where we drew the line. I felt like if we used artificial means to conjure up a child who did not want to be here we were just asking for trouble. The universe was in control, not us.  Like most heart-breaks I'm sure it will all make sense in the end when we're a bit further away and can see things more clearly, with more perspective.

In being a non-parent I sometimes feel like I missed out on some universal experience and some adventures I will never know. I'm not in the club!  But that's more about my own selfish needs-- not what some kid might be missing. There is no kid that needed to have me as his or her parent.  The world is plenty populous and the universe will be just fine without my DNA extending into a new generation. 

Often I think I've been gifted with a lot of talents, and am being greedy to imagine I could have more given to me. 

I've always had a natural ease around children, an open-faced honesty they respond to, and they gravitate to me. In my younger years always had a trail of kids following me around like the Pied Piper. For many summers I was a camp counselor and an art instructor and thought about becoming a teacher because I find so much fun and inspiration being with children. If you asked me as at age 12 how many kids I might have someday I was sure I'd have a whole baseball team of my own. However, I'm 42 now and each year that passes the idea of bearing a child grows more dim. Mother's Day sometimes makes me feel a little bit like a failure, but that failure feeling is growing dimmer as well. I've let go of the notion.

Here are some other things I don't like about being a Non-Mom...
  • People with kids stop inviting you to their events. They start to hang out with just other people who have kids. I am an outsider looking in. I don't know the secret handshake.
  • Not knowing how to hold a newborn properly. I always feel like a klutz.
  • Most holidays are no big deal. Because most of them are geared towards family and children.
  • People pitying me for not having children. Sometimes I see a sad look hidden behind their eyes, like how one might glance forlornly at a hobo. 
  • I didn't use every part of my body to its fullest capacity! I have organs I never used, and for this I feel bad.  I shouldn't feel this way though, because nobody does, not ever--Not unless they're an Olympic athlete who sings opera, a deep sea diver who writes novels, a mountain climber dabbling in sky diving, or something!) My boobs were never used for their primary intention! What a waste! 360 menstrual cycles, wasted. What was the point of all muss and fuss if none of it was even gonna be utilized?
  • I get angry with my husband somehow, just a random faraway anger, for his half in this failure.
  • If you have friends who are parents, everything else takes a back seat to the demands of raising their children- events they've been invited to but can't attend, friends, other family, their own creative dreams and ambitions.I know for a fact lots of folks use their kids as an excuse when they just don't want to do something. 
  • I have such happy memories of my own childhood, and to this day remain the biggest, happiest silliest kid who never grew up. For this (plus my remarkable patience), I know I'd have been a great parent.
    I see so much beauty in the world and ache to share it with everyone.
  • As much as we're told about all of the parentless children in the world needing a home, adoption seems complicated and expensive.
  • I get the feeling that people think childless couples are selfish yuppies. The term DINKS refers to "double-income-no-kids". But really, aren't I more selfish if I feel I must foist my genes onto an already crowded planet?
  • It must be difficult to raise children in the 21st century. I've seen family struggle with their tweens and young teens, facing issues we never had to deal with growing up in the 1970s and '80s. The internet, smart phones, cyber-bullying, sexting. With the information age, children are growing up online, with all of their exploits filling my newsfeed. Is this healthy for the child's future attitude to have spent its formative years so broadcast so constantly? We shall see how this affects them in adulthood. I like social media and the internet, but I also lived more than half my life without it, and I feel like for this reason I have more of a grasp of its reach than some kid who grew up on it. All of my teen angst is mercifully locked into notebooks stashed in a box in my closet.
  • When I am very old there may be no one to take care of me or check in on me. I might end up "that crazy old lady down the street".All of my precious artifacts will end up in a landfill and all of my photo albums will end up in some thrift store, maybe to be saved by some merciful hipster. Maybe I will be my generation's Vivian Maier...if I'm lucky.
  • The sense of superiority many parents sometimes get. It can be downright cruel to someone who never knew the joys of raising a child.
    Worst of all: When people say "Having children was the most important thing I ever did. Nothing else matters. My life is complete now", what I hear is "Nothing you're doing matters." and "Your life is incomplete."  
Here are some things I like about being a Non-Mom.
  • Kids are a colossal, in-fathomable amount of work, expense and time. You can't even get enough peace to sit on the toilet without someone shouting for you. Children are always distracting you and commanding your attention! This is why many of my friends who are parents have forgotten their own identities as human beings, as well as their own interests.
  • You can never leave kids solo, especially young ones, but I can leave my dogs at home alone anytime.
  • According to a Vanity Fair poll, most parents feel their children were at their "most perfect" as newborns, followed by runner-up "when they leave the house and go off on their own as adults." Therefore, the whole middle part must be a big hassle?
  • Pregnancy and birth are used as exciting plot devices on TV shows, to generate interest, just like weddings. However, most of the time after the birth the kids barely register on the radar. Think Jim and Pam on The Office. Nobody cares about the kids anymore after the big exciting birth scene! We barely ever see them again!
  • Toddlers and Tiaras. People sometimes treat their kids like possessions, dolls, marionettes, something other than real-live human beings with their own goals and their own souls. It's gross.
  • I can be the totally cool Auntie without any of the hum-drum, day-to-day stuff. (Though I wish I lived closer to my nieces and nephews and could spend more time with them, hum drum or not).
  • Though they're in the minority, there are lots of important people I admire who've never raised children: Many artists, writers, actors, musicians, special teachers who influenced my life. No one would say these people haven't contributed to the world.
  • My bod is only being wrecked by gravity and the passage of time, not by the passage of a baby through my birth canal.
  • What I leave behind when I'm gone is not in the form of a human being. As an artist I make my creative mark in other ways,  leaving behind a trail of paintings, writing, photos, documentation. Probably every thing we ever put on the internet will linger forever and travel to distant planets. I often wonder if being an artist, constantly creating things both big and small, silly and serious, has already quenched some deep-seated innate craving to create that for some folks is only truly sated by creating babies. (If I had to make a choice between having artistic talent and being able to make babies, I'd definitely stick with art.) 
  • My dogs will never learn to read or write, or have a conversation, but they'll also never ask to borrow the car or for help with their Algebra homework. They will never need college tuition. And they don't talk back. They will never slam a door on my face.
  • Teenagers. Ugh.
  • A child could be your most amazing, enriching relationship but there's no guarantee, despite all of your best efforts, that your child won't one day completely devastate you worse than any other relationship could. Parents who have lost their children to fatal injuries, accidents, drugs, crime or disease, never seem to fully recover. 
In the end, they're perhaps pretty well-balanced the pros and cons of it all.
I imagine if Chad and I had had children early in our marriage they'd be heading off to college about now anyway. 

That leads to one more "pro" :
  • Empty Nest Syndrome. We won't ever need to go through that melancholy feeling parents get when their kids grow up and move away. 
and one more "con": 
  • (Instead I guess it's been supplanted by a low-grade melancholy we've felt for years because no kid ever even bothered to show up in the first place.)
I struggled to compose this post in a way that would not offend my many friends and family members with children. Eventually I realized this post was not for them, rather it was for my legion of fellow childless folk who may share some of these sentiments. People with kids get a lion's share of attention already and don't really need any more. People like me, wondering if it's okay or not that they never managed to have kids? They need some support and encouragement too.