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Easy Riders

After a Maine winter, this was our dream—an Arizona motorcycle trip that combined riding and hiking, ghost towns and luxury spas, and fabulous Southwestern cuisine

L'Auberge de Sedona: An oasis of cool

We Mainers know that it's not just the snow that makes our winters hard. It isn't the endless cancellations or even the constant gray skies. It is the chilly dampness that seeps into your bones and makes your body feel like you are about a thousand years old: stiff, achy, tired, cranky, stuffed-up, a runny nose, postnasal drip, dry and haggard skin, and good and goddam sick of your life.

Some years, not even the summers here make it worthwhile.

This was one of them. By the end of March, I knew that if I discovered one more dull throbbing pain or heard my husband blow his nose one more time …

We found a last-minute flight to Phoenix, land of nothing we thought we were interested in, but we got a good deal on the airfare and there had to be something to all that dry desert weather everyone always goes on about.

I needed some sun and a great pool where I could charge gin and tonics and club sandwiches to the room. I had in mind a couple of good massages, and we both wanted carnitas and maybe some hiking. Definitely, we both needed to feel healthy again, not like a pair of fat walruses never able to clear the phlegm out of our throats.

We would fly into Phoenix, head down to Tucson, then back north to Sedona. In between, we would lay over for the weekend in Scottsdale too so I could finally see Taliesin West. We would see two other couples during our travels, both of whom had bailed on the Northeast permanently. And to satisfy Ralph's vacation needs, we would do it by motorcycle.

Considering our dual-purpose trip, wardrobe was more of a challenge. We needed helmets, riding gear and dinner clothes, plus things for hiking, sitting by the pool and all the regular stuff of vacation travel. And it all had to fit into two side cases, each the size of a toaster oven. But we stowed cold weather clothes and suitcases at the rental place, walked next door for a fabulous down-and-dirty Mexican lunch, and were poolside at the Westin La Paloma in Tucson by 4 that afternoon.

I had picked La Paloma for its location in the Catalina foothills and its renowned oasis of five different swimming pools, plus a beautiful gym and Red Door spa. Ralph could ride the Sonoran desert during the day, while I loafed. Right down the road was a cushy upscale dude ranch with a Wine Spectator award.

RELATED: Take a Hike

There's a reason people move to places like Arizona and Southern California for the climate. The weather during the entire 10-day trip was relentless: sunny, dry and in the 80s during the day; temperate enough to sit outside with long sleeves at night. Waking up the first morning in Tucson, we noticed immediately that neither of us had the usual Maine-morning catarrh and could stretch in luxury without every joint crunching. And despite the fact that we'd had two bottles of wine the night before, neither of us felt the least bit hungover. That was an unanticipated feel-better benefit that would accompany us everywhere in the state.

We spent our last day in Tucson proper, taking a suggestion from a New York friend to look up his friend Drew, who we'd met once in Manhattan but who was now living with his wife in Arizona. The curiosity we'd had about life there was piqued even further by their obvious happiness. They lived in a beautiful home, in a walkable, friendly neighborhood, enjoying Mexican food, funky bars and local music. Our daylong tour ended with a late lunch at Café Poco Casa and a round of local beer at the Congress, and I found a soul sister in Jill, whose childhood background was so similar to mine that we probably bumped into each other somewhere at least once. We've made plans for them to come to Maine and escape their heat this summer; they have us thinking about renting a house in Tucson for a couple of months next winter.

By the time we headed back to Phoenix four days later—after our respective morning gym sessions, brilliant blue skies, a day ride into downtown Tucson and a ridiculously expensive massage and pedi for me—we both felt like younger, more energetic versions of ourselves. Ralph had ridden out to the ghost towns of Tombstone and Bisbee, and his lower back barely complained despite the cooped-up plane ride and an unfamiliar bike. Meanwhile, the massage had given me a renewed body awareness that we both enjoyed, numerous times.

Old Town Scottsdale was downright hot, but the Saguaro Hotel had two shaded pools in the courtyard, separated by an allee of palm trees wound with twinkling white lights and a fun outdoor bar. We managed to squeeze in some naps on the pool chaises between leisurely walk-and-talks, Michelada stops and pozole at Barrio Queen. We probably walked 10 miles that weekend, our energy level never flagging. I noticed that even my hair felt different in the hot, dry air: Usually limp, it was behaving downright luxuriantly.

Sunday night, we rendezvoused with an old colleague and his wife, who'd become friends when I reviewed restaurants for New Jersey Monthly magazine back in the 1980s. Himself a restaurant consultant of considerable repute, Bob and his wife, Judy, had moved to Phoenix around the same time we relocated to Maine, and while we'd emailed and Facebooked and talked occasionally on the phone, we hadn't seen them since.

He'd snagged a reservation at uber-hot FnB restaurant—and even arranged to bring wine made by his son, who had a vineyard in California—but it was clear from the moment we saw them that warm weather, plenty of golf and a dollar that stretches infinitely longer and wider than in the New York area agreed with them. Their assault on us began almost immediately. Imagine wearing sandals, getting plenty of sunshine and motorcycling year round. They assured us that Arizona wasn't an entirely red state, and that there was more to the restaurant scene than Mexican food and ranchhand-huge breakfasts. Walking back to the hotel after closing out the restaurant, even Ralph admitted the lifestyle sounded tempting.

My idea of vacation heaven may be scads of thick towels and a proper breakfast every day, but for reasons I can only guess at, my husband likes to scare the crap out of himself. So on Monday, as we took our time heading up to Sedona, I agreed to a side trip to Jerome, a historic old mining town that literally clings to the side of a mountain in the Black Hills of Yavapai County.

Even riding pillion on the back, my life in Ralph's hands, there were times when I could not look out over the falling nothingness to the right of the steep, twisting, two-lane road. Ralph can't look anywhere but the blacktop and maybe a glance ahead and yet still he wants to do it. When I finally climbed off the bike in Jerome, it was onto shaking rubber legs, but I felt better after I ducked around the corner and discretely vomited into a trash can. He had to step carefully over his XL cojones, so I guess I do understand the point after all.

We had booked four nights at L'Auberge de Sedona, a rustic luxury resort nestled along Oak Creek, an oasis of cool that cuts a secluded canyon to the Verde River. I'd wanted to stay there since I edited a travel book about the region 23 years earlier. As gorgeous and dramatic as the Red Rock setting is, the town of Sedona itself is an overbuilt, touristy nightmare. But down by the creek you are away from all of that. It never failed to delight us to climb steep hillside steps and emerge, backs to the town, to those God-lit views of rocks and sun and shadow.

Ralph loves to hike, and I will do it if I have to, but in that amazing country and with that fabulous dry air, my knees felt 25 again, not 58. We hiked all that first day, and I insisted we do it again the next. My leg and butt muscles felt powerful, and I loved the way my now-tanned arms looked in my tank top.

Hiking in the Red Rocks is unsullied pleasure. You can find out everything you need to know on the interweb, from the geology of a certain formation to the difficulty of a trail to the availability of water. And yet still we were nearly overwhelmed by the unexpected, brutal beauty of the place, looping back and forth from the shaded canyon of Oak Creek to the very base of Cathedral Rock, looking out over the Verde Valley with more distant views of Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte and other nameless, uncountable monoliths and spires.

There were times when we didn't see another soul, and so were treated to the sight of a javelina boar and three females, hearing them crashing through the brush and smelling their sharp, musky scent before we actually saw their improbably ugly, bristle-studded bodies crossing the trail not 20 feet ahead of us. A ranger had told us that everything in that part of Arizona is prickly—the cactus, the brush, even the wildlife.

There is a way that you feel after a day of outdoor exertion that I had almost forgotten about: tired but alive, relaxed but empowered. Back at the auberge, Ralph settled down at the pool with a book and a beer, but I capped the last day in Sedona with an aromatherapy massage and a long steam shower with more fluffy white towels than I knew what to do with—a thoroughly adult response to that feeling of blissful exhaustion that made me feel like a kid again after a long day at the beach. That night we had dinner on the terrace, at a table right next to the creek.

One of the great joys of motorcycling in Arizona is the diversity of topography, elevation and vegetation, coupled with roads that have never known the abuse of salt, plowing and frost heaves. Riding leisurely back south to catch our evening return flight, we took the long way, through the slice-of-another-time town of Payson and the Tonto National Forest, which felt 20 degrees cooler and as piney-wooded as Eastern Canada.

The twisties and climbing and descending views were iconic, a Holy Grail of two-wheeled travel for 100 miles or more, and then … poof! We rounded a bend and were in the dessert again, with views of saguaro and sun and dry hills. We pulled over briefly to open the vents in our riding jackets and helmets, and 20 miles later were in the jam-packed northern suburbs of Phoenix, headed back to civilization and thence to winter.

   
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