Tuesday, August 2, 2016

A Kaleidoscope of Characters: The Verde River Valley

Do you see anything special in this kaleidoscope image?
Read further to discover the answer!!!
Sounds of stringed instruments, plucking away and tuning up, wafted through the open doors of Jerome's local artist's gallery. Hmmm...ukuleles, I thought; unmistakable. Plus a fiddle perhaps? Worth a look; who doesn't love ukuleles? We poked our heads into the doorway, and were blinded by the bright white walls covered with paintings, masks, old hats, and what-the-heck-are-these-made-of sculptures. Blinded? Yes. Surprised? No. Jerome, Arizona, is one of the handful of eclectic communities nestled in the Verde River Valley about an hour's drive north of Phoenix, and it is perhaps one of the most unique hamlets in the state. After spending a couple days visiting this area, we were completely NOT surprised at what awaited us. We knew it'd be something crazy.
Jerome was one of our last stops on a weekend jaunt through the Verde Valley. Initially drawn here for a long weekend exploring the area's vineyards and wineries (there are almost 20!), we anticipated enjoying a few days in a fairly refined, quaint, up-and-coming area. We ended up realizing that the Verde Valley, while definitely up-and-coming, is certainly not what we anticipated--something we were thrilled to discover. The Verde Valley is a unique patchwork of old and new souls freely and happily expressing their lives in an area tangled with vines, weeping willows, creeks and rivers, towering cottonwoods, winding roads, art, shops, birds, canoes, red rocks, alpacas, beads, wine, clocks, meandering trails, and yes, even kaleidoscopes. Not what we expected--but oh, how that made us love it even more!

Verde = green
Let's work backwards; after all, that's probably the best way to describe this jumbled, beautiful place. By the time we got to Jerome's Saturday Night Art Walk and the aforementioned ukuleles, we had spent a couple days exploring the tangle of trees hugging the Verde River and Oak Creek; languishing at our absolutely delightful bed and breakfast; visiting the alpacas next door; touring about a dozen wineries, each one with its own distinctive color and flavor; eating at a multi-star restaurant housed in a nondescript wooden cabin; meeting a shopowner who creates clocks out of anything he can get his hands on; and becoming mesmerized in a one-of-a-kind shop that only sells kaleidoscopes.

So I start at the end, which brings me back to the ukuleles on our last night in the Verde. Jerome's Saturday Art Walk is a monthly event where the shops glued to the side of the mountain (they have to be, otherwise why aren't they falling down the hill?) remain open late into the evening, inviting customers to browse and wander among their goods. Owners put out cookies, snacks, and even champagne to celebrate being alive in this mining-town-turned-hippie enclave.

Approaching Jerome; up up up we go

This was not a haphazard gathering of people who happened upon the art gallery for a random ukulele jam. Oh, no! This was the Jerome, Arizona Ukulele Orchestra. With a fiddle and guitar tossed in for good measure, this practiced group of probably over a dozen musicians welcomed the gallery's guests, and announced their first song: Should I Stay Or Should I Go, an 80s punk-rock classic from The Clash. Say what? The Clash, a la ukulele? Yup, take a listen:

Serenaded by Bizarro World Clash music, I wandered through the gallery. Color color color, things things things, art art art.


An open window looked across the sky, the sun setting over red rocks in the valley below.

I felt oddly grounded on this shaky hillside, firmly knowing that I am exactly where I want to be, experiencing exactly what I wanted to experience at this very moment. I love times like that--where the present is all you need because it fills your senses and soul, and you don't want to think about anything else. 
We walked by the fenced-in foundation of an old hotel, virtually gone except for the concrete basement floor and one toilet, that has become the target for coin-tossers.

Continuing backwards through our weekend, before the coin-filled toilet and ukuleles, we went to the "store you MUST check out!" that sells kaleidoscopes. And to think I had almost demurred when our B&B owners made that claim. Kaleidoscopes are for kiddie birthday parties, right? But, if you're anywhere near Jerome, I'll parrot what they told me: You MUST check this shop out.

The first kaleidoscope greets you at the door;
check out these flowers!

Add a little history to your brothel-turned-kaleidoscope shop

Kaleidoscopes of every shape, size, and style surrounded us. Bright lights and little vignettes of shells, soaps, paper, coins, toys, sea glass, and other knick-knacks were strategically placed at the end of many scopes for customer's viewing pleasure. Customers who, upon walking through the shop's door, were immediately transformed into wide-eyed children, delighting in each colored mosaic and hopping from one to another like sugar-addicted hummingbirds at our backyard feeders. Yes, I guess they are for kids--and everyone in the shop became one for just a little while.

Some kaleidoscopes were simply stunning--obviously very old, made of solid brass or other hardy material. Some were whimsical; all were pieces of artwork unto themselves.

Suffice it to say, hearing The Clash by ukulele felt almost normal, after driving up the side of a mountain, wondering why and how an actual town with actual buildings can violate the laws of physics and continue to exist; then walking the narrow, winding roads; visiting with friendly shop owners over champagne; aiming a coin towards a toilet; and seeing worlds changed to a multi-faceted colorful mash-up.

Artwork along a side street in Jerome, AZ
Looking up....

...and looking down

...and looking through

...and looking all around
That was our last evening in the Verde Valley. Earlier in the morning, we spent the day in Cottonwood, an older community built along the Verde River to serve settlers, ranchers, and miners. Now, Cottonwood has become a destination unto itself with several wineries and tasting rooms, good watering holes and eateries (organic-gluten-free-vegetarian-vegan fare next to the rarest steaks next to award-winning pizza) and "junque-turned-antiques" (we buy junk, we sell antiques!), all worthy of exploring in detail.

Arizona's own land of Oz...the Verde Valley

One of our favorite stops in old town Cottonwood was a clock shop. We lucked out that it was open, as it is owned by an extremely jovial, engaging gentleman named Charles who may or may not want to open it on any given day. He fiddles around with just about any object and can make a clock out of it. Hubcaps, kitchen gadgets, CDs, and even bicycle seats have clock faces and are crammed onto each wall or surface. Again--one of those walk-by shops for me (why would I want to see a clock shop?) that once I ventured through the door, I didn't want to leave. I couldn't take my eyes off all the clocks--and kept seeing new ones as I rotated my wide eyes around again.

Where else would you find hubcaps next to a cheese grater?

Striking up an animated conversation with Charles, we brought up the news that had spread 'round the world that June day--the death of Mohammed Ali. Charles relayed a story about his youth--how his mother would gather the family around for each dinner, and make a point to discuss world news and drive home some philosophical point that made the family talk, think, debate, and learn. When Ali was imprisoned for deliberately declining to serve in Viet Nam, standing up for his beliefs and almost certainly harming his career potential, Charles' mother used that event to remind her children how important it was to stand up for your beliefs. Contrary to what may have been public derision or skepticism about Ali's decision at the time, she was adamantly respectful of it, and used that as a lesson for her children to stand up for themselves despite real or superficial ramifications. So here we were at this unique shop, surrounded by the ticks and tocks of a thousand clocks, marveling at what's meaningful in life, and, ironically, at the passing of time.

John and hub Bruce, having a good time with (center)
happy clock shop dude Charles
Yes, that's a green rubber swimming flipper
But before we got around to shopping in old town Cottonwood, we had several tastes of wine under our belt. Or at least our friends Sharon and John and I had. Hubby Bruce managed the purchased wine and the "Driving of the Vehicle." Wine in the Verde Valley is not only up-and-coming, but in most cases, has already arrived. Concentrated water sources (an oddity in Arizona) and the ability of the Arizona sun to "make grapes suffer" to produce decent wine, makes the Verde Valley a hit with vintners, locals, and visitors.


Wine, a sweet little bird, and the perfect luggage tag as souvenirs for me....
Spread out over the valley, wineries are tucked away on winding roads, making the goal to hit most of them an excellent way to see just what the Verde Valley has to offer. With Sedona on the north end, Cottonwood and Camp Verde to the south, and Jerome and the even smaller burgs of Page Springs and Oak Creek scattered around, there's something for everyone.

Our best discovery of the weekend was The Vineyards Bed & Breakfast (so freakishly appropriate, eh?), owned by an absolutely delightful couple, Tambrala and Bruce, who left the world of high-tech behind and envisioned a life grounded in a home-based business. Their philosophy was that their B&B guests were family guests. As such, we were invited into their lives--they joined us for coffee over a delicious breakfast, and encouraged us to spend the evening at their pool and tiki bar with some family friends. Their gentle, friendly dog Maya was a welcome fixture around, and in, our casita. An enormous weeping willow, manicured grounds and grassy lawn, the almost humid June heat (yes, it can get humid in Arizona!), and enough wine to last a year created an atmosphere of relaxation, of which we took full advantage.

Our kitchen window view

The intrepid explorers: Bruce, John, and Sharon, over breakfast. Yum.
Our dining room table; what an incredible piece of furniture!!!
Complete with mosaic cheese and fruit plate (bottom left) and both red and white wine

Owners and new friends Tambrala and Bruce

Happy guests!
And Maya
Mornings would find us wandering down a trail along Oak Creek to explore what was around the next bend. Varied buntings, summer tanagers, vermilion flycatchers, and other birds, as well as just-sheared alpacas, provided pops of color and humor as we wandered through the tangled greenery of a riverside oasis.

A neighbor's interesting back yard. Inquisitive minds want to know:
what IS all this stuff?
Ah, we see. 'Tis most definitely...stuff!

A little vignette in another yard, just out there for the heck of it
Driving a quarter-mile down the road from The Vineyards to our Friday dinner spot, we almost passed Up The Creek restaurant, this aged barnwood hole-in-the-wall that serves up some of the finest fare anywhere. The evening was made even more fun when I ran into two work colleagues having a pre-wedding bridal party for one of them. They were on a mission to test local wines to be selected for the wedding day; what a job! Seriously, you think you've entered a vastly different world from your home a couple hundred miles away...and then you run into people you know...and that's the Verde Valley. Fun to see you, Heather and Jody!
Up The Creek (image slurped from Google, sorry, I don't have a good pic)

View from our table as we enjoyed roasted Brussels sprouts or
a golden beet salad...

...while a great blue heron visualized its dinner, willing a fish to appear
We figured we'd be in for a fun weekend in the Verde Valley when we arrived at wineries like Javalina Leap, and then turned down a curved driveway under a great weeping willow backlit by the sun to The Vineyards B&B. But what we found out was that the Verde Valley is more than fun; we were welcomed to its crazy, kaleidoscopic tangle of smiles and friendliness; its whirlwind of color; and its cacophony of sounds from tick-tocks to ukuleles and The Clash, to birds, babbling creeks, and laughter. And we became a part of the scene!

Here's a closer look at the first image of this blog entry. Now what do you see?????
A kaleidoscope of characters!


  1. Love it Sue! Love the clock store......Jerome......your B&B...... just wonderful!

  2. Fun trip! But no yarn stores?!!

    1. No! The ones both Cottonwood and Jerome closed down, sadly!!! It would've been nice to knit on that B&B porch, for sure!

  3. What an amazing, delightful and informative blog. I loved it Sue. Thanks for sharing. Truly! And how I miss our dream cabin in Greer. It still hurts!