AUGUST 2008, E.V.

“Up from Earth’s Center through the Seventh Gate
I rose, and on the Throne of Saturn sate:
And many a Knot unravel’d by the Road;
But not the Master-knot of Human Fate.”

Nuggets of gold like plums in a pudding and the rich purple luminosity of a Sedona twilight sky await me, but first I have an important decision to make: should I take the West Bethany Road exit in Phoenix for a WhataBurger, fries and Dr. Pepper or drive another sweltering, saguaro-dotted half hour for a “Bad Ass” Ortega chili burger (no cheese, please) and iced-down longneck at Kid Chilleen’s in Black Canyon City? Without mentally tossing a coin, I head towards the giant orange ‘W’ over yonder, mainly just to save valuable time. And besides, it’ll make LaraLee’s spurs jangle. It has come to my attention that she has a hankering for the manna of the Lone Star State, and, frankly, this Yankee is tarred of hearin’ about it. Still, as familiar as it might seem, I warn her that here in Arizona the chuck wagon comes without sparkling pee-splashers, toothpicks in empty Tabasco sauce bottles, fly swatters, and pralines in waxed paper… not to mention a right neighborly “Kin ah hep yew?” “Long as they don’t ladle any Thousand Island sludge on a dead cow, I’ll be in crabgrass heaven” she assures me...

Back on bumpy I-17, with the orchestral colors of a Grofe symphony blaring and the purdy blonde sitting next to me as happy as a dillo in the azaleas (burp!), a text message from Rynne informs us that her and Danny have just crossed the Arizona state line. What? That doesn’t seem possible! Although they had planned on beating the morning commuter traffic out of L.A. by leaving at 6:00 AM, as the fates would have it (dead car batteries we were told), they didn’t get on the road until 1:00 PM. On the other hand, Tejas and I had left at 9:00 AM sharp, and now Danny was only a little over an hour behind us! Like I said, it doesn’t seem possible, but it’s nice to know that he isn’t pushing it – that or that Range Rover of his just doesn’t have the giddy up of the shiny Italian thing (probably a good thing as I hear in Maricopa County it’s not uncommon to find speeders spread-eagle over a campfire). Maybe they stopped for a souvenir. Come to think of it, a jalapeno sucker does sound pretty good right now. And speaking of highway eyesores, what’s with all these dudes in pink boxer shorts eating oxidized green bologna?

Besides the tranquility of red rock country, and the peak of the annual Perseid meteor shower, I’m hoping to accomplish several things during my three-day trek to the Copper State. One being further research into old treasure legends of the area, including the lost Dutchman mine (or cache) believed to be in the shadow of “Weaver’s Needle” in the ominous Superstition Mountain Range. In the never-ending bonanza of colorful, often apocryphal tales of Western Americana, perhaps related to this is the mysterious disappearance of old time prospector James Kidd in 1949, and the even more enigmatic handwritten will that he left behind – a considerable fortune for “research or some scientific proof of a soul of the human body which leaves at death.”

And when not Breyfogling with dead prospectors while slouched in a comfortable chair, or hiking among the twisted juniper of Bell Rock, I’m planning on visiting Maynard, the oenophile, himself, who is currently at his Jerome homestead gearing up for the first Aurelia harvest. Along with a grand tour of his Merkin Vineyards, I’m looking forward to tasting some local creations (wine grown “in a place like this”), in particular, a sampling of his own offerings. And then there are the more esoteric vinticultural (not to be confused with vinicultural) activities of ‘Eschol’ in Arizona to pursue. As for Danny and Rynne, I promised shooting stars and a coyote’s yip… prickly-pear margaritas and energy vortexes. What could be better than watching a majestic hawk from the shade of a paloverde tree, or some mesquite-grilled ingesta washed down with cerveza exquisita as herds of javalina and escaped female chain gangs rustle beneath the desert starshine?

Seated around the fire-pit with a cold cans of Modelo at our favorite little resort in Sedona, the caretaker of sorts and long-time Arizona resident, “Jim”, tells us about some recent daylight sightings of an anomalous object in the area – this being a mysterious black orb that appeared near Bell Rock a couple of days ago, moving in utter silence before vanishing amid the breathtaking scenery. Rather than being of an extraterrestrial/inter-dimensional nature, Jim has a more prosaic explanation, believing the areoform to be one of MaCain’s newest toys (more likely, though, a device owned by sheriff Arpaio after saving money by eliminating salt & pepper from his prisons). As I’m about to press him for further details, Danny and Rynne pull up in the dusty Range Rover, letting an exuberant boxer named “Levi” out to explore the place. With an eye on the gathering clouds, I suggest that we enjoy the sunset before getting supplies for tonight’s meteor extravaganza. Soon, however, the fire-pit is invaded by a swarm of little kids on vacation with their parents, daddy now preparing to make those campfire treats known as s’mores. In the process of lighting a few logs, he hands us a couple of warm Bud Lites for our trouble. Even so I can’t help but mention something to the young ‘ums about the deadly bark scorpions who like to nestle in the brittle wood. After all, in the highly unlikely event that I should decide to partake of something that grows from meadow muffins, I most certainly don’t want it to be spoiled by the mirth of Hershey-besmirched faces. Wouldn’t you agree, LaraLee? “Ah surely doooo”, she replies, flicking a Marlboro butt into the flames. Bud Lites!

With bats wheeling overhead in search of prey in the rapidly diminishing light, knowing that Danny and Rynne didn’t take the West Bethany Home exit in Phoenix, I present them both with an appetizer hotdog dressed with Wolf Brand Chili (that we received as a care package). Is it a mistake to give Levi one as well I wonder as he stares at me with those big sad eyes? But there’s more. Even without bullfighters on velvet and sequined sombreros on the walls of our chalet, someone brings tortilla chips, guacamole, and a special chili con queso dip made with Ro-tel tomatoes and Velveeta, which, according to my Texas lexicon, is quite larrupin’…. or so I’m told. At any rate, it ought to hold ‘em until we fire up the grill for something more substantial.

So far we’ve seen rabbits, quail, and roadrunners, but it’s only a matter of time before the nocturnal critters make an appearance. That’s also when one can sometimes observe unexplained misty white lights moving over the nearby rock formations. Not exactly being of the crystal-laden, brake for worms and caterpillars persuasion (as is evident by the “Never mind Freeing Tibet: Visualize Using Your Turn Signal” bumper sticker on my rental), I’d like to think that they’re car headlights. But they’re not, and it says so right here in my “Ultimate Sedona Guide to Unexplained Misty White Lights.” Whatever the phenomenon is, it’s not occurring tonight, and let it be duly noted in the Akashic records.

In the dramatic luminescence, tonight it’s Venus that commands one’s attention, although Danny’s got my spotting scope focused on the wain in which the legendary treasure of the medieval Knight’s Templar was smuggled out of Paris (i.e. the constellation Ursa Major). Still waiting for God to hurl fiery stones, while gazing up at the glittering infinity, I think about the curious matter of the wandering prospector, Kidd, who was known to have spent countless hours in the Arizona wilderness with his eyes lifted to the heavens in contemplation of things metaphysical. Besides the whole gold-soul dichotomy, there are many puzzling mirror-opposite ‘parallels’ between him and the enigmatic, now celebrated priest of Rennes-le-Chateau, Berenger Sauniere. Although both were impoverished gold-hungry dreamers who obtained seemingly impossible wealth in a region steeped in legend and mystery (and blood), while Kidd lived a solitary existence and was said to be a penny-pincher, even to the point of saving his used chewing gum in an aspirin tin and nursing a nickel cigar all day, the flamboyant Sauniere, on the other hand, spared no expense, surrounding himself with all kinds of extravagances. While the reclusive Kidd performed odd jobs to pay his few dollars a week rent, the Signor of Rennes built a grand estate where he frequently entertained guests, many being notables of the time. And although both men engaged in unusual (nay, bizarre) activities after their good turn, it seems as unlikely that Kidd’s sudden riches came exclusively from gambling on the stock market as Sauniere’s came entirely from trafficking in illicit masses. Students of the RLC mystery might also find it intriguing that Kidd, who staked his claims in Arizona’s rugged Pinals, had an associate who was a Basque from the Pyrenees, and it was this companion of his who is believed to have taken the eccentric prospector’s secret to the grave.

“Strange, is it not? that of the myriads who
Before us pass’d the door of Darkness through,
Not one returns to tell us of the Road,
Which to discover, we must travel too.”

With a few bright meteors now streaking across the less than inky black night sky, and the fuzzy Pleiades visible to the naked eye, there were other mirror-opposite parallels between the two to consider. Although, as said, one squandered his fortune on luxuries and other Quixotic endeavors while the other squirreled away his money in banks, in both cases a series of bewildering clues were left behind with regards to the possible source of their inexplicable wealth. In the case of Sauniere his bizarrely-garish ‘treasure-map’ church is well known to Rennes aficionados and an ever-growing interested public, while, with the prospector, any hints (in miner’s terminology, call them location markers) were removed from a safe deposit box and placed among numerous canvas sacks and dusty cartons of dormant accounts and unclaimed estates in a gloomy subterranean bank vault in downtown Phoenix, Arizona.

Along with a holographic will dated January 2nd, 1946 (=23) scrawled on a scrap of paper, leaving all his worldly goods to anyone who could prove the existence of a soul of the human body which leavers at death, was a photo of the miner-prospector, dressed in of all things, a business suit, staring into the camera with “a quizzical enigmatic half- smile”, while in the background was “an amorphous pasticcio of vines” (see “the Great Soul Trial” by John G. Fuller). Imaging this, I can’t help but smile, myself, at the words uttered by the perplexed public servant working for the Estate Tax Commissioner’s Office who first discovered the will in the dusty vault. At first thinking it must be some kind of joke, only to soon be overcome with a very eerie feeling, Mrs. Geraldine C. Swift later stated, oddly enough: “I thought that I just had to be dreaming. I even felt that I could have eaten it.” But, of course, it was a joke, Mrs. Swift! Sauniere’s Golden Touch was the result of performing illicit masses, and the extremely frugal Kidd, who often recited his favorite passage from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, amassed a considerable fortune, not with a prospector’s pick, but by cashing in on penny stocks! As for any fanciful notions of his missing without a trace status, look for his remains at the bottom of an abandoned mineshaft in the treacherous Pinals or Superstitions. (Compare with the public spectacle farewell of Sauniere, with the priest’s dead body seated upright in an armchair on a sunny terrace of a ‘fairytale’ tower while a parade of mourners paid their last respects by plucking tassels from his ornate chasible.)

With all this talk of the Philosopher’s Stone and other far-fetched ideas, before we know it the height of this year’s Perseids has come and gone, with only a few stragglers to be seen as it’s now starting to get light outside. Due in large part to a brightly shining moon, admittedly the whole thing was a bit of a disappointment. No family of javalinas or floating black triangles either! From a table cluttered with empty beer bottles and crushed cigar stubs, we watch a postcard picture sunrise over the magic buttes and spires of the prestigious red rocks. With birds chirping in the dramatic lighting, I notice that thousands of ants have invaded a hunk of peanut butter fudge that was left unattended. And with the drone of bees among the variegated desert flowers comes the laughter of kids splashing in the swimming pool. Which reminds us, it’s time to get a few precious hours of sleep. Soon Maynard will be calling…

Power spots or not, we’re not exactly radiant and mucus free when we pull into the rustic Page Springs Cellars, a family owned winery in the Verde Valley where Maynard bottles his various Caduceus wines. Documenting our arrival is MJK, himself, wearing a generic white cap and Puscifer tee-shirt as he raises an expensive-looking camera to take a couple more photos in the sun-dappled parking lot. Walking over to us, he shakes his head in mock amused contempt upon noticing some minor dents in the Range Rover (that he sold to Danny). After exchanging a few pleasantries, LaraLee and I climb into the vintner’s shiny black Rubicon Jeep so that we can begin our tour of the Merkin Vineyards. With Danny and Rynne following, we head down a narrow road into what soon becomes more forbidding terrain, passing jack pines, junipers, mesquite, and cholla cacti, although I suppose it’s theoretically possible that at least one is a disguised cell phone tower (the jack pine would be my best guess). While bumping along in the Jeep, glancing around at the shimmering lava boulders in the arroyo-gutted landscape, Maynard gives us a geology lesson, pointing to the telltale stratigraphy of surrounding formations. And when not being schooled in Precambrian landforms and extraordinary erosion under brilliant blue skies, we are shown other local features of interest, such as the entrance to McCain’s desert lair, Georgia Frontiere’s former residence, and the future location of a Merkin market. I sure hope there’s not going to be a quiz later…

Unlocking the gate and pulling into the first Merkin Vineyard, Maynard wastes little time showing us the various grapes, picking several from the vines and handing them to us to taste. In the scorching heat, we sample more luscious specimens plucked from the canopy’s glistening spider webs, with Maynard explaining the unique characteristics of each (ditat Deus- God enriches). Again, I hope there’s not going to be a quiz. I’m still confused about the sedimentary layers of the Paleozoic… Fuck, Arizona’s complicated. It’s not just about feathered kachinas and scorpion lollipops. Complicated and hot! When’s the Merkin Market going to be open? With LaraLee wearing purple flip-flops in this harsh environment, Maynard warns her to be careful as we proceed, his guests, and not one of us even a prospective sommelier!, now being shown a piece of machinery that is used to protect the vines under various climatic conditions. But not only does the extreme weather pose a problem to the crops here in Arizona. There are also vineyard pests to contend with, such as the glassy-winged sharpshooter, western grape leaf skeletonizer, and something known simply as “armed meth heads.” As we head back to the Jeep to drive to Maynard’s next terroir, I just know that “Phylloxera” will be on the test!

There is a modest recently-built structure on the next wing of the Merkin Vineyards – a getaway from the getaway, I suppose, and inside there’s a piece of equipment that I’m very happy to see – a refrigerator, from which we’re offered an icy amber treasure called beer! Although I would have settled for a shadowed arroyo, the cold bottle fits well in my hand, and should keep me good company as we head back into the trademark sunshine to sample more of the fragrantly bitter clusters of pommes bleues, and, of course, to learn a bit more about the art and science of winemaking.

“So when that Angel of the darker Drink
At last shall find you by the river-brink,
And, offering his Cup, invite your Soul
Forth to your Lips to quaff - - you shall not shrink.”

It’s late afternoon when we return to the Page Springs Cellars to check out the cavernous barrel-room where the Caduceus wines are carefully bottled and corked. Here we are given a sneak preview of things to come as Maynard finds a ‘thief’ with which to siphon the complex aroma directly from the aging barrels. Although I can’t help but wonder about the angel’s share, I don’t say anything as the others are too content with the rich palate to have any concerns about a little evaporation. As we are next taken step by step through the bottling procedure, along with everything else we’ve seen and heard today, it’s very apparent that this is not the mere indulgence of a ‘rock star’ with a disposable income (whatever that means). This is not Michael Jordon trying to play baseball. With his latest endeavors and a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the subject, this is obviously a true passion of Maynard’s, as well as a serious business, and anyone who should ask if he is proud of his accomplishments (even at this early stage) should expect nothing less than an immediate “duh.” (although Rynne didn’t ask that question). Emerging from the bowels of the winery, I am absolutely positively certain that “anthocyanin’ will be on the test…

After our little sensory evaluation in the subterranean depths, it’s time for more Vinotherapy. Whether or not this next tasting assignment will be a vertical, horizontal, disguised, or other, I don’t know, but it certainly is nice to be seated on the shady patio, listening to the murmur of the creek and watching the indigenous wildlife as we sample dozens of excellent wines. Soon Maynard’s good friend and business associate, Eric, joins us. Speaking of indigenous wildlife, he promptly shows us where he was bitten by a spider on his leg last night. Although he doesn’t think it was a Brown Recluse, with a slight discoloration to the flesh, methinks it might be the handiwork of a non-brown Arizona Recluse (there would probably be more tissue death with the brown six-eyed terror). Whatever the case, Eric shrugs it off: “Don’t come here if you don’t like spiders” he tells the arachnophobe (who had planned on checking out a condo in this cosmic region tomorrow). Cytotoxin being cytotoxin, let’s just blame a Yellow Sac with a bolo… or rail-hopping Hobo… a big fellow in any event, and if it was in my close proximity, I’m afraid I’d have to crush it like a grape. Trying to decide if we are going to head back to Sedona before meeting up with Maynard for dinner in Jerome, due to time considerations, especially with all the road construction going on in the area (their crystals not programmed for that, I guess), the plan is to continue the tour… and tasting-flight, I hope, at Maynard’s desert hideaway...





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