Daniel Emberley, November 2006
My brother Tony moved to Flagstaff, Arizona a few years ago. We needed to get out and see him, especially as he’d just bought a new house that had two spare guest rooms. Our friends Anne and Craig clinched it when they invited us to their wedding in Santa Fe. We took ten days to do a progress through Arizona (“The Grand Canyon State”), southern Utah, and New Mexico (“Land of Enchantment”).
Thursday, November 2
When the Dulles Southwest agent announced “Everyone who is on the cancelled 11:45 flight to Phoenix please stay in line”, we knew we were in trouble. Southwest had cancelled our flight sometime between our leaving the house and getting to the airport, but got us on a later one to Chicago Midway and then into Phoenix. There’s now a branch of Harry’s Taproom in Dulles, so we were able to pull ourselves together with their excellent food and service. Got into Phoenix around 10:30PM Mountain Time; dragged our tired bodies to the odd combined rental car facility in Sky Harbor and found a Super 8 to crash in.
Friday, November 3
First stop Target. We needed a cooler for my insulin and bottled water and food for when we found ourselves somewhere that was nowhere, without even a burger stand. Was a good idea; if you do a desert trip, throw a couple days’ water and snacks into the backseat. Sometimes nothing tops off standing at the rim of a World Heritage natural wonder like a Little Debbie Swiss Roll. Oggled the oh-so-lovely Target Christmas decorations, picked up some Big Band CD’s for radio-free zones, and used the parking lot to make sure we knew how the car worked.
We had planned to see Phoenix at the end of our trip rather than the beginning, but we had time to catch the Heard before we got out of town. The Heard Museum is known for its collection of Native American arts: archaeological, anthropological, and contemporary. Amazing space; a Spanish Colonial estate that’s had several sympathetic and satisfactory additions that work well and create a series of entry and sculpture courtyards. We got our first intro to native baskets, rugs, and kachinas; in galleries that include terrific participatory activities for kids and adults to integrate one’s own creativity into the museum experience. Excellent. A temporary show on the legacy of Indian Schools gave us both the facts and a sense for the reality of the generations of kids who were uprooted from their families and sent to schools to turn them into “white men”.
Went to Yoshi’s sushi-themed fast food restaurant for lunch (“Have a Rice Day!”), then headed out of town north on US-17. We thought the road was incredibly beautiful, with saguaro cactus in the median, but learned that compared to what we were about to see, it was nothing.
A dirt track off of 17 takes you to Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti. Soleri is an Italian architect who trained under Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin, came up with his own ideas for how people should live in cities, and has been building his ideal city in the Arizona desert for 36 years. About thirty students and employees live at the site, which right now is a collection of concrete shells and rough structures that host a sort of utopian community. We saw a jackrabbit on the approach road, which we city slickers thought pretty cool, and took the tour of the grounds, foundry, bakery, and living areas. You can stay overnight for a very modest fee, about $40/night, which we wished we’d known about in advance. At the end of the tour we saw Paolo himself being interviewed in the amphitheater. Soleri has been able to fund construction, and his own career, through sales of bronze and clay bells made on site and in his original complex in Phoenix. If you have any interest in cities, societies, 1970’s concrete sculpture, living in the desert in an ecologically sound way, or just want a garden bell, I recommend the stop.
Continued north to Sedona, nestled into the most amazing red caverns we’d ever seen. Us and a good chunk of America’s New Age warriors, who’ve split the town about 50-50 with Chico’s women of a certain age. Odd. Sedona’s famous for its art scene, New Age scene, and hiking the canyons. We parked at Tlaquepaque, a 1970’s shopping complex brilliantly executed as a pseudo-Spanish-colonial town. It might be better executed than the 1920’s Plaza in Kansas City; high praise. The art was Horrible, lots of bronze kids blowing bubbles and Marlboro Men wrangling horses in a Kodachrome wilderness, but fun to check out, with gift and clothing stores and restaurants mixed in.
Tony drove down from Flagstaff to meet us in Sedona’s tourist-trap Uptown district. We got a killer sunset just before juggling cellphones and realizing we were across the street from each other. We had dinner at a mediocre Mexican restaurant in Uptown, then followed him uphill to Flagstaff.
People warn you about the altitude, but you experience it in so many ways that it deserves a mention. Phoenix is in the Sonoran Desert, hot and dry with cactus predominating, but pretty normal in altitude at 1000 feet above sea level (e.g., D.C.). As we drove north in Arizona we were ascending the Colorado Plateau, to 4500 feet in Sedona. The air felt a little thinner but still do-able, the desert yielded to mid-level trees like aspens or cottonwoods. Flagstaff is at 7000 feet, pine forest and wicked tall Douglas firs. You need to take frequent rests; and an afternoon siesta or coffee break is advisable. The Grand Canyon South Rim is at 8000 feet, but the Canyon descends through all those altitudes and forest environments to desert at the river level. The San Francisco Peaks are the highest in this area, at 12,000 feet barren of all major plants.
Elevations change radically in less than a half hour of driving. You can be looking at a grove of aspens, go an exit or two, and be short of breath watching elk in a pine forest. Elevation signs are posted by the highway, but you notice the plants change first. You need tons of water because of the height and dryness, and moisturizer becomes the best friend of even the straightest guys there, unless they want their skin to crack and bleed. You wake up in the morning to a nose bleed, and sneeze blood pretty much through the day. Bring Curel, Chapstick, and Dasani, or pick it up there for regular application. We didn’t really feel physically comfortable until we landed in Dulles again, where our bodies welcomed the Potomac humidity like an old friend. This was despite fantastic weather, just at freezing at night, with day highs of 60-80, no rain to speak of (um, desert, yeah).
The 2500 foot elevation change between neighboring towns Sedona and Flagstaff is achieved via a series of switchbacks up the mountains. We were glad to be following Tony, and that it was dark. When we saw some of the turns next day by daylight, our knuckles got a little whiter. Tony showed us around his house, we got caught up, made up the bed, and turned in.
Saturday, November 4
We took a walk around Tony’s neighborhood. Santa Fe Railroad has recently developed it as an affordable subdivision of manufactured homes. Most houses come to the site on a truck in two halves and are joined on a concrete platform. On the plus side, the developers had saved a lot of existing trees. On the minus, the houses are basically identical, and sited poorly in relation to the sun. You stand at one end of a street, look up, and see twenty 2-car garage doors facing you. More ecologically sound than building on-site, but they’re clearly not there yet in terms of design. Tony reports that a lot of the houses are owned by Phoenix people as weekend retreats. I liked the railroad-themed street names: Union Pacific, Zepher, Rock Island.
Most people use Flagstaff as a jumping-off point for the Grand Canyon, but there’s a lot more to it. If Phoenix is the golf playing, AARP, Republican heart of Arizona, Flagstaff is the mountain climbing, soy milk drinking, live free or die counterweight. Tony showed us around downtown, centered on a still active Santa Fe freight line and Amtrak station, and introduced us to the most-excellent Late for the Train local coffee chain. He took off for work up at Lowell Observatory, and we headed north to the Museum of Northern Arizona.
The Museum is housed in a Depression CCC-built stone building. I think the architects were aiming at National Park lodge, but got some Santa Fe Territorial Style in as well. Collections are about 50-50 geology and anthropology, with a little bit of dinosaur thrown in. Terrific group of kachinas and other Native artifacts, but not as good as the Heard’s. Great introduction to the geologic forces that made the Colorado Plateau and the series of Parks we would be seeing. The big idea to take away is that North America from the eastern Rocky Mountains to east of the Mississippi was once a great seaway at a tropical latitude. Like the water between Japan and China, perhaps, or Australia and New Zealand. Sand fell, plants fell, fish died, lava flowed, sedimentary rock formed at the bottom of that sea lane. If there was iron in the air, red layers formed, and bentonite, blue-grey. What’s bentonite? Beats me, I took it on faith that it would give you blue. When the continent shifted north and the Colorado Plateau was pushed up, rivers tried to remain at sea level, and cut through all those layers. The canyons, mesas, buttes, and hoodoos to come are all the result of those activities: the building up of layers, the push up, and cutting down of water and wind. Nice to get that in advance; would make everything a lot easier to understand.
We had lunch downtown at Big Foot Barbecue. They offer a delicious heretical combination of North Carolina and Texas styles. It’s in the basement of a former J.C. Penny’s that’s been turned over to maybe eight funky retail stores, like Urban Outfitters before that became a girls’ store. Shopped around downtown, checked out the historic train station, bought candles at Armadilla (sic) Wax Works. If we were beer drinkers we would have stopped at one of the brew pubs.
The Riordan Mansion is an Arts and Crafts stone and timber double house oddly surrounded by shopping malls and the Northern Arizona University campus. The Riordans (say “Rear-den”) were timber barons, two brothers who made it big logging the region in the 1890’s. They married two sisters, and in 1904 built side-by-side houses with a living room joining both, 13,000 s.f. in total. The window glass is Art Nouveau, and the interior fittings combine Edwardian love of gadgets and built-ins with the quality timber the brothers were sending to both coasts. Devout Catholics, the Riordans built matching chapels on each side, and had much paraphernalia from visits to the Pope. Must have been interesting for a Pope in 1900 to come across Irish-American millionaires; there’s a robber baron story you don’t hear every day, and 20 years in advance of Joe Kennedy’s prohibition fortune. I’d seen my parents photos of the mansion, and knew we had to see it. A decent walking tour takes you around the building, pointing out how the families lived on the site when it was a logging camp. The State of Arizona runs the house as a museum, but the Riordan Companies still manage the surrounding land, having developed it into shopping and the college campus after WWII when the lumber ran out.
We had dinner with Tony at the Route 66 (aka, Main Street Flagstaff) themed Galaxy Diner, helped him install bathroom fixtures we’d picked up earlier at Target, and watched X-Men III on DVD.
Sunday, November 5
We stunned Tony by asking him if it was possible to hike around the canyons of Sedona, in addition to just shopping there. After running a quick genetic test to make sure someone hadn’t replaced his brother with a pod person, he got us a book of Sedona hikes and we picked out a couple of the easiest ones. There are many great hikes around Sedona, you can get a book of them at stores around the area. To park in the National Forest at a trailhead, you need to buy a Red Rock Pass. Safeway sells them, but the clerk there was as stupid and unhelpful as her counterparts in D.C., so we gave up and got one from a Circle K. Day passes are cheap, and ours was free when we showed our National Parks Passport. We chose the Devil’s Bridge Trail, about an hour and a half up into a canyon to the base of a natural arch. It’s a whole different experience getting into the forest, away from the road. We could have invested another 15 minutes and gotten to the top of the arch, but as Tony said, you can’t really see a bridge when you’re on it.
We hiked back instead, and found a great vegetarian restaurant, Delish, with huge platters of a variety of vegan foods. Delicious, indeed. We dipped into mystic Sedona at the Well Red Coyote Bookstore, where Michael picked up a book on vortexes. Tony and I had to leave; an author was reading about his traumatic childhood, and we couldn’t keep our chakras in alignment due to laughing. I don’t think that’s the response the author was going for. A couple of prism/dreamcatcher/incense stores were plenty for us. Tony took us around to some of his favorite tacky art galleries, including one with a horrible giant silver eagle sculpture. Headed back Uptown for ice cream, where the view (which we’d missed in the dark last night) blew us away.
We took the switchback road back up to Flagstaff, got rotisserie turkey at Basha’s supermarket, and had dinner at the house while we took advantage of Tony’s washer and dryer. The altitude was making both Michael and me tired and with a lack of focus; Tony explained that it took a couple of months to really get used to it.
Monday, November 6
A quick breakfast with Tony, and we were off on the hour drive up to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. At his suggestion, we only gave the town of Valle five minutes, at a fake Indian trading post where the goods were of questionable taste. Once at the Park we pulled into the South Entrance and the Mather Point parking lot and viewing area. This is most visitors’ first stop, and for some the only. An enormous parking lot, large visitor center, and great viewing post into the Canyon. We were too early to check into our hotel, but drove into Grand Canyon Village and parked next to the train depot. Got lunch at El Tovar, the luxury hotel that Fred Harvey (remember Judy Garland in “The Harvey Girls”? The song “On the Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe”? Her boss) built on the Canyon edge. El Tovar was designed by Mary Coulter, an architect Harvey used for many of his great hotels. Together Coulter and Harvey invented tourism as we’ve come to think of it, with luxury and medium-priced accommodations within walking distance of both transport (a railroad depot then, parking now) and something to see. Lots of logs, beam ceilings, and stone.
We walked over to the Rim, and west up the Rim Trail past the shops and hotels that have been built up to create Grand Canyon Village. We kept going a few miles further west, past Trailview Overlook and Maricopa Point, then gave up. There’s a bus that runs parallel to the Rim Trail; we took it to the end, Hermit’s Rest, and enjoyed the vista from there. It looks like many people never hike a trail at all, not even the Rim, which is pathetically easy, like a sidewalk on a cliff with a perpetual view. The Canyon is amazing beautiful, but is still lots of layers of rocks. How much can one say, you need to see it yourself.
Caught the shuttle back to the Village and checked into Bright Angel Lodge. This was Harvey and Coulter’s middle class option, lots of cabins and shared baths and a fireplace that replicates the layers of the Canyon that you can see through an adjacent window. Tres cool. Michael was stunned to discover that we had a great historic room, but no T.V. I couldn’t have planned it, but was pleased. All of the Park lodges and restaurants are run by a company called Xanterra; they offer Marriott-level service at Super 8 prices. Dinner in the Bright Angel restaurant was as good as lunch had been at El Tovar, with a lovely view of the sunset over the Canyon’s Kaibab limestone. As a treat, moonrise took about five minutes, the fastest I’ve ever seen the moon come up. Must be something about the altitude, but was amazing.
Tuesday, November 7
I got Michael up for sunrise over the South Rim. It was great, but not as Technicolor as in the photos. I suspect some mornings are more dramatic than others. It’s interesting, you go to a theater to see something moving in front of you (dancers, actors, film, whatever). In the Canyon, the site stands still, but you and the light move around it.
Had breakfast in the Lodge, then hopped into our car for the drive east from the Village to Grandview Point. In high season there are shuttle buses that bring folks around, but in November a lot more was available to us with our own car. Was great to be able to pull into a viewpoint, check out the view, and decide whether or not we wanted to park the car and walk around a bit. There’s an excavated Native American ruin on the drive, and at the end the Desert View Watchtower. This was another Coulter-Harvey extravaganza, a concrete and steel tower built like a giant Hopi kiva, but actually serving as a roof deck on top of a souvenir shop. Fun.
Leaving the Park by the East Entrance, we followed the Little Colorado River eastward. We had to get due north of the Canyon, but since the Canyon’s in the way, you go east, north, and back west. Is about four hours from Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim to the Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim. When it’s open. Which it wasn’t, due to the time of year, so we didn’t. Instead, pulled into an overlook of the Little Colorado on the Navajo Reservation. Not only was there an amazing view up the river back to the Canyon proper, but also rows of stalls with real live Navajo selling real live Navajo crafts. Pots, turquoise, jewelry; you’ve seen the stuff, but it is really cool to meet with individual sales people and talk about their art. We got a bunch of pots and turquoise jewelry. Tourist trap? For sure. Real people, and Natives, no less? Excellent.
There’s almost no retail on the Navajo Reservation; just when we thought we’d be breaking into our Target stash for lunch we found a gas station-mini market that sold us fried chicken and burritos to eat at their picnic tables. The Reservation is the most desolate land I’ve ever seen in the U.S., and I’ve seen Youngstown, Ohio. That the Indians survived once put on this land is a modern miracle. We headed north on 89, then west on 89A, a beautiful drive. Pine trees yielded to scrub to low cacti and back again as we changed elevation between 3500 and 7500 feet. Mesas, red stone cliffs, white stone cliffs, sections of land upended so the old sea bottom layers went vertically. We crossed the Colorado at Marble Canyon, where the old Navajo Bridge has been left in place. There’s a visitor center at the old bridge, which was closed up and marked closed, but we weren’t the only tourists walking onto the bridge over the Colorado. Cool.
Across the Colorado a line of red cliffs form Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, a natural barrier to people attempting to head north. At the Dominguez-Escalante Historic Site, a pullover on the highway, the State explained the attempt by Spanish missionary and explorer Father Dominguez to find a northern route between Santa Fe and San Francisco. It’s not easy today; proved near-impossible in the 1600’s. The cliffs end just east of the Kaibab National Forest, and the road climbs up to pine forest and then switchbacks down to desert again in Fredonia. The switchbacks are pretty severe, as a friendly Arizona State Trooper notified Michael on pulling us over. We got to Kanab, just over the Utah border, in late afternoon. We had thought about staying there overnight, but didn’t seem to be much there. Lots of television shows and Westerns have been filmed around here, including “Gunsmoke”, but those locations were all around us as we were driving. Did check out their visitor center, where the nice old lady behind the desk showed us photos of her as a young stunt girl.
Instead we drove west on Utah 9, the sunset in our eyes, to the entrance of Zion National Park. Were not impressed by the accommodations on that side, so drove into the Park, passed Checkboard Mesa (white cliff divided into rectangles by erosion), and got stopped outside the tunnel. The Grand Canyon is a rim park; only mules and avid hikers regularly descend into it. Zion is a valley park; you drive right onto the valley floor. To make that happen, in the 1920’s the Park Service blasted a tunnel through the mountains. There was construction on the far side, so we were stopped for twenty minutes while crews made space for cars. We were the head of the line, but now led a parade of maybe thirty cars through the switchbacks of the tunnel and down the cliff on the other side. Michael said it reminded him of the old Saturday morning cartoon The Wacky Races. I know we were not Dastardly and Muttley, and probably not Peter Perfect. Maybe Penelope Pitstop in the Compact Pussycat? It was pretty dark by now, so we headed out the South Entrance to Springdale, Utah. This is a pretty cool town, with some art galleries, restaurants, and tons of hotels. We chose what turned out to be the original park accommodation, the Pioneer Lodge, and got a decent 1970’s room for a reasonable price. We were pleased on walking around post-dinner to see real art in the galleries. Southwestern tourist, yes, but by photographers and painters who had a feel for what they were seeing, and not the schlock that appalled us in Sedona.
Wednesday, November 8
Woke up and walked out on the balcony to discover that the Lodge is picturesquely nestled in the mountains surrounding Zion. What an amazing thing daylight is. Hit the Park Visitors Center, then drove up the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive to the end, the Temple of Sinawava. High season you have to take a shuttle, but again, we were able to take our car right into the canyon to be joined only by a peaceful California biker gang. This turned out to be our favorite of all the parks: wildly beautiful, with the creek in easy distance, lots of easy hiking, towering cliffs, and (bonus!) hanging gardens. Some of the rock layers serve as aquifers, wicking water out to the canyon walls from miles away. That allows lichen, mosses, ferns, and pines to grow right out of the canyon wall. We hiked the Riverside Walk past the gardens, cottonwoods, and ash trees. The latter had turned an autumn golden yellow, brilliant against the sheer red face of the cliffs. We turned a corner to face a herd of very tame, or maybe indifferent, deer. Drove down to Weeping Rock, where the water rains down on you, forming an extremely rare eco-zone, a desert garden. Interesting.
We had lunch at the Zion Lodge, then should have hiked the adjacent Emerald Pools, but were up against our physical limits and time constraints. They sound amazing; if you have time for Zion, give it at least one full day.
We went back out the switchbacks and tunnel to Highways 9 and 89. 89 Passes through Long Valley and Dixie National Forest. Dixie Forest is named after Mormon attempts to grow cotton in this region during the Civil War, when supplies from the Confederacy dried up. It looks like the Christmas tree forest in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, but without Burl Ives as Sam the Snowman. There was a little bit of snow in shadow on the side of the roads, but nothing to hinder driving. Scenic Route 12 cuts through red rock canyons, tunnels, and cattle ranches to Bryce Canyon.
We got to Bryce in late afternoon, did a quick orientation at the Visitors Center, and drove down to the first viewing station. Bryce is a rim park that reminded me of Los Angeles. You get in your car, drive to a viewing point, see something, get back in your car and drive to the next. There are trails, but the viewpoints are far enough apart that most folks do the drive-park-shoot thing. The winter afternoon light was terrific, sunset took more than two hours crossing the Canyon and changing the view even in the short drives between vistas. The big deal at Bryce are hoodoos: spires that form stone forests on the canyon floor. Each hoodoo has been protected by a hard cap of stone, so that wind and water erosion have carved down and around each making weird and awesome collections of modern art-evoking sculpture. Bryce Amphitheater has the largest and most jaw-dropping collection of these, but there are more as you drive south into the Park. Each vista is well marked with information on what you’re seeing and how it got there. Turns out the red sandstone cliff you’re standing on is the break between water that flows north and west to the Great Basin, and water that make the Pacific via the Colorado River. It’s disorienting that the eastern vista is the part taking water to the Pacific. The Park is laid out on a terminal drive; you have to turn around at the end and drive back out the way you came in. It’s worth more than the afternoon we could give it.
Just outside the Park is the mega-complex that is Ruby’s Inn/Village/campground/Best Western. Think of South Carolina’s South of the Border, but with some of the tacky shopping replaced by frontier-themed accommodation. Very comfortable, inexpensive, and with a great steak-and-pork-chop dinner.
Thursday, November 9
Over breakfast we realized that if we were really going to hit Santa Fe in time for the wedding, we would need to make tracks today. We also knew that there was mega-scenery in between. We split the difference, doing a scenic drive in the AM and early afternoon with a highway run as the sun went down. Our goal was to see as much of the landscape but still get as close to Santa Fe as possible. The country made it easy, as the views from the roads are nearly indistinguishable from the beauty you see in the Parks proper.
First up was Utah 12 east through Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument. There were wild turkeys and bare aspen forests, and a crazy switchback road outside of Boulder, Utah. Boulder had been the last town in the States where mail was delivered by mule; the road was built by CCC workers in the Depression. It’s two-lane, and drops to steep cliffs on both sides as you twist and turn. Who needs a roller coaster? We were pleased to see that Bureau of Land Management, Park Service, and Department of Agriculture/Forest Service have pooled their resources into a joint Visitors Center. Given the remoteness, they probably each have only a few staff here. It’s great to see them collaborate here, even if they can’t in D.C.
Through more fir trees in Dixie National Forest, then east on 24 to Capitol Reef National Park. This is a long north-south Park that includes a former Mormon orchard and the Waterpocket Fold. The fruit trees are still there in Fruita, the Park headquarters, but most of the few Mormon homes/buildings are gone. Those remaining show how desolate pre-WalMart life must have been here. The Fold is a geologic formation where one plate slid onto another, forming a north-south cliff chain that blocked westward movement of people, and traps water at its base (hence the ability to grow fruit trees). The drive up one cliff, down into the Fold, and back up the next is amazing.
We crossed the grey-concrete-colored cliffs of the San Rafael Desert, got a quick lunch at Blondy’s in Hanksville (as in, the only store in the county), and through the Henry Mountains and Burr Desert.
We needed to get across the Colorado River, which is bridged in only a few places. We crossed at Hite, where Lake Powell, formed by the Glen Canyon Dam many miles downstream, reverts back to being just the Colorado. Glen Canyon Recreation Area is a major draw for outdoor recreation folks, and marinas, fishing spots, and hunting grounds line the lakefront. Not being Orvis types, we crossed the river on State 95 and booked it southeast. The formations of Jacob’s Chair and Cheesebox Butte were obvious enough that even we figured them out as we drove.
Would have been great to see Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, but they were just too far northeast to be practical. Consoled ourselves with Natural Bridges National Monument. This was a perfect-sized park to break up our drive. Visitors Center, circular drive to three bridges, and a short hike. God love the Rangers, who took my “We’ve got 60 minutes to see the Park you’ve dedicated your life to” in stride, and responded with good counsel. Natural bridges are carved out by the water flowing through them (versus arches, formed by wind). Tourists once climbed up onto them, but they were wearing the stone down faster than nature, so now we park, view, and take pictures from a short distance. Was great to hike to the base of the last bridge, across rocky wastes where Michael built cairns that should be screwing up hikers for years.
95 Runs through, past, and back out of Comb Ridge, another north-south fold of land, this time eroded on top into the teeth of a broken comb. Amazing switchbacks up and down. South on 191 through the Ute Reservation took us to a real highway, US-160 just across the Arizona border, where we picked up speed heading east to the even easier I-64. Not a lot to see on the Navajo Reservation after the sun goes down. Crossed into New Mexico at Teec Nos Pos. Men’s Health Magazine (why did I get this? Don’t ask) had recommended the drive through Shiprock as “a cure to any kind of funk”, but we missed this in the dark.
Stopped for dinner at a Navajo taco stand in Shiprock, the last settlement before leaving the Reservation. Navajo tacos are circles of frybread topped with a bean-heavy chili, lettuce, cheese and maybe some tomato. No sour cream, but delicious. One will normally feed two people, but we were hungry. I can also recommend the chili dog.
Farmington, NM was the first real settlement we had seen since leaving Flagstaff. Figured we’d better take advantage of the brand names; pulled into a La Quinta and crashed.
Friday, November 10
La Quinta surprised us. In addition to pleasant pseudo-Spanish-Colonial theme and Super 8 prices, they had a decent breakfast buffet where we could get carbs without sugar, fresh fruit, and boiled eggs. They’ll be our new regular discount chain. We drove four hours southeast on I-550, which runs between Farmington and Albuquerque. Stopped at the Apache Nugget casino en route to use their bathrooms. We couldn’t give them our money: won $6 at the slots, then went to the café to buy coffee, where Michael was comp’ed. Suspect other white interlopers are leaving their cash at the casino, so only feel a little guilty. Picked up I-25 just north of Albuquerque and drove northeast an hour to Santa Fe.
Pulled into Santa Fe just in time for lunch. Santa Fe has crammed shopping courts into the middle of blocks behind old buildings. The Blue Corn Café in one of these, the Plaza Mercado, gave us our first taste of real Santa Fe cuisine. Michael got burritos with red and green chiles, and I got the pork stewed in red chiles. A revelation; this is what all our restaurants tarted out with cactus and coyotes are copying.
Walked around the old downtown after lunch. It’s beautifully compact, preserving the colonial Spanish city up through 1930’s additions. The city has separated more recent development off from downtown, so most of what you want is within easy walking distance. Toured the Plaza and checked out Native turquoise and silver jewelry sold under the arcade of the Governor’s Palace. The memorial in the center of the Plaza honors the heroes of Glorieta Pass, the furthest west Civil War battlefield. Between the unique food, architecture, and culture, Santa Fe reminded us more of Venice than of any other place we’ve been. Yes, one is a desert and one a swamp, but each has a unique urbane culture that controls its hinterland and is physically separated from the rest of the world.
Can you believe I haven’t talked about architecture for five pages? Paid for the Museum of New Mexico, in the Governor’s Palace proper. The exhibits do a poor job of covering New Mexican history from natives through Spaniards, Mexicans, and U.S. Territorial government, stopping somewhere in the 1930’s. The big deal is not what’s in the display cases, but the building itself, which has seen missionaries, successful and defeated Pueblo Indians, Colonial governors, Mexican Independence, and U.S. invasion during the Mexican War. Along the way it has been expanded, torn down, renovated Victorian and then restored to the idealized “Pueblo” style which is now mandatory for all buildings in town. Cool.
The Cathedral of Saint Francis is an oddly French Gothic structure with even more odd contemporary Catholic interventions.
To preserve downtown, and prevent it from becoming even more of a tourist recreation than it already is, Santa Fe has built the Museum Hill complex outside of town. The anchor is the Museum of International Folk Art, where the nice woman behind the desk upgraded our Museum of New Mexico pass to a 2-day (just buy that up front, you’ll use it). Their folk art collection is astounding. One permanent exhibit, the Girard Collection, is like twenty “Christmas villages” all shown together. You walk past displays of a seaside village, a Nativity, a market, a Day of the Dead celebration, each mixing up toys and displays from Italy, India, Greece, Africa, China, Mexico … it’s just amazing. They’ve preserved an entire Spanish home from the Plaza in the galleries, and the temporary shows are equally good. Such a find.
Took a break at the coffee shop on the Museum Hill plaza, then walked through the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art in the same complex. This dovetailed neatly with what we learned about the history of Spanish America when we were in art and history museums in Buenos Aires. Each city was pretty much the end of their respective trails. Each waited on overland convoys from distant cities (Mexico, Lima) that in turn were channeling luxury goods from the Philippines and China to Madrid. Incredibly complex, makes you wonder that the Spanish Empire worked at all. This was a much better overview of Santa Fe’s history than we got at the Governor’s Palace, and it gave us art in addition.
We drove back downtown to our hotel, the Old Santa Fe Inn. This seems to have been recently remodeled, or maybe built from scratch, but in a manner the evokes well Santa Fe style: adobe, vigas (the logs through the walls), arcades around a plaza. The breakfast buffet here is outstanding, as is the service. The rooms had been arranged by our friends Anne and Craig for the wedding, and they’d left a wedding gift basket for us that was so bounteous that we may need to pay taxes on it.
After a rest we took a walk around the government complex just to our east. The New Mexico Statehouse is an odd and wonderful circular building in roughly Territorial Style (Greek and Italianate Revival on frontier structures), although it was built in the 1930’s. Nice group of Deco and Moderne buildings housing state agencies, across the river from downtown, but close enough so that each area compliments the other. We walked up to the Plaza (lovely lit up at night), got a snack, and checked out art galleries. Several New York quality shows, including Stephen Wilkes’ photos of derelict buildings on Ellis Island at the Monroe Gallery.
The wedding was being held next day the Georgia O’Keefe Museum, so we walked over to the Museum for the rehearsal. The Museum was open late that night, so we got to see the minor O’Keefe’s and Paul Strand photos that make up the bulk of the collection before the rehearsal proper. Our mutual friends Barb and Stef were serving as the best man and bride’s maid, we were ushers, and we all had a good time working with the museum coordinator, wedding planner, and bride and groom mapping out the ceremony. Afterwards we dropped Barb and Stef off at Ten Thousand Waves, the Japanese spa in the hills where most of the wedding guests were staying,. This is a world-famous site of Sybaritic relaxation. Very beautiful, but we were glad to be in town and hyper <smile>.
Saturday, November 11
We walked east along the Santa Fe River past shops selling Navajo rugs. We saw the Loretto Chapel, with the supposedly miraculous spiral staircase. Umm, yeah, the miracle is that anyone in Santa Fe in the 1700’s could build a spiral stair; but the cantilevers are pretty standard. Beautiful anyway. The Chapel connects via a courtyard with the Inn at Loretto, a high-priced historic hotel. We checked out the lobby and exited to run into the Veterans’ Day Parade: an interesting blue-state combination honoring soldiers and peace activists. At the La Fonda Hotel, another historic hotel, they were holding a conference of aural-spiritual health purveyors. Lots of singing Tibetan bowls and Navajo smudge sticks. Beautiful lobby, with the handpainted window panes that we’d seen around town but first appreciated here. Sort of the Baltimore-screen-painting of the Southwest set.
Lew Allen Contemporary Art was advertising a show of glass works by Judy Chicago. Remember Judy, “The Dinner Party”, women’s art, the 1970’s? No? She’s still creating powerful work; was great to see it live rather than in the pages of a magazine.
All those were just distractions from the morning’s main agenda, the Museum of Fine Arts. Around the corner from the Governor’s Palace, in a Pueblo-Revival pile, the Museum has the best collection of Santa Fe artists anywhere. Some great Georgia O’Keefes, Depression murals, and work by local artist Gustav Baumann, who I’d never heard of but who did amazing prints and paintings of the local scene in the 1930’s-50’s.
We headed across town southwest to the Guadalupe Road Railroad District. Warehouses and industrial spaces along the old Santa Fe Railroad right of way have been converted into high-end home, design, and fashion stores, art galleries, and restaurants. More edgy than the galleries on Canyon Road, this was a major find. Shopped our way through Cielo for expensive home stuff and Science Magic Toys, a shoebox of a store whose owner puts on a perpetual sales/show of his science-related toys. Got lunch at Zia’s Diner; burritos, tortilla soup, and an excellent Reuben. They made Michael a custom broccoli/garlic/greens dish that was simple and perfection.
Recycle Santa Fe is a temporary show/festival of local artists making work out of junk. Some of it remained junk, but some was quite cool, including another artist who, like me, is re-purposing old clothes into quilts. It was merged onto a weekly farmers and artists market, so there was plenty to check out. Across the street is the Tai Gallery of Textile Arts, which advertises regularly in the art press, and which I’d always wanted to see. More ethnic and basket stuff than I expected, but some great contemporary work also.
At the end of the shopping district is what had drawn us down here in the first place, Site Santa Fe. Site started maybe 15 years ago as a biennial in temporary space to kick start the Western art traditionally shown here into the New York mainstream. It worked. The show is now a major pilgrimage on the modern art market, and stays up in a permanent museum building. The show we saw had eight contemporary artists including stars Jennifer Bartlett, Catherine Opie, and Christina Iglesias. I liked the show, although not most of the artists. Michael hated both, but thought it an interesting contrast to the West we’d been seeing. A lot of Santa Fe feels like that, an odd but wonderful dropping of culture down into the middle of a red-rock-and-polyester desert.
We headed back up the opposite side of Guadalupe toward downtown and our hotel. A branch of Fishers Eddy, a favorite used kitchenware store from New York, and some funky consignment and Western-wear shops.
Took a nap at the hotel, got ourselves dressed, and walked up to the O’Keefe for the wedding. Anne looked amazing, Craig was so happy, it was a great event. They’d hired Japanese drummers for procession and background music, was unique and beautiful. Five minutes into the ceremony, silence was broken by a guest’s cell phone playing “Sweet Home Alabama”. Every wedding has to have something happen, and this was one of the funniest “mistakes” I’ve ever experienced. I felt responsibility as an usher, so made a joke out of it, which bridesmaid Stef built on, which cracked the ice and helped everyone relax and enjoy. Great food at the reception, where Barb, Stef and I serenaded the offending cell phone owner with our own version of “Alabama”. Blame the wine.
Sunday, November 12
We made an early start out, as everything we had driven in the last ten days had to be traversed in two. Got out of town by way of Canyon Road, to get a flavor of the gallery area we’d missed, then hit highways I-25 and I-40 due west. Stopped at the Northwest New Mexico Parks Center, another joint Park Service/BLM/Forest Service venture. We cruised into downtown Gallup for the Route 66 history: lunch at Earl’s Diner (local Natives sell you jewelry as you eat), and a drive by the 1950’s El Rancho Hotel.
Continued west to Arizona and the Painted Desert, which surrounds Petrified Forest National Park. Like Bryce, this is a drive-and-view Park. Unlike Bryce, there is more cultural history here, both Indian petroglyphs and more recent, preserved sections of old Route 66. The petrified wood stuff is at the end of the drive; we should have skipped half the view points early on and headed straight south to those. Wished we’d had more time to spend there, but the sun was setting and we were still halfway across Arizona from Flagstaff.
Cruised by the concrete teepees of the WigWam Hotel in Holbrook, and made Flagstaff in time for dinner. Couldn’t reach my brother Tony, so got dinner at a Jack in the Box and let ourselves into the house. Turns out Tony had been just fifteen minutes ahead of us; he’d spent the previous day hiking into the Grand Canyon with friends, and forgotten his cell phone at the house. We caught up with each others’ adventures and turned in.
Monday, November 13
Went to Late for the Train for a quick coffee, then back south on 17 to Phoenix. Couldn’t find our Phoenix maps, so rode their beltway around to Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard which we correctly guessed would take us to Taliesin West. This was Wright’s desert camp, winter home of his School of Architecture (summers were spent at Taliesin, in Wisconsin). Michael had toured this years ago, but it was a first for me. Fortunately, Wright bought a good chunk of desert back in the 1930’s, because modern Scottsdale has sprawled tract homes right up to his property line. Is an interesting Wright site, and am glad to have seen it, but it is surprisingly not his best work. Like a lot of architects’ offices, their own spaces are more functional than beautiful.
We got a late lunch the pretentious Italian Grotto in Old Town Scottsdale. Old Town is a gallery-restaurant strip dating to maybe 1930, and now tarted up for the new money of Phoenix. It wants to be Chevy Chase, but only achieves the Mall at Tysons Galleria. We started to really hate Phoenix around now. It’s probably equal parts the waste of water, the insistence on building inappropriate homes in the desert, and the dysfunctional street plan. The blocks are enormous, maybe 5-6 to a mile, and the streets each six lanes wide. With that scale, you must have a car, and that’s okay, Houston has a similar issue. However, in Houston they’ve built highways that make the city function. In Phoenix there are three, maybe four, limited access roads. One spends a lot of time in traffic, on city streets, looking at empty land, the outside of gated communities, and views of Camelback Mountain. This is not living in the Sonoran Desert; this is wasting all of our money as federal dollars pay for their roads and aqueducts. We were appalled. Our previous winner for worst American city was St. Louis, a place condemned by a series of stupid decisions and implementations. Phoenix is a city of hubris deliberately designed to provide a poor standard of living for everyone at great expense. Plus, it’s ugly. If you can avoid it, do so. This is John McCain’s land? He just lost my vote.
We actually did find some houses in Phoenix we liked: rundown 1920’s bungalows near downtown that look slated to be tear downs for the next big development. Sad. We fled to Cosanti, Paolo Soleri’s first attempt at ideal architecture, in Scottsdale. Soleri still lives here part time, and the studios make the brass bells that support his construction at Arcosanti. We talked ourselves out of a set of bells for a second time: they sound great, but look dorky. Michael settled for a t-shirt.
Went to the historic Arizona State Capitol, now a museum of Arizona history. Actually, now the ceremonial lobby for three hideous 1970’s concrete office slabs that went up around it. There are a few lame exhibits on different divisions of state government, and a couple of offices restored to about 1910. Not worth the visit, except to check another state capitol off our list. Across the street is a plaza with an insipid statue, plaque, or memorial to every war, hero, or recent event the local politicians want to suck up to. Most recent additions were for 9/11 (what, you didn’t know of Arizona’s major role in that event?) and Desert Storm, but a memorial is already underway for Operation Enduring Freedom. Talk about not getting it, and dispensing with any kind of perspective. Was fun in a cruel way as we laughed at the pathetic aspects of it all.
We found a La Quinta, emptied the treasures of two weeks from the car, and repacked it into our three bags. To our surprise, all got checked without requiring extra fees for being overweight. Found an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet for dinner that was not bad, China Olive on Thomas Road north of Sky Harbor.
Tuesday, November 14
Got ourselves to Sky Harbor, returned the car, checked in, bought See’s chocolate, and Southwest flew us home uneventfully via Chicago Midway. Another great trip, to parts of the country that everyone should see. Would we go back to Arizona and southern Utah? Probably not; it’s not our kind of place. Did we have a blast checking it out? Absolutely.
We probably will go back for more of New Mexico. We never got to Taos or the other pueblos around Santa Fe, or to Albuquerque, or to see the white sand deserts of the south. We’re thinking of combining it with a trip to El Paso and Marfa, Texas. Got ideas? Please pass them on!