Nov 3 – Valley of the Sun

Suzy has a cousin who lives in Arizona, and I have a nephew there. We haven’t seen either in several years. After cleaning up from Hurricane Matthew and starting the early stages of work for the Thanksgiving event, we wanted to make a quick trip west to visit them both. We left last Thursday and returned on Tuesday, attempting to avoid what we assumed were the heavy crowds that typically fly on Friday, Sunday and Monday. It was a relatively short trip, but we had a great time.

We landed in Phoenix to find 100 degree heat. They may say it’s a “dry” heat, but it was hot just the same. There were few clouds and no shade except in buildings. We arrived just a couple of days after my nephew’s 30th birthday. He’s an archaeologist by training, but is currently teaching Latin at a high school in Tempe. The kid is just damn smart. We got together for dinner Thursday evening and enjoyed some authentic Southwest cuisine. It was really too short a visit, but the next day was a work day for him.

The next morning, we hopped in our rental car and headed north to Prescott. It was our first real view of the countryside from ground level. The most amazing thing about the place was that the predominant color was brown, instead of the green we are used to on the Georgia coast. There are few trees. There is no grass. There is no dirt. The rocks are brown instead of gray. The ground is covered with gravel.

To make up for the lack of ground vegetation and ornamental bushes, the interstates were lined with artistic patterns made from different colors of stones (mostly shades of brown). Once outside the Phoenix area, we left the interstate to drive through the desert, and then into the mountains. The landscape was just so foreign to my coastal eyes. No trees. The tallest plants were the saguaro cactus. We were told that they did not start sprouting their “arms” until they were at least 50 years old, which meant we were looking at some really old cacti. After a while, our route took us on a narrow, two-lane road that wound through some steep inclines and around sharp hairpin turns. As we climbed in altitude, the temperature decreased from the nineties into the seventies. At about 3,000 feet, we stopped seeing the ever-present saguaro cactus. When we got to the top, we stopped to look behind us. The view was breath-taking. Pictures definitely do not do it justice. We drove across the top of the high plateau into our destination of Prescott. The change in temperature was noticeable, and we were happy that we had packed our jackets.

Two old salts and one old cactus.

Suzy’s cousin Bill is originally from Baton Rouge, LA. His wife Robin is from Melbourne, Australia. A few years back they moved from Louisiana to Arizona. I have to admit, the high desert is a beautiful place, but it seems a very foreign place for someone who grew up in the pine and cypress forests of Louisiana to end up. In addition to long conversations catching up on all the happenings of the past few years, we did some touristy things. On Saturday, we headed back out on a tour of the nearby area. We stopped in Congress, AZ (pop. 1,700) for lunch, and finally got a picture of ourselves next to a big saguaro (suh-WAH-ro) cactus. Bill then wanted to show us the Joshua Tree Forest, so we headed a little farther south to US 93, which runs through the “forest.” I put quotes around the word forest because I would be surprised if there were more than a dozen of the trees per acre. The Joshua tree is a very unusual type of plant — it appears to be half tree and half yucca plant.

Joshua tree

Joshua tree leaves

The tree supposedly grows to a maximum of around 50 feet, but most we saw were in the 20-25 ft range. The area we were driving through was very dry, but there were numerous creek beds, with the vegetation clustered around them. I imagined that these gullies could be very dangerous places to be if there were ever  heavy rain, but then I wondered if there was such a thing as a heavy rain here. Whereas we could get inches of rain in a day in Saint Marys, it seems this place would be lucky to get millimeters of rain in a day — and I doubt they would get even that much very often. After driving several miles through the “forest,” we turned off US 93 onto State Road 97 and headed for Bagdad, AZ — which is a very small town with a very large copper mine. It was an interesting diversion, but I think the main purpose of the trip was so that Bill, a car enthusiast, could drive along the deserted, winding mountain roads. I probably would’ve wanted to do the same, had we had our little yellow convertible with us.

 

Sunday we decided to do something really touristy, and headed north to Williams, AZ. Williams claims the distinction of being the last town on old Route 66 to be bypassed by Interstate 40. It is also the home of a wild animal park called “Bearizona.” The weather had turned cloudy and cold, with a high in the middle sixties. There is a small zoo with animals native to the North American West, and a large preserve with separate habitats for bears, wolves, and herd animals like deer, antelope and bison. We arrived just in time to experience a free-flight exhibit of raptors (my favorite birds). The owls were so quiet they could fly over your head and you couldn’t hear them, but you could feel the wind from their wings. One hawk actually brushed the top of my head as it swooshed over me. After the raptor show, we boarded a bus and took a tour of the large preserve, which also serves as an animal rescue and rehabilitation facility.

 

Bill (left) with Suzy and me.

After our tour of Bearizona, we headed into downtown Williams to absorb a bit of the Route 66 culture. We were all old enough to remember the hit 1960 TV show titled Route 66, starring Martin Milner, George Maharis and a Chevy Corvette. And we knew that US 66 ran from Chicago to Los Angeles. What we didn’t know was that such a culture of nostalgia had grown up around the TV show and the roadway. After the cold day in the park, we warmed up with coffee, tea and burgers at the car-themed Cruisers Bar & Grill (aka “Cafe 66”). Then, we picked up some souvenirs and looked at loads of Route 66-themed stuff in the Cruisers Gift Shop (aka “Gifts 66”). Suzy got a refrigerator magnet. I got a shot glass. Anything that you could imagine, capable of slapping “Route 66” on it, was in that shop, which seemed to stretch for half the block. They had lots of placards, license plates, posters, biker paraphernalia… and even Elvis (!) memorabilia. We finally pulled ourselves away and headed back to Prescott before it got dark.

We had nothing particularly planned for Monday. We were basically waiting for Tuesday in order to avoid the Monday crowds at the airport. So we caught a movie and had a quick lunch at the In-N-Out Burger. It was a good burger, but I’ll stick with Checkers. While Robin took Suzy shopping, Bill wanted to show me one of his favorite hiking spots near town. We ended up doing some fairly strenuous hiking around some pretty large rock formations. The views were good, though. Well worth the effort. My knees held out until we got back onto level ground. I was thankful for that. We ended up having a great dinner at a little joint called El Gato Azul, which featured a nice jazz combo. It was small and crowded, but the food was good, and it was still peaceful enough that we could carry on a conversation without shouting. Prescott is a nice place with a lot of pretty neat stuff, but I realized that there was something about the place that didn’t feel right to me. It wasn’t the lack of trees or the color of the rocks. It finally struck me that there were no black people there. There were whites and Hispanics, but we hadn’t seen an African American since our arrival. It was like half the palette of color in the world was missing. In my town, in my workplace, in my circle of friends, there are always black men and women. It seemed odd that they should not be in Arizona.

We had no trouble driving back to Phoenix and catching our flight back to Jacksonville on Tuesday. We touched down at JAX around midnight, but we were still on Arizona time, so it was no problem. We had a good trip, but it was nice to be back in our own beds.