Phoenix and Sedona

Nowadays, I seem to get to these posts about a month later. We were in Phoenix in March, one of those spouse-tags-along-to-conference trips. We also went up to see the red rock cliffs of Sedona for a day. As usual, pictures:

The area’s main places of interest we went to: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West, Scottsdale, the Heard Museum, and the day trip to Sedona, with a stop at Montezuma’s Castle along the way.

Note that it was 90F in Phoenix, and very sunny. Cleveland at that time, not so much. Actually, given how unseasonably cold it was in Key West the previous month, this was the first time we’ve experienced shorts-and-t-shirt weather this year. Very nice. Probably not very nice by August, though.

We were staying near Squaw Peak, about 15 or 20 minutes north of downtown Phoenix. My brother recommended visiting Taliesin West, and it was an easy drive on local routes from there. Wright’s office, still preserved like he had left it, was interesting, with a huge work table and a wealth of natural light from the desert sun filtering in through sailcloth ceilings (now a white, translucent plastic). The whole room was a giant lightbox, washing out any shadows. The rest of the living areas were similar, integrating indoors and outdoors, though in a sort of difficult to work with 1940s style. There are ideas you want to take for your own house, not copy wholeheartedly: the light is fantastic, and you can certainly work with the environment rather than in spite of it (we saw green lawns in front of the various desert McMansions we drove by), but you’d ways to power and run computers, and maybe do away with the, well, Frank Lloyd Wright furniture.

That afternoon, we went down to Scottsdale and stumbled upon the weekly artwalk in the gallery district there. Ate at a Mexican restaurant. Not much to say beyond that it’s a nice walking town. One of the galleries apparently had real Rodin and Degas sculptures, as opposed to the run of the mill local artists’ works and dolphin sculptures.

While Grace was attending the conference, I spent part of the day at one of the local coffee shops. Entertainingly, I overhead three conversations happening near my table that reinforce certain stereotypes of the American southwest: there was a small Bible study group on one side, and across the aisle was a pair talking about how to do no-money-down/foreclosure real estate investing in the still hot (to them) Phoenix market. The Bible study group left, to be replaced shortly thereafter by another pair. One was a life coach, the other the life coachee. I don’t recall if they got into The Secret, such as it is. But the coffee was good, breakfast was cheap, and the wifi was free.

One interesting museum is the Heard Museum, specializing in Native American culture. There’s a mix of older artifacts — Apache baskets, various figurines including the interesting “storyteller” motifs — and contemporary art by Native American artists. One part of the museum featured an exhibit on the forced assimilation of children through boarding schools, in a less multicultural era. The museum guide had to spend some effort stopping a group of Chinese tourists from using their camera flashes, but was generally informative about the displays and the various tribes in the American southwest. The only lacuna was what exactly constituted a different tribe. Linguistics and geography?

The highlight of this trip was Sedona, a few hours north of Phoenix. On the way, we saw the intriguingly named “Montezuma’s Castle” on the map and decided to detour there. This was a pleasant surprise: the “Castle” is one of the largest, best preserved cliff dwellings in the area. The highest portions are still well preserved, though, as ordinary tourists rather than certified archaeologists, we were restricted to the marked paths well below the cliff dwellings. The larger portion of this village has deteriorated to the point of being only outlines of walls near the cliff base.

The main feature of Sedona itself is the red rock landscape surrounding the town. I hadn’t seen this landscape before in real life; only in movies. It actually is an amazing place, and the cliffs rise unperturbed over the modern clutter of the highway and outlet mall just south of town. The map that they give you when you get to downtown Sedona is vaguely useless and confusing. It took a while to figure out that the tourist trap section is only a small part of the map, and the most of the long main street is the standard residential/commercial portions, complete with supermarket and hardware stores. Distances weren’t well marked, and we actually though it’d be reasonable to walk from point A to point B, not realizing that down that first hill was only a fraction of how far we needed to go. Thankfully, the parking lot where we put the car was free, and not too far away. The Google Maps client for Blackberry was far, far more useful than the paper map we got, though the tourist office did give us a tip on the best place to take pictures of the landscape: halfway along the airport road, you can see the whole town.

The other good tip we got from the tourist office was to forgo the little trolley tour and sign up for a 4×4 off-road tour. We opted for the Pink Jeep Tours. This was a couple hours of kidney-shaking fun as the jeep climbed up and down dry creek beds and boulder falls, all the while receiving a geography lesson from the driver on how the red rock formations actually came about, over millions of years of flowing waters. Even though we were in the midsts of the desert, I was reminded of the Norman Maclean’s closing paragraph of “A River Runs Through It”, about the river carved out by the world’s great flood and the rocks from the basement of time. And there we were, surrounded by unimaginably old rock, sediment from a Permian sea.

The tour was timed to reach a high vista at the start of the photographic “golden hour”, just before sunset when the red cliffs deepen in color. The other group in our jeep had a cheap disposable camera for this ride, which seemed to be a waste. For my part, I was an idiot who hadn’t recharged the battery on the Nikon since Key West the month before, and I was on the last blinking bar just before the jeep tour started. By the good graces of capitalism, a photography store in the tourist section keeps a supply of SLR batteries fully charged (the last charge date handwritten on the package), just for idiots like me, and it was only about $20 over B&H’s price for an uncharged battery. I think of that $20 as the dumbass tourist-photographer tax.

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