Man In A Suitcase

Phoenix, Arizona

I'm told that California's big cities are reclaimed desert. And yes, I can believe it when the rain stops in late Spring and the hills turn brown. Then I visit a real desert city like Phoenix and I appreciate how different my parts of California are from the real West. Like Phoenix's Rio Salado, the Salt River. Which may indeed have salt. But the one thing it doesn't have is water. And then there's the old part of Scottsdale, an eastern suburb. As touristy as it is, it still manages to leave me with the feeling that the locals have a right to sell cowboy boots and Stetsons. Somehow finding this stuff in a mall in Cupertino just isn't the same.

I'm fascinated by the geology of Phoenix. It's all so flat and brown and featureless. And then you turn a corner and there are these stark hills rising out of the void. I can accept flat places. And I can accept places with hills and wild variations in terrain. I just wish Phoenix had made up its mind which one it was going to be!

Sedona, Arizona

A few years ago, in the mists of the past when this site was new, someone read my comments about Phoenix and told me that I really ought to see Sedona, that it was something special and beautiful. I remembered. And when I began planning my pilgrimage to Route 66, I gave myself an extra day to see what the fuss was about.

Starting in Flagstaff (as I was), there are two ways to get to Sedona: the direct route via US 89A and the faster and probably less scenic Interstate. I took the latter. That turned out to be the right move, because almost from the moment I left the highway I was in the middle of the most amazing country I'd ever seen. This is red rock country, where around every turn there's another startling example of nature at her most creative. My photographic skills can't begin to do justice to the incredible range of color and texture of the monoliths and columns and vast expanses of stone that rise up in every direction. (The drive along 89A, which I took back to Flagstaff, runs along mountain passes full of tall trees. It's spectacular in its way, I grant, but nothing to the open spaces of the red rocks.)

After a drive through the red rocks, arriving in Sedona is a shock precisely because it isn't one. This is a place where either the residents have incredible taste or, more likely, the planning council uses a very big club. Most of the buildings you see as you drive into and around town are just too perfect a fit for their surroundings. Even the strip malls and fast food joints, segregated as they are away from the roads I took into and back out of town, can't disturb the serenity of the landscape. And the bridge north of town that took me back to Flagstaff, with its Erector Set construction, just seemed perfect for this rugged scene.

Sedona has become a sort of Mecca for New Agers, thanks to a woman named Page Bryant who announced the presence of a series of vortexes here that have the power to invigorate the soul. I don't believe any of that for a moment. Still, there's definitely something to Sedona, something that goes beyond the fabulous art galleries (the shops at left and right are part of a complex called Tlaquepaque, where I found great pieces and some truly nice people to sell them to me), the wonderful restaurants and the tourist junk shops. No, Sedona feels alive in some way that other places I've been aren't. Maybe it's all this human energy against such a bright and timeless backdrop. Heck, maybe the world's biggest supply of crystals and wind chimes really does do something to the soul. Whatever it is, I'm glad I was there for even a moment. And I look forward to the day when I can return.

Montezuma Castle & Well

Naming is a risky business. Case in point: Montezuma Castle, about twenty-five miles south of Sedona off Interstate 17. In fact it's neither a castle nor in any way associated with Montezuma. What it is is a rather remarkable 12th and 13th century cliffside dwelling for a native people known as the Sinagua. At least that's what we call them; with neither a written record nor any hard evidence of what happened to them after they abandoned the area six hundred or so years ago, we have no idea what they might have called themselves. The name was the mistake of Europeans who discovered this place. They weren't aware that the castle predates Montezuma by a considerable margin (its builders left a good century before the emperor's birth) and that his dominion never came so far north. Still, inaccurate names have a way of sticking. You'd think after all this time we'd repudiate Columbus's mistake and stop referring to Native Americans as Indians.

If the cliff dwelling's name is bad, the one for its constructors isn't a whole lot better. The Sinagua didn't live without water, although that certainly would have been an impressive achievement. No, they just took full advantage of what water there was. Like Montezuma Well, eleven miles northeast of the castle. A natural sinkhole almost five hundred feet across and fifty feet deep, the Well releases more than a thousand gallons of water a minute, which the Sinagua used to irrigate their fields. Along the rim of the Well are remains of several of their dwellings. It's hardly a surprise to learn that the natives found a source of worship in an inexhaustable source of life amid such utter barrenness.

Bisbee, Arizona

Bisbee is a former mining town in the southeastern corner of Arizona, about an hour and a half by car from Tucson. It's a place I'd read about in a magazine and tucked away as a future destination. I'm fascinated by ghost towns, and even more by towns that somehow found a new lease on life after the ore petered out. In Bisbee's case, at least according to that article, it was a combination of hippies and artsy types who brought Bisbee back from its inevitable demise. In any event, that's why MLK weekend in 2007 saw me driving south in a rented car, passing through the (in)famous town of Tombstone (which did not appeal to me at all) on my way to... what? That was the question.

My first glimpse of Bisbee made the trip worthwhile. The town is in the mountains, and the historic district lines a north/south canyon. There's one main street through town, with smaller streets crawling into the hills and ending abruptly. Most of the downtown buildings date back to the glory days of the late 19th and early 20th century, with signs of recent renovations amid a hundred years of deterioration.

That may sound grim, which I assure you the place is not. True, it was windy and chilly and kind of overcast when I arrived, but it didn't take long to start discovering Bisbee's charm. Like that hippie influence I mentioned, which certainly shows in the color choices of some of the homes. Although given the precarious locations of those homes, I hope the owners are more professional in their maintenance activities than I generally associate with the hippie era.

Heading south of town I got a glimpse into the world of large scale mining, as well as what happens when the scale goes abruptly from large to N gauge. Bisbee is the only place I've been where a Scenic Overlook sign guides you to views of a large manmade hole in the ground. Impressive, if hardly as stirring a sight as that rather larger hole to the north. There are plenty of remnants around town from both the underground and open pit mining years, as you'd expect after nearly a century of digging. They run tours of one of the underground mines, guided by former miners. Of course, as one of the locals pointed out, that won't go on much longer. Thirty years after the last of the closures, there aren't that many former miners left in Bisbee to describe the work and the life. My advice is to see it while you can.

One of the problems of the way I plan trips is that I only learn what I should have done after it's too late. Case in point: my choice of lodging, which I allowed to be dictated by the choices offered by Orbitz and Travelocity. I learned the error of my ways after meeting Joy, proprietress of a rather spectacular B&B in town. In addition to telling me how I screwed up in picking an anonymous motel outside town (with, by the way, free WiFi which was both wireless and mostly reliability-less), Joy clued me in to the history and rhythms of the town. She also took her guests and me on a tour of spots I'd never have visited on my own, like the local cemetery, and the Shady Dell Trailer Park, where I might have stayed in a grand old trailer from before I was born. Or at least not much after. The lesson being that to properly experience a place, you need to either know what you're doing or put yourself in the hands of someone who does. Which so isn't me, y'know?

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 Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California