July 4 just went by, and I thought of writing a small tribute to the country that hosted me for half a year back in 2008.
I was no stranger to the USA, having been to the country twice previously, but 2008 was my longest stay there by far. On the previous two occasions, I was based on the sunny, backyard state on the east coast – Florida. This time around, I was assigned to the dry southwestern state of Arizona.
Arizona is a landlocked state bordered by California on the West, Nevada and Utah on the North, New Mexico on the East, and Mexico in the South. The state is known mostly for three things, the Grand Canyon, interesting geological formations, and vast deserts, the type that befits the image of cowboys versus indians.
This was also the impression that I had when I went there, so when I learned that there’s snow in the northern parts of the state, I got intrigued. I never thought cowboys and indians also trudged through snow. I got there early in February, just as winter was about to turn into spring (the evenings were still chilly in Scottsdale, where I lived), and so I made it at the top of my agenda to drive up north, and see the snow before all of it melted away.
Flagstaff, around 2-3 hours drive north of the Phoenix metropolitan area (including Scottsdale), is home to the Arizona Snowbowl, a ski resort on the slopes of the San Francisco mountains (not to be confused with the Californian city of the same name, which is hundreds of miles away). My sole intention for going there was just to walk on snow for the first time, and I did get to, but I was lured by something more.
The ski rentals didn’t cost that much, and since I was already there, I thought “why not go all the way?”. And go all the way I did. Together with an officemate, we rented a couple of pairs of skis, and headed out unto the slopes. We were so unprepared, I hit the slopes wearing jeans, a Levi’s to be exact, and we had to buy gloves at the souvenir shops (I had gloves, but I left them 3 hours away at Scottsdale).
Balancing on both skis was easy enough, and learning how to propel myself to go downhill was no big effort, but it was learning how to stop that was a pain in the b_tt, in a literal sense. I had trouble braking, and each attempt ended up in a hard crash that sent me tumbling through the beginner slopes that we were in. It does still result in me coming to a full stop, but not in any classy and stylish manner.
They say “no pain, no gain”, and in this case I gained the bragging rights that I finally was able to ski, regardless if I spent more time plopped flat on the snow rather than upright on the skis. The cost of that though was a major pain on the knee. One of those falls sent me tumbling real bad that my left knee became so sore for weeks to come, and I had to consult a physical therapist back in Phoenix to restore my mobility. The knee even had to be MRI’d to check for fractures, but fortunately there was none, so I was just put on a regimen of stretching and flexing exercises. Lesson learned – get a ski instructor.
It took a month for me to regain some flex on the knee that I injured on the ski slopes, so it took a while before I could make my next excursion. A month later, I hit the interstates going north again, this time towards the border with Utah, where the geological formation known as the “big crack on the Earth” can be found.
Carved from the surface of the Earth by the Colorado River for millenia, the canyon looks like 3D painting made by God on the ground. Each layer of rock and sediment displays colors of different shades, which change in hue as the sun moves across the sky. It is a must see for every visitor to Arizona (or any neighboring state). After all, you don’t come across nature’s masterpieces, of this magnitude, often.
The south rim of the canyon lies around 4 hours away from the Phoenix area, and takes one through narrow back-country desert roads. As in anywhere in the USA, the roads are well paved, but the sheer desolation of the environment still gives the feeling of wilderness. You could drive for miles without seeing anything but dry earth and desert plants, and you certainly don’t want to run out of gas anywhere on that route.
A variety of recreational activities can be had on the Grand Canyon, including hiking, biking, horseback riding, or just plain getting lazy (that’s recreation for some people too). Some restaurants and hotels also dot the south rim, although these could get expensive.
PIMA AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM
A couple of hours drive south of Phoenix, just a bit past the southern city of Tucson, is a place made for aviation junkies like myself. The Arizona weather is dry, with some of the lowest humidity one could possibly come across. This makes it an ideal storage area for things that would otherwise rust away in any other place, and indeed, it has become one of the largest used aircraft storage grounds, especially in the southern parts closer to the border with mexico.
The Pima Air and Space Museum is a privately funded establishment, dedicated to the history of aviation. They feature actual used aircraft, placed into storage, and also some full sized replica of historically significant airplanes. The place was for from crowded when I went there, but then again, not too many people appreciate these kinds of things.
Two hours north of Phoenix, before reaching Flagstaff is another area of interesting rock formations. The place is called Sedona, and it’s the perfect setting for an old cowboy movie. The landscape is peppered with these “monuments” to the beauty of nature, carved by mother nature for thousands of years, as if sculpted by hand by God himself. Like the larger Grand Canyon National Park, Sedona also features a variety of recreational possibilities, from hiking on trails to taking a dip on streams. The small town of Sedona itself is also a preserved historical-cultural area, with small buildings and houses that blend with the landscape, and it feels like you’re stuck in 1800’s while you’re there.
OLD TOWN SCOTTSDALE
The boom in the greater Phoenix area, including Scottsdale, is a fairly recent phenomenon. Many Americans, wishing to escape the harsh winters or deadly tornado seasons in other states, have relocated here. Scottsdale in particular has developed into a modern, upscale community, as more people get attracted to the city. There is one area in downtown Scottsdale though, appropriately if uncreatively named the Old Town, that aims to preserve the “old west” feel, of bygone days. Here everything from store facades to street lamp posts are fashioned after the wild west of the 1800’s.
One of the most interesting things about the United States is the diversity of the landscape as you move from state to state, from north to south, east coast to west coast. Arizona looks very different from California, which itself is very different from Minnesota, which is also very different from Florida. The stark difference as you move from one geography to another could make you think you have moved from one country to another, except that everyone still talks the same language and flies the same flag.
I consider the USA one of the most interesting countries on Earth, and I certainly wouldn’t mind getting an opportunity to see more states. They got 50 of them, and I’ve only been to 5 so far. There is, definitely, a lot more in this country to be explored.
* All photos from Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon taken with Nikon L3. Photos from Pima Air & Space, Sedona and Scottsdale taken with Sony DSC H50.