Thursday, April 3, 2014

Arizona Trip 2014

Hi, friends, we just got back from a vacation to Arizona--and you know what that means: vacation pictures! Yay!

First, a warning: these are MY pictures. Snapshots. Don't think for a second that Sue took any of them. She's a much better photographer than I am! Also, I didn't go around photojournalizing the entire trip. I just took pictures when I saw something I wanted to remember, and realized I had a camera with me.

One of the first things we do when we fly into Phoenix is visit the Desert Botanical Garden. Like public gardens everywhere, it not only offers a crash-refresher-course in the native flora and horticultural plants of the area, but also draws in lots of cool birds, insects, and other animals.

We saw lots of nifty birds: Lesser goldfinches, a roadrunner, Abert's towhees, cactus wrens, curve-billed thrashers (nesting and feeding fledglings), mourning and white-winged doves, phainopeplas, and a lovely pair of northern cardinals. Did you know that the southwestern race of cardinals is a distinct subspecies, ssp. superbus? Compared to the cardinals in the Midwest, the males are brighter red, have a longer and fuller-looking crest, and have less black encircling the bill.

Also at the DBG is a new Dale Chihuly art-glass installation. He's been making the rounds of major public botanical gardens (including our own Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis), creating impressive glass sculptures designed to harmonize with garden landscaping.

Here's one of the sculptures from a previous exhibition at the DBG, which the DBG purchased for permanent display:

And here's one of the newer sculptures--it reminds me of mother-in-law's tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata):

And yet . . . although there were scads of people out viewing and photographing the glass art, I was still more enthused to see old friends from the "botany department," including blooming brittlebush (Encelia farinosa). Each plant becomes a small bush of wavy, grayish, hairy leaves. In spring, each bush becomes a huge bouquet of golden sunflower blossoms. They can cover entire hillsides, transforming volcanic black rock into a hill of glittering yellow.

Here's another flower that was blooming in abundance at the DBG. I'm not quite sure of the species, but it's some kind of "fairy duster," genus Calliandra. It's another small desert shrub (in the pea family, related to mimosa), and it's one of the many lovely plants you can have in your water-conserving, desert-landscaped yard. If you live there.

When in Arizona, we are always eager to get our fix of good (as in, awesomely good) Mexican food. High on our list is a place I've been in love with since about 1991, Los Dos Molinos. "Los Dos" is a mini-chain at this point, but we always like the one on South Central, which is festively cluttered with brightly painted objects and multicolored lights.

They offer New Mexican cuisine, in particular, and they claim they "don't know how" to make it "not hot." They're always winning awards, like "Best Margarita" and "Best Torch-Your-Mouth Mexican Food." Recently, the Phoenix New Times included eating at Los Dos Molinos in its "Phoenix Bucket List."

Naturally, each meal starts with green and red salsa.

We always try to decide which we "like best tonight." Sometimes it's the red; sometimes it's the green. The red. No, the green. Definitely the green. But wait a minute--let me drink some more of my margarita and try the red again . . .

Ahhh. Nothing in Missouri even touches this.

Although we stayed mostly in Phoenix, taking day trips from there, we did spend two nights in Sedona. On the way up, there's a lovely grassland mesa that you reach just after your car clambers up the mountainous switchbacks north of Black Canyon City. The sudden appearance of flat, grassy land decorated with prickly pears is breathtaking, after the rocky uphill section. This grassland is part of the Agua Fria National Monument, and we like to pull off at the "Sunset View" exit and park on the east side of the highway. There, we wander around and botanize.

Grasslands are rather difficult for people in our culture to appreciate. We're used to having our goodies delivered right to us, without having to make an effort. But the treasures of grasslands are not exactly "front and center." You have to slow the hell down. You have to wander. You have to kneel, to scrutinize.

The little plant below, for instance, was growing against the base of a rock. A relative of the weedy spurges that infest sidewalk cracks, it's a dainty, unusual wildflower in this desert grassland. It's called rattlesnake weed (named for an antique medicinal application), or white-margined spurge (Euphorbia albomarginata). It's pretty, don't you think?

Here's another pretty thing I saw there. I didn't go all out to ID it, but we can safely call it by the common name "silverpuffs." It's in the genus Microseris or Uropappus (lindleyi, I think; about all I remember is that it had hollow stems, and only basal leaves). It's one of many native aster-family plants that could be called "false dandelions."

Ohhhh there were so many pretty flowers out there in that grassland. Purple lupines, desert onion, blue dicks, borages, globemallows, mustards, daisies, plus a variety of bunch grasses and range grasses, shrubby oaks, and the ever-lovin' "wait-a-minute" bush, a shrubby acacia with curved thorns like kitten claws, which grabs hold of you and stops you right in your tracks.

Well, if that happens, it's time to stop and take a picture of something, probably.

Sedona, of course, has become a busy, bustling tourist city. They've installed roundabouts all over the main thoroughfares to keep the traffic flowing. To me, the spinning and constant movement adds to the dizzy, busy sense I get from the city nowadays. I'm glad I got to see Sedona when it was less built-up. And thankfully, we were glad to discover that it's not impossible to still find some places where you can be alone.

Our first night in town, we watched the sunset from a little pullout at the side of Dry Creek Road (that's the road that goes north toward Boynton Canyon, if you've ever been there). There's a place where the road reaches a high point, and the view is terrific. As we stood watching the glow, two more cars, and two pairs of people, arrived, and we all enjoyed the sunset together.

As an added bonus, the ground all over this area was covered with short little evening primroses. I don't know the species; there are something like 20 Oenothera species in Arizona. Like most of its kind, it was happily blooming away as dusk drew on.

You really shouldn't visit Sedona without doing some of the New Age stuff. Whether you "believe" it or not, go ahead and get a psychic reading, or an aura cleansing, or a "negative program removal." Buy a crystal or a pendulum, an amulet or prayer beads. Or join a UFO-watching expedition (they guarantee you will see UFOs). (I suppose what they don't tell you is that they specialize in un-identifying otherwise identifiable objects, but whatever.)

However, because I've done enough of that stuff to last me the rest of my life (I think), the farthest I went this trip was to buy a lovely, boring, space music CD to help me go to sleep nights when I'm too busy thinking. I also looked for my favorite brand of incense (didn't find it), and I looked at cards and art, books and candles, and gemstones and crystals. (But not to buy.)

And then we went to the Red Planet Diner, which is a rather tongue-in-cheek reflection of all the UFO stuff. The cafe started out as a new-built retro-diner, but now it's blended the old-fashioned cafe look with a UFO theme. It's all decorated with space/sci-fi stuff, the ceiling is painted with a huge flying saucer surrounded by stars, comets, and planets, and the menu features dishes like Solar Salad, Flash Gordon Chili, and Roswell Burger. Earlier, we had had Szechuan food for dinner, so we split an order of churros with coconut ice cream and had cups of coffee. And then we took pictures of the flying saucer in front of the restaurant.

The next day, we went hiking not at one of the famous psychic energy vortexes, but on some of the trails in the Coconino National Forest, just off of Jordan Road north of downtown. Below are some views from the trail--because any collection of photos of Sedona must include pictures of the red rocks.

Along the hike, we discovered some little desert puffball mushrooms! They were about the size of marbles and were dry and rather tough. Not papery, not leathery--almost like thin plastic. They were like tiny, thin-skinned Ping-Pong balls. One cluster, at least, I noted, was growing at the base of a ceanothus bush.

It was a good trail. It was sunny, the sky was blue, the birds were singing, and the ground was red. Red, red, red. My formerly white shoes are now official souvenirs of our Arizona trip!

The next day, we walked at Red Rock Crossing, which is one of the official psychic energy vortexes. It's also quite simply a gorgeous place--who wouldn't feel some special "energy" afoot? I won't bore you with all the lovely photos I might have taken. You can find them all over the place.

Instead, I want to show you a picture of what the New Age people have been up to there. Wow! They've been busy! There are a kazillion little rock cairns clustered at various places at Red Rock State Park. This, below, is one of the largest collections. I suppose someone officially pronounced that this very spot is the vortex. Or something. It was pretty interesting to be walking along, minding one's own business, and then suddenly see all this.

Still--you know me. Much more interesting, to me, was this grasshopper, which perfectly blended in with the miscellaneous grayish bits of tree bark, twigs, and other detritus against the red, red Sedona soil.

Of course I haven't told you about a lot of the good parts of our trip, simply because I didn't take pictures of everything (that's Sue's job). But this post is long enough, anyway. To close, I'll share with you our traditional last meal of all our trips to Arizona: The mesquite-grilled, quarter chicken dinner at El Pollo Supremo in Tempe. Oh, it's so good, so, so, good! It's a small, family-owned restaurant, with a limited menu, but what they do, they do with excellence.

Ahhh. El Pollo Supremo.

Don't be sad--we've promised not to wait so long to visit Arizona again.