Road to the Grand Canyon (Part 2): Welcome to Arizona

Eastbound on the 62, back on one of those idyllic two-lane highways surrounded by nothing but sweeping desert and distant mountains.  A butterfly flutters by—what is it doing here?  There are no colors to attract them, no wildflowers to suck sweet nectar from, nothing to even pollinate.  It’s just a wanderer.  I could stay on the 62 for a while, to be mesmerized by that homogeneous desert road that I never get tired of, but I’m chasing the sun to Phoenix so I cut down the 177 and meet the faster, though uninspiring 10 Freeway again.

Once I spot the adorable saguaros, I know I’ve left the Mojave far behind and entered the subtropical Sonoran Desert.

It’s close to rush hour in Phoenix so I bypass busy downtown for the Desert Botanical Garden near the city limits.  The sandstone buttes of Papago Park are pretty marvelous, but they’re just a teaser as far as Arizona red rock goes; I’ll see plenty of that soon enough.

Bewitching green limbs of palo verde trees lure me into the Ottosen Entry Garden’s glorious collection of cacti and succulents, through the Monarch Butterfly Pavillion (seasonal), and down Quail Run Path, aptly named for the quails scampering about.  I spot an elusive roadrunner, too, and a few jack rabbits.  Saguaros surround the Sonoran Desert Nature Loop Trail, where I hope to catch one of those famed Arizona sunsets that paint brilliant watercolors in the sky.  The sun descends over a hill and I realize this isn’t the perfect spot for psychedelic sunset gazing; but a while later, driving on North Scottsdale Road, I look up and see the sky catching fire in a blaze of coral and tangerine.


It’s overcast on the 17 but I know it’s going to be one of the most scenic drives of the trip.  I’m going from the Sonoran Desert, along the Tonto National Forest, and into the Coconino National Forest; environments will change drastically, temperatures will drop, and elevations will rise from about 380 meters to 1400 meters in Sedona to 2100 meters by the time I reach Flagstaff.

Halfway to Sedona I pull off on Arcosanti Road to visit a place dubbed an “urban laboratory.”  The meaning of it is so obscure to me, and the few hundred yards of dirt road between it and the freeway add to the mystique. Something crosses the road and I hit the breaks and back up slowly to see what I almost ran over: a gigantic, furry tarantula!  Never seen one of these creepy, crawling critters in the wild before.  I get as close to it as I think I can risk—about a meter face-to-face—and I bid it safe travels as it ambles on into the desert weeds.

The idea behind Arcosanti was to build an entire city with architecture that is functional, sustainable, and beautiful all at once.  People would live and work amongst one another in integrated societies that exist within nature, efficiently reaping resources from the natural environment while making minimal impact on it—a sort of utopia in contrast to the densely populated and polluted urban sprawl we know in cities like New York, Shanghai, London, and Los Angeles.  This was architect Paolo Soleri’s dream.  A disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright, Soleri dubbed his philosophy “arcology”—architecture meets ecology.  Interesting.

When our guide Ann Marie shows us the model “city,” it’s obvious that the Arcosanti that we actually see today is still in its infancy despite being founded forty-four years ago.  Financially supported by tourist donations and sales of Soleri’s iconic windbells—which are made right here—a lack of funding has impeded construction.  The massive apses are nowhere to be seen yet.

In the open-air foundry, young artists who’ve taken residence at this veritable commune work bronze and construct the windbells, vintage folk music echoing into the canyon below.  When they finish their work, theoretically they have plenty of free time to fulfill their own creative pursuits—one of the ideals of life at Arcosanti.

The aesthetic beauty of Soleri’s architecture is inherent, though the place is still just precisely what it proclaims itself: an urban laboratory.  “Arcosanti is meant to serve as a model, a prototype for how more cities might evolve, integrating us more fully into the ecology of earth,” explains Jeff Stein, President of the Cosanti Foundation.  “We are now in an era in which China’s role in world affairs—and in altering the earth’s ecology—could be enormous.  China has the enviable chance to leap beyond existing Western models as it deals with its own rapid urbanization.  This culture still has the possibility to create a coherent human habitat that avoids the logistical paralysis that afflicts America.”

I’d say it’s awe-inspiring to witness—the community, the open field food cultivation, the passive climate control systems in which the sun and wind are integrated into the architectural design.  You might even come to believe that this utopian lifestyle might be possible, even desirable.

En route to Sedona, veering off of the 17 onto the 179 is breathtaking, to say the least.  Now these are Arizona red rocks, formed over millions of years when a receding ocean revealed layers of sandstone that became covered in iron oxide, creating the rusty, craggy Sedona skyline.  Right away I’m magnetized by the massive presence of Courthouse Butte, and before I can even fathom more, there’s Bell Rock.

This is unreal, but the town has obviously capitalized on its tourist appeal.  I had imagined cruising down a scenic highway with nothing between sandstone and me, but today a steady flow of traffic proves that I’m just another tourist.  Strip malls with souvenir shops and run-of-the-mill restaurants take up prime real estate that once belonged only to this colossal landscape.  Psychic storefronts distract from the epic beauty to advertise Sedona’s metaphysical commodities; in fact, the red rocks themselves are among them.  They’re believed to be Vortex sites, where spiritual energy spirals into multiple dimensions.  Whatever I hear or read about these vortices is pretty vague, but in short, they are quintessential meditation spots.

I purchase a $5 one-day Red Rock Pass from a machine in the parking lot of the Cathedral Rock trailhead; you’ll need this if you’re going to park and hike in the area.  It’s a short hike to a sublime view of Cathedral Rock, and a panorama of everything else.  Vortex or not, being there amidst the crimson cliffs is a sort of spiritual moment.  To reach the vortex in the “saddle” at the top of the trail, it’s a very steep, difficult 1.2-kilometer hike (one-way).

The other main energy vortices are at Bell Rock (moderate, 7 kilometers round-trip), Boynton Canyon (moderate, 10 kilometers round-trip), and Airport Mesa (easy, less than a half kilometer round-trip).  Stay a full day and give yourself a chance to bask in the otherworldly glow of this place.  Stay an extra day and shop the arts and crafts village of Tlaquepaque for a piece of the Southwest to bring home.

Northbound on the 89, I pass through Coconino National Forest campsites, the nostalgic aroma of burning firewood in the air.  The desert is a distant memory as I wind through ponderosa pines, gaining elevation by the minute.

Just shy of Downtown Flagstaff I loop back south on the 17 to the little cabin I’ve rented in Kachina Village.  It’s positively charming, simple, with a mix of modern amenities and old-fashioned details.  I love the knotted wood walls and the dim amber lighting—earthy and Americana in the dreamiest way possible.  I imagine days happily holed up in here by the wood-burning fireplace, when this ski town turns into a winter wonderland around December or January.

I’m in the mood for Thai food and I don’t expect Flagstaff to hold a candle to Los Angeles in that respect; but considering this is a university town, I hope to find a decent food scene.  Downtown, I’m pleasantly surprised at Pato Thai.  My favorite Thai dish, tod katiam tofu (garlic-fried tofu) is incredibly tasty—maybe a little heavy on the garlic but that is the point.  Panang curry and spicy fried rice—both triple-Thai spicy—have me crying mid-meal.  No extra-spicy Thai dish has ever brought tears to my eyes, so I know they don’t hold back here when you look them in the eye and say, “Phet mak mak.”  This is definitely the best meal of the trip.

I wander the chilly downtown streets and it’s got all the trappings of a vivacious university scene: a vintage shop, kitschy diner, wine bar, tattoo shop, music venue—all within a small grid of six blocks.  It’s Friday night and boisterous co-eds—no doubt, warmed by some libation—pedal by the dozen on a vehicle called a party bike.  Chic outdoor sports stores characterize Flagstaff as a sort of base camp for Grand Canyon adventures, not to mention the hiking, biking, and skiing opportunities right here in town.

Back home at the cabin, there’s a flat-screen television with hundreds of channels, shelves filled with hundreds of movies, and dozens of board games; but I simply melt into the heavenly queen bed.  The night is pitch black, still and silent as can be, except for the faint white noise of faraway coyotes.

Photo by: Wei Zhang

This is Part 2 of my story about road tripping to the Grand Canyon. Read Part 1 here. Part 3 coming soon. A version of this was published in Conde Nast Traveler China’s March 2015 issue.


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