April 30, 2011

Arizona, Day 2: Grand Indeed!

April 19, 2011: I brought along two CDs to act as the musical accompaniment for this trip. The first one that I want to talk about is the one that I listened to during the early hours in the hotel room. It is called "Tales from Topographic Oceans" by Yes; a double album featuring four songs (each about 20 minutes in length) dealing with the concepts of Truth, Knowledge, Culture, and Freedom. It is a very challenging and spiritual album and surely not intended for casual listening. I thought it to be a great way to pass time in the mornings. As a result of the three hour time difference from NY, I was wide awake and ready to start every day at 1:00AM. With nothing else to do, I opted to lay in bed with my headphones on, relax as best I could, and listen to what is perhaps Yes' most intense album. It was perfect. If you should ever get to listen to this album, check out Steve Howe's acoustic guitar work on the third track "The Ancient/Giants Under the Sun." Utterly amazing!

At around 5:00, I would hear the nearby Grand Canyon Railroad blow its whistle and I knew that the day was dawning and life would soon be stirring. Conveniently, most of the area attractions open at 8:00am and with many hour-long drives to get to these sights, I made a point of being out of the hotel early each morning. Which brings me to the second album that I took along for the trip; the one that made its home in the CD player of the rental car: Michael Buble's "Crazy Love - Hollywood Edition." It is a fun album and the bubbly songs and silky vocals provided a great soundtrack for travel on the empty roads of Arizona. Standout tracks for me are the hit singles "Hollywood" and "Haven't Met You Yet," as well as a live cover version of the Eagles' "Heartache Tonight."

So, with Buble on the radio and a few bottles of water tucked into the car's cup holders, I headed up Hwy 64 to spend the day at the most recognizable of all Arizona landmarks: The Grand Canyon. After parking the car in an already half-full lot, I walked over the the Visitor Center to talk to one of the park rangers and get my bearings on the lay of the land. Then, it was only a 5-minute hike to the canyon rim. I was very excited when I saw the metal hand-rails come into view at the end of the path. With my heart thundering in my chest, I stepped up the edge and looked out...

There are moments in life when words will simply fail to capture the magnificence of a place and this is clearly one of those times. When my eyes were finally able to grasp the scope of the Grand Canyon, my mouth dropped open and all I could do was stare in awe. In front of me stretched out a magical landscape--rock layers representing every color of the spectrum, immense cliff faces creating the most bizarre shapes, plant life, animal life, stunning vistas of geological formations and erosion. I looked down and the canyon reached 7,000 feet below me with the Colorado River appearing as a tiny teal line at the floor. I looked into the distance and the scenery spanned as far as I could see before vanishing into the hazy horizon. In every direction, my eyes found another amazing postcard view. It was completely overwhelming to the senses. I chuckled when a nearby child asked his mother, "Is that a painting?" Indeed, this is a work of art that only God could create. Another man who had stepped up to the rim at the same time as me summed it up with one simple phrase: "This will be an impossible act to follow." 

For the rest of the morning, I followed the road that took me along the edge of the South Rim, stopping often at the many overlook points. The road ends at a place called Desert View which boasts a familiar sight called the Watchtower. Built in 1932, this observation station rises 70 feet above the ground and features a spiral staircase and many windows that face all points of the horizon. The interior is adorned with many Hopi pictographs and artifacts. It also has a gift shop that sells local pottery and art. It was a really cool place for me to take my last views of the canyon.

After leaving the Grand Canyon National Park and having a light lunch, I set off again on Hwy 64 to visit the Planes of Fame Air Museum. It is a place that offers a glimpse into aviation history showcasing many vintage and rare aircraft that have been carefully restored and preserved. The amazing thing is that most of these machines are still air-worthy and flown on a regular basis.

The last place that I visited on Day 2 of my trip was a wildlife park called Bearizona. The park offers a drive through 160 acres of ponderosa pine forest where patrons will come up close and personal with a variety of North American animals: Big Horn Sheep, Black Bears, White Bison, American Burro, Wolves, and many more. At the time of my visit, the animals were very active and readily seen. It proved to be a wonderful way to end my second day of Arizona adventures. The best part was that I got to enjoy it all from the comfort and safety of the car. :)

"No power in the sky above or in the earth below--
indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us
from the love of God that is revealed
in Christ Jesus our Lord."

~Romans 8:39


April 25, 2011

Arizona, Day 1: Kicks On Route 66

April 18, 2011: At about 9:00AM, as US Airways Flight #647 was making its final decent into Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, I was thinking that I still had the entire day to explore the Valley of the Sun. After the plane taxied to the terminal and the doors opened, I jogged to the baggage claim and then hopped aboard a shuttle bus to take me to the car rental depot. I took the opportunity to observe the local scenery through the bus window: a city painted in hues of rusty orange and turquoise, adorned with lanky cacti, citrus, and palm trees. It was all very foreign to my eye and I couldn't wait to start exploring. When the bus arrived at the depot, I ran excitedly into the building and sought out the Fox Rental counter. There were about twenty people waiting on line and I took my place behind them without thinking much about it. How long could it really take to serve 20 people with 2 women behind the counter? Over the next two hours that followed, I discovered first hand that Arizona time is nothing like New York time. 

Now, I'm not talking about the three hour difference from the Mountain Time Zone to Eastern Standard Time; in Arizona, time just seems to move slower. The hours seem to last longer. Car trips seem to take forever. People drive slow, act slow, work slow. Coming from New York, I am accustomed to instantaneous deadlines and extreme multitasking. It seemed almost absurd to me that, after an hour of waiting in line, I was still no closer to getting a car. The queue line had bloated to over one hundred people, yet the 2 women behind the counter operated with no sense of urgency at all, often starting up long winded conversations that had nothing to do with the job at hand and taking 20 minutes to serve a single customer. I admit that it tested my patience and I began to get fidgety. I had to take a deep breath and remind myself that I was on vacation. When I finally did reach the counter, the woman who helped me was courteous and jovial and I didn't even think of complaining to her about the wait. While this episode at the car rental place was a bit drawn out, over the week that followed I would come to appreciate this mellower pace of life and actually think of it as refreshing.

Sometime after 12:00, I was seated behind the wheel of a brand new Ford Explorer and heading out into a hot, sunny Phoenix afternoon. The temperatures reached 92 degrees, though it is a dry heat and felt quite like a perfect summer day. With less time than I anticipated for sightseeing, I decided to visit two attractions that are situated on the same street: the Phx Zoo and the Desert Botanical Gardens.

Over the next five days, I would visit quite a few wildlife places and it was only fitting that I started off this trip at the Phx Zoo. Now, I have been to many zoos in many different cities and, while the displays are often similar, each one always has some unique features to offer. The Phx Zoo is divided into four themed areas that include: the Arizona Trail, the Africa Trail, the Tropics Trail, and the Children's Trail. My favorite part of the zoo is called the "Forest of Uco." It is a winding path through a lush South American rainforest that boasts several tropical animals and ruins. The surroundings appear very authentic and the setting definitely lends a feeling of adventure.

Just down the road from the Phx Zoo is the Desert Botanical Garden. This beautiful getaway houses a series of dusty trails that take visitors through a diverse array of succulent plants, desert wildflowers, and cacti, including some very rare and endangered species from the Southwest. In the Sonoran Nature Trail, one can step into an Apache household. There are Agave Yucca Forests, grasslands, and butterfly gardens teaming with hummingbirds and scurrying lizards. The sights here are very different from the landscapes that I see everyday in New York and I found it all fascinating.

After leaving the Botanical Garden, I decided to depart Phoenix and make the two and a half hour drive up to the hotel in Williams. I was astounded by the dramatic ways in which the landscapes changed. Within an area of about 150 square miles, Arizona ranges from rocky terrains peppered with tall cacti to high plains to evergreen-covered mountains. The occasional sightings of tumbleweeds made me feel as though I had driven into a scene from a Clint Eastwood western. As soon as I began seeing freight trains 100 cars long chugging across the horizon, I knew that I was in a different land. I hope this series of photos shows just how varied the Arizona landscape is:

As late afternoon rolled around, I finally arrived in Williams and checked into the Howard Johnson. It had been a day of tiring transportation (with a 5-hour flight and an almost three-hour car ride), so I decided to go out for some kicks on Historic Route 66. This is a stretch of road full of nostalgic hot-rod malt shops and gas stations. One section was formally known as "Saloon Row" and the modern businesses there try to keep with the lowdown speakeasy feeling of the past. Other parts are set up to look like a town from the Wild West. There are lots of shops selling Indian jewelry, arts and crafts, and various memorabilia. Williams also has a rich railroad history and that is shown in many of its sights. Overall, Route 66 is kind of kitschy, yet fun...

"To the faithful
you show yourself faithful."

~2 Samuel 22:26