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