May 18, 2011

Arizona, Day 5: Phoenix Rising

April 22, 2011: After checking out of the Howard Johnson, I made the long drive back to the Phoenix area. I had booked a red-eye flight to New York that would be departing Sky Harbor Airport at 9:45PM. The car would have to be returned to the rental center around 7:00-ish, so I still had the entire day ahead of me to explore the valley. Phoenix reminds me a little bit of Orlando, Florida, with its endless rows of palms that line the streets. I really enjoyed the sight of fruit-bearing orange trees at the roadside of main intersections and also those tall, muscle-flexing cacti that had become so familiar to my eye. It was all very beautiful against the backdrop of the distant Camelback Mountain.

Now, one thing that I love to do when I'm in a new place is to see the baseball stadium. I hope someday to be able to say that I've visited all of the Major League ballparks. Unfortunately, at the time of my stay in Phoenix, the Arizona Diamondbacks were out of town and I couldn't attend a game. I opted to take the guided tour of Chase Field.

As I came through the gates, passing by the team store and entering the rotunda, I found a display case of memorabilia from 2001: Randy Johnson's game-worn jersey, a dust-covered base sporting the World Series logo, the glistening trophy. Staring through the glass at these pieces of baseball history, I felt a wave of bittersweet emotions--this had been the year that the Diamondbacks took the World Series from my beloved New York Yankees in seven games. It had also been the year of 911. The D'Backs were baseball's best team in October of 2001 and it was a time for well-earned celebrations in Arizona. However, for a New Yorker like me, those days were full of anguish.

The tour continues along the main concourse, passing by the concession stands and field level seating. I was very impressed by the retractable roof. Chase field is also the only ballpark to feature a swimming pool just beyond the right field fence. It looked very refreshing and I just wanted to jump in. Of course, one can enjoy a game from the comfort of the water for a nominal fee of $3500.00. Ouch.

Next, an elevator takes the group down to the players' level. This part of the tour offers a behind the scenes look at the visiting team's locker room and training facility. In the clubhouse, I made a point to sit down in one the leather recliners. I couldn't help but wonder what great baseball players had rested in that same seat before me. Cool thought.

From there, the tour proceeds down the tunnel, on to the field, and into the dugout. It was a perfect morning under a clear blue Arizona sky and I couldn't think of any place that I would have rather been at that moment...

After the Chase Field tour was over and I had thanked the guide for a fascinating morning, I headed over to another Phoenix destination: the Arizona Mining and Mineral Museum. This building houses a great assortment of geological curiosities. Rows of display cases show samples of rock, crystal, and raw ore in every color and shape imaginable. One doesn't necessarily have to be a rock hound to appreciate such ageless beauty.

Next, I took a ride over to an amusement park called Castles N' Coasters to play a round of miniature golf on one of their world-class courses. With a smile affixed firmly to my face, I putted my way around pagodas and palm trees, over bridges, behind fountains, and through enchanted fortresses. It was great fun!

After playing 18 holes of mini golf (with only one hole-in-one), I made my way over to Scottsdale to pay a visit to the McCormick/Stillman Railroad park. It is a place dedicated to all things railroad. The first thing that one sees upon entering the grounds is an antique train that doubles as a museum (the displays are set up inside the cars). It features the Magma Arizona Engine No. 6, the Santa Fe Baggage Car, and the Roald Amundsen Pullman Car (built in 1928, this car was designed for presidential travel and had been used by presidents Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower). When walking through the tiny hallway in the sleeper compartment, I was reminded a little bit of the Hogwarts Express. :D

Guests can also buy a ticket to ride aboard the Paradise and Pacific Railroad--a miniature train that does a figure-8 around the grounds. On route, it passes by sunlit gazebos, a general store, an antique carousel, a western-themed playground, and finishes up by rolling through the dark in a long, covered tunnel. This last part of the trip is the most thrilling and cheers erupt when riders finally see daylight at the end of the tunnel.

With only a few hours left before check-in at the airport, I decided to stay in Scottsdale to have lunch at a bar and grille called the Blue Moose. As I sat on the patio beneath the trees enjoying my iced tea and buffalo wings, I reflected on the events of my trip--from the depths of the Grand Canyon to the red hills of Sedona, from a 50,000-year-old crater to a state-of-the-art baseball stadium, this journey had been everything that I dreamed it would be: Marvelous!

The last thing that I did was to take horse drawn carriage ride through downtown Scottsdale. I relaxed on the velvet seat serenaded by the klip-klop of horseshoes on pavement as an arty, western village passed slowly by. It is a place where sculptures stand at the corners of streets lined with galleries and specialty shops. Twilight added a little extra magic to the scene.

In the evening, as my airplane took off into the desert night, I gazed out of the window to for a glimpse of Phoenix stretching to the horizon, vivid and bright. I leaned back on the headrest and watched until the very last of the city lights had vanished into the distance. And, with my Arizona adventures behind me, I smiled; everything was right in my world. May yours be the same. Cheers!

"Repent ye therefore, and be converted,
that your sins may be blotted out,
when the times of refreshing shall come
from the presence of the Lord."

~Acts 3:19