Arizona: The Grand Canyon and Beautiful Flagstaff

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The one where I watch the sun set over the Grand Canyon; fall in love with idyllic Flagstaff; eat greasy foods at the Arizona State Fair; sample deep fried crickets; marvel at a freakishly large cow; and befriend a Rottweiler by the name of Harley.

Coming to Arizona

Fallon and I’s reasons for visiting Phoenix were three fold, really. The most obvious of these was for a chance to see the Grand Canyon. While my six week United States journey couldn’t possibly have hit every major landmark on the continent – it would have been criminal of me not to see the Grand Canyon in all of its….uh…. grandness.

Then there was the small matter of attending a real American style County Fair. While Australia does have them under a different name (we call them ‘Shows’ which is short for agricultural show) – I’d grown up seeing county fairs on television and in movies. While I certainly didn’t expect a tractor pull or a blossoming romance with a girl in overalls, I was still excited about a chance to see the fair as I’d always imagined it.

And finally, although definitely not the least of our reasons, was that two of Fallon’s best and oldest friends just happened to live there. With Fallon moving to Australia to live with me in January of 2010 – it would be a good chance for her to catch up with some of her best friends.

So, there’s your set-up. Now for the story.

A Big Hole in the Desert

We touched down in Phoenix late in the afternoon, and Fallon’s good friend Krishelle picked us up on her way home from work. While it was Fall and Idaho had already begun to take on the chill that would only deepen as winter drew nearer – Phoenix was hot and dry. Unlike a lot of the large cities I’d seen in the United States and South Korea – Phoenix is just one big sprawl, as if being close to the ground helps to disperse the heat of the Arizona desert.

We arrived at Krishelle’s condo and were greeted by a bit of a terrifying sight. I’ve never been a dog person, and I’ve certainly never been comfortable with big dogs – so to see a hulking Rottweiler racing down the stairs as we entered was almost enough to have me turning tale and heading back to the car.

World's sweetest 'Rottie'

I guess a lot of it has to do with the breed’s reputation, so my face was just a little red when I came to realize what a darling Harley was. Not only was he affectionate and friendly – but he would have had to have been the best trained dog I had ever seen. And smart! You couldn’t even spell the word ‘treat’ without him going crazy. But you could leave food on the table and he wouldn’t even approach it without your permission. Such a sweetie, and a bit of a micro-example of how it’s best not to judge a book by its cover. A valuable lesson for travelers!

We spent our first night in Arizona hanging out with Fallon’s friends and eating copious amounts of candy. There was a fantastic sushi dinner in there too.

The next day rolled around with Fallon and I up bright and early to meet our hire car. Before too long we were nudging our way out of Phoenix’s early morning traffic and spreading our legs on the road towards the Grand Canyon. The terrain was the stuff of Wild West lore and had I know how close we were to legendary locales such as Tombstone, I’d probably have requested a detour.

Over the course of our five hour drive we began to ascend into the mountains and the terrain changed drastically. Gone were the rolling hills with their mantles of cacti and low grass, and we were soon in the midst of a hazy pine forest. The our outside had gone from oven hot to afternoon cool, and it was hard to believe we were still in the same state.

We flew through Flagstaff and went directly to the Grand Canyon. It was a surreal feeling to be approaching this place I never imagined I’d be, and the anticipation only grew as we wend our way through the woods that separate the parking lots and buildings from the canyon proper.

To say I was awestruck doesn’t do the Grand Canyon justice. The word ‘grand’ wasn’t merely attached to it to attract tourists. It’s just… I’m not sure I could do it justice. It stunned me into silence for a moment and if you know me, that’s no mean feat. Rather than try to capture the sheer size and colour of it – here are some photos. They do paint a thousand words, after all.

The sunset over the Grand Canyon

We spent a few hours wandering the rim of the canyon and snapping off hundreds of photos, pausing occasionally to pose beside a particularly interesting tree or in front of a breathtaking vista. The latter certainly weren’t in short supply. In the few hours we were there we only managed to see a fraction of the park, and that was with the aid of buses. I’d love to go back someday and explore the canyon more thoroughly. Perhaps even take one of the legendary donkey rides down to the floor.

We took a moment to explore one of the information centres on site, and then it was time to stake out a good spot to snap some sunset photographs. You can see one of them above, but we really didn’t have the position to really capture it. Another thing to add to my bucket list.

With full bladders and empty stomachs, we piled back into the car and headed back toward Flagstaff. The air had turned bitterly cold and, stubborn fool that I am, I had declined to bring a jacket for the walking. Suffice to say I was regretting my lack of foresight on the ride home.

Our night in Flagstaff was a pleasant one. We had dinner at the Beaver Street Brewery. I sampled their Bramble Berry Brew and Fallon, the Heff lover that she is, couldn’t resist a chance to try another Hefeweizen. I really enjoyed the berry beer, although it’s definitely something probably more aimed at drinkers of the female variety. Gwangju readers might have tried the strawberry beer at Songs. This was a bit better than that. Dinner was some pretty good Mexican food (by my humble tastes – Fallon is far harder to impress on that front). If we hadn’t been so tired we might have stuck around a little longer – there were pool tables and even a Wii set up to entertain the patrons.

Our plan for the next day had been to get up early and drive back out to the canyon to catch it in the half light of morning, which fellow photographers will know to be a fantastic time to get good shots. Laziness won out over our artistic aspirations, so instead we spent our morning exploring Flagstaff – which has got to be one of the cutest towns I’ve had the pleasure of visiting. Compared to the rootin’ tootin’ stereotypes you associate with the rest of Arizona, Flagstaff is this wonderfully off-beat little hippie town up in the mountains. There were craft stores and book stores all over the place, and the entire vibe of the place put me in mind of a Byron Bay or Nimbin back in Australia. Definitely a place I’d love to visit again if time allowed.

 

Just one of the many quaint stores on the streets of Flagstaff

With our car due back in Phoenix by 6pm and one last stop to make, we left Flagstaff earlier than either of us would have liked. Our sole pit-stop on the way home was another canyon, albeit one a little less famous than its colossal neighbour. Walnut Creek Canyon is known for the many cave dwellings that were built in it by Native Americans centuries ago. It’s a testament to their ingenuity (and the outstanding efforts of Arizona State Parks) that many of these dwellings are still present today.

Exploring the box canyon, it was easy to imagine how vibrant it must have been when it was still inhabited. By day the winding trails that hugged the cliff-face would have been lifelines between the many humble dwellings that the locals called home. I could almost imagine children racing around in the shady groves on the canyon floor while their parents labored higher up to erect a new wall or find a meal for the evening. By night, when fires were lit, the twinkling across the canyon must have been truly beautiful.

We spent an hour and a half wandering the trails and exploring the dwellings, and were lucky enough to spend a good half hour discussing the site (as well as fantasy novels) with a very helpful volunteer ranger on the site. It was a fascinating glimpse into Native American history, and while it wasn’t the Sioux or Apache that some of us might have studied in school – I felt like I had learned more in that brief brush with their culture than I did in an entire term of classroom learning.

Posing in one of the ancient cave dwellings

I felt truly humbled to stand on the same ground that a Native American family might once have slept and taken their meals on. The soot stained roofs were a testament to how long they had been called home, and it was every bit as moving as I’d imagine standing in the Parthenon might feel. It’s a shame more of the Native American culture isn’t known, because it is truly fascinating what they had achieved.

Getting my kicks

After the truly painful trek back up out of the canyon (one I would not recommend to the elderly or the overweight) – it was time to head back to Phoenix via the infamous Route 66. And, tourists being tourists, we pulled the car over and posed just to show we’d been there.

 

Arizona State Fair & Reunions

The last hurrah of our Arizona trip would be an excursion to the Arizona State Fair, and I was particularly excited after a friend of mine from South Korea trekked all the way up from New Mexico to take part in the fun. Tim, one of the wingmen I paid testament to in yesterday’s entry, brought along his beautiful fiancé (and now wife) Chloe to join the fun.

The price for parking might have been exorbitant, but we recouped it by getting into the fair at a discounted rate thanks to some kindly locals letting us get in on the back of a 2 for 1 promotion they’d found a loop-hole in. Something about a receipt from Home Depot being required, and Home Depot selling $1 bottles of Coke.

I’ve been to a number of fairs in Australia, the most notable of which is Sydney’s Royal Easter Show, but this was like an Australian show on steroids. The crowd was massive and so too was the selection of rides and food to be had. With Fallon not a huge fan of carnival rides, our night’s budget was instead set aside for trying as much greasy and potentially lethal carnival food as humanly possible. We tried the traditional things such as Indian fry bread and funnel cake, and then Chloe and I branched out and tried something a little different.

A block of fries. Sounds healthy!
Delicious funnel cake!
Mmmm.... crickets
Chocolate coated scorpion.

I’ve eaten some strange things in my life: writhing raw octopus tentacles, silkworm larvae, and the humble Witchetty Grub to name a few. The challenge set out by the aptly named ‘I Ate the Bug’ stall was too much for me to refuse. I stepped up and confidently ordered some deep fried grasshoppers to munch on and was promptly served two of the unfortunate creatures (with a dab of chocolate sauce) in a plastic cup. They were… disappointing. They had the consistency of badly burned and dried out toast, and the taste was not particularly remarkable.

Not to be outdone, Chloe stepped up and ordered the chocolate coated scorpion instead. After a lot of goading from the gathering crowd, she coolly slipped the creepy crawler into her mouth and chewed it.

“Tastes like Vodka,” she informed us, which might have something to do with the fact they’re preserved in alcohol before being dipped in chocolate and served up.

The sole other real highlight of the fair was a visit to a ‘freak animals’ show, which basically consisted of various abnormally large animals including a pig with enormous testacles, a cow, a horse, and an alligator that looked like a light snack for an Australian saltwater crocodile. But here’s the cow, for your viewing pleasure.

The remainder of our night consisted of more food, some grossly overpriced Budweiser, and the eventual feelings of sickness and guilt over having eaten so much greasy food. Our final day in Phoenix was a bit of a special occasion, and Fallon whipped up a batch of fantastic dak galbi to go with the kimchi and Hite that Tim had brought along. Our Korean feast was accompanied by a UFC PPV, and then it was time for a bunch of goodbyes.

Our trip to Arizona was done, and while I didn’t get to visit the OK Corral or ride a donkey down to the floor of the Grand Canyon, I did plenty of other memorable things. And now I’ve just got an excuse to visit again someday!

The incomparable Tim and the gorgeous Chloe

Links

Beaver Street Brewery

The Grand Canyon

Walnut Creek Canyon

Arizona State Fair

Pita Pit

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