The American Southwest
I recently returned from 10 days in the desert Southwest. That’s an area I wouldn’t call my favorite part of the country, so I was surprised at how much I enjoyed traveling there and how COLD it was in the upper elevations. The little jacket I packed, thinking, “Oh, I’m just going to southern California and Las Vegas” really didn’t cut it in Los Alamos and Flagstaff. Or even, as it turned out, southern California and Las Vegas. I was cold the entire trip.
As this was a VISIONS Across America trip, I traveled with photographer Jim Heemstra. We started out on an early-morning flight to LA and hit the ground running with a photo shoot and interview that afternoon in Santa Monica. It was extremely windy and a bit chilly, not the best conditions for a photo.
After we finished our work, we attempted to find our Venice Beach hotel in the dark. Both Mapquest and GPS were confused by the fact that our hotel could not be accessed by its front-door address but rather only by its back-door, scuzzy alleyway address. This was one of those hotels that, when you drive up to it, you say, “No way am I staying here.” Only the desperation brought on by a very long day and the alternative of finding a different hotel in the dark in Los Angeles – not to mention the fact that our rooms were pre-paid for the night – made us go inside. The Venice Beach Suites & Hotel was truly a one-star accommodation, if that. The front area was barricaded for the night and inhabited by a homeless man. The back alley was surrounded by sketchy skater boys and potential drug dealers. Inside, the guy on duty was only one notch above the guys outside. Our rooms were fairly large, but we both did a thorough check for dead bodies (rodent, insect, human, etc.) before bringing in our bags. The elevator was one of those manual affairs; I opted for the stairs in fear of getting stuck. The place was loud all night. Without a sleeping pill, heaven knows if I would have slept at all. I actually left the light on in the bathroom, something I never, ever do.
In the morning light, the hotel seemed somehow better. The day guy at the reception desk was creepier than the night guy, but the hotel’s location was pretty awesome: right in the middle of all the Venice Beach attractions. The whole place is seedy, but artistic and fun, too. I was amazed at the number of skate boarders active at 6:30 in the morning. (What motivates this behavior?) Jim and I had fun taking pictures, looking at the street art, and walking on the beach until we had to leave for our next assignment in Temecula.
Driving in Los Angeles is not fun, but if you have to do it, Sunday morning is probably the best time. That’s when we were navigating the freeways en route to the Temecula Valley Wine Country – an up-and-coming wine area that could be compared to Napa Valley 25 years ago. We visited Wilson Creek Winery and its vineyards and restaurant and found them charming and delicious. I was told that 42 wineries are now located in this area. Who knew?
The next morning, after spending the night in the funky Joshua Tree Inn in Joshua Tree Calif., (where the dreadlocked proprietor offered us freshly made chai) and eating Mexican food for breakfast, we visited Joshua Tree National Park, a desert filled with, well, Joshua trees. This is a national park that I had wanted to visit for a long time, but after traveling through the not-so-beautiful, rather scrubby desert landscape I wasn’t sure it was going to be worth it. But the short time we spent in the park, driving and hiking, was very enjoyable. I was surprised at the beauty of the rock formations and arm-waving Joshua trees surrounded by arid mountains.
We only had a few hours to spend on this diversion, because our destination for the day was Las Vegas. Neither Jim nor I like Las Vegas, but we had a job to do, so we headed for the Strip and met up with an Iowa State alum who does public relations for big events and companies there. I enjoyed meeting her but not so much Las Vegas, so we got up very early the next day and got the hell out.
Our destination that morning was not far: Henderson, a Vegas suburb. We were to meet a pilot at the Henderson Executive Airport for a short flight in a small airplane so Jim could photograph the pilot in the desert just south of town. (I was hoping he would look like Indiana Jones. He did not disappoint.) It was a bit of an exciting flight – after we were all buckled in, the airplane wouldn’t start, and we got to experience the pilot’s MacGyver-like abilities as he jump-started the airplane with his car battery. Yes, we still took off with him. Yes, we landed in the desert with no runway. Yes, after the photo shoot the airplane started. When that engine turned over we all said, in unison, “YAY!” I shudder to think of the adventure we would have had otherwise.
We left Nevada behind and headed for Arizona.
Our overnight lodging was in Flagstaff. We rolled in after dark and left before it became fully light, so I have only two memories of Flagstaff: We ate dinner at a fabulous Indian restaurant, and it was 14 degrees when we got in our frost-covered rental car the next morning. Fourteen degrees! Holy moly.
We drove Oak Creek Canyon south toward Sedona. The sun rose and warmed things up. The canyon was spectacular, but also nausea-inducing. I’ve never seen so many switchbacks in my life. But it was worth it. The scenery was gorgeous. Sedona, too, was spectacular. It’s a shame that Sedona is not a national park. The town itself is rather too touristy for my taste, and it’s surrounded by breathtaking views. A great spot for hiking and photography. I recommend it.
More driving, and we again arrived after dark – this time in Tucson. By now we had upgraded our lodging to the somewhat more predictable Marriott chain, and we found a Whole Foods Market for dinner.
We spent the entire next day with U.S. Border Patrol agents. One, a public information officer, drove us to our alum out in the field about an hour and a half southwest of Tucson. From there we descended into the rugged and unfriendly landscape of the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation, which is roughly the size of Connecticut. This is a place that is filled with creatures who want to bite and sting you (think rattlesnakes, tarantulas, and scorpions), cactus that wants to poke you, and an endless desert that wants to kill you with its oppressive heat (in the summer – not so much when we were there). Not to mention drug smugglers and lowlifes trying to bring illegal immigrants into the country for a hefty price. It’s a dangerous job for the agents, and I learned a lot from my daylong ride-along with them. We went all the way to the border and got to see the fence.
After that exciting day, I got to have dinner with my friends Jim and Shelli Moore, whom I met at Northwest Missouri State about a million years ago. We shared a bottle of wine and then went out to eat at a good Mexican restaurant in Tucson.
We said goodbye to Arizona the next morning, traveling east on I-10 out of Tucson, crossing the border into New Mexico. It was a full day’s drive to our destination: Santa Fe. Our only stop was in Hatch, N.M., known as the Chile Capital of the World. We had lunch at a divey little place and sampled both the famous red and green chiles. (I think the green chile is far superior.) We also prowled around a bit, taking pictures of all the chiles and oddities in town.
When we rolled into Santa Fe, it was once again dark. (Damn you, Daylight Saving Time! Why did you have to go away before we took this trip?) We stayed (in a boring but clean Fairfield Inn) on the outskirts of town and didn’t even have the energy to go into the more interesting city center for dinner. But we came back the next day, after our reporting gig in Los Alamos, which is, by the way, surrounded by beautiful mountains. We spent a few hours in Santa Fe poking around in art galleries and looking at the lovely, historic architecture. We grabbed dessert (flan and sopapillas) and coffee on the town square before heading to our final destination: Albuquerque.
We got there (surprise!) after dark, and our hotel (The Hotel Blue) was less than ideal in a slightly seedy part of town. But I sort of liked it; it was a real old Route 66 kind of hotel that probably had its heyday in the 1950s, and there were plenty of bars and a few restaurants within easy walking distance. We were to rendezvous with our alumni at 6 o’clock the next morning for a sunrise hot-air ballooning photo. But, alas, it was not to be. While I was showering, at 5 a.m., one of the alumni called to tell me it was raining, so the photo was postponed. I was hoping we could do it later in the day, but the winds remained too strong. So we had a whole day to kill in Albuquerque.
Here is what we did: We went to Petroglyph National Monument, where I sat in the car while Jim hiked in the cold rain. (No, thank you.) Then we went to Old Town and walked around in the cold drizzle because nothing was open yet. We finally found a place to get a cup of coffee (and get warm), so we sat there for a while. When we came out, lo and behold, the sun was out and it was much warmer.
From there, we went to the art museum at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, which was featuring a fascinating exhibit called “Stitching Resistance: The History of Chilean Arpilleras.” We also viewed a cool fresco by Frederico Vigil that told the story of 3,000 years of Hispanic history.
By then we were hungry, so we went back to Old Town and ate at Church Street Café, home to award-winning salsa. I ate chile rellenos, and they were fantastic.
Next we went to the American International Rattlesnake Museum. Yes, I paid $5.00 to go to a rattlesnake museum, and I liked it. There were live rattlesnakes in cages, plus other snakes and reptiles, also in cages. According to the website, this museum houses the largest collection of different species of live rattlesnakes in the world. Who am I to doubt this? The museum also featured a weird assortment of snake memorabilia and two large land tortoises who were walking freely throughout the museum (so cute!) I happen to like snakes, as long as they aren’t a surprise, and I got to hold a couple of ball pythons. Jim took pictures of this, so maybe I’ll add a photo later. I thought the whole experience was quirky and odd and a lot of fun.
By this time the sky was a glorious shade of blue and the air was warm, so we took a walk at the Rio Grande Nature Center. That was very pretty, and it was nice just get out and walk.
Our last day was supposed to be a travel-only day, but since our ballooning photo got cancelled, we tried one last time to do a 6 a.m. shot with our alumni and their balloon crew. This time it worked out perfectly, and by 9 a.m. we had our shots – and made new friends to boot.