Desert Pilgrimage

Type of Post: 
Beyond New England
Destination: 
Arizona!
Best of Show: 
Sunrise at the Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon at DawnI had to go to Phoenix, Arizona for a conference, so I added a day at the beginning and Lorna joined me for a weekend of exploring the Grand Canyon State. We had a lot of fun exploring, but I have to say it's hard to be a locavore superstar in the desert.

The Grand Canyon was our priority. Richmond and Annette, old hands at exploring the desert southwest, had told us that sunrise is spectacular, so that was the start of our plan. The only way to see the sunrise is to sleep in the park, so we stayed at the Yavapai West Lodge motel and it was fine.

To make the sunrise at the Yaki Point lookout (highly recommended) we had to be up by 4:15 so we could get to the shuttle buses at the visitor center in time to get to the point. Fortunately jet lag was our friend...Arizona does not observe daylight savings time, so the three-hour difference made 4:15 seem like 7:15 to us! 

Grand Canyon SunriseSunrise at the Grand Canyon is not simply about seeing the sun come up. The canyon is all below grade, so it starts the day shrouded in shadow. As the sun rises, shafts of light illuminate the walls and formations inside the canyon. Shadows shift, revealing and obscuring different colored formations, starting at the highest strata and descending by degrees until the whole canyon is ablaze with sunlight. It's an unforgettable experience!

Corncakes at El TovarWe had a very nice breakfast at the El Tovar hotel, which we were told is the only breakfast early enough for the dawn-seekers. It's a grand 100-year-old railroad hotel right on the South Rim, with animal heads on the walls and faux-log-cabin walls and wonderful Arts-and-Crafts period decor.

I tried to stay lo-carb and locavore with the trout and eggs special, until I learned that the trout was shipped up frozen from Peru. So I went with the Corncakes with Prickly-Pear Syrup and Pistachio Butter. This was one of their attempts at Southwestern regional cuisine: there was fresh corn in the pancakes and the prickly-pear syrup was nice, but the locavore thing seems to be struggling in Arizona.  

Green Chile StewFrom there we returned to Flagstaff along the scenic Route 180 under snowy Mount Humphries. We really enjoyed that drive, up over 8000 feet elevation and back down to 7000 feet for the high desert.

The old Route 66 runs through Flagstaff before joining I-40 east. It also runs through Winslow (as you may recall from the song) where I got some good iced coffee and an excellent Green Chile Stew at Mojo Cafe. That stew may have been the most natural and delicious thing I tasted in Arizona.

The coffee was good too, but it may have helped that it was 100 degrees outside and we were thirsty all the time (so no, we opted not to try "standing on a corner in Winslow Arizona").

Work goes better with CoffeeI have to say I didn't have a bad cup of coffee in Arizona, and I sure drank a lot of it. I spent a lot of my conference time talking to vendors and thought-leaders in my field to work out some sticky wickets back home, and coffee is the fuel of those conversations. The Hyatt and the Convention Center had good coffee, and all the little indie places in Flagstaff, Winslow, and Sedona had good coffee. 

(Actually, I did have one cup that tasted like an old egg roll from a cheap Chinese restaurant, but maybe that was just a single bad pot, so I'll call it an outlier and I won't say where I got it.)

If you want to see reviews of the places we visited in Arizona, watch the Foodie Pilgrim feeds on TripAdvisor and Yelp!

Holbrook kitsch announcing the Petrified ForestWe continued east to the Petrified Forest National Park and the Painted Desert, and then the meteor crater. Holbrook is the biggest town near there, and it is home to some of the most awesome roadside kitsch to announce the Petrified Forest (artlessly-rendered dinosaurs everywhere) and the Navajo nation (Sleep in a Wigwam!). 

The Petrified Forest is interesting if you are nearby or if you have a carload of Cub Scouts, but it takes a long time to get there, time we would rather have had in Sedona.

Closer to I-40 is the Painted Desert (also part of Petrified Forest National Park). That is definitely worth a visit if you are driving along I-40 because it is just minutes off the road. As for whether it's worth the drive from Flagstaff, well, it's over three hours round trip with no notable scenery along the way, and you can see what there is to see in 15 minutes, so it's your call. Now that we've seen it, we don't need to do it again unless we are already on I-40. 

Lorna at the Meteor CraterWe also visited the Meteor Crater, a few minutes south of I-40 and about midway between Flagstaff and Holbrook. It's not every day that you see such dramatic evidence of interplanetary calamity, nor such an outlandish display of cheap gifts and unbridled hype. That's a lot closer to Flagstaff, so it's easier to justify the trip. 

Some of the rocks outside of SedonaAfter those attractions along I-40 in the less scenic eastern part of Arizona, we returned to the wildly scenic mountainous area en route to Sedona.

Sedona is widely reputed as an upscale artsy town and a cool retreat from the heat of Phoenix, rather like Provincetown or any number of places to escape the Boston summer heat. It was a nice little town, well-maintained, and picturesque. We had a fine dinner there at Hundred Rox, with a view of the mighty pinnacles behind singer-songwriter Adara Blake, who did a wonderful version of the Billie Holiday classic Lover Man and a pensive, inventive cover of Michael Jackson's Billie Jean. I got to sample the local Arizona Gin with help from our excellent server Ricardo. Sedona is nice, but I'll take Oak Bluffs or Provincetown or Ogunquit or...

A Margarita on the 24th Floor of the HyattEventually we made it to Phoenix. Phoenix is much lower, in the "Valley of the Sun". It was very hot and dry; I drank at least an extra quart of water every day. Phoenix is a big city with all the usual good and bad things that come with big cities. I stayed at the conference hotel, which featured indifferent food and large cocktails with large prices.

But I did get to try some excellent tequilas while I was there. and that makes a real difference in some of the standard cocktails. Tequila is beyond the scope of the Foodie Pilgrim's researches, so I will leave it with the simple observation that the higher quality costs a bit more but the difference is significant and worth it.

I did enjoy en excellent steak with my old friend Brian at Durant's and there were some other good meals, but nothing particularly regional. I had a chance to try the chilaquiles on the hotel breakfast buffet, but they seemed to be of dubious authenticity and even more dubious quality.

In the end, I guess Arizona has much to offer to the traveler, but not so much for the foodie. The Grand Canyon State is half-again larger than all six New England states combined, witl about half the population, but it has few farms and obviously no fishing industry, little ethnic diversity, little seasonality, and few foodie artisans. I am glad we went to Arizona, but I am glad to be back in New England!