The open road in Arizona driving from Tucson to Phoenix – wide carriageways, big skies, big trucks and big trains (image: Graham Brown)
This isn’t Orkney – roadside cactii as we drive from Phoenix to Cottonwood (image: Graham Brown)
By The Time I Get to Phoenix (I will be quite tired)
Earlier this year, before the better weather came to the UK, Mrs Brown (Kathie Touin) and I jetted across the Atlantic for our third visit to Arizona.
Kathie’s family lives in Northern Arizona so that is where we spent most of our February visit, but we also spent a few days in the warmer south of the state in and around Phoenix and Tucson.
This is not a big complaint, I know we are lucky to travel to such an interesting part of the world, but it is a tiring journey – from getting up at 5am to catch an early flight from Orkney’s Kirkwall Airport to Aberdeen, then travelling on to London Heathrow, followed by a third flight to Phoenix, then getting through customs and immigration, finding the mini-bus to the hotel and eating dinner, well in all that’s 24 hours gone.
Mind you, coming back against the seven-hour time difference was worse, particularly as there were stressful delays transferring from Heathrow Terminal 3 to Terminal 5, and more delays at Heathrow passport control – lucky our Heathrow to Edinburgh flight was delayed, otherwise we might have missed it and our connection to Orkney.
It’s not always hot, you know
Some folk have an image of Arizona as entirely made up of blistering desert. Phoenix can certainly get incredibly hot, there have been occasions when airliners could not take off from the city’s Sky Harbor Airport because the warm air was too thin.
However, when we were in Phoenix and Tucson it was pleasantly warm in the daytime, though cool at night.
At Kathie’s parents’ home, in Cottonwood, Northern Arizona – elevation 3,300 feet – it was not so warm. To be fair, it was cooler than expected for the time of year. We experienced a mixture of sun, rain and light snow.
We came across some tourists who had come dressed in shorts thinking Arizona equals very hot. Well, not always, particularly further north in the state.
On the day we were due to leave Arizona we had an evening flight from Phoenix. We planned to drive down from Cottonwood during the afternoon, it is only about 100 miles but… a big snowstorm was forecast.
So it was decided we would have to leave Cottonwood 24 hours early in our rental car (Nissan Sentra, a saloon, or sedan in US terms) and drive south of the predicted snow line. It was a good move.
There is not much between Cottonwood and Phoenix but we found an old-fashioned-style motel in Black Canyon City – the Mountain Breeze Motel – you know, the kind where you drive your car up to your chalet accommodation.
Black Canyon City is said to have a population of more than 2,500 but it did not feel like that, it seemed to be a series of businesses strung along what would have been the main road at one time before it was by-passed.
But we found a friendly local store, an excellent restaurant and – the following morning – a jewellery and souvenir shop where Mrs Brown spent some time (and money).
The “city” is at 2,000 feet but it was out of the way of the heavy snow which duly fell further north overnight, closing roads we had used the day before.
And even further north in Flagstaff (6,900 feet elevation), where Kathie’s niece lives, there was a huge snowfall which completely covered over her parked car so the roof was just a small bump in a snowdrift.
We watched some of the local TV coverage of the storm – on Arizona’s Family 3TV CBS 5 – and, as you might imagine, they were having a field day* with reporters out and about describing the falling snow in excited terms.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles – and musical instruments
We visited some fantastic museums in Arizona. Well, I thought so, though I guess it depends on your interests.
First, the Martin Auto Museum in Phoenix, a collection of beautifully restored cars, including Ford Mustang, Shelby AC Cobra, Ford Model T, Chevrolet Corvette Stingray – and a Duesenberg Boattail previously owned by gangster Jake the Barber, this car cost $25,000 when new in 1930, about $380,000 in today’s money. It is a fabulous collection – a picture is worth a thousand words, so here are some…
Duesenberg Boattail at Martin Auto Museum (image: Graham Brown)
The Duesenberg’s engine (image: Graham Brown)
I found a British car in the museum – me and an MGB GT (image: Graham Brown)
DeSoto in the Martin Auto Museum (image: Graham Brown)
I could say the same for the Pima Air & Space Museum near Tucson, which boasts 150 historic planes indoors and many more sat outside. They include a selection of Harrier jump-jets, a TWA Lockheed Constellation, a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress (complete with a veteran of bombing runs to Berlin telling his stories), a Douglas Liftmaster used by President Kennedy, a Lockheed Electra (similar to that flown by Amelia Earhart when she disappeared with her navigator Fred Noonan). We were under instructions to take lots of photographs for Kathie’s father, an aircraft enthusiast who flew in B-17s when he was serving his country. So we did, here are a couple…
Lockheed Constellation airliner at Pima Air & Space Museum (image: Graham Brown)
Kathie Touin with a TWA tractor and trailer – Twa is Kathie’s family name (image: Graham Brown)
Me and a Douglas aircraft used by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson (image: Graham Brown)
Boeing Superfortress at Pima Air & Space Museum (image: Graham Brown)
Consolidated Liberator at Pima Air & Space Museum – donated by the government of India (image: Graham Brown)
Boeing Flying Fortress – the man in the red hat is a veteran of bombing runs to Berlin (image: Graham Brown)
Trains? Well, we did not go to a railway museum as such but the strangely-named Clemenceau Museum in Cottonwood has a fantastic model railway.
The museum is named after France’s First World War Prime Minister because of his friendship with James Douglas who founded the company town of Verde, later re-named Clemenceau to avoid confusion with other towns called Verde, and eventually incorporated into Cottonwood.
The museum, in addition to the marvellous model railway, is full of local history in photographs and artefacts.
The enormous Musical Instrument Museum – here is the Lesser Antilles display (image: Graham Brown)
Back in Phoenix we explored two other museums, first of all the Musical Instrument Museum. We arrived late one morning expecting to spend a couple of hours before moving on somewhere else. By 5pm we were exhausted and we still had not explored all of this fantastic collection.
The piano on which John Lennon wrote Imagine (image: Graham Brown)
It has displays of musical instruments and costumes from every country in the world, pretty much, as well as displays of instruments and clothes belonging to the famous – John Lennon’s piano on which he wrote Imagine, one of Johnny Cash’s black stage suits, one of Hal Blaine’s drum kits, and so on – plus a room in which anyone can try out instruments for themselves. There was also a fascinating temporary exhibition about the history of the electric guitar.
One of Roy Orbison’s guitars (image: Graham Brown)
Finally, in Phoenix, we went to the Hall of Flame Fire Museum – yes, a museum of fire-fighting. This might not immediately appeal but it was well worth a visit and there was a fantastic display of restored fire engines. The older examples, some originally horse-drawn, more recent ones motorised, were beautifully painted and lined.
Another nice mess
While we were in Arizona we went with Kathie’s mom to the cinema to see Stan & Ollie. It is a funny, moving and nostalgic tale of friendship.
Just in case you do not know of Stan & Ollie, it is about the comedy film actors Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, and one of Ollie’s catchphrases was: “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.”
In the film (US: movie) they are played with love and uncanny precision by Steve Coogan and John C Reilly. A word also for Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson who played their wives beautifully. Here is the US trailer for the film…
Speaking of a nice mess, we ate some pizzas and got gooey fingers in a most unusual restaurant. It is in Phoenix and is called Organ Stop Pizza. But nice as the food is, that is not the main point of being there…
The venue boasts the largest Wurlitzer organ in the world, originally installed in the Denver Theatre in 1927 and much added to over the years. The organ, and the organist, appear through the floor – just like they did in cinemas years ago – and disappear back again at the end of the set.
The largest Wurlitzer in the world – with instruments and pipes suspended above and spread from left to right – at Organ Stop Pizza (fuzzy image: Graham Brown)
If you are not familiar with a Wurlitzer organ, it has pipes, something like a church organ, but the organist is also responsible for playing, through the organ’s numerous keys and controls, a wide array of percussion and other instruments – all are live, not electronic.
It was a feelgood venue, in which the audience – many in family groups of all ages – sit with their food on benches at long tables. Kathie and I got into discussion with the guy sat next to us who was visiting with his wife, daughter and grandson.
Wasting – and admiring – the Earth’s resources
The United States is big – I mean, really big – and it is not all alike. The scenery, the people, the attitudes, the beliefs, vary widely – often, but not always, according to geographical location.
We noticed in Arizona that newer ideas about plastic waste are yet to take hold (though I suspect they have done so in neighbouring California). It was almost impossible to shop at a supermarket without being given numerous plastic bags – because the staff usually pack for the customer using plastic bags from a carousel next to their till.
But worse was our breakfast experience staying at Holiday Inn Express in Oro Valley, near Tucson. It was a pleasant hotel with a self-service breakfast area. But all the breakfast cutlery (US: silverware) was plastic, as were all the plates and bowls. It created large bins full of non-recyclable waste every day. And, as Kathie said: “I feel I am back in kindergarten eating with plastic.”
Our Nissan hire car with a light covering of snow (image: Graham Brown)
Of course, fuel (US: gas) for your car is much cheaper in the States. We filled up our hire car and were amazed to discover it cost less than $25, in other words less than £20. At home to fill up our cars, neither of which is large, costs around £50 for mine and £60 for Kathie’s.
But walking is available. A popular spot on the edge of Cottonwood, where Kathie’s father likes to walk, is the wonderfully-named Dead Horse Ranch, a state park with lakes, walking trails and camping.
A number of the Arizona birds we spotted were seen at Dead Horse including red-tailed hawk, ring-necked duck, great blue heron, American coot and pied-billed grebe.
Our bird list for the whole holiday included the spectacular vermilion flycatcher (in a supermarket car park), white-crowned sparrow, various hummingbirds, and vultures, Brewer’s blackbird, ladder-backed woodpecker, dark-eyed junco, cardinal, (US) robin and – perhaps our favourite – the great-tailed grackle which we saw in large numbers in the Cottonwood Walmart car park, squawking, cackling and generally showing off.
Ah yes, Walmart. We made a number of visits to this enormous store which sells pretty much everything. Kathie’s parents know someone who likes daily exercise and, if the weather is not good, walks up and down Walmart instead. My purchases included jeans and an MP3 player. And some pants! (Pants is a family joke).
We did not buy everything we saw – these are in Food City, a chain selling Mexican food (image: Graham Brown)
Kathie is always on the look-out for Native American and Mexican-style crafts and decorations – as well as Mexican foodstuffs – and there was plenty in our suitcases from various shops when we came home to Orkney.
We made our traditional visit to Larry’s Antiques in Cottonwood, which is full of treasures, at reasonable prices in the main. Good to see the skeleton is still there in the rusty car by the entrance.
And we visited some of Cottonwood’s thrift stores (UK: charity shops). I picked up some CDs (inevitably) and a teddy bear who was looking at us out of the window of one shop as we arrived. We have named him Good Will (the shop is the Goodwill store) and back in Orkney he sits on a small wooden stool at the bottom of our stairs.
Not everything is new
It is easy to dismiss the USA as being short on history as the country is less than 250 years old. But there is older history.
Exploring the Sunset Crater lava flow (image: Graham Brown)
With Kathie’s sister and her family we visited two National Monuments – Wupatki and Sunset Crater Volcano – north-east of Flagstaff.
Sunset Crater erupted some time between 1040 and 1100. Today it is possible to walk in the strange landscape created by the dried lava flow and the trees that have grown in it.
the 12th century Wupatki pueblo village (image: Graham Brown)
And nearby we visited the remains of two pueblo villages – Wukoki and Wupatki – created in stone and mud in the 12th century, around the same time that St Magnus Cathedral was being built in Kirkwall, Orkney. Wupatki had more than 100 rooms in its day and a large ceremonial ball-court. The people grew corn, beans and squash.
Today the uninhabited pueblos are atmospheric and boast great views of the rugged landscape. But the Hopi tribe believe those who lived and died there remain as spiritual guardians. A nice thought.
When we returned to Orkney after our trip I experienced a strange feeling. Kathie, of course, had to tell her parents back in Arizona that we were home safely. But I realised I did not need to tell anyone. As you may remember, my father died in March 2016 and my mother way back in August 2001.
Since then Kathie and I visited Italy in June 2017 and perhaps I got this feeling at the end of that trip, but I do not remember it.
Do not worry, I am not depressed by this. What happened has happened and I look back on happy memories of my parents. In fact, there was something strangely liberating about this feeling – now I am grown-up (finally) and do not need to tell anyone what I am doing. Except Kathie of course.
“Yes, dear, just coming…”
* Field-day: according to my 1913 edition of “Dictionary of Phrase & Fable”…
Day of business. Thus, a clergyman loosely calls a “kept festival” his field-day. A military term, meaning a day when a regiment is taken to the fields for practice.
One of the beautiful fire engines at the Hall of Flame Fire Museum (image: Graham Brown)
My previous Arizona (and Italy) blogs
To find out more
Cottonwood (Wikipedia) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cottonwood,_Arizona
Black Canyon City (Wikipedia) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Canyon_City,_Arizona
Martin Auto Museum (website) – https://www.martinautomuseum.com/
Jake the Barber (Wikipedia) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Factor
Pima Air & Space Museum (website) – http://www.pimaair.org/
Clemenceau Museum – http://clemenceaumuseum.com/
Hall of Flame (website) – http://www.hallofflame.org/
Organ Stop Pizza (website) – https://www.organstoppizza.com/
Dead Horse Ranch (website) – https://azstateparks.com/dead-horse/
Great-tailed grackle (Wikipedia) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great-tailed_grackle
Wupatki National Monument (website) – https://www.nps.gov/wupa/index.htm
Sunset Crater National Monument (website) – https://www.nps.gov/sucr/index.htm
St Magnus Cathedral, Orkney (Wikipedia) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Magnus_Cathedral