(Oh, hey, what’s this? A post? surely not! Yeah, I’m back!)
I recently had the chance to spend a week in Flagstaff, Arizona… What for? Well, the spousal unit was attending a conference there, so I tagged along to try and sit down and get some work done on my business, Japandex, GBodyForum, do some reading and a few other things. Call it a practice run at the whole “location independent” lifestyle. All in all, it turned out to be a pretty enjoyable week away from reality.
Arriving at the Tulsa “International” Airport (TUL) at something like 5am sucks. Being directed to the TSA “pre-check” line instead of the normal pedestrian line does not. No shoe and belt removal, leave your laptops in the bag plzthx, no just walk thru the metal detector instead of the super tetrion pulse beam star trek scanner. I may have to look into this pre-check stuff.
This was my first flight on Southwest Airlines, and their “no assigned seats” boarding process. I have to say it was much more civilized and orderly than I originally thought. Instead of just “OK GET ON TEH PLANE!” they give you a number to line up by, and then you get to pick your seat once you’re on board. Fair enough. Here’s a tip: Check in immediately when that 24-hour window hits, or pay extra to get that early check-in. Also, don’t get stuck out in the Arizona desert when that time comes. More on that later. Also interesting to pay attention to the differences in how different airlines handle routine things like in-flight service, etc.
The flight from Tulsa to Phoenix “Sky Harbor” (PHX) was uneventful. Phoenix is sort of “in a hole” in the Arizona desert. At least that’s what it looks like from the air. Make no mistake, it is out in the desert, too. All 100+ degree Fahrenheit of it. Ick. Not much else to say about that, really, except from listening to the nightly local news, it sounds like rain is a big deal. Anyway, we got a deal on our rental car, a steel gray 2014 Mustang convertible. Yeah so it was a Ford, we’ll make do as we’re cruising around with the top down. Actually the car wasn’t as bad as I’d thought it would be. It didn’t feel quite as cheap as the early versions of the latest iterations I’d seen. The V-6 really wasn’t that bad, but it wasn’t going to lay rubber any time soon. Oh and the rear bumper is pretty stout. More on that later, too.
And wouldn’t you know it, we had time to kill, so after breakfast at Denny’s (Lumberjack Slam!) the decision was made to hit up a couple of the shopping malls. Rather uneventful, but we did manage to catch a kiddie ride/simulator that had “crashed.” Windows, isn’t it awesome? The last mall we went to was literally on the edge of town in the desert, with the rim of the valley in the distance.
Once you clear the normal city traffic of Phoenix, you’re out in the desert, which should be obvious. Did I mention that yet? Plenty of saguaro cactus to be seen. Especially with the top down. Make sure and get your sunscreen everywhere. Also be sure to stock up on water, fuel, and visit the bathroom before heading out, because places to stop are few and far between.
About 30 minutes outside of Phoenix, the trip actually starts to get interesting. The highway splits into distinct north and south-bound sections, and each carves their own path out of the hills and rocks of the desert. The 75mph speed limit appears to mostly be a suggestion, although we did run across a major speed trap operation at about the halfway point, I forget the name of the town/interchange, but its not a complete free for all.
At the 3/4 point, you start going up. And up. And up. And the scenery begins to change. The desert starts giving way to small trees and grassland, and the temperature starts noticeably dropping. In no time at all, you’re 20 degrees cooler and surrounded by the tall pines you’d expect to find at an elevation of roughly 7,000 feet. Which is where you’ll find Flagstaff.
Honestly, Flagstaff is a bit of a curiosity. I think the population is listed at something like 65,000 people, but honestly, I don’t see where they’re putting them all. The town is just not that physically large. The only thing I can figure is they’re counting the student body population at Northern Arizona University. Flagstaff appears to be 1/3 mountain town, 1/3 college town, and 1/3 tourist waypoint. Oh yeah, did I mention that its the closest city to Grand Canyon National Park? As well as having several smaller national monuments and other sites and attractions…. It seems like a decent enough place to this guy anyway.
A good chunk of historic downtown Flagstaff has been turned into quite the restaurant and club zone, and I can only imagine what its like on a weekend during the normal school year.
Embassy Suites Flagstaff
Yeah, so, ignore all the bad reviews you might read about this place on the big travel sites. Sure the Embassy Suits Flagstaff is not a typical ES property. It looks like it was probably built in the 1980’s or so, and started out life as another company’s property…. But it fits right in with the town. It’s location right on I-17 is pretty nice, too. Just jump on and off again, no stupid onramps and frontage roads and shopping area parking lots to contend with. Breakfast was awesome, the bartender at the nightly ES happy hour/reception was a nice guy, and everyone was decent to deal with. OK, so the room wouldn’t stay cool enough (especially at night) and the pillows were terrible, the combination of which resulted in an accumulation of sleep deprivation that seriously got to both of us by the end of the week. Hard to sleep when its just too hot, even with the windows open, and pillows that either feel like they’re not there at all, or put your head at such an uncomfortable angle that you wake up after the first night literally sore in the neck…. Would I go back? Yeah, probably, but I’m bringing my own damn pillow next time. And a fan.
Getting Out and Around
Of course the biggest draw of the region is Grand Canyon National Park, roughly 80 miles to the north of town. Well, we’d been there with the family in March of 2010, and since we didn’t really have the time to get back up and spend the time required to visit it properly (you should probably budget at least two full days, if not more) we didn’t go back. We did manage to see some of the smaller national monuments, a couple of scenic drives, and a bit of science history.
Walnut Canyon National Monument
Located about 10 miles or so east of Flagstaff is Walnut Canyon National Monument. A short ~3 mile drive into the park from the interstate, and you find yourself looking out into a deep gorge. Look carefully down there, and you’ll see what’s left of some ancient native cliff dwellings. A considerably smaller and not nearly as impressive version of the Grand Canyon and Mesa Verde combined into one, its still worth a visit, especially if all you have is an hour or two to kill. You can walk a trail that goes down into the canyon and around the ruins, but we opted to only visit the shorter trail that goes along the rim and back. The lack of crowds brought out some of the wildlife, too. Admission, $5 for adults. Total time, about 1-2 hours. Probably more if you go down into the canyon.
On top of one of Flagstaff’s volcanic cinder cone mountains you’ll find the historic Lowell Observatory. Famous as of late as being the place where the once-planet Pluto was discovered, as well as where Percival Lowell’s controversial Mars research was done. The main telescopes used by the observatory today are located elsewhere, but a few smaller units remain, as well as the historic telescopes and buildings. The library, particularly was interesting, not only for the architecture, but a few of the relics kept within…. Oh, and the presentation on spectroscopy was nice, if a bit thin.
We took both the “Mars” and “Pluto” tours, which were interesting, to be sure. The original “astrograph”, or camera and the building its in is still there, and we got to see it up close and personal. An interactive Hubble telescope display as well as an extensive shop are in the visitor center. Not a bad visit at all, even if it was only sort of a review for this Engineering Physics graduate. I’ll have to get my future astrophysicist offspring here for a visit someday.
Arizona Highway 180
The best and most scenic route to the Grand Canyon’s front door is Arizona Highway 180 north of Flagstaff. The last time we were here, it was still surrounded by several feet of snow in most places. It looked much different now, and the further away from town you get, the stranger the landscape becomes, leaving the trees and green behind for more red/orange dirt and scrubby vegetation. We only went about 1/2 way to Grand Canyon before turning around. And again, stock up and drain up (if you know what I mean) before leaving, there’s literally nothing out there. We would have gone further, but we didn’t fuel up first.
And wouldn’t you know it, about 1/4 mile away from the hotel on the way back, while waiting at the stop light, we get rear ended. I hear SCREEEECH and think, “ah crap” and then sure enough, a half second later, CRUNCH. Luckily they managed to slow down considerably, and it resulted in only superficial damage to both cars, and no injuries. The crease in the Mustang’s bumper had actually popped back out by the time we left town, must have been the heat/cool cycles.
Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
Taking US89 North to Fire Road 545, will take you to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. A short drive along 545 will find you at the visitor’s center, where another $5 a head gets you access to the park, and to Wupatki at the other end of 545. Along this part of narrow and twisty 545 are several parking areas and trails, which lead out into fields of jagged lava rock and flows, or into other trails into the hills. We opted for the shorter trails, which were still nice and passable. A couple of the stops at the high points provided an overlook to the northwest out into the desert. Not sure how many miles we were seeing out, but it was a few.
Wupatki National Monument
Near the other end of Fire Road 545 (its a loop that rejoins US89 to the north) is Wupatki National Monument. I’m unsure if this was a Pueblo ruins site or not, as the visitor center had closed for the day already, but its an excellent example of a primitive native group dwelling. Mostly still intact, you can walk the trail out and around the buildings. Another few miles separates you from rejoining US89 again.
There’s no Verizon service out here either. So when your phone alarm goes off telling you its time to check into your Southwest flight…. yeah, there was much consternation over that event. Luckily the damage wasn’t too bad.
Old Route 66
I-40 runs east-west through and around Flagstaff, but the “mother road,” US Route 66, once followed the same path, and you can exit I-40, and follow this route through town, all the way to where it joins up to I-40 again. Living near another part of Route 66, here in Tulsa/Catoosa, OK, its interesting to see the similarities in the old hotels and such that are still in operation today. Several of them have seen better days, no doubt about it, but a good portion of it is kept up. There are still small sections of it that remain as it probably was back in the 1930’s, too, which is great to see.
Montezuma’s Castle National Monument
Halfway between Phoenix and Flagstaff is Montezuma’s Castle, another ancient cliff-dwelling preservation. Now, once you get off the interstate, and successfully navigate the two roundabouts which are about 100 feet apart, and get past the giant casino complex, getting there is easy. Here, too, you’ll have to pony up $5 an adult, but again, its worth it to see a bit of American pre-history.
(these photos are still on the camera and I’ll put them here when I download it. doh!)
The Places We Ate
Of course no vacation would be complete without plenty of food, and drink. Here’s a quick rundown of the places we visited and our impressions. Listed in no particular order. We tried not to visit the usual chain joints, but that wound up unavoidable, specifically lunches, so I won’t even mention them here.
- Taverna – We arrived in town just as the big world cup final match was ending, and apparently there were a few fans at the bar here. Made for an interesting visit, to be sure. We feasted upon the mini-pitas and greek-style fries, which were pretty good. The atmosphere (and price tag) were a little more upscale than we’d have liked, but it was a decent experience.
- Flagstaff Brewing Company – We had high hopes going in, but it turned out just meh. The walk around downtown Flagstaff was more interesting. We had huge, if ultimately boring burgers. Mine was the “Pear Burger” with slices of bland pear and blue cheese. The locally made beer wasn’t bad, but really didn’t set itself apart in any way.
- Beaver Street Brewing Company – The R&R Stout was fantastic. Think Guinness with a bit more chocolate, and extremely fresh. We had a great fire-cooked pizza and a quesadilla.
- Pappadeux in Phoenix – On the way back we had to go to Pappadeux. Yeah, its a chain, but mainly found only in Texas, and if we happen to be near one, we’ll go there. Think Nawlins/Cajun style food with a high price tag. We had the crawfish and alligator, and we couldn’t finish it all. No taking it home as we were bound for the airport. Bummer.
- Hiro’s Sushi – A typical sushi restaurant, with pretty good sushi. I had one of the nigiri combos, and it was pretty decent. Would eat again. Was served a bottle of Sapporo beer that was made in LaCrosse, WI. Ugh, Japan, why u no import your tasty beer directly anymore?
- Some Random Chinese Delivery Place (yeah sorry, I really don’t remember) – It was pretty average Chinese takeout. OK maybe slightly better than average. The gyoza were excellent, as was the calamari.
- Alpha and Omega Greek Restaurant – Definitely one of the highlights of the trip. A mom-and-pop operation along old 66 that had been in operation for a long time, attached to one of those roadside motels. Great food, nice people. We had stuffed grape leaves, souvlaki, and a huge gyro platter.
On the way back to Phoenix we stopped at Montezuma’s Castle National Monument (see above)…. and then discovered that our flight would be delayed an hour. Ugh. So we made a stop at another shopping establishment (sigh) and then Pappadeux (also see above)…. It was at this point we realized that we should have had the car returned already, and hauled it into the return center only to discover that it really wasn’t a big deal yet. Argh.
Flight still delayed, we found ourselves at one of the airport bars still outside security. Sabrina discovered “white sangria” and I polished off a few glasses of St. Berndardus ABT. Then it was thru TSA.
Some people just take their jobs way too seriously. Like the TSA Nazi woman patrolling the carry-on scanners, circling around barking orders and calling out pretty much everyone she could for anything at all. Enjoy your power trip while it lasts, sister. The guy checking boarding passes, however seemed like a nice guy. TSA. WTF.
Then we stopped at another bar in the gate area, you know, with the twice as expensive prices since, well, where else are you going to go. Had some crummy service for some mediocre drinks, and then parked ourselves at the gate.
On this flight was a group of girls maybe 12-16 years old or so on some sort of field trip. You could tell they were being ushered about by a few adults, and all had the same style backpack with their names written on them. Why do I mention this? Because I have no idea what this was all about, but I have to say 90% of them were quite well behaved throughout.
Then there’s that 10%. Which happened to sit right behind us on the plane. After spending a week in Flagstaff and really not having any problems with, well, anyone really, I’m reminded of good old backwater Tulsa Oklahoma. This kid was probably a reject from a Duck Dynasty casting call. Shitty Hee-Haw accent and even shittier attitude. “I cuss out my teachers all the time because I don’t have to listen to them blah blah its my grades not theirs woof woof and I told my mom I wasn’t doing it because I do whatever I want yuck yuck got all up in her face and cussed her out too blab blab I wish that stupid baby would just shut the F up back there I mean really squawk cackle” Yeah, great way to bring us back home again. Whether or not any of it was true, or just some kid trying to act like a badass to impress somebody… now that’s a different matter. Not much different, though.
Now, granted there was a baby a few more rows back that was not having a good flight. Thank the aviation gods we weren’t back there. I half expected some chickens to start flying around. So I tried to scan the magazine article the guy next to me was reading about Obama’s latest attempt to destroy America this week. I don’t even.
The only saving grace of that event was Ellie-Mae Clampett’s seatmate and presumably trip mate seemed to have been brought up a damn sight more decent and was actually calling her out on the things she said she did. So there’s that. We arrived in beautiful Tulsa Oklahoma with a jolt, I say that because that was probably the hardest landing I think I’d ever experienced. He really slammed that 737 down. No weather, I guess he was bored or something. “Hey, watch this!”
There you have it.