Return to the desert

I’ve already reported on the time that Janice and I spent in Phoenix around her conference for work. On Thursday, 22 May 2014, we drove a rental car down to Tucson for more sightseeing. The last time we drove through the Southwest’s deserts was to the Grand Canyon back in 2006. If only the roads around Boston were as straight, wide, and smooth!

We visited the Mission San Xavier del Bac, a historic Roman Catholic outpost  serving the Tohono O’odham people. (The day before, we had looked into Saint Mary’s Basilica near our hotel.) It was interesting seeing the layers of aboriginal, Spanish colonial, and American history. As we had seen at the Heard Museum, much of our history of treatment of Native Americans and other non-whites is shameful, but their descendants continue to persevere and try to follow traditional ways.

On a lighter note, Janice and I then drove to the Mini Time Machine, which was more sophisticated than we expected. We had seen similar dioramas and miniatures at Roadside America in Pennsylvania and the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, B.C. The Mini Time Machine’s collection of dollhouses from the past 200 years was impressive, and we recognized some figurines from our own collections.

From there, we went into downtown Tucson, where we had lunch at Bison Witches, a hip bar and deli. Unlike the sparkling new business and arts district of Phoenix, the neighborhood we visited in Tucson was more hippie-friendly, despite being deep in a “red state.”

We also stopped at Campus Candy Yogurt (we had previously visited Yogurt Time a few times) before driving back to Phoenix for dinner at My Big Fat Greek Restaurant. We had previously hesitated eating there because of the name and the fact that it was emptier than its neighbors, but the food was good, and it may just be that fewer people noticed the restaurant or like Mediterranean food.

On Friday, we shipped a box of conference proceedings, maps, and laundry home. We then took the Metro to the Desert Botanical Garden, which gave us insights into the various terrain types of the Southwest. Fortunately for us, the temperatures were only in the 90s Fahrenheit. Janice and I saw numerous species of cactus, as well as hummingbirds, ground squirrels, baby quail, and cute lizards. We also had pity on the park staffers having to disassemble many Chihuly glass sculptures. After walking on some trails, we had lunch at Gertrude’s Restaurant.

Gene in Arizona
Saguaro cactus

Janice and I then stopped at the Mill Avenue shopping district and the area around a campus of Arizona State University. Again, we experienced a different vibe from downtown Phoenix or Tucson. We got our daily yogurt fix at Moja Yogurt and checked out Pop Culture Paradise, a nice comic book and game shop.

For our last meals in Phoenix, Janice and I ate at Pizza Studio on Friday night and Matt’s Big Breakfast at the airport on Saturday. It’s a good thing that we had a substantial meal, because our departure was delayed for about an hour and a half because the pilot’s seat needed to be replaced — a first for us. I read the graphic novel Trickster, which compiles Native American tales.

Overall, we liked sprawling Phoenix and the other places we visited in Arizona. While our few days of sightseeing were shorter than a proper vacation, it was nice to get away from our cubicles. Fortunately, we had the remainder of the Memorial Day weekend to get over any jetlag.

Since our return, we’ve been catching up on work, e-mail, phone calls, recorded television (about which I hope to blog soon), and gaming sessions. We’ll likely be busy with the usual rounds of visits to and from family and friends later this summer.

Arizona vacation, or A Week Without Pants

On Saturday, 17 May 2014, Janice and I flew from Boston’s Logan Airport to Phoenix Sky Harbor for a week in Arizona. She attended a Society for Technical Communication conference, and I tagged along for sightseeing.

New Southwest
Downtown Phoenix

After checking into the Hyatt Regency, we had a very good Southwestern dinner at Canyon Café. We then took in the Cirque de la Symphonie, a performance of classical music by the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra accompanied by impressive acrobats.

On Sunday, May 18, Janice and I had breakfast at the Hyatt’s Terrace Café and then went to the Heard Museum, which had excellent exhibits of Native American art. We had lunch at the museum and dinner at Boka Pizza at Arizona Center.

From Monday through Wednesday, Janice attended convention sessions, and I logged into work from our hotel room. We’d typically start each day with a workout in the Hyatt’s exercise room, shower and dress, grab breakfast at Einstein Bros Bagels, and then meet again for lunch and dinner. The cost of real estate and meals was less than in comparable cities back east. Despite the ongoing drought, it was easy to see the appeal of living in the Southwest.

On Monday, we had decent pub grub at the Tilted Kilt, a theme eatery similar to Hooters, with scantily clad waitresses and at least one kilt-wearing busboy. That evening, we returned to the Arizona Center in downtown Phoenix for a simple dinner at the Corner Bakery Café, which I’d compare to Panera.

With high temperatures in the low 100s Fahrenheit early that week — not that I minded the dry heat and hence the shorts — we didn’t want to walk too far. On Tuesday, I had a selection of cheeses at the Arrogant Butcher and had a more down-to-earth dinner at Steve’s Greenhouse Grill across the street from our hotel.

On Wednesday, Janice attended the STC’s closing session, so I went to Potbelly Sandwich Shop for lunch. We then joined some of her colleagues via the Metro light rail to the Phoenix Art Museum, which had exhibits of international art, Southwestern modern art, and Hollywood costumes.

As a pasta fan, I was pleased to have dinner at the Old Spaghetti Factory near the museum. I hope that restaurant chain makes it into the Northeast. In my next blog post, I’ll cover more of our vacation in Arizona!

Best Friends and the Grand Canyon

Friends, here’s Part 2 of my travelogue of Janice’s and my recent trip to the U.S. Southwest. On Thursday, 11 May 2006, we left the flashy casinos of Las Vegas in a rental car and drove from Nevada to Utah. The landscape became more colorful, as the brush and cacti of the desert were still blooming from a spring shower of a few weeks earlier. We were on the lookout for deer early that morning and saw jackrabbits.

The open road climbed into more mountainous terrain as we reached the so-called high desert. We arrived at the small town of Kanab, Utah, by midday and learned that numerous Westerns had been filmed in that area, including the Lone Ranger television series in the 1950s, Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales, and more recently, Maverick. We explored some pieces of movie sets.

Gene and cacti
In the southwestern desert

While we were deep in conservative “red country,” I found the people we met to be very nice, despite any political disagreements I might have with them. The firearms and animal heads on display nearly everywhere were part of Americana, anyway.

That afternoon, we visited the Best Friends animal sanctuary, the largest no-kill shelter for domesticated animals in the U.S. As some of the photographs I took show, not only are there dogs and cats in need of good homes, but horses, goats, sheep, and pot-bellied pigs as well. We took a brief tour and signed forms to volunteer there on Saturday.

On Friday, May 12, Janice and I drove to Arizona for a day trip to the Grand Canyon. Unfortunately, the North Rim was still closed for the winter, so we had to make a long B-line to get to the South Rim. Fortunately, the long detour was worthwhile, as we saw red bluffs, mesas, and the Glen Canyon on our way.

The Grand Canyon itself was spectacular, making the human-made sights of Las Vegas seem small in comparison. None of the pictures I took or words I can type do it justice. Ever since seeing images in National Geographic magazine as a child, I’ve wanted to see this natural wonder, and it didn’t disappoint.

Like the Skyline Drive of the Blue Ridge Mountains near my parents’ home in Virginia, we drove from overlook to overlook. Fortunately, we encountered relatively few fellow tourists because we had left Utah early in the morning, approached from the east side, and visited the national park before Memorial Day. I recommend this to anyone.

The rock face clearly showed millions of years worth of strata, and a breeze blew through twisted trees at the top and bottom of the canyon. From rim to rim is a 10-mile gap, and some of the lookout points had a sheer 1,000-foot drop (and no rail)! The Colorado River twinkled far below the road, which is 7,000 feet above sea level, and we admired the narrow, winding mule trails and sheer scale of the canyon.

We reluctantly drove back to Utah, enjoying the sights on the way. I would have liked to have more time to hike or visit Native American reservations, and we passed several poverty-stricken roadside stands selling Indian arts and crafts. We ate at a Tex-Mex restaurant in town.

Janice and I helped feed horses and muck out paddocks at Best Friends. While most of the horses are too ill or old to be ridden, bumping around in a pickup truck on narrow mountain trails to get between pastures was an adventure in itself. We saw where the Lone Ranger had been filmed, found a cool, water-filled cave, and chatted with other volunteers.

On Saturday afternoon, Janice and I returned to Las Vegas for one night. After beholding the colorful landscape, the ride back seemed gray, and we were less interested in the neon and crowds of the Strip. We flew back to Boston on Sunday, May 14, and aside from a little jetlag and getting over the altitude change, we dove back into a busy workweek. Overall, I’d say our vacation was as successful as we could have hoped in the time we had!

Fortunately, after the recent rains, the basement of our new duplex didn’t flood. Last Tuesday night, I ran and hosted the last regular D&D3.5 “Vanished Lands: Seekers of Lore” fantasy session for Byron V.O. before he leaves for a new job in St. Louis, Mo. Paul J. and friend Bre even managed to be present, despite impending college final exams. Byron has been busy getting ready to to relocate his family, and I’ll miss his role-playing ability and political sparring, but he’ll continue to be involved through e-mail and the occasional cameo in my games.

The latest Player Character party completed its investigation into murders in a steampunk future, culminating in a fight at a dance hall. I had to cancel last night’s session due to a dinner with co-workers and Jacqui M.D., but I look forward to wrapping up that team and shifting to D20 Mutants & Masterminds 2nd Ed.: “Drake’s Port” superhero scenarios for the summer!

In the meantime, Janice and I are preparing for our trip to Belgium later this week. We’ll be attending the baptism of my niece Ava by my uncle, meeting members of my father’s side of the family who I haven’t seen in 20 years, and sightseeing around Brussels, Brugge, and Ghent. It’s Janice’s and my first trip to Europe together, and we’re looking forward to the fine food, medieval towns, and a countryside that’s very different from the southwestern U.S. (if a climate that’s a lot like cool, damp New England)…