I landed at Phoenix’s SkyHarbor airport straight from Belgium. If you want a jarring juxtaposition of American life versus European, fly straight from a city with roots in the Middle Ages to a state just finished celebrating their centennial. The differences are unavoidable, stabbing you in the eyes with every turn.
First, I’m picked up because the light rail goes to Tempe and I need to get to Scottsdale. Then you roll onto massive highways. I’m talking as many as seven lanes in one direction whereas Brussels, essentially the capital of Europe, seemed to limit themselves to three lanes on their highway.
SUVs and trucks fly by at speeds in excess of 80mph like they’re on the run from Johnny Law. Except here, 75mph is usually perfectly legal and 80-85mph is accepted.
Point is if anyone wanted to prove that Americans like things bigger, they need only to point to Greater Phoenix. Like Dallas, everything is super-sized to twice the amount an average American probably needs.
Hungry after crossing an ocean and most of another continent, we stopped at the first appetizing place we could find in Old Town Scottsdale — basically a downtown-type environment. But again, this “downtown” is split by a road four to five lanes wide. Strange even for me coming out of Cleveland. Simply put, you generally shouldn’t have to get a First Down to cross a city street.
Anywho, back to the food, which continued my European-American culture shock.
We headed into RnR Restaurant and Bar. And Holy raging Hell, was it loud. To be fair, the NCAA Men’s Basketball National Championship was on and apparently, there were people who cared — a lot — about teams from Connecticut and Kentucky. This being a transplant town, that’s not entirely surprising.
The food was good based on my hazy recollection of, “Did I eat it or not?” It was probably close to 9 p.m. locally at this point, meaning 6 a.m. in Kortrijk where I had just gotten used to the time zone. Suffice it to say, I needed a bed — STAT.
Next up, Flagstaff.
I’ve wanted to go to Flagstaff for quite some time even though my knowledge was limited to my brother saying he liked it years ago during a college backpacking trip. Unfortunately getting to Flagstaff inevitably involves renting a car. Or I guess hitchhiking. You’ll see a decent amount of thumbs up along the way.
Transportation seems limited in Phoenix beyond driving, though there is talk of light rail to Tucson. So that’s something. But I want a stress-free trip to Flagstaff. And there’s nothing stress-free about crisscrossing five to seven lanes through Phoenix alongside cars that look like they grew out of the same stuff that gave us the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Plus there’s that pesky speed limit drivers seem to think is optional.
Alas, the negativity ends there. Because Flagstaff is, in a word, awesome.
My first taste of Flagstaff came in the form of a hike around Walnut Canyon National Park. Five bucks gets you onto the Island Trail, which is basically the point of visiting Walnut Canyon as it takes you 185-feet below into ancient Native American cliff dwellings. You can almost imagine when the area was a full-fledged community with kids running around, living as humans did for centuries around here before Europeans showed up.
The trek is just over a mile round-trip with plenty of guardrails for those not so keen on heights. When you’re done, you’re just about 12 miles away from Flagstaff where you know you can enjoy yourself for the rest of the day without having to drive again.
Walkable and Historic
On my shuttle from the hotel to Downtown Flagstaff, I’m immediately reminded of Boulder, Colorado and Asheville, North Carolina with the presence of college students, cyclists, and mountains on the horizon. Something they also have in common is a respectable craft beer scene, which was why I came to town.
I started off at Diablo Burger for lunch with Joanne, who works for the local tourism bureau. She gives me the rundown on the Flagstaff Ale Trail — the story I came to cover — while we chow down on damn fine eats.
Joanne walks me through life in Flagstaff. She says they get all four seasons. Not that I doubt her, but the beaming sun and nearly 70-degree temperature was hardly the spring I had been experiencing back home. Perhaps that just means Cleveland gets something more like eight seasons — an awful version of each followed by an okay-to-good version.
Flagstaff reminded me more of what I had come from in Belgium. Very walkable, historic downtown. Preservation clearly matters here. The streets are narrow, so cyclists can feel safe from cowboy motorists speeding through. At the end of the day, it was hard to believe Flagstaff and Phoenix are in the same state.
Of course, once you leave the heart of Flagstaff, America still happens. Wide roads, gas stations, drug stores, and fast food are plentiful. But there’s an easy answer to that — just stay in Downtown Flagstaff.
After lunch, Joanne left me to explore and meet with brewers from Mother Road, Lumberyard, and Flagstaff Brewing — all members of the Flagstaff Ale Trail. The reason I was interested in the story, in part, was because I liked the idea of breweries marketing themselves together and being within walking distance, as one would expect with a “trail.” But that story will go up later at CraftBeer.com.
The similarities between Flagstaff, Boulder, and Asheville only continued while chatting with the brewers. All are proud of their hometown (or adopted hometown) and are dedicated to making Flagstaff a well-known beer town. Hell, it already is if you ask them. And after visiting, I certainly wouldn’t argue.
What I particularly liked about Mother Road and Lumberyard — besides the suds, obviously — is that their respective buildings are reuse projects. Mother Road’s chipped, gritty exterior certainly looks like it’s seen a few decades, and you can guess what Lumberyard used to be.
Michael at Mother Road tells me they specifically opened on the south side of the train tracks to help continue Downtown’s growth. Based on my walk around the area, it’s working. And once frequent train travel inevitably returns, Flagstaff’s scenic, Dutch-looking Amtrak station is going to be one of the most popular rail hubs in the country.
Well done, Flagstaff. I can’t wait to get back.
Is This Mars?
Still not adjusted to the nine-hour time difference between Arizona and Belgium, I rolled out of bed around 5 to 5:30 a.m. No problem. Just more time to get a big breakfast in before a big hike.
I met Robin of Oak Creek Brewery down in Sedona to work out a carpool to the morning’s hike. Robin thought a hike in Coconino National Forest would be more interesting than yet another tour of a brewery. Not that I don’t appreciate the tours, but between the tanks and sweaty gals and dudes mixing ingredients, they all blend together at a certain point.
We started on the Jordan Trail, just north of Uptown Sedona, hiking toward a sinkhole known as Devil’s Kitchen. It’s an apt name, considering this landscape looks like Hell to a Midwestern. Except, of course, without the eternal torment. Hiking Sedona is actually pretty damn enjoyable.
From Devil’s Kitchen, we continued along Martian-esque red rock to Soldier’s Pass, Seven Sacred Pools, and on up to Brins Mesa, which led to a side trail with the reward of Native American ruins and petroglyphs. Sketches of animals, humans, and what we’re guessing are time-telling markings lined the walls around the ancient homes.
Short for time, we hustled back to the Brins Mesa trail, passing through an area where a wildfire clearly wreaked havoc on the landscape. Burnt out trees stood in the foreground of the sunny Red Rock Wilderness like a beached whale in the Caribbean.
After a jog back to the trailhead, we hightailed it back into town for lunch and beer at Old Creek Brewery — also, curiously, a member of the Flagstaff Ale Trail. But again, more on that later at CraftBeer.com.
Granted my stay in the city of Sedona was limited to a quick lunch and beer, but you can quickly tell this is a tourist town. 70 and 80-year-olds were everywhere, shuffling out of their cars wearing short khakis and a polo as if a senior citizens committee planed some sort of fashion coordination. I almost expected them to break out into dance, like one of those mall flash mobs.
Alas, no dancing was to be had. Now back to Scottsdale.
“Screw You, Kid”
The remainder of my stay was spent generally wandering around the Scottsdale/Phoenix area. Highlights include hiking Camelback Mountain’s Cholla Trail and generally stuffing my face with good food.
Everyone who lives or has been to Phoenix says “you gotta hike Camelback.” You see it pretty consistently in the horizon, a giant lump that resembles some sort of animal’s back. The name escapes me.
Cholla is 1.6 miles each way with a majority of the climb well-marked along fairly easy desert trail that ascends over 1,000 feet. Toward the summit, you come what almost looks like a man-made platform for sightseeing. Many significant others have smooched here underneath an Arizona sunset, I’m guessing.
Signage from this point on is a bit less ubiquitous. It seems you can continue. After all, there’s more mountain to be climbed. And whereas the trail thus far had been pretty easy for a decent hiker, now you’re crawling up the mountain with your hands, embracing the animal within. Unless, of course, you’re one of the local 10-year-olds with absolutely no concept of danger, running up and down the rocky ridges like a staircase to the Christmas tree.
Eventually, I lost track of where to go. The wind had picked up and the ledges were looking awfully steep for someone who does have a firm grasp on the concept of danger. I decided my fiancée would prefer me walking down the aisle in a few months and not hobbling or being wheeled in on a casket, so I turned back to play it safe. Of course, as soon as I head down, I see a father with two young boys further ahead than when I turned back, easily making their way around.
“Screw you, kid. You should be terrified like a normal person!”
My ego dinged a bit, it was time to replenish with some good eats.
The Disappearing Enchilada
Two places whose food you must consume if you ever find yourself in Scottsdale — U.S. Egg and Barrio Queen. The former is a simple breakfast joint with damn fine skillets and their secret weapon, protein pancakes. Filled with wild Maine blueberries, granola, cinnamon and almonds, U.S. Egg simply nails pancakes. None of that gooey fruit syrup crap you’ll find at IHOP.
But assuming you’re hiking in the evening hours, you’ll need something filling to replenish all those calories you just burnt climbing up a freakin’ mountain. That’s where Barrio Queen comes into play.
Nestled into walkable Old Town Scottsdale, Barrio Queen is authentic Mexican food right down to the “Día De Los Muertos” theme of the restaurant. I went with the Suiza Enchilada, featuring hand-pressed corn tortillas filled with pulled chicken and quesillo cheese, topped with diced onion, cilantro, crema fresca, and my personal favorite, chorizo. And let me tell ya, I made that enchilada disappear like Penn & Teller.
“Monument To Man’s Arrogance”
At the end of it all, I come back to this question.
Should this place exist?
The Phoenix metro is home to just 4 million people who live on borrowed water. After all, this is the desert. I’m reminded of an anecdote Robin shared while hiking. She told me that historically a Native American civilization did exist in the region centuries ago, well before European settlers.
So why did they leave? Because it was unsustainable.
Anyone visiting or living in the area has to ask themselves the same question. Is this place sustainable? Should 4 million people be living in the desert without natural access to water? And should those people be watering lawns and golf courses simply because those were the things they actually liked about their Midwestern homes?
Whatever you believe, it’s hard to argue that there’s a battle between man and nature going on in the desert. And it seems to me, nature has and always will win.