A Travellerspoint blog

January 2012

Has anyone fallen into the Grand Canyon?




Millions of people do not agree with Joseph Ives. In fact, if they actually knew what he said, they would be left speechless. But Joseph Ives isn't a politician or some famous person spouting out his opinion on something he knows little about. Who is he then? Well, in 1857 Lieutenant Ives led a team of men to survey the River Colorado and the Grand Canyon and returned, declaring it and the surrounding area "altogether valueless", adding that his expedition would be "the last party of whites to visit this profitless locality". Time has proved him starkly wrong. Today, 150 years after he made that statement, the Grand Canyon, known as one of the seven natural wonders of the world, attracts almost 5 million people to gaze at it each year. How wrong can you get? I went to check it out for myself.

We flew to Phoenix for our Christmas holidays primarily because we wanted to see the Grand Canyon, this amazing gash in the surface of our planet. Photos, pictures, paintings, writings, statistics... they say a lot but we wanted to experience it for ourselves. After all, it seemed tantalisingly close now that we live on this side of the Atlantic and was only a four-hour drive from Phoenix.

Our visit took place on Christmas Day. As there were just the four of us and no family or friends within a radius of a thousand miles to gather around the table and share a feast of roast turkey, stuffing and all the culinary trimmings, we decided we would make it a special day and drive up to see the Canyon. It was an excellent plan. Being winter AND Christmas Day meant that the crowds stayed away. Divide 5 million by 365 and there should have been about 14,000 people joining us there that particular day but fortunately only a few hundred turned up and we hardly noticed them.

Dawn breaking

Saguaro cactus by the road

Early morning landscape

Heading north

Open road and horizon

We left Phoenix early and found ourselves on an empty freeway heading north as the bright colours of the desert dawn pushed the black night up like a roller blind. Saguaro cacti and shrubs covered the hills and mountains until they too disappeared and the open road unzipped the wide horizon, soon bereft of even a tree. It would all change soon. The odd dwarf tree appeared, and then we entered the Coconino Forest National Park where we were surrounded by tall ponderosa pines. To our surprise, we found ourselves not only dreaming of a white Christmas but in the middle of one. Earlier snowfalls had left a white blanket all around Flagstaff, turning the countryside into a wintry scene more suited to the Alps than Arizona. The highest of the San Francisco Peaks stood over 12,500 ft (3800 m), all frosted up. We were at 7000 ft (2100 m), the same altitude as Mexico City, and it was colder than we expected.

Snow along the way

Log cabins covered in snow

Snow bank

Ice box

San Francisco Peaks capped with snow

Snowy mountains

Wintry road scene

As our Dodge hummed its way through the whitened landscape, I wondered what it would be like at the Canyon and whether there would be any snow there. Would we find the Canyon as impressive as everyone else said it was? I mulled over the statistics. They were staggering, I had to admit. Apparently the Grand Canyon was 277 miles (446 kms) long, a distance greater than London to Carlisle or Paris to Geneva or Mexico City to Veracruz. And this was no ordinary gap. Its width ranged from 1 mile (1.5 km) to 18 miles (almost 30 kms). But what really kept buzzing through my head was that I had read it was up to 1 mile (1.5 km) deep. This statistic was making me a bit apprehensive. You see, I'm not good at heights. Ask my kids. Whenever there is some dizzying height or long drop around, I have a way of embarrassing my family by making sudden urgent moves to grab the nearest solid, unmoveable object (like a car), closing my eyes tight (but the image doesn't seem to go away even then) and emitting slight groaning noises and desperate "No! Stop! Don't go any closer!" phrases. It happened most recently at a viewpoint in Yosemite National Park last Easter. The question that kept popping up in my mind was "Has anyone ever fallen into the Grand Canyon?". I couldn't get it out of my head. I didn't want to be the first one.

Open country

Old wooden house

At Williams we turned north and once again, as we entered the Grand Canyon National Park, fresh white pillows and sheets of snow lay under the pine trees. No sign of the canyon though. Parking was easy at the Visitors' Centre and when we opened the car doors, streams of icy cold air froze us, warning us to dress warmly. And then I saw it, a sign greeting us almost as soon as we'd stepped foot out of the car. It kind of answered the question uppermost in my mind. It read: "COMMON QUESTIONS. How often do people fall over the edge?" Well, it seems that it's a rare occurrence but those who do, don't usually survive. I should have known. Be careful, it warned. I made sure all my family saw it and read it and took notice of it.

Grand Canyon National Park

Snow under the trees


Warning sign

Heading for the rim, I began to wonder when we'd ever see the canyon. Just then it appeared without warning. One miunte we couldn't see anything, the next minute, there it was, gaping wide in front of us, just beyond the comforting metal railing to stop us being swallowed up by the abyss. It was much more impressive, much larger than I had imagined. With the deep blue sky above and the reddish, orange, brown or beige canyon walls in front, iced thinly in parts, nature's colourful scenic wonderland took our breath away.

First view of the Grand Canyon

View from Mather Point


It goes without saying that we were wide-eyed and totally awed by the sight of Earth's history laid bare before us in the layers upon layers of multicoloured rock, exposed over an unbelievable amount of time by the River Colorado cutting down through the canyon. And yet, at the same time, seeing all those lines and slices of geological DNA stacked up all around, I couldn't quite get the picture out of mind of my Mum's delicious sandwich cakes, with billows of thick creamy butter icing sticking the layers of sponge together, topped by butter icing or chocolate frosting. Some of the rock outcrops actually looked like slices of cake carefully cut and about to be dished out onto someone's plate. I had to admit that Nature had surprised us once again. I felt as if the Creator of all this had deliberately allowed the earth's crust to be sliced open in this staggeringly enormous canyon just so we could get a glimpse of our world's past history and be overawed by the beauty and complexity of the planet we were living on. And to put mankind into perspective. In fact, no matter what perspective you see it from, whether peering across and down from the rim, flying above it, walking down down down into it or from the river itself, the Grand Canyon cannot fail to impress the onlooker. Except maybe Lieutenant Joseph Ives and his team of explorers.









I felt particularly small and vulnerable standing on the rim, and totally dispensable, with just a small scrap of metal between me and the huge gap which yawned just a few centimetres from my toes. While the railing was there, giving me an undescribable sense of security, I was fine. I could take photos. I could peer over and look down at the trails below. As soon as the magic barrier disappeared, however, I was unable to fully enjoy the sight. My mind began to fast forward and I pictured myself or my family or some of the other more daring walkers plunging over the side and unwittingly ending up in the River Colorado below, or dangling off some of those stripy rocks stacked up below. To my horror, I saw a man climbing down a rocky point with no barriers, and peer down into the abyss. So people do take risks, I thought, looking away in case his foot slipped.



Man peering down into the Canyon


A while later, we drove along Hermit's Rest Route, stopping at Trailview Overlook. I gingerly got out the car and, with my eyes intentionally looking inland, inched my way behind the row of vehicles parked right on the rim behind what seemed like a very low wall protecting them from accidentally slipping down into oblivion. A bit further on, where the Rim Walk had been made safe, with steps and railings and signs, I once again became brave and enjoyed the scene in front of and below me. The Bright Angel Trail, tiptoeing down through the icy snow, could be seen zigzagging down down down. Vertical canyon walls accompanied it and the sight of walkers, mere ant-like dots, seemingly oblivious to the drop right next to them as they made their way down the slippery trail, sent my heart into palpitations. I couldn't look for long and lifted my gaze to the far distance across the canyon. At least I couldn't see anyone fall out there.

View from Trail Overlook.... far left, people; far right, lodge on the canyon rim

Dusting of snow

Icy Bright Angel Trail zigzagging down

Lunch was a wintry picnic standing outside the Dodge, surrounded by snow and a gang of about 15 or so shiny black crows hoping to get their share. No-one else was around except a carful of Mexicans, also eating lunch. Inside the nearby National Park Headquarters, a crackling fire was roaring in the fireplace and a lady sat in a rocking chair having a Christmas skyping chat on a laptop. It felt like winter here.

Sharing a rather large sandwich

Sign showing the Rim Trail

Diagram showing the Canyon's age

View of the canyon from the road

Grand Canyon National Park Headquarters

Crackling fire inside

Much later, when we were back on the road to Phoenix, we aired our impressions in the car. Clearly, we too disagreed with Lieutenant Ives. How could he have made that statement? you have to ask yourself. I suppose unlike us, he didn't have the benefit of good roads, maps, marked trails, GPS systems or modern transport. The Canyon must have seemed an incredibly hostile and apparently useless place to settle or extract resources from. After all, he was sailing down the River Colorado with his men in a steamboat. "It seems intended by nature that the Colorado River, along the greater portion of its lonely and majestic ways shall be forever unvisited and undisturbed", he wrote in his report in 1861. I wish he could see it now.

Back at home, my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to investigate the question of how many people have fallen over the edge of the Grand Canyon. I learnt that about 600 people have died in the Grand Canyon since the 1870s. Of those deaths,
- 53 have resulted from falls;
- 65 deaths were attributable to environmental causes, including heat stroke, cardiac arrest, dehydration, and hypothermia;
- 7 were caught in flash floods;
- 79 were drowned in the Colorado River;
- 242 perished in airplane and helicopter crashes (128 of them in the 1956 disaster when two planes collided);
- 25 died in freak errors and accidents, including lightning strikes and rock falls;
- 48 committed suicide; and
- 23 were the victims of homicides

All in all, there are about 10-12 fatalities a year, quite a small number considering the millions that visit this place every year. An interesting book entitled "Over the Edge; Death in the Grand Canyon", by Michael Gighlieri and Thomas Myers, is full of details. Like the mind-boggling comment by the Chief of Emergency Services. "A passenger jumped out of a sightseeing helpicopter. I thought I'd seen everything." More recently, in 2007, a tragic accident occurred when a four-year old girl fell to her death at Mather Point, right where we had been standing. I'm glad I didn't know it at the time. And maybe the luckiest guy on earth is the 21-year-old who accidentally drove his car over the rim in April last year. It snagged on a pine tree 200 feet down, stopping him from certain death.

I also came across a series of photos taken by Hans von de Vorst, showing a daredevil photographer. Even though there is a ledge beneath him which cannot be seen in the photos, I would probably have had a heart attack watching this leap of faith.


Still, despite these gruesome stories, I would earnestly recommend a visit to the Grand Canyon. It's something everyone should do at least once in their lifetime which I guess is why 5 million people did the same as us last year. Just go on Christmas Day and avoid the crowds. And whatever you do, BE CAREFUL!

Posted by margaretm 13:07 Archived in USA Comments (2)

Land of superstition, legends and elusive gold mines

The Apache Trail

Look on the map at the area a little to the east of Phoenix and the names say it all. They send your imagination running wild. Wild like the area itself. Apache Junction... Superstition Mountain... Goldfield Ghost Town... the Lost Dutchman's mine.... Canyon Lake.... These names conjure up a land of legends, of hardship, of unrealised dreams. It's arid and rocky and everything that lives here either stings, bites, spits, scratches or has spikes and spines. I'm sure you know the type of place I'm talking about.

Now head for the Apache Trail picking its way through the wilderness of dry rock, strange-shaped mountains, deep canyons, twisting ravines, craggy cliffs.... a land rife with legends and rumours, and you'll soon understand why. Over the centuries, many have lost their lives here. Either to the fierce Apache warriors keen on keeping their sacred mountains and staches of gold a secret, or getting lost searching for elusive gold mines... or dying of thirst. Even right up to now, unwished-for events happen. Exactly one month before we headed out that way, a small airplane slammed into the high craggy rocks of Superstition Mountain at night, exploding like a fireball, killing all six occupants... the pilot and his three small children and two more adults were on their way home for Thanksgiving.

The Apache Trail had been described as "the best scenic drive in Arizona" and we didn't want to miss it. So off we set. We got lost before we'd even found it but it didn't matter. It was actually a stroke of providence as we came across a couple of places well worth a visit. Apache Junction came and went without us finding where to turn off so we had to do a U-turn on Superstition Freeway and that's when we turned off the road, just below the purple cliffs of Supersition Mountain. Well, actually at the bottom of Silly Mountain (another of those names). From here there were a series of trails disappearing up the mountain but we didn't get that far. We were mesmerised by the size of the massive saguaro cacti standing tall, their arms pointing skywards, a hundred times the size of anything I've grown on my windowsill. This was Arizona postcard scenery... and we felt very tiny standing next to these incredible spiky trunks and branches which looked like nature's answer to coat and hat stands. This type of cactus only grows in parts of Arizona and Northern Mexico, in the Sonoran Desert. Not only were we dwarfed in size but in age. These ones must have been at least twice as old as us. The first arms appear only once the cactus has had its 80th birthday, or thereabouts.

Driving along Superstition Freeway

Tree-sized saguaro cactus

Yellow flowers against an intense blue sky

Dwarfed by a saguaro

As we tried to skirt the bottom of Superstition Mountain to link up with the Apache Trail, our Dodge churned up clouds of dust and we found ourselves going round and round, with most of the trails petering out at the bottom of the rocks. We drove past houses whose residents obviously liked cacti, old rusting vehicles, and the odd gnome or two. Finally, we spied a man walking his dog. He put us out of our misery. "Are we far from the Apache Trail?" we asked. "Well, now, just a bit. But if you keep going down here, turn left, then right, you'll find yourself on a paved road going that way." I'm glad that at that point we hadn't read up about the Lost Dutchman.

Dirt roads leading to the bottom of Superstition Mountain

One of the houses we passed

Lost Dutchman State - The Dutchman (or German "Deutsch" man) was one of the legendary characters in the area who struck gold but died without revealing exactly where in the Superstition Mountains the gold mine was. Adventurers are still looking for it.

He was right. We emerged on the road and almost immediately bumped into a ghost town. At that time of the morning, it was still all but deserted. We decided to stop and explore. It turned out that this small mining town, Goldfield, had already died twice and this was its third lease of life. Back in 1892 gold ore was discovered here and it wasn't long before a flourishing town with a population of 4000 sprang up. It only lasted five years. Just enough for the gold vein to more or less run out. The miners moved to other mines, the post office closed and in 1898 Goldfield became a ghost town. In 1921 the mine was re-opened using new mining methods and equipment, the town came to life and the post office opened again. But the boom lasted only as long as the first time around, and five years later it was abandoned. Until 1966 when a couple, dreaming of owning their very own ghost town, bought it. Little by little, they turned it into an old wild west town. Perhpas the most spectacular thing about it, besides the huge saguaro in the middle, is the backdrop. Superstition Mountain looms up in the distance.

Goldfield Ghost Town, once a bustling gold mining town

Looking up the main street

Wooden buildings and carriages

The town was fairly deserted the day we went

An old fire engine

Saguaro cactus and old machinery

A lonesome cowboy

There were very few people, just enough to keep it a ghost town, just enough to bring the place to life. Old rusting machinery and vehicles lay around, untouched since they spluttered their last cough. Josep and Cristina went horse riding, disappearing off into the distance between the spiky saguaros while Marc and I paid a visit to the reptile shed where the sight of rattlesnakes, scorpions and tarantulas just millimetres from our noses sent shivers down our spines. They also had a couple of Gila Monsters (pronounced "Hee-luh"), one of the only two species of venomous lizards in the world, which are only found around here. With their black bodies mottled with pink, orange or yellow patterns and growing up to 60 cm long, they have one of the worst, not entirely deserved, reputations in the reptile world. As they spend most of their time buried underground, humans don't have much to fear, and curiously, they're not all bad news. A protein from their spit is actually contained in a drug used by Diabetes 2 sufferers.

Setting off on horseback

Disappearing into the distance, among the saguaros

View from the town

Snake exhibition

A rattlesnake eyeing us up

A collared lizard

A large hairy tarantula

Deadly desert scorpion

The narrow gauge train encircling the town

The town's small church, still in use

No ghost town would be seen dead without its gunfights. On the stroke of midday, the dusty main street suddenly leapt a century back in time. A group of gunfighters and women in early 20th century dress appeared from the town's saloon. We were told to clear the way. The actors, maybe retired residents from the neighbouring area, seemed to be having great fun enacting a typical gunfight and ending up dead on the ground.

Feeling small by the saguaro in the middle of the town

Gunfighters gathering in the centre

Staged gunfight

Superstition Mountain looming up in the distance

The train passing by

Suddenly we remembered we were supposed to be travelling the Apache Trail and it was already lunchtime. The route itself is 48 miles (65 kms) of slow, windy roads and there would be no gas stations and only one place to find any food. Being prudent explorers, we headed back towards Apache Junction to fill up with petrol and buy some sandwiches at a lone gas station. Having paid for our sandwiches, crisps and a can of beer, Marc went to pick up the food and take it to the car but was stopped short. "No, son! Don't touch that!" came the lady's warning in a stern tone. We thought she was joking and laughed. He reached out for the plastic bag again. But she wouldn't let him touch it.
"How old are ya? 16?" "No, 14", Marc said. "Well, you're not allowed to buy, consume or carry alcohol! Leave it for your mom." We were learning.

The Lost Dutchman and his mule

Signs seen opposite the gas station

Watch out! Cowboys ahead!

Apache Trail sign

Driving along the Apache Trail

Mileage signpost

The open road

Saguaro cacti lining the road

The Apache Trail turned out to be a truly scenic route, threading its way along cactus-lined roads through the rocky Superstition Mountains. Stopping for our picnic at a viewpoint, we looked down on Canyon Lake, an intense cobalt blue reflecting the desert sky, mouthwateringly refreshing in the middle of such thirsty land. There were very few people around, just a couple of young Native Indian mums with their two small kids, selling Indian artifacts. At Tortilla Flat, a hamlet of ramshackled Old West buildings, we had to ford the shallow creek. During flash-floods, this is impossible. The paved road petered out and our tyres hit the parched trail, sending up clouds of choking dust. Many hairpin bends later, we arrived at the Fish Creek viewpoint which we had to ourselves. The rocky wilderness stretched out in front of us. Rock, canyons, crags, cactus, and low scrub. Shades of yellow, ochre, orange, beige and brown with strokes of cactus green and that incredibly intense cobalt blue sky.

Canyon Lake in the distance

Driving past Canyon Lake

Saguaro cactus by the road

A good spot for fishing

Crossing a single-lane iron bridge

Looking down towards Tortilla Flat

One of the wooden buildings in Tortilla Flat

Fording Tortilla Creek

Driving along the unpaved section of the Apache Trail

Information about rattlesnakes

Looking out at Fish Creek Viewpoint

Bright green lichen on the rocks

Thirsty canyons

Arid land

It was at this point we decided to turn back instead of doing the full loop as there were still many miles of very winding road, most of them unpaved. The route continues on, hugging Fish Creek canyon wall and looking down on Apache Lake, a man-made lake 17 miles (27 kms) long. This area is home to bighorn sheep, javelinas, deer, mountain lions and eagles. The Trail then brings you to Roosevelt Dam, which was the largest lake and dam in the world when it was built in 1911. In fact, the Apache Trail was built as a road to get building materials through the Superstition Mountains to the dam, then under construction. And thanks to the Roosevelt Lake and Dam, built to harness the water of the Salt River, the Arizona desert was turned into land that could be farmed. I tried to imagine what the Apache Trail was like back in those days, unpaved, with mules and horses pulling carts and carriages over rocky ground. The word "dangerous" comes to mind. I hoped they didn't meet anyone coming along the way from the opposite direction. There are some long drops down to the bottom.

Mules taking building materials along the Apache Trail

Old postcard of one of the two stagecoach stops along the Trail, at Fish Creek

An old photograph of the construction of the Roosevelt Dam

The Roosevelt Lake and Dam today

We turned around and headed back to Tortilla Flat, the only surviving stagecoach stop today along the Trail. Apparently, this is the smallest "town" in the United States, complete with an official Post Office and a permanent population of just six people. The name was given by a cattle driver who, on arriving at this flat campground with his men and animals, discovered that the only food they had with them was some flour. They made tortillas and called the place Tortilla Flat. It's a curious stop-off with old wooden buildings full of humorous touches and signs, and old mining and farming relics everywhere. The walls of one of the eating places is covered with $1 dollar bills signed by visitors from all over the world, while another has real saddles as bar seats. We didn't sample the famous prickly pear cactus ice-cream but did buy a postcard or two. Although Cristina took a liking to a Daniel Boone hat which rather suited her, we decided to leave it behind and eventually set off on our way back to Phoenix.

View through the windscreen

Coming back through Tortilla Flat

Tortilla Creek

Old bath tub - "Wyatt Earp were washed heah"!

A touch of humour

Signs at Tortilla Flat

Jacob Waltz - the legendary Lost Dutchman

Looking up to the mountains from Tortilla Flat

Old cowboy boots

Back to Canyon Lake

Calm lake waters

We arrived back in Phoenix, and crossed over the Salt River. Now I understood how such a large city has grown up in the middle of the Arizona desert. It was all due to the damming of the Salt River and the creation of the four huge lakes along the Apache Trail. Water is now available for irrigation and for the city's needs and the desert has bloomed here. No sign of any Apaches though.

Posted by margaretm 06:52 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Native Indian art and culture

The Heard Museum....

My early childhood involved a lot of playing cowboys and indians.

While living in Manila, Philippines, I went to an American school for four years until I was ten. Somehow I was subtly americanised during those malleable, impressionable years, without even noticing it. Long before I could place Liverpool or Manchester on a map of England or pronounce Worcester and Norwich properly, I could name all 50 US states along with their capitals. Shakespeare, Cromwell and the Tudors were unknown entities to me but I was familiar with the Pilgrim Fathers sailing on the Mayflower and the pioneer wagon trains, the Boston Tea Party, Abraham Lincoln and the abolition of slavery. The Fourth of July and Thanksgiving were major festivals, my younger brother, sister and I went trick-o-treating at Halloween, ate peanut butter cookies and our Mum's homemade Betty Crocker cakes and played baseball, basketball and American football. We used to catch the school bus clutching our lunchboxes packed with tuna and dill pickle or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. My sister and I belonged to the Pioneer Girls and earned our badges making campfires and toasting marshmallows over them. And, of course, we played Cowboys and Indians, dressed as Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, Wyatt Earp or Chief Sitting Bull and his squaws. We built teepees and had pow-wows and wielded tomahawks, bows and arrows and carried papooses on our backs.

It wasn't until years, decades, later that I actually stepped foot in the United States. Apart from a brief two-day visit to Miami on my way to Honduras about 8 years ago and some stop-offs in US airports, the country whose culture I had absorbed so readily in my childhood had remained a distant idea on the other side of the world from all my travels. Until 2011. Moving to live in Mexico in 2009 meant the Americans had become our next-door neighbours. A trip with Cristina and Marc to San Francisco and Yosemite National Park last Easter set the ball rolling. But it was our trip to Arizona which awoke in me many of the hazy memories from the past. I felt I was coming home in a way. I was back in Cowboy-Indian territory, the land of my childhood, of my fertile imagination. It felt familiar with its Far West flavours, cowboy towns, Indian arts and crafts, ghost towns, horses..

Indians carved out of wood

Map showing the location of the different Native American Indian tribes in the USA

Arizona is actually a good place to find out about the Native American Indians. With 21 tribes numbering 300,000 people (almost 7% of the state's population) whose homelands and reservations occupy a quarter of the area, it is one of the states with the greatest presence of America's First People. Wherever you go, there are reminders, past and present, of their rich culture and heritage, their art and traditions. I felt an immediate attraction to them, maybe because of my past.

To discover a bit more about the American Indians, we made a bee-line to the Heard Museum, one of Phoenix's true gems. Beautifully organised and informative, this was no stuffy museum to shuffle our feet through. No, it was more like a living cultural experience since not only was the past preserved but contemporary artists and Indians are reflected there. In addition to the permanent exhibits, it runs many temporary ones and even organises a special fair, the Indian Fair and Market, each year. Even the Museum's history was interesting. It was founded in 1929 by Dwight B. and Maie Bartlett Heard to house their personal collection of Indian art. Dwight was a businessman from Chicago but when he became seriously ill with a chest ailment, his doctor advised him to find somewhere to live where the climate was warmer. So the Heards loaded some possessions in a wagon, bought some horses and set off towards the Pacific Coast. They ended up in Phoenix, a small town at the time, and decided this would be home. Over the years, their collection of artifacts from all over the world began to fill their house and, fortunately for us, they decided to build a museum in the grounds for the public to visit. Actually, Dwight never saw the museum opened since he died of a heart attack just months earlier. Today the museum is home to 40,000 American Indian artifacts and has become world famous. Rghtly so.

In the courtyard of the Heard Museum in Phoenix

Sculptures outside

Shady patio with café and gift shop

One of the exhibits at the entrance - "Indigenous Evolution" (2004), a modern-day sculpture making reference to the traditional organic fences built by Native people of materials such as adobe and saguaro cactus. The colours represent the land and the sky.

Beautiful pottery items with traditional designs

A Pueblo-style church building

A collection of katsina dolls on display.

The exhibition of Navajo textiles

Walking through the gallery area

Painting by a contemporary artist - the sticker on the pick-up's bumper reads "The EARTH does not belong to us... We belong to the EARTH"

The temporary exhbition of American Indian dolls

One of the dolls on display

A kid-friendly area to help younger visitors discover more about the Native American people

One of the large murals

Thank goodness most of the exhibits were kept in showcases or I might have walked off with some of them. Everyday functional objects and clothes had been created with beautiful colours, patterns and designs. Pottery, rugs, clothes, katsina dolls, turquoise and silver jewellery, and many more items were temptingly on show. I could have stayed there for much longer but with teenagers for company and the combined effect of it being very close to a late lunch made that impossible. Actually, the Heard Museum also has a beautiful café serving up Southwest-inspired cuisine, an art gallery, and a bookshop and gift shop so there's plenty to do. Still, we had time to see the main items and learnt a lot about the Navajo tribe, who call themselves the Diné People, the Apaches and the Yavapai, the Hopis and Yaquis. Although modern day life has changed a lot of their customs, it was interesting to see how efforts have been made and are continuing to be made to preserve many aspects of their life, their beliefs and their culture.

Past and contemporary pottery items are on view

Some of the designs on the woven plates

Spectacular red, black and white design

Some of the carved katsina dolls on display. Katsinas are the spirit messengers of the universe, representing all things in the natural world and the ancestors. They are given as gifts to young girls as a prayer wish for good health, growth and fertility. With this daily reminder in the home, young girls remember the Katsinas and their teachings.

Jewellery items made from turquoise, coral and silver.

Rugs for sale in the shop

Cushions with eye-catching patterns and colours

Storyteller figures

Decorated gourds

In the Museum's own words:

"Native people ...have faced change regarding how they live on the land. They have seen change within their families and communities. They have seen change in the language that is spoken at home, and they have made choices about how they will keep important elements of home for future generations. Native artists express multiple visions of home in their art."

Giant saguaro cactus are a distinctive part of the landscape in some areas of Arizona

We particularly enjoyed the quotes around the museum in which the voice of contemporary Indians can be heard too, echoing their close relationship to their lands, the natural environment, the tribe, the family.

"A home is both the space inside and outside the building.
A home is more than just the structure, the house...
It is the aroma, the textures of the building that help us remember.
The smell of the wet dirt walls,
the smell of dry dust.

It is the smell of the green brush on the roof, in the walls.
It is the texture.
The smooth mud walls
the rough ribs of the cactus and ocotillo,
the branches of cottonwood, and posts from cedar and pine.

Home is the place that has the right feel,
the right smell,
the right sense of coolness when you touch the walls." (Ofelia Zepeda, Tohono O'odham)

Many pueblo homes have outdoor, beehive-shaped ovens used for special occasion baking such as feast days. They were introduced by the Spanish.

"What I see is my home. I don't own it but it's home - the river,
the trees, the birds that fly, they're all mine." (Estefanita Martinez, San Juan)

Black-on-white pueblo pottery

"In Tewa, there is no word for family,
but there is a word for all of us." (Tessie Naranjo, Santa Clara)

Every year, Hopi farmers plant their fields of blue, white, multi-coloured and sweet corn. Each type of corn has its purpose and use in Hopi life.

"Shuffling of feet on the earthen floor.
The rattling of a pot,
in the kitchen.
The echo of someone chopping wood
A dog in the distance
Barking as if it belonged to someone." (Ofelia Zepeda)

Typical fireplace in a kitchen

"We see ourselves as caretakers of that piece of the earth that we use.
We have respect for the heavens, the stars, the moon, the sun and
nature itself, the clouds, rain, snow. What makes us whole is to recognize and
respect all these things and their seasons." (Albert Sinquah, Sr., Hopi-Tewa)

"The mountains remind me of home. It just feels like you're in a big bowl, and you're
protected from all the outside forces." (Michael Ornelas, Navajo)

Animal design on a Navajo rug


Drum made using deer hide

"You learn English to progress in the White World, and your own language to survive forever." (Veronica Homer, Mohave)


Apache leather moccasins and boots

Small bags made of animal hides and decorated with beads

Home for these people means a connection to their land for more than 1,000 years. Perhaps that's what makes this culture so appealing, so authentic. They have something many of us lost a long time ago... a sense of community, a sense of being part of nature, of respecting the natural elements and territory, of preserving traditions and arts down the generations. I didn't know that there was a tribe, the Havasupai tribe (meaning "People of the blue-green waters"), which still lives isolated down in the Grand Canyon. A short video made by them showed how they continue to live at the bottom of the canyon, basically as they have done for hundreds of years. The only way out of the canyon is on foot or by horse with the occasional arrival of a helicopter.

The beautiful Havasupai Falls down in the Grand Canyon, part of the Indian Reservation

We wandered around the temporary exhibition of Native American dolls, the art gallery, the Navajo Textile rooms with their huge colourful rugs on the walls, and out into the sculpture courtyard before having a quick look at the area for younger visitors with its large murals and activity centre. It's obvious that the art of these people has been inspired over the centuries by their close contact with their homeland and the natural evironment. The colours and materials of this land are intricately laced into their works of art whether woven, sculpted, painted or carved. If I had the opportunity, I would buy a plane ticket to Phoenix for March 3-4 to visit the Museum's annual Indian Fair and Market, taking a camera and empty suitcase with me. This event draws over 700 American Indian artists and 20,000 visitors to see these talented artists, sculptors, painters, potters, weavers, bead workers, carvers, and basket makers and experience their music, dancing and food too.

Wherever we went around Arizona, we found lots of Native Indian arts and crafts. Shops were packed full of them, but it was worth looking carefully at the label. In one shop, I saw some miniature woven baskets with Native Indian designs on them for just $5. Excited at my find, I picked them up only to read on the back that they had been made in ..... Pakistan. "Why are these baskets made in Pakistan?" I asked the shopkeeper. "Well, my dear," she answered. "That's why they're only $5. If they were woven here, they would cost you $30". It seemed a bit unreal that a replica could be made half way around the world, shipped over and be a fraction of the price of the original ones but that's world economy for you.

Woven baskets in a shop

Feathered dream-catchers, rattles and other popular items

A full Indian headdress with feathers

Life-size carving of an Indian

Sculpture in metal of an Indian on a horse

Nativity scenes with a local flavour

Design featuring "Kokopelli", the mysterious character which can be seen in a number of Native American cultures. Kokopelli can easily be recognised by his dancing pose, hunchback and flute.

One day while we were wandering around the Old Town of Scottsdale, we came across an Indian doing a traditional Navajo sand painting. We had already seen shops full of small ones, but hadn't realised just how it was done. Pinching a very small quantity of fine coloured sand, made from naturally-coloured crushed rock, stone and minerals between his thumb and finger, he skillfully trickled it onto the work of art he was creating. Later, reading up about it, I discovered that Navajo sand painting was part of a spiritual healing ceremony whereby the person in need of physical, emotional or spiritual healing would sit on top of the sand painting created by a medicine man in the middle of the ceremonial hogan. This would help the patient absorb spiritual power, while the Holy People would absorb the illness and take it away. At the end of the ritual, the sand painting (meaning "place where the gods come and go") would be destroyed within 12 hours since it was toxic. In the 1940s, the Navajos began to make permanent ones in order to preserve this long-standing tradition. Now the shops are full of small framed ones with typical symbols which you can buy to take home and put up on the wall.

Hogans are the traditional house of the Navajo Indians. Nowadays most Navajos don't live in hogans, but there is often a hogan near the main house which is used for ceremonies.

The guide explaining the meaing of a sand painting

Interestingly too, according to the Indians, Spider Woman has been on the scene much longer than Spider Man. Legend has it that she is the creator and weaver of life, and is the great teacher, protector and Mother of all creation to many Southwestern Native American cultures. She is said to have taught the people how to weave as well as other skills. Regardless of how they learnt, we were amazed at the woven baskets, textiles and rugs produced both many years ago and now.

A small loom

Bright colours and patterns on a Navajo rug

Figures depicted on a rug

At the end of our holiday, we had a two-hour wait in Phoenix Airport for our flight to Denver. Fortunately, there were three souvenir-craft shops to keep us occupied. Cristina and I spent ages in each one, poring over the native crafts, trying to decide what to spend our last few dollars on. After the umpteenth visit to the three shops, I think the shop assistants were getting rather suspicious as to why we kept appearing. We finally made our choice. Cristina went for the Indian horse she'd been eyeing up for days in other shops. I couldn't resist and bought a book on Native traditions and art in Arizona.

A bit later, as we flew over the clear Arizona desert and its canyons, I was glad we'd come to the Southwest. At least I'd updated my knowledge of cowboys and Indians a bit.

Posted by margaretm 06:55 Archived in USA Comments (1)

Phoenix, city in the desert

Until a few weeks ago, I knew as much about Phoenix as I did about Murmansk, that is, very little. It wasn't exactly on our list of top-100 places to visit but with the bottom falling out of our Christmas holiday plans, we unexpectedly found ourselves heading to this unknown city in Arizona. It was time to do some reading up and find out about places of interest nearby, such as the Grand Canyon. Our trip to Arizona turned out to be a real eye-opener, with stunning desert landscapes.



We flew into Phoenix at night so all we saw was a vast tablecloth of twinkling lights covering the Valley of the Sun, as it is known. It actually looked a lot like Mexico City, an unending expanse of urban development, spread over an area almost the same size but with a fraction of Mexico City's population. It wasn't until the next morning that we had a chance to see what Phoenix was really like in daylight. We drove to the Downtown area, easily identifiable from any spot by the tall shiny skyscrapers clustering together in the middle of an immense bungalow-height landscape. It was squeaky clean, new and orderly, but something was missing. Where were all the people? Where were the shops and cafés and the dynamic hub and buzz of urban life? Maybe it was because Christmas was just two days away but it looked like a modern-day ghost town. Little traffic, even fewer pedestrians, almost lifeless at that time. One sleek metro-train whizzed past us, and we saw a lonesome man strumming a guitar at the interesection of two grand boulevards while a second man, Ed the Hotdogger, was selling Italian or Polish sausages at his stand next to some traffic lights. To who, I don't know. At last, we found a small café which was relatively "crowded" and a little while later about 30 people turned up for the inauguration of the city's outdoor ice-rink where you could "go ice-skating in the desert". A stark contrast to the bustling crowds and noise and smell of street cooking in Mexico City, so alive and full of life.

Phoenix buildings

Phoenix downtown area

Modern buildings

Ed the Hotdogger at his stand

Warm jumpers and hats are needed in the morning when it's cold - a lady wearing a fun woolly hat!

Outdoor ice-skating rink

Cactus Christmas street lights

Christmas tree in the centre with moon

Phoenix is a HUGE sprawling city in the middle of the Arizona desert, which goes on and on forever. It took us almost one hour just to drive our way out of the vast metropolitan area when we headed north towards the Grand Canyon a couple of days later. It looked like a kind of urban patchwork quilt, built on a grid-like system, where each square is one mile long and has a similar pattern but with a few differences. The broad, airy avenues had lanes so wide you probably couldn't shake hands with the person in the next car even if you opened the door and stepped out. In Mexico City, we have severe problems just trying to avoid hitting each others' side mirror as we drive along. Orderly tracts of small, one-or two-storey houses with shady verandas crouched down low together, overlooked by palm trees and guarded by gigantic cactus plants. Each patchwork square seemed to have its own shopping centre, complete with a drive-thru bank, drive-thru fast food restaurants, some shops and services, plus a gas station and a church or two. Dentists or chiropractors rubbed shoulders with nail parlours and Denny's and Wendy's fast food restaurants, Bug and Weed stores chatted up burger bars, and supermarkets were squashed in between animal clinics and insurance offices. While we were there, the skies were deep, desert blue and the air so pure you could pump it up the oxygen tubes in a hospital. There was no sign of any litter on the roads which are populated by chunky pick-ups and well-behaved traffic doing an honest 35 mph in the town and 65 mph on the freeways.

View of Phoenix from the plane when we left

Blue skies

Spacious roads

River Salado at sunset

Empty freeways

Phoenix is definitely an "automobile city". Without a car or pick-up or some kind of private vehicle, you will not get very far. It is so vast and spread out that walking is hardly an option. On several occasions, we played a game. "Let's count how many people we see walking!" For the most part, we didn't get past 3, and our all-time high was 11. Unheard-of in Europe or Mexico. Taking a taxi anywhere would cost you a fortune. It cost $2.10 a mile and that was with the "Discount Taxis". Public transport was nice-looking but few and far-between. Thank goodness we had a car. Not the Jeep we had hoped for, but rather a massive black Dodge resembling a tank. Just to find a welcoming place to eat or somewhere to have a coffee, let alone any of the places of interest in the city, entailed a major expedition along mile after mile of boulevards with names like Camelback, Indian School, Baseline and Rural Road, all of which looked suspiciously the same. We felt we were in a labyrinth, going round and round in squares. Our conversations took on a confused monotony. "That's where we stopped yesterday!" "No, it isn't. There was a U.S. Egg on the corner, not a Whataburger." "I'm sure there was a Starbucks here yesterday!" I admit that as fleeting visitors, we obviously lacked inside know-how and were at the mercy of our rather hit-and-miss strategy.

Pick-ups are very popular

Taxis are not cheap! $2.10 per mile

The city's public transport system

Historically, Arizona has been influenced by a number of different cultures, including the Native American Indians and the Spanish. It was also part of Mexico until 1848 when the US bought a huge chunk the size of Western Europe of what was then northern Mexico for a mere $2 million, hence the widespread presence of Mexican tacos, burritos, and salsas picantes and restaurants with names like El Pollo Loco and Chipotle. In fact, in some areas you are as likely to hear Spanish spoken as English and many Mexican families have made their residence there. In its early days, all East-West streets were named after Presidents while all North-South streets had Indian names. It's hard to imagine but the city of Phoenix grew up as a typical far west town, with dusty streets lined with wooden buildings, wide enough to allow the horse-drawn wagons to turn around. In fact, in the late 1880s when it was founded, everything was within a walking distance of 2 miles. Then as the electric streetcar made its appearance, people began moving out as fast as they moved in, especially the wealthy residents. There were no limits on space. No wonder. The Arizona desert is immense and flat here. The town began to grow in size, adding new housing developments which followed a symmetrical, grid pattern, lined with trees to give shade in the high summer temperatures. Nowadays, modern-day Phoenix, which started life out as Pumpkinville in honour of the large pumpkins growing along the canals, continues to attract people, especially those in search of warm winters, heaps of sunshine, golf courses and cactus plants, and has become one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the US. It is truly enormous.

Spanish-style building

One of the many Mexican restaurants

A bit of both cultures - American and Mexican food

Hot and spicy sauces

Although we wanted to experience the American way of life, I have to admit that we longed for some good strong Espresso coffee. Instead we had to make do with tall, frothy Starbucks cappuccinos or mochas. We drank our coffees American-style, taking them with us in the car and sipping the scalding beverage over the following hour or so. Finding somewhere to eat proved to be a game of hide-and-seek, unless you want to eat burgers with fries three times a day. Where were all the real restaurants? You know, the type that serve up real food at a table with a tablecloth and wine in glasses. Unfortunately, as we were in Phoenix over the Christmas holiday, we discovered that most places were well and truly closed. Trying to find somewhere special to eat on Christmas Eve took us on a bewildering, frustrating hour's drive through the city until we found the Saddle Ranch Restaurant in Scottsdale and had a mighty steak, worthy of a hungry cowboy, with Californinan wine drunk from rather scratched wine glasses at a lamp-lit table. It did have a Far West feel to it though which made up for the lack of finesse. Over the other side of the huge wooden buiding, was a mechanical bull you could ride on after your meal. Maybe if you lasted a certain number of seconds on its back before being thrown off onto the sawdusted floor, you got your meal free. We watched several clients having a go. No-one lasted long.

Where to eat in Phoenix???

The Saddle Ranch in Scottsdale

The mechanical bull

Cowboy steak

A delicious dessert of double fudge Brownie with ice-cream and berries...

Scottsdale saved the day. Once standing on its own, it has now been swallowed up in the larger Phoenix metropolitan area, but still maintains its small town character in the centre. You could be forgiven for thinking you're in a Far West theme park. As you wander around the Old Town, the single or double-storey wooden buildings with verandas and porches are now colonised by shops selling Native American arts and crafts, leather cowboy boots and belts, gemstones and pottery, or eating places.

Scottsdale Old Town

Old wooden buildings

Horse statues around a fountain

You can go for a horse and carriage ride

Chillies hanging up

Christmas decorations

Shop selling Native American Indian crafts

Indian rugs

Far West style seats

Wind chimes

Two other places redeemed Phoenix for us: the Heard Museum, a delightful exhibition and information centre about Native American Indian culture, history and art, and Scottsdale Fashion Square, just one of the city's enormous shopping malls, which had Cristina buzzing around in an adrenaline rush, gawking at the teenage clothing shops and spending all her Christmas money. It's probably where our feet did the most walking, bar Scottsdale centre. Apparently, in the sweltering heat of summer, the immense air-conditioned malls are the place to hang out. These are the modern centres of American community life where you can shop, chat over a coffee or ice-cream, eat burgers or tacos, experience the Hurrican Simulator or Jet flights down the Grand Canyon, watch movies, eat popcorn, and wear out your shoes. I can't imagine what Phoenix must be like in the summer. Temperatures soar to 49 °C, on a par with Baghdad or Riyadh. Their record LOW temperature in summer is an incredible 36 °C, registered one July night in 2003. I sure wouldn't like to be around when that happens.

Indian exhibits in the Heard Museum

Scottsdale Fashion Square mall

Inside another huge mall

Two girls experiencing a hurricane inside a Hurricane Simulator

Shopping centre

To be fair to Phoenix, it does have a wonderful winter climate, stunningly clear blue skies and amazing desert landscapes nearby, decent drivers and loads of beautiful art and crafts. We have never seen anywhere so full of horse-themed items (we're horse-lovers) which meant we were spoilt for choice. As it was, the city was really our base for doing excursions to the Grand Canyon, the Apache Trail, and Sedona and not the focus of our holiday. And let's give credit where credit is due. It says a lot for the American pioneering spirit that a city that size has proliferated in the desert, where once a tiny mining town and trading outpost struggled to survive in the midst of the hostile elements. Little wonder they changed the name from Pumpkinville to Phoenix, symbol of rebirth, renewal, immortality... It more aptly describes a city arising from the ruins of a former civilisation, the Hohokam, in the middle of the desert which today is one of the fastest growing cities in the US.

Amazing Arizona sign

Posted by margaretm 05:23 Archived in USA Tagged city Comments (0)

Stunning Arizona

Our Christmas travels took us to Arizona. I had no idea it was so beautiful, so interesting. Here's a small glimpse of what you can see and do there....

Giant saguaro cacti

By-gone days

Desert landscapes

Canyon lakes

Vivid colours

Open roads

Ghost towns

Old vehicles

Views through the windscreen

Horseback riding


Cactus country

Blue skies

Native American Indian heritage

Traditional pottery

Woven baskets

Desert architecture

Beautiful sunrises

Village churches

Cowboy times

Grim reminders

Unexpected humour

Desert wildlife

Snow-capped mountains

Log cabins

Long drops

Grand Canyon colours

Characteristic towns

Cowboy boots

Nature's rock carvings

Red rocks

Elegant palms

The Earth's skin

Posted by margaretm 09:20 Archived in USA Comments (3)

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