A Travellerspoint blog


Hilarious, free in-flight entertainment

Courtesy of Continental Airlines


We flew to Phoenix from Mexico City and back again with Continental Airlines. They obviously thought we needed to see a bit more of the United States along the way since they scheduled us to go first to Houston (Texas) before Phoenix (Arizona) and on the way back, via Denver (Colorado). Flying is not one of my favourite activities but on these flights, there was some rather interesting in-flight entertainment and it was tucked away in the pocket under the fold-away table, along with the sick bag. What's more, it was free of charge.

Let me admit it now. On the flight from Houston to Phoenix, I couldn't stop laughing. I'm so grateful to Continental Airlines for kindly supplying all passengers with the Sky Mall magazine. I don't usually even open these magazines but out of curiosity or boredom, (or both), I took a peep. Before long, my eyes had gone from the size of ping pong balls to tennis balls. I couldn't believe what I was looking at. In fact, Sky Mall was full of the most hilarious, ludicrous, inventive, useless, crazy, mind-boggling items I'd ever heard of. Turning over page after page, I began to smile, then got the giggles and it wasn't long before I was laughing out loud, much to the dismay of the rest of my family. Soon we were pointing out the most preposterous inventions to each other and there was no way we could smother our hilarity. The names and the descriptions were almost as funny as the pictures.

Sky Mall magazine

To start off with, there were binoculars to "see the color of an eagle's eye from a mile away" (if you can hold them still enough), special bouncing shoes to help you "live pain free and filled with energy" with "more juice than your energy drink" and video pens providing the "easiest and stealthiest way to capture" all sorts of secrets. Moisturizing Gloves and Booties, only $50, were "lined with a gel that moisturizes dry, rough skin", Golf Ball Locating Glasses (I'm not kidding!) contained a pigment that helped you find your lost golf balls, and the "All Day Gel-Seat" kept you from getting sore sitting down all day. ClearKeys reduced "the clickity-clack of fingernails on keyboards" and the Marshmallow Shooter, a "clever pump-action device, which shoots sweet, edible miniature marshmallows over 30 feet!" (10m to those who work best in metric!) was going for a mere $24.95 and was suitable for ages 6 and up. Whoever has thought up these products and their captions? And whatever is going to happen to those marshmallows? Are they going direct down someone's throat?

Golf Ball Locating Glasses

Marshmallow Shooter

Then they were advertising Slankets - blankets with sleeves and foot pockets so you could snuggle up with your coffee, book or laptop on the sofa and keep warm - "hands-free while keeping those tootsies toasty!". It even had a Siamese version with 4 sleeves to cuddle up with someone else. Next came the "Rejuvenating Oxygen Bar with Turbo Air Flow which you can plug your own music into while you breathe clean, fresh, oxygen-enriched air anytime". A bit further down, you were invited to soak up the benefits of natural sunlight indoors with the Sunlight 356 device which replicates the sunshine you obviously don't get in the office. On the next page was something that looked like some sophisticated ski goggles but which turned out to be Migraine Magic glasses with massaging magnets to increase the blood circulation, leaving you "refreshed and revived, ready to take on the world". Boy, I think I need a pair of those.

Slanket - blanket with sleeves

Oxygen bar with music

Migraine glasses

But there was still lots to come. As if reading my mind, which at that moment was thinking about ideas for useful Christmas presents for next year, the magazine temptingly offered the following:
- A Handheld ECG Monitor to "spot check for cardiac arrhythmias on the golf course, while shopping or in front of the TV".
- An ultraviolet Shoe Deodorizer to "stop smelly shoes".
- Reversible Leggings to "reduce inches and tone skin without diet or exercise".
- A shampoo supplement to "undo the causes of gray hair at the cellular level". In other words, "it restores your natural hair color from the inside out!"
- A ball-like device to "keep your costly padded bras from getting damaged by the agitator or dryer. They come out clean and looking round, full and perfect - every time!"
- A Leaf Lugger, basically a tarpaulin sheet which you sweep the leaves onto, with a rope to close it, "preventing the leaves or lawn debris from escaping during transport".
- A solar-powered nightlight to light up your house number so "the pizza guy will never miss your house again".
- A grocery list organizer" so efficient, it even spells spaghetti for you!"
I'm trying to decide who on earth I could give these fabulous gifts to. I've already allocated some of these in my mind.

Ultraviolet Shoe Deodorizer

In the health and fitness products, you could purchase the strange-looking Epiphany Massager to massage those hard-to-reach places, like your own back. To "fulfill your destiny to have Royal Skin!", there was a special facial mask or you could choose to use "My-Happy-Feet" soft fluffy fabric socks to align toes and rejuvenate tired feet. A full page was given over to the Portable Oxygen Concentrator in its stylish bag, just the thing for the older couple who want to spend the night out dancing, complete with oxygen tubes inserted into their nose. Or the Air Massage boots which help you feel better in minutes. Think I could do with a pair of those on the plane. The Stamina Inversion Stretch Station, a mere snippet at $219.99, would probably be useful after the flight. You turn yourself upside down, to relieve back pain and stress. Wouldn't like to get stuck in one of those! And the Sit Fit is for those who don't have time to exercise (because they're busy watching TV). You can just sit and watch a movie or use your computer while moving your feet on this piece of apparatus. Wouldn't it just be easier and cheaper to go for a walk down the road for a few minutes?

Epiphany Massager

Royal Skin facial mask


Portable Oxygen Concentrator and nasal oxygen tubes

Air Massage Boots

Inversion Stretch Station

Sit Fit

The items began to get even weirder. For pet lovers there was a Mixed-Breed Test Kit to "find out the breed of your dog in 2 to 3 weeks" so you can "create a more targeted and effective behavior training plan". Or a Toilet Training System so you can "potty train your cat faster than most people can potty train their kids". Pampered pets could enjoy special bed warmers, or programmable 5-meal feeders. There was even a special Hidden Litter Box for cats which pretended to be a "real clay pot with an attractive, artificial decorator plant". Apparently, no-one can imagine what it really conceals. But what about the "Toilet Dog and Cat Water Bowl" which costs about $40 and looks like a miniature toilet, keeping "your pet well hydrated and your home cleverly decorated". Who on earth has dreamt up these products?

Hidden Cat Litter

Toilet Dog and Cat Water Bowl

For those who have absolutely everything, there were still a few unusual ideas for the kitchen and dining events. For example, with the Original Crispy Bowl's Swoop n Scoop feature, you never have to eat soggy cereal again. You can "keep the crunch in your breakfast munch" and it's easy to eat anywhere - "in bed or watching a movie". You never have to peel a hard-boiled egg again if you have Eggies. Just crack your raw eggs into the Eggies, boil and twist off the tops! Then there was the Vintage Express Aging Accelerator which converts ordinary wine into vintage wine. This is done by extremely powerful magnets which "realign particles in beverages" so you can "enjoy the delicious flavor of 10 years of aging in just seconds". Could you imagine what would happen if you put your face in there for a few seconds? Or if you left the wine in overnight? I can't believe anyone will buy this?!!

Crispy Bowl

As for outdoor activities, there was a wonderful picture of a whole family on their Street striders, keeping fit together and taking up the entire width of the pavement, or the man skating along with his Orbitwheels, looking rather wobbly. For night-time skating activities, you could purchase a glow-in-the-dark skateboard. Apparently, "parents will appreciate the safety of the lights when watching their kids at night." Another man could be seen sailing along in a park using a Sail Skate which looks like it would be a real handful on a windy day and even greater fun to watch.

Street Striders

Family using street striders


Sail Skate

Other items had names which left my imagination running wild as to their use and who to buy them for:
- The Lady's Plantar Fascitis Slippers
- The Peaceful Progression Wake Up Clock
- Ceramic Pet Fountain
- Oscillating Table Tennis Trainer
- Barking Dog Deterrent
- Headache Relieving Wrap
- Brobdingnagian Sports Chair
- Roll-up Electric Piano for $99.95
- Cast-Iron Giraffe Toilet Paper Holder
- Skeleton Gnomes for the garden
- Squirrel Thinker
- Stainless Steel Wallet
- Personal BBQ Branding Iron
- The Keep Your Distance Bug Vaccuum

Headache Relieving Wrap

Roll-up Electric Piano

Giraffe Toilet Paper Holder

Skeleton gnomes

BBQ Branding Iron

But I was particularly fascinated by the series of products which might interest those with a hair-thinning problem. With "I-GROW", a helmet-like device you put on at home, you were guaranteed thicker, fuller hair in weeks and if not, you would get your money back. Or maybe you could try the I-Restorer, with its moveable laser dome, a "hands-free laser hair therapy treatment to combat hair loss. All done from the privacy of your home, while watching TV". Or there was the X5 Hair Laser which you massage your head with and gives you "thicker, fuller hair in as little as 8 weeks." If that didn't work, you could try Viviscal, a dietary supplement "to strengthen and nourish thinning hair whilst promoting existing hair growth".

I-Grow Helmet

I-Restorer Helmet

I-Restorer helmet in use

But perhaps the most eccentric solution was Toppik, to give you "a full head of hair IN 30 SECONDS - adds hair to your hair". You shake this wonder product "over any thinning areas and thousands of colour-matched hair fibers instantly blend with your existing hair". Hilarious! I'm picturing this happening! The description went on: "Magnetized with static electricity, they bond so securely that they will stay in place all day and night, even in wind or rain" and "it is totally undetectable"!

Before and after pics - Toppik users

By now, we had unwittingly started imagining people wearing those stylish air massage boots and My-Happy-Feet toe aligners, moisturizing gloves and a hair-restorer helmet, breathing in fresh oxygen to the sound of music, wrapped up in the blanket with sleeves and sipping their wine, aged 10 years in seconds. Meanwhile, their dog would be lapping water from the miniature toilet and the cat would be using the "hidden" cat litter box in the corner. Oh my! We were cracking up!

I could go on and on but I don't want to spoil the fun for anyone who might be flying with Continental Airlines soon. My recommended reading for your flight is definitely the Sky Mall magazine. The best in-flight entertainment I've seen for a long time. In fact, I'm looking forward to my next flight with them!

Posted by margaretm 04:29 Archived in USA Comments (1)

Where red rocks meet blue skies

Arizon's Red Rock Country


Arizona's Red Rock Country is everything its name claims to be. It is a surreal place, where nature's colour scheme has gone wild, exuberantly vibrant, a bit like a Fauve painting with its bold brush-strokes of intense colour. Almost as if paint has been squeezed directly from the tubes onto the canvas of an Arizona landscape painting. Shades of red, blue, dark green....

Monumental red buttes and spires, as if finger-moulded in soft reddish clay, prod the metallic-blue sky, trying to push it up a bit higher or make holes in it. Dark green pines and scrub, silver aspens, spiky cactus, sandstone rock formations with suggestive names like Bell Rock or Cathedral Rock, mountains, canyons and creeks, and a network of trails criss-crossing wide open horizons.... these are the natural elements of this unique area. Western films have been filmed here so it isn't surprising if some of the scenes look uncannily familiar. And like a powerful magnet with its stunning backdrop of red monoliths and blue sky, the town of Sedona draws artists and other visitors from all over in search of relaxation, emotional wellness, spiritual retreats, energy vortices, as well as outdoor pursuits.

A friend of mine in Mexico City had been adamant. "You have to go there. You won't be disappointed, I promise you!" She was right. Actually, if she hadn't enlightened us, we would have missed Sedona completely, been totally unaware of its existence. We had no idea as we drove along the main road linking Phoenix to Flagstaff, on our way to the Grand Canyon a couple of days earlier, that just beyond the dark green swathe of the Coconino National Forest lay a red rock wonderland. In fact, even as we ambled along Highway 179 towards Sedona, I began to wonder if she'd got the place wrong. No red rocks in sight.

There was nothing to prepare us for the visual impact which hit us shortly after we passed a sign saying "Red Rock Country". At first it looked like the hills had wounds in their sides, open red gashes. Then whole mountains, stained red, appeared. That's when the "oohs" and "aahhs" began. Even before we had seen the buttes up close, we fell in love with a spectacular photograph at the Red Rock Ranger Station and walked out with it under our arm. Then came the "Oh my goodness, look at that!", "Incredible!", "That must be Bell Rock" and other such commentaries which gradually filled the car as the red rocks began to fill the view at the windows. It was certainly well worth the drive from Phoenix. We drank spring water from Sedona to accompany our lunch sitting outside in the hot sun. Our shoes turned dusty red from our walk. We wandered around Sedona, crossing the clear splashing river. I half expected the water to be red too. Everywhere we looked, red rocks met blue skies.

Entering Red Rock Country

Red gashes in the side of the mountain

View from the Red Rock Ranger Station

Driving into Sedona

Bell Rock

Orange-red rock walls

Open road

Cathedral Rock

Some of the rocks look like they've been moulded in soft red clay

Sedona is surrounded by red rocks

Local architecture blending in

Looking towards Cathedral Rock from a small hill

Going for a walk

Bright red soil

Nearby landscape

Cathedral Rock behind

Red rocks underfoot

A shady seat

Blue skies and bare trees

Striped mountains

Looking down towards Sedona

Rock spires behind houses

Red rocks and trees

A New Age centre

Bell tower

Decorative cactus

Looking down at the river

Houses blending into the landscape

View through the windscreen

Empty road ahead

A last view of Red Rock Country

Bright yellow aspen foliage


A feast for our eyes and soul. Thank you, Laura!

Posted by margaretm 03:56 Archived in USA Comments (2)

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)

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