January 2017: Arizona

A few weeks ago, I remembered that I had a flight voucher worth $350 that I needed to use by February 1. I looked at places that were close and cheap enough to visit, and Phoenix caught my eye. I’d always wanted to visit Arizona, so I found a flight two weeks out and booked my three-day trip to the state. Here are my experiences from my trip this past weekend, as written while on the trip on random scrap paper. Enjoy!

Friday, January 27

I arrived in Phoenix this morning. It was love at my first sight of the delicate yet sturdy cacti peppering the roadsides like protectors of all passers-by. My previous idea of Phoenix closely resembled what I’ve seen so far, but no on the scale of beauty that I’ve yet encountered.

_1130781I landed at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport around 9 am and picked up my first-ever rental car (Dollar is a good company with solid customer service). My first stop is my current location: Desert Botanical Garden. Acres of cacti and wildflowers show off for visitors under a chilly yet resplendent sky. The sun is on simmer, emitting just enough heat to remind my skin that it can still feel as I tuck my hands deep into my coat pockets as if they harbor warm coals. The temperature is a brisk 52 degrees and my warm-blooded frame has yet to adjust to standing outside in the chill for this long.

Embracing the desert

At the moment, I’m sitting in a restaurant located on the property called Gertrude’s, awaiting a burger that my server promises will satisfy. I absentmindedly left my sunglasses, gloves, and journal at home, so I’m penning this entry on the back of my rental car agreement. I must admit that although I enjoy typing my blogs from scratch or from the brief notes I sometimes take in my phone, there is something soothing about feeling ink glide onto this paper, forcing me to slow down my mind so that my pen has a chance to pick up with the speed of my rapid train of thought.

Taking notes

Hot pink flowers outside the restaurant

I’m looking outside at these stunning hot pink flowers. Their color is startling against the muted browns and greens of the desert flora. Sitting alone here, I’m making a lot of fresh observations. Being alone provides a certain kind of peace. I’m more aware of my environment: watching other diners, idle waiters, life outside the window behind me. I have no impulse to check my phone (I only used it once since sitting down to check the weather). My burger has since come and gone, and it was a delicious meal: a croissant-like bun, lettuce, tomatoes, onion soubise, tomato jam, and white cheddar. It was served with a side of fingerling potatoes that were wonderfully seasoned. In my solitude, it was clear that my usual mealtime distractions (now eliminated from the scene) have been inhibiting my ability to enjoy a meal properly. Today, I was able to take my time and discover each flavor with every bite. I ate a pickle from the top of my burger and it was like tasting pickles for the first time. I suspected they were made here at the restaurant; a quick chat with my wonderful server confirmed my suspicion. It was the best slice of pickle I’ve ever tasted. The potatoes had a wonderful mystery as well: something like lemon, but much more concentrated and featuring the true essence of the flavor. It reminded me of lemon oil. My server told me it is, in fact, Meyer lemon oil. And just like that, in the ten minutes that it took me to eat my meal, I became a food critic, capable of discerning the difference between processed versus housemade condiments and lemon juice versus oil. A little bit of undivided attention goes a long way.

Hamburger and fingerling potatoes

Brown butter cake

I just ordered a dessert that was recently added to the menu: brown butter cake. The plating is beautiful and the dessert is even more magnificent. The brown butter cake is dense and rich, sprinkled with a thick layer of powdered sugar. On top is a dollop of hazelnut creme which is so delicate and delicious. The plate is smeared with a peppery ancho chili lemon curd that added a nice balance of heat to the sweetness of the dish. Hazelnuts were a tasty textural touch. There is strawberry jam on the plate as well, which is good but in my opinion not needed since the plate is already perfectly sweet. The stars of the dish, however, are the slices of vanilla pickled strawberries: a sharp vanilla taste with a subtle hint of vinegar that puts the sweetness of the strawberries into an isolated stupor. My mouth hasn’t experienced that flavor profile before, and it is one of the most delightful desserts I’ve ever tasted. It really was more than a dish; it was an experience. I am looking forward to trying to recreate the recipe at home.

A cactus leans against a perfect blue sky

When something sharp looks soft and fuzzy!

Soft, pastel green


Lots of spines


A few hours have passed since lunchtime. I spent four hours walking the wonderful trails in this garden, seeing many types of cacti, learning about how Native Americans survived in the area hundreds of years ago, hearing about the fascinating structure of Saguaro cacti, and watching squirrels, rabbits, roadrunners, and quail explore the grounds. I saw a hummingbird, which is known as a fearless warrior to Native Americans because they feed so aggressively every day to keep their tiny bodies nourished. My favorite part of the trails was a tree whose branches went a few feet into the sky before descending back to the ground all around the tree, surrounding the tree trunk like a protective veil with one side left exposed as if to welcome awestruck visitors like me. I decided I needed to get footage of me and the tree, but there weren’t many people on the trail. I carefully propped my camera on a branch and controlled it remotely from my phone to get photos of my interaction with the tree. It was a fun experiment!

Purple prickly pear

Red rock on the outskirts


Greedy squirrel :)

I love this tree

So gorgeous…

Desert warrior :)

Desert warrior :)

Heard Museum

After leaving the botanical garden, I headed to the Heard Museum which features art, artifacts, and lots of information about the many Native American tribes from the area. I learned about Kachina (Katsina) dolls of the Hopi tribe. I’d never heard of the dolls before but became instantly enchanted with their many variations and diverse symbolism. Kachinas are the universe’s spiritual messengers who embody Hopi ancestors as well as objects in the natural world. Kachinas are represented in three forms: as the spirits themselves, the male dancers who represent the spirits through song, dance, and prayer, and the dolls that are given to young girls as good wishes and a way to remember the spirits and their teachings.

Kachina dolls of the Hopi tribe

Kachina dolls of the Hopi tribe

“Songs the Kachinas sing in Hopi tell us how we should treat each other. They tell us how we should treat the land, and how we are going to get blessed if we become the humble people that we should be.” – Ruby Chimerica, Hopi

I immediately fell in love with the intricate details of each Kachina, from the shapes and tedious carvings to the vibrant paint and feathers. I knew I’d want to take one home, but I want to do more research first and find one that represents something meaningful to me.

Walking around the museum, I also saw the beautiful jewelry of the Zuni and Navajo tribes. I saw some gorgeous artwork from local Native American artists, including the stunning piece below.

"Grand Canyon" by Tony Abeyta, Navajo, 2016. Acrylic on linen.

“Grand Canyon” by Tony Abeyta, Navajo, 2016. Acrylic on linen.

I watched a video about the almost-lost art of pottery making, where clay is transformed into beautiful works of art and then painted will natural red clay paint and dried in a wood fire into solid masterpieces. This was heartwarming for me to watch because I can appreciate all the time and effort that goes into making pottery, from digging out the clay and crushing the rocks into powdered form, to working the clay into beautiful shapes with water using a wooden paddle and smooth rock, to painting the pottery with a natural paint made from more clay, and then finally firing the pottery to its complete state in a mesquite or cottonwood fire. It’s awe-inspiring. The man in the video mentions how most people don’t even know the smell of the earth, how wet clay smells like rain. People oftentimes lose touch with nature. I want to make a better effort to go outside and just absorb the beauty and essence of our beautiful miracle of a planet. If I can, I’ll try to do this for five minutes every single day. There’s too much to see and appreciate to let our days pass by without taking it all in.

The video from the museum, Paddle and Anvil – A Piipaash Pottery Tradition, is shown below.

“My people are a race of designers. I look for the day when the Indian shall make beautiful things for all the world.” – Angel De Cora, Winnebago, 1909

The most memorable yet disturbing part of the museum, however, was walking through the Indian Boarding School exhibit. I learned that tens of thousands of Native American children were forced to attend boarding schools established by the government to assimilate and “Americanize” the children. Their traditional clothing was taken away and replaced with government-issued uniforms, their hair combed for lice with kerosene and cut short, their siblings and other young relatives sent to separate areas. Their names were also replaced with more “civilized” English names. The government went through periods when it didn’t want to associate the history and culture of the children with the school; priority was given to American ways of life and belief systems. It was heartbreaking to learn about how our government tried to strip the identity of these people and force them to learn the “better” and “more righteous” ways of the Americans. My eyes welled up several times from what I saw and read. Despite all the negative, however, the children did flourish in music and art, excelling in the school bands and creating beautiful artwork. I’m glad I had the chance to learn more about Native Americans of the region.

“The next day the torture began. The first thing they did was cut our hair….While we were bathing our breechclouts were taken, and we were ordered to put on trousers. We’d lost our hair and we’d lost our clothes; with the two we’d lost our identity as Indians.” – Asa Daklugie, Chiricahua Apache, 1886

Tom Torlino, Navajo, as a Native American in 1882

The same man, three years after being “Americanized”

Hole In the Rock

After the Heard museum, I headed back to the Desert Botanical Garden area to visit the nearby Hole In the Rock, an appropriately named large rock in Papago Park that has a large hole in it that people can climb to for beautiful views of Phoenix. I got there just in time to see the sun set below Phoenix’s horizon. The weather was freezing, but the view was spectacular enough for me to justify shivering into the twilight. It is now after 6 pm, and as I wait for the car to heat up, I’m ready to head to my first Airbnb experience.

Hole in the rock

Waiting for the sunset

Phoenix sunset

Mom flew into Phoenix tonight around 11 pm and we plan to drive to Sedona early in the morning. Our Airbnb host is very accommodating and told me about his experience with hosting so many people through the company so far. He inspired me to host people in one of my bedrooms as well. I’m excited to see how it goes. Mom just settled in for the night and I’m about to do the same. We have to be up around 7 am to make the two-hour drive to Sedona.

Saturday, January 28

I’m in the van on a tour of Sedona, and I’m so relieved to finally be here. Mom and I overslept a bit this morning and rushed out of the Airbnb apartment to drive to Sedona. The drive was scenic and smooth. One thing I find fascinating in this state is the creative naming of areas and streets. We drove by a lot of signs for areas with names like Horsethief Basic and Crown King. There were some other interesting names but I can’t remember them.

Horsethief Basin!

Bumble Bee and Crown King

Once we arrived in Sedona, we quickly grabbed food, checked in at our hotel, showered, and got ready for our morning tour of the town.

Oak Creek Canyon

Our tour guide Kristin is wonderful, with a spunky tomboy personality and a head full of knowledge about the area. She just showed us a bit of Oak Creek Canyon, which is a gorgeous uphill drive with Oak Creek trickling peacefully below. Snow glitters the ground and trees, adding a peaceful white glow to the redness of the area. All of Arizona seems to have beautiful red land and rocks, and Sedona presents the best collection so far. The completely clear azure sky made the redness of the area even more pronounced. The picture below says it all!

Oak Creek Canyon

Oak Creek Canyon

Chapel of the Holy Cross

We just briefly visited the Chapel of the Holy Cross, a Roman catholic chapel built in some of Sedona’s buttes and known for its stunning architecture. I’m not big on religion, so we didn’t go up to the chapel, but I appreciated the building’s simple beauty.

Chapel of the Holy Cross

Chapel of the Holy Cross

Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte

A few minutes ago, we saw Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte, two popular landmarks with a rich red hue. Kristin told us that the red color seen everywhere in the area comes from hematite and feldspar. We are now driving around town and seeing more spectacular views of Sedona. The town feels quiet, more of a resort area than a residential one. The uptown Sedona area has lots of shops and restaurants. I’d definitely come back here for relaxation and shopping.

Afterward, we drove to a viewpoint of Cathedral Rock. We posted in front of a small Utah shaggy bark juniper tree.

Bell rock

Courthouse Butte

View of Sedona

Cathedral Rock in the background

Cathedral Rock in the background


The weather is now noticeably cold and my mind has been weary after getting only several hours of sleep in the last two nights, so as soon as we got back to our hotel, mom and I took a nap for a few hours. We are now at Wildflower Bread Company where ordered dinner before heading to our stargazing tour. The food is, unfortunately, underwhelming and I just decided to call a nearby restaurant that several people have told me is amazing. Elote Cafe is a Mexican restaurant that was conveniently located on our way to the school field where we’d watch the night sky. I called them and placed an order for takeout to avoid the two hour wait, ordering their famous elote dish and chicken enchiladas. I can’t wait to try their food!

Something funny happened while we were walking out of Wildflower Bread Company that I want to mention. An old man sitting at a nearby table saw me walking by and stood up in a hurry. “Miss! I want to show you something,” he shouted, pulling out his phone in a frenzy. He had pale white skin, a small tuft of even whiter hair on his head, and tube in his nose that connected to a portable oxygen tank by his side. His voice was raspy yet warm. I stopped to see what he wanted so desperately to show me. “This is my great-granddaughter! She’s black!” he said, excited to show me a photo of a beautiful young black girl with light brown skin. I smiled at him and told him she was beautiful before leaving. He was so pleased with himself, and was so sweet and harmless, despite his awkward desire to tell the only black women in the restaurant that he has a family member who looks like us. It reminded me that during my entire time in Sedona, I hadn’t seen any other black people. I suppose we are a rare commodity in this part of the state, which wouldn’t be the first time I looked out of place somewhere. :) What an experience. Life is so interesting sometimes.

My Elote cookbook!

My Elote cookbook!

I just picked up my food from the restaurant and had a bite of the elote. It is incredible! The corn is sweet, lightly roasted, and the sauce is creamy with the right amount of lime and pepper. I ate half of it and took a bite of the yummy enchiladas, enough to keep my stomach and taste buds satisfied before driving to our next stop. The best part of the night so far was that when I went to pick up the food at the busy restaurant, I noticed that they were selling cookbooks of the entire menu, which anyone who knows me knows I had to buy so I can recreate some of the dishes at home. To my surprise, the hostess brought out the chef and owner of the restaurant, Jeff, to sign my copy. He is such a nice man, and I was excited to get a picture with him as well. That made my visit all the more amazing!

With Jeff, the owner and chef


Elote Cafe


It’s Saturday night and we just got back to the hotel from the star-gazing tour. Wow, what an experience! The drive to the school soccer field where we had the tour was dark and quiet, with no street lights anywhere. Luckily, we found the place easily and were escorted to the soccer field in groups by our guides. I haven’t brushed up on my astronomy in quite some time, so it was fascinating to learn some of the things I used to know all over again. We used a telescope to look at some magnificent things, including the nearby Andromeda galaxy, Venus, twin stars, and the remains of a star that exploded millennia ago. We learned about the colors of the stars, ranging from a very hot blue to a cooler red. We saw many constellations, and best of all, I witnessed four “shooting stars” in the dark night sky, nicknames for the meteorites that fly through our atmosphere and burn up from aerodynamic heating, which leaves a trail of glowing light as it passes by. The sky was so clear that I could see traces of the cloudy veil of the Milky Way’s band. The moon was the only thing missing, a day or two away from showing its new phase to the world.

Staring at the countless celestial objects was humbling and magical. I remembered how I used to watch the stars on my bedroom balcony from my telescope when I was younger. I remember how connected to the universe I felt then, and I felt the same connection tonight. It was a freezing night full of warm memories and stunning views. It is my favorite part of the trip so far.

When we got back in the car after stargazing, mom was paranoid that zombies or the like would come and attack us, ha! She’s so adorably paranoid. I quickly snapped some more photos of the sky, successfully only getting one beautiful, blur-free shot, shown below. I didn’t have a tripod with me and I have yet to figure out how to take long exposure shots on my little camera, but this one picture will do (although it doesn’t do the magnificence of the sky that night any justice).

I spy Orion :)

On the way back to our hotel, a dark gray shaggy pig-like creature entered the road. It was super creepy looking. I’d find out the next day that it’s called a javelina. Mom didn’t see it and thank goodness for that because she would’ve freaked out. :) Once back at the hotel, I finished the elote with great pleasure!

Sunday, January 29

We are on our Grand Canyon day tour now. Our guide Kevin just picked us up, and luckily there will only be a small group of six of us on the tour today. We picked up two people near our hotel and are heading to Flagstaff to get two more now. The weather is chilly at roughly 40 degrees, but mom and I are well bundled up and prepared for the day. Our guide is very talkative and knowledgeable. We are heading up Oak Creek Canyon, even deeper into its magnificence than yesterday’s tour had taken us. The views are so beautiful. We drove past majestic Ponderosa pine trees, which we learned smells like vanilla and butterscotch as they age. We saw the snow-capped San Francisco peaks, which is a volcanic mountain range. I saw glittery snow (or “cold, white sand”, as Kevin calls it) and bright green trees.

Atmospheric glitter :)


Wupatki National Monument

As our first highlights of the day, we drove through Sunset Crater Volcano and then headed to Wupatki National Monument, a site known for its Native American ruins. According to Wikipedia, “The many settlement sites scattered throughout the monument were built by the Ancient Pueblo People, more specifically the Cohonina, Kayenta Anasazi, and Sinagua. Wupatki was first inhabited around 500 AD. Wupatki, which means ‘Tall House’ in the Hopi language, is a multistory Sinagua pueblo dwelling comprising over 100 rooms and a community room and ball court, making it the largest building for nearly 50 miles.” The area has the painted desert off in the distance in one direction, snow-tipped volcanoes in another direction, and all around me was a landscape colored with the reds, browns, and occasional greens of the desert. One of the things I love most about Arizona is the varied climates that change so quickly from one place to the next, from cacti-peppered deserts to snow-covered evergreen forests; from red rock formations to colorful canyons.

In front of the monument

In love with the scenery!

Cameron Trading Post

Shopping time!

Beautiful art for sale

I fell in love with this sandpainting

Next, we entered the Navajo nation, a sovereign nation that is the most successful Native American tribe in U.S. history. I’d been looking forward to visiting Cameron Trading Post ever since I first read about it. It is known for being an excellent source of beautiful Native American art, from pottery and sand paintings to jewelry and Kachina dolls, which I was finally ready to purchase. I’d hoped to find a nice piece of silver jewelry, but I didn’t have enough time and so spent my efforts asking one of the employees of the gallery section to help me understand different Kachinas.
My new Kachina dolls

My new Kachina dolls

The employee’s name is Olivia, a member of the Hopi tribe. She and her brother were instrumental in helping me understand what so many of the spirits mean and she helped me identify many of the dolls I came across.Mom got a kachina that represents discipline. I bought two, shown below. The handmade dolls are made of cottonwood and painted with natural pigment. The doll on the left is Tawa (also Dawa), who represents the Sun God and creator of the world and is rarely impersonated. The one on the right is the powerful star and planet kachina who created the nine universes according to Hopi legend, Sotoknang (also Sotuknangu). According to Olivia’s brother, who I was told dances as a kachina in ceremonies, this kachina is found on Third Mesa on the Hopi reservation and appears during a bean dance where he gets on top of each kiva (a sacred room used by Puebloans for political meetings and religious rituals) and spins a wind maker and shoots lightning to the sky. He controls the stars and planets. From my research, it appears that Sotoknang was created by Tawa and Tawa sees Sotoknang as his nephew. I didn’t find this out until after I purchased them, but it’s cool to know that I have two powerful relatives as dolls. :)

Note: a lot of the information mentioned about these katsina dolls is from what I heard from Olivia’s brother and researched online; I’m not Hopi nor am I an expert in this field. I’m simply writing what I find and believe to be true.

Grand Canyon

As the main attraction of the day, we headed to our last destination of the tour: the Grand Canyon. And grand it is: it is so large that no helicopter or plane can see it in its entirety from the sky. Photos of it must be taken from space to capture it fully! Fascinatingly, the grand canyon is most lightening-struck place on earth. The canyon is intricately carved by the Colorado River, whose muddy waters have carved it over millions of years. It is comprised of many layers of different types of rocks, including sandstone, limestone, and shale. The Grand Canyon is a sacred place to many Native American tribes.


This is my favorite view of the Grand Canyon. The Colorado river is in the middle.

Seeing the canyon for the first time was stunning, but to be honest, it isn’t my favorite part of the state. It is gorgeous, but the colors from so far up aren’t as intense as I’d imagined, which sort of seemed to flatten out the canyon’s appearance to me. It was tricky to get a sense of its vastness from the viewpoints we saw. It was still a beautiful place, but a bit underwhelming in my opinion. The pictures I took, funnily enough, came out better than my memory of the place in person. That’s probably because I enhanced the colors of the photos to make everything pop, but the area was much more muted in person.

The Watchtower

Hopi art inside the Watchtower

Playing in the snow

We’ve arrived!

A beautiful raven

We first stopped at Desert View Watchtower, a beautiful structure whose walls are decorated with art representing Hopi legends. We drove to several stops along the east rim of the canyon, stopping finally at a part of the south rim. Some of the viewpoints we visited were Lipan Point, Grandview Point, and the Grand Canyon Visitor Center.

With Kevin, our tour guide

The Colorado River

Just me and the canyon :)

The shadows of the canyon


Afterward, we headed back to Sedona. Our tour guide Kevin was extremely knowledgeable about pretty much anything to do with Arizona, which was very helpful, but boy was he chatty! He gave us valuable information but after a while, I think all of our brains were too full and we just wanted some silence. He seemed to love hearing himself talk. :) That being said, I would absolutely take another tour with him. He knows so much about the area.


As soon as we got back to Sedona, we immediately hopped in the car and I drove us two and a half hours back to Phoenix. Our flight leaves in the morning and its back to reality for us. This weekend was a whirlwind of excitement and I’m so thrilled that I got to experience three different sides of the state: the cacti of Phoenix, the red rocks of Sedona, and the depths of the Grand Canyon. Leaving Arizona left me longing for more. I can’t wait to come back so I can see Horseshoe Bend, Antelope Canyon, and Monument Valley. Hopefully, I can do that in a couple months. Also, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I would actually be interested in camping or hiking experiences in the area. I’ve never hiked or camped and the thought of both scare me, but if I ever tried it, I’d do it somewhere as scenic as Arizona. It would be thrilling to feel lost in a place as beautiful as this.

It is not common to tell someone “goodbye” in the Navajo language, but rather “see you later.” So until next time, Arizona! I conclude with this, which reminds me of my wonderful time in the state:

“I walk with beauty before me. I walk with beauty behind me.
I walk with beauty below me. I walk with beauty above me.
I walk with beauty around me. My words will be beautiful.”
– The Navajo Way Prayer and Blessing, Walking in Beauty

This entry was posted in Travel.

One comment

  1. Ruth Cyrus says:

    Great post as always! Note that the kachina that I purchased, hukatsine, represents both discipline and security for Sotoknang, the kachina that you purchased. Fascinating folklore for sure!

    Love, Mom

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