Carlsbad Caverns National Park (Carlsbad, NM)
While relocating from New York City to sunny California in March of 2007, your “Set of Drifters” road-tripped the journey on a somewhat relaxed eight-day schedule that planned for stops at Tennessee’s “Dollywood” and New Mexico’s famed Carlsbad Caverns. The former was regrettably still closed for the winter, but a morning at the latter ended up being our favorite of the journey.
Carlsbad Caverns is located in the southeastern corner of the state, just 16 miles north of the Mexican border. While the surrounding terrain is breathtakingly beautiful, nothing can compare to what visitors will experience once 754 feet underground. (Neither the rumors beforehand, or the photos afterward can really do it justice!)
The experience begins with a somewhat precarious elevator ride down to the cave floor. If you are not hip with closed in spaces, these shafts are not for you! (Renovations are underway to improve the conditions of the four 16-person cabs. You may take a hike in and out of the natural entrance to the cave - if you can muster the steep inclines!)
Now whether or not you are fascinated by sulfite stalactites and stalagmites, or other random rocks lit by cleverly placed multicolored lights, the interiors of Carlsbad Caverns are so utterly fascinating and mind-blowing that you will have no choice but to be mesmerized. Sauntering carefully through the "Big Room," named as such since it is easily the size of six football fields, immediately turned your “Set of Drifters” back into the type of kids that are infatuated by “Indiana Jones” or Tomb Raider’s “Lara Croft.” But trekkers beware, the inverted vistas are so expansive down here that those suffering from Agoraphobia will no doubt experience troubling fits of paranoia!
Indeed, the various caves of Carlsbad are, well, cavernous. Globetrotters could easily spend a few days down here investigating the odd speleothem formations that have existed since the last Ice Age! (If only the commissary were more appealing...) Aside from the obvious attractions in the “Big Room” (“The Witches Finger” and the small one-tit bosom), the National Park offers many other trails and alcoves for the avid spelunker. Keep in mind though that trips to the “Queen's Chamber” are possible only via the guided “Kings Palace Tour,” in which reservations are strongly recommended.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park’s Visitor Center opens at 8:00 AM daily (except for Christmas Day). Depending on the season, the wait for the elevator may be long. During winter months (September through May), experienced hikers can enter the cave via the natural entrance up until 2:00 PM, while the final elevator ride down is at 3:30 PM. Summer brings slightly extended outings, with natural hikes available up until 3:30 PM and elevator rides until 4:00 PM. Admission is only $6 USD for adults and FREE for children under 15, making this one of the more “bang-for-your-buck” affordable deals in the region!
Set of Drifters tip: Even if you do not have to go to the restroom, make sure you check out the unique urination station underground that, although not as intentionally kitschy as the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, CA, is backed by a cave wall nonetheless!
Carlsbad Caverns National Park - 3225 National Parks Highway, Carlsbad, NM 88220, (575) 785-2232; for tour reservations use (877) 444-6777; for bat flight information use (575) 785-3012
Red Rock Country (Sedona, AZ)
Have you ever felt as though you have landed on another planet? Suffice it to say, we don’t have this experience nearly enough, and yet, each time we descend upon Sedona, the famous Arizonan community adored by New Age fantasists and celebrities alike, we are still blown away by its impressive, and often otherworldly natural beauty.
For new visitors to Sedona, it’s often love at first sight. And who can blame them? The rich red rocks that have been forged into unusual biomorphic shapes via thousands of years of water erosion are just some of Mother Nature’s local “strokes of genius.” But the unbelievable topography of Sedona is further enhanced by a climate that is near perfect year round, particularly when juxtaposed against the sweltering heat of Phoenix only 120 miles to the south.
Though attempting to hide its beauty secrets for much of the last century, it’s no wonder Sedona has become one of the state’s top tourist destinations beyond the Grand Canyon. There is plenty on offer for the entire family. From chic shopping and dining opportunities to more rustic creekside lodging and outdoor activities, Sedona is nearly perfect, particularly if you are looking to unwind and get away from it all. The sounds of those wind chimes heard from miles away don’t lie. The enclave is home to oodles of rejuvenating spa opportunities and spiritual retreat centers. Got kids? No problem. The natural formation “Slide Rock” is the perfect excuse for Lucas and Sophie to get wet on a hot summer day. And did we mention the fudge? (You’ll find plenty of options along the busy main stretch of town; remember to save room during lunch!)
Of course, there’s a lot more to Sedona’s story than just spotting famous formations like “Bell Rock” or the ”Coffee Pot.” According to many, the picturesque community may just offer a wormhole to another dimension! Huh? Let us explain.
While most New Age philosophers will agree the Earth is “alive,” those who hold faith in vortices see them as special energy portals located in areas of the planet that are exceptionally alive and healthy. The natural beauty that abounds in Sedona reflects that healthiness, particularly when considering that all four elements - air, fire, water and earth - assisted in its creation. As a result, Sedona has been cited as one of the best places in the world in which to experience a vortex! Here, natural healing energy is said to help people connect to inner-truths and recharge their batteries! As contrived as it may seem, we noted multiple brochures for vortex and star-gazing tours during out last sweep through town.
Speaking of tours, jeep excursions tours are a popular method of getting in touch with Sedona’s impressive nature - even when you have no need for spiritual enlightenment. Many shopfronts along State Route 89A will offer information on the different operators, though you can bet that Pink Jeep Tours (in business in Sedona for over 50 years) will be the most well-polished outfit to handle your journey.
Another key destination in Sedona located just minutes away from the center of town, Tlaquepaque’s “arts and crafts village” is envisioned as a traditional-style “Mexican” plaza that is as popular for picture-takers as it is for those seeking high-end art or boutique shopping. Tlaquepaque is really quite attractive, and feels entirely authentic despite its rather recent construction date in the 1970s. As an added bonus, the quaint compound lies just off the banks of trickling Oak Creek. But be careful during rainy season (July - September)! The usually quiet river can turn into a raging muddy torrent not unlike something out of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory! We have been here a few times when the overflowing riverbank has forced road closures nearby, making it quite difficult to get in and out of town!
Tlaquepaque’s shops and galleries, many of which offer high-end items with a Southwestern slant, are open from 10:00 AM until 5:00 PM, through restaurant hours may vary. Our favorite spot to dine inside the faux village is El Rincon, the consistently busy Mexican joint where prickly pear cactus margaritas are the tourist drink of choice. (We also suggest those zesty chicken quesadilla appetizer rolls!)
Set of Drifters tip: A particularly nice time to visit Sedona and Tlaquepaque used to be at Christmas time, when the Spanish Mission style buildings and courtyards become an extension of nearby Los Abrigado’s “Red Rock Fantasy.” For 22 years, the resort held contests for the best decorated condominiums, complete with oodles of lighting, fake snow, and yes, even a visit from St. Nick. The parade of pop culture humor was truly a spectacle to see, made even more memorable with a youngling, or two, in tow. If “Save Red Rock Fantasy” campaigns succeed in bringing this hometown favorite back, try not to miss it.
Sedona - about 123 miles north from Phoenix, via Interstate-17 and State Route 89A or 32 miles south from Flagstaff on the extraordinarily beautiful drive along State Route 89A
Personal Vortex Tours (at the Center for New Age) - 341 State Route 179, Sedona, AZ 86336, (928) 300-0963, http://www.secretmountaintours.com/vortex-tours/
Sedona Star Gazing Tours - (928) 203-0006, http://www.eveningskytours.com/
Pink Jeep Tours - 204 North State Route 89A, Sedona, AZ 86336, (800) 873-3662, http://www.pinkjeep.com/
Tlaquepaque Arts & Crafts Village - 336 State Route 179, Sedona, AZ 86336, (928) 282-4838, http://www.tlaq.com/
El Rincon Restaurante Mexicano (at Tlaquepaque Arts & Crafts Village) - 336 State Route 179,
Sedona, AZ 86336, (928) 282-4648, http://www.elrinconrestaurant.com/
Red Rock Fantasy (previously held annually from Thanksgiving through New Year’s) - http://www.redrockfantasy.com/
Taliesen West (Scottsdale, AZ)
Even though we may not always agree with the politics and mentality of Arizona, there is no denying its inherent beauty. In fact, the state’s unforgettable desert landscapes have been inspiring artists, designers and other luminaries for decades.
Celebrated American architect Frank Lloyd Wright is just one of the many who laid down roots here over the years. Thanks to the mostly favorable climate, Wright constructed “Taliesen West” in 1937 as a “winter home” counterpart to his existing Spring Green, Wisconsin property. The studio compound soon grew, evolving into a school campus for other architects and designers like Paolo Soleri, the Italian “Arcologist” who immigrated to Arizona in the 1950’s to build his “city of the future” (see “digs” and “goodies” for information).
If you are a fan of design, no trip to Phoenix can be complete without a stop here. Taliesen West offers a multitude of in-depth tours that truly bring visitors inside Wright’s aesthetic. We chose the “Insights Tour,” a 90-minute trek through the grounds that includes stops at Wright’s studio office and living quarters, his outdoor hexagonal pool, the Cabaret Theater and Music Pavilion, and the exquisite “Garden Room,” which on the day we visited in December of 2007, was awash in holiday finery.
Along the way, our cameras snapped away at a plethora of unexpected surprises. Antique Chinese ceramics butt up against charming Frank Lloyd Wright garden nymph statuary. Original Native American rock scrawlings abound, etched into indigenous boulders that have been used to fabricate terrace walls. And hey, now we know where the West Elm catalogue gets its inspiration. A lonely deer antler in the window sill of Wright’s library was almost too cliché.
Got inquisitive kids with you? Why not try the “Architecture Discovery Tour” that meshes elements of the “Insights Tour” with educational explanations of how architecture imbues our daily lives? The experience allows kids to play with shapes and colors and collect elements from the desert as inspiration in much the same way Wright would have extracted ideas from the surrounding McDowell Mountain foothills.
Tours of Taliesen West range from one to three hours and are available daily (except major US holidays) from 9:00 AM until 4:00 PM in the winter (September through May), and 11:00 AM until 2:00 PM in the summer (June through August). Ticket prices vary depending on tour, but expect to pay in the $25 - $30 USD range! (Don’t worry, it’s worth it!) Children’s prices are cheaper (around $10 for youth aged 4-12).
Set of Drifters tip: Our guide Sandy was a total groove - a true beatnik who really knew her stuff! If you have the spare time, try and wait for her tour; you will not be disappointed! Have flexibility in your trip? Inquire about discounted rates on Taliesen West’s slower days of Mondays and Tuesdays.
Taliesen West - 12345 North Taliesin Drive, Scottsdale, AZ 85258, (480) 627-5340, or (855) 860-2700
Musical Instrument Museum (Phoenix, AZ)
It may have taken us two years, but we finally made it to Phoenix’s extraordinary Musical Instrument Museum on a recent Thanksgiving trip to Arizona. Housed inside a 200,000-square-foot new construction near the 101 Freeway and Tatum Boulevard, the expansive “MIM” is the brainchild of Robert J. Ulrich, former CEO of Target and an avid African-music collector. His concept, dedicated to the education of the world’s many sounds, opened in 2010 to rave reviews, and after a slew of additional recommendations from friends and family, we were somewhat worried the collection wouldn’t live up to its grand reputation. Boy, were we wrong! This place is super cool, and densely packed with over 15,000 instruments, costumes and other artifacts from every corner of the globe.
Your aural journey begins on the ground level with a quick overture of some of the more unusual pieces you’ll see later in the museum (glass trumpet, anyone?) Though the semi-circle Hall of Guitars is certainly rockin’, we particularly enjoyed the inclusion of a small wooden guiro shaped like a frog that we heard multiple times on trips throughout Southeast Asia.
Upstairs, the museum is divided into no less than 10 geographical regions, each with an ear-popping assortment of instruments that you just have to see (and hear) to believe. Some of our favorites included a crude banjo from South Africa fashioned out of a gasoline can, the Burmese pat waing circular drum set and the fujara, a tall didgeridoo-type woodwind carved by sheepherders from Slovakia! Wireless “hot spots” throughout provide loops of indigenous music for almost every instrument, or to match archival video footage displayed on flat-screen TVs. (This technology works most of the time, but not all, and we suspect minor complaints will eventually lead to system improvements.)
We spent so much time touring African drums, Middle Eastern flutes and the different sub-divisions of Asia that by the time we got to South America and beyond, we were already winded (no pun intended). This might be a good break to stop and grab a quick coffee from the cafe downstairs, or to use the loo, as the MIM’s collection of Latin American, European and North American treasures is equally as staggering as what you will have already toured! Highlights in this second half include extensive displays on Native American chanting, the births of “Jazz” and “Rock’n’Roll” and an exhibit on electronic offerings such as the Moog synthesizer and even Technics’ 1200MK2 turntables, thank you very much. Set of Drifters tip: Be on the lookout for a funny early 90s video from Colombia starring young teen girls singing about baking while dancing across a checkerboard!
Another MUST HEAR stop-off is at the Mechanical Music Gallery, where odd assortments of music boxes, player pianos and clucking birds require absolutely no musicians at all. Trust us, by the time you reach this bizarre hallway, you’ll be just about ready to turn in your headphones...
But that would be a mistake, as the most popular exhibit is yet to come. Located back downstairs, the “Artist Gallery” is for those of you who couldn’t care less about “world music,” but still like jamming out to the Black Eyed Peas, or some such nonsense. It is here where a rotating assortment of instruments and costumes from some of popular music’s most famous legends are on display. Eric Clapton? Check. Elvis Presley? You bet. Hell, even good ole Taylor Swift is included! Of course, MIM’s biggest claim to fame is the actual piano that John Lennon once used to pen his classic tune, “Imagine.”
Your Set of Drifters gave this room a quick glance, as we had already visited one too many Hard Rock Cafes in our time. And besides, we were more interested in heading over to the Experience Gallery where, finally, every Tom, Dick, Doug and Brady can get their real hands on real instruments! We were thrilled to pound a few taiko drums, bang on some gamelan gongs and even tempt an electric theremin! We just felt bad for the poor MIM employee who had to chaperone the madness.
A whirlwind for all senses, the Musical Instrument Museum is open Monday through Saturday from 9:00 AM until 5:00 PM, though if you visit on Thursday or Friday, hours may be extended until 9:00 PM dependent on events. The Museum is only open from 10:00 AM until 5:00 PM on Sundays. Admission is $18 USD for adults, $14 USD for teenagers (13-19 years old) and $10 for children (4-12). Toddlers aged 3 and under are FREE. Make sure you leave some time for the museum gift shop. There are some really cool finds in there, our favorite being a men’s silk necktie emblazoned with a cool 45 rpm adaptor design.
Musical Instrument Museum - 4725 East Mayo Boulevard, Phoenix, AZ 85050, (480) 478-6000
Riordan Mansion State Historic Park (Flagstaff, AZ)
If Snowbowl happens to be slushed out, or you are all shopped out from Old Town (see “goodies”), a nice way to spend your Flagstaff afternoon is at the Riordan Mansion State Historic Park. While we had visited the northern Arizona wilderness a number of times before, it took an extended stay in December of 2013 for this exquisite turn of the century masterpiece to show up on our radar... and yes we’re talking turn of the century before last.
On recommendation from a family member who had scoped out the manse prior, we booked our spots on one of the hour long tours departing from the cozy gift shop that once acted at the Riordan’s one way in/ one way out garage.
As we would soon learn, the Riordan family was partly responsible for putting Flagstaff on the map, and for supporting its population during the early years of incorporation. How did they do it? By employing hordes of laborers from near and far to work in their burgeoning lumber business. After taking over the reins, and the mills, from their father, brothers Tim and Michael found the need to build nearby homes to shelter separate families. But since their two wives were sisters themselves, it made more sense to build two homes next to one another and then join them at the middle.
The result is a sweeping two-story, 13,000 sq. ft. mega-cabin designed by Charles Whittlesey (architect behind the beloved Grand Canyon hotel El Tovar). Each of the mirror-image abodes are connected via a great room that when we visited near Christmastime was bedecked in the most charming bespoke holiday decorations. It is here where Tim and Michael, their wives and children would play together near a roaring fireplace.
Our tour was guided by an affable guy named Jeff who shared funny anecdotes about the families as we traveled from house to house and room to room. (Perhaps your favorite setting will also be the enchanting elliptically-shaped dining room adjacent to an indoor fountain!)
One of the most charming moments from our tour was when Jeff let a young student play some keys on the 1904 Steinway "B" piano.
Oh didn’t we mention? Even though it has been passed through the generations - and now into the hands of the state park system, Riordan Mansion has been left pretty much intact as it was back in the early 1900s. Filled to the brim with period furniture, linens and artwork, the tour is a wet dream for any lover of the Arts & Crafts Movement! Seriously, there’s more wainscoting, stained glass and inlaid wooden furniture here than your eyes may be able to handle. Be on the lookout for stellar pieces by Stickley, Ellis and Tiffany. But if you’re into that sorta thing, there may be one little problem… Photos are not allowed inside the first house (where a majority of the tour’s highlights take place). We recommend just taking a deep breath and enjoying the ride. There is some comfort in knowing that later, in the library of the second home, there are a few nice specimens and vantage points you are able to capture.
We won’t spoil all the fun and surprises, though we will give you some advice. The exterior of the homes is not adequately featured on the tour. So if you want to get a good look at all that great workmanship, and natural materials sourced from nearby Ponderosa forests, you may want to arrive a little on the early side to take a self-guided tour of the perimeter.
During the winter months, Riordan Mansion is open Thursday through Monday from 10:30 AM until 5:00 PM (closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays). Expect slightly longer hours in warmer months. Tours start at the top of each hour (11:00, Noon, 1:00, 2:00, 3:00 and 4:00); reservations are recommended, particularly for larger groups. Admission is $10 USD for adults and $5 USD for children aged 7 - 13. Those 6 and under are FREE, but you better make sure they don’t have any PB&J on their hands before entering!
Riordan Mansion State Historic Park - 409 West Riordan Road, Flagstaff, AZ 86001, (928) 779-4395
Frank Marino’s “Divas” at the Quad (Las Vegas, NV)
If you’ve been reading our blog for some time, you already know that the Set of Drifters love things slightly off center… okay, perhaps far from the center. So when we arrived in Las Vegas facing $140+ Cirque du Soleil prices, it was time to search out a “Plan B” for the night’s entertainment. Luckily for us, “Queen of The Strip” Frank Marino has been promoting a different kind of showy spectacle in Las Vegas for more than 25 years! But it wasn’t always that way.
In days of yore - before the internet, when drag performers were something you could only find behind closed gay bar doors - the show “Boylesque” showcased male torch song divas of days gone by. But with the advent of TV programming such as RuPaul’s Drag Race, female impersonators have finally made it into the limelight. And we’ll bet Frank Marino couldn’t be happier. In fact, it’s the inclusion of one of our favorite competitors perform from Season 5 in Marino’s revue that initially garnered our interest in seeing “Divas.” (Sadly, Coco Montrese is too busy these days with post-Drag Race commitments to appear in the show, though ironically, on the night we visited, her alter-ego Martin Cooper was in the audience watching alongside us. Cat-fight fans, we hate to disappoint... but he was very gracious when we doled out the compliments.)
Frank Marino has been performing “Divas” in Las Vegas since 1985, and is recognized as one of the longest running headliners in town. Since 2010, the show has been holding up residence at the Quad, a rather lighthearted casino where dealers and croupiers disguise themselves as pop stars, perhaps in a bid to sell more interest in the “Divas” concept. Naturally, you can purchase tickets on the day at the Quad, though we actually recommend checking out one of the ½ price booths located elsewhere along The Strip. (Great seats at a great price, and for any number of shows, we chose the Tix4Tonight outlet at O’Shea’s, but there are others strategically located throughout town.)
Showtime! After waiting in a surprisingly long line, we were eventually seated at a VIP table near the stage. This vantage point gave us a great view of all the glitz and glamour. As the show would progress over the next 90 minutes, Frank Marino’s “divas” ran the gamut from Cher, Diana Ross and Whitney Houston to Celine Dion, Tina Turner, and of course, Liza Minnelli. Marino himself presides over the entire extravaganza as “Joan Rivers,” showcasing between each number his never-ending parade of Bob Mackie costumes alongside a healthy dose of East Coast humor that Ms. Rivers would probably deem not vulgar enough. (Gotta keep it somewhat safe for the Midwesterners, we guess.)
The performers in Marino’s cast truly have spectacular stage presence, and we bet that you’ll have to pinch your thigh every now and again to remind yourself that these are actually female impersonators. Many “divas” tackle multiple personalities at different points in the show. Perhaps the most talented is Kenneth Blake who handles Madonna, Dolly Parton and Lady Gaga before closing out the show with a mesmeric surprise we won’t spoil here. It’s a moment of class that is ironically cheapened once the audience is let out into the lobby where merchandise hawkers eagerly await.
All-in-all, a swell way to spend a night in Las Vegas… Oh, and how could we forget? A special shout-out must go to the glistening half-naked backing dancers that really help make these divas come to life! Set of Drifters tip: Though we were doubtful at first, bar service emerged pretty competent. It seemed servers pay special attention to those who tip well, so a couple of extra bucks at the beginning of the night should keep your glass full when you need it.
Frank Marino’s “Divas” showers audiences with sequins, glitter and the ultimate guilty pleasure most evenings at 9:30 PM, though special events and other engagements may limit the performance schedule - best to check Ticketmaster to make certain the show is running on the night you plan to attend. Ticket prices run low to high ($33 to $97), and we suggest visiting Tix4Tonight for the best prices!
Frank Marino’s “Divas” at the Quad - 3535 South Las Vegas Boulevard, Las Vegas, NV 89109, (855) 234-7469 or (702) 777-2782, http://www.frankmarino.com/index.php?page=home
Tix4Tonight (multiple locations) - 3785 South Las Vegas Boulevard, Las Vegas, NV 89109, (702) 597-0750, http://www.tix4tonight.com/
Route 66’s “Cadillac Ranch” and “Big Bug Cemetery” (near Amarillo, TX)
Road trips are nothing without “roadside attractions,” and Route 66’s legendary “Cadillac Ranch” is quite possibly the mother of ‘em all. Located in the upper panhandle portion of Texas, this popular stop-off brings tourists from around the globe, cameras-in-hand, to capture the ever-evolving graffiti that smothers ten vintage cars buried nose-down in the dirt... (or mud, depending on the season).
Dreamed up in 1974 by a Texan billionaire and “The Ant Farm,” a San Francisco hippie art collective, the automotive specimens of yesteryear have since been featured in countless photo journals and films, instantly recognizable by their silhouette against the often drab Texan sky. We hear that “The Ant Farm” made some reverence to the Great Pyramids of Giza with the angle in which the cars had originally been placed. Sadly, without the proper surveying tools, we could not confirm, nor deny these reports!
A more modern version of “Cadillac Ranch” lies about 18 miles east of Amarillo. An obvious rip-off of its predecessor designed to lure tourists off the road, “Big Bug Cemetery” is a tribute to the VW beetle. The roadside attraction also promises an added draw of the “Rattlesnake Ranch Trading Post” where visitors can experience “real live rattlers” without fear of snakebites! If you are so inclined, take the Conway Exit off of Interstate 40, and bring your Sharpie or spray paint so you can add to the masses! (Set of Drifters tip: For another unusual roadside attraction, check out "The Thing?" below.)
“Cadillac Ranch” - take Exit 60 off from Interstate 40 and drive south to the frontage road (Route 66); turn left, then drive east one mile, just west of Amarillo’s city line, TX
Rattlesnake Ranch Trading Post/ “Big Bug Cemetery” - take the Conway Exit off from Interstate 40 (Route 66), about 18 miles east of Amarillo, TX
“Old West” ghost towns (Tombstone/ Jerome, AZ)
Mention the word “ghost” in any attraction and your “Set of Drifters” are predictably intrigued. Haunted houses, ghost tours, “ghosts in the machine” - you name it, we’re there! And thus, while traveling extensively through the state of Arizona over the years, we’ve made sure to hit up the best spirits its storied ghost towns have to offer.
Located in the southeastern portion of Arizona, Tombstone is arguably the most famous of them all. Having been immortalized in several Hollywood westerns over the years, these days, the town boasts a healthy population of 1,500 - which means it’s actually no longer a “ghost town” per se. No, you won’t find any abandoned jail cells here, nor a lone tumbleweed sweeping across the road; the Brady Bunch “Grand Canyon adventure” this is not. Nevertheless, while visiting for the day, it’s pretty hard to avoid this town’s history, especially since its costumed townsfolk take pride in serving up a sarsaparilla-induced “Old West” experience for all ages 365 days a year! (If so inclined, you too can head on over to the original “O.K. Corral” and witness daily reenactments of the infamous gunfight between the Earp brothers, Doc Holliday and others. The show occurs multiple times a day.)
We arrived in Tombstone just after noon and hungry after the long drive from Phoenix. Searching for a local spot in which to grab some grub, we eventually settled on one of Allen Street’s more authentic-looking watering holes, the Crystal Palace Saloon. We had hoped our servers would be dressed in some of the same bawdy “saloon gal” outfits that repeated in many of the paintings adorning the walls, but no such luck. Sadly, their red polos and black jeans were nowhere near as sophisticated. And with their service levels so much lower than their necklines, some in our party are still waiting for their burgers! According to lore, the Crystal Palace, and its handsome antique bar, is haunted! We can only imagine that is why our food took well over an hour to arrive tableside!
Back out on the street, we watched “Doc Holliday,” “Wyatt Earp” and their posse head up and down the dirt road preparing for the next showdown. And convincing they were; these boys never flinched or broke character while tourists from around the world approached to take photos. One supposes the would-be actors have it much easier than previous residents in Tombstone. The settlement rose to popularity in the 1800s thanks to nearby silver mines, but when the reserves emptied out in the 1890s, the town went bust! Of course, that’s nothing a little tourism can’t fix (see “Bisbee” below as another example.)
“Old West” fans will have much to occupy their time in Tombstone between “vintage” photo studios that’ll dress you up like a gunslinger, gambler or harlot, carriage rides, souvenir shops, and tours by the dozen depending on your interest: ghosts, cowboys, miners? There is also a shooting gallery and an old-time theater called “The Birdcage.” (Depending on the time of year, watch out for music festivals and even fashion shows?)
Yes, unlike your typical beaten down, ruddy ghost town, Tombstone, the "town too tough to die," is alive and kicking! And while it may as well have been a sanitized attraction inside Disneyland’s sanctioned “Frontierland,” if you have kids in tow like we did during our December 2009 visit, an afternoon here is perfectly charming… that is, if you can find parking!
Perhaps a better “ghost town” experience can be had in Jerome, another old mining haunt, this time located smack dab in the middle of the state between Prescott and Flagstaff. Perched high on the side of treacherous Mingus Mountain (elevation 5,200 ft.), the village is so precariously positioned that it is often dubbed “America’s Most Vertical City.” (To help prevent future fires, the Jerome Fire Department is located on a curve of road to easily service both upper and lower portions of the town.)
Founded back in the late 1870s to take full advantage of the copper mines nearby, Jerome was once one of Arizona’s most populous towns. During its heyday of the 1920s, over 15,000 residents called it home, warranting the construction of a movie palace, high school and hospital - all of which still stand today, though unused for their original intent. Unfortunately, due to a string of incorrigible fires that swept through its narrow streets just as the Great Depression hit, the “wickedest town in the West” could hold on no longer. It soon fell into ruin, and by 1950, supported a population of only 100.
Set of Drifter Brady remembers visiting Jerome in the late 80s when he was in 7th or 8th grade. At the time, there was little to see other than a small candy shop with doors too short and narrow for the average modern human! In more recent decades, however, it seems the town has gotten a well-deserved shot in the arm. Nowadays, the enclave has, perhaps surprisingly, become a refuge for the artists, hippies and bikers who populate the winding main streets’ numerous restaurants and watering holes.
Though still not as savvy as Tombstone when it comes to tourism, that may be changing in Jerome. On our most recent visit in December of 2013, we noted brochures for ghost tours - and numerous day-trip options for the mines, nearby Sedona and beyond. Even so, everyone we came in contact with was more than happy to see us and show us their wares! Our favorite shop remains the “House of Joy,” a tongue-in-cheek novelties store housed in an old whorehouse that sells vintage ephemera and original local artwork. There are other less libidinous alternatives in town as well, and if you just so happen to be looking for “Western gear,” Native American art or New-Agey books, DVDs and jewelry, you’ve come to the right place. (See “goodies” for more on shopping Jerome’s best of the best.)
Of course, no visit to Jerome can be complete without two things: a view of the stellar sunset piercing through Verde Valley below (best viewed from the back terrace at the Haunted Hamburger) - and a visit to the Jerome Grand Hotel. See “digs” for more on this haunted former hospital - and "eats" for some of our tastier Jerome recommendations. Set of Drifters video: Check out our YouTube channel for video content from this event!
Set of Drifters tip: Don’t miss nearby Old Town Cottonwood where vintage antiques, wine tasting and more tasty treats are yours for the taking.
Tombstone - about 184 miles southeast of Phoenix, via Interstate-10 and AZ-80 E, http://www.tombstoneweb.com
O.K. Corral - 326 East Allen Street, Tombstone, AZ 85638, (520) 457-3456, http://www.ok-corral.com/
Crystal Palace Saloon - 436 East Allen Street, Tombstone, AZ 85638, (520) 457-3611, http://crystalpalacesaloon.com
Jerome - about 111 miles from northwest of Phoenix, via Interstate-17, Highway AZ-260 and State Route 89A, http://www.azjerome.com/
Ghost Town Tours - 557 Main Street, Jerome, AZ 86331, (928) 499-7317, http://ghosttowntours.org/spooks/about-jerome/
The Haunted Hamburger - 410 Clark Street, Jerome, AZ 86331, (928) 634-0554, http://www.thehauntedhamburger.com/
revisiting vintage Las Vegas at the Fremont Experience/ Neon Museum “boneyard” (Las Vegas, NV)
Nothing screams “Las Vegas” quite like one of its storied neon and light-bulbed signs. From each side of The Strip, the bright lights and billboards shout “LOOK AT ME!” in efforts to lure potential gamblers inside their respective casinos. In fact, for virgin visitors to “Sin City,” we recommend an evening arrival in order to best soak in that all-important first impression of this dazzling, yet often unfulfilling city of dreams. (During the day, the allure and excitement of Las Vegas almost seems drained by the bright daylight and oppressive heat that transforms much of its best elements from tantalizing to just plain tacky.)
Overall, our favorite signs in Las Vegas are its vintage ones - what a shocker! These are the artful designs that once adorned original downtown Las Vegas casinos of the 1940s and 1950s. Back in the day, the smaller casino/ hotels in this area would have catered to Hollywood’s crème de la crème, including Rat Packers Sammy Davis, Jr. and Frank Sinatra.
Perhaps no street is more synonymous with this era than Freemont Street, the first thoroughfare in town to be paved back in 1925. Home to classic casinos like The Golden Nugget, Binion’s Horseshoe, The Golden Gate, and of course, The Fremont, the area has been featured in many a film and TV program (perhaps most notably in the James Bond flick Diamonds Are Forever and Elvis Presley’s Viva Las Vegas). But having lost its lustre in the 1980s when most properties moved away to join the much-celebrated Strip, the area fell into ruin, only to be redeveloped in the mid-90s as the “The Fremont Street Experience.”
Here, littered amongst a series of tacky souvenir shops, visitors will still find some of the aforementioned casinos, raking in dough from an older/ hipster crowd. (Set of Drifters tip: Mermaid’s Casino is one of the few spots in town where slots still use actual coins, and not those silly slips of paper that make no noise when spit from new-fangled machines!) The best part about Fremont however is its vintage neon signs, a collection of instantly recognizable gems that have been sequestered here to draw in more tourists. If visiting the FSE, we recommend starting from Las Vegas Boulevard where you’ll reach the first of nine dazzling signs. (A self-guided tour is possible at any time of day, though we certainly recommend checking this one out at night when everything is alit in all its glory.)
On our first visit in 2007, we ducked in and out of the somewhat run-down casinos, and snapped photos with C-grade showgirls. We even managed to track down one of Doug’s music idols! Who knew that Liz Damon, former lead singer for Liz Damon's Orient Express, is now a casino host at the legendary Fremont? She was thrilled to greet a fan in between promoting special games on the casino floor, and even signed a couple of Doug’s LPs!
A follow-through visit in 2013 proved that the Fremont Street Experience is alive and well, and a bit better maintained. This is perhaps in response to the opening of the official Neon Museum “boneyard” located just under a mile away. A definite must for the true “neon buff,” the veritable cemetery of retro signage is truly overwhelming in its breadth. Thankfully, guided tours offer a well-paced stroll through the beautiful carnage laid out in a path that follows chronologically the history of Sin City’s most memorable casinos. What we loved: bold designs for the Sahara, Algiers, Stardust and La Concha properties. What de didn’t love: limited access for cameras/ video and that blazing sun beating down at all times!
Our guide was a young lass who exhibited indifference to the lost legacy of Las Vegas neon whenever she mentioned the takeover of more streamlined (read: plain/ boring) designs in recent years. She ultimately redeemed herself however when showing us how the Neon Museum is working hard to restore some of Las Vegas’ most classic signage through pricey renovation procedures. Now we know what you’re wondering? Where are “Vegas Vic” and his gal-pal “Sassy Sally?” Have they been faithfully restored as well? In fact, they have, but you’ll have to head back to the Fremont Street Experience to see ‘em.
Worthy a visit in-and-of itself, the Neon Museum is stationed inside the historic La Concha lobby/ gift shop. Hour-long tours start from here at 10:00 AM and go all the way up until 7:00 PM. Tickets are $18 USD for adults, while seniors, students and Nevada residents get in for $12 USD. Starting at 5:00 PM, night tours cost $25 USD for general admission and $22 USD for seniors, students and Nevada residents. Why the higher cost? Sillies, this is when the refurbished signs are lit up for your ultimate enjoyment!
Set of Drifters tip: Can’t afford the entrance? Then check out the stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard between Sahara Avenue and Washington Avenue, a National Scenic Byway that presents a number of the vintage signs previously restored by the museum.
Fremont Street Experience - 425 Fremont Street, Las Vegas, NV 89101, (702) 678-5777, http://www.vegasexperience.com/
Neon Museum Boneyard - 770 North Las Vegas Boulevard Las Vegas, NV 89101, (702) 387-6366, http://www.neonmuseum.org/
Desert Botanical Gardens (Phoenix, AZ)
Nothing screams the “American Southwest” quite like the mighty Saguaro cactus, but did you know that the robust desert trees are native to only Arizona and parts of Mexico? That is just one of the many factoids visitors to Phoenix’s Desert Botanical Gardens will learn.
On our friend Wendy's sturdy recommendation, we made a trip to spacey Papago Park to see the Desert Botanical Garden’s colorful Dale Chihuly exhibit. It was the perfect setting for such dramatic displays. The collection of clever blown glass sculptures effortlessly mimicked the various flora that inhabit the Sonoran, and from the looks of it, the installation must have been a bitch! (Jumping Cholla anyone?)
One seemingly delicate sculpture was the most preposterous thing on display due to its towering height. The yellow spire reminded us of a roller coaster at Six Flaggs, or Jack’s infamous “beanstalk.” (We surmise the piece is actually an homage to the desert’s Boojum trees that are also on display here.) We loved the boat of multi-hued glass balls that resembled candies from Willy Wonka’s “Chocolate Factory,” and yet our favorite installation had to be the little mini-fjords that floated above the murky lagoon out back! Pretty trippy indeed!
The Chihuly exhibit had already traveled to many of the world's top botanical gardens, and it has moved on since, though that does not mean a trip to Phoenix’s outdoor gardens should be off your list. Even without the artist’s whimsical glass “water spouts” or white globular “boobies,” Phoenix’s Desert Botanical Gardens still has much to boast. Not only does their desert trek take you through beautiful winding paths that offer every kind of succulent, cactus and sagebrush imaginable, an educational segment devoted to Native Americans shows youngsters how original Arizonans lived, hunted and cooked their meals. Since Doug is just a kid at heart, he was all for the demonstration that showed how mesquite seed pods are ground together using a pestle and mortar. Who knew mesquite was edible?
The Desert Botanical Gardens are open from 7:00 AM until 8:00 PM. Admission is $15 USD for adults and $5 USD for children aged 3-12 while younger toddlers get in for FREE. Students with ID also receive a discount at $7 USD. Try to plan your trip to the Desert Botanical Gardens sometime between October and April. The paths are mostly outside, and if you have not heard already, Arizona is stiflingly hot from May until September!
Set of Drifters tip: Make sure you check out the gift shop. Visitors can pick up any number of cacti and succulents to bring back home and start their own garden! We felt the accompanying pottery was an obvious rip off of the work done at Cosanti and Arcosanti, but we’ll excuse the infraction this time. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Desert Botanical Gardens - 1201 North Galvin Parkway Phoenix, AZ 85008, (480) 941-1225, or (480) 941-1217
vintage signs of lost Phoenix - and found Flagstaff
Downtown Phoenix has undergone an extensive overhaul within the last 20 years. What used to be a dangerous, desolated mecca for hookers, hustlers and their gun-toting pimps is now a destination spot for hipsters, sports fans, and even the cultured elite. It took some serious scrubbing however. These days, the 90 square blocks that encompass the “Downtown Phoenix Business Improvement District” now feature an array of restaurants, shops, museums and event spaces. (Our favorite just may be the renovated Orpheum Theatre on West Adams Street.) Elsewhere nearby, historic 20th century Victorian homes that in recent decades had turned into crack dens have now been faithfully restored to their original lustre while transformed into bars and/ or micro-restaurants. (Former department store Hanny’s on 1st Street is a great place to start for any walking tour of the area’s refurbished watering holes.) At one point, there was even a museum devoted to the sanitization of the area, Dayvid LemMon’s premature “Downtown Phoenix Museum of Gentrification” which closed in 2012.
And yet, you know your “Set of Drifters.” We love the things from yesteryear that are still hanging on to the fringe of society. Luckily, not all downtown Phoenix’s “sin is in” vibe has gone by the wayside. Van Buren Street is, and always has been, the city’s main thoroughfare for vice and transgression. Today, many of the old motels that have been used as “dens of iniquity” for decades still stand, offering both rooms by the hour - and some pretty neat vintage signage! Whenever we are in the locality, we always enjoy a trip down “old Van Buren.” There is simply no other place in Phoenix with such a high concentration of fly-by-night motels, diners and other structures that present the kitschy retro-stylings we so adore. But hurry! These gems of the past are dying fast! One of our favorites, the Log Cabin Motel, was demolished only last year, and we presume other crumbling structures are soon to follow.
An even better bet for vintage signage may just be the groovy northern Arizona town of Flagstaff, an artsy, new-agey enclave that we’ve grown to love more and more with each new visit. Ensconced at the foothills of Mount Elden in ample pine forests, Flagstaff residents include old-school cowboys, college kids from NAU, and a bounty of snow bunnies; nearby “Snowbowl” is a huge ski attraction.
And yet, your “Set of Drifters” are mostly fans of Flagstaff’s roadside and rooftop signage that advertises old motel properties to those traveling by train through this one-time “Route 66” depot. (“Flag,” as it is often dubbed, is also the last major city on the way to the Grand Canyon.) Check out the streets just south of the train tracks for some pretty impressive structures that tower above the more humble streets below. Then head out onto the “Mother Road” itself to snap-off photos of one retro neon beauty after another. The Western Hills Motel and the Crown Railroad Cafe at the Howard Johnson Inn are some of our favorites.
If beer is in order during your sign hunt, check out the historic Museum Club, a taxidermy foe’s worst nightmare, but a local brew fan’s not-so-hidden treasure. Who knows? You may even spot some grooves. While visiting in November of 2008, we captured photos of mystic "Purple People Eater Groove" that turned Facebook upside down!
For more on Flag, see “Riordan Mansion” and the “Lowell Observatory” below, as well as “eats,” “sips” and “goodies” for news on Old Town’s great dining, drinking and shopping possibilities.
Set of Drifters tip: Impressive Sedona (see above) is only a hop, skip and a jump from Phoenix or Flagstaff. Don’t miss it - or the drive between Flagstaff and Red Rock Country and Flagstaff.
Orpheum Theatre - 203 West Adams Street, Phoenix, AZ 85003, (602) 262-7272, http://www.orpheum-theater.com/orpheum_theater_phoenix.php
Hanny’s - 40 North 1st Street, Phoenix, AZ 85004, (602) 252-2285, http://www.hannys.net/
Flagstaff - about 150 miles north of Phoenix on Interstate-17
Western Hills Motel, 1580 E Route 66, Flagstaff, AZ 86001, (928) 774-6633
Crown Railroad Cafe (at the Howard Johnson Inn) - 3300 Historic Route 66, Flagstaff, AZ 86004, (928) 526-1826, http://www.thecrownrailroadcafes.com/
The Museum Club - 3404 Historic Route 66, Flagstaff, AZ 86004, (928) 526-9434, http://www.themuseumclub.com/
Bisbee and the Copper Queen Mine (Bisbee, AZ)
Tucked away inside the Mule Mountains, and only about a ten minute drive from the border with Mexico, lies the quixotic town of Bisbee, Arizona. Before our visit in 2009, we had heard others describe it as the “San Francisco of Arizona,” and yet as we first entered the town that December, we couldn't help but notice its small valley appeared oddly European! One of the reasons for this deception may be its geographic layout. Spread out over a series of hills with streets that adhere to no strict grid pattern, Bisbee is hardly accessible. (The hidden gem was booming long before the advance of the automobile.)
Bisbee is certainly not the place to live, or visit, if you can’t handle steep inclines. Many of the entrances to stores or domiciles are accessible only by utilizing handrails attached to the sides of some rather gnarly staircases. Perhaps it’s these same hills that have given Bisbee its connection to the “City by the Bay” - though we suspect it also has something to do with a shared history entrenched in mining... and well, hippies!
Despite all previous “warnings,” we found Bisbee even quirkier and more boho than we could have imagined. Now don't get us wrong; we love oddities. We just didn’t expect to find so many in a place located in the south of Arizona so close to the Mexican border! At one point, we spotted a gaggle of young art-punks cooking their lunch of canned peas from a small gas-lit stove on the sidewalk! Nearby, a local performance troupe taught young children the art of walking… on stilts! Colorful street graffiti is spotted throughout town, and yet the street art does not feel “urban” at all, but rather more literary, or even tribal.
Make no mistakes though, Bisbee is first and foremost a mining town, or at least it was. Like in Jerome (see “ghost towns” above), copper was the game here, though since all nearby mines were exhausted decades ago, the town’s once robust population of over 20,000 has now dwindled down to a ⅓ of that. (Downtown Bisbee used to even have its own streetcar system, but like many of Bisbee's miners, it has since gone by the wayside.)
But all hope is not lost. In fact, Bisbee is a state of flux thanks to a resurgence that has more to do with paintbrushes and chopsticks than it does pick axes and dynamite! The artsy town has attracted a large number of creative types - not all of them talented unfortunately - hoping to make a living in a town that boasts cheap rent and acceptance of weirdos. It is somewhat inspiring how these misfits have all congregated here, in a spot that is hundreds of miles away from more cosmopolitan cities like Tucson or El Paso. (Did we just write that?)
By day, we walked Bisbee’s “Brewery Gulch,” pleased to find a number of older buildings getting modest face-lifts to restore them to their original splendor. And hey, if you can judge a town's hipness by the number of cafes per capita, this town is well on its way to full recovery!
We spent one morning browsing Bisbee’s multitude of second hand, antique and thrift stores, most of which are filled with rather nice items. (Since the mining industry went belly-up in the 1950s, the concentration of the town’s consignment is from that era, or slightly before.) But guess what? Surprisingly, Bisbee is hip to the scene - and prices are not cheap. Whether looking for groovy threads, Mid-century modern furniture, or a vintage Star Wars “AT-AT,” expect to pay prices similar to what you may find in downtown Phoenix.
Though there are certainly edgier places in town, one of our favorite places to browse was an old bank building on Main Street that has been turned into a multilevel antique trove. Miners & Merchants Antique Center proffered so many treasures we would have been better off trudging them back to our hotel in a shopping cart! Make sure you head to the basement for its weird vintage farm tools and antique photographs from the 1890s!
After Mexican and margaritas at Santiago’s (see “eats”), we headed to the town’s once - and future? - Copper Queen Mine. (It has recently been reported that the Phelps- Dodge company has discovered new mining locations nearby the outfit that virtually gave birth to Bisbee.) For now, however, the old tunnels of the mine remain simply a tourist attraction, and arguably the most popular in town.
Copper Queen is easily accessible from the main highway and Old Town. And though the long queue deterred us initially, once we started collecting our proper mining attire to head deep underground, we started to get more and more excited. Our gear consisted of battery packs, mini-spotlights and atrocious yellow vinyl coats designed to repel dampness and temps hovering around 47-degrees. Naturally, nephew Logan was chosen to "drive" the mining cart, and after a couple minutes of rules and regulations, it was into the mine shaft we go...
In all honesty, this was a pretty cool tour, despite the fact that probably 99% of the tourists on-board could not have cared less about the aspects of mining itself. Still, just to be able to go 1,500 feet underground and see how everything worked was decidedly entertaining. Who knew so much work and sweat went into extracting copper out of a mountain? And dynamite explosions are the easy part!
Our guide was this old codger who had been a miner all his life, traveling all over America to do so. Currently, he simply works three days a week as a tour guide here in Bisbee. He loves his job, even though it seemed rather hectic that brisk winter afternoon! Set of Drifters tip: While our guide mumbled incessantly about archaic mining tools, we ventured off on our own to snap photos of the cave’s impressive geology. Bisbee’s mines are noted for their great variety of copper-based minerals, including malachite, aragonite, azurite, galena and a variety of turquoise native to this region called "Bisbee Blue." In fact, a number of the superb specimens from Copper Queen can now be found in museums worldwide.
Well worth the trouble, and the tourists, the Copper Queen Mine takes interested parties 1,500 feet underground daily for tours starting at 9:00 AM, 10:30 AM, 12:00 PM, 2:00 PM, and 3:30 PM. Prices are $13 for adults, $5.50 for children aged 4-12; children under 4 are FREE. Set of Drifters video: Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!
Eventually, it was time to head back to solid footing. But which way was out? (Thank heavens signs that reported “Surface This Way” with an arrow are hung throughout the mineshaft!) When we finally got back to ground level, it was already dusk, and another of Arizona’s amazing sunsets was taking shape behind the silhouetted backdrop of Old Town. We stopped and asked nephew Logan if he wanted to grow up and become a miner. He declined.
A two-night stay in Bisbee is ideal. There’s definitely something very mystical and mysterious about this place, as evidenced by the many reported hauntings at the Copper Queen Hotel. We recommend staying here, or at the wonderfully wacky Bisbee Grand; see “sips” and “digs” for more information.
Ultimately, we wish we had done a bit more research about Bisbee ahead of time so we would have known more of the different worthwhile areas nearby. Who knew the vintage “Airstream” motel Shady Dell was just over the next hill? Next time...
Set of Drifters tip: Because Bisbee is sandwiched between a few different mountain passes, weather here changes rather abruptly. One minute it’s bright and sunny, and the next, the sky is covered in clouds which, thanks to the 5,000 ft. elevation, feel almost close enough to touch. Bring clothes for all seasons and, even though it seems odd nestled so close to Mexico, prepare for especially chilly nights in winter months!
Bisbee - about 94 miles south of Tucson, via Interstate 10 and eventually AZ-80 East; watch for signs
Miners & Merchants Antique Center - 7 Main Street, Bisbee, AZ 85603, (520) 432-4009
Santiago’s - 1 Howell Avenue, Bisbee, AZ 85603, 520-432-1910, http://santiagosmexican.blogspot.com/
Copper Queen Mine - 478 North Dart Road, Bisbee, AZ 85603, (866) 432-2071, or (520) 432-2071, http://www.queenminetour.com/
Copper Queen Hotel and Saloon - 11 Howell Avenue, Bisbee, AZ 85603, (520) 432-2216, http://www.copperqueen.com/
Bisbee Grand Hotel - 61 Main Street, Bisbee, AZ 85603, (800) 421-1909, or (520) 432-5900, http://www.bisbeegrandhotel.com/
The Shady Dell - 1 Douglas Road, Bisbee, AZ 85603, (520) 432-3567, http://www.theshadydell.com/
Phoenix Art Museum (Phoenix, AZ)
Have we mentioned that Set of Drifter Brady lived in Metropolitan Phoenix for 10 years, suffering through the intense summers that banded together middle school, high school, and part of college? You might expect then that he has a vast knowledge, and somewhat of a homegrown love, of the nearby surroundings. Tsk-tsk-tsk, not so fast... As is often the case when one lives somewhere that is flocked by tourists, Brady and his family rarely visited any of the sights we present to you in this blog, including the fabulous Taliesen West (see below) that was located only two miles from his North Scottsdale home! This may be the most obvious of “Set of Drifters tips.” If you live somewhere that is fun and fascinating to others, it is most likely going to be fun and fascinating to you - so go out and explore it!
Of course, the best excuse to don a “tourist cap” in your own city is when you have friends and family visiting, which is exactly what our friend Michele did when she escorted us to the Phoenix Art Museum in December of 2009. Set of Drifter Brady had not been there in over 15 years - and my how things had changed. Having undergone a $60 million dollar renovation in 2006, the PAM is now as sleek as they come, and filled to the gills with over 17,000 pieces of art, much of it surprisingly edgy and contemporary.
During our visit, we explored both the roving fashion exhibit that featured designer clothes from the 1920's through 1960's, as well as some of the more permanent galleries. Set of Drifter Brady was surprised to see that the alcove of elaborate “mini interiors” showcasing furniture and textile design from the 20th century was still alive and kicking!
On your visit, make sure to be on the lookout for one of the largest lino-cut “Day of the Dead” masterpieces out there! And don’t forget to make your way to the Contemporary Art wing where it is going OFF! Some of the more memorable pieces include Peter Wegner “paper wall” constructed out of thousands of cut pieces of cardstock, the multimedia “hand blob” by Tony Oursler and the exploding “Mass” by Cornelia Parker! Of course, our favorite installation had to have been Yayoi Kusama’s “You Who Are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies.” It would be pretty hard to describe what was going on here, so why bother, though we just may need to recreate the effect at home. Pure genius!
The Phoenix Art Museum is located almost smack dab in the middle of town and is a stone’s throw from many other cultural landmarks. Thanks to the new light rail system, we suspect there are now a lot more locals taking note of the “Set of Drifters” tip mentioned above. Admission is $10 USD for adults and only $4 USD for children aged 6 - 17. (Kiddies under 6 are FREE). PAM is open Wednesdays from 10:00 AM until 9:00 PM, Thursdays through Saturdays from 10:00 AM until 5:00 PM and Sundays from 12:00 Noon until 5:00 PM. Extended hours on the first Friday of each month keep the museum open until 10:00 PM. (The Phoenix Art Museum is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays!)
Set of Drifters tip: There’s a hideous creature on the loose inside the Phoenix Art Museum! We won’t ruin the surprise, but some woman certainly has her hands - and mouth, full! Ay-yi-yi!
Phoenix Art Museum - 1625 North Central Avenue, Phoenix, AZ 85004, (602) 257-1222
The Thing? (Dragoon, AZ)
Warning: This article contains spoilers.
Despite the inherent beauty all around, driving from Texas to Arizona on Interstate 10 for hundreds of miles along deserted highway can get pretty boring, depressing even. One “thing” that we assure you will stand out however is a series of mysterious billboards that advertise, with an almost Batman-esque logo, “The Thing?” (The signs are everywhere in southern Arizona and the only thing that changes if you are heading east on Interstate 10 from Phoenix or Tucson is the amount of miles you have yet to travel until you arrive at “The Thing?”)
So, what is “The Thing,” you ask? Well, your guess is as good as ours, and we actually stopped in Dragoon, AZ in December of 2009 to find out!
Upon our arrival to the rest stop/ roadside attraction, we made sure to first hit up the gift shop. Here, “Thing?” fans can snatch up keychains, bumper stickers, mugs, shirts... You name it. In fact, if I remember correctly, they even had “The Thing?” condoms! (Imagine explaining that to your partner!)
We paid the nominal $1 USD admission, and then proceeded through the door that led to this most unusual exhibit. From the road, the attraction appeared rather well-contained, but once inside, we were surprised its labyrinthine layout. Following footsteps painted on the ground as well as the signs that directed “This Way to The Thing,” we were ushered in and out of several tin-roof hangars, past pastures of grazing sheep and other unexpected farm oddities.
Okay, okay, but what is “The Thing?”
Well... You see the surprise at “The Thing?” is that “The Thing?” is actually a series of many different “things:” old cars, stagecoaches, a Native American mannequin sitting in a chair, a mummified body... (Yes, I suppose these are all “things;” no need to call the Better Business Bureau for false advertising!) We particularly liked the intriguing assortment of fornicating animals that were somehow fashioned out of dried cactus skeletons or large tree roots and then suspended from the ceiling!
Some of the dioramas were a bit more graphic. The museum’s "one of a kind" torture exhibit was also one of its “things." Here, strange ¾ size papier-mâché depictions of humans covered in blood are whipped, tied-up and beaten by a brute Nazi woman and other similar frights! To say that we had never seen any "thing" like it before would be an understatement! Oh, and we mention the ancient butter churner? Seriously.
For a buck, a trip to Dragoon is one that you will never forget... as long as this is your “Thing.” Dig? Set of Drifters tip: Save time and gas up here as well! Make sure you check out those weird unicorn and parrot statues on sale in the foyer between the gift shop and fast food joint! There are no words... only “things” apparently.
Set of Drifters video: Check out our YouTube channel for a spoiler video from this event!
The Thing? - 2631 North Johnson Road, Dragoon, AZ 85609; take Exit 322 off from Interstate 10 (between Benson and Willcox), (520) 586-2581
Lowell Observatory (Flagstaff, AZ)
Flagstaff, northern Arizona’s most populous city, is known for many things: a destination point on the old Route 66, its “last-chance” proximity to the Grand Canyon’s south rim - and as an epicenter of powdery winter sports for college students attending the nearby state University.
“Flag,” as it is often affectionately referred to by locals, has always fought off a humble “aw shucks” reputation, most likely due to a history entrenched in the Old West logging business. And it’s precisely because of this estimation that we were surprised to learn the city is also home to one of America’s oldest, and most important, astronomical observatories. In fact, Lowell Observatory, erected in 1894, is where astronomer Clyde Tombaugh first discovered former planet Pluto in 1930 (it’s since been re-classified as a dwarf star), and where Vesto Melvin Slipher concluded that the universe we live in is still expanding.
Located atop Mars Hill roughly a 10 minute drive from the center of town, Lowell Observatory is a magical world waiting to be discovered by would-be star buffs, and yes, even the casual observer. Our troop arrived around 7:30 PM in the last days of December 2013. It being winter, we were astounded by the amount of stars easily-visible to the naked eye after removing ourselves ever-so-slightly from downtown Flag’s light pollution. (Amber lamps in the parking lot help to alleviate distraction at the observatory and ensure optimum viewing opportunity.)
Moving inside to the warmth, we first enjoyed exhibits in the museum that showcased fabulous photographs taken throughout the universe from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. Nebulae, planets, black holes and galaxies are the, uh, “stars” here, juxtaposed beside mind-boggling stats that put our measly existence on this tiny speck of dust we call Earth well into perspective.
Next on the docket, we enjoyed a rather informal lecture housed inside the handsome Slipher rotunda. Titled “SlipherVision,” the talk focused on constellations and how to best identify them throughout the year. Complete with rotating visuals, and a few gurgling babies in the background, we learned that zodiac signs are actually divvied up based on constellations that are present in the sky during the day when the sun is out. (Ahhhhhh-so!)
After the presentation, we headed to the top of Mars Hill to get a gander at the planet Jupiter.
To see the mighty Alvin Clark 24-inch refracting telescope in person - the same device used by 60s-era astronauts to map the moon - was truly an awesome experience. And from the sound of it, we were just in time. Staff at Lowell is currently renovating the behemoth, instigating its closure until some time in 2015.
Of course, if you hold out until then, we cannot guarantee the following will still be true… Admission to the observatory is $12 USD for adults and $6 USD for children aged 5-17. Toddlers under five are FREE. Additional discounts apply for seniors, college students and AAA or observatory members. Lowell opens its doors to gazers Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturdays from 12:00 PM until 9:30 PM and Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays from 12:00 PM until 5:00 PM.
Set of Drifters tip: Don’t forget to visit the gift shop featured just inside the Steele Visitors Center. Selling unusual celestial themed objects, including a whole set of plush toy planets, jewelry and educational toys for young and old, we plunked down our cash for some cool lenticular postcards.
Lowell Observatory - 1400 West Mars Hill Road, Flagstaff, AZ 86001, (928) 774-3358
Cave Creek/ Carefree (AZ)
It has occurred to us that metropolitan Phoenix could easy be likened to that classic horror monster “The Blob.” Huh? Well, over the last 40 years, the region has seen an expansion of its many communities that is unparalleled, taking Phoenix’s well past its original footprint. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, wayward hippies took up residence in what soon became the bohemian enclave of Cave Creek.
Located on almost the very outskirts of town, Cave Creek today is arguably one of the few remaining communities that resembles “Old Phoenix,” complete with quirky restaurants, shops and bars that definitely seem out of sorts when compared to the myriad of malls and slick shopping “power centers” that clog almost every corner in town. (Ironically, though the free-spirited vibe that permeates through Cave Creek may make your feel as though you have traveled many miles out of the city, and perhaps a few years into the past, Cave Creek is positioned just a stone’s throw from North Scottsdale, one of the more chi-chi areas of Phoenix.
The main attraction of Cave Creek may just be its “Frontier Town,” a faux ghost town that offers a variety of gift shops, restaurants and even a wedding chapel and cemetery! (Talk about life changing events!) Frontier Town was actually built back in 1971, hoping to pay homage to the settlements of the 1880’s “Old West.” Their event stage showcasing local bands and their Annual Town BBQ (in conjunction with cornerstone restaurant The Smokehouse) attracts ravenous followers each August! This is a great little place to stop and snap some photos while visiting Phoenix, particularly if you do not have the time to visit “real” western ghost towns like Jerome or Tombstone (see above).
Now, while much of Cave Creek’s “Old West” charm can be captured at Frontier Town and the nearby “Spanish Village,” your “Set of Drifters” recommend sinking your teeth deeper into the local pulse by driving aimlessly through its residential streets - or checking out its many cool burger joints and crazy antique stores! (For information on Cave Creek’s best watering hole, see “sips.”) Shopping in Cave Creek is a hoot, and if you are looking for Native American or other southwestern souvenirs, you have come to the right place. Numerous stores of all price points sell stone jewelry, western wear, and other “Old West” influenced arts and crafts. (“El Pedregal” is a popular upscale shopping mecca nearby, though we preferred the “Town Dump;” see “goodies.”)
No visit to Cave Creek can be complete without a stop at its world famous “giant” sundial, the 3rd largest in the Western Hemisphere. It’s worth a photo... if there are no lines! Set of Drifters tip: On the weekends, Cave Creek lets its hair down even further as bikers from near and far make the trek to Cave Creek to tour its scenic mountainside curves.
Frontier Town - 6245 East Cave Creek Road, Cave Creek, AZ 85331, (480) 488-9129, http://www.frontiertownaz.com/
El Pedregal - 34505 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, AZ 85266, (480) 488-1072, http://www.elpedregal.com/