The first tweet I wrote when I landed in Phoenix said, “I hope I don’t get kicked out of Arizona for looking like an immigrant.” Arizona has drawn quite a lot of media scorn for the proposal, which was thankfully defeated, to stop and ID anyone who might look like they were an undocumented immigrant. While there’s a lot of conservative, reactionary politics going on in the United States, Arizona seems like the epicenter of some of the most virulently racist and reactionary policy proposals. Tucson even wants to succeed and form their own state to get away from some of the worst of these policies. However, there’s another side to Arizona. It’s a stark, beautiful, other worldly landscape. There’s a vibrant cultural scene and strong history and everyone I met (who granted were all involved in the arts) were friendly and welcoming and happy to show me another side of Arizona.
Despite being a short flight from Albuquerque, Phoenix felt very different. While Albuquerque quickly receded into the desert, Phoenix’s suburbs sprawled out along palm tree lined avenues. “Who do they think they are, L.A.?” I asked. I wasn’t sure what I would find, but tucked into Phoenix’s sprawl is a vibrant, growing downtown arts scene. It is anchored by the Alwun House, a historic house that presents exhibits and performances of all kinds and takes an active role in the revitalization of the neighborhood. I tried out Carly’s Bistro, a fresh, local culinary establishment that’s open late serving good food and cocktails with a rock and roll feel. Try the whiskey sangria!
Whiskey sangria at Carly's Bistro
Across the river from Phoenix in Tempe is the gleaming Tempe Center for the Arts that presents performing and visual arts, as well as art education programs. During an opening for their exhibition Twenty Questions I even met the grand daughter of the man who founded Tempe – that just shows how new towns and cities in the west are compared to the east.
Artwork in the Twenty Questions exhibition
I didn’t stay in Phoenix long, however, and after a fruitless morning of trying to buy sun hat (are these people in denial they live in the desert or what?) I headed down to the Saguaro National Forest and then to Tucson. I first stopped at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museumto look at living exhibits of native desert plants and animals. I loved the chance to see coyotes, javalinas (they look like wild boars) and a very sleepy brown bear up close, but if you are looking for desert walking I would skip the Desert Museum and go straight to the Saguaro National Forest.
Sign at the Desert Museum
I got there in the afternoon and was happily surprised to find out the park was free thanks to National Parks Week. I talked with a Ranger who recommended a 3-mile hike to the top of a ridge and gave me this warning, “Since you are unfamiliar with the landscape I will warn you to be careful when you are walking down hill during sunset because you don’t want to step on a rattlesnake.” No thanks, I did not!
I had never seen a Saguaro cactus up close before and I could not get enough of them! Their arms! Their spines! Like trees, but not at all! So stoic against the elements!
After a few hours of wandering around among the Saguaros I drove into Tucson and checked into the Hotel Arizona. I had a corner room and could see the sunset over Grant’s Pass.
However, it was Easter Sunday and I was worried, where would I find anything to eat that wasn’t a chain restaurant in downtown Tucson? I asked the teenage front desk clerk and he suggested The Grill, “It’s kind of a greasy spoon…” he explained. Sure, why not. I wandered towards where he suggested and found myself face to face with a classic, American diner. It was as if I had dreamed it. Punk rock, queer teen waiter, great menu, perfect vinyl covered booths, and a hamburger that tasted like it had been homemade, not pulled out of a freezer. Did I mention it was open 24 hours?
I felt like I had been transported into an issue of Puberty Strike zine, published by Seth Bogartin the 1990’s and extoling the virtues and vices of teenage life in Tucson. The Grill felt surely like the place the coolest teens in town would hang out. But now that I’m an adult I needed a drink after all my wandering in the desert. “Do you have a bar?” I asked the waiter, a little desperate because I had seen the hotel bar close at 7:30. “We have a great bar next door, they open at eight.” Was I dreaming?
Death in the Afternoon at the Red Room
After I finished the best hamburger I’ve eaten besides those that SMH makes me I wandered over to the bar. Now I was really dreaming. The Red Room, the bar attached to The Grill has a menu of carefully selected Belgian beers and American microbrews. As I sipped on a perfect blonde ale from Belgium I noticed cocktail making accouterments. “You make cocktails too?” I asked the bartender, “What are the drinks you like making lately?” Once I finished my beer I ordered one that he suggested, the Death in the Afternoon, a mixture of Absinthe, champagne, bitters and soda water, garnished with freshly picked Borage flowers. For $6! I laughed as I paid him, saying, “I live in New York and there this would cost $12!” “No,” he said, “I was just there, it was $14!”
Tools at Bicas
The next day I was treated to a walking tour of Tucson’s rail yards gallery and studio district. I really liked discovering art and radical community projects such as Bicas, a bike recycling and education center, and the Citizens Art collective. I also got to drop in on the intense universe of Mat Bevel, who makes immersive kinetic sculptures out of found objects. When all the sculptures were activated his studio and gallery space was cacophonous and transporting. We also dropped in on Santa Theresa Tile Works, who make gorgeous hand made ceramic tiles, and and Raices Taller, a nonprofit community gallery focused on the Latino/a community (but not only).
Bevel Kinetic Institute
After all that inspiration I was also able to fit in a little bit of thrift store shopping at a richly endowed and modestly priced Goodwill. I don’t even both with the Goodwill stores in NYC, but I knew this one wouldn’t be so picked over. I scored two skirts, a pair of light wash Levi jean shorts that will either be my best fashion addition for the summer or a huge mistake, and a work-appropriate button shirt, all for $20! I also popped into Preen, a beautiful vintage shop that also sells records by local bands and some local fashions. I picked up a vintage Vera scarf that reminded me of a 60’s flight attendant uniform in a good way.
You need a parasol to sheild you from Tucson's strong sun
Street art Zebra in Tucson's rail yards
Finally, to cool off from all the shopping I caught a drink at the lovingly restored Hotel Congress, where I could have stayed all afternoon if I didn’t have to work! Since Tucson was the last stop on my southwest tour I celebrated with a fancy dinner and cocktail at 47 Scott. My drink was infused with sage, which felt like a fitting tribute to the end of an inspiring journey through a (previously) unknown land.
Vagabond cocktail and dinner, 47 Scott
There’s more Arizona on my Flickr stream.