On the way to Arizona, MLH was thrilled to stop at the Date Farm Oasis in Thermal, California, and see where all those dates he buys in Canada come from. We had a date tasting just like a wine tasting. Date palms are not native to California, and so the various dates were all introduced from the Middle East. The town of Thermal has an Arabian Nights Festival every year, just like the Apple Blossom Festival in the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia, except this festival queen is dressed in a belly-dancing costume, the men wear a fez, and they import camels for the event. It must be quite a sight.
We knew we were in Arizona when we saw saguaro cacti, the ones on the Arizona licence plate, which looks like a man reaching up to the sky. The sports cars gave way to more relaxed trucks and SUVS and licence plates reading:
X NY ER
IAMLATE (we kept away from this one)
The firearms notices on office and restaurant doors hinted at the differences between ‘blue’ California and ‘red’ Arizona. They warned of fines if you brought your unlicensed gun onto the premises. Diversity in the population dropped dramatically. Arizona is 85% white and does not have many support systems for immigrants.
We spent a week in Phoenix, Arizona. To be honest, we spent most of the week trying to stay cool. We seem to take our own heat wave with us wherever we go, and temperatures were ten degrees Celsius higher than normal. Although I am happy to live through intense heat simply for the experience; I found it’s a lot like the depths of January in Nova Scotia. You spend your time looking for sheltered parking for the car; rushing from heated/cooled home to heated/cooled office to heated/cooled shops and back again. There’s the frantic check you have appropriate gear before you leave: hat, water/gloves, sunscreen/lip balm, umbrella/shovel. Extreme weather in an urban setting is antisocial. We only got to speak to locals because we were staying in a complex with a pool, otherwise everywhere we went outside was deserted. Phoenix is the most modern city we have visited, and it is built for cars. It takes 30 seconds to walk across an intersection. The streets are so wide.
The residents thought we were crazy to be visiting the Cactus Garden and walking around the upscale Arts District in Scottsdale during a dust and thunderstorm (with no rain). They were right. When we got back to the car after two hours learning about cacti, the thermometer showed 120 F, 53 C and MLH got a burn when he put his elbow on the black car console. How the dedicated botanists who collected all the cacti samples did it, I do not know. It was fascinating to learn about how the plants grow, store water and shelter animals and humans. The regal scrolled palm saguaro was my favourite.
The next day we retreated to the vast and air-conditioned Musical Instrument Museum. This is a new museum and very well laid out. There were absorbing exhibits about musical instruments from around the world, about the origins of bluegrass, jazz and hip-hop music, and a whole section on Cape Breton fiddle music. It gave me a strange jolt to see an old clip of Ashley MacIsaac (a well-known/infamous Nova Scotian pop-Celtic star) fiddling away at a kitchen ceilidh. In one section you could play some instruments. We had a superb time plucking harps, bashing Mongolian cymbals, beating Japanese drums, and strumming banjos. Every child (or adult) should have the chance to do that. By now MLH was a little worried I was going to take up playing the ukulele or something – it’s small! It’s portable! We will be instantly popular wherever we travel! He steered me to our second favourite room, the Mechanical Music Gallery, featuring instruments such as pianolas which play on their own. At noon, they grandly played a 25-foot-wide Orchestrion from The Netherlands named “Apollonia”.
On the weekend, Phoenix residents head for one of the canyon lakes formed when the Roosevelt Dam was built in 1920. We followed suit and spent a day exploring Canyon Lake, about an hour North of the city. There was lots of water skiing and motor boating going on, but we got away from the noise by renting a kayak and setting off down one of the flooded canyons. After the requisite five minutes of bickering about who was going to steer (single kayaks from NOW ON); we had a peaceful paddle past boaters fishing for bass and wandered in and out of the reddish rocks lined with bright green reeds. Birds, ground animals, butterflies, and huge dragonflies buzzed about between the cactus plants and the little mesquite trees on the banks.
On the way back to Phoenix we stopped at Goldfield, a gold mining ghost town preserved as a tourist sight, complete with cowboys’ church, jail, bordello and saloon. In the saloon, three employees dressed in cowboy hats and boots and with handguns on their hips, were talking animatedly over coffee; in Arabic! They were Lebanese, chatting about cars and the church. MLH laughed, because a Lebanese friend of his says that if you went to the far side of the moon, you would find some Lebanese men chatting over coffee. Usually they would not be dressed as cowboys though.
Refreshed and restored, we were ready for the long desert drive pushing East. You must go across vast empty spaces whether you are on the Prairies or the Arizonan desert. We decided to break the journey in Tucson, Arizona. We had some time to kill before checking in and so stopped at Biosphere 2. This is an extraordinary place, a bit like an abandoned space ship. It was built in the 1980s to conduct an experiment where eight people were sealed into the dome for two years to see if they could sustain themselves. They did, but they didn’t like each other very much by the end of that time. Tucson was not a hip place on a Monday night, but we ate at the oldest Mexican restaurant in the United States. El Charro is a subversive joint which somehow avoids Federal Drug and Agriculture rules and dries beef in brine in cages on the restaurant roof and then serves it in lime juice. Fortifying stuff for our next couple of days in Texas on the Mexican border.