I am in Arizona, again.
Time has been moving strangely with the advent of a new relationship, a new job and the festive season.
When I left England, it was firmly getting a grip on Springtime, snowdrops faltering and daffodils beginning to bloom. Here in Arizona, there are bougainvillaea, yellow daisies, and pansies throwing splashes of colour amidst the dry terrain and spiked green. The weather is that of an English summer starting up, warm breezes and blue skies. I find myself always with a sweater laughably to hand, but am never in need of it.
You can take a grrrl out of England, but you can’t take away a lifetime of chill summers.
Monday morning arrived too soon; Tucson was over. 3 weeks had flown by in what felt like a few days at most. There was just over a week before I departed for England; we were headed for a week in Phoenix, with a detour to visit the Grand Canyon. A big detour. It was a vacation within a vacation for my hosts. A pre-cation?
The car was full to bursting, filled with luggage and supplies, and I could just about squeeze into the nook that would be my base of operations for the next 2 days. When we cornered, I had to brace the suitcases or else end up crushed or concussed. Adventure! Danger! Lunchables!
Our first port of call was the Rock Springs Cafe, home of some mighty impressive looking ‘world famous’ pies. It was breakfast time, so I didn’t have pie (this time). I had biscuits with sausage gravy. I think this marked the last time I had this particular breakfast this trip – I’d eaten it a lot. I mean, it’s not something I can have in the UK unless I make it, and the last time I tried to make white gravy? I’m still horrified by how it turned out. I hope to never speak of it again.
The food and service was good, and the atmosphere of the place was so welcoming and homely. It’s been a traveller’s rest since, like, America happened. Native Americans used the water springs there, and gradually more and more peoples did until someone claimed the land, and started trading there. Apparently lots of the old movie stars used to stop to eat there (it also used to be a hotel). It’s not fancylike, but it’s a perfect example of how a South Western cafe should be – friendly people, all the decor and fittings made of wood, generous portions of tasty comfort food and amazing pies. It’s worth driving the 45 miles north of Phoenix to visit and eat, and if you’re too full for pie, they also sell them to take home. Do not escape without pie, seriously.
This has been sitting as a draft for over 4 months now. I’ll be honest – to finish this account would just end up as vaguely truth-inspired fiction, so I’m drawing a line under it. Further notes for this post included:
“Grand Canyon/Bedrock/party/tequila/[hair/con]/[pasty/coffee]/karaNOke/[bedding/pack up/Texas roadhouse]/flight”
To sum up: Flagstaff was interestingly chilly. Phoenix was okay; I didn’t like when the rental house got invaded by ants. I was sad to go home, but the ant situation helped me care less. I didn’t have a great time at con, and in retrospect would have rather spent another week in Tucson.
Simon had organised a birthday party for me on Saturday, a little ahead of my official one, but the weekend gave people a chance to head over from out of town.
During the day I’d been treated to a visit to Sportsman’s Warehouse, an outdoor pursuits store loaded with guns, kayaks and camo gear. It was a trove of useful and practical and deadly things for activities I’ve never wanted to do, but an interesting chance to see inside American leisure retail.
We had dinner at Sir Veza’s Taco Garage where I learnt that there was only so much alcohol you could order per table at a time. I’m guessing it’s local laws, but at the time it just seemed silly. I opted for vegan tacos on the principle that there’d be no hidden cheese, and I was proved correct, though as I’m lactose intolerant there’s always the fear before any dish arrives that somewhere within lurks horror – especially in the US where pretty much everything is laden with dairy.
Heading back to the house, we proceeded to have what was the longest and most awkward game of Settlers of Catan to round the night off on.
Breakfast proved a revelation in that it was (of course) possible to make breakfast burritos at home – and for breakfast – a double first. I never eat breakfast burritos at breakfast, but I guess I would if the burrito place back home was open earlier. There was the option of real tea as well, but at some point I must have vowed never to pass up fresh coffee at breakfast time, so I didn’t. A perfect and delicious Sunday morning breakfast passed in good company with good conversation, and whilst I was grateful, I knew it would only make it harder when I had to leave town a week later.
The overcast afternoon was spent trawling 4th Ave with Janine, hanging out in coffee shops and visiting the moai tiki at The Hut. The lady at Chocolate Iguana made me an excellent raspberry sorbet slushie as I was coffeed out by that point. We were there to meet a friend’s fiancée as Janine is to officiate their wedding in October. Unlike my escapades in 2011, I won’t be able to attend their wedding, which is about 3 weeks after I leave.
2011 was my first visit to Arizona (as an adult – an afternoon trip to the Grand Canyon in 1994 totally doesn’t count). I came to the state to attend KoLCon – the yearly convention for Kingdom Of Loathing players, held in Mesa.
I was staying with a friend from the game who’d stayed with me during her tour of England a few years back. I was happy to take up her return offer of hospitality and we had a week of adventure culminating in the weekend of the con. She’d introduced me to Janine and Simon when we attended their party. We all got on most excellently, and thus formed my main social group. So excellently, in fact, that by the end of Con, we’d exchanged mailing addresses for Christmas.
Weeks later, back in England, their wedding invitation arrived in the mail and I’d sighed, touched by the sentiment. About a week later, after checking my finances, I’d said to hell with it, put in a holiday request and booked a flight. The lure of good friends, a ridiculous adventure and the best pulled pork I’d ever tasted was too much. (Seriously, I left that party with a redcupful of pork and beans. It was gone before we were even on the highway. I would’ve happily taken the entire tray – I still dream of it.)
Monday was a day of conversations; a long story, filled with sighs.
Tuesday, my actual birthday, was a simple affair: playing more Diablo 3 and ending with a birthday dinner of steaks and sweet potato. I’d been left unattended for the day; everyone was at work. I walked to the nearest Circle K and bought myself a ridiculously sized self-serve beverage – Diet Dr.Pepper with cherry and vanilla shots. I’ll never get over a 44oz (2.2pt) drink for under a dollar (60p). It tastes like Arctic roll. There’d been a bunch of fancy dinners recently, and an easy day to gather my thoughts and slay demons was spot on. I drifted off to sleep listening to the trains in the distance.
Wednesday was a day of manic writing fuelled by leftover bagels from a work conference Janine had attended. The afternoon marked the start of her vacation time, so we ran some errands and bought taco fixings for dinner. Debate still rages over whether 5 tacos is a reasonable amount to consume. I say yes. She disagrees and thought I was going to die. Star Trek: Into Darkness is still enjoyable upon 4th watch, it turns out.
Thursday was a day that started with the gym, and salad for lunch. All-you-can-eat salad that is. I fought shy of having a third baked sweet potato, but I’m not actually sure why. I can eat a lot of sweet potatoes. I could eat them until I was sick, I love them sooooo much. There was also what looked like strawberry Angel Delight, but it was zingy. ZINGY.
Taking advantage of my hosts, I roped them into playing hairdresser. Simon gave my undercut a very close shave and Janine did the colouring, because I don’t have eyes in the back of my head and it’s really awkward.
Friday night was magical; shy glances,
By Saturday night, I was fully into the swing of ‘Murica. We went out for barbecue, ordered greasy trays of meat, sauce and fries. I wore a skort patterned with camouflage colourings. I drank lite beer. I took charge.
Sunday was a day for packing and saying goodbye to local friends. Even with the internet and all its wonders, a year can feel more like an age to not see people you like. Brunch was had and tokens of affection were given. Whilst affairs were pleasant, the day was subdued throughout. I managed to cram all the trinkets I’d accumulated into my luggage, barely, and settled down for a last night of restless sleep in Tucson.
Monday was Labor Day proper – Bank Holiday Monday in the USA. Had I not known, the only way I would have been able to tell something was up was the large SALE banners, inflatables and A-boards that decorated every roof and doorway. Everything was open as usual, and desperate for my dollars. They didn’t get them.
We took lunch at Taco Bell, a chain that holds my wonder and respect through winning the Franchise Wars. I had the Dorito flavoured tacos and a Caramel Apple Empanada, a tiny Cornish pasty-shaped pastry with the texture of a McDonalds apple pie. Tasty.
We headed to the mall to find some footwear that was neither Doc Martens nor flipflops – a small gap created by the death of my favourite travelling shoes. The mission was a bust, but in our wanderings I got to see that American fashion has fair crossover with that in the UK, and that both sides of the pond are suffering from the unpalatable influx of ‘Geek Chic’. Shudder.
On Tuesday we made a beeline to Zia Record Exchange to pick up the new Nine Inch Nails CD for Janine. General consensus is that it’s a grower; I need to give it another listen or two. The record store was dark and interesting, very much an independent store and a trove of interesting new and second-hand stock.
A trip to the gym revealed the wonder of cinema areas, where movies are shown on a big screen in front of a few rows of cardio machines – bikes, treadmills, elliptical trainers. Ingenious. We zoned out watching the end of Here Comes The Boom and then headed home for the afternoon, giving me time to get ready for my date that evening.
I had dinner and cocktails in excellent company at The Parish, a local restaurant/bar (‘southern fusion gastropub’) with walls clad in renderings of jazz musicians. I had a plate of Guedry’s gumbo, a spicy chicken and sausage stew which was delicious, accompanied by ‘hushpuppies’ which were entirely new to me and like tiny onion bhajis filled with cornmeal. The Aqua Vita was also particularly good – a vodka cocktail with mint, peach, cranberry and lemon. How rare to have a meal so completely unfamiliar.
The next morning saw a sudden end to the shoe quest when I just walked into a shop and simply bought some. Hurrah. I hate shoe shopping. And clothes shopping. Just shopping, I guess; except food shopping – that’s tasty.
I had my first Cinnabon experience with a dish in which the still beating hearts of cinnamon rolls are plucked out and tossed into a cup, then doused in sticky sea salted caramel sauce and stabbed with a fork. A fine breakfast indeed. I have no idea what became of the rest of Wednesday, maybe I just slept through the rest of it?
Thursday was another gym day, and this time I was distracted by the dubious special effects of Clash of the Titans. Until, that is, I saw Diablo 3 (XBox) in a Redbox as we breezed into Walmart. $2.00 for 2 days of playing kick ass heroes, demon slaying and marvelling at strange autogen loot drops? How could we not!
Simon and I played it for the next 2 days, in between groceries and chores, making the most of his last days off before starting his new job the following Monday. It seems, naturally, very much like the PC version, but with interfaces/inventory geared towards console interaction with an interesting directional target/direction of fire indicator (for the Demon Hunter at least); I had wondered how it was going to work without being able to hold down the shift key (all the goddamn time).
We took a break to head to Buffalo Wild Wings for boneless wings night, a concept I was initially sceptical of until I discovered that boneless wings are not even wings, they’re just battered chicken pieces. Easy. No hospital required this time.
From a menu of about 20 sauces, I figured ‘When in Rome…’ and went for a tray with the medium hot Classic wings sauce, a tray of fried pickles with Southwestern Ranch and a pint of Bud Light. Oh yeah!
The place was busy because of the specials but also, being a sports bar, a game was on TV. Several TVs. Dozens of TVs.
Friday night I had another date. We went to the cinema to see Riddick, after a circuitous exploration of Tucson looking for a Redbox machine to return the game to. My failure to declare this immediately as the first quest of the evening was (hopefully) negated by my sharp-eyed ‘box hunting, meaning we got seated in the theatre JUST IN TIME (avec beverage). The movie itself was an interesting what-happens-next in the Riddick universe. Most people we spoke to later figured it would be a prequel, but screw that noise. I had a minor misgiving with the characterisation, but that could be down to personal interpretation. Other than that it was curious and enjoyable.
For the second time that week I found myself in a sports bar, but I figured this is a nation of sports bars, and we were more hungry than in need of fancy when it came to grabbing a late, late dinner. I went against type and had a salad. Yeah, I don’t know either. It was good though, lemon & chicken & something & something. The beer menu was pretty extensive, but I’d not been looking it for long before I came across the outrage of Snakebite, American style. My inner Goth wailed; what was this travesty? Snakebite being the base for all my favourite beer cocktails, I felt bewildered. Guinness? Americans have lager; why the substitution? I appreciated I’d never get a Snakebite & Black – Americaland doesn’t believe in blackcurrant as a flavour; purple means grape here. Sighing, I moved on.
Some promotion meant that there was vaguely credible beer on special (Mudshark’s ‘Scorpion’), so I had beer and salad. I am still amused.
We moved on and drank at a local bar until the early hours, taking a table with his friends in the beer garden and watching the distant lightning flit in a hazy, indistinct cloud bank. Pitchers of beer came and went, whiskey was sampled, energy drinks were nursed. I made friends, acquaintances; answered questions from the obscure to the mundane and back again; swapped tales of travel and adventure.
I felt welcome.
Swept away by my kind and eager hosts, Simon and Janine, we headed to Cracker Barrel to properly anchor myself in Americaland by scarfing down chicken-fried chicken & fistfuls of biscuits surrounded by old-timey Americana. Also, broccoli with lemon. Lemon? I wasn’t sure either, but that’s how it came, so that’s how I ate it. Tangy broccoli is not going to rewrite my eating habits, I can assure you.
There we met Marc, later to become known as Uncle Marc, who proved good company and conversation, regaling us with tales of Bearizona and off-road adventuring. We’d been at the same party a year before, but only really met when I crawled back to the house at 5am after an extra-curricular excursion, nearly tripping over him on the fold-out guest bed before I collapsed on the couch for a pre-flight snooze.
After saying our goodbyes to Marc, we headed towards Tucson – my place of residence for the next 3 weeks.
The next day consisted of pottering around town picking up essentials and reacquainting myself with the lay of the land. Luncheon at a Chinese buffet that also served sushi managed not to melt my head too much, and the delightful melange of carbs and fat helped balance me out after the previous day of erratic and temporally confused meals.
Trawling Walmart, Target and even the dedicated party stores, it appeared I was a little too early to get in on the Hallowe’en act, despite the usual vigour displayed in such matters. I was too early even for the Americans. Maybe we’d have to get through Labor Day first?
Thursday was spent relaxing and running more errands, stocking up on supplies for the Labor Day holiday weekend. We brunched at the Tucson branch of Bisbee Breakfast Club to celebrate Simon’s new job, and I had the Copper Queen Skillet, my usual (sans cheese, natch).
I spent the afternoon formatting partitions, reinstalling Windows and backing up what functional parts of my hard drive remained. My backup drive in England had croaked the day before I flew out, but a serenity had fallen upon me, knowing there was nothing I could do about it then, and no point worrying about it any time soon.
Marc arrived Friday night, and Simon made a divine soup for dinner ahead of an early night for us all.
Saturday was to be a day of true adventure and contrast – off-roading in air conditioned comfort with a trunk of bottled water and sandwiches. The terrain was harsh and dry – we were deep in desert near the top of mountains – and even the native pools and waterfalls were bare trickles. Turtles snapped in shallow pools and tadpoles sheltered under what slimy shade they could find.
A monsoon-in-potentia lurked ominously over a nearby mountaintop, threatening to fill those pools and take us away in a life-giving (and taking) flash flood, but our luck held out and we made it up hill and down dale and back again with no such incident.
We did, however, get a flat tire, change said tire, rescue a stuck vehicle (whose owner was previously sneering at our more commercial chariot) then got wedged on a rock in a minor landslide as our car began a decent.
We were fine, the vehicle was fine, pride was a little bruised but smoothed over soon enough by a round of frozen custard and bacon burgers at a nearby Culver’s.
I managed to get a spiky caterpillar on me without noticing until my arm started stinging and raising in intricate welts. Caterpillar Peril, indeed.
Sunday, we held a barbecue for friends and family, and I got to catch up with people I’d not seen for a year. This was my first Labor Day celebration and a suitably mellow affair with burgers, beers and watermelon.
Sure the USA gets a lot of stick for giving the world a plethora of light and watery beers, but the craft beer scene has really been taking off over here for the past few years. I knew I wouldn’t be subjected to a steady diet of Bud Light, and sure enough my ex-pat host provided Newcastle Brown, and before long the cooler was stocked with Samuel Adams and New Belgium’s Rolle Bolle, new to me but damn tasty.
Plans were made for the forthcoming week; giddiness kicked in and I headed to bed, a tipsy and joyous mess.
So, I made the call, booked the flights, arranged accommodation and jumped on a plane.
Currently waiting in Philadelphia Airport nursing a Dr. Pepper.
One pretzel dog is never enough, but it’s all they had. Ho hum.
So unfortunately I ran out of money before I could arrange my great train adventure.
Unperturbed however, I still arranged my great voyage overseas to the wondrous desert, Arizona; my adopted State.
Adventure awaited, unbound by the restriction of tracks.
There were still a lot of decisions to be made, but one thing was certain – it was time for an adventure.
An exploratory trip to the Edinburgh Fringe seemed in order. After forays into new social groups, it turned out I knew a fair bunch of people going there, more than a few who were running their own shows. Coupled with a new found freedom in my schedule and a little residual cash from a previous employment, it was on like Donkey Kong.
What happened next was that I finally got around to reading an acquaintance’s book; this’ll get me in the mood for travel, I thought.
It turned out they’d already done just what I was planning to do with my trip – travelling around the USA on the magic rail ticket and just seeing what was out there.
Bugger, I thought. Bother and damnation.
Then, what happened after that was that I simply got over it. Sure, it’s a bit odd to do a very similar thing, but the motivation and manner were different, and no two adventures are the same. Everything would be fine; it was just an unfortunately timed discovery.
Variables. Excitement. Adventure.
It was time to get planning.
I have always relied on the kindness of strangers. That is how I’ve had the great fortune to make many friends.
Sometimes, all I’ve been able to repay them with is friendship. Mostly, that’s enough. A few people earnt my undying loyalty.
A long time ago, I used to be a well-liked figure on an internet radio station for an online game. I was popular because whilst the music I played was often excellent, if I do say so myself, it was mostly because I had a quirky profile picture and an English accent. I was (am) a girl who played games.
This left me with a tangible network of friends all over the states, from fellow DJ’s to listeners who seemed to be genuinely nice people.
Back in the day, I had plenty of invites to visit people, offers of spare rooms and places to visit in towns I’d never been to. I’d never had the money, or the confidence to travel alone.
Now, 6 years on, I’d decided to take up those offers. After all, I’d repay them with tales of travel in a fancy accent. Having been to the last 2 incidences of the yearly convention held in Phoenix, Arizona, I figured my chances were good. I’d gotten used to solo travel, no longer felt so out of place eating alone in bars and restaurants, and was well on the way to travelling light, even if I rarely did.
After an exciting but short-lived project ended, I had time on my hands. I also had most of the cost of a plane ticket to PHX. What I’d really wanted to do the first time I went over to the States was to ride a train. One of those massive, hulking, hurtling monsters, miles long and blowing that familiar whistle as they pelted through tiny towns heading for sleeping prairies. They’d sounded just like in movies the first time I’d heard one, floating in on an ineffectual breeze at 5am in a stuffy rental cottage in Mesa. They still do.
I didn’t ride one that time. Nor the next time. Just took some snaps and imagined what it might be like to ride the box cars just as the romanticized visions of hobos did.
A friend visiting from North Carolina had bought a magic rail ticket which meant she could travel the British isles for ridiculously cheap. I’d already discovered that the USA already had their own in kind, but once again, I’d never had the time. I’d always thought it would be cars or greyhounds that took me on a tour of the states, but why had I never thought about taking a train?
I remembered that there had been few real routes and that the network of trains wasn’t really like ours. Public transport was often lacking. The car was king.
I couldn’t drive. That wasn’t an option for me. It would be expensive and I couldn’t do it anyway. I was getting a train. Trains.
An adventurer was me.