This is part of a writing I did some time ago about a solo trip I took to Arizona in 2018. Read part 1 here.
I wake up feeling fairly well rested on Tuesday the 9th. I grab my things and let myself into the main house at Scot’s place using the code I was given. Tentatively looking around, I find the bathroom and take a shower and clean myself up for the day. On my way out of the house, I bump into Scot himself and have a brief chat with him. He's a professor at the nearby University, and a life coach. I assure him that my accommodation was more than satisfactory before heading back to my little space.
Today I have a long drive ahead of me to Flagstaff, and I’ve never driven in Arizona, or anywhere nearly as large as Phoenix in my life. I snack on a couple of granola bars before packing my things up and hailing yet another Lyft ride, this one with Ray, to take me to the Enterprise Rent-A-Car nearby. I check in and pick up my first ever rental car and settle my bags into it and get accustomed to it. It’s a white Nissan Altima with remote start and all the other goodies. I have one last stop here in Phoenix before leaving, and I put the Desert Botanical Gardens into my phone’s GPS and set off cautiously for my first experience driving in Phoenix.
I arrive at the destination in one piece and find parking, breathing a sigh of relief as I put the car in park, and walk to the gate. Admission is free on the second Tuesday of every month and I’ve scheduled my trip to conveniently take advantage of this and I enter the beautiful park.
Being fairly early in the morning, the weather is gorgeous as I start to wander in and out of the rows of various desert plants. This place is astounding. So many desert plants to see. I don’t even remember most of them. My finger throbs a bit today from the invasive procedure of the night before, but when I sprayed it and bandaged it this morning, all looked well with no signs of infection. I wander about aimlessly for a while despite having a map because I simply don’t know where to begin.
I see yucca, saguaro, prickly pear, agave, and many other plants I do recognize and more that I don’t. Row after row. I find an enormous mesquite tree, with branches drooping almost to the ground forming a sort of shady umbrella. I stand under it and try out the panorama feature of my Pixel 2, for the first of what will be many times on this trip. I push on, often backtracking on myself, seeing the same amazing sights again and not even caring.
Finally though, I do pull out my map to find where I haven’t been yet, so that I can see it and get back on the road before too late in the day. My last stop is a high hilltop overlooking both Phoenix and the rest of the park. A park guide I talk to for directions tells me to keep my eyes peeled for animal prints in the concrete at the top. In his words, the park planners “didn’t communicate too well with the locals” when pouring the concrete. I find what he means at the top and snap a few pictures of a huge array of tiny footprints scurrying every which way across the cement sidewalk. I take a stunning panorama around the top of the hill, capturing Phoenix far below and the rest of the park behind me before making my way back down and heading to my car.
I set my destination to Flagstaff in my phone’s GPS and slowly and cautiously set off. Phoenix traffic isn’t as bad as I feared it might be, but it’s also late morning. I drive white-knuckled through town anxiously looking forward to hitting the interstate and getting out of the city.
Finally, I hear the female voice of the GPS on my phone announce that I’m on the interstate. With nearly two and a half hours of driving ahead of me without turning or leaving the interstate, I start to relax a bit. I settle in a few miles down the interstate, merging in and out of the lanes, and it feels very similar to driving on I-80 back home.
I eventually turn my audiobook back on and listen while I drive. Looking out my windows, I see the typical desert landscape slowly changing as I drive further north. Outside of Phoenix, thousands upon thousands of saguaro and other desert plants I’ve just seen at the Botanical Gardens slowly fade away as the terrain becomes rockier, and the elevation climbs higher. I notice sign after sign, informing me that I’ve climbed another 1000 feet in elevation on my journey north. Phoenix lies at just over 1000 feet above sea level, Flagstaff on the other hand, lies over a mile higher at nearly 7000 feet. The air is definitely thinner at that elevation.
Somewhere around the halfway point, I see signs for a scenic lookout and rest stop and I pull off the road to get out of the car and stretch and look around. I enjoy my small rental car, but it wasn’t built for my size and I have great difficulty getting in and out of the small cabin. I take a bathroom break, enjoy the scenery with a few other people for a bit, before squeezing back into the car and pushing on. The cacti have given way to thick forest now and it doesn't even feel like I'm still in Arizona. As I approach Flagstaff, I start thinking about food. It’s mid afternoon, but all I’ve eaten today was a couple of granola bars. Coming into town, I spot a sign for a restaurant chain we don’t have in Nebraska, but that I’ve heard about from a friend in California and I make a beeline to Del Taco. It lives up to expectations as delicious, fast Mexican cuisine and I’m glad I came.
My next stop brings me to the far end of Flagstaff, and up the winding switchback roads up to the top of Mars Hill where the Lowell Observatory lies. It doesn't disappoint. I park in the lot and step out into the cool, crisp high-altitude air and make my way stiffly toward the visitor’s center to pay admission.
I’ve come early enough that I hope to be able to catch the solar program where you can actually look at the sun through a telescope with a special filter on it. Much to my disappointment, when I get inside I’m told that due to clouds, the program will likely be canceled for today, but I can wait around for the official call. I go to the gift shop to kill some time. While wandering the aisles of assorted tourist collectibles, I spot a compass on a shelf and like a child, can’t resist playing with it. I distort magnetic north and south using my new magnetic superpower for a few minutes before growing bored watching the needle whip back and forth. The solar program is officially canceled, but the woman running the counter offers to write a note on my receipt letting me come back tomorrow for the show without paying admission again, which I appreciate.
In lieu of the outside show, a solar program is held indoors talking about the sun, and the presenter mentions that due to there not being any real sunspots or storms right now, the sun is pretty boring through a telescope anyway at the moment. I learn some other fascinating things about our star though, and afterward, make my way outside to wander the grounds.
I visit the Rotunda Museum full of old astronomy equipment, and make my way to the top of the hill to the huge main telescope. It’s closed now, but will be open later tonight and I’m definitely planning to come back. The sun is setting as I’m heading down and I’m stopped by a fantastic view between some trees overlooking Flagstaff with the colors of the sunset in the sky. I snap a couple of pictures to try to remember it. I enjoy the fresh air for a while longer, wandering the historic property before returning to my car to find my Airbnb for the night.
Anna’s place is a few miles outside of Flagstaff, and after a bit of confusion with my GPS, I find the place, and am thankful I’ve come here in the daylight first. Anna’s place is a wonderful acreage that she shares with her husband, several sons, and a couple of dogs. I didn’t get the chance to meet any of them during my stay unfortunately. My lodging is a sort of guest room that looks like it has been added onto the main house at some point. I have a large bed to myself, a wide counter top and sink and my own bathroom as well. I put my things away and relax for a bit in the room. I also love the name they have given the place: "Peaks View Bag End".
After dark, I hop back into my rental car and head back into Flagstaff and wind my way back up Mars Hill to the Lowell Observatory again for night viewing. I attend a couple of programs that are running at night, and then make my way to the big telescope. Once the line advances enough for me to make it inside the historic building, I find myself inside an enormous round wooden room. A few dim red lights are scattered about, providing just enough light to keep from tripping, but only just. The ceiling vaults high above me, and the huge panels are open to the night sky now.
A bright flash blinks and startles me as a fellow tourist takes a photo, and immediately a chorus of employees voices ring out reprimanding her for her action, telling her in no uncertain terms that flash photography is forbidden as it will ruin others’ night vision. It doesn't happen again.
When it is finally my turn to look, I step down the wooden stairs into the lower center of the room, and peer through the eyepiece. I wish I could remember what the telescope was focused on, but in the excitement I don't commit it to memory. I think it was a distant star cluster, but I can’t remember which. It is a wonderful view though, and I struggle to wrap my mind around what I am seeing and just how far away it really is. I marvel at the technology of the mirrors and lenses in the telescope and how simple the concept really is but how wonderfully it works. Then my turn is over and I move on to let another look. I move ahead and out the side door into the cool night again.
On my way down the hill back to the visitor center, I’m stopped by a magnificent view overlooking Flagstaff from the top of Mars Hill. I stop to look and take a couple of pictures of the city lights in the dark night from the same vantage point I watched the sunset from a couple of hours ago. I wander around a bit longer and poke my head into another presentation or two before heading back to my car and driving back to my Airbnb for the night.
Outside of Flagstaff, where Anna’s house is, it’s pitch black. There are a couple of yard lights but even they hardly touch the blackness. I appreciate this, because even though I need my phone light just to get from my car, parked behind the shed up to my guest room, I can see a million stars over my head. I can even see the band of the Milky Way galaxy stretched over my head with my naked eyes. I nearly trip on a paving stone looking up at it and refocus on my walking and head inside for a much needed rest.
Read part 3 here.