Behind us was Tucson and three days of living like old-time movie stars at the glamorous Arizona Inn, a hideaway in the heart of one of the nation’s funkiest university towns. Ahead of us were the mystical red rocks of Sedona and, as the trip’s headliner, the Grand Canyon.
We were in the middle of Arizona, however, when I understood that we were on a family vacation to remember, one that my wife and I would cherish and one that our soon-to-be-teenage son would certainly tell his children about.
What makes for a great family vacation? It’s more than the sights seen or adventures endured. It’s a feeling of cohesion and shared discovery, surprises and simple pleasures.
I first experienced this in 1976 with a drive east from Kansas City in a Ford LTD to celebrate the country’s bicentennial. I saw our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., for the first time, then was on to Philadelphia where the Declaration of Independence was signed and the Constitution crafted, and finally we pulled into New York City where the tall ships were gathered in the harbor.
The memory of that journey was triggered, of all things, by an In-N-Out burger or, more specifically, Jack’s wide-eyed look of joy as he bit into this storied fast food for the first time. He had already trekked through the desert and been introduced to mountain oysters (more on that later) by a pair of Tucson natives with storytelling skills that equaled their pride in their hometown.
His enthusiastic appetite transported me back to one of the highlights of my trip: eating ice cream at the long-gone Howard Johnson’s at 46th Street and Broadway. The Times Square characters and seedy landscape surrounding us were intoxicating to a Midwestern boy. Likewise, the desert, its coyotes and tall tales about the American West were now transporting a Manhattan kid to a world he had only seen in textbooks.
Better, the three of us were sharing these firsts together, milestones made even sweeter by the fact that we would be celebrating my son’s 13th birthday later in the week.
I wish I could say this was because of meticulous planning. The Drapes, unfortunately, don’t roll that way. The truth was that I had a commitment in Tucson that overlapped with my son’s winter school break. Only a couple of weeks out did my wife, Mary, remind me that we’d be traveling for my son’s birthday.
Trust me: Good things can happen to those who make it up as they go.
The first bit of magic was scoring a room at the Arizona Inn, which landed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. With its rouge-tile-roofed casitas hidden among orange trees and moated by roses, the resort oozes Old World elegance from the handmade furniture in its rooms to a postcard-perfect badminton court.
It was built in 1930 by Isabella Greenway, Arizona’s first congresswoman, and remains family owned. Genuine stars such as Gary Cooper, Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant once were regulars.
Most guests rarely venture off its 14 acres, whiling away their day poolside or reading on a chaise longue in their walled off patio or taking high tea in the inn’s library. We, however, headed out mainly to absorb a city that moves at its own languid pace. No one is in much of a hurry here — not University of Arizona students, and not the snow birds (largely of the Midwestern and Canadian variety).
It was Tucson’s desert moonscape and Old West roots that we were most interested in. We found the former at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum ($21.95 admission for adults, $8.95 for those ages 3 to 12), which really is more preserve than museum as most of its 100-acre exhibit space is outside and along two miles of trails.
It’s a living Intro to the Desert class. Its animal collection contains 4,892 specimens of 242 species. Hits were the javelina (a not very attractive feral pig), bighorn sheep and the gray fox. Its plants number 56,445 specimens. Think all kinds of cactus. Mineral and fossil collections count 16,853 specimens.
We found our real inner cowboy at the Mountain Oyster Club, thanks to Wendy Davis, the director of the University of Arizona’s Racetrack Industry Program. We know each other from the racetrack, one of the more eclectic journalism beats I've enjoyed for two decades.The private club is named, tongue-firmly-placed-in-cheek, for what some believe is a delicacy: Bull testicles. In fact, by inverting “Oyster” and turning the “M,” upside down, the club created an illustrative logo: OW!
The mountain oysters come fried and served with a cocktail sauce and are served throughout the Southwest (you can find them at El Corral, one of Tucson’s oldest restaurants).
I liked them. They were a non-starter, however, with Mary and Jack.
“There are many colorful stories of how the Mountain Oyster Club came to be. There is probably a thread of truth in most of them,” according to the club history on its website. “The most common versions say that it was begun by a group of cowboys, playboys, ranchers, polo players, racehorse types, and others whose unacceptable behavior had gotten them thrown out of all of the respectable establishments in Tucson.”
Along with a sense of humor, the Mountain Oyster Club — founded in 1948 — serves up an impressive collection of Western art, not only on its walls, but also in an annual show in November that is open to the public.
The club’s stark landscapes and portraits of lonesome cowboys are a source of pride for Ms. Davis, a Tucson native, who like her husband, Brett,is a flesh-and-blood ambassador for modern Western life.
Both are accomplished horsemen and work cattle on the weekends at a friend’s ranch. Each is deadeye with a gun — a good skill to have when rattlesnakes make their way into your home. Both have spent many a night beneath the stars in a state where 85 percent of the land is public forest and park land, in a state trust or part of Native American reservations.
“We are fortunate that much of the state still looks a lot like how those who originally came here found it,” Ms. Davis said.
It’s not often you can balance the mythical with the mystical, but our trek three and a half hours north to Sedona did just that. As I have written before in an article about a journey to New Zealand: “No one will ever mistake me for Bear Grylls, and I know that the Wild is going to beat this Man every time.”
Still, I have embraced the sport of hiking at the behest of my nature-loving wife and son, and I thought a stop to explore the town’s red rocks might satisfy our back-to-nature pangs as well as my desire for a hot tub, spa, bar and, well, civilization.
Boning up in a hurry on a destination is so much easier these days with smartphones and YouTube. To prepare for our bicentennial trip, my siblings and I spent weeks in advance cracking the spines of the World Book encyclopedia.
In the YouTube world, there is no such authority. You have to be discerning and/or gullible because the informational videos tell you Sedona is either a) a sacred place dotted by “vortexes,” or swirling centers of energy where healing and inspiration occur or b) J.F.K. Airport for intergalactic travelers buzzing with U.F.O.’s and those who want to see them.
The Red Rock Scenic Byway, the gateway to the region, offers the first dose of this otherworldliness in the rock formations that line the roadways. You see what you want to see, mostly: Long-faced soldiers standing sentinel, layered pyramids and totem poles. Some, of course, are aptly named: Cathedral Rock, Bell Rock and Devil’s Bridge.
It was late afternoon when we pulled into the Hilton Sedona Resort at Bell Rock and after making sure all my needs were met — hot tub, spa and bar all in place — the concierge gave us trail maps and sent us off on a short drive to Cathedral Rock for a sunset hike. It was perfect — a short but fairly steep ascent of its eastern slope.
This was February and the state was in the midst of a cold spell, but we were comfortable in our fleeces, and watching the sun set was ethereal. We had climbed in near silence and remained that way. We were atop the trail for sunset and it was like watching the lights being dimmed on Mars.
We got more ambitious the following morning, hiking the Courthouse Butte Loop, an invigorating four-mile route with a shifting landscape. There are juniper and agave and desert gardens. Sheer walls give way to spider web crevices. The thin layer of ice on the washes sparkled in the sunshine, and occasionally a covey of birds exploded from beneath the brush, adding cymbals to an otherwise easy listening classical movement.
Alas, during our nighttime excursions, we failed to see a single unidentified flying object.
But Sedona offers an excellent range of earthly delights, especially when it comes to filling the stomach after a soul-satisfying day on the rocks.
Whenever I am in the Southwest, I stay with the native food — Mexican or Southwestern — since it is the one cuisine New York chefs have not been able to do authentically.Their mole is too chocolate-y. Their cheese too often congeals rather than melts into an enchilada.
The Coffee Pot is a must stop either pre- or posthike for breakfast or lunch. It boasts an expansive and inexpensive menu with 101 different kind of omelets (PB&J with banana anyone?) as well as a full range of diner food and my beloved Mexican dishes. Their enchiladas were a perfectly blend of cheese and chicken smothered (not soaked) in a savory red sauce.
The chef and owner Jeff Smedstad’s travels across Oaxaca, Veracruz and Puebla pay off in an assortment of entrees like the chicken chilaquiles (smoked chicken and tortillas simmered in guajillo sauce) and a vegetable relleno with seared vegetables and apples, pecans, pumpkin seeds and pepita crema.(Be ready to stand in line, though, the Elote Café does not accept reservations.)
All week, I had been worried about our Grand Canyon excursion. I felt that I was cheating the whole family. Did a day trip really do it justice? The summer rafting trips through the canyon on the Colorado River are highly recommended, but they are booked through 2019. Besides, it was winter. Another option, riding a mule down to the bottom and back, was as appetizing as mountain oysters for Jack and Mary.
I need not have worried.
It was Mary who suggested I book a trip through one of the more famous Arizona brands, Pink Jeep Tours, a company that, since 1960, has been zipping people around on- and off-road in, yes, pink jeeps.
It was well worth the $494 price tag for all three of us. Our guide, Jeff Dana, picked us up at our hotel in a Mercedes coach at 7:30 a.m. and was nothing but informative and funny right up to returning us at 4:45 p.m. There were 10 of us altogether and Mr. Dana was a true pro, with insightful patter on everything, including the history and customs of the Navajos, whose land we were crossing on our 90-minute drive to the star attraction.
Once at the canyon, Mr. Dana’s storytelling put us alongside Captain García López de Cárdenas and his Spanish soldiers, relying on Hopi guides and stumbling upon the canyon when they were searching for the Seven Cities of Gold. Mr. Dana made harrowing and concrete the challenges that Army Maj. John Wesley Powell faced as he led his expedition in 1869. Mr. Dana explained the canyon’s geology and timeline and where it fit in Native American culture and lore. He not only knew what he was talking about, but his passion for history and nature was genuine: He spoke of his own experiences hiking down the canyon and camping at the bottom.
The Grand Canyon itself does not disappoint.
There are the facts: 277 miles long, up to 18 miles wide and over a mile deep. Then there is the sheer awe that washes over you.
Standing on its lip, it looks like God’s footprint. It well could be. Some of the rocks along its walls are nearly 2 billion years old. Late in the morning, the faded hues of red and beige and orange at first looked freshly hand-drawn rather than chiseled over time. In the early afternoon, the walls morphed into deeper reds and more gilded golds. Later still, blues blended with purples and greens.
For nearly six hours, we drifted from lookout point to lookout point never getting bored with what we were seeing.We took a few of the requisite photographs, but mostly we each withdrew into ourselves. Mary and I stole glances at Jack, who took it all in with a focus usually reserved for his epic Fortnite battles.
We were quiet, serene even. This was a sacred place and I was fortunate to be sharing it for the first time with my family.We had been taken out of our worlds. We were discovering that we liked to discover things together.
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