Saturday, September 25, 2010

SWS Day 2 - Hit The Trail

Wednesday, August 25, 2010 - The 3-hour timezone change demanded I awake at 3:30am and then drift in half-light ether until 6:30am. But I didn't mind, the Sun was brightening and the sky was bluer than blue. It was going to be a great day in the dry Arizona heat. True to form for our family, we were the first to arrive in the private dining room setup for the 7:30am ABD breakfast buffet. The food was nothing fancy - the standard hot and cold buffet offerings - but it tasted excellent. The view from the 2nd-floor terrace towards towering red rock against the sky helped immensely, I'll admit.

After eating and visiting with new friends, we all assembled on the Amara lawn to meet, Darryl, a local nature expert with his mini-menagerie of local wildlife. In between Darryl's lectures about mountain lions and other AZ critters, he produced a tarantula and snake for us to meet. The less timid in the group were invited to hold Darryl's friends for pictures and bragging rights. I was surprised at just how delicate a tarantula really is, and how squeamish my own kids could be (although my son did opt to hold the Gopher snake later on).

Dee and her new friend

We bid so long to Darryl and Friends after an hour or so and convened at the front of the hotel to meet our jeep caravan. With our fully decked-out cowboy chauffeurs at the ready, we divided ourselves amongst 3 open-air jeeps that would take us on a backroad tour of Boynton Canyon. To be fair, we would be following actual roads for our trip to the backcountry, but the word 'roads' can be a slippery one to precisely define. The Canyon roads were more-or-less trails on which the larger rocks were pushed to the side.

Our cowboy guide Lynn was short in stature but 10 feet tall in terms of bad jokes, expert driving, and deep knowledge of the outdoors.The trip was definitely an E-Ticket ride - like Big Thunder Mountain done in jeep with NASA-designed suspension. The scenery was simply breathtaking: red rock buttes and mesas, foreign-looking plant-life, and always that blue sky. On the twisting, bumpy roads we went, listening to Lynn's commentary punctuated with the occasional "Yee HAH!". At the halfway point we stopped for pictures and water before coming back the way we came. It was just a great time with some really great cowboy guides!

On the road in Boynton Canyon

By this point it was lunchtime, and our jeeps brought us all to a local cafe/restaurant in Sedona where a private room at been readied for us. Buffet-style, lunch was a spicy Tex-Mex affair washed down with lots and lots of lemonade to clear the red dust from our throats. How we'd get that dust off our clothes and cameras was a different problem. After our meal, we wandered out to the cafe's walled garden where one of our cowboy guides gave hands-on lessons in the fine art of calf-roping (complete with a practise target). For the creative, there was an opportunity to create beaded jewelry (I made a lovely pull-chain for the zipper on my camera bag).

After an hour or so of relaxing post-lunch activities, Dan brought the bus to whisk us all back to the Amara where we would have the afternoon and evening to do as we pleased. Our plans were to do a bit of hiking and a bit of shopping in Sedona. Approximately 1.5 miles from the Amara is the the trail-head for the Jordan Trail - our target for a few hours of hiking through red rocks. With a map to guide us and 2 water bottles for each of us, we set off in the 100F heat.

There is the old saw about 'dry heat' being much more tolerable than 'not-dry heat', and I'd say it's true. But let me assure you, Dear Reader, that 100F is still freakin' hot no matter how much water you're carrying. Add to that the rocky, hilly terrain of the Jordan Trail and you will have a hike to remember! Despite the discomfort and gentle whines from my teenagers, the hike was worthwhile. We rose higher and higher above Sedona and at every turn we found the view more and more impressive. We even met a lady and her horse on the trail, and I could not imagine how a horse could negotiate the rocky paths.

Jordan Trail vista

After a little over a mile on the Trail (seemed like more!), we stopped for pictures and then made our way back towards town. Downhill was much easier going than uphill, and the steady, gentle Arizona breeze kept us reasonably energetic in the heat. As we arrived back in civilization, we replenished our drinks and strolled the main drag of Sedona's shops. Our actual target was The Black Cow Cafe - recommended to us for its ice cream made from the fruit of the Prickly Pear Cactus (sans prickles). I highly recommend this treat, too. It was absolutely delicious!

By that time, our precious teenaged spawn had run out of steam and so they shuffled the short walk to the Amara where they would lower their body temperatures in the pool. My wife, Dee, and I opted to catch the free Trolley to the nearby shopping area known as Tlaquepaque. It is a lovely enclosed village of sorts - filled with varied and upscale shops. While delightful to look at, the place was devoid of people. Where Sedona's main street was teeming with tourists, Tlaquepaque looked like a creepy, creepy ghost town. We still managed to visit a few shops and spend some money, but I could never shake the feeling that the place was haunted.

Back on the Trolley, back to the Amara - it was time for showering and rest. It seemed like no matter how much I scrubbed my skin, there was always more red dust to be found. I elected to consider it a souvenir. Before long, our stomachs decided it was time for dinner - even if our weary legs seemed incapable of getting us there. Off we went in search of food. Rather than tackle the steep hill-climb from the Amara up to the main street, we had a kindly hotel staffer take us topside in an electric cart. I highly recommend that experience at the end of a long day.

While our ABD Guides has a long list of recommendations for Sedona restaurants, we took our chances at The Cowboy Club, a local eatery of some renown. Because we were toursusts, we decided to go native with their cactus fries, rattlesnake, buffalo, and antelope samplers. It was all quite good, but not exactly a vegetarian experience. For the adults, we took the edge off with Prickly Pear Margaritas. All in all, the food was fine. The service was so-so (friendly but slowish), but the ambiance of the place was kind of fun. It was not a bad choice at all, really.

As we walked back to the Amara, we took a moment to admire the Sedona night sky - an almost-full Moon and a billion stars shining bright. One could almost smell the cowboy campfire and hear the muffled melody of the harmonica. We lingered a bit longer and then strolled into the darkness - our thoughts turning to the next day's adventure awaiting us at the Grand Canyon.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

SWS Day 1 - Red Rock Welcome

Tuesday, August 24, 2010 - Today was D-for-Disney Day. Our 8:50am flight from Detroit would land in Phoenix by mid-morning local time (2 time-zones away and an extra hour thrown by Arizona's disdain for Daylight Savings Time). It was early to rise and an easy-peasy stroll from the Westin directly into new-ish the McNamara Terminal. Along the way we discovered that the Westin billing department applied some new math and left us with a full Club rate for our overnight stay (approximately double the rate we should have paid). The front-desk staff (again) apologized for the screw-up and left us with the name of an Accounting Drone who would fix everything during office hours. We were still obliged to pay the bill since the front-office folks seem to be powerless to do much of anything. Nice, Detroit Airport Westin. Very nice.

We were undaunted because it was holiday time! The flight was uninteresting, and 4 hours later we were landing in the 90F Arizona morning heat. And then.... the pixie-dust began to fall from the heavens in the form of 2 semi-retirees named Dick and Joan. They were waiting for us as we left baggage pickup, holding an ABD placard and greeting us all by name. That's right, we were welcomed with warm smiles by name! Amongst casual conversation with our new friends, Dick took our luggage somewhere secret while Joan escorted us to a shuttle that would take us to Terminal 2 where we'd meet our ABD Guides. With clear instructions, we bid our goodbyes (all the while wondering where our luggage might be!).

We had some time to kill before the 12:30pm meetup with our Guides, so we took Joan's advice to grab an early lunch at Paradise Bakery Cafe. It was good advice - excellent food. Incidently, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport bills itself as America's Friendliest Airport - and they truly, truly are. If you're a cynic like me, genuine friendliness from strangers demands immediate suspicion and nervous glances towards the dark corners. But I will testify that everyone we met in Terminal 2 seemed genuinely nice and helpful.

After our lunch and a little email-checking courtesy of the free wifi, we headed to the appointed place (near Starbuck's) where we'd meet our fellow travellers and Guides. There was Joan (again!) waiting for us. And within minutes our Guides Chris and Mike were there. It was obvious that they were great friends with Joan, with lots of laughing and hugging. Joan's next piece of advice was prescient when she let us know that Chris and Mike were two of the best ABD Guides around.

Chris and Mike made their introductions and we chatted quite a bit about our previous ABD trips (they had both led a Costa Rica trip, so we got to compare notes). Then came the semi-bombshell: there were only 15 Guests on the trip - 4 families in total! Our previous trips had included something closer to the 35-40 maximum, so we knew there was going to be a very different ABD dynamic this time around!

Sure enough, the other families - all first-timers with ABD - filtered in and we all made our introductions. One of the families had come in a day early and were already in Sedona waiting for us, so those intros would come later. Into the coach we went, and we all pondered the proper etiquette for 13 people to claim seats on a full-size coach. It was a great problem to have!

Dan, our driver, pointed the coach out of Phoenix and soon the concrete vistas gave way to brown, scrubby desert. We made a brief stop off the road to look at our first Saguro cactus - an iconic giant of the old West. For a family from the farming bosom of the Great Lakes, this was really something to see!

 The Prickly Giant

After 90 minutes of this unfamiliar (but spectacular) landscape, we made a stop at Montezumas Castle, a National Park whose centerpiece in the collection of ancient cliff-dwellings carved long ago by those who had gone before. We were met there by Doug, a local Guide who took us on a walking tour beneath the dwellings. Doug's knowledge was as impressive as his dry, cowboy humour. It was fascinating stuff, but I will admit that coping with +100F tempratures was a new experience. We knew after that stop that our hats and water bottles would be good friends for the duration of the tour. And we also learned that our coach would have a magically endless supply of cold bottles of water for us all.

We were back on the coach by 3:30pm and drove 30 minutes until we reached the Amara Resort and Spa in Sedona. This would be our home for the next 2 nights. Driving through the sleepy red rocks of Sedona's main drag, we spied an odd blend of New Age influences (crystals anyone?), expensive-looking vacation homes, and upscale-looking tourists shops. If nothing else, Sedona is lovely to look at - and their local bylaws keep it that way.

 Montezumas Castle is a lot higher than it looks!

Check-in at the Amara was a breeze. A table had been setup in the lobby where a nice lady was waiting to hand out our room keys. We were quickly in our room where our luggage was waiting for us. The hotel is compact and simply beautiful to look at. The rooms were not the biggest we'd ever seen, but they were well-appointed and the beds - oh, the beds! - were like sleeping on a cloud. With a couple of hours to kill, we all freshened up and explored the gorgeous grounds. The kids elected to soak in the pool just a little while in order to beat back the unfamiliar Arizona heat.

The Amara's front entrance.

A Welcome Dinner was scheduled for 6:30pm out on the Amara grounds. Tables had been setup with white linens and china. Appetizers were waiting on a side-table along with local beers, wines, and lemonade - all supported by Amara staff standing by. A local husband-and-wife duo, Ken and Lyn Mikell, quietly serenaded us all with some old-time cowboy songs. Mike and Chris, our Guides, presented us with our lanyards and ABD 'pin of the day' as we mingled with the other ABD Guests.

After some opening remarks from the Guides - and a special hello for my family of ABD veterans - we all dug into a Southewest-style buffet - good and spicy! For the Junior Adventurers, the Amara staff had made up plates of less exotic fare - chicken fingers and the like. All in all, it was a great meal and a perfect cowboy setting to begin our trip!

With dinner out of the way, Ken and Lyn put on a short show of cowboy songs and spoken-word poetry. It was absolutely fantastic, and I made a point to ask them afterwards if I could buy a CD of their music. And wouldn't you know it, they had some CDs with them!

After some more chit-chat with the other ABD families, the time crossed the 8pm threshold, and everyone drifted off to their rooms to get rested for the next day. And it would be a busy one - exploring Sedona's Red Rock Country!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

SWS Day 0 - Bad Moon Rising

Dear Friends - Inevitably (perhaps regretably), this is Day 1 of a 9-part trip report documenting our recent family vacation to Arizona and Utah. You've been warned.

Monday, August 23, 2010 - We were one day away from a full moon. One day away from weird s**t goin' down. But today would be weird enough without the full celestial event.

The next day, August 24th, would be the start of our latest Adventures By Disney trip. This time it would be American Southwest - Grand Canyon (although I swear it used to be called Southwest Splendors). We'd had a few options for a vacation this year, but we abided by JediBoy's (my son) wish to see the Grand Canyon - and we ended up with Disney yet again.

The goal for this day - on the threshold of a full moon - was to finish packing and then take a leisurely 2.5 hour afternoon drive from our digs in London, Ontario to the Detroit Airport Westin. This would give us more manageable logistics for the next day's flight to Phoenix, Arizona where we'd begin our Disney-fied cowboy adventures.

An hour into our drive, we crossed into the U.S. at Port Huron, Michigan as we've done many times before. It's typically an easy crossing, with fairly short waits to state one's business to a guard. As expected, we waited about 10 or 15 minutes until it was our turn to cross the border. As unexpected, the guard informed us we had been randomly selected for a vehicle inspection, so would we "please turn on your four-way flashers and pull over into the inspection area".

We parked the van where we were told and then the four of us - Dad, Mom, and 2 Teens (17 and 14) - stood in line to speak with some other official person. There's safety in numbers, and I was sort of relieved to see many other people in the same boat. It was a banner day at the Port Huron crossing, with lots of 'randomly selected' miscreants looking just as guiltly as my family.

The entertainment portion of our 15 minutes in line was provided by an obnoxious middle-aged couple who were very unhappy to have won the border lottery. They were letting a very patient guard know that they did not appreciate that 'a complete stranger' would be 'touching their stuff'. I later noticed that the couple would end up in a interview room while us lower-tier terrorists would only get counter-service. Since I could not perceive the tell-tale thwack of rubber hose meeting yielding flesh, I could only assume their interview room was soundproofed. Pity, that.

In all, the process was painless. We were met by an officer who sheepishly asked us to fill out a declaration card while he went outside to poke around inside our van. Less than 5 minutes later we were free to go (and received one guard's admiration for our 'Super Mickey' antenna topper).

We celebrated our freedom with an early dinner at a nearly Cracker Barrel (my wife's guilty pleasure). While we had lost almost an hour at the border, we were fed and read to press on to our hotel. This leg of the trip also took a bit longer courtesy of federal stimulus money clogging up Interstate 94, but we arrived at the Westin at a decent hour nontheless. Our valet - a nice fellow named Richard - met us as we pulled up to the doors and within minutes he was whisking our van away as we pulled our luggage to the front desk. I made a mental note to verify that our friend Richard was actually employed by the hotel.

The Westin was nice - open, airy, with a lovely stone-lined pond separating the lobby from the restaurant. But any thoughts of being relaxed were smacked out of my head by a confusing conversation at Check-In. In short, our reservation was gone, as in 'not on our system'. It did not matter that we had pre-paid for the night's stay. We did not exist.

It took a few minutes of tense conversation and clickety-clackety keyboarding to get to the root of our woes. The reservation we had made a few months prior had been accidently entered for July, not August. According to the Westin, we were a no-show and a month late. The nice Westin Lady assured us she could check us in as 'walk ins' at the same discounted rate as our original booking, She also gave us the contact for someone in their office who would sort out the whole 'pre-paid' room accounting. She then handed us a room key (Club level!) and bid us goodnight.

We spent the remainder of the evening sucking up free hotel wifi and enjoying expensive room service snacks. We'd survived everything the day had thrown our way. We had made it to a savepoint.

Tomorrow would be better. Tomorrow we would be cowboys.

Sunday, September 05, 2010


September 5th? You're kidding me, right? Last time I checked it was early June and I was making my detailed plans for Summer. By the end of June I'd have the home maintenance projects done: the deck would get new stain, the driveway would get a coat of something luxuriously black, the skylight would be repaired and re-trimmed, the bricks in the garden path might (just might) get a bit of levelling.

After the must-do stuff was done, I'd get onto the want-to-do projects. I'd work some more on the fountain idea from last year, that topiary would finally come to life, the pond would get some cool lighting, some video games would get played. Connections with friends would be exercised - and exercised well.

Alas, not much of anything got done. The skylight got crossed off the list in July. The deck saw its new stain only today. The pond took a baby step towards lighting. The driveway and topiary will have to pin their hopes on 2011. The fountain is still more concept than fact. And very little in the way of video gaming got done.

Like the man said, life is what happens when you're making other plans. There were illnesses and deaths in the family - never expected, but needing lots of time. There were kids and jobs needing time. There were a hundred other of life's details seldom considered and always needing time.

But now it's September, and September has magic. It's that yearly threshold when the gears of time produce an audible click and everything is made normal and orderly. Our routines become routine again. And for a short while nothing unexpected is allowed to alter our schedules, our plans.

So even if Summer 2010 has left a sonic boom, I'm glad it's September being sucked along in the wake. I will read my books, I will play my games, I will do geeky things with my kids, and I will connect with the people who mean something to me. And if I'm lucky, September will make sure it all happens - on time.