If you ever get fed up with the image of America as a place of political scandal, consumer electronics and pulp TV, maybe it’s time to head out into the wilderness that is Arizona, take a hike along the trail, or even get a bird’s-eye view from a hot air balloon. Nick Smith packed his camera and notebooks and headed to ‘the West’s most western town’, Scottsdale, to find out more.
Here in the United Kingdom we have such a narrow view of the United States of America.What we think we know of the world’s third largest country tends to come from DVD boxed sets of crime and medical procedurals, or Netflix streaming binges on impossibly unrealistic legal and political dramas. America is also the land our iphones come from, or where the implausible (and yet all-too-real) soap opera of the White House plays out on 24-hour rolling ‘news’. But, over the years I’ve managed to, as acting teachers might say, ‘peel the onion’, to delve a few layers deeper, and discover something about this land that the TV won’t teach you and that newspaper editors studiously avoid. Having spent many happy times in the vast empty wilderness of Montana in the north-west and the soothing gentility of South Carolina in the opposite corner, I’ve reached the conclusion that once you get your head around the fact that the USA has more to offer than New York and Los Angeles, it really is a rather nice place.
Nowhere nicer than Arizona, specifically Phoenix, and even more specifically Scottsdale. For this was the destination of the latest in my series travels to unexpected – and to a degree, unknown – destinations in the Land of the Free, the Land of Opportunity, or good ole Uncle Sam. Forget the processed gunk you get on the TV these days and cast your mind back to the black and white movies of the Wild West because, as unlikely as it will seem, this takes you closer to the spirit of America. Maybe don’t dwell so much on the clichés of frontier trading outpost gunfights. Maybe more the wild backdrops of cactuses and mountains.
To find all this you have to be patient, because as with most journeys, your first impression will be that of an airport. But since Phoenix Sky Harbour welcomed me with a greeting informing me that I had just landed in ‘America’s Friendliest Airport’, things seemed to be getting off to a pretty good start. And by the time my driver had threaded me through downtown Phoenix to the much smaller nearby city of Scottsdale – ‘The West’s most western town’ – I was beginning to think that the optimism instilled in me at the airport was well placed. As the driver gave me the lowdown on the number of golf courses and spa resorts available to me, the mind boggled a bit. Nothing wrong with either, I told him, but I was here for the above-mentioned wild backdrops of cactuses and mountains. “We’ve got plenty of those too, sir,” he cheerfully replied.
Although I was on a professional assignment for the travel section of a luxury London magazine, what I was really here for was the Great Outdoors, and in particular another chance to walk along one of those great American mountain trails. After checking in at the Andaz Scottsdale hotel (more on which later), and after a short sleep that seemed to shake off some of the inevitable jetlag that piles up when you fly west over the Atlantic, I soon found myself deep in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. Of the many things this wonderful wasteland has going for it, perhaps the most attractive to the photographer is the saguaro cactus which enjoys totemic status here, not just because of its imposing size and characteristic ‘Wild West’ appearance, but because the Carnegiea gigantean is native to the region. While we might be accustomed to seeing its classic profile as a cultural trope of gun-slinging cowboys and Indians movies, the chances are we’re watching a botanical and geographical anomaly. This is because the saguaro only grows in the Sonoran Desert, which is only in Arizona, Mexico and a little bit of California. When we see such cactuses adorning the labels of Tex-Mex hot sauce bottles, what we have is a mild case of ethnic appropriation (but no one in Arizona seems too prickled by this.)
Arizona is an ‘open carry’ state, which means that you are legally entitled to carry a gun providing it is visible on your person, ‘carried’ in a holster or similar. You can’t carry one in your hand because this is technically ‘brandishing’, an activity frowned upon to the extent that the authorities regard this as an outright crime. The State of Arizona also frowns on people shooting their beloved cactuses to the point where a persistent (and false) rumour exists that anyone discharging their firearm at a saguaro could find themselves in the clink for 25 years (the class four felony of ‘cactus plugging’, in fact, carries a maximum sentence of three years and nine months). It follows that if you are going to shoot a saguaro, to stay on the right side of the law, it’s best you do so with a camera.
It took me two days of hiking in the mountains and kayaking on the Salt River to get a decent silhouette of my saguaro. Despite the Sonoran Desert being generously populated with these spiny plants, it took some serious scouting to find a specimen fit for my purposes in a suitable location, the specifics of which were quite, well, specific. As I intended to shoot at sunrise, I needed a clear line-of-sight of the eastern horizon, preferably from an elevated viewpoint, with the terrain to the east of my cactus declining in altitude towards a mountain ridge containing, if not drama, then at least a few pronounced serrations. Despite these self-inflicted obstacles, I succeeded in finding what I was looking for at the Tom’s Thumb trailhead in the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy where I finally got to pull the trigger and ended up with a shot that seemed to say it all (see the opening pic to this article).
Such exertions can leave the traveller in need of some somewhere to put up the feet, which is where the Andaz Scottsdale Resort and Bungalows (to give the hotel its full name) really came into its own. When you’re on assign-ment – especially those with early starts and late finishes – you’re often left feeling that where you’re staying is of no real importance. But from my rooms (that were so comfortable the wake-up call at 04:00 seemed positively brutal) to the elegant palm tree gardens, the pool, the sumptuous breakfasts of egg and avocado hashes with fresh juice and even fresher coffee, and the determination of the front-of-house staff to find me a mains electricity converter, everything was seamlessly perfect. And as if that weren’t enough, the entire establishment, from the welcoming lobby to guest accommodation is decorated with local art commissioned from organisations such as the local Cattle Track Arts. I went to visit their compound in a 1962 Cadillac supplied by the Andaz people, who want their guests to feel they’re in ‘real’ America. After spending time with poets, painters, blacksmiths, felt makers, photographers, carvers, spinners and all manner of artisan, I started to realise that if you know where to look, you’ll find an America that goes beyond that of TV evangelism, fast food and baseball. Talking of food, during my stay at Scottsdale I was whisked around eateries with joyful names such as the Hash Kitchen, Weft & Warp, Craft 64 and the Mission. The latter was in Scottsdale’s Old Town that, while not quite as old as our nearby Carmarthen (that dates proudly back to the 14th century), is old enough to give you a glimpse of swing-door saloons, wide dusty boulevards, horses tied to wooden rails outside the general store, and of course 1950s style ice cream parlours, in which you don’t need to stretch the imagination far to conjure up the Fonz and his Happy Days gang hanging out by the Wurlitzer jukebox.
If you want a steer on how magnificent America’s Wild West really is, there’s nowhere better to go than Arizona. And there’s no better way to do it than in a hot air balloon. It’s the best way to fly. No noise or vibration, no scratched fogged-up portholes, no airports, even if they are America’s friendliest. You just waft along on one of nature’s most elemental of principles: hot air rises. And with it, suspended in a wicker basket beneath a gigantic nylon envelope, so do you.
For those that haven’t done it, taking off in a hot air balloon is a strange experience. There is no sensation of the aircraft rising, just the odd impression of the earth falling away from you. In a helicopter, you feel like a conker on the end of a string, tensely waiting for the next blow. But in a balloon, you feel like a bird gliding on the air, with the slightly alarming feeling that you could get out at any time. It’s small wonder that high-altitude balloonists have a few tricks up their sleeve to combat this warped sense of reality. British record-breaking aeronaut David Hempleman-Adams tells me he ties a stout rope to both basket and ankle, just in case the oxygen-thin air makes him want to abandon ship. And you can sort of see why, as ballooning can be a very dizzying pastime.
Leisure balloons don’t often get to rise far above 3000ft, but as I watch the digital altimeter ticking to beyond 7,000ft, the experience changes from being that of pleasantly drifting along the breeze, taking in mountain ridges, rivers and cactus-strewn sands. Far below are circling buzzards and eagles, and you can even see the occasional aeroplane. The world looks more like a map than a landscape, and the whole thing is somewhere between exhilarating and nerve-wracking.
This is because there is nothing between you and planet Earth other than a thin board of wood. The basket isn’t enclosed, and you can feel your centre of gravity trying to get lower, as far below the rim of the basket as possible. Up here, we’re seven times higher than the summit of Wales’s tallest mountain Snowdon, and you’re going to need a pretty strong head for heights to enjoy the ride. But, the good news is that, despite the pilot’s gallows humour, you soon get used to feeling so exposed and your heart rate gradually returns to normal. You start taking aerial photos as you revel in the isolation and the utter silence (occasion-ally broken by the sputtering of the propane gas burner that heats up the air in the balloon.)
You come back down to earth with a bump. There’s no other way of landing. But you’re rewarded with champagne and canapés. The champagne is an old aeronautical tradition stretching back to the early days of ballooning in 19th century France, when pilots found that they needed a bottle or two on board to placate angry farmers when they landed in their fields. But the biggest reward is the certainty that you want to go up there again, as soon as possible.
WAY TO GO
For more information about Andaz Scottsdale Resort & Bungalows visit www.scottsdale.andaz.hyatt.com
For more on Scottsdale as a destination go to www.experiencescottsdale.com
To book a desert hot air balloon flight visit www.hotairexpeditions.com