On Friday, we flew out to Phoenix to spend a few days with my cousin Andrew and his girlfriend Tobin. Andrew and I grew up in a big family, but we were also really close. Andrew has always felt like a brother, more than a cousin, growing up. We are only a year apart and spent every summer with my grandparents boating, swimming, making fires, building forts, catching frogs, and everything kids do. So, when we were planning our trip out to the west coast, we had to stop in Phoenix for a weekend for some adventures together. This was the first time Mike and I had been to Arizona together, so this seemed like the perfect time to make it happen.
Phoenix really surprised me. It’s a beautiful city with a lot of amazing modern architecture, but it can also be super hot in the city. So when Andrew and Tobin talked about heading north to escape the heat and see the wildness of the Arizona desert, we were pretty excited. We have traveled through Southern California countless times, and had naturally assumed the desert would look the same in Arizona as it does in California. While much of the desert is the same, there was a different more wild west feeling to the Arizona desert.
We drove about 40 miles north of Phoenix, before we ever hit a dirt road. It took about 3 hours to get up in the hills to find our cooler destination. We watched the landscape change from desolate to arid, to lush and cool as we drove the last 26 miles up the dirt road.
At the end of the dirt road, we arrived in the small town of Crown King, an old mining town. With a half day of driving behind us, we relaxed at a bar covered in corrugated steel and drank beers while sitting in the sun, got a tan, and enjoying the cooler temps.
One of the best lessons I have learned in traveling, is to look for the places the locals go. It isn’t always about finding the new trendy place, while that can be great, it is really exciting to find some local flavor. This place was a little bit of cool, a little bit of funk, and a lot of local flavor. Honestly, it was just the way we like it. Sure, the hip places are fun and I love them, but they don’t always tell the best story of a place.
Growing up in Northern Michigan you learn to love the classics, the staples, and the old standbys. Those are the places that preserve culture. The new things are great, but the classic, old time favorites are where memories are held.
After a couple hours, we headed back down the dirt road and watched as the temperature slowly rose as we meandering into the valley. We soaked up the warm sunlight hanging in the hills and with all the windows open, took in the desert air.
Halfway down the dirt road, we stopped at the Cleator bar and general store. Cleator was quite a site. It was an old mining town that was and still is owned by the Cleator family. All of the buildings, by law, look the way they did 100 years ago. Mike met the woman selling hotdogs and was surprised to find out that not only was she from Raleigh, but had a medical degree from Duke University. She told him, one day she just got sick of work and her and her husband moved out to the desert and haven’t looked back. How amazing is that.
On the wall of the bar you can see a hand painting of Cleator, the original bar owner in the 1900s, welcoming you in for a beer. It is everything you could possibly imagine a desert bar could be and even more friendly.
In the last few miles of dirt road, we saw a hill covered in Saguaro cacti and had to stop and grab the last bit of sunlight as it fell over the hills. I had to capture one of those guys, as they are only native to Arizona. Surprisingly we climbed the thorny, prickly, snake filled hill and survived without a scratch.
When we got to the top of the hill, we were able to take in the last few rays of the sunlight. The desert light was amazing and it stretched as far as the horizon. This might be my favorite light in the world. On top of the hill we wandered the terrain, checked out the cacti, and spent some time refection on the day.
As the light hovered in the hills, it collected beams of dust kicked up from the roaming cattle and passing traffic. We watched from the hill as the cattle ran the road ahead that lead back home. It felt like another world.
As we climbed back down the slippery hill, we laughed about the day and the funny experiences that came with it. We all wished we could have stayed in Cleator the rest of our lives.
The more time I have spent traveling the United States, the more I have fallen in love with our country. We can become far too comfortable with what lies in our backyard without ever exploring what is a short flight or amazing road trip away. I forget how big our country is, how different we all are, and how it really is incredible to all call the same place home. The United States is an amazing place and every time I visit a new place I am reminded of that.
Today, we are heading tomorrow to San Francisco to begin the next leg of our trip. We cannot wait to make it to the coast and see the coast in a way we haven’t seen before. We would love any recommendations for San Fran and Big Sur! We will be seeing both while out west.