Raising Arizona


abta-cover-july-2018The first thing I notice as I step off the plane is the desert heat. On average, Phoenix has 299 days of sunshine every year, while nearby Yuma is not just the sunniest place in the United States, but actually holds the world record for average annual sunshine: an incredible 4,300 hours of sun each year.

The heat and light make up not only the city’s climate, but its character. It was the temperature that drew the celebrated architect Frank Lloyd Wright to Phoenix. He first arrived in 1928 to work as a consultant on the Arizona Biltmore hotel, and returned a decade later, after his doctor told him that the weather would benefit his health, to build Taliesin West, his winter home, school and studio.

Taliesin West remains open to visitors, even though it still operates as one of the best architecture schools in the United States. Taking the guided tour of the school is an excellent route to understanding how Wright built his reputation as one of America’s great architects, and in particular to appreciating his ability to bring the outdoors inside. Sunlight streams into the drafting room where Wright drew up plans for his most famous work, the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and where students continue to work and learn from his example.

If they need further inspiration, the Phoenix Art Museum is a good place to start: the gallery sprawls over 26,500 square metres, and houses work dating from the Renaissance right up to the modern day. Highlights include a portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, modernist work by Georgia O’Keeffe and Anish Kapoor’s acclaimed sculpture Upside Down, Inside Out.

Even the greatest artwork struggles to compete with the majesty of the natural landscapes that lie on the doorstep, however. As I head out into the desert, I feel as if I have arrived in the Wild West of my childhood fantasies: giant saguaro cactuses dot the land, instantly familiar from cowboy films.

Saguaro grows an average of a foot per decade, so those that climb to 20 or 30 feet will have been standing on that same spot for around 250 years. It is easy to picture yourself as one of the early pioneers – although it is worth bearing in mind that widescreen depictions may not have been wholly accurate. In John Ford’s Three Godfathers, John Wayne finds himself stranded in the Arizona desert and hacks open a barrelhead cactus in order to drink the watery pulp. In reality, it would be so full of acids you would be likely to become very ill, so don’t forget your water bottle.

Of course, no visit to Arizona would be complete without paying a visit to the Grand Canyon. Entry to the national park – a three-and-a-half hour drive north of Phoenix – costs £24 per vehicle, a tiny price to pay for the majesty that awaits.

It is hard to describe the experience of standing on the cusp of The Abyss, the name given to one of the canyon’s many look-out points. What is remarkable is not just the size and scale of the canyon, but also the swathe of history it illuminates. It has been six million years since the Colorado River first found its way to the Gulf of California and began working its way down through the dirt and rock. The river now runs more than 1,500 metres below the Grand Canyon’s rim.

There are two very different ways of experiencing the Grand Canyon. One is to hike down into it. The most popular route, the Bright Angel Trail, descends 1,370 metres to the Colorado River, which means you have got to climb all the way back up. The other, rather more leisurely way to get inside the canyon is by helicopter. Maverick Helicopters depart from the airport near the small town of Tusayan, on the south side of the park, and 40-minute flights start from £140.

From the vantage point the flights provide, it is possible to see as far as the Painted Desert and to follow the river before diving through the Dragon Corridor, the widest and deepest part of the canyon. The most heart-stopping moment, however, is early on, when you are flying 15 metres above the Ponderosa pine treeline, and then suddenly there is nothing beneath you except the rushing waters almost a mile below.

But to visit Arizona and only see Phoenix and the Grand Canyon is to barely scratch the state’s surface. To the east of the National Park is the incredibly photogenic Horseshoe Bend, where the curve of the river has carved out a spectacular landmark. Nearby is Antelope Canyon, a narrow and now dry slot canyon, which creates an otherworldly landscape for visitors. Inside the canyon, photographers jostle for position, no surprise considering the world’s most expensive photograph was taken here: Peter Lik sold Phantom, an image of dust in the canyon appearing to take the form of a ghost, for $6.5m in November 2014.

Improbably, Arizona is also home to a burgeoning wine scene. Despite the heat, vineyards have sprouted up in the Verde Valley, near Sedona, and the food and wine being produced here is almost as spectacular as the red rock formations that loom over the town.

With all this and so much more to explore, and with direct flights already taking off from London, it looks like it’s time to get to Phoenix.

Cover story for ABTA Magazine, July 2018.