“Welcome to Arizona,” say the locals, “where summer spends the winter — and hell spends the summer.” It’s true! I had a business trip to Phoenix one August and felt like I’d died and gone to Hades in the 110-degree heat. I developed a keen appreciation of Mark Twain’s story about an Arizona sinner who upon his death “went straight to the hottest corner of perdition — and the next day he telegraphed back for his blankets.” Other times of the year are heavenly, and visiting friends in Tucson earlier this month, I rediscovered the pleasure of sitting around in light summer clothes sipping frosty beer while watching television reports of the northeastern states digging themselves out of yet another killer snowstorm.
For two hundred years, Arizona’s warm winters and wide open spaces have attracted visitors and new residents from all over the world — some say, from throughout the galaxy; since 1998, Arizona residents have reported 3,212 extraterrestrial encounters. I can’t promise you’ll see a flying saucer there (I never have, darn it!), but there’s plenty of other offbeat entertainment. A magnet for quirky characters, the state is teeming with tall tales, legends, ghost stories, ghost towns, and loony roadside attractions. Here are a few highlights from the state’s long list of hot spots designed to make you blink, do a double-take, and activate your phone’s camera setting.
Forty years ago, Paolo Soleri set out to create a 4000-acre city of tomorrow that would harmonize with Mother Earth and serve as a model for sustainable urban architecture. Unfortunately, it is still unfinished and barely able to sustain itself, subsisting on income from selling wind chimes in the gift shop. It’s both futuristic and a ghost town in the making.
Designed as a self-contained ecosystem for scientific study and a model for future interplanetary outposts, Biosphere 2 is basically 72-million-cubic-foot glass terrarium. When four men and four women sealed themselves inside for a two-year experiment, you can imagine how quickly things ran amok. Even before miscalculations led to near starvation and asphyxiation, human nature reared its head and lurid soap opera scenarios ensued.
The Flintstones’ Bedrock City
Remember the animated sixties sitcom about the “modern Stone-Age family?” Today, the Flintstones are largely forgotten, but for kitschy fun you might want to stroll the dusty streets of Bedrock and shout Fred’s trademark “yabba-dabba-doo” one more time.
Jack Rabbit Trading Post
Ever wanted to ride a giant fiberglass jack rabbit? Me either, but this roadside attraction, a relic of the glory days of Route 66, is proving irresistible to a new generation armed with smart phones and selfie sticks.
In 1968, theme park designer C.V. Wood paid the City of London $2.5 million for the bridge, spent another $7 million on shipping and reassembly, and then had to shell out for a fake lake for it to span. As a bonus extra, the bridge came fully equipped with several ghosts, who continue to haunt it to this day. (Not that I believe in that sort of thing…)
Navajo Code Talkers Exhibit
A Burger King may seem an unlikely spot for an exhibition about the famous Navajo Code Talkers, whose tribal language was used in messages that baffled the Nazis during WWII. But when owner Richard Mike discovered that his dad had served in the unit, he decided to create a tribute. “We have more Code Talker memorabilia than the Pentagon does,” Mike says proudly.
Tent City Jail
Also known as “America’s concentration camp,” this jail houses inmates in old Korean War tents in the desert, where temperatures rise above 120 degrees. They’re fed expired junk food like bologna that’s turning green, and infractions can put anyone — men, women, juveniles — on a chain gang in the desert. Cruel and unusual punishment? I’d say so, but Arizona residents have re-elected the sheriff in charge six times. He’s so proud of his work he offers free tours of the facility.
Home of the famous gunfight at the OK Corral, Tombstone is now a theme park paying homage to the good old days, when justice was dispensed with a six-shooter, and female companionship was readily available at the nearest brothel. During a recent visit I was startled to realize how many guys with Stetsons on their heads and guns on their hips were not, in fact, actors but my fellow citizens toting genuine firearms.
Sedona’s Energy Vortexes
Those who know lots more about this stuff than I do swear that Sedona is blessed with multiple energy spirals called vortexes, which channel energy to enhance spiritual growth and healing in multiple dimensions. Sedona came to national attention with the prediction that on August 16 and 17, 1987, the Earth would start slipping out of its “time beam” and possibly spin out into space. This could only be stopped by the concerted, psychic energies of the human race coming together in synchronized meditation, known as the Harmonic Convergence, in Sedona and other spiritual power centers. Did it work? Of course! Has the Earth slipped out of its time beam? I rest my case…
Arizona is a world of its own, as gunslingers, extraterrestrials, and New Agers will attest. If you go, be sure to bring your sunscreen, your camera, and most of all your sense of humor. Good luck out there.
Have you been to Arizona? Thought about going? Do you have any stories to share or suggestions for places I should visit next time I’m there?
As you probably know by now, I don't accept sponsorships of any kind, so everything mentioned in my posts is included because I thought you might find the information interesting or helpful. I have been to many of these attractions, but not all. If you’ve got updated information or a different perspective, I would love to hear from you!
I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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