Joshua Tree / Phoenix / Sedona / Flagstaff / Grand Canyon
Condé Nast Traveler China
Photographer: Wei Zhang
When I see the windmills, it finally feels like I’m going somewhere. Leaving Los Angeles via the 10 Freeway is a monotonous precursor to the road ahead. Windmills seem like a highlight—a break from the picture of outlet shops and fast-food chains lining an endless interstate. The landscape opens to arid terrain—the first intimation of Palm Springs, where LA hipsters and retirees mix on the weekends. I’m headed to Joshua Tree instead —a little more off-the-beaten-path as Los Angeles jaunts go, and the first stop on the scenic route I’ve chosen to the Grand Canyon. I’ve gone too long never laying eyes on this colossus of all natural wonders, but I’ll continue to build the suspense by exploring a few enclaves along the way.
It’s not a secret anymore that the American West is one of those bucket-list road trip destinations. There’s no truer embodiment of American freedom than the open road here, where as long as you have wheels, or at least a pair of legs and the will to find the way, there’s not much standing in your way of adventure and miracles all around. In every direction there’s a mountain to climb, solitary plains to tromp, blue skies to marvel, all in a sun-blazed dreamscape. Much of Arizona is so enchanting: saguaros, the most emblematic of all cacti, grow rampantly throughout the Sonoran Desert; the mythic vortices of the beautiful red rocks of Sedona; the vastness of the Kaibab National Forest; and of course, all 4,926 square-kilometers of the Grand Canyon, right in the backyard. Wind, water, sun, and moon have sculpted these masterpieces over millions of years, and we’re completely free to explore it all.
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En route to Sedona, veering off of the 17 onto the 179 is breathtaking, to say the least. Now these are Arizona red rocks, formed over millions of years when a receding ocean revealed layers of sandstone that became covered in iron oxide, creating the rusty, craggy Sedona skyline. Right away I’m magnetized by the massive presence of Courthouse Butte, and before I can even fathom more, there’s Bell Rock. First of all, this is unreal, but second of all, the town has obviously capitalized on its tourist appeal. I had imagined cruising down a scenic highway with nothing between sandstone and me, but today a steady flow of traffic proves that I’m just another tourist. Strip malls with souvenir shops and run-of-the-mill restaurants take up prime real estate that once belonged only to this colossal landscape. Psychic storefronts distract from the epic beauty to advertise Sedona’s metaphysical commodities; in fact, the red rocks themselves are among them. They are believed to be Vortex sites, where spiritual energy spirals into multiple dimensions. Whatever I hear or read about these vortices is pretty vague, but in short, they are quintessential meditation spots.
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Back south on 64, just a few kilometers outside of the park entrance, I rush to the Grand Canyon Airport for a flight with Grand Canyon Airlines. I board a Twin Otter C73, which departs hourly for this 40-minute air tour. It’s the last flight of the day, at 4:00 pm, when the sun hangs low and washes everything in an imperial golden light. Early morning and late afternoon are primetime for this flight. We take off over the Kaibab National Forest and head east to loop from the South Rim to the North Rim and back. This is full-blown hypnotic beauty, so boundless that my eyes cannot conceive of it all even when it’s staring me in the face. All other senses are rendered incapacitated. The only thing I truly remember hearing from the multi-lingual narrated tour is that when Spanish explorers came upon the Grand Canyon in 1540, they saw nothing special about it, and did not return for over two hundred years. How could this be? I guess it’s a shame they never got the aerial view. I’m breathless, soaring like a California condor over the Zuni Corridor and high above Imperial Point, the canyon’s tallest spire. Over the course of mere minutes I’m seeing the Grand Canyon in all its splendor. The elegant, rolling badlands of the Painted Desert sit to the east; the Kaibab Plateau above the North Rim is coated with spruce-fir, ponderosa pine, aspen, and juniper; such an exhibition of divine nature exists right here. I can’t believe it.
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