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    Arizona, Travel, Utah

    From the Desert to the Black Hills: Part 2

    goblin valley panormanic copy

    Day two of my road trip was an especially long day. I drove a lot longer than I really needed, but the sites and park visits were totally worth it. I will say that Utah has some of the best scenic roads that I had seen in a long time, the different shades of red and brown painting the roads less travelled. The fresh-air smell of the wilderness was like a rush, filling my lungs.

    the candle copyThe first thing on the agenda was the tour of Antelope Canyon, which I had seen so many pictures of but never had visited. It would have been lovely to have gone on my own, but the only way to see the canyon is though a guided tour since access to the canyon was limited. I wish that our guide had shared more history and the spiritual significance of the canyon, instead of the best places to take photos, but it is unfortunately a very touristy spot. From my understanding, older generations of the Natives were bitter on how commercialized the canyon had become with tours offered daily by different tour groups.

    Regardless, the canyon is an absolutely beautiful sight. The best times to go are in the mid-late morning and early afternoon, when the sun beams are shining down through the canyon. Because of my long-planned day, I went to one of the earlier tours, and although the canyon was pretty dark, our guide was kind enough to help me find the right adjustment for my camera, resulting in some beautiful photos.

    monument valley morning copy  dragon eye copy  heart2 copy

    Because it was so close-by, I decided to make a quick stop to Horseshoe Bend, just a few miles south of Page. The name comes from the horseshoe-like bend of the Colorado river on the bottom of the canyon. An easy three-quarters of a mile hike from the parking lot leads you right to the rim of the canyon and it was a site to see.

    horseshoebend copy

    I continued to drive east on Arizona State Route 98 and US Route 163 to get to Monument Valley. It had been years since I first saw it while on a family road trip, taking the 17-mile dirt road through the buttes, the dust, red from iron oxide, blanketing the car in a thin layer of dust. I didn’t spend as much time as I wanted to this time around since I still had to drive to Goblin Valley and finally to Salt Lake City, but I made sure to drive through a few miles on that same dirt road.

    monument valley distance copy
    With a car full of stuff being thrown around everywhere, I was glad to have a vehicle that better fit the rugged terrain of the trail as opposed to some of the other vehicles there. Becasue it was a holiday weekend, the trail and visitors center was jam packed with people, all waiting their turn to see the amazing sites.

    Finally, I started my drive toward Goblin Valley State Park. To be honest, the only reason I know about this place (nerd alert) is because of the movie “Galaxy Quest.” What looked like a made-up place was an actual park with unique rock formations called hoodoos, or the infamous goblins. After braving treachurous one-way roads going five miles an hour, seeing maybe one or two other cars in a period of a few hours, I finally found the park. Well…some road that was blocked off. Of course, I started cursing the fact that I may have spent hours on these back roads looking for this park that I had wanted to see for a very long time. But I persisted, continuing my drive, hoping to find another entarance or road that’ll let me enter the park.

    goblin valley copyAnd I found it! Passing through a herd of antelope, I drove up to the park entrance, paid for a pass, and excitedly drove to one of the main hiking and viewing areas of the park. I was greeted by a formation of hoodoos right at the start, called The Three Sisters, prominately displayed by main road. With only a couple hours of sunlight (and still another five hours until I reached Salt Lake City), I parked the Jeep and took in the view, enjoying these unique rock formations and the sheer oddity of them. Grabbing my camera and a bottle of water, along with the map I picked up from the visitor’s center, I attempted hike one of the established ‘trails’ and ended up getting a bit lost among the many hoodoos. As long as I kept a visual on the parking lot, I was fine and continued my way.

    It was quiet. So quiet. The dirt untouched with the exception of a couple footprints by hikers and animals and I didn’t see another soul for at least half an hour. He was heading toward the far end of the park, insisting on seeing a beautiful and perfect sunset. I would have joined him if it wasn’t for my long drive to Salt Lake and wished him on his way.

    goblin valley1 copy

    After hiking for about an hour, I finally decided it was time to finish my drive for the day. The sun was setting and I had lost an hour when I crossed state lines. Other than getting lost about an hour south of Salt Lake City, the drive was relatively uneventful. I was ready for a good night’s rest for the long drive to Casper, WY the next day.

    Arizona, Food, Travel

    From the Desert to the Black Hills: Part 1

    I’ve now spent about two months living in Rapid City and while I am not overly crazy about it, the scenery and the people have proved it to be a pleasant experience so far. The weather finally hit below freezing a few mornings in a row, a huge relief from the continuous string of triple digit temperatures while living in Tucson, and the first snow of the season is expected shortly.

    My road trip from Tucson to the Black Hills took a couple days to plan. I had four days to get to my destination and decided to do some sight seeing on the way. Because I couldn’t travel with my dog due to my Jeep being involved in the most elaborate game of Tetris imaginable, I had much more flexibility with taking side trips and which would otherwise be difficult to do with a very curious husky. The trip took four whole days and I traveled over 2,000 miles, checking off items from by travel bucket list along the way.

    I left Tucson early on a Tuesday morning. It was a rough three years living and working in that town and I couldn’t leave fast enough. With monsoon season in full swing, the ground was wet with recent rain as I packed some final few items in my Jeep. The sun was still below the horizon when I checked out of my hotel and hopped on Interstate 10, heading north towards Phoenix. Leaving Tucson was bittersweet. I wasn’t going to miss it. The location, the sights, the food…those things were great. There are some wonderful people who I am going to miss as well. Being in the desert never bothered me, but the work environment made me want to leave and never go back. But I was mentally prepared to leave and to start a new chapter in my life in South Dakota.

    ground control

    It took around two hours to get to Phoenix, one of my favorite cities. I wasn’t planning on staying long but I had to take a quick stop at Ground Control, a coffee and wine bar in Litchfield Park near Luke Air Force Base. Established about seven years ago, Ground Control is owned by an F-16 pilot and his wife and was meant to be a good after-work hang out. With locally roasted coffee and beer and wine from around the world, it’s one of the few locally owned coffee shops frequently visited. Naturally I had to make one final stop and order a Viennese iced coffee. Somehow, I also walked away with six pounds of roasted coffee. Not sure how that happened, but it did make my car smell delicious and I now have enough coffee to last me a while.

    I continuroute 66ed my drive north on Interstate 17 and instead of stopping in Flagstaff like I had origianlly planned, I made a quick stop in Seligman, the birthplace of Historic Route 66. The town, while small and a bit touristy, is full of life. I had to grab lunch at Delgadillo’s Snow Cap, well prepared for the shenanigans that took place in the small eatery. Originally a drive-in, it was built in the 1950’s by Juan Delgadillo, a local. The eatery is still run by the family and was a delight to visit.

    It was a warm day in Arizona, which was expected in the summer, and I waited in line after futilely attempting to open the door using the dummy door knob. Joke was on me, right? The woman in front of me asked for two cones, and was presented with two small orange traffic cones. She looked at them quizzically before being ‘squirted’ with mustard and ketchup, initially mortified before realizing they were all silly gags. The owners continue to have a sense of humor, offering the woman a tiny sample sized ice-cream when she asked for a small. The jokes were endless…and the line had gotten long quick. Worth the visit and the wait for that hot dog I had ordered (I’m sure the rest of the menu was good as well).

    snow cap car

    An Arizona road trip isn’t complete without seeing the magnificent Grand Canyon. I had been there 20 years ago with my family on our first family road trip. Memories fade and I don’t think as a kid you really appreciate how large and beautiful the Grand Canyon really is. I mean, just look at it!

    grand canyon1

    grand canyon2

    The easiest way to see the Grand Canyon was by going through the South Rim. It’s open all year round, where as the North Rim is typically open during the summer. I would have loved to have hiked the Grand Canyon, but I unfortunately didn’t take advantage of it while living in Arizona for three years. Driving through the National Park was a treat, with thick lush trees lining the sides of the road, a stark difference from the desert in Tucson and Phoenix. I was able to find a place to enjoy the scenery by myself in less popular spots without the overbearing crowds. After driving through the National Park, I finally started heading toward Page. It was tempting to take the road that would have led me to the North Rim, but it was getting late and I still had a long drive ahead of me. While it was a beautiful day with clear blue skies, the skies opened and there was a torrential downpour as I continued to drive north, stopping momentarily to peruse some Native American art and jewelry on the side of the road crafted by local artisans. dinner 2 copy

    Finally, after a long day of driving, I had made it to Page. After checking into the hotel, I decided to grab a quick bite at a small local wine bar. A bit difficult to find since the restaurant blended in with the rest of the stores lining a large parking lot, the Blue Wine Bar was a perfect way to end the first day of my road trip with unique alcoholic drinks and a wide variety of tapas. I settled for a dirty tomato martini and the calamari and avocado tacos, beautifully presented and surprisingly filling. Let’s not forget the salted caramel cheesecake, which was amazing!

    Stay tuned for Part 2, with a tour of Antelope Canyon, driving through Monument Valley, and viewing the unique rock formations in Goblin Valley.

    Arizona, Food

    Matt’s Big Breakfast

    matts big breakfast Where I have been?! This place is amazing!

    I read about Matt’s Big Breakfast last year when I spent two weeks in Phoenix for flight training but I didn’t get the chance to go. Instead, I opted for Carmel’s on Camelback (now relocated and renamed to Charlie Finn) and their delicious french toast croissant. Plus, Matt’s is in downtown Phoenix and I wanted to just stay clear. Open 7 days a week from morning to mid-afternoon, Matt’s Big Breakfast serves breakfast and lunch during their open hours. Parking was tricky and I managed to squeeze into a spot in their designated parking lot behind the restaurant. matts big breakfast waffle

    The wait wasn’t too bad. For a restaurant that seems to be continously crowded, seating was relatively quick, with single patrons sharing a bar or a more communal area. I sat on a bar stool close to the door looking out the main window and perused the menu. The woman sitting next to me wasn’t sure on what to get since, as she told me, ‘everything here is good.’

    That was an understatement. I ordered the waffle, made from scratch, topped with sweet cream butter and real maple syrup, and two slices of thick cut bacon seasoned with course black pepper. Coupled with a cup of freshly brewed coffee, it was a fantastic meal. Along with the amazing breakfast, the staff was extremely friendly.

    It’s a recommended eatery for anyone either living in Phoenix or just passing through.


    Genocide Awareness Monument Unveiling

    eva bukovinszkyAs mentioned in my previous post, April 24th marks the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. While the United States as a whole does not formally recognize the genocide, most of the states do so individually. In Los Angeles, a large 6-mile march was held from Little Armenia to the Turkish Consulate.

    monumentHere in Arizona, the population isn’t as large and the awareness isn’t as strong. However, the St. Apkar Armenian Apostolic Church and the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church, in conjunction with Scottsdale Community College, memorialized the event by the unveiling of a Genocide Awareness Monument carved by Armenian artist Gaspar Gharibyan.

    It was a somber moment. Those who attended wore mainly black, a color to represent mourning, and others wore purple, the color of the symbolic forget-me-not flower. Roses were handed out to attendees to place upon the monument and Eva Bukovinszky, a Hungarian musician, opened the dedication with a beautifully composed piece on the duduk, a traditional Armenian instrument.

    monument_rearAdorned by the letter Է (‘eh’), which means “God is”, the monument, carved in tufa stone (a traditional Armenian building material), wasn’t only to raise awareness of the Armenian Genocide, but all martyrs of genocides and holocausts of the past and present. Both Armenian and Native American symbols adorned the monument, to include those for eternity, the four corners of the earth, the four elements, and the continents where genocide had occurred.

    In the center of the back of the monument is the Forget-Me-Not Flower, the official symbol of the Armenian Genocide Centennial.

    Arizona, Food

    Tucson Greek Festival

    calamariThe 38th annual Tucson Greek Festival kicked off on the 25th of this month and is lasting the entire weekend. As someone who has an Armenian background, which has many similarities to Greek culture, it was a must-go event because of the food, the culture…

    I went for the food. Let’s be honest here.

    The festival was held by St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church, a small and beautiful church that unfortunately was damaged by a fire last year. The members of the church worked hard to set-up this event, which was wildly popular with Tucson locals. When walking in, visitors are immediately greeted by Greek music and Tavernas selling food and beverages, to include greek beer, wine and ouzo. I opted for Mythos Greek beer, grilled calamari, and a simple Greek salad.


    The church still had a lot of damage from the fire in May of 2013. An article about the fire can be read here, and the church is still under a lot of reconstruction. Several art pieces and religious material were held intact but the interior was badly burnt and a donation table was available to help with the reconstruction.

    The festival had scheduled lectures by professors from University of Arizona on Greek culture as well as traditional Greek dancing in the back patio. Children were given the opportunity to learn to dance and it reminded me of the many weddings and events I attended as a kid. There was even more food, to include dolma, rice and/or meat wrapped in grape leaves, and saganaki, a cheese dipped in batter and pan-fried with lemon juice and brandy coupled with pita bread, and of course gyros.

    I made a bee line to the pastries. My grandmother used to make baklava, i.e. the best dessert in the world, and kataifi and I have yet to have either as good as the ones she made. Regardless, I left with containers of both to include a container of freshly fried loukoumades, fried dough soaked in honey .

    Hopefully I’ll be in town next year for the festivities.

    evil eye


    Hiking Mt. Lemmon – Meadow Loop Trail

    Mt Lemmon is a common hiking spot in the Santa Catalina Mountains just north of Tucson, Arizona. This past weekend’s scenic drive up the Catalina Highway was populated with enthusiastic cyclists and it led to the small town of Summerhaven along with the many trail heads. In the hot Tucson summers, the 45 minute drive and subsequent hike at nearly 9,000 feet was refreshing. It’s an average 20 degrees cooler at the top than the rest of Tucson. Because of the different climate, the plant life is lush and there was a fantastic view of the city.

    The Meadow Loop Trail is one of the shorter hiking trails at 1.6 miles, but if one is not used to the higher altitude and occasionally prone to mild altitude sickness, it’s a good trail to start with.

    Arizona, Food

    Salsa and Tequila Challenge

    For the past few years, the Southern Arizona Arts and Cultural Alliance has held a culinary event that brings hundreds of Southern Arizona residents together to enjoy good food, drinks, music and dancing. Upon entry, patrons were each given a bag of tortilla chips. Chefs and mixologists lined up along the walkways of the first and second floors of the La Encantada shopping center, allowing patrons to enjoy samples of different types of salsa and alcoholic drinks.

    There were many varieties of salsa, some mild, some hot, and while there are plenty with traditional tomato and chili salsas, the fruity salsa stuck out for me, especially those with ingredients I hadn’t normally seen in salsa such as prickly pear, nopales, apples, and even blueberries.

    Now the drinks were spectacular. I was careful in choosing which alcoholic beverages I wanted to sample and particularly enjoyed the more unique and carefully concocted drinks the mixologists put together. I’m not much of a tequila fan. I prefer vodka or rum since we’re on the subject, but these drinks were smooth and delicious.

    One of my favorites was “A Fistful of Rupees” from the Tequila Factory (pictured above), which not only contained spices, but coconut milk. It reminded me of a spiked eggnog since it tasted like a dessert without being overly sweet. There was also the “Gila Monster” from the Gringo Grill and Cantina Restaurant, which was a prickly pear margarita with a hint of cilantro (pictured below). Another favorite was the Patron Cafe and 1921 Tequila Creme Liqueur Salted Caramel Milkshake, coupled with a Cinnamon Sugar Cronut, from the Tucson Country Club.

    Looks like I focused more on the tequila than the salsa. But that’s okay because now I’ve got a list of restaurants to go to.


    Peach Mania Harvest at Apple Annie’s Orchard

    About an hour east of Tucson in Willcox, there’s an orchard that opens its fruiting trees to the public every summer/early fall. Apple Annie’s Orchard has weekly events depending on what’s in harvest. This weekend was Peach Mania, with multiple varieties of ripening peaches available from picking off the trees along with Gala Apples and Hosui Asian Pears.

    Visitors are greeted by the smell of freshly made kettle corn and the staff was offering free samples. “All you can eat” pancakes with homemade peach topping made for a delicious breakfast on a warm Saturday morning. A map of the orchard is provided to help visitors’ orientation and where to pick the fruit. Buckets are available for collecting the ripened fruit and are sold by the pound. You buy what you pick and it’s very easy to go overboard. The aisles of trees that are ready for harvesting are marked to ensure unripened fruit aren’t accidentally picked.

    I hadn’t picked fruit off a tree in many years. When I was younger, we had a kumquat tree in my Los Angeles home, and once they were tangerine in color, we picked them by the bushel. There’s something about picking your own fruit, finding the perfect apple, pear, or peach. The fruit tastes sweeter since it’s fresh the staff even took an extra step to add a list of tips on how to take care of the peaches and how to properly allow them to ripen.

    Apple Annie’s has many events in the upcoming weeks and I will definitely be returning to enjoy the homemade pie and taking home more handpicked fruit.