In December 2016, my first Christmas in Portland, I decided that I needed some warmth and met up in Phoenix with one of my oldest and dearest friends from Virginia. We are both passionate about modern art, so we hit up this culturally-rich city's plethora of museums, including the Phoenix Art Museum.
Lucky for us, they were hosting a Kehinde Wiley exhibition. If you haven't seen his work make the rounds the past couple of years, you're missing out. I think he's one of the most relevant painters of our time; often juxtaposing his modern-day figures in classical poses, amidst elaborate environments, more often conjured in Renaissance paintings. He was recently commissioned to paint Barack Obama's official portrait for the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. I can't wait to see what he does.
We had both dinner and breakfast at the instagramable Royal Palms Resort and Spa. This place is magical, and if I lived in the area, this would be my go-to for hosting special events.
But the main goal of the trip was to visit the Upper Antelope Canyon in Page, Arizona.
This was a bucket-list trip for my dear friend. And I'm so glad we drove the 4.5 hours from Phoenix to experience this geological marvel. You can't actually drive yourself to the canyons, but are required to book a tour with one of the local Navajo outfitters to access this sacred area. We found this out the hard way, pulling up to the canyons only to see signs that say, "No Private Vehicles". Thank goodness for cellphones, because we were able to find an outfitter and join their last tour of the day, which started in their office at a strip-mall a couple miles away. They pile you into groups of about a dozen, and drive you to the canyon in a large, open-air van/jeep. You don't want to arrive too late because it gets dark and cold. And the best conditions for photography are sunny days, and when the light is directly overhead. The guides are amazing, and are super helpful in positioning you to get the best shots. We had intended to spend some time at Horseshoe Bend, but by the time we returned to the strip mall, we were running out of daylight. So we did a speed-tour of Horseshoe, which left me longing to return.
If I recall correctly, we had originally planned to drive to Sedona that night, but opted instead of find a cheap hotel and rest for the night. While we were there, a friend of mine in California, who'd seen my Facebook photos of our trip, texted me and pointed out that we were a mere 30 minutes away from Amangiri in Canyon Point, Utah. Now, if you aren't familiar with Aman Resorts, Google them. Go. I'll wait.
Ok, so now you know that if you're near an Aman Resort, you have to be flexible about your itinerary and find a way to fit a visit in. So the next morning, instead of driving directly to Sedona, we took a detour to Amangiri, oohed and awwed over the property, then had breakfast next to their beautiful, steam-enshrouded pool.
We then drove the 3.5 hours to Sedona, where my friend visited a psychic (because that's what you do in Sedona), and I went for a hike around Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte. Sedona is famous for its vortexes – confluences of energy that emanate from the earth that are said to be felt as vibrations. There are apparently 4 of these vortexes in Sedona, all radiating various combinations of energy: masculine (strength, self-confidence, motivation), feminine (goodness, patience, compassion) and balance. The red rocks and buttes all over the place are worth checking out too.
After Sedona, we drove to Scottsdale to get more of our art on at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West, and the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. At Taliesin, which is a lot more rustic than I expected, we toured the house and studio. The living quarters are surprisingly small and the low ceiling makes even the open living room feel cramped. But the outdoor areas are full of color and whimsey. The tour was worth hearing Wright's personal history and tragedy.
At SMoCA, James Turrell's "Knight Rise", one of only 14 of his skyspaces, is open to the public in the US. I'm sure I'm not the only one that has experienced this space as almost a religious experience. It's reminiscent of the oculi in ancient buildings, like the Pantheon in Rome. The dome-shaped room is lined with a built-in cement shelf for sitting. As the sun shifts in the sky, the light changes within the room. The circular opening frames the beautiful, blue Arizona sky, and forces you to stretch your eye muscles to focus on what is foreground vs background.
I've never driven across the country, and had never really wanted to. I don't enjoy long car rides due to lower back issues. But this trip, with all the majestic views of canyons and buttes, red rocks and deserts, has inspired in me a new desire to see more of this country's wide open spaces.