First Stop: Phoenix
Continental Airlines continued to impress us on the final leg of the trip between Houston and Phoenix.—although I have to admit I raise an eyebrow to a $5.00 Coors light. Again, though, I wish I had gotten the name of the flight attendant who just added a bit more fun to the trip. If anyone from Continental is reading this, it was an older woman—sorry, darling, I don’t know how else to put it but you were put together really well and had a lot of life in you—on Flight 1705.
The surprise about Phoenix is how big of a city it is. I had no idea. Someone told us it’s the fifth largest city in the United States, and it just goes on for miles. You can see it from the air that it just sprawls. Sue and I found the hostel after about an hour wait for the bus at the airport. We’re trying to do as much as we can on a budget (that means as cheaply as possible without compromising our trip), and when we learned that Phoenix had a bus system we thought we give it a go, saving ourselves two days’ of rentals. But the sad reality is that the bus system in Phoenix, as it is in most American cities, is woeful. We spent more time waiting for buses, and therefore wasting time, than we really wanted. Sue and I figured there are maybe three cities in the entire U.S. with decent public transit systems: New York, Boston, and Washington. It seems that with the Big Three begging for money in Washington, and President-elect Obama promising jobs and a greener environment, a large scale, nationwide public transportation system would be just the ticket. It’s green, it makes jobs, it promotes a healthier life, grows industry. Good idea, right? So why don’t I think it will happen?
We got to the Central Station in Phoenix and missed our connection--that particular bus had stopped running for the night--but the hostel was within walking distance anyway, at least walking distance for us. We walk a lot. We ended up finding the street but couldn’t find the actual hostel, going down this dark street looking at house numbers. Suddenly we hear this friendly voice out of the darkness, “Are you looking for the hostel?” It was Antonio, a young student who lived upstairs at the hostel. He said we had that hostel look: backpacks shouldered, and a lost look.
The hostel in Phoenix is a safe little hippie haven hid behind a stand of bamboo. Sue, a gregarious, helpful woman with a very liberal bent, runs the place, and there was the usual assortment you’ll find at a hostel. A serious young man was eating a sandwich made of bread that appeared to me to have bits of straw in it. He was riding a motorcycle down to South America, and said he was going to stop in Costa Rica and learned some sustainable living skills. Okay. An older woman traveling alone.
The room was neat and tidy. Phoenix on a Sunday is a bit weird. A bit of a ghost town, with the only denizens being the homeless, the down and out, and crack addicts. We figured everyone was out in their homes in the suburbs, but upon leaving the next day it didn’t seem much better. Antonio told us that the recession hit hard there. Construction is the main work, and that pretty much went bye-bye.
We hit the Heard Museum, a great place to learn about the local Native American culture. We stayed in Phoenix for a day, thinking we’d hit the Heard Museum and the Botanical Gardens to learn more about what we’d see up north in Flagstaff and Sedona. More waiting for buses, and a long bus trip to the Botanical Gardens proved fruitless. No one seemed to know where the Gardens were—a curious thing. It seemed a lot of people we talked to in Phoenix, aside from the crazy crack addicts, had no idea where anything was in the city. And if they did, they gave us directions using the points of the compass. It was always, you have to go west, or east. The Botanical Gardens required a reservation, something that wasn’t in the guide book. It would have been nice to know since we wasted hours getting there, wandering around looking for the Gardens including getting on the phone with them (walk north, when later I figured out she meant south) and riding back to the hostel again.
Another note on Phoenix. It kind of looks like what the world may start to look like if this recession really takes hold. Kind of a ghost town. It was all neat and clean,, but everything was empty. The streets, the museums, just a lack of any vitality or energy. The urban area itself wasn’t very people friendly. And there are a lot of homeless and/or very poor. A lot. Again, on Sunday, that was pretty much all there was on the streets. Kind of a weird, Road Warrior kind of world.
I'm not complaining. Sue and I don't always have to have pretty when we travel. We travel, as much as anything, to learn about the world, and believe me, you can learn a lot sitting on a bus loaded with the down and out. You learn what's out there. You learn a bit of their lives. You can see their desperation. Their mistakes. Their meanness and their kindness. They'll reach into their pockets for a quarter a young mother doesn't have, and they'll stroke the head of their sleeping boyfriends. They look mean and irritable and sometimes downright scary. You see the demons that infect and inflict their minds, and you can't help but have a little pity for them.