Friday, September 10, 2010

Not in California. Not riding a Ducati. (Staycation Expedition No. 3)

Hello, Kawasaki! How very nice to see you again! My dear Kawi needs some work of its own, but these are desperate times. I'm going to Flagstaff for the weekend, holiday traffic be damned!

First I pass by Roosevelt Lake, the very same one I showed you here.

By the time I approach Payson, AZ, it's time for a gas stop and lunch break. Look what I find right in the gas station parking lot!

Indian Fry Bread (aka Doughboys, for those of you back east.) Resistance is futile.

Soon it becomes clear that I am not the only one seeking higher elevations and cooler temperatures for the weekend.

Okay... YOU. Yes, you. Go outside. Grab your bicycle brake lever. Gently vary the amount you pull in the lever, but don't release it. Do that for an hour. In triple digit temperatures. Wearing a helmet, of course, but also about 20 lbs of leather and armor. No cheating and standing in the shade, either. Hand tired? Getting a little warm? Thirsty? That's what it's like to be stuck in traffic on a motorcycle. It's not our favorite part of the game, but still, a bad day on the moto beats a good day in the car any day! Press on!

Sedona, predictably, is a mad house, but I manage a snapshot of its famous red rocks. Look out for that vortex!!

Nearby Oak Creek Canyon is cool, shady and delightful. I enjoy the twisty road, as do seemingly 3 million of greater Phoenix's 4 million people. I can't bear to stop for a photo. Get me out of here!!!

After a lovely evening, and restful night's sleep at "Spa DiBartolo," (my good friend's house in Flagstaff, and a place of down bedding, fine wines and luxury bath products), I'm ready to head out again. The Grand Canyon is so close, so close... but after yesterday's holiday traffic, do I dare? I think the better of it, and head off to slightly less traveled roads and places. I've never seen nearby Wupatki National Monument. No time like the present! I should have time to check out Sunset Crater Volcano, too. It's a beautiful, beautiful morning. Off I go...

...through high desert grassy plains...

...across fields of golden flowers... landscapes whose only logical explanation is that you've been transported to Mars...

...and then...

... then...

Well, the motorcycle went the other way. They do that, sometimes. You might fully intend to turn right, and it turns left! You are powerless to stop it.

Tag! You're it, Big Ditch!!

How clever of me! In other words, by dumb luck, I entered Grand Canyon National Park, through its east entrance rather than the south. No mile long line of cars waiting at the entrance booth! No caravans of RV's to follow! For every traffic headache I had yesterday, today I had a pleasant surprise.

I've seen and hiked the Grand Canyon before, but still, you can't help but stop and gape dumbly at its, its... grandness!

Imagine, hiking over a landscape such as this:

for 10 miles.

Maybe 20.

Or 30.


And then suddenly, you had to stop dead in your tracks, lest you fall into THIS enormous hole in the ground:

It's that unexpected and dramatic.

As I head out the south entrance, there it is. The mile long line of cars waiting to enter the park. But I'm going the other direction, free and clear, with hardly another vehicle on the road to bother me! Wheeeee!

I don't dawdle too much, though. I've got a dinner to attend at the friends of my friends. "He's a great cook. We're having lamb. You'll love it." "Cool," I think. I like lamb. I have NO IDEA what is in store for me.

We arrive at our plush and luxurious surroundings, filled with murals, rich fabrics and textured colors. Cheeses, sausages, wine and breads await. I soon realize this is no ordinary cheese platter. The cheeses are from all corners of Europe; a brie, a parmesan reggiano, a soft fresh white cheese I don't recognize, and a raw milk pecorino from San Gimignano, Italy. (I've been there before, it's lovely.) Three types of dry sausages as well - my favorite being a chorizo from Barcelona. Crusty fresh baguettes, and Italian breadsticks with a hint of truffle. But what brought this appetizer platter into the realm of exquisite was the array of accompanying condiments. Tiny apples the size of olives preserved in Armagnac. A spicy Sicilian pepperoncini jam. Reisling jelly. Guava paste. Almond spread. And, of course, a lovely red wine, the name and origin of which I can not remember.

Not a bad start, eh? I'd never met my hosts before that evening, so I had to contain myself to a certain extent. I took photos, as you see, but I didn't feel quite right arranging food on the platters for the sake of my camera lens, and running about the house turning this light on, that one off and the like. And I would have felt a little silly with notebook in hand, recording every detail. So, yes, I forget what the first wine we had was.

Now we gather at a beautifully appointed dining table. Polenta with truffles (black AND white!) garnished with perfect haricots verts, a citrusy, minty spinach and chickpea salad, a mixture of hearty grains covered with a generous snowstorm of parmesan reggiano (9 grains? was one of them red bhutan rice?). And the lamb, oh yes the racks of lamb. This is quality - glazed, cooked on a bed of herbs, and done Just So. Not one degree under. Not one degree over. That's key in cooking any protein, in my opinion, and anyone who gets this right scores high points in my book. A lovely Spanish wine, made by a friend of my host (if I recall correctly) completed the main course. Elegance surrounds us as we are serenaded by my host's daughter. Just 14 years old, she has the voice of an angel, and sang for us an aria from Handel's Alcina.

Shall we head back out side to the patio to enjoy the cool evening? There is not one, but two cakes to choose from. I opted for a marzipan cake with a chocolate-Vietnamese cinnamon ganache and candied violets. I was not disappointed. Dessert wine anyone? Red (a 12 year old Olivares - Spanish) or white (a floral sweet one from the German estate of Pfeffengen)?

The evening ends with something I've never even heard of before. This doesn't happen to me often, at least at the dinner table. Coffee as made in Galicia, Spain. What a spectacle! My host brings out a large low saucer, the size of a dinner plate, and pours into it a mound of sugar, strips of lemon zest and grappa, to stand in for the traditional Orujo. Flame it up and douse with a jug of excellent coffee, serve in smaller matching saucers, and you've got Queimada. What fun! And delicious!

Many thanks to my gracious hosts and new friends Harold and Diana. And apologies that my photos don't even begin to fairly represent your good offerings that evening.

Ah, all good Staycation Excursions must come to an end, and I headed back the next morning, choosing the simple beauty of the many lakes in the area over the hubbub of Oak Creek Canyon and Sedona. It was a good choice. Fields of wild flowers so big and dense caught my eye from at least a mile away. And there was enough of a chill in the air to make my return to the hot desert air seem almost welcome.

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