Colorful Deserts, Mountains Are Handy To Sunny Phoenix

November 04, 1990|By Candyce H. Stapen

The outdoors in and around Phoenix lures the visitor with so much. In the city, and just beyond, the legends and colors of the Sonoran Desert with its Indian lore and pastel painted bluffs, buttes and bold red mountains beckon. Nearby on the Indian Reservation, the trails fill with the green of creosote against wheat-colored rocks, and the scent of sagebrush.

Phoenix is an especially appealing winter getaway with mild temperatures -- not as in the summer, when they can rise to 120 degrees -- and a palette of colors and textures to soothe a dreary winter soul. It offers more than tennis and golf, although the area's fairways and those in nearby Scottsdale offer some of the best putting and driving anywhere.

In Phoenix, 15-foot saguaros, the symbol of the west, grow close to the roadsides. After 50 to 75 years, this cactus, which is found naturally only in the Sonoran Desert, sprouts scarecrowlike arms; as you drive past, these seem to wave you into this rich landscape --a blend of Western cowboy, American Indian and Spanish cultures.

Start the exploration of this odd but captivating coupling of city and desert ways with a visit to the Heard Museum, one of the best collections of Southwestern artifacts in the United States.

In this Spanish-style building of courtyards and intimate galleries, the rooms are cool, the colors hot and the voices and visions clear.

Don't skip the introductory, 30-minute slide show, a blend of American Indian stories set against spectacular countryside shots. In the rooms that follow, the baskets, tapestries, pottery and jewelry weave these peoples' histories by presenting the art of their lives. Like the Arizona landscape, the textures and designs are both earth-hued subtle and suddenly dramatic. The contrasting black and beige stripes of Pima baskets, along with the brown, red and black designs of the pottery of the Mimbres, Hopi and Zuni, capture the eye, and the rows upon rows of turquoise and silver belts and necklaces delight the eye. Be sure to browse the second-floor gallery of Navajo rugs, whose geometric patterns echo the earth's contours.

But the kachina gallery, many of whose Hopi dolls were donated by Sen. Barry Goldwater, exudes a special magic, and appropriately so. Kachinas, after all, represent the Indian spirit essences of all the natural things in the world. The room bears an airy presence enhanced by a background of taped, ancient chants. Some of these kachinas, brightly painted and feathered, are sprightly figures; others, intricately carved from cottonwood roots, and bearing elaborate headdresses and masks, appear more formidable. By sitting on the benches and studying these figures, you sense an Indian way of seeing the world through the rhythms of ritual and nature.

Before leaving the Heard, allow time to browse the gift shop, an interesting melange of Southwestern items from pricey eagles carved by Indian sculptors to buckles, rugs and even chili lovers' cookbooks. The children's collection offers a nice assortment of Indian stories.

At the Desert Botanical Gardens, also within city limits, the Sonoran flora, as well as desert habitats of the rest of the world, come alive with a 35-acre display of 10,000 plants. All outdoors, this is one of only 10 "living museums" accredited by the American Association of Museums. One visit here dispels the notion that deserts are boring and barren. In the two-hour, self-guided walking tour, the visitor discovers not only how many shades of green color the desert, but how many shapes of the imagination flourish there.

One sees the golden round spines of barrel cactus and the brownish green sprawling fingers of the octopus cactus. Tiers of purple-tinged prickly pear spread from behind long spindles of light green aloe vera. Walk by the thin-leafed skunk tree, and you know how it earns its name.

The three-acre Sonoran Desert display, heralded by a red rock and a huge acacia, presents such distinct habitats as a saguaro forest, a desert stream area and a mesquite thicket, where the air smells lightly sweet. Look quickly to catch lizards darting from plant to plant.

With your cactus-spotting skills honed and your desert eyes widened, venture into the Sonoran expanse. Go through it by jeep or glide over it in a hot-air balloon. Whatever your angle, the desert boulders, sagebrush and feathery palo verde cast a spell as old and potent as the one that lured the prehistoric Hohokam Indians here -- the tribe that first settled this river valley centuries ago.

Many companies operate jeep tours and balloon flights. Cowboy Desert Tours president Wayne Fredericks claims exclusive rights motor through the Salt River Indian Reservation, which borders the city, and belongs now to the Pima/Maricopa tribes.

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