Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Good But Not Great Museum of Northern Arizona


Passing through Flagstaff recently, Ruth & I had time for one attraction. “One of the Great Regional Museums of Our World” it trumpeted, so we tried the Museum of Northern Arizona.  It deserved no more than a 4 Compass designation.

North of town and across Highway 180 from the H.S. Colton Research Center, which was off-limits to casual visitors like us, MONA consisted of 6 permanent galleries surrounding a seasonally opened courtyard.  Colton was this Museum’s founder in 1928.  There was another gallery specializing in temporary exhibits and a second large courtyard.  Four of the permanent galleries featured native American crafts–Navajo rugs, jewelry from 3 cultures, etc.  Many individual pieces were certainly attention-getting like the spiny oyster shell necklace pictured, but the old-style displays needed refreshing.  In the Ethnology, Native Cultures room, for example, there were many native baskets.  Too many.  Instead of offering some representative examples of the  weavers’ craft, so many baskets were out that individual appreciation dimmed.   It was like going into a store with so many choices of ice cream that you leave without buying any.

Other galleries dealt with Archeology, especially the results of research on pueblo cultures, and the Geology of the Colorado Plateau.  This museum’s focus on the 130,000 square mile Four Corner area above 5,000 feet made it regional.   The reception desk lady told us that this was the main difference between MONA and the far more eclectic, 5 Compass Heard Museum down in Phoenix.

While I looked at some info about the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley, scene of many classic Western movies, Ruth went to the gift and book stores. While Monument Valley has many mesas and buttes, I learned, it really isn’t a valley.  “How are they?” I asked when Ruth walked by empty-handed. “Expensive,” she summarized.

On the way out, we learned about the Museum of Northern Arizona’s most compelling feature, its Ventures Program.   Spring through autumn 1 to 5 day Colorado Plateau excursions occur with names like Exploring Escalante and Wupatki/Sunset Crater Plant Hike.  Venture leaders are writers, geologists, etc. who tend to be on the staff, board trustees, or noted specialists with close times to either the Museum of Northern Arizona or the Colton Research Center.  Online registration is possible.


Lovingly Stuffed at the French Laundry


Looking for a special way to celebrate Ruth’s birthday, I suggested  we go to Yountville in the Napa Valley and dine at Tom Keller’s French Laundry, one of the 50 bet restaurants in the world according to Restaurant Magazine.

Naively, I called to make a reservation four months before the event and was told to call back at 10 a.m. exactly two months before the occasion. Naively, I didn’t call until 10:45 and was told, of course, that The French Laundry was completely booked.  But I could get on the waiting list.

I gave up, but Ruth didn’t and 6 days before the occasion TFL called and said we’d be welcomed at 11:45 a.m., the first seating, which wasn’t our first choice.  But we were in.  We received an e-mail reminding us to re-confirm 72 hours prior and to honor the dress code–for me, jacket required.

Not used to having a big meal at 11:45 in the morning, I checked the Laundry’s understated website hoping for a hamburger and fries option.   Again, naive.  Since this was a few years ago, the prix-fixe menu was $250 per person.  It’s now $295.

Yountville, looking anonymously prosperous with a mind-your-own-business aura, was shrouded in fog with a light, surprisingly icy rain falling at 11: 30 on December 28 as we sat in the rental, waiting.  “This is silly,” I said.  “Let’s go in.”

We were greeted as if the staff’s favorite diners, taken to an elegantly discreet dining space, and seated at a table for two.  A large round table in the room’s center was already occupied by a multi-generational family also celebrating a birthday.   The tone was hushed, almost religious.  Understated lighting.  Brown and tan carpeting.  A perfect vase with baby calla lilies and white mums with green holly berries graced our table.

I used a visit to the men’s room as an excuse to see the upstairs dining area.   When I returned Ruth was looking at the multi-paged wine list and discussing her birthday with a young woman dressed like an investment banker.   I was also handed a wine list as the woman said warmly to Ruth, “Would you like to start with a glass of champagne to celebrate, Mrs. Harbaugh?”  I just happened to be looking at the choice as Ruth said its name.  It was $40 a glass.  Ruth smiled and ordered it.  I passed.  I almost passed out.

Menus were brought, the cover was completely beige with a tiny clothes pin near its center.   As if suddenly vegetarian, we both ordered the Taste of Vegetables.

The first of nine courses was a minuscule Valley Oak Acorn Flan with compressed Fuyu persimmons and black truffles.   “I wish I could take a picture,” Ruth sighed.  It was beyond delicious.   The service, which was included, was assured.  Each server had comprehensive knowledge of ingredients and preparation.

Next a waitperson brought an unexpected ball the size of a marble, some type of cheese, establishing a precedent for frequent off-menu treats.

Rolls were gently set down, and we were told that one of the butters was from Vermont and the other local.

The salad appeared.   Compressed Shin Li pears, mizuna and juniper berry “Aigre-Doux” looked like an austere Japanese print brought to three-dimensions in the exact center of the plate.

For the next two hours we were presented with a succession of dishes of unparalleled excellence, some with unlikely allure—watercress pudding, sea beans, parsley root, stewed chestnuts.   Was the “Caprino Lucano”, a symphony of fennel bulb, toasted pecans, mâche, and sour Michigan cherry purée better than the Diane St. Claire Buttermilk sherbet with granola and honey-poached cranberries?  I savored each bite.

Along about the seventh course I decided that this experience was, without question, worth the expense.  Small servings were turning into vast fullness.

On the way out with gifts, shortbread cookies and chocolate candy, I spied a comment in the guest book, “Lovingly stuffed.”  Indeed.  We both knew that for the rest of our lives together, Ruth’s birthdays would always, at some point, include the question, “Remember the year we dined at The French Laundry?”



The Petrified Forest’s Painted Desert Area


The Painted Desert was added to the Petrified Forest National Monument in 1932.  Both became a National Park in 1962 creating an entity that is actually 2 parks in one with 2 entrances and 2 visitors’ centers.  Exit 311 from I-40 led to the Painted Desert Visitor Center and a short loop with 8 desert view points, one of which afforded a view of Humphrey’s Peak because it was a clear winter day.  HP is the highest elevation in Arizona at 12,633 feet and 150 miles away.  Yes, the air was that pristine on the day Ruth and I saw the Painted Desert.

The Painted Desert Visitor Center provided an orientation film, information via conversation with rangers, and a few exhibits but not as many as the South Entrance’s Rainbow Forest Museum 28 miles away.

Perhaps because the Painted Desert area is less than 1/3 of the total National Park, there was only 1 trail accessible from the driving loop. It afforded dramatic views of the Painted Desert as we walked along the edge of a mesa and through rim woodland on a one mile round trip from Tawa Point.

The main reason to take this drive, however, was to see the National Historic Landmark at Kachina Point, The Painted Desert Inn Museum.  The Inn was built in 1924 and renovated as a Depression era project in the late 1930s.  Because of World War II, PDI was only opened until 1942. Beginning in 1947 The Fred Harvey Company operated a restaurant here when the Painted Desert Inn was a notable stop on Route 66.  Harvey served meals until 1963.  A Hopi artist named Fred Kabotie did several well-preserved, delightful murals on Inn walls like the one above.  Scheduled to be razed in 1972, PDI’s original furniture, period lunch counter, etc. were saved by preservationist protest.  It opened as a museum and VC in 1975.  There was someone there to smile and answer our questions.

Just before the road crossed I-40 to the Petrified Forest area, it intersected with historic Route 66.  This is the only Park in the entire system with a section of it.


The 5 Compass Mob Museum


“Museums are boring.  Attractions are fun!”  This was the advertising come-on for Mob Attraction in Las Vegas at The Tropicana.  Ruth & I went there in early winter, 2013.  It boasted more than 500 artifacts, 3D Holograms, and Live Actors whom we had to interact with in a crime scenario that was kind of silly.  I wrote about it on April 9, 2013, but you won’t find that blog in the archives because I deleted it.  Mob Attraction closed in November, 2013. But another attraction dealing with Las Vegas’ criminal history is truly thriving. Ruth and I spent at least four hours there in January, 2014, and we still hadn’t seen it all.   It’s called The Mob MUSEUM.

Its other name is a bit more descriptive but rather unwieldy–National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement.  It’s in the part of downtown Las Vegas at 300 Stewart Avenue that is undergoing a complete redo and within walking distance of the Fremont Street Experience and Container Park.   The building it’s in, an old post office and federal courthouse, is as interesting as the displays that take up 3 floors.  The 2nd was the most interesting to me.

The Kefauver Hearings in the 1950s were held in a courtroom on the 2nd floor, and MUSEUM visitors can choose to sit in it and watch a 9 minute film about The Hearings and their impact.  A crime syndicate figure during World War II boasted that organized crime was bigger than U.S. Steel, and by 1950 the Federal Government finally had the guts to push back.  Senator Estes Kefauver, who ran for President in 1952 and 56 but didn’t get nominated, presided over a committee that traveled to many cities with organized crime connections.  It called 800 witnesses to tell what they knew. When before the committee for the first time, most denied any knowledge or claimed they couldn’t remember.  When the committee wisely came back, many discovered that they actually did remember and some cooperated.   This made TV history.   People with brand new black and white sets watched in record numbers, creating the first mega-event in TV history. Today’s equal would be The Super Bowl.  The other exhibit on the 2nd floor that I really liked was a film connecting Lee Harvey Oswald to the mob and speculating about the assassination of President John Kennedy.

But visitors to the Mob MUSEUM begin on the 3rd floor where the roots of organized crime are examined beginning with the 20 million immigrants who came to the United States between 1892 and 1924 and ending, roughly, with mob control of professional sports.  What’s between is truly fascinating and a real time swallower.

By the time I reached the first floor I was experiencing serious burnout.  This was unfortunate because its exhibits explored such interesting subjects as surveillance of citizens with suspected mob connections, witness protection, and the media’s long-term and continuing fascination with crime–The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, CSI, etc.   Surveillance is especially relevant since it is, or should be, in the news due to The Government’s purposeful tracking of supposedly every citizen to learn about possible terrorist connections. There’s even some info about ABSCAM, the subject that inspired the much-awarded, 5 Compass film American Hustle.


Chihuahuan and Great Basin Deserts


The Chihuahuan Desert extends deeply into Mexico.  Only about 1/3 of it is in the United States.  New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas claim parts of it.  It’s largest city, Ciudad Juarez, is in Mexico just across the border from El Paso, Texas.  Their combined population is about 2.2 million.

Chihuahua is a just 8,000 year old.  Its size, ranging from 140,000 to over 200,000 square miles, depends on the source of the information.  The National Park Service calls its boundaries ‘imprecise”. What is not so much in dispute is that it’s the second largest desert among the 4 and the most biologically diverse.  It has, for example, more species of cacti than any desert in the world but none predominate.  Its indicator species is the lowly creosote bush.

Some of its inhabitants like the kangaroo rat can live without water. Most are nocturnal.  A commonly seen bird is the roadrunner.  The cartoons don’t deal with the unseemly side of this 20 mph runner.  They love to eat lizards and baby rattlesnakes which they peck to death with purposeful blows.

Due to an elevation range from roughly 2,000 to 12,000 feet, Chihuahua has cool winters and about 7 mountain systems.  It also has more rain than the others even though it is too far from the Pacific Ocean to benefit from its storms.  Rain comes mostly during one season, July to October.

There are 3 National Parks clearly in the Chihuahuan Desert–Carlsbad Caverns, Guadalupe Mountains, and Big Bend.  To learn about this Desert, Big Bend is probably the best of the 3 to visit and it has a couple of singular attractions.  A river runs through it–the less than mighty Rio Grande, which has carved some scenic canyons.  Secondly, Big Bend National Park is the only one in the system with a complete mountain range in it, the Chisos.  Big Bend is very remote but very wonderful.

I wrote extensively about the 4th and largest U.S. desert on January 25, 2014, under the title “America’s Deserts–Chihuahua, Sonora, Mojave and ?”.  That blog is available in the archives, so I’ll just add just a few bits of info not covered.   If the Great Basin Desert has an indicator species, it might be the fascinating bristlecone pine tree.  The hardier ones are mostly found between 9,500 and 11,000 feet, an elevation range that is fairly rare in this vast expanse of desert.  The ones you’re likely to see crossing it grow faster and larger but die younger.  They only live about 400 years.  The oldest bristlecones are way up near treeline where survival is far more difficult. They often look dead but are not because their tough resin prevents rot. The hardiest ones can live for more than 3,000 years.

The Great Basin Desert is a place of sagebrush-covered valleys interrupted by unspectacular north-south mountain ranges.  There’s very little water because mountain run-off has no outlet, collects in shallow salty lakes, and disappears in the heat of summer.  The vast inland sea on the east side of this Desert has mostly disappeared and is now the Bonneville Salt Flats of racing fame.  All that’s left of this once huge body of water is the Great Salt Lake.

There’s only one National Park in the entire Desert–Great Basin.  It includes much of the Snake Range that contains the tallest mountain in Nevada, Wheeler Peak.   A summer visit to Great Basin National Park usually involves a drive almost to its top, some hiking, and Lehman Caves.