Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 25, 2021
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Desert culture

Phoenix and Scottsdale may look like Sodom and Gomorrah, but a hidden art scene blooms

The groom and a few of his male friends wove her white wedding dress trimmed in red with their own hands. She accepted the gift and the other dress too, the one rolled up in a reed mat that she hoped she wouldn't wear for a long, long time. That second dress was the one she'd be buried in.

On her wedding day, she looked a perfect bride in the heavy gown and white deer-skin moccasins and leggings her lover had also made for her. All the invited clans danced into the night and ate paper-thin blue-corn piki bread, her contribution to the event. It was a wonderful day, one to remember all her life.

That was only three years ago and she tells the story over and over again, four or five times a day, to complete strangers. As a guide at the famous Heard Museum ( in downtown Phoenix, this young Hopi woman is happy to share her traditions. She talks about her wedding as she stands in front of a display case which contains a dress almost identical to the one she wore, this one woven over 100 years ago by Hopi men, in an underground kiva.

Today, she's wearing jeans, boots and a top from the Gap, and she looks as hip as any urban 20-something. A couple of times a month, she drives north of Phoenix up the interstate, then a few kilometres on a two-lane road, and she's back with her family.

The Hopi have been living around Second Mesa since their ancestors emerged from the Third World into this, the Fourth Way of Life (see for a saga of the emergence). It is the oldest settlement in continuous habitation on the continent.

Fabulous stories and visions have also emerged out of dry landscape of buttes and mesas and burnt valleys, where squash and beans and blue corn still grow with help from their friends, the katsinas (also spelled katchina). These supernatural creatures are allied to plants, animals, ancestors, wind, rain and lightening and are represented by carved "dolls" used to teach Hopi children the myths of the people (see, one of dozens of sites which also sell katsinas). There are over 400 Katsinas in Hopi lore and not all are benevolent spirits; many are as evil as any boogey man a child could imagine.

Culture Vultures
In the museum, a large display of both nice and nasty katsina dolls rises near the wedding dress. The young Hopi lowers her voice and tells the group that she can't look at them -- they terrify her still. We move silently on to the next exhibit with a small shiver.

There are 39,000 objects housed in the Heard and they all hint at the astonishing lives of the of the vast numbers of people who have lived on the plains and in the valleys of Arizona since time began. Once you've seen artifacts that go back 7000 years, examined the intricate designs on pots that were fired around the turn of the first millennium and marvelled at the fine basketwork and textiles, you can never feel the same way about the landscape outside the door -- even if it has been paved over.

Just down the street is the Phoenix Art Museum ( gleaming with a just-completed $50-million expansion. South of that is the 26,000 square-metre Phoenix Public Library ( Opened 10 years ago, the great room on the fifth floor covers more than 4000 square metres, making it the largest reading room in the world.

A thousand years ago the Hohokam -- skilled farmers who built canals along the Salt River to irrigate their crops -- lived only few kilometres from here. Traces of those canals were still here when the first Americans arrived in 1867. The town was eventually christened Phoenix by "Lord" Darrell Duppa, an Englishman with an assumed title in honour of the city foretold by the Hohokam to rise on the foundations of the old.

Culture with a capital "C" is all around you in the Valley of the Sun, yet few of the 12 million visitors a year experience it. It's tucked away in the Sonoran desert among the malls, resorts, golf courses, gated communities and freeways. It is as unobtrusive as the secret nests where desert pack rats shelter their most glittering treasures.

Eat, Drink, Appreciate
Most come to Phoenix for the splendid weather; the elegance of a fine resort; a dip in a warm pool; a round of golf or a day of shopping at Fashion Square. And why wouldn't they? Still, with a bit of planning you can have all that and culture too.

This June some lucky Doctor's Review reader is going to win a trip to Phoenix/Scottsdale with a six-day stay at the Royal Palms. Would that it were me.

My wife and I have dined twice at the Palm's T. Cook restaurant, rated the best in the city by Zagat. He: the porcini pasta with mushroom, asparagus and truffles. She: the pan-seared squab with roasted eggplant and black-truffle ravioli with mushroom broth. I can't think of a nicer place to stay; it sets the tone for both sensual and cultural adventures.

Ready to absorb some desert culture? Begin where this article began with the Heard Museum. Opened in 1929 by Dwight and Maie Heard when the population of Phoenix was 4000 -- 4 million now live in the valley -- it is housed in an elegant white building and nestled in a glorious southwestern garden.

Like so much of what's best in the valley, it's tucked away, out of sight. Though it's world renowned, you should get directions at the hotel because most Phoenicians have no idea what or where it is.

What the Heard does best is reveal the richness and depth of Southwest culture. Anyone who gets to know the ways of the ancient people soon becomes enthralled, including many who live here. For example, Barry Goldwater and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor have donated their collections of the region's artifacts, and you can marvel at them in the main hall.

Upstairs several rooms recreate the ambiance of residential schools from earlier in the century. You get a sense of the despair Native American kids must have felt when they were snatched away from their families for months on end, forbidden to speak their own language and plunged into a strange culture. That's not the end of it though. You also see the other side, the art lessons, the coaxing out of a way of life that was passing, the introduction into what the Southwest was to become. Sitting at a small school desk, you feel the pain of a life that was dying and the fear and excitement of unknowable tomorrows.

Downstairs in the glass cases are the best of the tiny remnants of what's left of the ancient Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, Laguna, Yavapai, Walapai, Maricopa, Havasupai, Ute, Shoshoni, Navajo, Apache and dozens of other nomadic and pueblo peoples. A couple of hours at the Heard roots you to where you are. You may feel saddened by what's been lost, but what is history if not the letting go of things once held dear?

Getting It Wright
That's enough for one afternoon. Shoot a round of golf tomorrow morning or lounge around the pool reading a pot-boiler; indulge your body at the spa or play tennis. Once you're feeling entirely relaxed, head out on North Scottsdale Road then go east on Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard to Taliesin West (

Wright came here in 1937 to escape the cold and purchased 240 hectares far away enough from Phoenix, so he thought he'd never have to worry about encroachment. Four years later, they built a huge electrical transmission line right across the south end of the property. The architect went right to the top to get the line changed, but even President Harry Truman wasn't able to help him.

So he modified the main building to face north and look out across his piece of private desert. The land is now hemmed in by the kind of houses Wright would have abhorred, even as the low-slung bungalows often betray their heritage. The wide, flat sloping roofs and broad overhangs were first seen in Wright's own buildings.

Whatever you think of Wright's work, you'll be grateful to him for saving this swath of stupendous desert. This is what the valley was like before Home Depot, Old Navy, Wal-Mart, Lowe's, Krispy Kreme and other big box stores invaded by the dozen and surrounded themselves with trackless asphalt parking lots.

Touring Taliesin West is a quiet joy. The place still operates as the architectural school it's always been. What's so delightful about it is that it captures so well the hand of the architect. Elegant as it is with it's theatre and stained glass and fountains and floods of light, the buildings have a rough, handmade look, as though the artist is still at work.

Bring a lunch and plan to sneak away and picnic somewhere on the grounds. As part of their training, students build small, often highly creative, shelters out on the property, well worth the visit. There's also an excellent store which stocks books on the architect and his students' work and sells lamps and other Wright designs. (Hint: the secret is out about this bit of Sonoran culture -- call and ask what time you should come to avoid the crowd.)

The Art Of Shopping
On the way back down Scottsdale Road, stop at Kierland Commons ( It's a glossy, high-end shopping centre that would be right at home in Los Angeles. The terrace at the Zinc Bistro is a fine place for a late-afternoon glass of wine, and you might decide to stay on for dinner, though there are many other choices from the fun but ubi-quitous P.F. Chang's to the more organic Greene House.

Coffee more your line? There's the inevitable Starbucks, but you might prefer the News Café in front of the fountain with its timed jets of water that seem to burst from the centre of the small plaza. On a spring day there's usually a gang of kids romping in the spray.

Separate buildings house the shops along a street lined with palms. You'll find clothing stores like Anthropologie, Luck Brand Dungarees, Talbots and J. Crew. Bose, the stereo people, are here and so are The Sharper Image and Crate & Barrel. The California-based home furnishing store Z-gallerie offers over-the-top designs at under-the-top prices.

Shopping is a way of life in Phoenix. To see native fauna up close, set aside a few hours for an "anthropological" excursion to storied Fashion Square ( Loiter outside Neiman Marcus to catch a glimpse of the chest-enhanced Scottsdale matron; note the four-inch heels; the big glossy hair; the youthful derrière; guess at her age and don't be fooled by the tight smooth face and impeccable make up -- she's 60 if she's a day. Keep an eye out too for her tanned and toned mate in his Saks Fifth Avenue slacks ($1120), his open-neck silk shirt by Versace ($595), and his Gucci loafers ($700). He saves money on socks; he doesn't wear any.

There are dozens of shops in Fashion Square anchored by department stores Nordstrom, Macy's, Dillard's and Neiman Marcus. Everybody has to go there at least once and it can be a whole lot of fun. It's full of temptations so you might want to leave your credit cards at home -- or not.

Gaze and Graze
Scottsdale is more than expensive real estate, eye-popping homes, golf resorts and stores, it's also fine art galleries. The city fathers suggest it's the fourth-biggest art market in the US behind New York, LA and Santa Fe. Maybe yes, maybe no, but there are unquestionably a lot of galleries clustered around Old Town Scottsdale.

The best time to gallery gaze is during the Scottsdale Art Walk ( held on Thursday evening. Many of the 100 or so galleries are open late and often serve wine and appetizers. That would be an excellent time to make a dinner reservation at one of the good restaurants situated around the Scottsdale Civic Center (

The area features a nine-hectare park tucked away east of Scottsdale Road between Brown and 75th. It's a spot most visitors miss. There's loads of free parking and the park itself is a wonder to behold. Early every morning, a small army of Mexican gardeners primp and water every plant and flower. Strolling paths wind between tropical vegetation and, in the evening, discrete lighting creates its own bit of magic.

The lawns and trees are bordered by several good restaurants. You could put together a special late-Thursday afternoon program by visiting the Civic Center Gardens around 4pm and, during your botanical promenade, choosing a restaurant and making a dinner reservation. Then set off on the Art Walk.

The Bell Tolls for Thee
Sleep in late, relax around the hotel the next day yet again -- is there no end to this life of luxury? But wait, there's more culture to take in right under your nose. Save some time for a visit to Cosanti (6433 East Doubletree Ranch Road, off Scottsdale; tel: 800-752-3187;

Cosanti is the site of the original studio of Paolo Soleri, the visionary Italian architect who now lives north of Scottsdale at Arcosanti, where his version of the city of tomorrow is slowly rising on the edge of a canyon near Cordes Junction.

The Scottsdale location is better known for a foundry that produces characteristic cast-bronze bells: to see one is to want one. There are tours of the facility, which has remained pretty much as it was when Soleri settled here in 1956 -- a bit of a miracle in itself. It gives you a glimpse of what Scottsdale used to be like when nature had more to say about how things looked than the developers.

By now you may have wearied of the endless stream of gourmet meals and you might be ready for something a little more basic. A few miles south of Cosanti, you'll find El Toro in small Lincoln Plaza at the corner of Scottsdale and Lincoln. The Mexican restaurant is part of a chain, but I've seldom found a better spot for a stick-to-the-ribs Mexican meal. Do have the guacamole made at your table. The margaritas are superb, if you like that sort of thing.

Also in the Plaza is Trader Joe's, a concept in food shopping that to visit is to adore. After dinner have a look and pick up a Fearless Flyer which describes some of the more notable offerings. Don't miss the cheeses -- how do they keep the prices so low? -- and the wines. Their Charles Shaw sells for $2.99 a bottle (a dollar higher than it does in California, where it's affectionately known as "Two-buck Chuck.") Don't be shy, take a bottle back and sample it in the privacy of your room -- you'll be surprised at its presumption.

The cultural tour of Phoenix is winding down and you may want to spend the last day or two doing nothing at all. That's a good choice, but if the intellectual fires still need stoking, venture back downtown and visit the library. The innovative design alone is worth the trip. You could also save a few hours for the art gallery, if only to say you did it all.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.