I'm driving across the barren expanses of Arizona when the city of Phoenix rises from the dust. It feels contrived - who in their right mind would build a town in the absolute middle of nowhere? I have a little drive around downtown looking for someone to pose this question to, but it's completely deserted. I drive around uptown, and that's deserted too. I pull over, open the car door but quickly slam it shut. I have just discovered why there are no people in Phoenix - it's because it is hotter than the sun.
I also discover that I actually need to be in Scottsdale, not Phoenix. When I get there, a couple of wonderful things happen. Firstly, I check into a Holiday Inn Express, where I am given a surprisingly nice suite of rooms for $69, and told that they are dispensing unlimited free beer. And then I walk a few blocks in the 110º heat to an unpromising parade of shops set back from the main road, and have dinner at Atlas Bistro.
I start with veal sweetbreads, which are exceptional. For my main, I order the special. Taking a small pig, they have made their own coarse sausagemeat seasoned with fennel. Then they have detached the eye of the loin and rolled it, together with the sausage, in the belly. They cooked it for five hours or so, and served it with wild mushrooms and pea shoots. It sounds almost certain to be too much, but isn't. It is actually an incredible expression of everything piggy - the different textures encased in the soft but crisp skin, and with nothing on the plate to detract from them. It is a brilliantly conceived dish, perfectly executed.
Which is good news for my friend Erin, because she is working in the kitchen here for the next couple of months, learning from the two chefs, Keenan and Joshua. I meet them all after dinner and they've invited me in for a day when I'm passing back through town, an offer I cannot refuse.
Since you can't actually go outside in Phoenix, we head a few hours up the road to the picturesque little town of Sedona. It's much cooler at just 90º (it was still 100º in Phoenix at two in the morning), and a lot more interesting. The town nestles in among stunning red rock formations that shimmer in the twilight.
Things get even more interesting as the sun sets, but the photographs don't do it justice. People are clicking away merrily, myself included, but there is something inherently boring about the results. Looking towards the disappearing sun though, the sky takes on an unusual bluey-grey hue, and there are some interesting silhouettes in the foreground. Everyone else's cameras are pointing the other way and I can't help but think that they're missing the best bit.
The good food theme from Phoenix continues up here too. The Cowboy Club turns out a decent bit of buffalo and appetizers that include snake brochettes. We drink a good local blend, and are treated to an incredible lightning show as a heavy storm rolls across the night sky. I was desperate to take photos but some things you just have to enjoy in the moment. After a long hike the next morning, and an incredible lunch in surely the most unlikely located Korean cafe in the world, we head back to Phoenix and leave the interesting landscape behind us for a few days.