Jenna’s AZ bucket list No. 71 – See the Gin Blossoms Live

… at the Arizona State Fair, no doubt!

It’s hard for me to think of any other definitive Arizona bands that we followed, growing up, except for Jimmy Eat World and the Refreshments. I don’t really like Jimmy Eat World, or the Refreshments, musically. Just my personal taste.
But, growing up, I was very into the Gin Blossoms. In junior high I knew all the lyrics to every single song on their 1992 break-out album, Another Miserable Experience.

So when my friend Allyson Bills invited me to see them at the Arizona State Fair this year, I couldn’t say no.

It’s actually a wonder I’ve never seen them in concert live before this year. Actually, I won tickets to their show at some out-of-the-way Northern Arizona casino, playing a bill with Everclear, earlier this year, but I couldn’t go. I had to give my tickets away.

So, when I finally saw them in 2017 after being a fan for like 25 years, it was well worth the wait. They did all my faves like “Hey, Jealousy,” “Found Out About You” and “Allison Road,” and some of their biggest hits like “Hear it From You” and “Follow You Down.” And a special highlight of the show was a Tom Petty cover, as an homage, since we lost his earlier this year.

All in all, the GB didn’t disappoint. Now, time to kick back with some Hendrick’s or Beefeater and try to forget those crappy $12 state fair beers I drank before the ferris wheel…

butter balls
This is what you eat at the AZ State Fair.
Robin Wilson, lead singer of the Gin Blossoms, at the Arizona State Fair, Oct. 2017.
Deep fried cheesecake state fair food
Deep-fried cheesecake with a total sweetie, Allyson Bills. AZ state fair Oct. 2017
Gin Blossoms power jam at AZ State Fair 2017

Jenna’s AZ Bucket list No. 72 – Pueblo Grande

To celebrate the Smithsonian Museum’s National Museum Day (@museum day, #museumdaylive) my husband and I journeyed to the edge of downtown Phoenix to visit the Pueblo Grande Museum.

We both suspected that we’d gone as kids on school fields trips, since we both grew up in the Phoenix area, but we couldn’t remember the details.

Even though this is a small museum and site compared to some other Native American sites we have visited, it is impressive and we appreciated the conservation efforts. You are allowed to walk around the Mound complex on a paved path. I remember feeling bored here as a kid because the colors are very monotone, but I appreciate it a lot more as an adult. I took a class last year in anthropology using my college tuition waiver (one of my favorite job perks!) and I learned a lot about mound people and culture. It’s amazing to think that people settled in the Phoenix area almost a millenia and a half ago and get their society going for about 1,000 years. The Pima Indians of Arizona call them the Hohokam, “those who are are gone.” No one really knows why these ancient people died out or went away, and they left scant clues. IMG_1320.jpg

My husband was most impressed with their amazing engineering skills. They built dozens of canals that are scattered around the Valley area. They would use certain ones forever, it seemed, but others were used a short time and abandoned or diverted. Back then, the old river flowed steadily, so they had a constant fresh water source. This allowed them to cultivate crops and support their community. Some estimates say that at one time around Pueblo Grande there were 40,000 people spread out in small farming villages. Anthropologists say that learning to cultivate crops allowed the people the freedom to travel and trade. It’s clear that some of them traveled as far as the California coast, because a lot of the jewelry they left behind was made from shell.

I really enjoyed this opportunity to explore an important heritage site, basically located in our own backyard. The experience reminded me of visiting the La Brea Tar Pits ten years ago. I still can’t get over the fact a site like this, thousands of  years old, exists right in the heart of Phoenix, like La Brea, a bubbling pit of black tar, still exists, right in the middle of LA.

Thanks, Smithsonian Museum! IMG_1319.jpg

Jenna’s AZ Bucket List no. 73 – Grand Canyon Railroad

I’ve always wanted to try the Grand Canyon Railroad, ever since I heard an ad on a local radio stati0n when I was out in Thatcher, AZ, for an overnight trip a few years ago.

I decided to really make the experience authentic for our family we should stay at the Grand Canyon Railroad Hotel, too. We were pleased that the hotel has a giant kids’ playground nearby, a beautifully refurbished indoor pool and spa (I’m a little biased because my dad worked on this pool) and a nice convenience store for RV visitors. Also if your family stays at the hotel, you can tour their small on-site train museum and depot, eat in the hotel restaurant and get up early in the morning to watch a live cowboy action show.

We rose early because we needed to check out before we boarded the train. Boarding happens promptly at 9:30, so you do not want to be late!

We were so happy about how much fun this was. The train has many historic cars, refurbished so it feels like you are back in the 1920s. We rode in the Pullman class car, which is literally an old passenger car restored from that era. I was a little apprehensive because I read a review online that this car had no central AC. However, with the windows open, we found the ride to be quite pleasant. Plus, if you need to get up, stretch your legs or get a snack, the cafe car is only one car over.

During your fun ride up from Historic Williams AZ to canyon country, traveling marauders sing country tunes, yodel at you and tell stories. I heard that occasionally the train even gets robbed by bandits!

We loved this experience. The 2.5 hours to the canyon flew by because there was so much to do. We were even allowed to pack our own lunch. There’s a dining car, a bar car, a dome car for better viewing and luxury cars available, too.

The website, however, isn’t the best. I couldn’t figure out much about what the experience would be like from their page. I think they need to make the website simpler and more straightforward. I’m a seasoned traveler, so we figured out things OK. But I feel the ticket ordering process is unnecessarily complicated. You don’t really know what you’re getting when you order. If we hadn’t stayed at the hotel the night before, I don’t know what we would have done about camping. Also, just because you can bring food, doesn’t mean you should bring a lot. We almost brought a giant cooler with us. That would have been a pain in the BUTT to carry around the canyon rim for 3-4 hours!

Many of the structures at the Grand Canyon’s South Rim were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a government agency started by FDR to get people back in jobs at the end of the Great Recession and, simultaneously, an effort to build up the U.S.’s national parks and infrastructure. Read more:

There’s a rule you can’t buy plastic water bottles inside Grand Canyon because there’s been too much trouble with garbage, so you must bring your own water in and take it out. We were so concerned about the availability of water, we brought way too much. It turns out there are many, many water bottle refill stations along the rim, sometimes you just have to look around or ask.

Also, if you are negligent or irresponsible with your food and a squirrel gets it or you feed them, a park ranger WILL slap you with a $500 fine. We saw a family get fined and get angry just because their kid dropped something. You need to stay away–far, far away from the wildlife. Fleas in Coconino and Navajo counties in Arizona recently have tested positive for the Bubonic Plague. I am not kidding. Do not feed the wildlife.

Finally, visitors REALLY, REALLY need to be told to bring enough water, sunblock and sun shade devices. There’s not much shade on the rim, nor on the trails. You don’t know how many extremely sunburned folks we saw walking around. That’s how you end up with skin cancer.

So, even though the train tickets were quite expensive (I paid more than $200 RT for our little family of four) it was worth it. I would recommend this experience to families, couples, or winter visitors–appropriate for all ages.

Rent these far-looking binocs for only a few cents.


Jenna’s AZ Bucket List no. 74 – Historic Williams, AZ

Sometimes the additions to my Top 100 AZ Bucket List surprise even me!

I never thought about going to Williams, AZ, until we actually went there. We were on a four-day weekend trip, me my sister and my two little nieces who are 3 and 5. Sightseeing, we spent two nights in Prescott. Then we ventured north, because our plan was to head to Bearizona and maybe the Grand Canyon Deer Park, too, if we had time.

Well, we spent almost three hours at Bearizona and loved it, didn’t get to the deer park, BUT: an amazing surprise is that Historic Williams, Arizona, on the old Route 66, is a hidden gem!

My sister and I, being Arizona natives, like road trips in our home state and love to discover “off-the-beaten path” small towns and big surprises. We love Flagstaff, Lake Havasu City and Bullhead City/Laughlin, for example. Also, big fans of Tucson and Ajo.IMG_1223.jpg

So, pulling into Williams, we couldn’t help but smile at the quaint Route 66 charm we found immediately. We were hungry from the road, so we stopped at Jessica’s family restaurant, right by the police station. The menu had an unexpected mix of Greek, Mediterranean and American foods. The service was a little slow, but we didn’t mind, because we appreciated the welcome family vibe. And they had good coffee, which is important to me, because I often need to take shifts as driver on these family road trips.

Later at night, we came back downtown to find a place for dinner. There were so many selections–we were almost overwhelmed. We were staying at the Grand Canyon Railroad hotel, and it looked like they had a nice big restaurant and good bar, but we still wanted to see what else was out there. There’s a giant beer hall called Grand Canyon Brewing Company that looked promising. But we weren’t sure they’d love kids, so we drove back down the main drag. Being night owls, we were impressed with all the cute shops and restaurants that were still open at 8 p.m. We settled on Cruiser’s Route 66 Cafe, because there was live music outside and no wait for a booth. Again, the service was kind of slow, but we chalked it up to small town life. Our waitress was really nice and friendly, brought crayons and kids’ menus for the girls to color on, and didn’t lose her cool when my niece spilled a whole cup of water across the table. The quality of food was pretty good, too.

Later we walked around the shops some more. There’s an eclectic mix of local AZ souvenirs, antiques, clothing and more. We learned that if we had gotten downtown earlier in the evening, there are live cowboy soot-outs and other reenactments at certain locals. So much to do and so much of it is walkable from the little local hotels–we definitely will be returning to Williams for more family adventures.

red fox bearizona

Jenna’s AZ Bucket List no. 75 – Bearizona

Finally made it up to Bearizona in Northern Arizona. This the amazing wildlife park where you can actually drive your car through a number of wild animal habitats–safari-style.

red fox bearizona
Adorable Red Fox, native to Arizona, featured in a habitat at Bearizona wildlife park.


We got to see black bears, white wolves, white and brown American bison, Alaska Tundra Wolves (giant white wolves that look like friendly backyard dogs), elks and mule deer–all right outside the windows of my Camry. It was amazing. The plains area where the bison roam had the most animals.

We were even more enraptured by the walk-around zoo area in the park. The very first animals we saw were cute little orange foxes. They were so playful and healthy looking. The trainers gave them marshmallows as a treat and they chased each other for fifteen minutes.

White Bison Bearizona
A classic North American plains animal, the white bison are literally right outside your car window at Bearizona park.

We went into the petting zoo and held exotic chickens and got to brush some sheep. They also have more bears (of course!), live peafoul roaming free, big healthy looking porcupines and bobcats. The bobcats are shy.

black bear
Of course you will see many, many bears on the drive thru safari experience at Bearizona!

Last year (2016) they added jaguars. They have a beautiful male and I guess they have a female, too, but they don’t live in the same habitat. We overheard a trainer saying they don’t get along. The jaguar was amazing. If you stood at just the right angle you could see that its coat is not solid black, but has large round spots on its coat, kind of like a cheetah.

Bearizona’s male jaguar.

I’m looking forward to our next visit to Bearizona. They are expanding the park, they have a nice enormous restaurant, an outdoor food cart area where you can get beers, cocktails and ice cream, and an enormous gift shop. I heard they are working on building a hotel. Hopefully we can stay there next year.

Jenna’s AZ Bucket List no. 76 – Rent a boat at Lake Pleasant

On a whim, the husband and I decided to stop at Lake Pleasant after an overnight trip in Yarnell. So we took I-74 and cut across the desert. I’ve been to Lake Pleasant a handful of times now. That’s where I did my PADI SCUBA open dives for certification.

We drove into the park (Maricopa County Parks) and at first he was dismayed because there was a line of cars to get in. Keep in mind this was 1 p.m. on a hot August Saturday. But the line moved quickly, kudos to the park service for that, and we paid our $6 to get in. We had the dog with us, some sandwiches and a cooler full of water.

IMG_1155.jpgIf you go and want to rent boats or jetskis, follow the initial signs towards the campgrounds and then look for the signs for Scorpion Bay Marina. When we pulled into the marina parking lot, at first we were confused, because it feels like you are up on a big cliff far away from the water’s edge. In fact, you are! But don’t fret. The vender has a tall staircase (kind of steep) and two self-service trams (they kind of look like outdoor elevators) to get you down to the dock. We had no problem with our load and our dog. In fact, it was kind of fun to operate the tram. But watch out for fingers when you close the heave doors.

The dog has never been on a boat before, so he was being a real baby about the dock and the water and the heat on his paw-pads. But eventually we got him down there.

Everyone in the rental office was so nice. We’d never driven a pontoon boat before, but they assured us it was easy. We got the 20-foot pontoon because it was cheapest by the hour and there was just the two of us so we didn’t need a huge party boat. Check out their website for all rentals and the rates. They do reservations for half- and full-day rentals, but not for hourly.

All-in-all, we had a fun few hours on the water. No one got hurt or sunburned. We captained the boat around and took turns parking in spots in jumping in the water. Fun activity and I’m glad we did it!

Jenna’s AZ Bucket List, No. 78 – Sedona Film Festival

I got the opportunity to visit the Sedona Film Festival last month (2/25). I heard from an old, dear professor of mine from The New School in New York City. Doug Morrione was basically my senior thesis adviser when I was working on editing my Kooz documentary. Doug has a strong background as a professional film and television editor. He’s worked on many documentaries and different reality TV series-es. Anyway, he decided to go it on his own and make a documentary–like actually assemble the concept and film it himself. The result was “Everything in the Song is True,” a documentary about cowboy poets, trick riders and ropers, ranchers and generally, honestly salt-of-the-earth talented and hardworking people of the Southwest.
I had been wanting to experience Sedona Film Fest for year. I didn’t realize it’s been running for more than 20 years! (I thought it was relatively new, like Phoenix Film Festival). I can’t say that I got to experience it as a true insider, because I only attended one event, but Doug’s film was sold out and I could tell from the emcee, festival organizers, and other filmmakers that I met that the experience was a success. I was especially impressed with the availability of parking in various areas around Sedona and the shuttle system they had set up. I imagine the after-party at the Hilton was pretty fun, too. I hope to return next year and maybe ever splurge on the VIP pass. Like anyone needed an excuse to get up to Sedona! (But then again, for me it had been more than 10 years. Conclusion: gas money well-spent!)