George Phippen’s Memorial Studio in Skull Valley

Last month, AzGetawayTravel ventured to Skull Valley, Arizona to tour the Skull Valley Historical Society’s historic depot/museum, enjoy lunch at the Skull Valley Diner, visit the Skull Valley Polo Club and browse around the Skull Valley General Store. When we first arrived into the small but scenic community 18 miles southwest of Prescott, we had no idea we also would have the opportunity to visit the private studio of one of Arizona’s most famous artists: western painter and sculptor George Phippen,

ph8Probably most Arizona residents and many Arizona visitors already are familiar with George Phippen (1915-1966). He’s famous for co-founding the Cowboy Artists of America with fellow western artists Charlie Dye, John Hampton, and Joe Beeler. Phippen became the organization’s first president. More significantly he’s well-known for his art — often whimsical cowboy drawings, scenic western paintings and finely detailed bronze sculptures. His representational artwork depicts the cowboy way of life, describes a historic event as in “The Walker Party” or tells (often with much humor) the colorful tales about round ups, ranching and wrangling in the American West.

Although Phippen didn’t move into Skull Valley until 1949; after he arrived he spent a lot of time at his home/studio, sculpting in bronze and painting in oil and watercolors. But it’s here in Skull Valley he and his wife Louise resided with their family. His son Loren still maintains a home in Skull Valley, splitting his time between here and a home in Scottsdale. So, when Skull Valley Depot guide Ida Downing presented to us the possibility of viewing the private collections of George Phippen and his family, plus meeting Loren Phippen; we knew a chance like this may not come along again.

Phippen Memorial Studio In addition to artwork, the George Phippen Memorial Studio is filled with saddles, books, photographs albums, trophy hunting mounts and equipment, hand-painted Christmas decorations, historical artifacts and many other personal items that once belonged to George Phippen. Because Loren Phippen only on rare occasions makes the studio available to visitors, we felt very fortunate that he opened it up for us. We had a enjoyable visit; we even had the chance to hear a few of the Phippen family anecdotes from Loren — memories of his father as a western artist, family man, and one of Arizona’s most famous figures.

For more information about George Phippen, please visit these sites:

The Phippen Art Museum in Prescott

Sharlot Hall’s Library and Archives

Cowboys and Indians: The Premier Magazine of the West

Cowboy Artists of America

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Phippen's bronze of Wimpy - First Registered American Quarter Horse.

Phippen’s bronze of Wimpy – First Registered American Quarter Horse.

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Cowboy carolers Christmas decor created by George Phippen

Cowboy carolers Christmas decor created by George Phippen

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Man of many symbols: Catholic missionary Father Eusebio Kino

Man of many symbols: Catholic missionary Father Eusebio Kino

The memorial studio holds other memorabilia such as George Phippen's saddles, books and tools

The memorial studio holds other memorabilia such as George Phippen’s saddles, books and tools

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George Phippen's bronzes, oils and watercolors on display in the Skull Valley studio

George Phippen’s bronzes, oils and watercolors on display in the Skull Valley studio

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Arizona road trip to historic Skull Valley

Skull Valley Depot Museum

Skull Valley Depot Museum

Whenever I’d return from a trip to Prescott, friends frequently would remark: “Have you ever gone up the back way? It’s a nice drive up the back way.”

I had no idea what they meant. Which ‘back way?’ There are possibly dozens of ‘back ways’ to Prescott when you consider all the forest service roads, county and state highways and US routes. I’m guessing they mean the ‘front way’ must be the Interstate 17-to-State-Route-69 way, and any alternate route would be the ‘back way.’

For me the back way to Prescott usually was described in two different routes: Route 89 from Wickenburg to Prescott or through Crown King using Senator Highway. The latter  would require a four wheel drive vehicle.

While I was scanning the map looking for other possible ‘back ways’ into Prescott, I found Skull Valley on the map. I’d seen this dot on the state map before but didn’t know about the access or anything about the community. Many times these dots are merely highway junctions with a few houses and cluster of post office boxes.

Our drive to Skull Valley was a gorgeous road trip on this sunny, but a bit blustery Saturday. All roads along this route are paved, but the roadway from Skull Valley to Prescott (Iron Springs Road) currently is under construction. December through March may not the best time to be traveling up the hill to the northwest side of Prescott because of possible snow storms and icy roads. Please check local conditions.

However, if you make the trip, when you arrive at Skull Valley, you’ll think you’ve gone back in time. The center of this community is an intersection: a general store on one corner, a working ‘fillin’ station on another corner, and a hometown diner just across the tracks.

Just steps away from the intersection of Old Skull Valley Road and Iron Springs Road is the Skull Valley Depot, now a museum maintained by the Skull Valley Historical Society.  June through Labor Day, the museum is open Sundays 2 to 4 p.m.  Tours can be arranged by appointment by contacting curator Ida Downing.

The depot building itself was constructed at Cherry Creek near Dewey until 1926 when it was moved to Skull Valley. Trains moved through Skull Valley from 1894 to 1969. It was an important Santa Fe station in Skull Valley, because here the trains had to add engines otherwise they wouldn’t have made it up the steep mountain grade to Iron Springs and on to Prescott. The depot museum exhibits feature antique train and railroad equipment, agricultural tools and other items donated by longtime Skull Valley residents. Adjacent to the depot is the Railroad Section House, where the railway section boss lived. Here, visitors can view more Skull Valley history on display such as a wooden wringer washer, a 1920s kitchen stove and an antique pedal pump organ.

Patio dining at Skull Valley Diner

Patio dining at Skull Valley Diner

We worked up quite an appetite touring the depot museum and section house so we stopped in at the Skull Valley Diner for lunch. Because we had our collie Molly with us, we dined alfresco. By this time the winds had kicked up and the temperature had dropped – quickly. Hot soup, coffee and a cheeseburger never tasted so good.

After lunch we wanted to take a closer look inside the Skull Valley General Store. This place is the real deal. We were impressed to see wood floors, “penny” candy behind the counter, several huge antique glass display cases full of convenience items plus a wood stove crackling away in front of a checkerboard table.  On the walls hung signs for fresh bread, eggs, and other locally made goodies. A large homemade quilt hung on supports, possibly a leftover from the Skull Valley Pie, Ice Cream Social and Quilt Show in October. Plan to spend some browsing time in the general store. Shop for books about cowboys and horse ranching or pick up a souvenir Skull Valley cap.

Another notable feature about Skull Valley is its gas station and garage. On many of our trips along Arizona’s back roads and old highways, we often have encountered some old-style gas stations but the pumps have either been neglected or removed. It’s nice to see folks in Skull Valley have maintained or restored parts of this historic community, whether it’s in the form of a gas station, general store, diner or train depot museum. Skull Valley is a great change of scenery from urban traffic jams and suburban sprawl.

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Read more about the Depot Museum and how Skull Valley got its name.

Next week: a tour of the George Phippen memorial studio and gallery

Skull Valley Diner

Skull Valley Diner

 

Back way to Prescott through Skull Valley

‘Back way’ to Prescott through Skull Valley

Skull Valley General Store

Skull Valley General Store

You can still 'fill 'er up' at Skull Valley Garage

You can still ‘fill ‘er up’ at Skull Valley Garage

Section house was home to the railway section boss

Section house was home to the railway section boss

Amazing variety of goods at Skull Valley General Store

Amazing variety of goods at Skull Valley General Store

Almost like home for the holiday: Hotel Christmas trees

Beautiful Christmas tree in the Westin Kierland Villas lobby

Beautiful Christmas tree in the Westin Kierland Villas lobby

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Tree at Barcelo Ixtapa hotel

Tree at Barcelo Ixtapa hotel

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When I saw the Christmas tree in the lobby of the Westin Kierland Villas this past weekend, I was reminded of images of trees from holiday stays at various resorts and hotels over the years. Many of these hotel lobby trees were elaborate, sparkling masterpieces of decoration. Others were homespun and simple — inclined to make one think of home. Some had local, cultural charms and appeal, to inspire a memory of your destination.

One memorable tree stood in the Eagle’s Nest Lounge at the Prescott Resort and Conference Center when we stayed there at Christmas time from 1998-2004. This spectacular tree rose at least two floors and it almost could be spotted from Gurley Street driving back from Courthouse Square. When there weren’t any company parties booked in the lounge, guests could sit and listen to holiday favorites played on the grand piano, relax and warm up in front of the stone fireplace and sip hot beverages laced with mint, chocolate and Baileys Irish Cream.

Another resort Christmas tree that comes to mind was the tall ‘tannenbaum” at the entrance to the atrium of the Barcelo Ixtapa, Mexico. The tree was a beacon to every room level and it echoed tidings and joy throughout the resort. January 6 (Epiphany) is observed in Mexico as Three Kings Day — as it is also celebrated in other parts of the world. While we were there, we feasted on Rosca de Reyes, the bread ring of the Three Kings. At the Barcelo, the huge ring of sweet pastry made a circumference around the entire Christmas tree.

Westin Ka'anapali Christmas tree

Westin Ka’anapali Christmas tree

On a recent Maui December vacation, the Christmas tree at the Westin Ka’anapali Ocean Resort Villas seemed almost out of place among all the tropical plants, birds, sunshine and bikini-clad tourists. Still, it was very pleasant to recall how we would sit on the sunny terrace for breakfast, admiring the Christmas tree while dining on fresh pineapple, watching the toucans and flamingos and listening to the faint chime of Bing’s or Buffett’s version of “Mele Kalikimaka.”

But nothing anywhere among my hotel Christmas tree memories can compare to the story this week I watched on a NBC network news broadcast about a family spending their Christmas at a Holiday Inn in Hazlet, New Jersey, whose home had been destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. They had no home, no spectacular Christmas tree and certainly no possibility of any Christmastime vacation. For them, there would be no lounging at a Maui hotel swimming pool, sipping cups of warm Irish cream in a cozy Prescott Arizona lobby or jetting off to an Ixtapa, Mexico beach resort. Instead they would nestle in a simple, but warm Holiday Inn two-bed room in undoubtedly cramped quarters. Rather than making resolutions they will be laying out hope for a better year in a stack of FEMA applications, insurance paperwork and housing relocation plans. And these are the fortunate. Consider the many displaced by Hurricane Sandy who don’t even have a Holiday Inn to return to each day.

Many of us who travel regularly can imagine that small round table near the front window of almost every typical motel room. That’s the place we take for granted: where we sprawl travel brochures, business papers or our laptop. It’s the place we unload the Chinese take-out or the Starbucks coffee. But for that one family on the news report affected by Hurricane Sandy, this would be the prime spot for their foot-high Christmas tree, with homemade decorations and makeshift lights. If there’s any image or memory of a hotel holiday tree best depicting Christmas — I’d say that would be it.

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Three Kings Bread: Rosca de Reyes at the Barcelo Ixtpapa, Mexico

Three Kings Bread: Rosca de Reyes at the Barcelo Ixtpapa, Mexico

Gift ideas for the geek in your life: Geek Nation Tours

Griffith Observatory is one of the stops along the "Exploring Trek Sites" tour (photo courtesy of Teras Cassicy)

Soon after “The Hobbit” movie hits theaters Dec. 14th, film-induced tourists again will be converging on New Zealand, as so many did following the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. All types of media, whether books, music or film, have always had a influential grip on travelers’ destination choices. Also notable is another type of film tourism which cropped up recently: “on location vacations,” in which travelers can subscribe to a list of current filming locations so they visit places in hopes of catching a glimpse of their favorite celebrity or be lucky enough for a chance to sign on as an extra.

These and other genres of specialized pop-culture tourism over the past decade or two has gained great popularity, especially as filming locations become more exotic and surreal. Niche tourism has taken a new angle recently with the popularity of media or fan conventions and events relating to comic books, video games, sci-fi, fantasy and horror, anime, movies and TV shows – many fall within the realm of “geekdom.”

At the 2011 Star Trek convention, I first encountered Geek Nation Tours in the vendor (dealer) room. Immediately this innovative travel business piqued my interest. Geek Nation Tours is a tour operator of – just like it says – planned trips and vacations appropriately pointed to geekery, which includes themed vacations about science fiction, films, fantasy, war games, battlefield miniature collections, to name a few. There’s also a tour for Lego lovers. Geek Nation Tours also includes historical “geekness,” and added to its list of tour offerings are vacations surrounding historical battlefield events like Gettysburg and Waterloo.

Last summer at the 2012 Star Trek convention I had the chance to talk briefly with Geek Nation Tours owner Teras Cassidy, who is planning a couple of tours for 2013 with a definite appeal to geeks within the blogosphere of AZGetawayTravel.com.

One tour includes events of a war gaming convention called Duel Con, at the Mesa Hilton. On “Geeking Out at the Duel Con” tour, participants can enrich their convention experience with activities they may not have considered on their own, such as a tour of the Battlefoam facility in Gilbert, Zombie target practice at local shooting range, (no, not real Zombies, of course) and a Jeep trip along the Apache Trail. The tour includes accommodations, exclusive Duel Con Welcome Dinner, Duel Con VIP weekend passes, Apache Trail and Desert Jeep tour and swag, according to its website. This happens at the end of September 2013. (Hint: it still might be a great Christmas gift idea for the geek in your life.)

Another tour of interest to Arizona Getaway Travelers (okay, mainly me) is the Star Trek tour, “Exploring Trek Sites: Hollywood to Vegas with Larry Nemecek.” The August 2013 trip starts in Los Angeles with a welcome dinner at Cirroc Lofton’s restaurant. (Cirroc played Jake Sisko on “Deep Space Nine.”) The following days of the tour are filled with filming location visits and meeting Star Trek actors from select Star Trek television episodes and some of the full-length movies. The real treat is that participants will have Nemecek (“Dr. Star Trek”) accompanying them. Nemecek is well-known in Trek fan circles as being one of the foremost authorities about all things Star Trek and has written books and produced documentaries on the subject. After tour-goers visit several filming locations in California, the group will travel to Las Vegas for the Star Trek Convention.

Cassidy said Geek Nation Tours, which he founded in 2008, “is really a child of the recession.” He decided to fine tune his travel agency business and run tours to locations in which he was interested — “geeky places, places that cater to specific interests like comics, sci-fi and toy soldiers. I have been a geek my whole life; I own a travel agency… and the business originated from there.”

Not all who come along on these tours are geeks. Cassidy has coined what’s called the “Parallel Universes” department, where some separate activity arrangements are made for non-geek spouses or family members. They can enjoy portions of the tour with a wider interest, then take time for such activities as shopping, spa trips, sports and visits to other nearby tourist attractions.

“We even have a property in Huatulco, Mexico… that you can get your geek on, and visit tropical beaches as well,” said Cassidy.

Geeks with some booking savvy could probably put a similar tour together on their own, but it’s doubtful it would have the same amount of detail Geek Nation Tours puts into their tours. Plus, Cassidy arranges all the “guest speakers and geeky celebrities” for the tour. All the participant has to do is “just sit back and enjoy the ride.”

His business attracts geeks from around the world of all ages, but most range from 28 to 35. Many of his clients are those who have been dreaming about a such a specialized vacation, and now that Cassidy as made these available – they have the chance.

“Mostly we find that our tours attract socially savvy, financially secure people that have a deep passion for what they love and want to share it with others,” Cassidy explained. “We provide tours to destinations that allow them to get the social, intellectual and ‘geek itch’ scratched at the same time.”

Geek Nation Tours appears to be doing quite well. Cassidy says his customers are happy with the service. “Honestly we have not had a customer complaint yet. That is five years of doing tours and five years of satisfied participants. This is something we are very, very happy about, indeed.”

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Note: for more photos of past Geek Nation Tours vacations, visit the Facebook page

Geek Nation Tours owner Teras Cassidy and TrekMovie.com science writer Kayla Iacovino at 2012 Star Trek Las Vegas Convention

Star Trek actor Bobby Clark describes his role (photo courtesy of Teras Cassidy)

Gettysburg tour attracts the U.S. history lovers (photo courtesy of Teras Cassidy)

Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood, part of the Trek Sites tour (photo courtesy of Teras Cassidy)