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DNT travel review: Duluth to Phoenix direct

he second-biggest mistake travelers to Phoenix make, the cab driver says, is renting a car from the wrong airport.

We're on our way from Phoenix-Mesa Gateway (where we exit on the tarmac on a warm night, greeted by a cactus and a half-dozen wheelchairs) to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport to pick up my mis-reserved wheels.

The cost for this lesson: $60+.

I took Allegiant Air's inaugural direct flight from Duluth to Phoenix last weekend, an event that included sheet cake at the airport, a complimentary sleeve of golf balls and the words "maiden voyage" repeated so often that I was surprised there wasn't a marching band. I spent about 65 hours in the Valley of the Sun, mostly downtown. I ate the most intense salsa I've ever had and was mistaken for a prostitute. I questioned Phoenix native Alice Cooper's legacy and watched a car melt. I studied American Indian art and history and was left alone on a bus for 10 minutes while the driver ran in to Walgreens. I was charmed by Tempe's Mill Avenue District and grossed out by the dirt undertones of the tap water.

And -- because of another snafu with my car reservation at the second airport -- I did it all by navigating the city's decade-old Valley Metro light rail system and city buses. This was clean and convenient and gave me the chance to gaze at the surrounding mountains, hills and reddish rock formations, rather than following a GPS or my face pressed to a map. Smart phones, with access to public transportation routes and compasses, have made travel so easy that everything pre-2000 seems like an episode of "Little House on the Prairie" in comparison.

Public transportation

The light rail system is easy. It's efficient. It's bicycle-friendly with hooks to hang them on in specified cars. The windows are tinted to block out the sun. And its passengers are oddly chatty. I hear conversations about the naming conventions of domestic airports and I see a man try to share a can of Tecate beer with a 19-year-old kid he mistakes for his nephew.

The buses, however, are empty. It's just the driver and me heading into the foothills of the South Mountains. Toward the end of the trip he pulls over at a bus stop, mumbles something and jumps off. He leaves it running, doors open, and walks into Walgreens. This seems ... different. Dangerous, even.

For about the third time in my life, I wonder: "What would Sandra Bullock do?"

I get off the bus and stand next to it. The driver returns about 10 minutes later and we proceed without incident -- though he doesn't find jokes about bus theft very amusing.

Best brunch in town

The first meal of the weekend for both tourists and Phoenicians -- and even Food Network star Guy Fieri, who has left his graffiti-style stamp on an inside wall -- is at Matt's Big Breakfast, a square brick diner where all morning long the sidewalk is crammed with rumbling tummies.

"There are 19 names ahead of ours," a woman groans to her group. They don't leave.

Most clusters gather on the somewhat shaded side of the building. It is already 85 degrees at 10 a.m. and the sun is pan-searing my blue Minnesota skin. It goes quickly, though. Will gladly trade a 45-minute wait in the slim shade of a street light in exchange for this day's special: Three-egg scramble with chicken artichoke sausage and baby organic spinach bound with Fontina cheese. The wheat toast is cut as thick as a slab of beef loin and served with blueberry jam, a concentration of flavor that rivals chutney.

A tale of two cities

Aside from the crowd outside this small diner, there is little movement in downtown Phoenix on a weekend afternoon. It has the apocalyptic feel of downtown St. Paul, so many suits evacuating on Friday at 5 p.m. The voice of a busker, stationed on North Central Avenue and East Adams Street, bounces off the buildings and is heard blocks away.

Alternately, the Mill Avenue District -- located a 30-minute train ride away in the adjacent city of Tempe -- has brick sidewalks, is inordinately clean and is full of activity.

It's a mix of chain and charm: Hooters and Five Guys Burgers, but also retro-style clothing store Hippie Gypsy and Old World Books, a used bookstore where a wizardly-looking man with a cane asks if he can help finding anything. I smile, say no and almost trip over a long-haired cat lounging in the stacks. Some of the restaurants with outdoor seating provide mists of water over the patio, so fine it feels like being sprinkled with cool powdered sugar.

I'm third on the scene of a car fire on Saturday afternoon, so close that at least three people ask if it's my ride. The blue Nissan Versa has flames creeping from the hood to the windshield and the car seems to melt as the fire grows. The driver and a passenger escape with their things before firefighters snuff it using hoses and an axe.

There is an intriguing butte at the foot of the Mill Avenue train stop. The hill has a massive A on the side, visible from Sun Devil Stadium, home of Arizona State football. Dot-sized hikers can be seen walking, some running, up the winding path. I find a father taking his kids through a round of calisthenics and explaining the income levels of professional athletes. It doesn't take long to get to the top, an elevation of 1,500 feet, with a view into the bowl of the Sun Devils' stadium -- though not quite the field. This is fine, as the Sun Devils are on the road this weekend. When airplanes from Sky Harbor fly over this butte, it seems like I should be able to read the pilot's nametag.

From shock rock to T-shirt shop

Game nights must be wicked in downtown Phoenix, where the Arizona Diamondbacks play Major League Baseball at Chase Field and, when there isn't a lockout, the Phoenix Suns host NBA games at US Airways Center. But this Saturday is quiet -- except for a pub crawl of twenty-somethings prowling the city in Mardi Gras beads and fishnet costumes or oversized mascot heads.

A purely scientific question has been eating at me for days. Q: What would a restaurant and bar owned by metal shock rocker Alice Cooper look like? Word on the street is that servers have smears of black makeup under their eyes. A: Alice Cooperstown is a barbecue-themed sports bar and restaurant with an attached souvenir shop. It has T-shirt racks. And its owner, known for maybe or maybe not ripping the head off a live chicken then drinking its blood, closes up shop by 10 p.m. on a Saturday night.

Oh, Alice Cooper. How perfectly Coldplay of you.

Mystery Castle

The bus takes me a little less than a mile from Mystery Castle, which has a back story as interesting as its actual architecture. Boyce Gulley left his wife and daughter in Seattle in the 1930s when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He moved to the outskirts of Phoenix and began building a dream castle for his daughter, Mary Lou, using dirt, stone and the kind of stuff one would find cluttering a hoarder's lawn.

The result was an 18-room, 13-fireplace home complete with secret coves and cubbies, built-in beds and tables, balconies and patios. It took about 15 years to build, and his estranged wife and daughter didn't find out about it until after his death. They then spent the rest of their lives at the castle. Mary Lou died a year ago.

The castle sits in the foothills of South Mountain, a rocky formation with a view of a golf course and downtown Phoenix, but a half-mile from any sort of main road with nothing else around. The lawn is filled with bird baths, ceramic dogs, cactus plants and wagon wheels. Much of it is without electricity, the sun through recycled windows as its main light source.

Heard Museum

It's a challenge to resign yourself to an indoor educational activity when it is 95 degrees out and sunny. In a mental tournament between the Phoenix Art Museum, Desert Botanical Gardens and Heard Museum. The latter, specializing in American Indian art and culture, wins. A temporary exhibition of Retha Walden Gambaro's "Attitudes of Prayer" is a collection of smooth sculptures caught in contemplative and freeing moments. Also stunning is Steven Yazzie's "Fear of a Red Planet: Relocation and Removal 2000." It is a bit like an extra-large graphic novel-style mural, the story of the forced removal of Arizona's native population told in panels on the wall in the Ullman Learning Center.

Not for sale

It would be a gross oversight to not eat Mexican food on this trip. I use a combination of proximity, Phoenix's alternative weekly newspaper and the Yelp app to land at Comedor Guadalajara, located just off of downtown and next to nothing but a freeway exit.

The restaurant is a big room with a barn-style roof and the music system is piping pop music with Spanish lyrics about dancing and nighttime.

The pre-meal salsa is unreal. It's so spicy it pinches parts of my tongue I didn't even know existed and tickles my sinuses. The server keeps it coming. I have a combination platter that includes a cheese enchilada and dessert.

On my way back to the bus stop a truck honks at me twice, performs a U-turn, then pulls on to a nearby side street. The driver honks again, two short beeps. Then he drives past the stop, honks, pulls on to another side street, honks.

This is when I realize he thinks I'm a prostitute and I set a personal record in the 50-yard dash back to the restaurant's parking lot.

Leaving Phoenix

Getting from downtown Phoenix to the airport in Mesa on public transportation would require an Olympic level of juggling luggage, trains and buses, so you really need a car. Since I don't have one, my cab fare exceeds the amount the driver can accept using his archaic credit card system. This ends in a bargain: Buy a 45-mile trip, get 12 of those miles for free.

Phoenix has long been a hot spot for golfers and retirees, but I'd recommend it as a winter destination for anyone looking for a quick, inexpensive weekend getaway to melt off the layer of freezer burn that sets in about mid-February. I'd have liked to hike more, drive in the mountains and visit the kind of place where drinkers hitch horses to posts before bellying up to the bar.

The local NBA team's moniker is no joke: The best thing about Phoenix is the sun. It gets an early start and stays up late and it feels great when it bores into your back. In Phoenix you are guaranteed bright days and temps considerably higher than in the Northland -- though it is relative. On an 88-degree evening, a cab driver apologized to me for the cool weather.

"Buddy, you don't even know," I thought.