(c) 2014, Dominique Millette
Wide boulevards, the Desert Botanical Garden and the Calle 16 Mural Project show different sides of a distinctively Phoenician identity
Phoenix stretches out its dry brown hills as I drive down into town from surrounding tourist-laden heights on a February day. Like its mythological namesake, the city will have to rise from the flames of climate change: water management is a major concern. NYU professor Andrew Ross dubbed it “the world’s least sustainable city” because of its dependence on faraway water supplies from the ever-shrinking Colorado River, in a book summarizing his two-year study of the region. In the space of a century, its increased use of fossil fuels has catapulted it from respiratory haven to brown-cloud purgatory.
Thankfully, no pollution emerges in the winter air. The lights of the city wink without concern. I turn on the radio. Hip-hop rhythms calm me down as I navigate unfamiliar freeways on my own without the benefit of a GPS or travel partner. I’ve booked a room in a private house near South Mountain Park through Airbnb, a bed-and-breakfast service. Will it be as nice as the pictures on the website? The house-sharing organization has generated its share of controversies, from hosts facing massive destruction to zoning disputes with municipalities. I worry about what I’ll find. Or not.
It turns out the real question, initially, is “will I find it?” The house is on South 27th Way. There are two different South 27th Ways in this part of Phoenix, along with a South 27th place and a South 27th Street. Confused, I drive around in circles for 30 minutes, then head to Gallagher’s, a pub I saw while driving in the wrong direction. A very helpful customer whips out his iPhone, explaining he knows the neighbourhood and understands my dilemma.
The most striking feature of the area to my Toronto-habituated eye is the sprawl of houses and land. Nothing lies within walking distance. Neighbourhood blocks are Brobdingnagian, vast as desert plantations. Saguaros and smaller cacti dominate the landscape along with tiles, concrete and sand. There are gates, mostly open though. The streets are wide and massive in this part of town, leaving the impression of deserted Mayan boulevards lined with uniformly sand-coloured intact architectural treasures.
I arrive at my destination just past 8 p.m. There are no lawns anywhere, only sand and coloured gravel as a nod to ecological impossibilities. No one is home. However, I’ve paid the room in advance and obtained the door code. My hosts Alana and Richard have even provided a door lock and key for my room after my request for more privacy. I enter cautiously. It’s my first experience with absent hosts. The house is an oasis steeped in Southwestern style, daubed in salmon-coloured adobe with red clay roof tiles like its every counterpart on the street. Every room is spotless. Navajo blankets adorn the sofas. On living room coffee tables, books describe the ghost towns and highways of the Southwest. I go up the stairs to my simply-furnished but elegant and comfortable allotted room and set down my bags. Next to it, facing the carpeted stairs, an alcove holds two guitars and a sofa. One of these instruments is a Takamine classical. I start to play for the first time in many years.
The next morning, I head down hoping to greet my hosts and meet Alana. We chat about the house, Phoenix and music. She uses music in therapy and doesn’t mind guests using the Takamine. The couple is young and both are friendly and easy going. Guests have access to several food options in the kitchen. South Mountain Park, with its many hiking trails, is less than half a mile away. Perfect.
In the morning, startling blue skies delineate every pinkish beige house on the street as the sun drenches them in a radical light. I finally experience warm weather as the mercury goes over 70 degrees. My first day in Phoenix is with clients who have become friends. They’re Canadian snowbirds in nearby Mesa and offer me an automotive tour of downtown Phoenix and historic Scottsdale, reminiscing about the time they wore Toronto Raptors jerseys on a light rail transit car to a Suns basketball game. I mention the sign I saw prohibiting firearms in a Flagstaff family restaurant. They say the Mesa public library has signs telling people not to bring their guns in either. Since I don’t share their bravado, I make a mental note not to wear foreign jerseys on public transit.
We drive to Arizona State University to park and walk around the Grady Gammage Memorial Auditorium, the last public building designed by iconic local resident Frank Lloyd Wright. With its art deco touches and elegant arches, it looks like an orange-pink concrete birthday cake. The music auditorium across the square offers a Pueblo-style contrast in assorted colours. My friends take me out to lunch at the Tempe Gordon Biersch, with its memorable fries and views of orderly, light-filled streets. Striking blue skies flood the senses everywhere.
At the end of the day, I head to Keegan’s on East Ray Road to meet some members of an international club with several branches across Canada and the U.S. The South part of the city gives me mixed impressions. Though some of the area is apparently associated with gang activity, you’d never know it from the developments like the one where I’m staying. A local police map lists it as a very low-crime part of the city. As I drive, the only sounds I hear are occasional cars and crickets.
I want to explore this desert which stretches out in every direction. Up South Mountain Park, I reach about 1,100 feet before turning back. East of the city, Lost Dutchman State Park has a good rough trail called the Siphon Draw along with shorter and easier ones. The park is named after a local legendary mine: German prospector Jacob Walz died with rich gold ore hidden under his bed. Its source was never found.
The Apache Trail along Highway 88 is a spectacular drive with lakes, canyons and hairpin turns all the way to the Hoover Dam. I make it to Tortilla Flat (population: 6 residents, 10,000 tourists) before I have to turn back because the road is washed out. Since desert sand doesn’t soak up water very well, flash floods are omnipresent threats. Apparently, more people drown in deserts than die of thirst.
As I drive back to Phoenix, I catch the setting sun on Apache Junction.
I won’t leave the city without a trip to the Desert Botanical Garden. Cacti are now the newest objects of my fascination. The Garden fulfills its promise, listing every cactus imaginable from here to the depths of Mexico: totem poles, bunny ear and black spine prickly pears, octopus cacti, ocotillo, candelilla, fish hook barrel cacti, and the massive cardon, each more colourful than the one before. An emerald-coated hummingbird hovers near the garden path long enough to pose. Pork tacos at Gertrude’s, the elegant and delightful in-house restaurant, cap the morning perfectly.
New friends from the local chapter of my global group greet me at Ruby Tuesdays in Tempe. I dream of coming back. In the kitchen at Alana and Richard’s house, I meet Sam, a recently-retired widower from Minnesota. He joins me for karaoke at Gallagher’s, the bar where I found my way. I sing “Positively Fourth Street” and “Me and Bobby McGee”. Sam sits on the sidelines but buys me a drink.
Though there are many museums of note in the city, along with its restaurants and entertainment venues, I’m in the mood to follow my nose. The next day, I drive north, meandering up Central Avenue past St. Francis Xavier Church and on to Park Central Mall. The first shopping centre built in Phoenix, back in the 1950s when the city was much smaller, is now quiet as a catacomb. I could see it as the epicentre of a zombie film.
My discovery of the day is an urban art enclave I spy at the corner of 16th Avenue and Windsor, on my way back south. The murals pulsate with vibrant colours and Mesoamerican style, depicting everything from Dia de los Muertos iconography to wrestling tomatoes and mariachis wearing shades. I’ve stumbled onto the Calle 16 Mural Project. Local café owner Silvana Salcido Esparza started the grassroots effort after a controversial 2010 immigration law, SB 1070, required residents to produce documentation on request. Since then, artists have poured in to contribute.
The neighbourhood art jewel is a fitting cap to my stay here in Arizona. I head back to the house, English signs giving way to ones in Spanish advertising beauty parlors, auto repair shops and other small businesses. Tomorrow, I fly away from this desert full of many lives, but I won’t leave it completely behind.