I Spent Thanksgiving in Cactus Siberia

Over Thanksgiving, I went to Phoenix to visit my uncle and grandma. I made the following observations:

1.) As a city, Phoenix kind of sucks. Not that it’s a bad place to live….there’s nice weather half the year, you can get a pretty nice house at a decent price and life proceeds at a much more agreeable pace than it does in D.C. Bureaucratic stuffiness and legions of type A superhuman yuppies? Not the Phoenix scene. Instead, there are lots of families, old people and a generous sprinkling of outdoor enthusiasts.

But it’s really not much of a city. The streets are mostly empty of people and full of palm trees. There are strip malls and highways galore, and the place is basically a bunch of connecting suburbs strung casually together and conjuring a sunny seventies vibe. To call “downtown” Phoenix a downtown is to do real downtowns a grave injustice, because there really aren’t many buildings. Or people. As an East Coaster, it’s always a shock to visit a city not bursting with pedestrians. I could walk for 20 minutes around my uncle’s neighborhood without seeing a single soul. It’s like the twilight zone. A very peaceful, quiet and sunny twilight zone.  The Scottsdale and Biltmore neighborhoods are a tribute to the clean-cut and perfectly pleasant, if generic town center movement. It’s weird. I can see the appeal, but as an east coaster, it’s a little disconcerting.

But the strangest thing to me was the absence of an arts/culture/hipster scene. I mean, the towns of Tempe and Scottsdale have an “arts scene” but not the rough around the edges, scruffy, edgy café scene you might find in other major cities. DC looks like an arts town by comparison.

Phoenix 7 Neighborhood

Christmas in Phoenix. This was taken near my uncle’s town house. Not a soul in sight on a beautiful, 70 degree Phoenix (weekend) evening.

Phoenix 8 Neighborhood

Neighborhood street view.

2.) The Latino community, specifically the Mexican community, has a much bigger presence in Phoenix than it does in D.C. Latinos make up 40 percent of the population in Phoenix. Latino culture is visible in a way that it isn’t in D.C, from the Spanish-style homes and countless Mexican restaurants to the many Latino neighborhoods and Spanish-inspired community/place names (think El Camino, La Paloma, etc.) I drove south down 7th and Broadway and after passing “downtown,” it was almost like I’d crossed the border into Mexico. All around me were Latino auto shops, churches and grocery stores. You get little pockets of that kind of thing in the D.C area, but not the way you do in Phoenix.

Phoenix 2 Tiny Churches

Driving through South Phoenix, I saw dozens of tiny churches like this one — Evangelical and Pentecostal places of worship.

Phoenix 3 Jalapeno Chicken nuggets

And guess what? You can get jalapeño chicken nuggets in Phoenix.


3.) There’s something very special about the southwestern sunrise and sunset. Maybe it’s because it’s pretty much always sunny and cloudless, but I couldn’t get enough. It’s a little strange to be in a place  where the sky is pretty much always pure blue, uncorrupted by clouds or haze. It might be different in summer, but the weather is perfect in winter.

Phoenix 10 Mcdowell Preserve

Sunrise at the McDowell Sonoran Mountain Preserve in Scottsdale.

Phoenix 11 Sunrise Mcdowell

Not the best resolution, but oh well. This was taken near the entrance of the McDowell Sonoran Mountain Preserve.

Phoenix 13 Sunset Camelback

A sunset picture and Phoenix cityscape taken halfway up Camelback Mountain.

Phoenix 14 Sunrise Phoenix Mountains

The sun rising over the Phoenix Mountains on Piestewa Peak.

4.) As much as I love Virginia and the bucolic, subtle beauty of the Appalachian Mountains, the southwest is playing a whole other game when it comes to natural beauty. It’s like comparing apples to oranges. I never thought I’d like a desert landscape, but I found myself absolutely loving life on every hike I took. Everything is much more dramatic, stark and challenging, and I begrudgingly admit that Virginia has nothing on Arizona when it comes to striking landscapes.

Phoenix 15 Phoenix Mountains on top

Piestewa Peak in the Phoenix Mountains. This was my first Phoenix hike. This isn’t considered a particularly challenging hike by Southwestern standards, but it’s probably as challenging as they come by Virginia standards. We came here around 7am and by 7:30 there were hundreds of hikers, making the mountains look like it had been taken over my an army of outdoorsy ants.

Phoenix 4 South Mountains

The South Phoenix Mountains. I just drove trough this park and unfortunately, all the summit access points are closed to cars right now, so I didn’t get any great views.

phoenix 5 Mcdowell Sonoran Preserve

The Mcdowell Sonoran Preserve was one of my favorite Phoenix area parks. The park is actually located in Scottsdale and it’s a bit greener than other area parks with plenty of cacti varieties. Perhaps because it’s a much easier hike than Piestewa or Camelback, there were far fewer people here.

Phoenix 9 Mcdowell Sonoran Preserve

Vegetation at the Mcdowell Sonoran Mountain Preserve.

Phoenix 12 Camelback

One of the many views from Camelback Mountain. This park is located in a very wealthy, Malibu-like (minus the ocean) neighborhood. This was probably the best hike of my life, even though I didn’t make it to the top because I didn’t bring any water, didn’t have hiking boots on, was carrying and purse and you know, the whole out of shape thing.  There were excellent views of the city, valley and wealthy mountainside neighborhoods from the mountain.  I think I experienced something akin to my first spiritual moment on Camelback Mountain.

I felt unexpectedly at home in the southwest and was surprised by how much I liked it. Phoenix might not be the city for me, but I can’t wait to go back and keep exploring Arizona and the rest of the Southwest. Being out west makes you realize how  claustrophobic and stuffy the northeast can feel.




Categories: American Cities, U.S Travels

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

6 replies

  1. I was just north of there in Sedona for Thanksgiving. A truly beautiful location. –Curt

  2. Nailed it. I don’t know how long you stayed for but just within your visit you were able to pinpoint what Phoenix is all about. I’ve lived here for over a year now and I hate it. I’ve given it time and I’ve tried to make the best of what we have here but it’s just not cutting it for me. I grew up in Southern California just an hour outside of LA & I completely agree with you & your take on Phoenix being a “city”. The lack of art scene is what kills me the most. I’m out here on my own & I want to be able to go explore but Phoenix simply just doesn’t have what I’m looking for. I’ve also had the hardest time meeting people out here just due to lack of common interests or understanding. So due to all of this, I’m moving back to sweet home Southern California in two weeks & I couldn’t be more excited 🙂 PHX U SUCK.


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