A few years ago, I wrote a bit about my initial observations of the American Southwest; I was floored by the nature but not all that impressed by Phoenix, the city I spent most of my time in. Maybe it’s East Coast snobbery, but I always envisioned a city as a densely populated, vibrant place at the forefront of culture and art. Phoenix is not that place. It’s sleepy and pleasant and not particularly avant-garde (well, I guess building a city of five million in the middle of the desert could be considered avant-garde?) But despite the fact that I still can’t see Phoenix as a bona fide city, I did find myself googling “how hot does Phoenix really get?” and “is the Arizona heat really that bad?” and “what’s it like to live in Phoenix?” while walking around the Phoenix Mountain Preserve early one morning (125 degrees, yes, mixed reviews). Because even though Phoenix feels more like a string of suburbs – some nice, some not so nice – strung loosely together through a web of highways and streets, it’s actually quite nice, at least in winter.
I’ve spent most of my life in the D.C. suburbs (with short periods in Bogota and Panama City, two “type A” capital cities in their own way), so I often forget there are “type B” cities out there – places where life unfolds at a slower, more natural pace (at least for me). Not that either lifestyle is right or wrong, but being a type B kind of person, I often find myself releasing a metaphorical sigh of relief whenever I leave the D.C suburbs. It may be “vacation lenses,” but it’s as if life has suddenly but happily slowed down to a pace more compatible with my way of seeing and being in the world, and I realize I’ve been out of sync for too long. Of course, it’s hard to know what a place is really like when you’re on vacation and free from the tediousness of day-to-day life: commuting, working, making dentist and doctor’s appointments, mowing the lawn, fixing the heater, etc. It’s easier to romanticize when your only purpose is relaxing and experiencing new things!
I know “nice” is often seen as one of those generic descriptors that means nothing, but I think nice is actually the best word to describe Phoenix. My uncle’s home, located at the end of a row of Spanish-style townhome villas, exudes a palpable Zen-like serenity, as does his neighborhood, which is made up mostly of 1970s ranch homes, a scattering of newer gated communities, and a couple of generic but attractive and functional strip malls. Lemon tree branches droop lazily over the fence from the neighbor’s house, and a pebble rock cacti-succulent garden frames the entire yard. Sitting in his backyard, you can watch half a dozen species of hummingbirds sipping frantically from the feeders, coming and going one at a time before buzzing away like dragonflies. You’ll hear peach-faced lovebirds squawking and chirping from the top of non-native palm trees, and once in a while you might even see one. The birds aren’t native to Arizona, but it’s nice to see such colorful animals so far north of the Equator. On the East Coast, most of our common backyard birds are a bit on the drab side – mostly shades of greys and browns, but Arizona lets you experience a bit of the exotic. If you get tired of sitting out in the yard, it’s possible to walk to a well-designed, cheerful organic grocery store, a “bike café,” several ethnic restaurants, and a local park, which is home to dozens of species of ducks, geese and fish, and has close-up views of the Phoenix Mountains. I can understand why so many people choose to retire here.
Whenever I travel west, I’m always blown away by how dramatic and extreme the landscape is. I love the Appalachian Mountains – they’re beautiful and green, with vast deciduous forests, moss-covered boulders and tidy, bucolic farm views, and they’re home. But, as I’ve mentioned In other posts, the American West is playing another game entirely. In Virginia, the natural landscape is attractive but discreet – in the West, nature is always in your face (well, except for those long stretches of featureless, desolate landscapes, but even those are extreme in their own way). Western nature is boastful and conspicuous and, I think, inescapable. The landscape is, in a way, the culture here.