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Arno at the peak of Camelback Mountain

Friday afternoon, Arno flew to Phoenix to visit me. He had been in Maryland for work, and the return flight required a plane change in Phoenix. He extended his layover by two days, and spent the weekend. {…he’s the Internet guy I mentioned last month. Just roll with it, ok.}

Class ended early Friday, and after we wrapped up tasks and had our instructor powwow and settled business for the weekend, I went back to the hotel, eager with anticipation to see my man. I arrived shortly before he did, and in no time we wound down from our day and went out to do a little exploring.

Our students (who are all local) had suggested a dinner with a view at Rustler’s Rooste, near South Mountain. We found the place, and I was delighted to find that it not only had a view but a carefully cultivated character. Entering the place was like entering a mine shaft, past walls of rock and beneath heavy timbers seeming to hold up an equally massive roof. We walked on worn wood and sawdust up a ramp, till we got inside the huge place and found waiters and waitresses in cowboy boots and hats. Arno and I stuffed ourselves on appetizers, and barely had room for the steak when it came. We drank beer from mason jars and listened to live country music.

Steepest part of the Camelback trail. It's easier to gather the height and distance if you can spot the woman at the bottom.

Terry (co-instructor) had said that on South Mountain there is a place to park and watch the sunset. Students concurred. So after dinner, bellies bursting, we drove the short distance into Phoenix’s South Mountain Park and Preserve. It is a lovely winding drive through a piece of desert that is convincingly removed from the city. We followed the road to the top, and found a small parking area and people all around. Evening light was fading, so we parked and followed the others, who sat on benches and rocks, and in a covered stone gazebo, and spilled over the sides of the mountain peak. The atmosphere was magical. It truly gave me a new reason to love humanity. Quiet voices murmured and laughed, children ran in circles, lovers stood with arms around each other. As it grew darker, the people grew quieter, and yes, everyone was there to watch the sun go down. Arno and I found a rock to sit on, overlooking the lights of Phoenix and the setting sun in the distance. We breathed the warm air, listened to the quiet laughter, watched the children. And then, the sun grew huge, and glowed in molten fire, and flattened behind a strip of cloud, then fell behind the mountains in the West.

View of Phoenix from the trail on the way up.

We got up early Saturday morning and left for Camelback Mountain, the peak I can view from my hotel room. We had hoped to get an early start, but had lounged a bit too long. There were no available parking spaces, but we eventually found a place to park in a nearby neighborhood, and made the walk with many other would be hikers to the trailhead. I hadn’t realized what I was getting into. Camelback trail is a serious climb! 1200 feet in 1.3 miles. What the trail lacks in distance, it makes up for in steep uphill stretches. At one point we could scramble up sheer rock face: straight up! There was a steel railing placed to assist, and I admit I used it. Arno, of course, trusted his feet and went directly up the slick rock.

Roadrunner on the trail

Up, up, up. We began at 7:30 am, but the heat of the day was full on us by the difficult stretches at around 9 am. I brought my Red Sox cap, but the rest of me got plenty of sun and a little burn by the time we hit the peak. There were spectacular views of Phoenix. I tried to pick out where my hotel might be. We took a few photos, enjoyed sharing the summit with the others who had made it up, then made our way back down and got to the car while it was still morning. We were passed by multiple people who had decided to RUN the trail. I wonder how many broken ankles happen in this park?

Others enjoy the summit, catching our breath, preparing for the steep trek down

We made our way next to Scottsdale. Apparently, when you are in Phoenix, the places to go have fun are not in Phoenix. “Go to Scottsdale,” they tell me. “Go to Tempe.” So off we went. It was a blazing hot afternoon and nearly as empty in Scottsdale as it is in Phoenix, but this time, I’m pretty sure it was strictly due to the heat. Unlike downtown Phoenix, we found many little shops, and actually browsed them (more to cool off than to shop). I did find some gifts to bring back home. We found a place that makes homemade sodas and ordered root beer and orange floats and carried them to a park with a man-made creek and shade. I splashed in the creek and we sat in the shade and talked till our floats were gone. Back at the hotel, we deposited all our stuff, then walked across the street to Fez for dinner. I admit I am growing weary of restaurant food! Doesn’t it get tedious? Oh, for my very own kitchen again.

We made plans for Sunday on the trails in Sedona.

Sunset to the south. A lovely view from my room.

When I first received the news that I would be spending all of July and part of August in Phoenix, Arizona on a work trip, my first thought was that it was going to be a HOT summer. Phoenix in July and August, really? Nice sense of humor, VA. But the more I thought about it, and now that I’m here, especially, I realize that it’s perfectly fine. I love the heat when it’s dry, Western heat and not that nasty summer weather in the central U.S., New England, or on the East coast.

You are here now

My group of instructors arrived the day after that big dust storm. I am the only one of the group to be truly disappointed to have missed it. Having a background in weather forecasting makes a person stand outside the normal inclinations of safety-conscious people. Weather geeks like to get caught in thunderstorms – any accompanying lighting or hail is a plus. We like to witness dust storms, or downbursts of any kind. We thrill at floods, avalanches, tsunamis, and tornadoes in a particularly deviant way. Don’t hate us: we don’t have anything against humankind, it’s just that weather becomes so fascinating that it’s impact on human life can become secondary to our genuine awe at the power of Mother Nature. It’s a side effect of the job that apparently doesn’t fade completely when a weather geek changes careers and goes to work for the VA.

pool below my room

my new home away from home. I already know the front desk staff, and Bertha from housekeeping

So yes, it’s been hot, but I am already finding it pleasant. Mornings I open up the slider in my room and let the fresh air blow through while I go for my run before class starts. Afternoons I luxuriate in the blissful blasting rays of the sun to warm me up again after suffering in the air-conditioned environment for 10 or 11 hours. It has been more humid than usual, because it is monsoon season. That makes the heat harder to bear, of course, but it did also result in one very good rain one morning. I told a friend that I went for my run anyway, and because it was so warm it felt like running in the shower. His response, “Wow, you must have a really big shower.”

critter on roof

wet from rain

My training background is limited to only day-long classes, workshops, morning training sessions, that kind of thing. I have never been the teacher in a class that continued day after day. I have not received any training for this kind of thing, but had a sense that I would be a natural. Here in Phoenix I am in a sheltered environment in that I am teaching official material that must be followed to the letter, and I must follow a lesson plan that has already been created. I am one of three instructors, so when I’ve pressed the students through 4 grueling hours of 38 Code of Federal regulations 3.1 through 3.309(e), I can sit down and let the next person pick up at 38 Code of Federal regulations 3.324. So it’s an ideal place to be initiated into being a teacher.

desert blossoms

Look at my gorgeous view of Camelback Mountain to the north!!

Ok, this is my actual view. The one above is with the benefit of a camera with an awesome zoom lens.

I am fortunate in many additional ways on this particular trip. For example, we have a great Course Manager, who is a representative from VA Central Office in Washington, D.C., ensuring that we are teaching what we are told to teach, and reporting back to headquarters about our ability to teach, and our ability to manage the classroom. Our Course Manager is very capable and has kept details like facility issues, computer access, file storage, personnel, etc., under control so that the three instructors can just teach. I am fortunate because my co-instructors are capable and easy to work with. We quickly realized we can trust each other to run the show, and so when someone else is teaching, the other two split the “free” time between researching and refreshing for our upcoming training topics, and pitching in to assist the trainer by running the power points, researching questions from students, and providing additional real-life examples when the students ask for them. It has been a great experience so far. After my first week of being a teacher, I am reassured that I was right in volunteering for this task.



The Phoenix downtown is hands-down the most boring downtown I’ve ever seen in my life. Our hotel is just north of downtown and three blocks from the VA Regional Office. Both downtown and the hotel/office areas are empty and sprawling and devoid of people. I mean, work with me here, “empty” compared to what one might expect in the center of a city. Downtown is populated with gigantic banks, conference centers, hotels, museums and a couple sports venues. There are plenty of buildings and parking lots, but no people. No little intriguing shops, mom-n-pops, funky alleyways, no non-conforming architecture… It is bizarre. The only people I ever see are during my morning runs when there is a rare local resident leaving their home to get into a vehicle and go to work, or an occasional person walking a dog, and in the afternoons I might see a tourist or even two of them, wandering the sidewalks looking for other signs of human life. Other than that – empty and creepy.

out of place in Phoenix, but beautiful nonetheless

How hot was it in Phoenix last weekend? Answer: this hot!

Thank you, Jesus!

My first Saturday here, I had the hotel shuttle drop me off downtown. I was a trooper. I wandered along the empty sidewalks for a good four hours and came up with nothing that more than mildly captured my interest. There are some nice buildings, a weird loopy net thing in the air, a bar with outdoor seating that had misters (misters are nice), and a multiplex theatre that could actually come in handy if I get bored. I gave up and called the shuttle to come get me.

The people here say, “Oh, well, duh. Don’t go downtown. Go to Scottsdale! Go to Tempe! Go to Sedona!” So apparently the cure is to actually leave.

Hoover Dam holding back Lake Mead, with the new bridge in the background. You can see the orange colour of the 3-story parking garage behind the dam.

I took extra time this morning to check the weather across the state of Arizona. It is much colder than I expected to see. In the eastern and northern parts of the state, snow and temperatures in the teens and twenties are widespread for the next couple of days. Well… such is the benefit of no fixed plans: I decided to head south instead of east today.  Originally I had not planned to go as far south as Phoenix, since my intent was to jet east as quickly as possible. Now I see that normal desert weather doesn’t exist for the next couple of days except south of the capital city.

First though, I wanted a better look at Hoover Dam. I haven’t been there for years, and from the bridge yesterday, it looked vastly less occupied than I recall. The truth is that the crowds were indeed thinner, but the steady stream of people and vehicles made it clear that this remains a substantial tourist attraction. What a good idea to get the highway off the dam.

The Mike O'Callaghan – Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge I stood on yesterday

Let me dispel the myths: you can still cross the dam for free! There is a beautiful new, convenient parking garage that costs $7 to park, but if you cross to the Arizona side, you can still park for free too, if you don’t mind a few hundred yards’ walk. You do have to pass through a security checkpoint, but it is quicker and easier than going through the bug station, so don’t give it a second thought. Another difference is that you cannot continue on and reconnect with the new highway. Rather, there is eventually a turn-around loop, and you must cross back across the dam in order to return to the highway. Please do make a point of going there if you haven’t already. Hoover Dam is an engineering feat rarely duplicated in the modern world. You will be impressed with the dam and the bridge, I promise.

While I stood on the dam, I spotted blue sky from over Las Vegas ever so slowly making its way toward me. I lingered. Before I left, I did indeed get to feel a blessed ray of sunshine. It planted the seed of an idea to dawdle on my journey. I knew better weather was coming and the more slowly I moved, the greater chance I had of experiencing another sunbeam.

Rain showers struck as soon as I reached open highway again, but my route took me south to Kingman. From there, I went south again, toward Phoenix. I re-examined my book of campgrounds, and chose a new one in the Lost Dutchman State Park. I drove south through rain, rain, rain. My windshield wipers never completely quit, so that was good, but they were giving me fits! I discovered that when I took the car to the shop last month and they “fixed a leak,” the leak did not actually get fixed and thank goodness I checked the oil on a whim because I discovered it empty!

A random, unmarked canyon that I trespassed into

At one point, out in the wide empty desert, I passed an unknown canyon so beautiful I pulled into the next crossover and headed back the other direction on the freeway. I parked as far off the highway as I could, and grabbed my camera and went for a walk. Though there was no sun, the rain had ceased for the moment, and it was pleasantly warm. I began walking and climbed a barbed wire fence, and before I knew it, was about a mile and a half up the canyon. The walk eased my frustrated soul. Rain drops spattered my face by the time I climbed the fence again to crawl back up the hill to the dragon-wagon. But I felt better despite the rain that poured down as I resumed my journey.

Driving the course through the city that I chose is hellish. Why oh why do people choose to live in cities voluntarily? Yuck. From Beardsley to Surprise to Sun City to Peoria to Glendale to Phoenix to Tempe to Mesa to where I finally left the highway is 62 miles of bumper to bumper traffic. Some parts of it were a maze to make the right connections, and rain poured down through it all: making visibility an issue as well. Very stressful. I turned off onto Highway 88 and went north to the park and found a solitary hike-in campsite as far away from the others as I could possibly be.

The agony through the city was worth it, however, because my choice of camp spot for the night was excellent! The park is a showcase for some of the most that a desert has to offer: craggy peaks, saguaro cactus, teeming bird life, orange rocks. I still couldn’t see much of the Superstition Mountains, towering above my tent, shrouded in ragged stratofractus and grey fog. I crossed my fingers that the next day would stop raining so I could see the whole mountain.

I set up my tent in the rain. There was no way to get through the evening dry. Ugh! Mud in the campsite, the camp gear and my backpack wet, sweatshirt and hat soaked. I put little rocks under the edges of the plastic my tent sat on, so water running through the campsite would go under the protective plastic and not touch the tent itself…but of course the rain that slid down the sides of the tent stayed on top of the plastic. So I got out a large waterproof tarp and threw it over the tent and then, using rope and rocks, I made a second shelter over the top of the rain flap.

Sunset lights up the cacti and low clouds obscure the distant peaks

Just before I went to bed, the clouds broke at the horizon and the setting sun shone through and lit up the desert. It was so beautiful, and the cacti glowed.

I had built a nice cozy bed in the tent with extra blankets on top of my sleeping bag and I stayed quite warm and was ready for sleep, but for a few distractions. There was a group of noisy kids in the campground: not trouble-makers, just joyous kid noise. There were dozens of dogs and several of them were the kind that like to go “Yap! Yap! Yap! Yap!” all night long. The rain stopped after a few hours, and a brisk wind picked up, rattling the second rain flap so loudly that I could not get back to sleep. I got up, put on my shoes, and dismantled the thing, throwing it over the site’s picnic table. I heard another joyous burst of noise that filled my heart rather than irritated me: coyotes! Very close and singing their own desert refrain. I smiled and went to sleep fantasizing that the coyotes might eat some of the pet dogs.

My vision is slowly clearing up from the frosted glasses I wore in my last relationship. For me, three months is a long time to snap out of it. I am used to feeling freedom and joy almost the instant I get away from whatever man I’ve leeched myself onto.

What explains the gradual drift away from him, rather than a sudden snap to consciousness? I’d like to believe it’s a sign that I have grown as a person enough to leave a relationship before I am on the edge of despair. In the past, I have left relationships as a last-ditch effort to survive. My grieving the betrayal and loss of most relationships occurs while still officially in them. This time I left earlier in the process, and so maybe I continued the grieving once I was gone. Maybe I’m getting wiser.

In any case, my cathartic experience was Monday, when I finally moved the last of my stuff out of the house and over to my new rental place. In the process of hauling stuff out of the basement, I passed a sickening sight. He’s got a bunch of trash and furniture strewed at random along the side of the house. Who knows how long it’s been there – a month? Plastic, wires, broken things, tools, and painfully- furniture. For example, a pine hutch for the kitchen with cupboards and a drawer. It was in perfect condition when I left. It is now beyond salvage; warped and bleached from rain and weather. One of the pieces was a large oak entertainment center that I had come to get. He had at least laid a piece of plastic on top, but the base was in three inches of standing water. The bottom trim is warped and blackened with mold.

“Just like common white trash,” I thought to myself. “Leaving a bunch of stuff outside in the yard to get ruined.” I wondered: Who is this person who is so thoughtless and careless?

And it hit me: there is no difference in this behavior than anything I knew about him in our six years together. This is how he has always been. He has carelessly smashed half our dishes over the years. When we moved he piled everything in a jumble in the moving van so nearly all our wooden furniture is damaged now (that is, the stuff that wasn’t totally ruined). He stacked spare tires on a rocking chair, so that when we unpacked the chair the fabric cushions had ground-in black rubber. Ruined. It doesn’t occur to him to place any extra value on things that are expensive or of quality construction: to him, no things are valuable. In one way, it could be said that he is not beholden to material objects, but on the other hand – since we have often struggled for money – he was thoughtless and careless not to consider that everything he ruined had to be replaced. For a price. Sometimes the things he ruined had nostalgic value to me and can never be replaced.

The difference is that I am no longer there to walk behind him and clean up his messes.

My transformative thought was that the whole damn relationship was probably me! The catharsis is that I am relieved to know that I was correct to leave him. He isn’t only careless with furniture; he is careless with his life. He does not cherish his friends, and he does not cherish his family. I thought back over all the catastrophes he helped create and maintain, and I thought back over the lies that I told to my family and my friends to protect and support him, and to protect myself from my embarrassment and shame. Like when he was unemployed for 14 months and I helped him maintain all his excuses and lies about why he wasn’t employed. Yes, the economy was bad – a perfect alibi. But I didn’t tell anyone the truth. Such as the time he got a job offer, and let it go.

I am angry at myself (No, not at him; I feel sorry for him.) for not learning this lesson yet. I am a world-class enabler and after forty years and hundreds of relationships (well, it SEEMS like it!), I just cannot seem to learn to stop it.

I need to stop valuing people according to their potential, and begin placing value on what they actually do with their potential. I glom onto a man believing that with support and encouragement, he could be the man he truly is inside! I give, and give, and give until I am sucked dry, and there is nothing to show for my investment. And my bonus gift is that they always (Always.) find a way to spin it so that I am the one who betrayed. I am the one who let it fall apart. I am the evil trickster.

He said to me recently that he has watched me fall into deep depression in the past two years (actually, I have indeed been depressed a lot). He said I am the most depressed person he knows. “I am truly worried about you without me there to look out for you,” he says. “Now that you’re gone you will withdraw from life and sink more deeply into your depression. It drives me crazy because everything you want, I give you, but you can’t be satisfied with anything. You think leaving me will solve all your problems, but you had all you ever needed with me, and refused to see it.”

For the last year I’ve believed him when he told me what a dark soul I was, dragging him down when otherwise he would be happy. Today I say back to him as Eowyn said to Wormtongue, “Your words are poison.” I will no longer listen.

I am now free to try again to live up to my own potential. It is a beautiful, limitless path with brilliant possibility.

“Why are some people broken by one tragedy, and others can not only withstand many tragedies, but also turn them into opportunities to serve others who suffer?”

This morning I read April’s latest blog entry, and was compelled to respond. April asked the question above. She brought up several questions I have asked myself before, and I used her blog as a chance to put into words the blobs of thought that had glommed around in my noggin for years now.

April’s mother died, and she has been gracious enough to share her grieving process on her Gaia blog, so the rest of us can learn and grow too. My comment on her blog is below:

I agree that we all have the potential to be resilient. I can’t answer your questions, but I do have my own thoughts. I think our responses in life are related to our genetics and to our personal history.

We are inherently self-absorbed. That is a good thing, because deep in our cores, we must be driven by survival if nothing else, and who better to look out for us than ourselves? It’s just that our lives no longer resemble competition among other wild creatures for food and warmth like it used to, so what we are designed to do simply isn’t what we need anymore. We are now in a modern environment in which different skills are called for. Our valuable inherent traits of being selfish have less healthy usefulness a couple million years after we perfected them. Now, what do we do with ourselves?

Like domesticated dogs evolved from wild, running, hunting beasts, but now kept inside someone’s apartment all day long… some of us just can’t live the life we have and stay healthy. Sometimes those dogs go batty and bark themselves silly for 8 hours straight, or sometimes they get depressed. Humans have lots of ways to direct the confused energy.

To actually deal with our natures in a healthy way takes SO much work, as you well know. Not everyone wants to. Not everyone has faith that the work will pay off, and are less motivated to start.

I think a person can be forced to learn a skill like resilience. Say, for example, growing up in a family where kids are not much of a priority. When you get older, and get in a tough spot, you recall that in the past you found a way to take care of yourself even though you were scared and didn’t know how to do it at first. If you rack up a series of successful resilience memories, you will probably incorporate that knowledge into your toolbox. If you just got beaten back down more often than not, you probably will try something else first, before you try resilience.

Well, geez. What the heck do I know? ha ha. In any case, I have the same questions as you, and that’s why I had so much to say about it. It is a gift your mother gave to you: your resilience. She may not have known she was gifting you, but it’s still one of the greatest things you ever got from anyone!

Thank you dear friend, for this chance to clarify a few of my own thoughts for myself using your time and space. I hope that you find yourself surrounded by love and support each time you look up.

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