Visiting Arizona and hiking in Phoenix in July turns me into a combustible cactus. It isn’t just hot here in Phoenix. It is HOT. The temperatures make me feel prickly. This city deserves its nickname: Valley of the Sun.
Arizonans joke that it’s “dry heat,” which somehow distinguishes it from the East Coast where we are experiencing a muggy heat wave.
Washington DC is a sauna. Phoenix is a convection oven. Heat rises up from the desert, slaps me in the face when I open the door of my air-conditioned sanctuary and stops me like a solid brick wall.
Who in their right mind visits a city when the temperature is projected to top 112? Well at ludicrous as it sounds, I volunteer to attend this business conference. I forgot that Phoenix doesn’t have short heatwaves. It endures entire summers when the temperatures hover between 105-110 degrees. Believe me, you bake.
There is a joke that summer comes in winter to Arizona and hell comes in summer. Believe me, this is no laughing matter.
I decide the only safe way to hike is to get up by 5 am to venture out. Since I am still technically on an East Coast clock, this isn’t really hard. I apply my suntan lotion and lace up my running shoes. My destination is the hiking trail located at the perimeter of the hotel resort. I don’t know where the path will deadend but I think I can at least survey the vegetation and get some great summit views.
Phoenix is not green. It is brown, beige and straw-colored. You have to like hard-packed dirt and blowing dust a lot. And rocks. And prickly plants, green cactus and skeleton-like bushes.
And the trees that do grow in the Phoenix desert have great descriptive names: velvet mesquite, dead ironwood, foothills palo verde and (my favorite) cat claw acacia.
Whether it is their novelty or oddity, each object begs me to stop and stare. I am not forest bathing; I am desert diving.
The path is deceptively long. Each time I reach a bend, I expect to find a “No Trespassing” sign. Instead my gravel path starts to ascend and I can look back on the blue-grey sky painted in interweaving strokes of rose, cream and tangerine orange and pocked with storm clouds.
I didn’t really know if I would like Phoenix. It has been over a decade since I last visited. The desert can make me feel desolate. It is lonely territory. There is a fundamentalism about nature here. You have to love sharp lines, hard surfaces and painful splinters if you touch a cactus. There is no tree hugging.
Oddly, I identify strongly with the desert. It is absolute—land, dirt, and hard-scrabble vegetation that doesn’t require water to survive. I think of a quote from The Little Prince written by Antoine de Saint-Exupery how the desert “silence sometimes throbs and gleams.” This quiet early morning hour in the desert wraps around me like a blanket.
“I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing.”Antoine de Saint-Exupery
I think I am alone. But then I see them. Down below on a separate trail is a young man and his Scottish terrier. It’s about 6 am. I see the spec of black fur running several paces behind his owner. There is a dramatic contrast between the long human legs and the tiny furry legs. One walks. The other runs/scurries. Then they pass out of my view.
My next sighting comes about 15 minutes later when I look up at the peak. The man and his dog reach the summit. All around them lay Phoenix in miniature—the boulders, the piñon-dotted hillsides, the line of miniature cars dotting Interstate 10 and that glorious mountain range hugging the horizon.
But the dog isn’t interested in the world around him. All he wants to do is run circles around his friend.
I won’t forget this moment. It connects me with so many animals that I have met on my travels in Croatia, Mexico, and Portugal in the last few years.
Postscript: I took 55 pictures during my sunrise hike in order to create a 1-minute video. You can hike virtually along with me. And you won’t have to sweat at all!
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