Phoenix, Arizona Trip

14 to 19 January 2020

For last few years, every January I've been sent on a work trip to some kind of warm-weather destination. These have included two trips to San Diego, California and three different trips to Florida in Miami, Fort Meyers, and the Tampa Bay area. As I've written before the emphasis during these trips is on working, with each day starting early in the morning no later than 8:00 AM and running straight through the daytime hours until 6:00 PM or even later. That never leaves much time for sightseeing, and usually the only available free time on these trips comes on the first day of arrival before the work conference begins. I did my best to maximize the limited free time that I would have on this trip by scheduling an early flight and heading straight to the hotel afterwards. I was able to check into my room and be out the door by noon, giving me half a day's worth of tourist time.

This work trip took me to the city of Phoenix, a place that I had visited only once before when I was roughly ten years old. Phoenix is the capital and largest city in the state of Arizona, known far and wide for its sunny skies and its scorching temperatures. The local area where Phoenix is situated goes by the name "The Valley of the Sun" and it's easy to see how this desert city picked up that nickname. Phoenix is a young city that experienced explosive growth in the post-World War II era, driven by cheap real estate and an influx of retirees. This is one of the least-dense cities that I've ever seen, and instead of having a concentrated downtown urban area, Phoenix simply sprawls out endlessly in every direction. This is the exact opposite of a walkable city: the mass transit options are poor, nothing is close to anything else, and owning a car is mandatory to get around. While it's not a place where I would want to live year-round, especially during the intense summer heat, Phoenix is a unique and memorable place to visit. Las Vegas is probably the closest comparison and Phoenix very much has its own distinct and separate identity.


The first place that I stopped to visit was the Heard Museum on the northern edge of the downtown. The Heard Museum was established in 1929 by the Heard family to house their personal collection of Native American artwork. It has expanded over the following decades to become one of the foremost museums dedicated to Native American art and culture, particularly for the peoples of the American Southwest. Although it is a relatively small museum still largely housed in the Spanish Colonial-style building originally owned by the Heards, the collection holds more than 40,000 items in total and showcases them through a dozen different exhibition halls. The Heard Museum was one of those local attractions that I wouldn't be able to experience elsewhere and a fitting place to start the day's sightseeing.


I began my exploration of the museum with its featured attraction named Home: Native Peoples in the Southwest. This collection of artifacts walked visitors through the traditional way of life for the Native American groups that live in the region, particularly the Pueblo, the Hopi, and the Navajo. There was a great deal of pottery on display here along with jewelry and ceremonial attire. They most eye-catching items on display were probably the Kachina dolls, small figures depicting spirits or personifications of natural phenomena. (They share a lot in common with the kami of traditional Japanese religion, with which I'm a bit more familiar.) These Kachina dolls are not toys and were instead given to children as objects to be respected and honored, religious symbols that would be imitated by masked dancers at festivals throughout the year. The Heard Museum has one of the largest collections in the world of these Kachina dolls, and the level of detail on them was exquisite.


Other parts of the exhibit contained huge wall hangings and rugs created by the local native peoples. There was a large section showcasing Navajo jewelry made out of turquoise, one of the materials traditionally associated with the American Southwest. The blue-green color of these stones creates a fantastic contrast with the dull browns and grays of the desert landscape where they can be found. Overall, this was an excellent exhibit for anyone who has an interest in Native American art. I would highly recommend it as a small window into the culture of these peoples.


There were other artwork exhibits at the Heard Museum that displayed smaller or more specialized collections. One of these was named "Grand Procession" and showcased contemporary dolls that had been made to represent traditional Native Americans of the Great Plains. (Note that these would have been groups that lived far away from Arizona in a very different climate.) These dolls had been created by a series of different artists and were very impressive in their traditional garb, especially the dignified young woman riding a horse in a display case off by herself. She was supposed to be a mother with three children and represented looking towards the future as opposed to looking back at the past. A separate exhibit featured artwork created by David Hockney during a trip to Yosemite National Park, which was unusual for having been created on an iPad. These paintings looked like they had been done with traditional oil paints at a distance, and only were revealed as digital creations when seen up close. It was a neat effect even if I didn't love the art style in general.


The most historically important part of the museum was located on its upper floor in an exhibit titled Away From Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories. These were narratives from the late 19th and early 20th centuries focused on the project of cultural assimilation foisted on Native American populations. Young children were taken away from their homes and put into boarding schools where they were taught to renounce their traditional tribal identities and adopt Western names and values. The intentions of the reformers who set up these schools were noble in some respects, as they believed that Native Americans were not irredeemable savages and that they could be "civilized" by converting to Christianity and adopting modern European manners. However, the forced renunciation of traditional tribal identities was still a monstrous and deeply racist project, especially when directed against children who little choice in the manner. This is a story that I was already familiar with as a historian, but I imagine it comes as a shock to many visitors since it isn't very well known to the general American public. The exhibit did a fine job of walking visitors through the origin of these boarding schools, what it was like to live in them, and their closing in recent decades. Some of them are still around today, having been repurposed by native communities into a celebration of their traditional way of life instead of a rejection of it.


Finally I had to mention the gift store at the Heard Museum, which was fancy enough that it could have been part of the collections on display. There were artifacts similar to the ones that had been behind the display cases, everything from pottery and jewelry to sculptures and tapestries. Everything had been crafted by Native American artists and there's an arts festival held each year at the Heard Museum named El Mercado de Las Artes specifically to feature these creations. Visitors could also purchase Kachina dolls in a dizzying assortment of sizes and shapes that rivalled the exhibit in the museum itself. They wouldn't be purchasing them cheaply though, as each Kachina doll cost hundreds and hundreds of dollars, with prices on the larger ones quickly climbing into the thousands. I had to snap a picture of one of the price tags for a particular pottery bowl of woven reeds that had my eyes popping out: $125,000! Even if it had been created back in 1930 by a distinguished artist, that was a steep asking price for a bowl.


After finishing up with the Heard Museum, I hopped on the light rail (which conveniently had a stop at the museum) and rode it to the downtown, then walked west towards the state capitol grounds. Phoenix is the state capital of Arizona and the legislature is located on the western side of the city. This was one of the places where the sprawling nature of Phoenix was apparent, as it turned out to be a walk of about 1.5 miles / 2.5 kilometers from the light rail to the capitol grounds. Whose brilliant idea was it to put the legislature 17 blocks away from the rest of the downtown?! Anyway, I had a chance to walk past some of the various government buildings along the way, which seemed to be clustered in this part of the city. They included the Maricopa County Courthouse and the more recent Sandra Day O'Connor Courthouse, named after the first woman to serve on the US Supreme Court who also hailed from Arizona.

There was a memorial plaza located on the western side of the state capitol grounds that I passed through en route to the buildings. The featured part of this memorial was dedicated to the USS Arizona, one of the battleships sunk in the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. More than 1000 service members died in that attack and the wreck of the Arizona still sits underwater at Pearl Harbor as a modern day memorial. The ship holds near-legendary status for the state that it was named after, and I saw more relics salvaged from the wreck on display in the Arizona Capitol Museum. There were a series of other memorials in this plaza as well, dedicated to the veterans of many past American wars as well as to local firefighters and police officers killed in the line of duty. Arizona as a state has always had a strong military presence and that was very much on display here.


After crossing through the memorial plaza I arrived at the grounds of the Arizona State Capitol itself. This was one of the more unusual state capitol buildings that I'd visited, consisting of a historic central building and two separate unconnected side buildings that contained the Arizona House of Representatives and Arizona State Senate. The central building was first constructed in 1898 before Arizona had even achieved statehood, and originally all of the government functions for the state were housed inside. Over time there was a lack of space inside the historic building and eventually the two separate adjacent structures were built in 1960 to house the legislatures. It was surprising to me that these buildings were left unconnected back to the original structure, and that they ended up with such an unappealing design aesthetic. The Arizona House and Arizona Senate honestly looked a bit like temporary structures squatting on the lawn, and it was hard to believe that these little buildings housed the legislatures for one of the country's largest states. There was apparently a study carried out in 2007 that said these buildings were wholly inadequate to suit the state's future needs, but as of my visit in 2020 nothing had been done to solve the problem.


The historic central building has been converted into a museum and no longer houses any part of the current Arizona state government. The Arizona State Capitol Museum proved to be quite small on the inside, a bit reminiscient of the Old State Capitol building in Springfield, Illinois that I'd visited a few years earlier. There was an impressive mosaic of the state seal on the ground floor underneath the central dome, the place where Senator John McCain lied in state following his death in 2018. Much of the rest of the ground floor was taken up with artifacts salvaged from the wreck of the USS Arizona, most notably its formal silverware which was fortuitously off the ship for cleaning at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack. The second floor of the building had a small exhibit on the history of the state, with the most interesting detail for me being the debate over Arizona's statehood. I didn't know that Arizona and New Mexico almost joined the country as a single state in 1906, when a joint-state referendum was very narrowly voted down. Arizona wouldn't have existed as a state at all in that alternate history scenario, as the region was the New Mexico territory and would have been admitted to the Union as such. There was a homemade banner created as part of this campaign against joint statehood still on display in the museum, a relic of this long-forgotten dispute.


The upper floors of the Arizona State Capitol Museum contained the original legislative chambers for the state. Pictured here was the original Arizona House Chamber; unfortunately the old State Senate chamber was closed for renovations. This was the room where the first state constitution for Arizona was voted on and approved in 1910... only to be vetoed by President Taft because he didn't approve of a provision allowing judges to be recalled by popular vote. (There was a bit of a personal bias here: Taft was the only president in American history to later serve as a US Supreme Court justice.) In any case, Arizona made minor modifications to the constitution and the president signed the second version into law - democracy in action! Like many of the old state legislatures, I was struck by the small size and humble furnishings of this room. It looked more like the setting for a school board meeting than the capital of a state. It's hard to believe that this place was still in active use until the 1960s, although to be fair Arizona had a much smaller state population at the time.


After I finished poking around in the State Capitol Museum, I headed over to the adjoining Arizona State Senate building. The legislature was in session this day and I thought that I might get to see a discussion in progress, however the state senators had either finished their work or were taking a lunch break when I arrived. Somewhat shockingly no one asked me to go through a metal detector or searched the bag housing my camera; I checked in with security twice, on the ground floor and on the upper viewing gallery, and both times they waved me through without more than a glance. Well OK then, very trusting of them. The Arizona State Senate was relatively small as far as legislatures go, with only 30 members elected from around the state. The Arizona House of Representatives has exactly twice as many individuals serving (60) in a pattern I'd seen before elsewhere. The overall setup was typical for an American legislative chamber, the usual semicircle of desks facing the central speaker's podium. I did appreciate the little personal touches on the individual desks, a number of statuettes, Arizona rising sun flags, and knitted fabrics that looked to have a Native American tribal affiliation. It was a nice reminder that these were not faceless legislators but real people with their own lives.


I had another lengthy walk back from the Arizona State Capitol to the downtown, and unfortunately this walk along Jefferson Street ran past a series of tent encampments where some of the city's homeless population were living. I wished that there was something I could have done to help out, but I also didn't want to stick around in an area that didn't appear to be safe. Anyway, soon enough I was back in the small downtown portion of Phoenix, and the first attraction that I came across was the arena for the Phoenix Suns. Currently known as Talking Stick Resort Arena after a local Native American group, this facility was better known as America West Arena and US Airways Arena in earlier decades. The Suns were the first professional sports team to be located in Phoenix, setting up shop in 1968 decades before the Cardinals, Diamondbacks, and Coyotes would arrive. The Suns have been a good but not great basketball team for most of their history, with the Charles Barkley/Kevin Johnson teams of the 1990s and the Steve Nash/Shawn Marion/Amar'e Stoudemire teams of the 2000s standing out as the best. They've been a bit star-crossed in terms of bad luck hitting at the worst possible times to keep them from ever winning an NBA title, and it also hasn't helped that their owner Robert Sarver is one of the most notorious "bad owners" in professional sports. At the time of this visit in 2020, the Suns were not particularly competitive and appeared to be a long distance away from winning a title.


Just down the street from Talking Stick Resort Arena was Chase Field, the home of the Arizona Diamondbacks. This towering indoor baseball stadium looked like an aircraft hangar from the outside, and it was big enough that we'd been able to see it easily from the air while our flight was landing earlier that day. The Diamondbacks needed an indoor stadium because the scorching summer conditions make baseball impractical outdoors, and they've been here since joining MLB as an expansion team in 1998. By far the most famous event in Diamondbacks history was their rally in the bottom of the 9th inning in Game Seven of the 2001 World Series, when the team improbably rallied to score two runs off New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera to secure the first and thus far only professional sporting title for the city of Phoenix. (As a Baltimore Orioles fan, I was overjoyed to see the Diamondbacks win and finally end the long-running Yankees dynasty.) Here on a Tuesday afternoon in January, there was no activity to speak of outside the stadium. I tried to peek inside only to find that the whole place seemed to be shut down to the public.


On the northern side of the downtown a few blocks from the ballparks was the most prominent religious building in Phoenix, St. Mary's Basilica. This church was a replacement for an older adobe structure that dated from the 1880s, and it was completed in 1914 to serve as a gathering point for the Catholic community in the city. St. Mary's Basilica was constructed in the Spanish Colonial architectural style common throughout the American Southwest, and I'd seen a number of other fine examples of this design type while traveling through New Mexico a few years earlier. This church was notable for its central rose window of stained glass, the largest to be found anywhere in the state of Arizona. As usual when I visit churches on these trips, there were only two other people present, another pair of tourists taking pictures. The afternoon sunlight was coming in from the western side of the building when I visited and gave the whole place a peaceful atmosphere. It was a nice contrast to the bustling city outside.


There wasn't too much more to see in the small downtown so I decided to use the remaining daylight to travel over to Tempe. This is a connected part of the greater Phoenix metropolitan area located about 10 miles / 15 kilometers to the east. I was able to reach Tempe by riding the same light rail system along the one and only line of tracks, although I have to caution anyone reading that this was a bit of a slow process and it took more than half an hour to get over there. I didn't have a car though and I wasn't about to complain. I hopped off the light rail at the College Avenue station right next to the campus of Arizona State University and immediately realized that I could do some quick hiking up to the top of Hayden Butte. A series of trails ran up to the top of this roughly 300 foot / 100 meter hilltop which would provide great views of the surrounding area. I quickly noticed that there were cactuses aplenty to be found here, and yes, they really do look the way that they're portrayed in classic cartoons. The tough, spiny plants are well suited to surviving in an environment that gets tons of sun and almost no water. As I climbed upwards, I was treated to some excellent views looking south out over the rest of Tempe. It was the same pattern as elsewhere in Phoenix: a few clustered highrise buildings near the ASU campus, and otherwise suburban sprawl outwards in every direction. This was a very spread-out, low-density city.


Hayden Butte is also known locally as "A" Mountain due to the large letter "A" installed on the south face of the hill. First created in 1938, the "A" is easily visible from around the ASU campus and always shows up on television broadcasts of Sun Devils football games. There are a lot of university traditions associated with the "A", such as incoming freshmen painting the letter white at the start of each academic year and then repainting it the normal gold color prior to the first football game of the season. Students also "guard the A" before every home football game by camping out on the nearby slopes, which is kind of a silly tradition but has its basis in the real-life destruction of the original "A" by vandals in 1952. It's been widely suspected that students from the rival University of Arizona in Tucson were the culprits without anything ever being proven. The "A" was somewhat uninteresting up close, just a block of painted concrete, but it was still fun to see nonetheless.


Not surprisingly the main sporting venues for ASU were situated close to Hayden Butte and the big "A". Sun Devil Stadium was by far the most famous of this group, the first major sporting stadium to be constructed in Phoenix and dating back to 1958. The stadium has a dramatic backdrop at the foot at Hayden Butte and has been repeatedly renovated and modernized over the decades to keep pace with the changing times. This stadium was also host to the Arizona Cardinals for two decades until they moved into their current stadium in Glendale, and it also hosted many incarnations of the Fiesta Bowl (before it also moved to the same stadium) as well as Super Bowl 30 in 1996. Although Arizona State is not a traditional football powerhouse, the university did win two national championships in the 1970s and has produced a number of notable NFL players. However, the Sun Devils have only won the Pac-12 conference three times in the 40 years since joining, which more or less sums up their relative mediocrity in recent years. ASU is very much not a basketball school, having never won a national title or even a Pac-12 title; in fact, they've only made one Sweet Sixteen in the last four decades. As such, Desert Financial Arena where the basketball teams play attracts a lot less attention than the football stadium.


One thing that I didn't know about until visiting was the size of Arizona State. The main campus in Tempe has roughly 50,000 students and then there are another 20,000 students scattered across the other satellite campuses, plus a further 30,000 students enrolled online. I was caught a bit off guard by the sheer size of the campus and wandered around for a little while trying to find my way. I think this was the largest campus I'd visited since walking through the gigantic University of Illinois campus in Champaign. One thing I didn't like was the presence of the busy University Avenue cutting through the northern side of the campus, forcing the construction of the large bridge pictured above. I fully understand that this sort of thing is unavoidable in an urban setting (and my own University of Maryland in College Park has the same problem) but it did detract from the visual appeal of the campus somewhat. Within the campus proper the walking paths were much more attractive, and the walkways lined by palm trees were certainly nothing like what I was used to seeing. This was a different twist on the traditional Oxbridge or New England setting for a university.


In the center of the ASU campus was the Memorial Union. As usual, this was the administrative center for student services as well as a venue for all sorts of dining options. I was amused to see that one of the cafes was named "Pitchforks" after the Sun Devil mascot of the university, using its three-pronged trident as a logo. There were also the usual Chick-fil-A and Starbucks and sushi options here for hungry students looking for a quick meal. Outside I found a nice patio area for eating in the shade (it never gets too cold here in the winter) and eventually found a store selling all of the Arizona State merchandise that I ever could have wanted. They were still selling jerseys of James Harden here since he's pretty much the only notable ASU basketball player in ages.


I opted to get dinner off campus a few blocks away in the small downtown portion of Tempe. This was a standard college town with plenty of restaurants, cafes, and bars crowded along two main roads: University Drive and Mill Avenue. I ate at the Mellow Mushroom pizzeria, since the DC branch of this chain in the Adams Morgan neighborhood has been one of our favorite places to get pizza locally. By the time that I was done eating the sun had set outside, leaving the Tempe storefronts lit up in their nighttime attire. It seemed like a number of places still had their holiday lights up in early January, including a particularly festive tree outside of one bar. I think that my favorite picture of this group was the last one taken at the light rail station, with the last hints of the setting sun just visible off in the west and the glowing lights of the empty station contrasting with the darkening night sky above. I rode the light rail for the better part of an hour, getting as close to my hotel as I could, then exited and took a rideshare back to the hotel itself. This saved a ton of money, as the Lyft fare was about $12 as opposed to the $40-50 that it would have cost to ride all the way from Tempe. (By way of contrast, the all-day light rail ticket had cost a mere $5.) Even though I'm not a broke graduate student any longer, I still try to travel smart whenever possible.


Most of the next four days were spent sitting in conference rooms at the hotel dutifully taking notes on the proceedings under discussion. However, on the last day of the work conference the events wrapped up earlier than expected, finishing at 3:00 PM instead of the scheduled 5:00 PM. This gave me a few hours of free time to spend before the sun went down, and I was eager to head outdoors and do some hiking. Our hotel happened to be located in the northern suburbs of the city near the Phoenix Mountains Preserve, a large park containing a series of hills rising up from the otherwise flat valley floor. It was only a 15 minute walk to reach the Dreamy Draw Recreation Area on the northern side of the parkland and head off onto some of the trails. The afternoon sky was a perfect shade of blue without a cloud in the sky (unsurprising for Phoenix) and the temperature was delightful, somewhere in the 60s Fahrenheit (about 17-18 Celsius). It was a wonderful time to be outside and there were a healthy number of other people enjoying the afternoon in the park.


Hiking in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve was a bit different than a normal stroll through a traditional forest. There were no trees here for starters, with the hillsides instead holding different types of bushes and scrub grass, which had the result of making the landscape much more open. It was easy to see a long distance in every direction with nothing other than the hills themselves to block the sightlines. And then there were the cactuses (or is that cacti?), by far the most distinctive type of flora in the preserve. These seemed to be the only plants that were able to grow higher than a few feet off the ground, with their peculiar thorny makeup perfectly suited to the desert climate. The saguaros that were commonplace here are unique to the region: they only grow in Arizona and Sonora, nowhere else in the world. They were a sight to behold here, with the tallest ones approching 30 feet / 10 meters in height.


The trails that I was following didn't seem to go all the way to the top of any of the hills in this area, but I was still high enough to enjoy excellent views of the surrounding region. The best views were to the north, where the Phoenix suburbs sprawled outwards toward the horizon. The geology here was fascinating, an almost completely flat plain interspersed with periodic steep hills that thrust upwards and then immediately subsided again. Apparently these hills are the tips of much larger mountains buried underground, with millions and millions of years worth of sediment piling up in their valleys to raise the surrounding land upwards over time and create the flat terrain that exists today. I spent about two hours exploring different parts of the Phoenix Mountains Preserve before encroaching darkness forced me to head back to the hotel. I managed to capture one image of Piestewa Peak bathing in the orange glow of the sunset as I walked through a residential neighborhood on the return trip.


This work conference was taking place at the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort, and I captured a handful of pictures of the hotel while it was taking place. The resort used the Spanish Colonial architecture style for its general theme, and when combined together with the various amenities provided to visitors the whole place ended up feeling a little bit like a Disney World attraction. This place was also a maze, with multiple different parts of the hotel not connecting together, passageways that didn't lead where they looked like they would, and staircases placed at odd spots that didn't match where they were located in other buildings. It took me some time to find my way around even discounting the miniature golf course and the lazy river pool.


Finally, here are some night shots of the hotel when things were much quieter and no one was around. This was a nice place to stay and I certainly wasn't complaining since the hotel expenses were covered by my job. All in all, it was a successful working trp and I was glad that I was able to experience a bit of the local culture in Arizona during the brief time that wasn't taken up with meetings. Phoenix is an interesting city to visit, and while it was far from my favorite desination, it's worth a visit for a couple of days. This is a great jumping off point for trips to the Grand Canyon (only a few hours to the north) and Phoenix to Las Vegas makes for a nice vacation journey. Maybe a future work trip will take me to Tucson which I'd also like to see. Until then, thanks again for reading.