Mature Life Features

Cecil Scaglione, Editor

Phoenix Embraces the Desert

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Retired wagon in desert near Phoenix

By Cecil Scaglione

Mature Life Features

PHOENIX  —- Unlike its legendary-bird namesake, this sprawling metropolis ranked among the top-10 fastest-growing regions in the nation did not re-energize itself by rising out of its own ashes in the burning desert. More like that pink rabbit in the battery commercial, it just grows and grows and keeps on growing, stretching its sub-division and shopping centers over or around every cactus and crevice in the Valley of the Sun.

To get our arms around this urbanized sprawl that has positioned attractions and accommodations as much as two hours apart, we traveled by car, bicycle, horse, and balloon.

It was in Peoria, abutting Glendale at the northwest corner of this metropolitan mammoth of some 4 million people,  that we launched our exploration of this megalopolis by visiting the Challenger Space Center, one of several strung across the country. Retired personnel from space-program-supplier Rockwell International Corp. take visitors seamlessly through scenarios that allow you to fly space missions complete with emergencies calling for sudden solutions.

Still in up-in-the-air mode, we headed to Deer Valley Airport on the northeastern edge of town for a mile-high 90-minute balloon ride to enhance our perspective of the local growth.

If such a diversion doesn’t sound appealing, you can take a quick drive to South Mountain Park where several viewpoints offer panoramic views of this vibrant valley. The best time to head there is the first two weeks of April when rain-fed blooms carpet the mountainside. The education center inside the park’s entrance building tells you all have to know about the various critters and cacti.

For a closer look at those, we took advantage of a mountain-bike tour – others took a more leisurely hike – of Usery Mountain Regional Park east of the city. That’s where we were told that the giant saguaro cactus, which grows only in the Sonoran Desert that stretches from Arizona into Mexico, develops “arms’ not to denote its age but to balance itself against the relentless wind.

To pick up more easy knowledge, about an hour away is a hands-on complex designed to keep anyone from 8 to 80 entertained for hours on end. While the Challenger facility transports you into learning mode without you realizing it, the Arizona Science Center in downtown Phoenix caters to the touch-and-feel gene in all of us.

Visitors are encouraged to learn first-hand how to build a house, make a giant nose sneeze, watch heart surgery or clumps of iron filings dance to “Flight of the Bumble Bee,”and test their piloting skills.

There’s much more to this town than desert, of course, and one of its first breakthroughs was the 1929 opening of the Arizona Biltmore, which is worth a visit if, for no other reason, than to gawk at the walls lined with photos of celebrities at play there over the years and its ceilings lined with gold. More than 30,000 square feet of the glitter glistens over the lobby, a special meeting room, and main dining room that look and feel old enough to be comfortable without being frayed at the edges.

Prominent among the valley’s notable resorts is the Phoenician, which is tucked into a fold of local icon Saddleback Mountain. with its eye-candy nighttime vistas of the twinkling town lights to the south.

About an hour south, in the Gila River Indian Community, is the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort built by the Pima and Maricopa tribes of Native Americans. It’s on the grounds of a casino the two tribes built jointly. A miniature parasol-protected riverboat putt-putts gamblers on a man-made creek between the hotel lobby and casino every 20 minutes. You can tour the facilities via horse-drawn wagon or range farther by heading out on horseback from the riding stables. In the evening, storytellers pour out yarns from Indian lore and legend around a patio campfire.

The tribes also imported Rawhide, an Old West town complete with on-the-street simulated gunfights that had been a Scottsdale attraction for more than three decades. Real-man vittles eat up a majority of the menu at the Rawhide Steakhouse and Saloon, where you can rip into ribs or rattlesnake, which is as good a way as any to digest memories of this desert dynamo.

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Written by Cecil Scaglione

July 27, 2011 at 6:45 am

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