Observing environmental contrasts in Arizona

I decided to visit Arizona for the Easter long weekend. Good decision: as I write this, Chapel Hill is undergoing a deep freeze of 30-50° F (6° C) while I am thoroughly enjoying the warm and dry 94° F (34° C) weather.

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It was not a difficult decision to come here. Arizona offers intense hiking opportunities, awesome and raw natural beauty, and a major plus is that an equally keen adventurer friend of mine is based here. He and his wife recently had a baby boy who I was eager to meet. And so the plans were drawn.

It’s my first time here and I was surprised to discover that Phoenix has 4.2 million people in the metropolitan area. This makes it the sixth largest city by population in the country, according to Wikipedia. The metro area also includes the large and well-known towns of Scottsdale and Tempe, which is where I have spent my time so far.


The town of Tempe is home to the campus of Arizona State University and like most college towns in the US, it has a vibrant, hip and liberal feel to it. The streets are pedestrian-friendly, decorated with palm trees, and lined with trendy bars and restaurants, yoga studios, and smoke shops. You’ll see young professionals chatting it up over cocktails and beers and students sipping iced coffees and pounding away on keyboards trying to get their papers finished. Still, I was horrified to see one bar with its patio sliding doors thrown wide open and its air-conditioning system cooling the city air at full blast. And another restaurant across the street was spraying misted water on to its patrons to cool them down. (I found the temperature to be quite balmy.) I had gotten off the plane just 30 minutes earlier and so unfortunately these were among my first observations of my life in the Phoenix area …

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My friend Paul and I stopped at the Handlebar Tempe, a restaurant with an airy beer garden out back. We ordered sausages, burgers and sweet potato fries accompanied by cold local ale. That was enough for me to declare it a meal of champions!

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The roads around Scottsdale are lined with Saguaro cacti and palo verde trees which are among the dominant forms of fauna here. The entire area is situated within the Sonoran Desert, one of four desert ecosystems found in the United States. Despite the low amounts of precipitation in this climate there is apparently enough rain (or groundwater) to sustain some life. Certain types of plants have evolved to thrive here, but they tend to have a dusty or dull brownish and greenish colour to them and this is a dominant feature of the landscape.

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Scottsdale city authorities have undertaken efforts and put rules in place to protect the sensitive local environment. For starters, developers are apparently prohibited from removing the road-side brush. The result is that nearly every road is lined with the original desert vegetation and resident and commercial developments are a secondary feature, blending more readily into the landscape. I understand that homeowners may only plant species of vegetation which are native to the area and which are adapted to the low rainfall levels. Moreover, as a water conservation measure, properties have drip-irrigation systems built in at the time of construction which are designed to provide only a minimal amount of water to the plants growing around the home. And you’ll notice from the photo below that there is no grass – just light-coloured grey stones. Where grass exists, it’s usually Astroturf! These efforts are quite a contrast to the waste of water I witnessed in downtown Tempe.

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Another dominant characteristic of the landscape is its sharp mountainous relief. Everywhere you look you will see conical or triangular shaped mountains rising abruptly out of the desert. These are the McDowell Mountains. Some of them rise only a few hundred or a thousand feet, while others must be easily twice that height. It is funny because as we were driving along the way, I found it difficult to tell where the homes and businesses were, so well were they obscured by the same landscape that was occupying our attention.

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Early one morning, Paul and I decided to hike up into one such set of mountains, following the Pinnacle Peak Trail. The hike was about 2 miles long, with an elevation change (both up and down) of about 1,300 feet, and took us about 2 hours to complete. There were dozens of other hikers and joggers on the trail with us. I wondered at those who were running up and down the mountains. I thought to myself that they must be doing interval training (an exercise format that aims to improve strength and recovery time after highly intense periods of physical exertion).

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From the top of Pinnacle Peak, you can see a few golf courses built into the desert.

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And one home with an infinity pool, set into the mountain side.

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