Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Day 151: Into Phoenix

Mesa to Phoenix. 20.1 miles/2901.9 total

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

9:25 a.m. I depart from the Big Lots parking lot at Baseline Road and Dobson Road in Mesa, heading through Tempe and into downtown Phoenix, ending near Van Buren and 16th Ave., a distance of 20.1 miles.

It’s cloudless and in the mid-60s, expected to get into the high 70s, another unusually warm day here in the Valley of the Sun.

The first part of my walk takes me down Baseline through a mostly residential area, alongside the ubiquitous six-foot privacy walls that surround all the neighborhoods on this busy street. As I walk along I come to some ripe-looking oranges hanging over the wall, and pick one. An unexpected and pleasant way to begin the day, with a little living off the land, as it were, right in the middle of the city. I quarter it with my trusty Winchester pocket knife that has also sliced apples, pieces of sugar cane, pomegranates, and prickly pear fruits I’ve found during my journey. The orange is perfectly ripe.

I look up to discover that I have entered Tempe. I know this because the brown metal street signs that also hold the traffic lights tell me so. Just over the 101 freeway I come to a sign officially welcoming me. It says Tempe was founded in 1871, and is the home of Arizona State University. The sign lists Tempe’s sister cities throughout the world--Skopje, Macedonia; Regensberg, Germany; Hutt City, New Zealand; Zhenjiang, China; Timbuktu, Mali; Beaulieu-sur-Mer, France; Carlow, Ireland. I’m particularly intrigued by the Timbuktu connection. When people my age were growing up, the name Timbuktu was used to evoke the idea of the remotest place on earth, though I’m sure at least one of my cousins has seen Timbuktu in person.

I stop at a Shell station for a cappuccino, and ask the cashier where the bathroom is. He tells me it’s outside in the back. So I walk all around the building and finally find a locked door with a sign on it that says “Sorry, out of order.” Then suddenly it hits me that the bathroom is indeed, literally, outside in the back, and I proceed accordingly.

Tempe was named for a gorge called the Vale of Tempe, in Greece, because of the resemblance (at least in the eyes of a pioneer named Darrell Duppa) between the salt river and a butte in the northern part of the city and that Greek locale. In 1885 the Territorial Normal School was started here, which later became the Arizona State Teachers College and finally Arizona State University. Today Tempe has a population of over 175,000, and ASU is the largest public research university in the United States, with over 70,000 students in four campus locations in the greater Phoenix area.

At 3.1 miles I turn right onto Rural Road to head north into the middle of Tempe. As I cross the U.S. 60 expressway, I notice they have four lanes in each direction plus one of those high occupancy vehicle lanes each way, which are empty. I think HOV lanes are one of those ideas that look good on paper, but aren’t worth a damn. Peoples’ driving and commuting habits are pretty well set, and the existence of a special lane isn’t going to induce most folks to carpool. Furthermore, carpoolers are going to do that whether or not they have their own lanes. If the idea is to relieve traffic congestion, creating a fifth lane open to everyone would reduce the traffic in the other ones by 25%. I’ll bet HOV lanes don’t have that kind of effect. There’s an art to incentivizing, and there must be some serious financial consequences to get people to do something, at least in this country.

If they really want to create a disincentive to drive, they should quit building such good highways everywhere, and quit adding lanes all the time. This country’s highway system is its crowning achievement as far as transportation is concerned, and we like to drive everywhere, mostly with one or two people in the car. Everything in this country invites people to use cars. Why fight it? Everybody’s always saying we should build better public transportation, and that’s all well and good, but the cities with the best public transportation, like New York or Paris or London, had that pretty well set up before the invention of the automobile. Most of the cities in the U.S. away from the eastern seaboard, and especially the ones in the west, were set up after the invention of the car, and they feature wide surface roads made specifically for cars. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that you can’t really turn a car city into a non-car city. And you can’t make people carpool. Our lives, thanks in large part to the automobile, are just too individualized. Having said all that, I must add that Phoenix has an excellent new light rail system, which I’ll be coming into contact with later this morning.

Off to my left the trees in front of the massive Tempe City Library complex, including a museum, are a bright gold. Speaking of trees, I want to thank my friend Michael Roberts for helping me out with the name of these green trees I’ve been seeing--they’re palo verde trees, which happen to be the state tree of Arizona. And since palo verde is Spanish for green pole, or green stick, so that name certainly fits.

I pass Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Roman Catholic Church. The name Mt. Carmel always makes me hungry for caramel candy. Our Lady of Werther’s Original. On one of the walls there’s a sign that says “Mary, Mother of Life, Pray for Us. Our Holy Mother Grieves the Sins Against Human Life.” Then it lists all those sins--murder, abortion, assisted suicide and euthanasia, embryo destruction, genocide, terrorism, capital punishment, and war. In front of this sign is a white marble statue of the Holy Mother grieving, kneeling with her hands on her face. My question is, if the Holy Mother doesn’t like all those things, why the hell doesn’t she do something about it? I mean, she’s the mother of God, for Chrissakes--are we supposed to believe she’s helpless like the mother of some gangbanger in the ‘hood, and that all she can do is weep and wring her hands? And if so, what’s the point of worshipping her, or venerating her, or whatever? Give me a god, or goddess, with some power.

At Apache Boulevard I’m approaching the center of the campus of Arizona State University. I pass a massive six-story building. It’s Barrett, the Honors College. At University I decide to leave Rural Road and follow the light rail tracks to the west. I pass the ASU Wells Fargo Arena and also Sun Devil Stadium. I’m crossing the north side of the ASU campus.

I walk along beside the rails for a bit, until I have to get onto a road when the rails begin to go up over a body of water. I can’t walk on the tracks themselves, though that’s an inviting prospect. The train drivers get nervous; I’ve tried it already. Now I have to find my way onto Mill Avenue, and I set out across the Tempe Town Lake Park. Eventually I come to a fence I can crawl under and I get up on the Tempe Bridge, a rather elegant white concrete span built in 1930-31. This town lake is a bit of an anomaly here in the southwest--they don’t have too many open bodies of water hereabouts. This one looks more like a wide river than a lake.

Emerging on the other side I continue on Mill Street for a mile or so, until I pass by a large complex of buildings called the Salt River Project, an electric and water utility. Also up here, in the buttes and low mountains dividing Tempe from eastern Phoenix, is the city zoo, as well as a park and golf course and the Phoenix Municipal Stadium. This is the spring training home of the Oakland Athletics.

Right around here, at about 10 miles, I pass a sign that says I’m in the City of Phoenix. This street I’m on has turned into Van Buren, which goes all the way through the center of the city and far out to the west of it. But I’m not going to take it all the way in, because I’ve routed myself onto McDowell Street, a mile north of here, for part of the walk.

Sitting off to the south of Van Buren, down a long dirt road, is Tovrea Castle and Carraro Cactus Garden, a city park. The castle, which has a Moorish look to it, was built on a mountain in 1928-1930 by Alessio Carraro. The city has renovated the castle and is working on fixing up the cactus garden, but budget constraints have hampered its efforts. In any event, it’s closed now.

Van Buren looks very much like a street that has been the subject of extensive urban renewal. It’s too old to always have been this devoid of small buildings. But now it features mostly open expanses and large new aluminum and glass corporate headquarters and office parks, very large hotels, and the like. I decide this is a good time to cut up to McDowell, and I turn right on 44th Street.

Along 44th I pass the handsome blue and turquoise Doubletree Hotel. I also come to the COFCO Chinese Cultural Center, a kind of instant Chinatown built in the classic Chinese style, with upturned roofs and gates and all that. It’s basically a mall and office building, featuring Chinese restaurants, grocery stores, and shops selling Chinese knick knacks and furniture. Rather new and quite interesting. I wonder if the Chinese government is behind this.

I’m now heading west on McDowell Street, a wide and somewhat chaotic thoroughfare. Just to the north of McDowell is a dense neighborhood of dowdy lower middle class houses. Many of the buildings here are empty and the ones that are open are an eclectic mixture of restaurants, auto repair and tire places, cocktail lounges, liquor stores, check cashing and title loan places, and trailer parks.

At 16.3 miles I’m at 16th Street. The neighborhood continues to be rather crummy. The stores that aren’t vacant and boarded up cater to Spanish-speaking people pretty exclusively, and in the insouciant Mexican way are often painted bright colors--yellow, baby blue, purple, pink. The graffiti and murals are garish and lively and very cheerful.

At 12th Street I come to Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center, a huge complex. Then I pass Summit High School, on the other side of the street, where the students are just getting out for the day. They are an interesting mélange of ethnicities--mostly Hispanic, but also African American and some African and Asian.

I pass the Richard and Annette Bloch Cancer Survivors Park, a little pocket park with an interesting bronze sculpture depicting worried but hopeful people going through a series of doorways, emerging happy at the other end. Rather moving and well done.

At 17.8 miles I turn left onto Central Avenue and begin to walk down toward the tall buildings of downtown. At this intersection is the Phoenix Art Museum, and also a rather stately CVS pharmacy. The light rail tracks run down the middle of Central Avenue. I go by the huge and ugly Phoenix Public Library.

I pass Channel 12, the NBC affiliate, then the Westward Ho, which used to be a major downtown hotel and is now a residence for disabled people. Then comes the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications of ASU.

At 15 East Monroe is a handsome art deco building about fifteen stories high. It’s empty, and being rehabbed, I guess for eventual occupancy. I get so wrapped up in my enjoyment of downtown that I realize I’ve missed my turn onto Van Buren and I have to go back up a few blocks. At 1st Avenue and Washington is the Maricopa County Courthouse, another striking building from the 1920s or 30s. I head back north, passing the Phoenix City Hall and the Orpheum Theater, built in 1929 with wonderful touches like friezes depicting the masks of comedy and tragedy and niches with statues of Pan.

I pass Historic First Presbyterian Church at the corner of Monroe and 4th Avenue, shining in the late afternoon sun. Now I’m on Van Buren. In Phoenix the numbered streets run east from Central Ave. and the numbered avenues run west. I’m heading west now toward 16th Ave. Van Buren is pretty down at the heels here, but it looks as if they’re trying to gentrify it. Lots of empty houses.

The sun has just about set as I pass a church at the corner of Monroe and 16th Ave., where the motor home is tucked onto a little side street in front of the Arizona State Land Department.


Michael Roberts said...

You are right about Tempe Town Lake not being a lake. It is a small impoundment of the beleaguered Salt River. They use giant air-filled rubber bladders to dam the river in Tempe to create the little lake, bladders they can lower when spring floods come. Upstream is the series of large hydroelectric dams that provide Phoenix with power, control flooding, and store water for dry periods. Lost is that portion of the Salt River Canyon, flooded like Glenn Canyon. The reservoir lakes are fun to kayak, except for the crazy power boaters and high winds. Both are trouble in areas where there is no shore, only shear rock canyon walls. The Salt River Project supplies the area with about a third of its water.

Anonymous said...

Ah Phoenix! A place I wish I was right now, as the thermometer reads 9 degrees at 9 A.M. I'd love to offer you the use of our home in Scottsdale, but realize the intent of the trip is not one of relaxation, but that of purpose. Maybe the next time you walk through. Anyway, be careful, and I look forward to seeing you when you return.


Peter Teeuwissen said...

JB: We're having a terribly miserable day here at Walmart in Mesa, where I'm parked. It's only in the low 60s and I think I felt a drop of rain! But tomorrow it will be better.
Flying back Sunday. See you next week.