“You know you live in Phoenix when the four seasons are: tolerable, hot, really hot, and are you freakin’ kidding me?”–Unknown
If you would have asked me what the fifth largest city in the U.S. was a week ago, I would not have been able to guess. In fact, I would have not even come close. Now, I know. In fact, I can say I have been there.
Phoenix, Arizona is the fifth largest city in the United States. It’s geographically bigger than Los Angeles as it covers 500 square miles. This desert city’s population is over 1.6 million, and, according to The New York Post, Phoenix has recorded the fastest growth of any major US city. Although there is a growing tech industry, much of the attraction of Phoenix comes from its number of resorts, golf courses, and retirement locations.
I had the good fortune, along with my husband, John, to visit one of those Phoenix resorts, the JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort and Spa, located in Sonoran Desert Region, the hottest desert in both Mexico and the US. We were there for the NWEA Fusion 2022 Conference, along with our school’s principal, Dr. Carol Templeton, and Jennifer “Jenn” Hornyak, Associate Superintendent of Technology and Accreditation of the Department of Catholic Schools, Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston (WV).
And, hot it was–both the weather and the conference itself, especially the featured speakers, Michael Bonner, Hamish Brewer, and Marli Williams! While the temperatures were climbing towards 110 degrees outside, along with a smattering of dust storms rolling in the afternoons, these amazing consultants were heating things up inside the conference center at the start of day. Each of these talented, charismatic, and socially connected speakers brought the roof down, reinvigorating school personnel after what has been an unquestionably challenging period during these past COVID pandemic years.
Bonner, an animated, inspiring educator at the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, kicked off the week. His good-humored, side-splitting, affirming discourse was filled with a series of inspiring stories, ideas, and catch-phrases. In the end, he created an atmosphere of palpable motivation for the pursuit of creating innovative, effective, and relevant classroom environments.
Brewer, a fearless, engaging, skateboarding principal in northern Virginia, followed up the second morning. His break-the-status-quo, love-up your students, high-octane presentation had the audience on its feet dancing and cheering. Brewer delivered the goods by filling minds with sparks of creative, colorful, and impactful ideas for retooling, reimagining, and rethinking school culture.
Finally, Marli Williams, an enthusiastic, empowering, self-described “joy instigator,” wrapped up the conference. Her vivacious, go-get ‘em tiger delivery wowed those in attendance. She emboldened the audience to give themselves permission to explore more joy, and show-up, not only for your school community, but also for your own well-being, while exploring a more playful attitude–within both the educational setting and within one’s personal life.
The conference setting for Fusion 2022 was spectacular, and its stunning design seemed to rise from the desert. Covering 316 acres, the Marriott is surrounded by an arresting array of desert life and stately mountains. Additionally, there is an abundance of activities that can be explored both on and off-site, including golfing, swimming, biking, shopping, hiking, sightseeing, horseback riding, and so much more.
Initially, we had hoped to hike both nearby Pinnacle Peak Park and Camelback Mountain, but we were unable to complete exploration of either site due to the extreme late afternoon heat that we would have experienced at the end of each day’s conference sessions. In fact, we were strongly warned by local residents that newcomers to the area have a tendency to hike in the high temperatures of the afternoon/evening only to suffer heat exhaustion or heat stroke. It was further explained that countless visitors, unfamiliar with the fact that sweat evaporates quickly in dry heat, don’t realize they’re overheating until it’s too late.
However, we did go off-site for dinners to soak up some local atmosphere. On our first evening, we visited a popular chain establishment, BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse, that is not available in our home area, for a relaxing dinner while we planned out the coming days. By the next night, we were ready to explore more local establishments.
The first local restaurant we visited was The Italian Daughter located in Scottsdale, Arizona. Our watier, Bobby, offered extraordinary service with his vivacious personality and his experienced attention to detail. All pastas, pizzas, and dishes were made to order with accepting and easy accommodations for those with special dietary needs, food allergies, or any other meal modifications. We spent a lovely evening at this location, and I would highly recommend it if you are ever in the area.
Another restaurant we visited was Thirsty Lion Gastropub. While this is not technically local, since they do have a few locations in Texas, Arizona, Colorado, and Oregon, it was local-enough for us! Given the name, we initially expected more traditional English food. Instead, we discovered an eclectic variety of multicultural cuisine, made from scratch, and an accommodating attitude to special dietary requests/modifications. This was another evening full of belly laughs and good food. I would absolutely recommend it when traveling in the West.
For our final night’s dining stop, we visited Barrio Queen. With three Arizona locations, this establishment offered a menu full of regional, authentic southern Mexican dishes based upon family recipes. Our waiter, Carl, was extremely knowledgeable of each dish, and quick to make helpful recommendations. On a fun note, he was familiar with the Tri-State local area as he grew up in a community just north of Pittsburg. If you ever visit Arizona, and you like quality Mexican food, this is your place!
Overall, traveling to the Phoenix area and attending the NWEA Fusion 2022 conference felt like a once-in-a lifetime opportunity. Still, if given the chance, I would love to return to the area once more, but during a cooler time of the year. There was so much distinctive surrounding beauty I feel certain I would have enjoyed exploring under other circumstances. One thing is for sure though, I now know, and can say, I have visited the fifth largest city in the US!
Desert Flowers and if you look closely at the last sunflower pictures, you see native AZ green birds (I just don’t know their names!)
Cactus Life and with a couple of hares
Stirring up afternoon dust storms
Majestic Mountains were the daily backdrop
A few more images shot from the airplane
Hello and Goodbye to Phoenix AZ