Visit Phoenix, Arizona, fifth largest state in the U.S.

“You know you live in Phoenix when the four seasons are: tolerable, hot, really hot, and are you freakin’ kidding me?”–Unknown

View of the surrounding mountains from our room in the Marriott.

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.  

Entrance to the JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort and Spa

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).  

Entering the Conference Center early in the morning before thing began to heat up!

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 influencer and educator currently Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta

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 thought leader, known as the skateboarding principal, in northern Virginia. Brewer is also featured in the skateboarding humanitarian documentary Humanity Stoked.

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.  

Marli Williams, a popular thought-leader and self-described “joy instigator”

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.

Numerous peaks abound for hiking as seen from the airplane!

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

Black Mountain, NC, The New Cool

“Although I deeply love oceans, deserts, and other wild landscapes, it is only mountains that beckon me with that sort of painful magnetic pull to walk deeper and deeper into their beauty.”–Victoria Erikson

After all of the freedom of mask-free living, travel, and dining, it looks as if we might be heading right back into those not-so-care-free-mask-wearing days again–vaccinated or not.  Regardless of what position you take on COVID, vaccines, and masks, there is one topic on which most can agree based upon the summer of 2021–our collective love of travel.  Perhaps, it’s hard-wired into our DNA from the hunting-gathering days, but as a whole, a large part of our population embraces that wanderlust feeling–hitting the open road and taking off for a change of scenery in order to relax, recharge, and renew.

While my husband and I did not travel as much as we would have liked this past summer, we did discover an off-the-beaten path destination that we hope to return to in the near future–Black Mountain, NC.  Ideally, we would like to visit it again during the fall months, but since we are both educators, extended fall travel is not possible.  However, for those of you with the opportunity to travel during the fall months, I would encourage you to consider a visit to this charming and scenic area of NC.  Even with mask-restrictions, it’s an ideal travel destination due to its fine dining, shopping, museums, breweries/distillery/cideries, crafts, art, music, and more.   Plus, it also offers a plethora of out-of-doors activities in which you can practice social distancing if that’s your preference.  

Using populars travel apps such as Airbnb, VRBO, TripAdvisor, or Yelp, you will not only find an abundance of ideas for activities in the vicinity, but also a wide range of places to stay sure to fit any budget, including rental homes/condos/apartments, bed and breakfasts, quaint inns, camping or glamping sites, resorts, and hotels. In fact, John and I were overwhelmed with all of the choices, but ultimately went with a VRBO rental home one mile from downtown Black Mountain called Getaway Disoway.  The owners, Tony and Tricia Wilkerson, were fantastic and responsive communicators, respected our privacy, and provided us with a clean, comfortable, and cozy cottage built in 1941 that we absolutely loved.

What’s not to love about squirrel watching as you relax on your mountain view deck?!

In the same way there are a myriad of places in which to stay in Black Mountain, there are likewise ample choices of eateries! This was good news for John and me since we have two different dining preferences.  I have to eat gluten free due to celiac disease, but I choose to also eat plant based; whereas, John is MUCH easier to feed as he is your basic meat, potato, salad kind-of-guy!  In spite of our differences when it comes to how we eat, we come together on our preference for eating at eclectic restaurants that are locally owned, and Black Mountain certainly has those!

Our first food stop was FRESH: Wood Fired Pizza, featuring a classic menu of pizza, pasta, salads, and desserts.  The chef, Mark Tomczak, an award winning ceramics artist, worked as an assistant chef at The Inn and Spa at Cedar Falls, in Hocking Hills, Ohio.  Later, he became head chef at The Colonial, in Jackson, Ohio, before merging his talents.  FRESH features Tomczak’s fine food and pottery creations in a vibrant, funky atmosphere featuring ample outdoors dining.  Additionally, due to fact his youngest daughter, Emma, has a gluten intolerance, Tomczak’s menu offers multiple gluten free options, and his staff go out of their way to prepare gluten free food separately from the rest of menu items in an attempt to try, to the degree possible, keep their gluten free foods from being cross-contaminated.  John and I loved FRESH so much, we ate there twice!

The next day, we visited Cousins Cuban Cafe, where we met the chef and owner, Beatriz “Betty” Sperry, while trying to decide what to eat.  Sperry took charge immediately, asking questions, and based upon our answers, making recommendations.  Sperry, a first generation American whose parents immigrated from Cuba to Miami, FL, proudly shared with us the story of her family.  Their pictures adorn one wall of the cafe.  Sperry described Cuban cuisine as being robust and full of flavor, but without being too spicy.  Oh my, was she ever right, and they also had THE. BEST. COFFEE. EVER.  The cafe’s food was like none other we had previously experienced.  Sperry made John and I feel like one of the family as we sat at a small table near the kitchen, chatting with her and soaking up the atmosphere as the kitchen staff jovially, but quickly hustled to feed the ceaseless stream of hungry diners coming in for lunch.  We will definitely return to this homey breakfast/lunch bistro.

If you’re going to hike around mountains, you need to fuel strongly, and that’s exactly what John and I did twice at Blueridge Biscuit Company–home of the gluten-free biscuit!  Unfortunately for me, since we were on vacation, we slept later than we normally would, so the advertised gluten-free, 9 oz cathead biscuits were regrettably sold out both mornings!  No worries for me though, they had numerous other gluten-free offerings, including house made granola and plenty of hot coffee!  John appreciated the varied biscuit sandwich choices. (Yes, his biscuits were also 9 oz catheads too!)  However, biscuit-based meals were not the only foods served up at this breakfast/lunch eatery, there were plenty of waffles, eggs, proteins, sides, and such, sure to please even the pickiest eater.

What vacation isn’t complete without a little Mexican food to spice up the experience?  Which is why we had to visit Ole’s Guacamole.  Full confession:  I am a BIG eater when it comes to Mexican food, especially vegetarian fajitas.  John and I visited Ole’s on an evening after our longest hike, and we were hungry.  However, the portions at Ole’s were so generous, even I could not eat all of my food!  What’s more, my margarita was so big, I couldn’t drink all of it either!  Nonetheless, you did not hear either one of us complaining, and based upon the crowd, Ole’s has plenty of adoring fans ready to take on the clean-plate challenge! 

Last up, on our Black Mountain dining adventures was Black Mountain Bistro.  This locally owned and run restaurant offers an eclectic food and drink menu, including vegan/vegetarian and gluten-free options.  While dining there, we met Jaiden, our server extraordinaire who answered all of our questions, made recommendations, and even made time to discuss her favorite hiking spots in the area.  Our food was outstanding, the atmosphere was inviting, and it appeared to be a local favorite hang-out based upon the people we met.  We had hoped to return, but our trip turned out to be one day shorter than planned, thanks to my poor booking skills! 

All-in-all, John and I left a bit of our heart in Black Mountain, NC.  It is full of ample out-of-door spaces to explore, stunning scenery, a vibrant arts and craft scene, a hip, but welcoming vibe, and just the right amount of one-of-a-kind locally owned shops, restaurants, and businesses.  Stay tuned for more as we are already planning for a second trip to this mountain haven.