On Finding Happiness: Phoenix and the White Tank Mountains

White Tank Campground

Leaving Roosevelt Lake and the Superstition Mountains, we descended back into the Valley of the Sun. That’s its tourist name; the real name is the Salt River Valley, which doesn’t sound quite as snappy, but is probably better for the Chamber of Commerce. Regardless, as we drove along the highways the visibility of residential and highway construction in the valley continued to astound me. Although the Phoenix metro area’s population growth has slowed in recent years to about 2% per year, apparently developers must think there is a large market for new tract housing. On the west side of Phoenix near our campground, AZ-303 used to be just a regular two lane highway with stop lights; now it’s a smooth six lane speedway, with frequent on/off ramps (nicely decorated with Western-themed graphics and rock art) and what we like to call “Bugs Bunny” massive flyover interchanges with the interstate. Our Jeep’s GPS database is only two years old, but it had no idea that the roads had changed so much.

No Parking Hare (Looney Tunes)

The land for a few miles on either side of AZ-303 is nominally agricultural, growing fields of vegetables like kale and spinach. But sprouting along with the vegetables are signs for zoning hearings, a harbinger that massive housing developments are on the way. Further north are the sprawling Sun City West and Sun City Grand retirement developments. To the east, Litchfield Park is rapidly filling in any remaining uncovered soil with generic faux-adobe / tile-roofed housing. Most street corners have multiple signs promoting the developer’s new homes. It’s not necessarily unattractive, just inorganic.

To me, the immensity and sameness of all this new housing is the difference between a farmer’s market and the snack food section of the supermarket. If we could afford it and it was convenient enough, with enough selection, we’d buy everything at the farmer’s market; but the manufacturers that dominate the center aisles of super markets design and package affordable, tasty, convenient foods and distribute them in massive quantities. In the same way, it would be nice if everybody could afford a custom home, built one at a time, just for them. But that model isn’t affordable, practical or scalable. There’s a place for both, so vive la difference, I guess.

We continued on to what would be our new home for the next two weeks: White Tank Mountain Regional Park. When I saw the name, I imagined a large, industrial water tank, painted white, planted on the hillside above the campground. Fortunately, that’s not the origin of the name, which instead comes from the natural geography of the mountains. The bottoms of the canyons are whitish rocks that have been worn smooth over the eons from flash floods. Swales in these rocks form basins that collect water (called tinajas), hence “white tanks.”

White Tanks

White Tank has a smallish campground, with only about 35 sites, so it feels intimate. Several hiking trails take you up and down the flat base of the mountains, and others take you up into the canyons. This winter, Phoenix has had a relative abundance of well-timed rain, and so it is just beginning a rare “superbloom” of wildflowers. (The Sonoran desert is the wettest desert in the world, with two rainy season: winter and summer monsoons). The most obvious are the Arizona poppies, which carpeted the hillsides, along with lupine and many other flowers I don’t know the names of.

Poppies were poppin’

We went on a walk with an amateur botanist (“enthusiast, not expert” she explained) who pointed out the tiny blossoms on many plants and how rare it was to see them due to the rainfall. This was interesting, but I’m not sophisticated enough yet to appreciate the more subtle flowers. Mostly, I was impressed with how completely green the desert was. It was practically like a golf course.

Desert Botany

Another bonus from the recent rains was a hike up the Waterfall Trail, where water was actually flowing into a pool.

Desert Waterfall

And we took the now-obligatory bird walks (two new species: the Ash-Throated Flycatcher and Canyon Towhee!) and other hikes.

Yet another group of birders

One pleasant surprise was a very comfortable, new county library at the entrance to the park with adequate WiFi, so we were able to stay in touch and get electronic things done without burning up our hotspot data.

The joy of WiFi with a Sonoran Desert view

The other job I had been postponing for a while was fixing our tires (we have 8: four on the Jeep and four on the trailer). Since leaving home there had been a slow leak in one of the Jeep’s tires. We have a portable electric tire pump, so every two or three days I would put more air in. This was an admittedly lazy solution, but it worked until there was a time and place where we had a good choice of tire shops. Finally one day I got tired of pumping up the tire, examined the treads carefully and found a small screw embedded in one of them. After measuring the tread (down to 5/32” on two tires and 4/32” on the other two – well above the wear bars, but could potentially hydroplane in a flooded roadway), with 56,000 miles on them, I decided it was time for them to be retired. A quick visit to Discount Tire resulted in four new shoes for our tow vehicle.

Jeep Owie

Also somewhere along our trip a slow leak had started in one of our trailer tires. I had also been refilling this one every few days, but after replacing the Jeep’s tires I examined the trailer leaker and this time found a nail in the tread. I guess the roads we traveled this year have a lot of what airlines call FOD – Foreign Object Debris. So I jacked up the trailer, took the wheel back to Discount Tire, and they quickly repaired it with a patch and a plug – for FREE! I get nothing for saying this, but I am an extremely satisfied customer. (hmmm…future sponsorship opportunity for Odysseeing? 🙂 )

Trailer Owie

A real highlight of our entire trip so far was a pilgrimage to Sloan Park in Mesa, the spring training home of your World Champion Chicago Cubs! (I’ll never get tired of writing that.) Compared to their former home (Ho Ho Kam Park), it’s a Taj Mahal of baseball. It’s designed to look like an intimate version of Wrigley Field, at which it is largely successful. Although based on the prices that the Cubs are charging for lawn seats and concessions, they could have used marble instead of bricks on the walls. At least with Sloan as the sponsor, they have nice bathrooms.

Bleacher bums on the grass

In a pleasant surprise, the lineup included almost all of the expected first day starters in a matchup with the “other Chicago MLB team” (aka White Sox). The starters had a good few innings, then got to knock off work early while the “non-roster invitees” played out the rest of the game in an audition for the few remaining spots. Rain threatened most of the afternoon, but we made it through to the end of the game without getting wet. And the Cubs even came back to tie the game. In the strange rules of spring training baseball, tied games end after nine innings.

Bryzzo (Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo) on base and at the plate

Also during our stay we got to visit and have lunch with our friends Marcia and Dick from our hometown of Beverly Shores, IN. They have a winter place out here, and we loved seeing their comfortable home in the hills near Pinnacle Peak, just a short walk from hiking trails in McDowell Mountain Regional Park (the other side of the mountain from our previous campground). They also took us on a driving tour of the nearby towns of Carefree (boutiques and galleries) and Cave Creek (Harley-Davidsons and ersatz Western saloons). It was great to catch up with them and exchange what we know of small town gossip from back home.

Aside from the wonderful weather and outdoor activities, our main reason for being in the Phoenix area now was the annual meeting for Maureen’s former organization, The American College of Psychiatrists. It had been two years since she had seen most of her members, who also had become her dear friends, so we took the opportunity to reconnect with them at the event’s resort hotel in the very tony town of Scottsdale.

As an aside, it was oddly jarring to be sitting by the pool at a resort with essentially the same weather as what we would have had at our campsite in the White Tank Mountains. But here, instead of natural rocky trails with Sonoran landscape there were cultivated cactus (with their spines removed) with pristine rock mulch; instead of searching on the trails for wild birds there was a tame Great Horned Owl that had been rescued and raised by a handler, brought to your luncheon table for you to admire and pet; and servers bringing you delicious food with tableside guacamole preparation, instead of the typical grilled foods or deli sandwiches we prepare at our RV. At the pool there was piped in Top 40 dance music, in place of birdsong.

Joe with Maggie the rescued Great Horned Owl

Not that there’s anything wrong with any of this. Resorts are luxurious and hedonistic, which is why people pay dearly to go to them. But there’s also nothing authentic or real about them, and the juxtaposition with our Spartan, but grounded, lifestyle was strangely noticeable. At a resort you pay your money and expect to be pampered and entertained, and can be just about guaranteed that will happen to your satisfaction. In an RV, you can put yourself just about anywhere you want, and then it’s up to you to go out and find our own happiness. I’ll admit it’s possible I’m biased and only extolling the virtues of our chosen lifestyle. Don’t get me wrong, I like the very occasional commercial pampering, but in the long run, it seems unsustainable and susceptible to hedonic adaption. We seem happiest when we are exploring new places in natural surroundings, meeting old and new friends, and finding joy in serendipity instead of having it delivered as part of a transaction.

The Real Deal