The Phoenix Furnace

Modern day Phoenix gives very few hints at its agricultural past. What it does give you is a sprawling expanse of hard surfaces that, at night, radiate back the heat of the day in this viscerally pleasing manner. A sensory experience likely not found anywhere else in the US. What I’m saying is only go to Phoenix in the dark. By day, Phoenix is…well you’ll see:


I rolled into Phoenix on the heels of some downright magical nature experiences in northern Arizona (watch for the posts). I’m a realist, though, so heading into a modern megacity I was at peace with likely having seen the last of any pristine nature for awhile.

Comin’ in hot on a Greyhound bus down Interstate 17:

For a Greyhound bus station, this might be in the top 5 nationally. Look at the friggin’ palm trees:

It was noticeably warmer and very bright with the sun reflecting off the pavement as I walked out westward. Phoenix is a car town for sure, so not surprised to be along a busy road:

Ahhhh there it is our first big reveal for Phoenix after passing under the overpasses. Bank of America is everywhere in the US, but not every city gets a fat corporate office. Certain special employees even had covered parking to fend off the powerful sun:

The next major theme for my time in Phoenix was on the bus shelter just ahead. With all the cars around there’s bound to be wrecks. Plenty of lawyers around to help with that it seems:

OK, so I had been dropped off by the bus much closer to the airport than to downtown Phoenix. My first mission I had decided would be navigating to downtown by sunset (if you want to see exactly where I walked reference this handy map). I took a turn north and, shockingly, found a bicycle on display:

It’s baby steps for Phoenix with bicycling. Just in 2017 did they put in their first 0.3 miles of protected bike lane. Then last year was the tragic, infamous Uber self-driving car hitting a person pushing a bicycle across a road incident. Phoenix is no stranger to annual most dangerous cities for cyclists lists.

You can see how not bike friendly this corridor of pavement is. Oh, just ride down that sidewalk you say? Have fun cycling on that sidewalk when a dump truck comes down the outside lane at the same time as a pedestrian strolls along (this actually happened, the pedestrian was me and I was thankfully able to suck it in enough to let the cyclist by unscathed):

Safely over the bridge and look, another lawyer offering to help:

Finally getting to stretches of road without constant traffic. The big box theme for architecture was taking hold though:

Ahhh first signs of salvation for me. Check out the stylish train platform across the road:

More churches and at least this one has some style:

Here we have another box though. Several boxes actually. This one for sports:

This box is for cars:

This sleek box for conventions:

The powerful sun made for dazzling light though:

This is the kind of architecture that wowed me as a child. As an adult, though, not so much. All the hard, smooth surfaces of the boxes just aren’t engaging to a human walking down the sidewalk. The light made for a nice pic nonetheless:

Conferences got out for the day. Most people still had name tags on:

Can only imagine the golden, boiling hell this street must be in warmer months:

Finally, a small but multiple block encampment of buildings with character. That’s the Punchcard Building center right in the distance:

And the other sexy city thing about Phoenix is the train. The Metro features ample air-conditioning, frequent trains and stylish skinny station platforms. Places to sit in the shade, train status info displays, some historic facts, even some vertical plantings at some of the stops:

The crowd on the train had the most character I’d experienced yet by far. Strangers of different ages were engaging in conversation. Everyone was being kind even if they had to stand:

This guy was fine; he’s just resting here:

Hopping off in the last light of the day to the east in the Mesa area:

There are just so few signs around that were not for a lawyer:

Google maps had me overconfident about finding my friend’s apartment where I was staying the next 2 nights. Once I arrived on scene at the complex, what I figured would be just a few mins of navigating spilled into 15 minutes of beige confusion.

My friend had only moved in recently, but she knew the way to the mailboxes from her front door. When I called her lost standing beside them, I froze in place and she came out to rescue me.

The beige encampment of apartments was nondescript even by daylight. To ensure that I got back to the right complex, I took note of a blue dumpster to navigate by:

Ready to move to Phoenix yet?

2 story apartment villages times 100 in this area. Depressing, even in bright sunshine. It was even depressing finding myself by water in the blocks ahead. Here’s the Tempe Canal:


This is Phoenix. Endless miles of wide roads:

So confused…is there a McDonald’s bus that stops here?!

Unique traffic lights…yeah I’m really reaching for points of interest:

So much pavement:

Finally a local business with character in one of the strip mall plazas. I had a bagel here:

I guess some character to be had here as well, but not really the kind of souvenirs I could fit in my backpack:

I was now lapping back towards condo land. Crossing back over the highway:

And back to the Tempe Canal. Decided to walk along it for a stretch:

And I was rewarded with adorable goats! A tiny sliver of agrarian life in the middle of vast urban sprawl:

Phoenix was established as an agricultural area by intrepid former Confederate soldier Jack Swilling in 1867. Swilling improved upon ancient canal systems dormant for centuries to channel waters from the Salt River into farm fields. His first successful harvest in 1868 set the settlement of Phoenix into motion. A simple farmer Swilling was not, however. His wild frontier exploits prospecting for gold, killing several men and getting hooked on morphine and alcohol laced “Perry Davis’s vegetable painkiller” make for great reading.

Onward past some quaint single family homes;

I saw the fresh paint job on this complex being applied as I departed in the morning. I had found the right street back:

Nice nap before heading back out to walk again. This was early April, but still the extreme sunshine had taken its toll. Phoenix sun is no joke….and it’s getting really bad. We’re talking an extra month of 100 degree days bad. From 1900 to 1969, Phoenix averaged 84 100 degree days. Since 2000, the average is up to a blistering 113 days of 100 degree heat per year. Some days it even gets too hot to fly planes.

Cool to see some cacti, but bad to see grass turf that must require copious watering:

Yippee balloons and cars:

I have never seen sidewalks so fancy. Phoenix is really advanced with their paving:

Ahhhh my beloved Phoenix savior the train. Time to get back downtown. Look, someone rode the yellow bike here:

Culture search in full swing back on the scene downtown. Come on Phoenix show me something:


Nice touches, but all very new:

The train platforms were the coolest spots to hang out:

Into new condo land:

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This highway…

…is under this park:

This expanse of scrubby turf was a very welcoming space. People were out with their dogs, martial arts classes were going down, homeless men lounged. A lovely sky to finish the day:

As night came again Phoenix suddenly shifted for me. The darkening blues of evening and the cooling air were a welcome change:

I was headed to a yoga class, but suddenly was totally enraptured with being outside:

Inside unapologetically modern Sutra Yoga. I like that they embraced a modern look for their space and left out the common hints of India approach that I so often see. Just don’t think that would work in this building:

Solid yoga class experience and very friendly staff. I left quite content and enjoyed more of the alluring evening air.

There was one local business sign not featuring a lawyer on the way back to the apartment:

One final sleep in Phoenix and then it was time to head south to Tucson. I had a 3 mile walk to reach the Mesa Greyhound station.

Nice sales job for an area featuring just a large mall:

Not fooling me. This part of town was a bit of a dump:

And the capper to the area was a strip mall adjacent to Superstition Freeway. I’d found my sketchy little Greyhound station. I had to run down the bus across the parking lot as it departed 10 minutes ahead of schedule. Phoenix is challenging without a car.

Overall, I felt a searing sense of loneliness on the streets of Phoenix, Arizona. I had felt much less alone in the sun scorched Verde Valley to the north even when in remote spots. I remember feeling so calm and at peace when scrunched under prickly shrubs to sit out of the sun to rest.

So why would only a blanket of darkness feel assuring to me in a city like Phoenix with so many people? Expectation. With so many people I expected things: other people out and about, store fronts, places to get food, things to shade me from the sun, parks. Walking the endless sidewalks of Phoenix brought me few of those comforts; mostly just dread from baking under the eye of the sun.

So why is this important? Why care about natural areas getting paved over for miles as far as the eye can see? Why question fossil fuel worship in Phoenix? Well, the creepy concept of driverless cars is being actively tested in Chandler (part of the Phoenix sprawl). In this surreal Guardian piece, catching rides in robot vehicles is estimated to cost double what owning a car would. Not to mention how ridiculous an army of driverless white minivans swarming our towns in place of the extinct insects is going to look. Designing cities not so dependent on cars to live in is the answer to many of our ills.

Probably not a shocker this city isn’t high scoring for my purposes. It’s a stretch for so many humans to be living in the middle of a desert anyway:

Berndog City Score: Phoenix, AZ

Weird to be Walking Score(1=everyone thinks I’m homeless to 5=part of a pedestrian parade):

2 Constant sidewalks saved from a 1

Public Spaces and Places(parks and buildings where anyone can hang out 1=none to 5=lots):

2 There was that one park on top of the highway

Screwed Without a Car Factor(1=no bus or train & wide busy roads to 5=I’m in Manhattan):

3 That train was my best friend

Food Scene(1=fast food, bad chains & gas station groceries to 5=local farm to table all over):

1 Never found a culinary scene

Access to Nature(1=endless concrete prairie to 5=in the shadow of mountains):

2 There are some mountains close by…but so much pavement and cars

Cityscape(1=strip malls & boring new buildings to 5=locally distinct style with historic districts):

1 Relatively small downtown and bleak apartments for miles

Total Score: 11 out of a possible 30. Lowest scoring city for me yet.

Cheers for reading and hope you found it informative. More posts from sunny Arizona to come:)