Before the Storm   4 comments


On Tuesday October 5, 2010 Phoenix, Arizona experienced what some are calling the Storm of the Century.  I was out on the roads of Phoenix during part of the storm–not the worst part,  lucky for me–and I would not be willing to give it that title.  I have lived in Phoenix for a very long time (as humans count such things) and I can remember worse, but it was certainly a major storm, and it caused major disruption all through the Phoenix metropolitan area.  Before the storm, however, I went out to visit one of my favorite scenic places–Papago Park. I had finished my morning business–library, bank, post office–and had my little digital camera with me (I was planning ahead today.), and thought I’d show off the beauty of Arizona.  We live in an amazingly beautiful and diverse world, people, and once in a while I like to express my appreciation of it.  Here, then is a short series of pictures that I took before the storm.

Fantasy Arizona

What you are seeing here is a kind of photo montage of the Phoenix desert as a fantasy paradise complete with a castle.  This is a display on an interior wall of my bank/credit union, and the picture didn’t come out as well as I hoped it would.  The building in the center is called the Tovrea Castle and you can read all about it here:  The lush vegetation that you see surrounding it does not exist in reality, although the castle does sit on a small hillock and is surrounded by 43 acres of desert landscaping featuring mostly saguaro cacti.  Because of its three-tiered design, the castle (or mansion as some call it) is known locally as “The Wedding Cake”–at least that’s what my family calls it.  I consider it to be one of the Wonders of Phoenix (which I plan to show you in this blog some time in the future).  The two pinkish, cave-pocked hills that rise on either side of the Castle are not there in reality.  They do exist about five miles to the northeast as the northern-most limits of Papago Park–the southern one is inside the park and the northern one is inside a National Guard training area.  (A decade or so ago I made a point of climbing the accessible one all the way to the top–a strenuous but not impossible climb for a 50 year-old.)  McDowell Road climbs up through a natural pass between the two hills–to the west is Phoenix, to the east is Scottsdale.  An amphitheatre of about 20 rows of stone seats has been carved out of the rock of the southern hill, and there is some roadside parking.  The theatre is used for sunrise services on Easter morning–at least it used to be.  I never attended one of those meetings, but I used to see them mentioned in the local news once a year.  These two hills are mostly sandstone, and the caves aren’t really caves, just hollows and overhangs.  Maybe I should call the rock mudstone–it isn’t the hard red sandstone you’d find in Sedona.  Behind the hills you can see the barren slopes of Camelback Mountain–the highest peak in the Phoenix area.  Camelback and its attendant hills is actually about ten miles northwest of the McDowell hills, and there is no way on Earth to stand between them and line them up with Camelback the way the picture shows it.  This view is of the southern face of the mountain, and it doesn’t show all the multi-millionaires’ mansions that cover the bottom half of the mountain.  They are fabulous residences indeed, and I have always wanted to live in one, but that will never happen–that is the domain of the super wealthy in Phoenix. (While I”m bragging, let me state that I once climbed to the top of Camelback Mountain also, back in the 90s, and that was the most exhausting climb and descent I’ve ever done.  You have to go up the back (north side) of the mountain which has a totally different character.)  I love that picture in the bank, but it is totally unreal.  Incidentally, the bright sun-like object in the lower left corner of the picture is a reflection of the flash from my camera–the mural itself is glazed and has a kind of shiny quality to it.

The picture in the bank made me think of visiting Papago Park, one of several huge city parks in the Phoenix area.  The park is the site of the Phoenix Zoo, and of the Desert Botanical Gardens.  There are also plenty of ramadas scattered throughout it for people who would like to sit down and picnic.

Entrance to the Phoenix Zoo.

Someday I’ll visit the zoo again with my camera and take pictures–some day in the winter.  The zoo requires a lot of walking, and I’m not very good with walking right now.  This is the entrance to it–a stone bridge across a lagoon full of fish and ducks.  Feeding the waterbirds from atop the bridge is always fun–they paddle so desperately to be first to get the bread crumbs or popcorn that visitors throw down to them.  I took this picture because I got lost in the zoo’s parking lot–not very full that day–and saw the giant globe over the entrance.  I’m not sure why the Phoenix Zoo has a giant world globe presiding over the entrance, but it does. If you use your imagination, you can just see Arizona up there in the northwestern curve of the globe–slightly to the right and above Baja Caliornia.

Leaving the zoo behind, I next went to my true destination in the park–Hole-in-the-Rock.  This place is another one of the “Wonders of Phoenix” (my term), and has always had a kind of special significance to me.  Erosion has drilled a hole right through one of the pink mudstone hills that make this part of the desert distinctive.  Centuries ago the Hohokam people, who had an extensive culture of irrigated towns and villages here along the Salt River, used this natural feature as an astronomical observatory.  Way back in 1946 my father met my mother here in Phoenix, and he told me that he used to take her out to Hole-in-the-Rock on midnight dates.  I’ve always imagined that I might have been conceived in this area.

Road leading to Hole-in-the-Rock.

Like other eminences I have made a point of climbing to the top of Hole-in-the-Rock, way back in the day.  It isn’t an easy job, the rock is slick, almost vertical, and has few hand and footholds.  You must press yourself flat against the rock and spider your way up it moving from one hand or foothold to the next to reach the top.  One of my favorite memories is of the night in the late 70s when I decided to show Hole-in-the-Rock to my friends Liz Danforth and Bear Peters.  Of course we climbed it that night–we were young and adventurous, and never stopped to consider the broken bones we’d be likely to have if we fell.  Actually, getting to the hole itself is a piece of cake.  There is a path on the back side of the hill that leads right to it–no more difficult than climbing a (very long) flight of stairs.

This is a closer view. I am parked almost at the foot of the hill, and you have a better view of the hole and the cave that it leads to.  I used to take my children here to watch the desert, and count the airplanes taking off from Sky Harbor International Airport, some ten miles to the southwest. 

While I was in this part of the park/desert I stopped and took a picture of the back side of one of those mudstone hills you can see in the bank’s picture.


This is a good shot of the lush Arizona desert, and you can see the cave-riddled hills in the background.  They really aren’t that high–perhaps a couple of hundred feet, but the strangely melted appearance has made some writers imagine that they are all that is left after nuclear bombs went off–perhaps thousands of years ago. 

Not far from Hole-in-the-Rock is another bizarre little local wonder that almost nobody in Phoenix knows about.

Buried like an Egyptian Pharoah.

This is Hunt’s Tomb.  George W. P. Hunt was the first Governor of the State of Arizona, and he served for seven terms.  You can read a little bit about this landmark here:  It seems that I have always known about this place–my father showed it to me when I was a child at the same time that he showed me Hole-in-the-Rock.  I have, in turn, showed it to my children, Jillian and James.  I wonder if they will remember it.

Hunt’s Tomb is a good lookout point for seeing the eastern regions of the valley.  While I was there, I took a few more shots showing the different mountains that surround Phoenix.  Although my city is in a valley, there are mountains around it in all directions.

This one shows Camelback Mountain off in the far distance.  Do you see how the bottoms of the cumulo-nimbus clouds in the sky are turning dark?  This was perhaps my first clue that a storm was coming.

Looking toward the South Mountains over the back side of the Phoenix Zoo.

South of Phoenix lies a short range of mountains named aptly enough The South Mountains.  The whole range has been made into a city park, and is, I believe the largest city park in the world.  Notice the darkness in the western sky–the storm is gathering.

After I left Papago Park I went over and browsed through an antique shop in Scottsdale.  I took pictures there too, and that will be the subject of a future blog.  As I drove over there I listened to the car radio, and got a weather report–the voice on the radio said there was a 40% chance of thundershowers in the Phoenix area with gusts of wind possibly in the 80 to 90 mph range.  Yikes!  A 90 mph gust of wind is something to be reckoned with–as fallen trees and power lines all over the valley would later attest.

Leaving Scottsdale a little past noon, I noticed that the sky was becoming very ominous indeed.  I wanted a picture of it, but the problem was in finding a good place to stop the car and get one. This is the one I got.

The sky over Phoenix

By this time the wind was blowing strongly.  Actually it was already raining and hailing in the west valley some 20 or 30 miles away.  The chance of storms had gone from 40% to 100% as far as I was concerned  Later that afternoon the city would be blasted with a torrential downpour and hailstones the size of golf and tennis balls, striking in some places with enough force to smash through the windows of cars and buildings.

Ken and his adventuring companion--the little blue Kia--in the parking lot at Phoenix College.

I got my son James to take this picture of me when I picked him up at Phoenix College around 1 p.m. If you look at the sky, you can see that areas to the northwest were already being blasted by the storm.  But, not me, not yet.  I didn’t personally experience the storm until about 5 p.m. when I took James and Harley and myself off to Samurai Comics for an evening of Shadowfist gaming.  At that time I drove the car through as dense a downpour as I have ever seen.  Water was running a foot deep in the streets.  Visibility was perhaps 100 yards. We just missed a burst of hail on Camelback Road–I could see the ice in the streets as I drove.  With my typical adventurer’s luck, I escaped with only a little drenching when I parked the car and went into the comic shop.  Many others in Phoenix were not so fortunate.


Posted October 6, 2010 by atroll in Uncategorized

4 responses to “Before the Storm

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  1. Ken,

    Great pictures and narrative! Enjoyed the tomb. what is the time line on Gov. Hunt?

    More pictures of Az please.

  2. Thanks for sharing with us your beautiful city.

  3. Chello!

    Thanks, Ken for sharing. I’ve never been to Phoenix, although I have been to Tucson (back in 92). I love the Arizona desert. Much different from the Piney Woods of East Texas from which I hail! 🙂

  4. We’ve been seriously considering moving to Phoenix next year and your pictures are only serving as encouragement….!

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