It’s time for a scene change.
Scorching temperatures have given way to chilly mornings. A contentious election season that seemingly started a lifetime ago has (mostly) ended. Holiday lights and gift guides are slowly emerging.
So as you gather around a Thanksgiving table for a holiday meal, here’s a thoughtful respite from that MAGA uncle still living in 2020 denial, kids that won’t stop crying, an endless stream of sports you don’t care about, and that gelatinous cranberry sauce. We asked our writers and editors to share what they’re thankful for in Phoenix.
You might be surprised that a collection of “20-year-old-dopes” from such a “trash organization” — we love you back, Kari Lake and Abe Hamadeh — can offer such holiday feels. But hey, journalists are people, too.
A Bibliophile’s Wonka Chocolate Factory
Honestly, despite its flaws, Phoenix has plenty of things for which to be thankful. For every skin-crackling summer afternoon, there’s a crisp February day where a jacket is optional. We may be home to a truly egregious number of chain restaurants, but we’ve also got outstanding Mexican food everywhere you turn.
But in the interest of expressing gratitude, here are a few things I’ve been thankful for lately:
Our Grid of a Road System I’ve lived here since elementary school, so road trips notwithstanding, I’ve only ever driven in Phoenix. And now I’m not sure I could drive anywhere else. We’ve got potholes to spare and some fairly frustrating rush hour traffic, but we’ve also got an enormous metropolitan area that is largely on a grid system, which means that it may take me a while to get there, but it’s easy to figure out where I’m going, even without Google Maps. Knowing the lay of the land without the safety net of GPS makes me feel even more connected to my adopted home.
Musical Instrument Museum No shade to metro Phoenix’s many quality museums, but none impress me the way that the Musical Instrument Museum does. It’s not the museum itself that I’m awed by, although it’s a gorgeous facility that provides excellent programming along with a full concert schedule in the performance hall, well-executed food in the cafe, and a neat little gift shop.
The MIM’s collection — thousands upon thousands of rare or historic or precious instruments from every corner of the globe — never fails to amaze me with the beautiful realization that music is a language that transcends every division we humans throw up against each other: race, religion, geography, and politics. At the MIM, everyone is in harmony.
Salt River Horses As if a kayak trip down the Lower Salt River wasn’t magical enough, if you’re lucky, you’ll see small bands of wild horses as you paddle along. There are rules: Stay 50 feet away from them. Don’t feed them. Don’t touch them. They don’t make much noise as they munch on eelgrass straight from the water or stand motionless on the riverside. So when you come around a bend and see them up ahead, it feels like a gift from the universe, and even if you see three or four or more herds in one morning, the initial feeling of delight doesn’t lessen. Brown horses and white ones, grown and young, they’re a reminder that despite living a relentlessly urban existence, you don’t have to go very far out of town to commune with nature.
VNSA Used Book Sale I get up in the middle of the night for two things: air travel and the VNSA Used Book Sale. Even on the years that I make it to the Arizona State Fairgrounds by, say, 3 a.m., I’m still hundreds of people from the front of the line. And why not? A bibliophile’s Wonka Chocolate Factory, the book sale is a giant exhibition hall’s worth of tomes on every possible subject.
If I don’t go in with a plan, I quickly get overwhelmed by the options. But I never fail to leave with a treasure, whether it’s a first edition Mastering the Art of French Cooking for $3 or a pristine copy of Phantom of the Opera on vinyl for $1. (Oh yeah, “book sale” is a misnomer — there are DVDs, records, sheet music, games, magazines, and plenty of other stuff to look through.) Of all the Phoenix events on my calendar, the book sale is the one I look forward to the most.
— Jennifer Goldberg
The Strange Charms of Phoenix
The Sprawl There are only a few vantage points from which the true scale of Phoenix can be appreciated. Dobbins Lookout, for instance, where after a winding drive to the summit, you can stare down at the Valley and remember how vast it is. At night, the lights stretch out to the horizon. Most of the time, it’s easy to forget about the extent of the Phoenix sprawl. You just exist within it.
When I first moved here from a small town in Vermont, I felt uneasy in Phoenix’s never-ending boulevards and empty shopping malls, its vacant lots dressed in barbed wire, its skyscrapers that fade quickly to billboards and industrial wastelands. The sprawl got to me.
Lately, though, I’ve been grateful for it: for the dive bars tucked in strip mall basements, the late-night aimless drives down empty freeways, the warehouse graffiti, the highway art, the steampunk adobes. Maybe it’s not great urbanism. But Phoenix’s character — its strange charm — is undeniably found here in the pavement and concrete, in the sprawl, once you look out and see it.
Oases The sight of water in a desert is, at first, not to be believed. The instinct is that it must be a mirage, light bending and refracting on the horizon. There are mirages in Phoenix on hot days, but there is also so much water. This is how I have survived summers in the desert. Floating on a rubber tube down the Salt River in July, watching for the wild horses that graze on river weeds; paddling on Canyon Lake, where jagged cliffs loom down over the blue.
The natural beauty of Phoenix is stunning in general — from the red buttes of Papago to the lavender skyline of the Superstitions — but I’m particularly grateful for all the desert oases to be found here in the Valley. The canals that snake through the city. The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch in Gilbert, where pelicans and hummingbirds and stilts flock to all through the year. The lakes: Saguaro, Pleasant, Apache. Even Tempe Town Lake, while perhaps less appealing, deserves a shout out, if only for the shimmering view from the 202.
It’s miraculous that a metropolis exists in the scorching center of the Sonoran Desert at all — but even more miraculous that we can go kayaking, too. How much longer will that be true? Well, the worsening drought will determine that. But for now, I’m thankful.
— Katya Schwenk
Nerd Mentality: The Diversity and Togetherness of Phoenix’s Geek Scene
If watching endless hours of Star Trek taught us anything, it’s that infinite diversity can be found in infinite combinations. For proof, look not into the final frontier but instead across the vast range of activities available within local geekdom. On any given weekend in the Valley, there are nerdy events of an interesting, engaging, and unique variety happening. And it’s not just conventions, such as the always popular Phoenix Fan Fusion — although there are also plenty of those happening on a regular basis.
You can roll for initiative at board and tabletop gaming nights. Meet authors or comic book artists or learn how to become one yourself. Listen to chamber ensembles performing anime scores during candlelight concerts. Hang out at makerspaces and transform your brainstorms into reality.
More interesting are the hybrid events that straddle multiple fandoms. There’s WrestleDrag, for instance, a monthly celebration featuring astounding drag artists strutting their stuff between matches starring local grapplers.
And we’ll never not love the nonstop parade of creativity, ranging from the lavishly handmade and amazing-looking costumes and cosplay to the work of artists from a number of mediums, found at local nerd events.
We’re not alone in our praise for Phoenix geekdom’s diversity. Robert Warners, editor of Arizona nerd blog Legion of Sand, says embracing multiple fandoms is what the local scene does best. “It supports a wide variety of fandoms. The geek scene has such a wide taste that we are fortunate enough to have so many different events geared toward specific fandoms … horror films, anime, furries, pinball, comic books, video games, literature, and so on,” he says.
And it’s also quite inclusive. Matt and Jen Hinds, co-founders of local geek social group Blue Ribbon Army, say anyone and everyone is encouraged to participate. “I’m thankful for the sheer amount of active geeks in the Valley. I know a ton of transplants and friends who have moved away who say that it’s seemingly impossible to connect to a community that is like the one we have here,” Matt Hinds says. “They’re not afraid to let their geek flags fly.”
They’re also not afraid to help out their fellow nerds, like when local Uber driver and geek Chris Pasley offered free rides to attendees of this year’s Phoenix Fan Fusion. “It was an act of total generosity, [and] he gave so many rides without expecting anything in return,” Jen Hinds says. “A true heart for the community.”
As the saying goes, some heroes don’t wear capes.
— Benjamin Leatherman
Arizona Offers the Whole Enchilada
I’m relaxing after a hard day’s work at Phoenix New Times, gleefully whooping at the television as my Phoenix Suns clobber the visiting Minnesota Timberwolves. I’m alone in my quaint little apartment in Scottsdale, but I’m yelling at that 80-inch screen like I’m sitting courtside. After all, I ran into the Wolves’ star shooting guard, D’Angelo Russell, at Toca Madera the night before and joked that he’s safe here in our haven of legal hashish — the All-Star was slapped with a misdemeanor in New York for possessing a little stash of pot not too long ago. It’s a pretty new freedom for us Arizonans, but one I don’t take for granted.
Russell asks me if I want a photo. I decline, but I want to show him a cheeky three-leg parlay I placed through the Caesars Sportsbook minutes earlier: PHX -4, under 227.5, and a first basket prop on Anthony Edwards. It’s a long shot at +3180 odds, but it’s fun to have a little skin in the game. After a wish of good luck, I head back to my table. So there I am the next night, in my apartment, watching the Suns cap off a nine-point victory that guarantees I won my parlay. I’m no high roller, but I managed to turn $5 into more than $150 that night. You can’t do that in Minnesota.
And, admittedly, I was a little high while watching the game. So what? It’s all legal here now. Arizona voters and lawmakers aren’t slaves to centuries-old stigmas about innocuous vices, unlike my home state of North Carolina, the very last state in the Union to introduce the lottery back in 2005. Weed and gambling are illegal there, as well as in Hawai’i, where I spent some time recently. The Aloha State has beautiful scenery but few options for fun. Arizona has the whole enchilada: rolling, rust-colored rock formations like nowhere else on Earth; sportsbooks inside each of our many professional sports venues; and enough licit cannabis to sedate Snoop Dogg himself. Ain’t that something to be thankful for?
— Elias Weiss
A Beautiful, Messy, Artistic, and Ever-Changing Place
There are many things to be thankful for in Phoenix, from sunsets that keep you rooted in the desert years after you swore you’d never endure another triple-digit summer to a diverse and rapidly growing food scene. Here are the things that I’m grateful for:
Downtown Phoenix Living and working in downtown Phoenix for the past five years, I have watched the city grow into a beautiful, messy, artistic, and ever-changing place. There’s Roosevelt Row, where you can grab a brew at Songbird Coffee & Tea House, check out the latest installation at Modified Arts, and listen to a live show from a green-lit patio, beer in hand, at The Lost Leaf.
Heading into the heart of the city, Hanny’s offers stiff martinis and basement haunts, while Valley Bar is just a saunter down what seems like a suspicious alley until you arrive at the venue’s neon-lit sign.
And then there’s beloved Grand Avenue, where lips will inevitably turn blue from the Cookie Monster flavor at Novel Ice Cream. Earth Plant Based Cuisine whips up hearty meals, even for the vegans, and Cha Cha’s Tea Lounge offers a plethora of loose-leaf drinks from a cozy space adorned with hanging plants.
Bones Aftermarket provides a creative space for coffee and the occasional night market, a collaboration with a local restaurant that sends lines far down the road. Bacanora is a new Sonoran staple, thanks to owner and chef René Andrade. And Grand Avenue Pizza Co., the legendary late night slice spot, will soon be resurrected in the form of SnapBack Pizza, a concept by the chef behind Hungry Homie, Ryan Moreno.
Nature and Wellness Opportunities One can barely drive around Phoenix without noticing its intoxicating charm. Mountains surround the sprawling city and sunsets make rainbows jealous with their vibrant hues. Palm trees line streets with historic homes and immaculate green lawns, while fruit vendors peddle mangoes and watermelons sprinkled with Tajin and drizzled with sweet and spicy chamoy.
Further north in the town of Carefree, the Sonoran Desert haunts you with its sheer size. It goes on for miles, the saguaros smiling as you drive past, probably taking it all for granted.
There are many opportunities to enjoy the beauty, from sunset yoga classes at the Andaz Scottsdale to mindfulness meditations at Civana, a wellness resort and spa in Carefree. And there’s no need to get fancy; a quiet weekday hike to the top of Piestewa Peak or a horseback ride at South Mountain Park will certainly do the trick.
Phoenix is a magical place for so many reasons, and I’m thankful for that.
— Natasha Yee
We Can Travel the World — Right Here in Phoenix
There are many claims one could make about metro Phoenix, but no one can ever say there’s nothing to do here. That’s the benefit of a massive, sprawling city filled with multiple downtown centers, many different communities, and endless neighborhoods. Across town, there’s always something happening.
Long and Packed Events Schedule In the majority of the country, festival and events season lasts through the summer: June, July, and August, maybe May and a little bit of September. But here, it’s exactly the opposite. While we hunker down to survive the sizzling summers, the rest of the year opens up for events galore.
As soon as the temperatures dip in the fall, farmers markets pop up all around the Valley. Each weekend, there’s at least one food festival to attend. Leading up to the holidays, we’ve got arts and crafts markets with local makers selling gifts sure to wow friends and family. And all through the spring, there are golf tournaments, car shows, music festivals, and spring training baseball games to attend. Our local events calendars are so packed, each weekend requires a plan to fit in as many festivities as possible.
Food From All Over the World If there is a rare weekend that doesn’t include a food festival, don’t fret, you can still taste foods from all over the world right here in the Valley. You don’t need a passport to sample Ethiopian food in Tempe; try a variety of Chinese, Korean, or Japanese food in Mesa’s designated Asian District; or head to any hole-in-the-wall joint around town for some of the best Mexican food in the country.
Close your eyes and point at a world map. Wherever you land, there’s almost always somewhere in metro Phoenix to find that region’s food. There are plenty of Italian restaurants, French bistros, and British pubs. But we’ve also got a Balkan bakery, a student-favorite Pakistani restaurant, and an award-winning Armenian food joint all within city limits. In Phoenix, we can travel the world through food.
The Growing Craft Beer Scene After you fill up on a massive burrito or a tray of curry, there’s no better way to wash it down than with a local craft beer. And lucky for Phoenix beer fans, the local craft brewing scene is booming. There are pioneers such as Four Peaks, which opened in 1997. Then there was a boom about seven years ago, with Wren House and Goldwater opening in 2015, and Helton and The Shop Beer Co. in Tempe pouring their first pints in 2016. Over the last couple of years, a new brewing hub has sprung up around the Deer Valley Airport, with the addition of Simple Machine and Front Pourch. Kitsune Brewing is now open in Scottsdale, Roses By the Stairs is serving pints close to downtown Phoenix, and Hundred Mile is speeding toward opening its doors in Tempe.
These new names continue to add to the growing list of breweries serving excellent beer around the Valley. Many of our local breweries also infuse a taste of Arizona into their creations, brewing beers filled with pink prickly pear fruits and local citrus. Order a flight and settle in for an afternoon of enjoyment at any of the Valley’s expanding number of craft breweries.
— Tirion Morris