NearandFarAZ

Life in the desert. Sometimes it can seem like a hot, dry slog – especially as summer begins, with its promise of months in the 90s and 100s.

But rest assured, there is always an oasis in the distance to remind you of the joys of living amongst the cacti and the lizards.

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I had one of those moments over the weekend, when I decided to check out a new trail (well, new to me) in the Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix.

In recent years, my occasional hiking in the Phoenix area had focused on the urban trails – Camelback Mountain, Piestewa Peak, North Mountain. All are great, challenging hikes, with sweeping views. But I must say, the traffic on the trails can get heavy, even on weekdays.

On this particular weekend, I was looking for something a little more remote. I had heard good things about the views along the Peralta Trail, and I decided to check it out. photo 2(17)With little more than directions in hand, I set off on Highway 60, driving on the freeway through Mesa and Apache Junction.

It’s a bit of a haul, but I hung in there, and soon came upon Peralta Road, just past Gold Canyon, Arizona. After passing through a small community, the street ends, and a sign cautions that the next seven miles would be over a winding, dirt road.

But oh, what a dirt road! On this early-June day, the desert could hardly have been more stunning. Really – the views through this stretch of the Tonto National Forest are worth the drive. With the craggy range of Superstitions as a backdrop, the desert seems to go on endlessly, dotted with leafy mesquite, blooming cholla, and massive saguaros.

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Imagine a rolling sea, with nothing but waves as far as the eye can see. Instead of churning water, though, these waves are made of solid rock. And rather than blues and greens, the waves are in hues of reds and browns.

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That is what you’ll find when you venture into the Granite Dells trails in Prescott, Arizona. But rest assured that you won’t be climbing aboard without a compass: A series of white dots will steer you through.

photo(6)For more than a decade, Prescott’s Parks and Recreation Department and a group of intrepid volunteers have been building trails through the Dells. Because many of the routes take hikers and mountain bikers over sheer rock faces, the trails are marked with white dots to point the way.

For me, the opportunity to feel like a rock climber (sort of!) without the risk, or need for technical skills, is pure fun. I have my favorites among Prescott’s “white-dot trails.” Here are five of the best:

 

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Over the years, I’ve had plenty of infatuations with beautiful cities. I fell hard for Amsterdam, with its lovely canals and spirited street scene. I loved the energy and air of self-importance of New York City. Rome took me by surprise, with its awe-inspiring antiquities, bordered by narrow, shady alleys. And New Orleans – what can I say? It was like the bad boy I knew wasn’t that good for me, but couldn’t resist.

All of them were short-lived flings, though, involving quick visits. I definitely would like to return some day, but I no longer harbor dreams of living in any of them.

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San Francisco was different. Probably because I’ve been able to return again and again to visit my son, who lived there for years, I feel like I forged a bond with San Francisco and understand its rhythm and soul. So much so, in fact, that it has become my metropolitan measuring stick.

San Francisco, you’ve spoiled me for every other city! Here’s why:

 

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I know, I know – girls’ trips have become so commonplace that they’re practically clichéd.

On a recent flight to San Francisco with two of my friends, we overheard the women in the row of seats behind us tell the flight attendant they were embarking on a girls’ trip. My friends and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes. We realized we weren’t all that special.

But if so many people are doing it, there must be a lot to love, right? In my experience, the answer is yes.

Over the past several years, a group of friends and I have celebrated our respective birthdays by taking short weekend trips. Along with the San Francisco trip, we’ve checked out a small mining town in Arizona’s Bradshaw Mountains, a resort in Phoenix, and a casino on the Navajo Reservation.

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Our hike in the Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area in Cave Creek, AZ

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If you like to hike, you’ve probably heard a story or two of an under-estimated trek. The one where you thought the loop would be four miles, but it turned out to be eight. Or the route that someone said was a short, easy jaunt, but ended up being a 10-mile slog. My friends and I ran into such a situation not long ago, when we headed off on a girls’ get-away to Flagstaff, Arizona. We decided to stop along the way for a scenic hike. Since it was a warm spring day, we chose a river route in the Verde Valley. I had never hiked the Bell Trail at Wet Beaver Creek, but I had heard good things about the area. One of my friends had hiked it years before, and remembered that it led to a swimming hole. We started off, with a vague sense that the swimming hole was about two miles in. photo 1

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All spring long, a flamboyant display of colors has been unfolding quietly in the rocky hills of Prescott, Arizona.

Thanks, apparently, to the relatively wet winter of 2015, the prickly plants that normally wouldn’t warrant a second glance have been showing their more attractive sides. Every time I venture out on the trail lately, it seems, I notice a new type of cactus or shrub sporting flowers in gorgeous hues of reds, pinks, and yellows.

image-36 image-51In a lot of ways, this season’s floral bounty has opened my eyes to the less obvious pleasures of hiking.

When I started exploring the trails in Arizona’s high desert years ago, I tended to pay more attention to the big attractions. I had my standards: To make all of that hard work worth it, a hike needed to come with a payoff – either a gorgeous, sweeping view, or water of some type.

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When I first heard about Jiufen while planning my recent trip to Taiwan, I immediately wanted to visit the picturesque mining town on the island’s north coast.

After all, I’ve lived within easy reach of Jerome – Northern Arizona’s notorious mining town – for years, and I’ve always loved the mining history. Early in my career as a journalist, I had spent six years covering Jerome’s spirited town government for the local newspaper, and I believed I understood the heart of a mining town.

Thinking there would be plenty of parallels, I felt an affinity for this Taiwanese town with the rich gold-mining past.

To be honest, though, the two towns turned out to have few similarities, other than their mountainous terrain. Oh – and their singular quirkiness.

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It was the mystery of the missing ñeque, I think, that made me realize the extent of the cultural leap I had taken. Before traveling to the San Blas Islands off Panama’s Caribbean coast, I did not even know that ñeques existed. A rodent indigenous to Central and South America, the animal is the size of a large squirrel, but hunched over and without the bushy tail.

Just that morning, the resident ñeque had been scampering among the dozen or so guests who were eating breakfast at wooden tables along the beach at Isla Diablo, one of more than 350 powdery-sand islets that are a part of the holdings of the native people of the Kuna Yala Comarca. A small Kuna boy scooped the ñeque off the table and carried him to the family hut, admonishing him along the way.

By evening, however, there was no sign of the curious ñeque. And then, the shocking news: As they served our dinner, our Kuna Yala hosts happily announced that ñeque was on the menu that night. At first, my fellow guests and I were skeptical. But one look at the small slabs of jerky-like meat on our plates made us believers. It certainly was not beef or any other familiar meat. And as some of the guests tasted the meat, the consensus quickly formed that the friendly ñeque had indeed become our dinner.

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Driving into our hotel parking lot in downtown Moab in the late afternoon, I immediately noticed a peculiar detail.

Not only were there hordes of people in dusty hiking boots, carrying daypacks, but there were mountain bikers wheeling their bikes away, SUVs straddled with kayaks and canoes, and climbers stowing away their gear.

It was obvious: Moab, a small eastern-Utah community, is not a one-sport town. Its fortuitous location within easy reach of two national parks, a state park, AND the Colorado River gives Moab the type of outdoor-recreation depth that many far-larger communities can only dream of.photo 3-1

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Whew, with a long flight, the airport express, and bus ride behind me, I had made it to my hotel Hong Kong, and I was ready to hit the ground running.

After checking into my hotel in Causeway Bay, I decided to take a quick trip to the rooftop deck to get my bearings. From the vantage point of 33 floors, I had a great view of the city and the bay.

But what immediately caught my attention was the cluster of activity just across the street in Victoria Park. Thousands of people, it seemed, were gathered in the small wooded area. When I asked the pool attendant what was going on, he responded (I thought), “Farmers’ market.”IMG_1159

Well, I hadn’t come all the way to Hong Kong for a farmers’ market! But it was so nearby, I thought I had to see what all the excitement was about. As I approached, I realized that it wasn’t a farmers’ market at all, but what the attendant had termed a “flower market.” And that turned out to be the world-class Hong Kong Flower Show – truly an extravaganza of flowers, with intricately arranged flowers depicting everything from underwater scenes to African safaris.

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It’s true – you really can get just about anything you need on the streets of Taipei.

I’m not talking only noodles and dumplings, either (although they’re both plentiful). I’m talking about shoes, purses, electronics, cameras, jewelry, and just about any type of food imaginable.

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Of course I had heard about the night markets of Taipei, and they ARE everything you would expect – non-stop activity, music, and food.

What I didn’t expect, though, are the morning markets, the fish markets, and flower markets.

Even in March, when the weather was a little chilly and misty, the streets were packed every day with people cooking, eating, and shopping.

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I have a confession: I love dead trees. Please don’t hate me!

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Before you rush to judgment, let me explain. Of course I would prefer a living tree. After all, there are few things lovelier than a leafy green tree against a clear blue sky.

But let’s be real – it’s nature, and trees die. And I, for one, appreciate all of the bark-less trunks and finger-like branches out there.

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