“Would you like a bottle of water?”
I’m offered refreshment each time I walk out the front door of my hotel during a recent visit to Phoenix, Arizona, and for good reason. The city is located in the Sonoran desert, one of the most unforgiving environments on the continent — although the Sonoran does get more rainfall than any other desert in the world. (Still, compare the 200 millimetres of rainfall Phoenix sees on average each year with the 700 to 800 millimetres that fall in Toronto and Ottawa, and you don’t really have to worry that your visit will be a washout.)
This is my first-ever visit to a desert, and I’m learning so much. For one thing, I can advise that if you’re a heat-sensitive Canadian like me, you might want to avoid going to southern Arizona in summer. During the hottest month, July, temperatures routinely soar to 40 degrees Celsius. Yet Phoenix has a longer history than you might expect given the challenging conditions. Beginning in the 6th century, the Hohokam peoples built a series of irrigation canals that directed water from the Gila and Salt Rivers to their fields of beans, squash, corn and cotton.
The Hohokam moved on from their settlements in the mid-1400s, but some 400 years later, an enterprising gold prospector rebuilt the canals to once again grow crops on the land. With abundant water and food came more settlers, and Phoenix was born.
Today, the nearby city of Scottsdale remains the area’s major magnet for Canadian snowbirds thanks to its golf courses, cycling trails and leafy resorts. I spend a couple of days there, staying at the Hotel Valley Ho, a place that makes you feel as if you’re stepping into Don Drapers’s digs — the decor is chic mid-century modern to the max. It comes by this nostalgia authentically: it was a hotspot in the 1950s and ’60s before declining into disrepair. The hotel was restored and reopened 12 years ago and today boasts a fantastic onsite restaurant, ZuZu.