Adjusting my “winter” expectations and activities: an Arizona primer

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I moved to Arizona in December, but coming from a place where December weather is inside weather or play in the snow weather, I didn’t quite realize that in Arizona December-March weather is the most glorious hiking weather.

So, last “winter” I spent doing my normal winter activities: making soup, curling up with a book, and unpacking boxes. By mid-February it was already in the 90’s and summer with truly heinous hot and sticky weather arrived in short order. By June I had major cabin fever.

This “winter” I decided to spend as much time as possible outside in the glorious blue-skies-and-low-60’s weather. I puttered with my plants. Mr. Blue Eyes and I added a giant kidney-bean shaped garden to the front that is almost to the stage where I can plant it (I say “and I” but he did most of the heavy-duty lifting, like, shoveling out gravel and shoveling in truck load after truck load of dirt). And, because Kayla told me to, I started hiking.

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Hiking through the Arizona desert and hiking in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains are not the same. But, after spending many hours wandering through the cactus, I have come to appreciate the desert trails and find their treacherous beauty (cactus spines, yo, they are no joke!).

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Being outside but not roasting was so good for my soul. For my birthday Mr. Blue Eyes gave me a guide for 60 hikes within 60 miles of Phoenix. I hope to be able to check every one off while I live here, or, you know, at least all the cool ones.
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A huge bonus of hiking in January-March is that everything is ridiculously green, I mean, I felt like I was in a cactus garden most of the time. There were wildflowers and green cactus and other spiky desert plants everywhere. I wouldn’t know what they look like in July because when it is 120 degrees I will not be wandering around in a shade-less state park. BUT! Right now? Everything is gorgeous.

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I will state a caveat about this adjustment to Arizona winter: I still had to go find some snow. The elevation increases rapidly as you drive north from Phoenix, and Flagstaff gets snow storms on the regular. Blue Eyes and I drove up there simply to find some snow, we played in it, photographed it, drove around in it, he snuggled into his beanie and I reveled in freezy cold air on my face. I’m adjusting, but this adjustment is a slow one for me, and I am trying to honor and respect that without pushing myself too much to embrace the desert. (Also, as reported earlier, do not hug the cactus!)

Love Where You Live: Episode 1

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If we have had any semi-meaningful conversation in the last 18 months you have probably asked me how I am settling into Arizona. And I most likely responded with some variation of “I’m not, really.” This move wrenched my roots in a pretty violent way and the adjusting and reframing expectations has taken a toll on their already fragile and dangling state. I still get all choked up whenever I think about my home, my mountains, and seasons with months of cool and downright frigid weather. My heart doesn’t feel like it belongs here, although I am trying to fit here. I have made a few friends, my little vegetable garden is one of the happiest parts of my life, and my work directly places me in a position to help Arizona students succeed in a college or postsecondary education (and the vast majority stay in Arizona to explore those options). So, I’m trying.

A few months ago I read This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live by Melody Warnick. I wrote MANY notes in the margins (and some rants and “See? Told you!” scribbles as well…I sometimes have one-way conversations with the printed page, apparently). Warnick has a seemingly simple list of things that, if tackled, will help you put down roots in a new place:

  1. Walk more
  2. Buy local
  3. Get to know my neighbors
  4. Do fun stuff
  5. Explore nature
  6. Volunteer
  7. Eat local
  8. Become more political
  9. Create something new
  10. Stay loyal through hard times

Ok, so none of those really seem that hard. Right? Um, apparently yes, they are kind of hard.

In church yesterday I kept thinking about how to go out of my way to help other people, to serve them, to love them. There is the obvious political move of a protest or rally, or making donations to organizations that support the work I care about. But I also started thinking a lot closer to home, closer even that attending my monthly legislative district meeting. I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t know the name of any of my neighbors, people in my neighborhood, sure, but no one two or three doors on each side of me, or across the street.

Uh, what? I mean, I’ve lived here for over a year. A YEAR! None my immediate neighbors attend my church, so I haven’t gotten to know them by default of seeing them every week. But it surprised and then angered me that I hadn’t gone out of my way to introduce myself. So, goal for this week is to spend some time in the kitchen whipping up some homemade baked goods and then delivering plates of happiness to a half-dozen front porches.

I’ve decided to do better about incorporating these seemingly simple ideas into my life here in Arizona, in the hope that I will find myself fitting here just a little better. Some I’ve just barely scratched the surface, like local politics and exploring the outdoors. Some I’ve been working on for a while, like creating and tending a veggie garden in my backyard, and exploring local eats for date nights with Mr. Blue Eyes. In another week or so the raging heat will descend and stay until November or so (hi, locals, my heat tolerance is about 78 degrees, not 98 degrees, so for me, yes, actually, “summer” is 9 hellish months long), I really am hoping I can figure out some solutions to the months and months of air conditioned cabin fever. The last two or three months of normal-person temperatures have been glorious, I’ve been outside hiking and puttering around in the yard and just hanging out on the back patio with a book and a drink.

What neighborhood (or municipal/county) things do you participate in? What do you love? Wish you did more of? How did you fall in love with your city? Or, do you WANT to fall in love with your city? If so, perhaps we can form an online support group to figure out how to love where we live.

Backyard Vegetable Garden: Winter Harvest

Some of my most distinct summer memories are centered on our backyard vegetable garden. My two sisters and I would spend most mornings out there (under duress) yanking out weeds and mulching around the plants and grumbling about how early it was and how much we hated weeding. In July and August, however, when the corn and strawberries and tomatoes were ripe, when the cucumber and melons were perfect, and the pumpkins were starting to turn orange…well, then it wasn’t nearly so bad. The harvest part was a mixed bag. Yay for delicious food from the backyard! Boo for hours and hours juicing and smooshing tomatoes then packing them in mason jars to can.

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This Arizona move has been the first time I’ve had a little place for a vegetable garden, really, anything more than a pot on the shared porch or kitchen windowsill, actually. And I sure pleaded for somewhere to try my hand at a few vegetables. Mr. Blue Eyes came through with some beautiful garden boxes in the backyard; we planted last March with some delicious success, and I re-planted for a “winter” season this fall. The cooler weather in November and December has really done wonders for my little plants (and also for my heat-hating soul). In the last few weeks I have gone into the backyard a few times a week for a double handful of tomatoes, or a couple one-gallon ziploc bags of lettuce, and to check on my cauliflower and snip some herbs for dinner. To be 100% honest, these little moments in the dirt have been, without question, the only real happiness I’ve felt from being outside since my move to the Valley of the Surface of the Sun.

A little recap of my gardening adventures the last few months:

Zucchini, yellow squash, cozelle: I’m not sure what the problem was, exactly, but these usually prolific producers would flower and start tiny baby squashes, then when they’d get about finger-length, they’d stop growing and wither and die. Then blossom again and repeat the whole process. I need to do some research into this, because, uh, who can’t make zucchini grow AT ALL!? Don’t worry, I have some successes to make up for it.

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Carrots: I planted these kind of on a whim, grabbing the seed packet as I waited at the checkout counter. I could have planted about five more rows and been completely thrilled with the outcome. These grew well, the leafy tops were so pretty, and the TASTE!? Lawsy. Real carrots are sweet with a little zesty spice to them. They are best eaten right after they are picked (I haven’t perfected the storing technique to keep them crisp). I truly don’t think I can ever go back to those bags of baby carrots, all whittled and slimy and the size of your thumb…they just…no. Real carrots 4evah!

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Tomatoes: I didn’t actually plant tomatoes, but I had three volunteer plants from some dropped seeds this summer. They have truly been going crazy, I pick a double (or triple!) handful of tomatoes every few days and Mr. Blue Eyes and I pop them like candy, they are so delicious!

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Let’s Talk About Lettuce: I was a little hesitant to plant a bunch of lettuce, but it has been so amazing to have in the backyard! I planted about a dozen spinach plants, and another dozen “variety” pack of 6 different types of lettuce, and one curly kale plant. From those plants I get two or three one-gallon ziploc bags PACKED with leaves every week. I take lettuce to neighbors and friends, I add spinach and kale to everything, I have to try and figure out how to get more salad in my diet. It has been glorious! I will definitely repeat this plan for next year, and I’m going to add some chard as well. Eeep!

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Green Beans: I love fresh green beans for dinner, I steam them a few minutes and then top with butter and salt. I think I have had these for dinner at least once a week for…months. So it would only make sense to try and grow some in the backyard, right!? Uh, well, turns out, it takes a LOT of space to grow enough green beans for dinner. I was able to get enough from all my plants for about one meal with a (small) side of green beans. I think next time I’ll use the space for something that produces more.

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Cauliflower: Mr. Blue Eyes and I eat a lot of cauliflower, we use it as a rice substitute once or twice a week, and between the two of us can eat a whole head in one sitting. I steam it, roast it, boil it, rice it, dice it…the works. So when I saw a pallet of cauliflower starts at the nursery last fall I immediately popped them in my cart. The leaves are almost as long as my arm, and sure enough, one perfectly round cauliflower is at the center of each plant. I picked my first one this week and it was a delicious roasted side! I’ve got seven more than are still growing (I want them about 10″ across before I use them) and I cannot wait to spend the next few weeks using cauliflower from the backyard! (CAULIFLOWER!? WHO KNEW!?) I think I’ll try broccoli next year as well!

A few weeks ago I planted a bunch of peppers, some chard, and brussels sprouts, and in another few weeks it will be time to do my “summer” planting. I am still harvesting tomatoes and lettuce and green onions regularly, and waiting for the cauliflower. The peas were planted too early (meaning, it was too hot, not it was too cold, such a weird shift for me) and next year I’ll try them a little later to see if they’ll grow better. I’ve been keeping notes on my little plants and am so excited to try to get another round of vegetables out of my backyard! One point in the Pro Arizona column: multiple seasons for vegetables. (Big, Fat “WTF!” in the Negative column is that the summer season is 9 months of triple-digit temperatures. Nope, not exaggerating.)


The first year is the hardest

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One year ago today I left my beloved Salt Lake City and became a permanent resident of Arizona. A few weeks prior we had unpacked the moving van, but I had a few work responsibilities to wrap up before I could leave. I packed up my Mini Cooper, said goodbye to the dear friends who had been housing me, and sobbed as I drove south. Twelve hours later I pulled into my driveway and a little welcome party that Blue Eyes and his kids had been planning, balloons, streamers, cupcakes, big signs. It was tremendously sweet and the best thing to come home to, I’m sure I cried all over again. The last year has been full of so many adjustments, learning to live with Mr. Blue Eyes, trying to navigate my role as a stepmom, adjusting to working remotely and then re-adjusting to my new Arizona office. We’ve painted all the walls in our house, I’ve hung art and filled up the bookshelves, we built a backyard and have set off on adventures near and far.


I still don’t feel like Arizona is home. This valley is a harsh mistress, the sun and the heat continue to suck my soul (yes, it’s mid-December and I still have the air conditioner on), it has been slow going in making new friends and I have no family here. Our suburban neighborhood has been a huge adjustment from my downtown Salt Lake life. When I think of all My People who I left behind I still get a lump in my chest and tears in my eyes. I know, technology, we talk and email and text and heart things on social media. But, it’s not the same. I don’t know if this cracked earth will ever feel like it’s mine. And perhaps it doesn’t need to. Most people have one place they consider “home” above all others, sometimes it’s their childhood house, or their hometown, or their grandparent’s farm that they visited every summer, or something, somewhere.

I am not happy here.

There. I said it. There are good moments, good days, and sometimes even good weeks, but I am not happy.

Most people tell me that the first year is the hardest. My heart of hearts hopes that they are right. I truly hope that the next 12 months will have more acceptance, fewer days above 120* F, and more happiness.