This time last year, we were visiting my family back in Arizona. Christmas tamales are obviously the very best thing about December in Phoenix, but a solid runner-up is the Desert Botanical Garden and its seasonal luminarias. The cacti and pretty lights make for a uniquely Southwestern holiday experience, one that I didn’t fully appreciate until being away.
View from South Mountain.
At a glance, Phoenix can be pretty rough on the eyes, unless parking lots and beige strip malls are your thing. Walkable areas are hard to find and the suburban neighbourhood sprawl feels endless. The good parts of Phoenix are scattered throughout, like the sparkly bits of mica in a filthy gum-encrusted sidewalk. They’re there, you just have to know where to find them.
Way back when, several years ago, when Young Steph’s boyfriend traveled halfway around the world to visit her in Phoenix, we visited the Desert Botanical Garden together. At the time I had no interest in plants, was itching to move to another city, and seeing more of the exact same desert everywhere around us while surrounded by busloads of tourists left me underwhelmed. Young Steph rolled her eyes and figured, whatever, at least it’s good for out-of-towners.
Things changed. I left the desert, I started reading plant books for fun. Jamie and I returned to Phoenix for a visit last year, and between my time away and seeing other cities, I understood how special the Desert Botanical Garden is. You don’t appreciate what you have until it’s gone, man.
We went to the Desert Botanical Garden twice last year: a day trip for the two of us, and a nighttime visit with my family during Las Noches de las Luminarias.
Jamie and I spent a quiet afternoon wandering the trails — the garden is entirely located in Papago Park — and admiring the plants. Lots of yuccas, agaves, palo verde, mesquite, and of course the many native cacti. Turns out that a great way for me to feel homesick is to look at photos of rocky hills dotted with saguaros.
These little Gambel’s quail were everywhere. This is their garden, we just get to walk through it.
I feel a bit ashamed that I don’t know the names of all these spiky lovelies the way I’ve learned the names of Tasmanian bush plants. Sigh. The red flowers and green toothed leaves are aloe, the blue spikes are agaves, the other two are obviously cacti…? Danger Garden has a detailed, far more observant trip report from the DBG — I recommend it (and Danger Garden in general).
I’d also forgotten about the clear, washed-out light in winter. Thanks to the lack of rain and the excessive sun, you notice the bleached, ungrimy surfaces and strong visual contrasts. I’ve never seen that light quality outside of the Southwest.
The spiral of yellow shapes is made of luminarias. More of those to come.
There they are! Luminarias, illuminated. My nighttime photography leaves a lot to be desired, sorry.
Luminarias are a Christmas tradition in the Southwest (and often a Halloween one as well). When you have an army of volunteers lighting 8,000 of these things, it makes for an incredible atmosphere. I loved wandering through the candlelit garden with Jamie, my brother, his girlfriend, and a warm Tuaca-spiked apple cider.
We didn’t know it at the time, but having my whole family together in 2014 for Thanksgiving (in Denver) and then Christmas was a big deal. My parents had an opportunity to move to California this year that they couldn’t pass up, so these memories of our time together feel downright magical in retrospect. I feel lucky that we were all able to be in the same place at the same time.
I welcomed the chance to get out of my hometown, in a big way, but it does feels weird to come back and no longer be a local. My knowledge of the latest events in Phoenix came to an end about five years ago. People mention bars, venues, restaurants and I have to say “wait, where’s that?” since I’m no longer a resident, but a visitor. I might be a walking, talking, red-white-and-blue American flag to the Australians in my life, but back home I’m this clueless person who didn’t know the penny got a redesign or has never watched House Hunters. I’ve forgotten more Phoenix street names and locations than I’m comfortable with. Being able to call two places home is a huge privilege, but the downside is that, to some extent, you’ll always be a stranger.
At least plants don’t care if you’ve been gone for five years or if you see them every day.
Meanwhile it’s Christmas Eve in Australia, forecasted to hit 92º F (33º C) tomorrow, chocolates turning soft on our dining room table. These photos are a bittersweet reminder of how much I want to experience another desert Christmas. Hope the holidays are treating everyone else well. xx