August is not the best time to visit Tempe, Arizona
Updated: Apr 5
Rachel and I met in North Carolina when I was just four years old. We met in kindergarten and from what I can remember, we were instant best friends. When my family moved to the Netherlands we thought we would only be in Europe for three years – Rachel and I made plans to have a joint 11th birthday party when we moved back.
17 years later and my family is still living in the Netherlands. But despite the distance, Rachel and I have managed to stay in touch over the years, sending postcards and seeing each other occasionally when my family visited North Carolina. The last time we'd seen each other was in 2014, when my family visited the East Coast to tour universities.
The pandemic messed up our hopes of meeting up in Europe in 2020, so when my flight from San Diego to London was cancelled, I thought it might be an opportunity to visit Rachel in Tempe, Arizona, where she'd recently moved to start her PhD. At the end of August, Brett and Siena would be driving to Arizona for their family trip to Sedona – maybe I could catch a lift with them...
In excited messages with Rachel, plans began to emerge. And after multiple calls to British Airways, I managed to change my flight to leave from Phoenix instead of San Diego – Rachel and I were going to be reunited!
On the 22nd of August, Brett, Siena and I set off from San Diego to drive to Arizona. Six hours (and one disastrous stop at Cracker Barrel) later, we arrived in Tempe, one of the many suburbs of Phoenix. The name of the city is pronounced "tem-PEE," as opposed to the vegan food "tempeh," which is how I was pronouncing it before we arrived...oops...
We arrived at the Cornish Pasty Co, where we'd agreed to meet Rachel for dinner. It felt like a fitting place for Brett and Rachel to meet, considering the numerous Cornish pasties Brett and I have eaten while exploring the south west of England. (Although I'm not sure I've ever had a Cornish pasty served on plate before...so that was a new experience!). After dinner, we said goodbye to Brett and Siena who continued their drive to Sedona. It was hard not knowing when I would see Brett next, but getting to catch up with Rachel in her new flat was the perfect antidote.
Throughout the week, Rachel had class, so I spent a lot of time at her flat. After a non-stop summer, it felt nice to take time to relax. I spent a lot of time editing photos, writing blog posts and desperately attempting to avoid the heat of Tempe. During the day, temperatures were regularly over 110 °F (43 °C). It was unbearably hot. Just a short walk to the store would leave me sweating. This cartoon really sums up how it felt to be visiting Phoenix in August...
One morning, I braved the heat and joined Rachel as she walked onto campus. I was impressed by the beauty of the Arizona State University campus, as well as the ability of some students to wear full length jeans despite the oppressive heat! Another afternoon, we met up with some of Rachel's friends for an escape room (we did not escape), followed by a barbecue. I loved getting to meet some of Rachel's new friends!
In the evenings, Rachel and I cooked dinners together, watched Netflix and relaxed in the communal pool with plastic cups full of sangria. After not having seen each other for seven years, I enjoyed getting the opportunity to catch up on Rachel's experiences at university. I think we were both amazed at how similar our interests are – it's clear that four-year-old Veronica had good taste in friends!
On Saturday, we finally had time to venture outside the city and into the mountains in an attempt to escape the heat. After leaving the sprawling city of Phoenix, we passed through the Tonto National Forest, a desert landscape with Saguaro cacti reaching into the distance as far as the eye could see.
As we gained elevation, the cacti were replaced by trees. We arrived at the Horton Creek trailhead and set off on our adventure, following the path as it wound its way through the forest. We were relieved that the temperature, although still hot, was much more bearable than in Tempe. We stopped for lunch at the creek, dangling our feet in the refreshingly cool water as we ate our sandwiches.
When we heard thunder in the distance, I immediately felt nervous. If you've read any of my previous posts, you'll know that mountain thunderstorms scare me. A lot. (Here's why). We decided to turn around, disappointed that our hike had been cut short, but pleased that we managed to outrun the storm.
After visiting the Shoofly Indian Ruins, we stopped for frozen drinks at Dutch Bros, a drive-through coffee chain, founded by two brothers of Dutch descent. Having lived in the Netherlands for many years, I can confirm that you would struggle to buy any of the "Dutch Classics" in the Netherlands. My favourite example is the "9-1-1", an Irish Creme Breve that has 6 SHOTS OF ESPRESSO. Sounds like fun...
Anyways. Instead of heading back to Tempe, we decided to visit the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, believed to be the largest natural travertine bridge in the world. As we drove along winding roads, we rolled the windows down and sang out loud, enjoying the feel of the cool air as it raced past. Singing to my favourite songs with one of my best friends as we explored somewhere new together, what a perfect afternoon!
We arrived at the state park an hour before closing time, so quickly hit the Gowan trail to give us the most time to see the natural arch. The trail descended into a canyon...
...and as we rounded the corner, the bridge was finally visible in its entirety. Wow! What an impressive sight! Far above us, water spilled down from the top of the bridge. It looked like one of the floating islands in Avatar!
The bridge stands 183 feet (56 metres) high over a 400-foot (122 metre) long tunnel. We followed the trail as it led us underneath the arch. Unfortunately, as the park was closing soon, we weren't allowed to hike through to the other side of the bridge, so after taking plenty of pictures, we retraced our steps and climbed back up to the carpark. Although we had been disappointed our initial hike had been cut short by the storm, we ended up being thankful because it meant we got the chance to experience this incredible geologic feature!
As we drove back to Phoenix, we wanted to find somewhere to watch the sunset. Looking at Google Maps, I suggested we try Saguaro Lake, just a short diversion from the highway. As we parked the car, we were blown away by the dramatic landscape – towering canyon walls, golden in the setting sun, rising up from the edge of the dammed lake.
After taking in the surroundings from one of the viewpoints, we drove further out along the lake so we could go for a swim. Stepping into the lake felt like stepping into a bathtub. After many freezing cold swims in the Sierra Nevada mountains, it felt incredible to be swimming in warm water. The sky was alive with colour above us. What a way to end an amazing day!
The following day, we drove into downtown Phoenix with one of Rachel's friends to visit the Heard Museum, which exhibits American Indian art and history. The exhibit about the history of boarding schools aiming to force Native American children to assimilate into white communities was particularly gut-wrenching. If you don't know about this tragic part of American history (I didn't), read more here. After grabbing Mexican food downtown, we headed back to Tempe and went on an adventure to a drive-through covid testing site. Traveling during a pandemic is really a joy...(not).
The next morning, it was time to head to the airport and say farewell to Rachel. After not having seen each other for seven years, it was a bit of a risk to invite myself to her place for a week, but I'm so glad it all worked out for me to visit. We had an amazing time catching up and hope to do more adventures together in Arizona one day soon – but maybe when the temperatures are a bit more manageable!