Tuesday, December 10, 2019

A Visit to Sun City West, AZ

In late October we went to Sun City West, Arizona to visit our friend K, who with her late husband R were our golfing buddies back in CT after we took up the game in our early sixties. K and her golf bag visited us here in the City Different in July during our warmest weather of the summer, which she (coming from triple digit country) thought was quite cool and comfortable.

We likewise brought our clubs along for this trip.
Sun City West is a census-designated place in Maricopa County, Arizona, with about 15,000 homes and around 28,000 residents in an area of 11.1 square miles. (Our old home town of Wethersfield, CT had a population of around 27,000 in an area of 12.3 sq. mi – excluding Wethersfield Cove.) 

An “over 55” community, SCW was constructed by Del Webb starting in the late-1970s after its sister-community Sun City, Arizona had outgrown its boundaries. It was built out in 1998 and a third sibling, Sun City Grand, to the west of Grand Avenue in SCW was started. According to its web site SCW offers, “four Recreation Centers with over 100 chartered clubs, seven beautiful golf courses that are constantly maintained, a state-of-the-art bowling alley, movie theater, and countless other activities” – plus a library and enough retail and restaurants to obviate any reason to leave town. The community’s newspaper states that 24% of its residents play golf, versus the national average of 8%. The houses are single-family, one-story Mediterranean style with pitched tile roofs, and come in about twenty-five different styles.  Zillow.com currently shows 177 for-sale listings ranging from $199,000 to $589,000.
The green areas on the attached map of the community are the golf courses.

Sun-CIty-West_Retirement_Community_Map_Detailed-1.pdfWe could not find an exact count but a considerable number of SCWers are “snowbirds” – people who live there in the winter, and cooler climes in the summer when temps in AZ top the century mark. This was one of the factors for our visit to K happening in October – before the return of the part-timers when the golf courses will become way more busy, and after the summer temperatures had moderated somewhat.

Car travel is not our favorite thing. So, since the trip from our house to K’s takes about eight hours, we stopped overnight going and coming back at the midway point of  – perhaps recognizable to some from the Eagles song “Take it Easy." This allowed us to spend four half-days exploring other parts of “The Grand Canyon State” en route.

In the era of steam locomotives, Winslow was a major water and fuel stop on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. Passengers could disembark and have enough time to have a meal at the La Posada (“the resting place”) “Fred Harvey’s last great railroad hotel.”
According to the La Posada website, “Fred Harvey ’civilized the west’ by introducing linen, silverware, china, crystal, and impeccable service to railroad travel. (He was so legendary that MGM made a movie called The Harvey Girls starring Judy Garland.) Harvey developed and ran all the hotels and restaurants of the Santa Fe Railway, eventually controlling a hospitality empire that spanned the continent...Winslow was ideally situated for a resort hotel since everything to see and do in northern Arizona is a comfortable day’s drive.” Among the eighty-four Harvey Hotels are the recently renovated and re-opened Hotel Castañeda in Las Vegas, New Mexico and La Fonda in Santa Fe.
Architected and designed down to the last detail by Mary Elizabeth Jane ColterLa Posada has been restored and reopened by entrepreneur Allan Affeldt and his wife artist Tina Mion – also the redevelopers of the aforementioned Hotel Castañeda – but we planned the dates of this trip too late to be able to book a room there. Maybe next time. We did however have dinner in the hotel’s Turquoise Room on our return leg – Seared Colorado Elk Medallions “free range grazed in Colorado, hormone and antibiotic free” for the lady, and Grilled Crispy Skin Colombia River King Salmon “a classic Fred Harvey dish!..line-caught by the Nez Perce Tribe and flown to us overnight” for the gentleman. Including dessert, it was all prepared, served and consumed with ample spare time to get back on the train, had we been riding it.
Today Winslow is a crew-change point for Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway – one of North America’s leading freight transportation companies. Amtrak also provides twice-daily passenger service – one train eastbound and one westbound. We traveled U.S. Route 40 alongside a continuous parade of BNSF engines pulling upwards of 100 freight cars, and passed by scores of other stationary ones sitting on tracks waiting their turn. We also drove the interstate in the midst of what seemed like every semi trailer in North America.
We took advantage of both stops in Winslow (going and coming back) to explore three nearby attractions – the Painted Desert, the Petrified Forest and Meteor Crater. More about this, with photos, in a future email.
Years ago we thought about a Sun City type community as a possible retirement destination. The community-centered clubs and activities seemed like a good way to make new friends and settle in to an unfamiliar place. But we continued to vacation in Santa Fe and learned more about all that northern New Mexico had to offer. Monica and Bram’s relocation out here really sealed the deal. This visit to SCW was our first actual experience in an “active adult retirement community.” And it was a good one – though some things, like the flora and the transportation were pretty disconcerting at first.
In SCW they call them “golf cars” – without the final “t.” They appear of course on the playing fields from which their first name is derived. But – and this is why the 20th letter in the modern English alphabet is not a part of the surname – they also show up on the roads of the community (not in a special lane, but nearer to the curb) on their way to-and-from rounds of the ancient Scottish sport; in special spaces in strip mall parking lots; and in their own indoor residential parking spots, sharing space with their bigger brothers or in their own smaller size garage. They are gas powered vehicles capable of speeds up to thirty-five mph (not coincidentally the maximum allowed in SCW) all tricked out with headlights, tail lights and directional signals – but regrettably not air conditioning. We rode to our first round of golf in them and drove K’s mini vehicle to our second.
From our CT upbringing we had grown accustomed to trees being a normal part of our surroundings – providing shade and, in many cases, obscuring a full appreciation of the sky above. In Santa Fe – as we have mentioned before – the prevailing vegetation is closer to the ground. Shelter from the sun is harder to come by, but the heavens are wide open for all to see. SCW is similar. But its cacti are bigger and showier. And the predominant “tree” is the palm.
And then there are the saguaro – “large, tree-like columnar cacti that develop branches (or arms) as they age [that] generally bend upward and can number over 25.” These supersized succulents can grow up to sixty feet in height, weigh as much as 4,800 pounds and live to 150 years of age.

We New Mexicans are bemused by the frequent appearance of this largest U.S. cactus in advertisements for our own state or its products. It is in fact found only in the Sonoran desert – which does not included any parts of the Land of Enchantment. If the elevation is too high then the cold weather and frost can kill the them. Driving down highway 17 from Flagstaff, AZ to Phoenix your surroundings change from forests of pine trees to groves of saguaros as you enter these lower altitudes.
In Sunset City West they are a major part of the planned landscape. To a first time visitor it feels little being in an orchard of overweight Gumbys.
We got to see more of these arid land plants when K suggested a day trip to Desert Botanical Garden in nearby Phoenix – someplace we had actually been to in the 1990s as part of an Elderhostel program to the Grand Canyon and Sonoran Desert. At that time the facility was in its beginning stages, and consisted of a few dirt trails through native desert plants. Now the DBG has become “the world's finest collection of arid plants from deserts of the world in a unique outdoor setting [with] more than 50,000 desert plants on display throughout five thematic trails that illustrate topics such as conservation, desert living, plants and people of the Sonoran Desert, and desert wildflowers,” according to visitphoenix.com.
In addition “straight from Milan...an installation of more than 1,000 animal sculptures made from colorful and recyclable plastic” is currently on display. The three of us spent a pleasant day exploring the new and improved trails and overdosing on spiny leafless plants, before enjoying a late lunch at the onsite restaurant and heading back to SCW.

The two of us made one more side trip on day one of our trip back to Santa Fe to visit Arcosanti, an “experimental micro-city seeking the radical reorganization of the built environment by integrating Architecture and Ecology.” Begun in 1970 on 25 acres of a 4,060-acre land preserve to test architect Paolo Soleri’s urban planning concept, which he called arcology (a portmanteau of architecture and ecology.) This experimental town, and training center for Soleri’s disciples, is a prototype demonstrating how to combine the social interaction and accessibility of an urban environment with sound environmental principles, such as minimal resource use and access to the natural environment. The architect died in 2013. And although his vision has not been implemented in toto anywhere, aspects of the arcological method have been applied piecemeal around the world. Students continue to live at the site ­and – as a source of income – several apartments (including Soleri’s former one) are now available for tourists through Airbnb.  Another money maker is the sale of Paolo Soleri wind bells, which are made in the  the ceramic studio and the bronze foundry at the Cosanti Gallery in Scottsdale, AZ and at Arcosanti. We now have three of them. 


Like the Desert Botanical Garden we had visited this “urban laboratory” on our own after our AZ Elderhostel had concluded. This paradigmatic city however has not undergone anything like the quantum advances at the arid land floral showcase. Notably however it did add a twenty-five meter swimming pool  – “overlooking the Agua Fria River valley and cradled in the basalt cliff [providing] a dramatic setting for summer swimming.”
Not quite the recreational opportunities offered at Sun City West – but probably more in line with the interests of its own residents.
And speaking of SCW. You may be wondering what the golfing was like there. (Or not.)
Admittedly our exposure to golf courses is limited. Most of our games were played on a course in the middle of a public park in Hartford CT with the aromas of garlic wafting from the nearby Italian restaurants and the sound of police sirens wailing in the background. We also have golfed at two other suburban CT courses (once each), at Mt. Snow Vermont, Silver Creek in Emerald Isle North Carolina, Penn State University, and now at two public courses in Santa Fe. One more than SCW has in its community. All have grass in varying lengths and shades of green – or brown – along with some water and sand. All have the same sized cup into which the little white ball needs to be hit. Some have pine trees and pine needles within which errently hit balls can get lost. While others have prairie dog holes and hard pan caliche, or just really high grass, alongside their fairways – which themselves are either narrow or narrower.
Not so at SCW. The grass is uniformly green. And seemingly almost uniformly the same height. Fairways are wide or wider. And the hole just seems larger. They are pretty much what we thought golf courses were like before we actually had played on any of them. Even the wildlife seems to be part of the pre-planned perfection.
As we approached one of the greens at SCW C (K’s friend and part of our foursome) called our attention to a pair of coyotes who were stretched out in the shade atop a small mound immediately adjacent to our prospective putting surface. They seemed completely at ease and remained motionless except to raise their heads to watch our balls roll along the ground.  
Looks like "Arizona's Finest Golf Retirement Community” might also be the perfect place for some of those wily canine retirees – who enjoy watching the sport.  And of course are over eight dog-years in age.

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