Outdoor therapy in Arizona

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      It’s early on a Saturday morning, and I’m at the base of a mountain looking up at what could be the Grouse Grind. Around me in the parking lot, fit young men and women, many clad in lululemon gear, are getting ready to start their ascent. But something’s different: the air is bone-dry, the sky’s a brilliant blue, and although it’s January the sun is beating down. Nobody is wearing Gore-Tex, and the dusty trail is framed by cacti, rather than rain forest.

      I’m at the Echo Canyon trailhead at Camelback Mountain in Arizona. Like the Grind, Scottsdale residents use it as an open-air StairMaster. The athletic crowd has already dented my preconception of Phoenix-area locals as retired golfers, and the hike is about to change my perception of the desert.

      Our goal is reaching the 824-metre summit, which involves making a 385-metre elevation gain in just under two kilometres. “You can do it!” Aliesha Keller says encouragingly. Keller is a concierge from my hotel—the InterContinental Montelucia, a 15-minute walk from here—who is leading a small group of guests on the hike. As we reach the first challenging segment, however, I’m not so sure.

      Railings have been installed so that you can pull yourself onto the boulders, hand over hand. As I scrabble over loose rock, I’m already wishing I’d worn sturdier shoes. But I can also tell that the climb will be worth it. Every corner we round opens to vistas of Greater Phoenix glinting in the sun, dotted with sparkling blue pools and green swaths of golf courses, as well as dusty rolling mountains and further away, flat agricultural fields. I breathe in the wide-open spaces, and my soul expands.

      “It’s like therapy,” Keller says of the hike. “If you feel crappy about yourself when you start off, you feel good about yourself by the time you’re done.” As I puff along, she calls out to acquaintances she passes. “It’s a very social trail,” she says. “You see the same faces.”

      Keller makes the climb five or six times a week, often before work. Her best time is 55 minutes, summit and back. Our group will eventually take three hours.

      As we reach the top, a spry older gentleman lunges past me. “He does the climb three times a day, every day,” Keller says. “I think he’s 76 years old.” I’m duly humbled, yet remind myself that I’m here for a good time, not a fast time. We hang out at the summit for a while, drinking in the gorgeous 360-degree panorama. We also pause frequently on the way down, snapping photos with backdrops of red sandstone boulders or delightful saguaro cacti, which stand tall and proud, arms stretched skyward.

      After the hike, Keller walks us back to the hotel and then heads to Camelback a second time for her real workout. I collapse onto my bed, exhilarated but exhausted, and fall into a bone-weary nap.

      Unfortunately, my slow climb means I’ve missed the Saturday-morning farmers market in downtown Scottsdale. Like many other places, Arizona has taken up the eat-local mantra, and I was curious to see what grows in the desert. Apparently, according to a quick Internet search, it’s more than I thought. Yuma, Arizona (about four hours’ drive away near the California border), claims to produce over 90 percent of America’s winter vegetable crops, including the lion’s share of lettuce. And the Scottsdale area boasts dates, pecans, citrus fruits, chilies, olives, and locally produced meats and cheeses.

      The previous night, I had nibbled on some local bacon-wrapped dates and a juicy pork chop at the hotel’s restaurant, Prado. Esquire magazine named it one of America’s best new restaurants in 2009. It was indeed good; chef Claudio Urciuoli made the most of local ingredients—not to mention creating a delicious lobster risotto that couldn’t have tasted better had it been made right next to the ocean.

      Thoughts of last night’s dinner propel me out of my nap. After grabbing a few empanadas at the hotel café, I drive off to see the area’s most famous dwelling: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West.

      Wright is the architect best known for New York’s snail-shaped Guggenheim Museum and Pennsylvania’s graceful Fallingwater house. He began designing Taliesin (pronounced “tally-ESS-in”) West as his winter home and an architectural school in 1937, when the Sonoran Desert was barren in the area that’s now northeast Scottsdale. The house is considered a masterpiece for the way it blends indoor and outdoor spaces into the desert environment.

      Touring the house, I’m struck by how modern it looks—remarkable since it was designed more than 70 years ago. Our guide tells us that Wright is the inventor of recessed lighting and glass doors. Clearly, he was ahead of his time. But Taliesin is also special for its vibe—the low, sloping structure just feels good, organic—like everything’s in sync with nature.

      I lust after the complex’s citrus trees, heavy with oranges and lemons, and the patio that spills out onto the desert. Cacti of all shapes and sizes—from low, coral-like scrubs to squat sea anemones types to churro-straight towers—dot the panorama. It’s all so barrenly beautiful, I understand why Wright fell in love with the area and decided to build here.

      Back at the hotel, the sunset that’s visible from my balcony underlines the desert’s attraction. Camelback Mountain—so named because its profile resembles that of the humped animal—is silhouetted in Technicolor light, a psychedelic blend of Orange Crush and Pepto-Bismol. As the shades swirl like tie-dye and then slowly fade to black, I contemplate Wright’s story. Some of his most famous works came to him late in life; he embarked on Taliesin West at age 70. According to the tour guide, he designed a third of his creations between the ages of 81 and 91, ending just before his death. It’s never too late for greatness.

      The next day, I wake up with sore ankles and calves. But it’s a good kind of ache—the kind that merits a couple of hours at the spa.

      The hotel has a Mediterranean theme, its architecture and décor influenced by the Andalusia region of southern Spain. The Joya spa has a Moroccan slant, with a tiled hammam warming room. I do a luxurious circuit between the eucalyptus steam room, the hot tub, and the sauna, punctuated by bracing dumps of cold water from a shower pull. Talk about jump-starting your circulation! Once the shock wears off, my skin tingles with pleasure.

      After a scrub-down with Moroccan black soap, a rinse, and then a massage, I’m turned out like cake batter into the relaxation area. I silently thank the spa designers for creating two lounges: one for chatty girlfriends and the other for those who, like me, prefer to relax in silence with low lighting and plush beds.

      When I’m ready to move on, I don my swimsuit and lounge at the spa’s rooftop pool area. Over lunch, I squint at Camelback Mountain, imagining hikers slogging their way up like ants on a camel. I can’t help but feel proud of the climb I did a day earlier. The view of the mountain makes my relaxed state so much sweeter.

      And it makes me want to do it all over again.

      Access: It’s a three-hour direct flight from Vancouver to Phoenix’s Sky Harbor airport, and about a half-hour drive from there to Scottsdale. For info on the InterContinental Montelucia Resort & Spa, see www.icmontelucia.com/. For info on Camelback Mountain, see www.phoenix.gov/PARKS/hikecmlb.html. The writer travelled as a guest of Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau.