Extreme spring training: an outdoor adventure in Phoenix and beyond
PHOENIX -- Five whole days to spend in the valley of the sun. 120 hours to soak in the Brewers, cacti and the most perfect weather. (Of course, as I write this, Milwaukee is experiencing abundant sunshine and above normal temps). The girlfriend and I will head out together aboard US Airways. And besides the new Pizzeria Piccolo in Concourse C, not much here has changed in ol' General Mitchell International.
Monday, March 14: A flight out of Milwaukee can be improved by indulging in what I like to call "Pre-Flight Fuel," Alterra's Potato Bacon Burrito and a berry blast smoothie. Way too good. Served all day, as well. Do yourself a favor on your next flight out and grab this legendary combo. Unfortunately, I think I just negated last night's workout eating it. I have a feeling I might be canceling out a few previous workouts on this trip.
As someone who has been to Phoenix nine times prior (for work), I'm quite familiar with the landscape. Unfamiliar territory, however, will be hanging out with OnMilwaukee.com's Andy Tarnoff and Bobby Tanzilo, as well as a few other Milwaukee folks in tow. These stand-up gentlemen are Phoenix veterans. They've made this trip 14 times, so I'm excited to participate in whatever annual traditions they might have. As long as they don't involve ghost peppers, test-taking, or back-alley deals with some guy in strangely-clean acid-washed jeans, we're down for whatever.
A turbulent-free evening flight jettisoned us to Sky Harbor. My free beverage of choice on an aircraft is ginger ale. It's a theory of my friend Nate, who says "Ginger ale is best enjoyed at 35,000 feet in the air." One day, this theory will be a proven scientific fact. Flights are always entertaining, because there's one person who stands out. On this flight, there was a young adult male wearing an authentic Kurt Rambis Lakers jersey. Why and how? This fellow couldn't have been more than 18 years old. Definitely not old enough to have seen Rambis play. Awkward indeed.
Our flight touched down at 6:30 and by 7 p.m., we were on our way to the rental car facility. I'll admit, I've never rented a car before. But national "emerald aisle" service, secured by the gf, was the most efficient process I've ever been a party of. You literally grab a car and go. Instructions: Find a car. Choose said car. Exit premises driving car. A simple ID check is all you needed. Highly recommended. (Please note: author is easily entertained).
Our first stop was not the hotel, but the amazing Pizzeria Bianco, where Arizona's finest pizzas bake to perfection in a hearth oven. I've been to this mecca twice before, but this third time was a charm. The Biancoverde (with added salami) was a sweet, salty magnificence. Paired with a Four Peaks brewery Hop Knot IPA, our arrival could not have been better. Well, maybe it could have, but it would have involved taking a friendly stray kitten home (cats meander around ASU's Heritage Square at night). The wait times can be notoriously long here, but we only waited 45 min.
After our delicious pie intake, we finally checked into the Sheraton Crescent hotel, conveniently located within minutes of where the Brew crew plays ball. Before checking out the hotel amenities, we both collapsed into a heap on the bed like a sack of spent grain. Early to rise tomorrow, as we are tackling the Peralta trail in the Superstition Mountains. Maryvale in the afternoon, and my favorite food spot in the eve, Barrio Café.
Thursday, March 15: Really? It must be said here that when my seasonal allergies strike, they assault my ears, nose and throat with a tenacity so vicious that pit bulls would wimper in a corner. The cocktail of nasal spray, Allegra-D and Mucinex is doing an OK job fighting off these demons, though. So on two hours of sleep and with cracking ears, we hit the road at 7 a.m. and drove to the Peralta trailhead outside Gold Canyon. About 45 minutes away in the Superstition Mountains lies one of my favorite nature paths. An old, winding riverbed trail displays giant hoodoos (rock formations, see also: fun word to say) and Century plants. Skinny, leaning shrubs that look like uncoordinated, pubescent teens swaying in the breeze, if that makes any sense. This is an easy hike – no ropes, pulleys or carabiners (another fun word to say) are needed for this jaunt. There was around 50 people on the trail this morning, so navigating was manageable. Flowers are finally starting to bloom in mid-March so that doesn't help my sinuses either. Total time there and back was about two and a half hours. After the hike, we headed back to change into the necessary blue and yellow.
Today is the first time laying in the grass seats at Maryvale. The crew played the San Diego Fathers today. Not one cloud in the sky. The only shadow that was cast was that of the gigantic Seth McClung, who I had the pleasure of meeting mid-way through the game. Seth is currently on assignment at AAA Nashville, and took a few minutes to hang out with us and talk. An extremely nice guy – check out some of his OnMilwaukee.com blogs here. Brewers lost the game, but weather was so beautiful it didn't matter.
At night, my lady and I had my favorite – Barrio Café. Guacamole is made tableside here, and features fresh avocados, tomatoes, onions, a boat-load of cilantro, and pomegranate seeds. A non-intrusive house band plays inside to 20 tables and two (yes, two) bar seats. Day of the Dead paintings are displayed on the walls throughout, and can be yours for a few hundred dollars. Even though our server forgot to put in our order, the final result of fish tacos and slow-simmered pork shoulder were both to die for, as usual. Early to bed again, as we had another early hike on Friday. Sleep is necessary.
Friday, March 16: Yet another sunny, cloudless day in Phoenix. This morning, we do Piestewa Peak, an inner city hike. Challenging but fun, this busy trail brings a ton of old and young, alike. If you're especially fit and agile, you can run up and down the mountain. I call these people crazy. It took us 45 minutes to ascent the summit and overlook the metropolis below. Tiptoeing our way down spent 30 minutes of our time. After breaking an intense a.m. sweat, we finally rested a bit. Until this point, we were sightseeing at a breakneck pace. The rest of the agenda called for sushi and a baseball game in Surprise. I was hesitant to dine on sushi at Fresh Wasabi, as I wasn't sure raw fish was the best pre-game food choice. However, sushi is delicious, and turned out to be a good idea.
Surprise Field in ... Surprise, Ariz. ... is home to the Rangers and Royals, and was my favorite park of the trip by far. Brewers again got slaughtered, but more difficult to watch was Lorenzo Cain have a great game. He's gonna be good – I miss him a lot for some reason. Surprise Field is much bigger than Maryvale, and has a better beer and food selection.
After the game, the whole gang headed to the popular pool area at the Sheraton Crescent. Be wary of the water slide – I careened down the apparatus with great force, and eventually smashed my hip against one of the turns. Brutal! To nurse our injuries, we headed to the hot tub. Why is there always at least a dozen kids in the hot tub? It's very puzzling.
For dinner, we wandered busy Scottsdale trying to find some open restaurant seats without having a reservation. This is not a good idea. We hunted for AZ/88, owned by the same guy who owns Kopp's here in town. The eatery was not well-marked, but this is why smartphones were invented. The gf, Bobby and I eventually found it, but was much too crowded. We finally settled on Grazie, another wood-oven pizza place. It was OK, but I'm seriously spoiled by Bianco. Bobby was served chilled red wine, something we've never seen done before. Interesting. Later, we walked to Coach House, or as I call it – Sardines-in-a-can-house. There was a cover band playing familiar cover band tunes in front of wall-to-wall people hovering in this tiny bar. Naturally, we embarked on the Hotel Valley Ho: An appealing '50s retro chic hotel and bar that I knew very little about. Green plush chairs were nestled next to elongated couches. A very old-school bar made drinks lightning-fast for a young, hip crowd.
Once again, we called it an early night – all the early hiking really wore us out. Either way, highly recommend having a nightcap at Hotel Valley Ho.
Obviously, Spring Training season brings fans from all over. No team was better represented than the Giants. Close second place was the Oakland A's. Everywhere we turned we saw black and orange and green and gold – and not the type of green and gold we're used to. Needless to say, there's a ton of fans and tourists down here. You won't be alone should you decide to make the trip.
Saturday, March 17: Saint Patrick's Day! Time to wake up and drink green mystery beer! Or, once again punish our bodies like we've become accustomed to lately. Clearly we went with the latter. The Gladiator Run. Sounds fun, right? For those of you who participated in the popular Warrior Dash race in Twin Lakes, months back, Gladiator Rock 'N Run was slightly similar. Presented by Nitro (yes, of American Gladiators fame), this 5k promised to be a crazy run filled with 17 obstacles. Held in Goodyear (45 min SW of Phoenix) the beginning of the day was rocky to start – a line of cars that could have been more than a mile long created a traffic jam of young folks eager just to park. After an hour of waiting to get in, we exited the car with just 15 minutes of time to spare. It turned out that it didn't matter – others missed the designated wave time and had a domino effect on start times. We found our way to the starting gates where they had corralled participants like cattle. Of course, the gf and I were stuck behind an overly obnoxious group of older females whose workout routines and enhanced body parts were all-too familiar. Eventually, an airhorn screamed and 200 of us began the race. Obstacle one right out of the gates was not trampling someone, and not getting trampled over by someone else. Obstacle two was an uphill battle – literally – as we ran up the side of a mountain for 10 minutes.
Sadly, course organizers didn't think too hard, as the second bump in the road occurred right after. A crawling under a net obstacle only allowed five runners at a time to conquer it. This created a bottleneck of irritated participants who had to stand on the trail for 10 minutes until we finally reached the point. The aforementioned cougars decided to hold up the line longer by taking pictures of each other while in the obstacle. Not kidding. Girlfriend spewed some necessary four-letter words in their direction, which sent waves of laughter and mumbles of agreement behind us.
The next hour of hell included, but was not limited to: scaling bales of hay, submerging yourself in an ice-cold pool, army-crawling through a knee-dip mud pit and through pitch-black tunnels, running on sand/gravel/asphalt, carrying sandbags, and using a rope to grapple a 75 degree incline 10-foot wall. Before crossing the finish line, you have to leap through a small fire, which apparently every 'extreme' run has you do. When it was all finished, we were both pretty tired, but happy we did it and completed it. The $70 entrance fee (purchased on Groupon for $30) included a free beer, but alas, we had to race back to the hotel to check out. It was a huge bummer, as the beer was flowing and the St. Patty's-dressed mud-covered gladiators seemed to having a blast.
The Sheraton Crescent treated us well, so we were saddened to leave. The hotel was in full-on Dance Moms mode at this point though, as most of their ballrooms catered to this kid dancing festival. Six-year-old girls covered in makeup and bobbypinned hair littered the hallways, foyer, and any other available free space to practice their Rockette kick lines, routines, or whatever else they do. Leaving the Crescent was difficult only for a second though. The rest of our trip included a two-night stay at the Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa. The Bilmore is one of the premier places to stay in all of Arizona. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, himself, every president since Herbert Hoover has stayed there. The property is stunningly gorgeous. Everything the eye sees is expertly maintained. Sophisticates from all over use the two golf courses, full-service spa, shops, and restaurants to pamper themselves. There's even afternoon tea in the lobby for the ladies. The history of the property is too long to explain here. Sometimes, as Tom Haverford (played by Aziz Ansari) on "Parks & Rec" said, you just gotta Treat Yo'Self. This was a treat.
Now, imagine if you will, two young adults wearing post-race clothes, still sweaty and covered in specks of mud checking into this beautiful place. The experience was slightly embarrassing, yet completely unavoidable. Our room wasn't ready yet at 2:30 p.m., so we checked out their magnificent pool and had a few Caribbean-inspired cocktails. A while later, we finally checked into our room in the Paradise Wing and took much needed showers.
We had not eaten any substantial food to this point, so to break our impending delirium; we took a quick drive to The Grind. Set in a strip mall like everything is in Phoenix, The Grind has coal-fired cuisine. It produces a black char that is – in one word – irresistible. Even better was seeing both MU and Wisconsin get big wins in the NCAA tourney.
Our bodies were completely exhausted from the non-stop auction from Wednesday until now. So much, that instead of heading to the Scottsdale St. Patty's Day block party, we just stayed in and watched TV. A vacation no-no, but really there was no other option. The running, hiking, pooling, eating and drinking had finally beaten us. Pretty sure we passed out by 9 p.m. I may be 50 years old.
Sunday, March 18: Sunday greeted us with something unexpected: poor weather. The forecast called for 50 and rain. I thought this was impossible, as it rarely rains here. We were going to find out that it indeed does. We began our morning getting a delicious breakfast at The Good Egg – something we didn't do on this vacation yet. From there, we drove to Salt River Fields at Talking Stick Resort in Scottsdale. The Diamondbacks and Rockies call this venue home, and the day's 1 p.m. showdown featured Arizona vs. Oakland. We had purchased lawn seats weeks prior, but weren't going to sit on the rain-soaked (from the night before) lawn. We found two open seats under a covered canopy and cheered for the A's – solely because Rickie Weeks' brother Jemile plays for them. These cheers would be short-lived, as a single crack of thunder opened the skies in the third inning. First driving rain, then minutes later – hail. The Skittle-sized hail sent the crowd into a frenzy. Tarps waved, umbrellas opened, and cameras and phones quickly snapped pictures as the elements reared back with a previously unseen aggression.
The storm was downright cold. The wind whipped at our faces – temperature stayed firm at 45 degrees. (As this is happening, I'm reading tweets from Milwaukee friends about the 80 degree weather back home. Life is funny sometimes, no?)
Dejected and forlorn, we walked back to the car around 2 p.m and headed to a nearby hotel where an old high school friend of mine now bartends. We wallowed about the unseasonal weather and caught up for awhile. Dinner plans included one of my other favorite valley spots: the original Four Peaks Brewery in Tempe. Everyone else had the same we did. The gloomy weather paired with March Madness brought droves of thirsty souls inside. Even with the extraordinarily large bar, there were still 3-5 people deep at almost every point.
Two generous businessmen spied our Brewers gear as they were leaving the bar and gave us their seats. They were from Madison. God bless the warm, friendly folks of Wisconsin. We were seated an hour later among the brewery tanks and rowdy basketball fans and annihilated their signature bar food and brewed suds. The poor weather really put a damper on the day, but the end result at Four Peaks made us forget temporarily. (No, I don't expect you to feel sorry for us – you shouldn't. The young me thought the hail storm was awesome.)
Monday, March 19: Our last day of Arizona Spring Training. Again we were met with clouds and oddly somber weather. It reached 60 degrees, but that's hardly sun-tanning weather. We had plenty of time to kill before our 6 p.m. flight, so we spent the afternoon at Carlsbad Tavern in Scottsdale. They had outstanding southwest-style grub, highly recommended.
Biggest regret of the vacation was not being able to experience the Arizona Biltmore pool, where Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra and other folks have dipped their toes in. Overall though, we packed lot of fun in a short amount of time. I highly suggest taking a trip here. A little saving paired with a little planning can go a long way. It can be expensive to stay here, but you might be interested to learn that there are plenty of affordable options scattered throughout the suburbs. The majority of folks are in a great mood, and it's easy to meet and talk to them – you have something in common with a lot of them. What's better than brats, beer, and baseball? Not much. Who's ready for Opening Day?
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