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Late February and early March is wildflower season in Arizona, something many locals had forgotten until the rains returned last winter, bringing the desert's incredible flowers this past spring.
One of the most spectacular shows of color, and one of the most easily accessed, is Picacho Peak State Park 60 miles south of Phoenix, which, if you didn't know, is that giant solitary mountain you nearly run into on your way to Tucson.
During peak wildflower season, drivers along I-10 have been known to stop along the freeway to gaze at the outbreak of Mexican gold poppies along the mount's eastern slope.
This isn't smart. Better to come into the state park and take one of several trails allowing you to stroll amid the yellow-orange meadows.
At which point you'll realize the poppies aren't alone. A host of other beautiful, albeit more subtle, flowers dot the historic peak throughout the spring.
The park is open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. The trails close at sunset.
The only thing that keeps us away from a poker table is our serious and committed relationship with money. (Well, that and a large man with a concealed weapons permit who really hates losing.) Lucky for us, we found the Horse & Hound on a Saturday night, where two free poker tournaments -- run by the Nationwide Poker Tour (www.pokerplayersinc.com) -- start at 7 and 10 p.m. with at least a half-dozen tables of Texas Hold 'Em open to anyone who signs up.
What's the point of playing poker without money involved? Actually, there is none. While it doesn't cost a thing to play at the Horse & Hound (unless you take in the happy hour specials that offer a dozen wings for $3 and $2.25 well drinks), it does pay to win. Folks who make it to the final table earn points toward a paid seat in monthly cash tournaments at Las Vegas' Bellagio and, ultimately, a $10,000 spot in the annual World Series of Poker. Just be careful with those pocket jacks in your hand at the H&H: Because it ain't real money, your fellow wanna-be World Series champs have been known to call your "all-in" with an off-suit 7-2 (statistically, the worst starting hand in Hold 'Em), and score a full boat on the river. Sure, you're out, but at least you're not down.
Other casinos might throw a gimmick or two your way to get you through the door for a poker tournament, but none offers the action you'll find at Talking Stick, home to the best cash players in the Valley.
With 45 tables of nonstop poker (most tables offer Texas Hold 'Em, but you'll also find Omaha and seven-card stud), you're still bound to wait 20 minutes to get a seat. If you're learning and aren't willing to lose this month's mortgage, play a 3-6 table (that's $3 for an opening bet with a $6 raise to start per hand).
Or if you're looking to brush up on your skills before heading to Vegas for the next World Series of Poker, take your chances at the 75-150 table, the casino's highest limit. Talking Stick also hosts morning and evening tournaments Monday through Friday, with buy-ins from $60 to $130, and first-prize payouts as big as $5,500. But get in on those tournaments early; they're usually limited to the first 120 who register, and they sell out quickly.
For Valley urbanites who think dog tracks like Turf Paradise are just too doggone far away, there's an abundance of off-track-betting sites scattered across our sprawl. These havens for bombastic betting behavior are usually found inside assorted sports bars and taverns and allow wagering on races at numerous dog and horse tracks both locally and around the nation, with remote video feeds of all the action. Gallagher's bar and restaurant, located in north Phoenix, is particularly entertaining, as wager-friendly folk from all walks of life gather in an expansive, smoke-filled side room. Gambling-prone grannies edge their walkers close to the wall filled with video screens, while thirtysomething tweaker types howl desperately for certain pooch es to place first, until the long shots finish back in the pack and bet tickets are torn up in disgust.
By the end of the night, broken peanut shells, torn-up tickets and shattered dreams litter the floor, as a few holdouts remain to sample one of Gallagher's particularly delectable desserts, consisting of a mound of ice cream covered with fudge on top of a just-baked chocolate chip cookie. It's tasty and helps take the edge off the realization that you just blew your rent money on some dog-and-pony show.
Take a break from the strip malls, the freeways, the dog eat dog of the real world, and break for the ponies. Few things in life are as satisfying as leaning against the fence at the finish line, nursing a drink and looking left to catch the first glimpse of the pack coming home. If your horse finishes out of the money, no big deal. There's always the next race -- and plenty of beer. Anyway, gambling isn't the point. It's the fresh air, the scent of the stables, the tight jeans the escort riders wear as they guide the thoroughbreds to the gate. There's enough superstition in the air to fill 10 Bank One Ballparks. Dare you wager on a pony called U R Toast, or is Notanotherskidmark the safer choice?
Sometimes college students need to just let loose, get a little crazy and occasionally get escorted out of a building after a bit of debauchery. Spending your nights on Mill Avenue can get old. The real place to catch raucous 18- to 22-year-olds mid-shenanigans is at Wal-Mart. By midnight, at least 10 people will be running, yelling and climbing over displays in a heated game of hide-and-seek. Letting off steam by acting like a 6-year-old must work, because larger games of 20 to 40 players are orchestrated monthly at MySpace.com. The hide-and-seek activity at the Mesa Wal-Mart peaked a few months ago, but there's nothing stopping you from getting on MySpace.com and starting a fresh game. After all, when was the last time you were kicked out of anywhere for playing hide-and-seek? Unlike when you were a kid, your mom won't be there to be embarrassed by you.