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Best Of 2019


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Best Of :: Fun & Games

Best Of Fun & Games

"Heck, Yeah!"

by Robrt L. Pela

Milani Mangler of the Arizona Derby Dames

Roller derby was never on Milani Mangler’s radar. “I’m surprised I even went for it,” she admits. “I wasn’t very athletic growing up. But a friend of my sister’s was in the Brutal Beauties, and she invited us out to a game. I was in awe of how strong and fast these women were.”

Mangler, who currently skates for five-time banked-track derby champions the Runaway Brides, wasn’t yet 18 at the time. After watching her sister get drafted onto one of the Arizona Derby Dames teams, she knew she wanted to compete, too. Shortly after her 18th birthday, she recalls, “I showed up for tryouts, shaking in my boots, and the rest is history.”

Eight years later, Mangler trains twice a week with the Brides, playing all positions during competitions. She’s also a team member with the Dames’ all-star travel team, the Hot Shots, and mentors the Minor Assaults, the league’s under-18 junior team. “We usually get our butts kicked,” she admits. “These girls are really good.”

Read the rest of this essay...

Five Things That make a Great Roller Derby Team Player

By Milani Mangler

  1. Be resilient, able to recover quickly from all things roller derby throws at you.
  2. Be dedicated to learning and growing within the sport.
  3. Communicate. You need to be able to speak honestly to your teammates and to your league members.
  4. Be supportive out on the track, at practice, or anywhere else your teammates may need you.
  5. Have integrity. Always.
Best Pool Party

The best pool parties bring just the right mix of pool design, people, and creative energy. In a Valley where cool pools abound, Talking Stick pool parties reign supreme because they bring people together through not just water play, but also with music that ramps up the summertime vibe. It's all about the synergy they create by showcasing different musical styles every week — with international and local DJs spinning tunes that transform these pool parties into dance parties or sing-alongs. It's just the right mix for long summer months, where just doing the club scene gets old, and people want to enjoy a bit of off-the-beaten-path escapism.

9800 E.Talking Stick Way, Scottsdale, 85256
Best Place to Watch Jumbo Jets

Notorious for lousy treatment of cyclists, metro Phoenix has been making up for lost time in recent years by connecting trails all over town to create long stretches where bikes and cars don't meet. Recently, a bike path opened south of the Salt River and west of Priest Drive in Tempe, stretching west to another trail that extends west of Central Avenue in Phoenix. We like this for lots of reasons, but mainly because it gives us a bird's-eye view of the inner workings of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport — if a bird were riding a bicycle, that is. Our favorite spot is a shaded bench near 40th Street, which offers a terrific view of jumbo jets taking off and landing. It kind of makes us want to trade in the Schwinn for a Boeing, but for now, we'll settle for some good, old-fashioned voyeurism.

Best Hiking Trail
Echo Canyon at Camelback Mountain

It may be the hike everyone does, but it's the hike everyone does for a reason. There are two ways to climb Camelback, and both are crazy challenging. The Echo Canyon Trail is slightly shorter, but that just means your scramble up the rocky terrain will be even steeper. The out-and-back trail is roughly 2.4 miles round trip with a 1,423-foot elevation gain (though the always crowded parking lot may mean you'll have to add to your trip by parking far away). The trail is extremely steep; handrails are installed in the rocks in some areas to keep you from falling backward. There's basically no shade on the path, so be sure to bring plenty of water, even if that means fueling up at the fountain that has been taken over by bees at the start of the trail. The view from the top is nice, but the feeling of accomplishment after you get there — even if you had to get on your hands and knees at some points to do it — is even better.

5950 N. Echo Canyon Parkway, Paradise Valley, 85253
Best New Hiking Trail

There's a new challenge for hikers on South Mountain: the T-Bone Trail, which goes almost straight up to the peak of the Ma-Ha-Tauk Range, climbing in elevation from 1,331 feet in the parking lot to 2,311 feet at its zenith. At the top, the trail, which begins near the landmark T-Bone Steakhouse off South 19th Avenue, loops east across the range, where you can join the Ma-Ha-Tauk Trail and descend back to the parking area. The new trail opened in January after six weeks of bulldozing work. If you're not up to the steep climb, Phoenix Parks and Recreation also has graded an extension of the Ma-Ha-Tauk Trail for a couple of miles west to Laveen. It's a scenic hike among hundreds of saguaros, and also a highly recommended alternative if you're accompanied by a dog; the T-Bone Trail has some sharp drop-offs and there's no room for confrontations between our four-legged friends. One note: Parking at the 19th Avenue Trailhead is limited and prohibited on the street until you are more than a quarter-mile from the entrance. But what the hell, you're there for the exercise anyway, so walk a little farther.

Best 5K Run

Some people were angry about this trail when it was first installed in 2016. It's 3.1 miles of crushed granite, with several concrete drainage support structures, slicing through a wide swath of the 1,500-acre Papago Park. In the end, it's worked out as a multiuse trail, allowing for easy hiking, jogging, and cycling. (We've even seen off-road-style wheelchairs on the trail.) The park is situated conveniently on the borders of Phoenix, Tempe, and Scottsdale, and the trail has become one of our favorite features in it. The Fitness Trail is the perfect place to train for a 5K — well, you said you like hills, right? This ain't no sidewalk jog. Start at the West Buttes parking lot off Galvin Parkway, just west of the Phoenix Zoo. The trail rolls like a gray ribbon across pink, cactus-covered hills, never flat for too long, but with nothing steep enough to blow out your knees. Up and down, twisting and turning, taking you the long way around the golf course but always west of Galvin Parkway — it all adds up to a deliciously full workout, like eating half the leftovers as well as the main meal. The next time you do a flat 5K, it'll feel like a snack.

Best Trail Run

Not all turkey trots are created equal. Ditch the neighborhood Thanksgiving Day dawdle for some serious trail running on the Saturday after Turkey Day. Fat Turkey offers both a 5K and a 10K, with plenty of scenery as you hit the rocky red ups and downs of Papago Park. As an extra incentive, the race organizers bring in an extra-fast pacesetter dressed in a turkey suit to run the course. Yeah, he looks silly. And he's probably going to kick your ass. One of our jogging partners actually beat the turkey last year, winning a shot glass — and knee pain he complained about for the next two months. As moderate trail runners, we don't try to go that fast. But after sampling the 5K version a couple of years ago, we did the 10K after last Turkey Day. Maybe it was the residual tryptophan, or maybe it was that the race begins with tough hills on a gravelly, uneven desert single-track trail, but we were fighting every instinct to give up and sneak away from the whole damned thing within the first mile. Fortunately, we worked past that nonsense and the next five miles were pure, fat-burning bliss. Everyone gets a T-shirt and a finisher's medal. Our two medals hang proudly at home — and the next one's coming up soon.

Best Place to Go Climbing Without a Partner

As much as we love bouldering, the art of rock climbing while staying relatively low to the ground, sometimes we need to get high. But without a partner and rope for a belay, climbing high on technically difficult terrain isn't a rational option, unless you're Alex Honnold. Or, that is, unless you have access to an auto-belayer. If so, while the rope is still mandatory, the partner isn't. Focus is the better of two gyms that we're aware of that employ auto-belayers. We like the vibe there from both the laid-back, though professional, employees, and the clientele of mostly young, ripped, personable bouldering aficionados. Opposite the top-notch bouldering walls, the climbing walls are served by six auto-belayers, which are box-like machines affixed near the ceiling. A climbing rope dangles from the center of the boxes to near the floor. Climbers clip into the end of that rope and begin scaling the wall. In a fall, the auto-belayer doesn't let the climber plunge to the ground. Instead, it pays out the rope slowly and places the climber on the floor gently. This system allows us to climb the wall's 30 feet again and again, racking up hundreds of vertical feet in minutes with no belayer, and no fear of crashing to the ground. It's even safer than bouldering higher than five or six feet, since a fall even on padded ground could result in a sprain or break, while the auto-belayer acts as a guardian angel, always depositing climbers on the ground at the same, slow speed. What it won't do is talk to you. While they won't help your social life, the auto-belayers at Focus will get you ready for the next big wall.

2150 W. Broadway Rd., Mesa, 85202
Best Bouldering Gym

Come for the bouldering, stay for the weights, yoga, wine, and massages. Dozens of routes that sprawl over the gym's two cavernous sections range from the beginner-friendly V-basic rating to the rip-skin-off-your fingers V8s and above. Build strength by scaling overhangs and gripping tiny, crimpy holds as you practice footwork and train your mind to "read" routes before you hop on the wall. Veteran-owned and -operated, Black Rock is staunchly a bouldering gym — leave your harnesses at home, folks — and embracing that identity distinguishes it from gyms that try to offer it all. A monthly membership will set you back $79, which pays off after four visits. Regularly set routes test your technique and push your mind and body to solve fresh puzzles. Meanwhile, Black Rock's open gym has all the weights, resistance cords, and other equipment you need to get stronger. Yoga classes are offered almost every night, so you can stretch out. Monthly offerings include ladies' bouldering night (it comes with wine) and back massages.

10436 N. 32nd St., Phoenix, 85028
Best Canal for Jogging or Bicycling

There are three main canals that provide paths for walking, jogging, or cycling, but Arizona Canal is the best. These waterways have been entertaining Phoenicians for decades, as well as delivering the life-sustaining water for homes and our remaining farms. We know two people who used to water-ski in the canals behind cars back in the day. Now, you'd be thrown in jail for doing that — plus you'd run over a jogger, most likely. The Arizona Canal cuts through the finest part of the empire known as metro Phoenix, passing through neighborhoods and commercial sections of east Phoenix and Scottsdale, all the way to the west Valley. The canal paths are flat, with surfaces of both dirt and asphalt, so the only drawback is the occasional street crossing — be careful on those. The clean water, which contains catfish and other aquatic life, can be mesmerizing for desert dwellers who know little but dust and cactus. It's one of our mandatory pleasures to jog along the canal; stare at the water and open spaces of backyards, parking lots, and what have you; and let the brain take a siesta while the heart and lungs pump away. It's pure, Phoenix-style bliss.

Best Put-Together Urban Bike Ride

Twenty-five miles of nearly uninterrupted bicycle path. You heard right. That's a huge stretch of pavement without worrying about cars or 18-wheelers taking you out. True, there are often other obstacles to weave through, like pedestrians, roller-bladers, and the scourge of humankind, electric scooters. But they probably won't kill you, and if it's later at night or hot, or if you get lucky, you'll have nearly the whole trail system to yourself. Doing the math: The ride could be a 50-miler out-and-back if begun at one end. In reality, that might be difficult to do. But the beauty of this ride is you could live in south Phoenix, Tempe, south Scottsdale, or north Scottsdale and still access the trail easily for a long, no-car bike ride. There are no signs, and not even a single online map for this one. Here are the tricks (start from either end): Catch the west end of the Rio Salado bike path at about 19th Avenue and the south bank of the Salt River riverbed. Continue through the Tempe Beach Park, and connect to Scottsdale's Indian Bend Wash path by either taking the pedestrian bridge to the north side, or using the walkway on Rural Road. That path soon bends north and runs all the way to Shea Boulevard. You might want to pack a lunch.

Best Desert Bike Ride
Usery Pass at Usery Mountain Regional Park

Don't get us wrong: There are plenty of bike trails with beautiful scenery all over the Valley, but there's something about looping through Usery Pass that feels epic. Once you ride up the 1,000 feet of rolling hills inside this county park, you can see downtown Phoenix from over 30 miles away on a clear day. There is lush greenery along North Bush Highway, which runs parallel to the Salt River. You can take a selfie next to one of the oddly shaped saguaro cactuses along the road, Bike anywhere from 20 to 40 miles, but come prepared —occasional debris from the large pickups hauling boats can flatten your tire real fast.

3939 N. Usery Pass Rd., Mesa, 85207
Best Motorcycle Ride

Metro Phoenix straightaways can be mind-numbing for the motorcyclist, causing us to crave any kind of handlebar action more interesting than a U-turn. Motoring out on our favorite longer rides, like to Tortilla Flat or Prescott, involves about an hour of arrow-straight freeway riding from our central Valley homestead before hitting any twisties. Going to South Mountain's summit, the fun starts much sooner. Easily accessible from much of the Valley, the entrance to the 11,000-acre park can be found by simply driving south on Central Avenue toward South Mountain. Soon enough, you're putting your bike through some paces with some nice back-and-forth driving. Watch out for gravel on the road, and mind the speed limit. There's a YouTube video out there featuring a guy taking a dirt dive from missing a curve — you don't want to provide a sequel. The lower speed limit (25 mph, 15 around blind curves) and treacherous cliffs make this a fun place for riders who feel the need for safety more than speed. Take the road up to Dobbins Lookout, or all the way up to the TV towers. It's a great place for improving beginner motorcycle skills or chasing away the boredom of the street grid.


Best Pool Party: Release

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