… to Phoenix, Arizona

Mike and I have traveled together a lot, but always in and around the Texas area (with the exception of a trip to Ohio with my friends). We are too familiar with the drive to/from Austin and to/from Dallas to visit family and friends. I truly believe you learn a lot about a person when you travel with them, and we certainly have done that through our short trips. However, it was important to me that we go on a trip alone. I did not want our first trip alone together to be our honeymoon (we got engaged in February!). Everyone gave me a hard time about wanting a trip alone and everyone had their own definition of what “alone” meant. Yada yada yada. I wanted an out-of-state trip, just the two of us!

My friend, Steven, and I had planned a trip to Peru in 2020. We all know how 2020 went (*eye twitches*). That trip was rescheduled 3 times. We were finally going to go in March, but Peru had a lot of political unrest and the travel advisories all encouraged us to stay home. Plus, Machu Picchu closed temporarily. It was a difficult decision, but we ultimately decided to postpone the trip indefinitely. I took back some of my PTO, which I will need for the 4 weddings we are going to this year and all of the wedding-related activities for those and now ours, and Mike and I decided to take advantage of his Southwest miles and finally book a trip. (Note: If I had gone to Peru, Mike would have still gone to Phoenix without me, but I am glad we got to go together.)

You may be asking yourself, “why Phoenix?” Well, it all started with hockey thing and with us being hockey people, Phoenix made sense. The Dallas Stars were playing the Arizona Coyotes on that Friday night and we wanted to go for 2 reasons:

  1. The Arizona Coyotes are currently playing in ASU’s hockey arena. The NHL team did not have their own arena after their lease in Glendale ended. They had no where to go, so they landed at ASU for the next 3-4 seasons. This is unique because it makes it the smallest NHL stadium and we wanted to experience it!
  2. If the Arizona Coyotes do not find their own “home” after their lease with ASU ends, there is a chance they will move to Houston. This is a BIG deal. Houston lost their minor-league hockey team, the Houston Aeros, in 2013 after their lease with the Toyota Center ended. I grew up going to essentially every 3rd game for at least a decade. My dad had season tickets 3 rows off the glass behind the opposing team’s goalie (so we could see our team shoot twice) and we made friends with all the season ticket holders around us. It was great. My dad eventually became the guy who led the yell after the Aeros scored a goal. Click the link and watch the video. See the guy who pops up and yells, “Here we go, 1, 2, 3”? That’s my dad, folks! All that to say, Houston getting an NHL team would be *the best* thing to happen. Reason #2 for wanting to go to this game was to scope out our potential new team.

Phoenix also has Pizzeria Bianco, but more on that later. We looked up what else Phoenix had to offer and made a trip out of it. Off we went.

Thursday, March 30

It had been a long, draining week. Elliott had his teeth cleaned the day before and the vet biopsied a small mass he had on his back, so we were dealing with stitches and pain meds. He had a rough few days before that, but both of us got plenty of sleep on Thursday. Finally.

I worked half the day then took Elliott to my dad and stepmom’s house for the weekend. Elliott loves going to their house and they always take great care of him. I had no doubt he would feel better after a weekend with his Baba and Gammy.

I packed when I got home and we left after work. There was a negative mood over the morning, but it had picked up by the time we got on the road. Houston was hosting the Final Four for March Madness and traffic was wild. Luckily, we were kind of in “reverse” traffic heading to the airport. We parked our car and took the shuttle to the airport. There was a family in the shuttle, a man with 2 teenage boys. Based on the way they were talking, it sounded like that might have been the boys’ first time on an airplane (no judgement, just an observation). We did not have a lot growing up, but my parents always made sure we went on vacation and they always had us kids navigate, whether it be at the airport or in the car. Mike and I agreed that we would be sure our future kids go on trips and learn how to navigate and get around.

I mostly travel with United out of IAH so I could not tell you the last time I was at Hobby airport. It was very different from what I remembered: it was nice now! I could walk around IAH with my eyes closed, but Hobby was new for me. Luckily, see above: my parents taught me how to get around.

We breezed through the short TSA pre-check security line. We did not have to show our boarding passes though, and that was odd. After locating our gate, we got a table at Buffalo Wild Wings to have a snack and a drink. After all, it was dinner time. We devoured loaded nachos and some wings and enjoyed a few beers and margaritas. Mike said he loved how I ate nachos: no shame, get in there!

We headed back to our gate and then Mike went off to get us candy. I do not know what it is about airports, but I always want candy when I am there. We discussed our favorite candy and go-to for different situations. See, we were already learning more about each other! I prop my feet up on my suitcase when I am sitting at the gate waiting to board. It is comfy and keeps your bags close. Mike said in all his years of traveling for work, he never thought to do that. Boom. Learning.

Southwest has fancy boarding groups and we were in group A. Mike found us seats in the exit row and I was immediately uncomfortable sitting. (Note: My SI joint has been giving me trouble for months and I have surgery scheduled for mid-April.) Until then, I had to power through the discomfort and pain. I did my best to stretch out and support my lower back, but nothing really helped. I read a book for most of the flight. I am doing the Good Reads book challenge this year and have a goal to read 50 books: I have already read 21.

We landed in Phoenix sometime after 10pm local time. We took the shuttle to pick up our rental car and headed to the nearest Walgreens. Mike needed deodorant (cannot bring aerosol deodorant on a plane) and we both needed toothpaste (we did not have travel sized ones). We also picked up a case of water and some sunscreen. Arizona has that dry heat that sneaks up on you and we did not want to get suddenly dehydrated or burned. The hotel was our last and final stop of the day. We made it to our room around midnight, chugged a bottle of water each, and fell immediately asleep.

Friday, March 31

We attempted to sleep-in but our bodies were still on Houston time and we were up and awake around 4:30am. I slept on and off for a few more hours but eventually gave up. We each had more water and our skin was so dry: are dry cities like this why lotion exists? Seesh. We enjoyed a slow morning reading and watching TV. Our first stop of the day was for lunch at Pizzeria Bianco, so Mike wanted me to watch the Chef’s Table: Pizza episode about the restaurant and head chef Chris Bianco. After the episode was over, I was sold. They said it was the best pizza in the nation and it definitely looked delicious. Our hotel was a short walk away from the restaurant and we wanted to get in line before it opened otherwise we knew there would be a long wait.

Downtown Phoenix was beautiful. The weather was the definition of perfect, albeit dry. We arrived at Pizzeria Bianco at 10:20am and there was already a short line. They did not open until 11am, so we had time to kill. A group of 4 older folks, 2 couples, got in line behind us and we made friends with them. Mario, Anne, Shelly, and Brian were from Canada and visiting Arizona for a few weeks. They were staying in a different city but drove in for the pizza. Mario and Anne had been to the restaurant before, but Shelly and Brian were new. Mario is a chef and owns a restaurant with his chef children in Ontario called Folco’s. Mike, being a food guy, and him had a fun chat. They gave us recommendations on what apps and pizzas to order. We plan on going to Banff for our honeymoon and they gave us Banff recommendations, too. I told them I was nervous about the Canada cold in January and they said maybe we would get chinook winds, the warm winds that come down from the mountain, and maybe it would not be so bad. We will see! They also asked us for Texas recommendations and we made a case for every major city: it all depends on the vibe they would be going for.

By the time the restaurant opened at 11am, the line was long and wrapped around the block. I was so happy we got there early, and talking to our new friends made the wait go by quickly. The restaurant is small and does not hold a lot of people inside, and they had a small patio area out front. We made it to the hostess station and unfortunately, the inside tables were already taken. Thankfully, the host told us the bar next door was open and we could wait there until the patio opened in about a half hour. We were *so close* to being in the first “wave” of people, but a half hour wait was not too bad.

Mike and I ordered a bottle of wine and sat at the bar. Our new friends also had to wait so they joined us a few minutes later. Mario showed us pictures of his restaurant and his friends showed us how he cooks inside a cheese wheel. Wild. The bar started to fill up quickly and it was a small area, but the wait went by fast and before we knew it, we got the text telling us our table was ready. Mario and his group got their text right after us and we all headed back to the restaurant, wine bottles in hand.

We were seated on the patio. The weather was so nice but the sun was beating down us making it a little warm. Poor Mike got a little sunburned. The waiter came by and we ordered the Handmade Mozzarella salad, per our friends’ recommendation. The chef makes the mozzarella from scratch and they insisted we try it. The waiter said we could order as much pizza as we wanted, but that we could only place 1 order. This place definitely meant business. We ordered the Margarita pizza and Rosa pizza, also per our friends’ recommendations. I was not entirely sold on the Rosa: who puts pistachios on pizza?

Our mozzarella salad and bread showed up first. I’ll be damned if it was not the best mozzarella I ever had. It was incredible. Even the bread and olive oil were *chef’s kiss.* We enjoyed our wine and salad while we waited for the best pizza in the nation and watched late-comers be shocked about the wait time. The line had disappeared, but people still came and approached the hostess station. I am not joking when I tell you this: within 30 minutes of us being seated, there was a 2 hour wait. The host said there were 89 people already on the waitlist.

Y’all. Y’ALL. I tried not to hype the pizza up, but Y’ALL. That pizza. It was indeed the best pizza we both ever had. The mozzarella was outstanding, but the pistachio one… oh my gosh. We could not get over how delicious everything was. Mike’s hand was shaking at one point. As I have said, he is a food guy and this was special to him. I was really happy we got to experience it together. (Look at my handsome man in that first picture!!)

If you are ever in Phoenix, you must go try this pizza. Get in line early. By the time we left, there was a 4 hour wait.

Somehow we managed to have some self control and not finish both pizzas. We could have easily done it, but we did not want to feel miserable the rest of the day. We boxed our leftovers, said goodbye to our friends, and walked back to the hotel. We put the precious pizza in the mini fridge and got our car to head to our next stop.

Next up was the Phoenix Art Museum. We both like museums, but as we learned later, we were both concerned about how to “do” the museum because we were both not sure how the other experienced them. For example, how fast or slow to navigate through, how much to read or not read, etc. It sounds silly, but we both want to be sure the other is having a good time and getting what they want. We make it difficult to enjoy it ourselves because we worry about the other. At least now we know how we both like to “do” museums for next time!

The museum had some cool and interesting art. The layout was extremely complicated and a tad annoying, but we made it through.

After the museum, we enjoyed a drink (our classic margarita and beer) at the hotel bar and debriefed the day so far. We were still talking about the pizza! Y’all! It was so good!

We went back to the room to rest before the big hockey game. Mike had never seen 21 Jump Street so we put that on and I immediately fell asleep. Oops. When I woke up, it was time to get ready and leave for dinner and the game. I was a bit grumpy (okay, a lot grumpy) for the first few or 15 minutes after I woke up, but I pulled it together in the Uber because that driver was… something else. He was unbearable with his conspiracy theories and random memorized scientific studies. I nodded along but Mike egged him on. Thankfully, Tempe, AZ was only a 20 minute Uber away. I watched the scenery as he rambled on and on and on and on and on and on and on about everything under the sun and his pet pigeon. It was an experience, and shared experiences bring people closer. Vacation win.

Dinner was at The Chuckbox, a cash-only burger joint and a staple at ASU. It was on several internet lists of best restaurants in the area. It was definitely a hole-in-the-wall place but it was busy with a moderate line, so that was a good sign. Mike and I could not figure out how their grill system worked. At all. It made no sense to us, but I suppose it did not have to. You ordered with the first guy, waited by the grill for your burger, picked up your drinks and sides at the end, and then paid. Condiments were in the center, Fuddruckers-style. I got a Diet Coke to perk me up for the game.

We ate outside to enjoy the nice weather. The burgers were pretty good! Best burger I ever had? Not necessarily. Very delicious? Definitely.

Their sign made us laugh, so I sent my dad, a life-long McDonald’s employee, a picture of it.

We walked through parts of the ASU campus on our way to the stadium. The campus was gorgeous; the scenic views and terrain were nice. Houston is so flat. The students look like newborn babies. Did we ever look that young?

We started seeing more and more Dallas Stars jerseys as we got closer to the stadium. There were so many Dallas Stars fans that it almost seemed like a home game! ASU groups were out there getting the crowd hyped. The drum line was a nice touch.

Mullett Arena was super cool. It had a very intimate and fun vibe. There were bar and food areas every 3 feet (or so it seemed). It had a single level and it filled up fast! We got drinks and found our seats in the only section without seat-backs, 4 rows behind the opposing goalie. We were surrounded by Dallas Stars fan. There was a big group of guys behind us and they were fun. The couple to the left was quiet, but I learned they were from Dallas and living in Phoenix. The couple to the right showed up during the first period and they were something else. One of them was from Dallas, but I do not remember which one. The couple in front of us was wild. They had bright green wigs on and seemed like a good time. Bonus: they made it easy for our families to find and spot us on TV. It was fun to be surrounded by Stars fans and y’all know Mike, he made sure the section was hyped the whole time. I love him!

Mike got to fist-bump the play-by-play guy (could not give you anymore details than that if I tried) and he was excited by that. A 4-year-old saw me in line with my Stars jersey and told me to go back to Dallas. I told him I was not from Dallas and did not live there and I think it broke his little brain. He was like, “but you have the jersey on…” and I said, “Yes, but I do not live there so where should I go?” I appreciate the trash talk, kid, but come prepared. The green-wig girl had warned me about him, too. She ran into him before the game started. This kid was just walking around talking trash. Here for it.

Somewhere in the third period, Dallas scored and when I turned to give Mike a double high-five, I saw the green-wigged couple had toppled forward all 3 rows and landed on a child and grandma. Remember, our section had no seat backs… it was a straight fall forward. I was not sure who fell first but they were both down there. Security came and basically cut them off and gave them a warning. They stayed very quite and huddled together the rest of the game, clearly embarrassed. Huge yikes. It was good that no one was hurt but I really hoped they had not driven to the game.

The game was a lot of fun otherwise and we won! Mike and I had been to several home games and had only seen them win once, so it was exciting to see a win again, finally. It was fun to go to an away game and the green-wigged couple strongly urged us to see them play at the Vegas arena. I was really glad we got to go and experience the unique situation the Coyotes are in. Plus, we both love hockey and always have a good time together at games. I made Mike laugh a lot and I love it when I can make him laugh. He says I always make him laugh but there is a difference between random laughter and laughing because the joke or comment was genuinely funny, if that makes sense.

We walked a few streets away from the stadium before calling the Uber. We goofed around and high-fived other fans as we waited. Our Uber driver back to the hotel was SO much better. He was young and told us about where he was from and the places he had traveled through, Houston included. We enjoyed his company so much more. He recommended a taco joint for us to try after our hike the next day, too. Love a recommendation.

We chugged more water and scarfed down our leftover pizza at the hotel then went to sleep.

Saturday, April 1

We attempted to sleep-in again, but our bodies were still on Houston-time and we both got up early. We lounged and took our time getting up. The newest episodes of Love is Blind were released and Mike hates admitting this, but he was into it. As he left to get coffee from the lobby, I told him I wanted “to talk” when he got back. He did an about-face and walked over to me, looking concerned. I said, “April Fools” and laughed and laughed. He signed and headed for the door and I ran over for a kiss, telling him it was probably a cruel joke but it had to be done. He said he loved it and it was perfect. He attempted to get me with an April Fool’s joke later in the day without any luck. Crushed it.

Our big adventure for the day was hiking the Echo Canyon trail at Camelback Mountain. We got our car and hit the road around 10am. It took maybe 20 minutes to get there, but we clearly did not research enough because the parking was crazy. The lot was small and street parking was not allowed. Half the reason we rented the car was for this hike and not wanting to Uber in sweaty, smelly, dirty clothes, but for a split second we both wished we had Ubered. We followed a group walking to the lot and asked them if they were parked, but they had walked there. Sigh. Instead of leaving the lot and getting back in line, Mike u-turned on the small road between lots. We got VERY lucky because just then, a guy was leaving and pointing at us to take his spot. What could have been a long, frustrating parking process, ended up working out perfectly. We took a bathroom break at the trail-head restrooms and got on our way.

The hike started off easy and simple, clearly designed to build confidence before you got to the rock walls. We could not have asked for better weather (have I mentioned how awesome the weather in Phoenix was?). The sky was a lovely shade of light blue, the temperature was cool but warm but not hot. It was very pleasant. There were plenty of people out, too. All sorts of groups and families of varying ages and abilities.

We turned one of the early corners and learned why the trail was rated “extremely difficult.” There was a massive set of stairs waiting for us. From there, it was no longer a hike. They might have well called it mountain climbing. I am convinced there were more rocks than actual trail areas. This is not a complaint, though. It was fun to climb the rocks, despite my leg hurting. Mike and I had a system: I climbed in front of him on the way up in case my accident-prone and clumsy-self fell, and he went in front of me on the way down for the same reason. I love him for being there for me like that. I love how we naturally fell into a pattern and how he let me lead.

We took breaks along the way to soak in the view. I felt like I was slowing Mike down but he never seemed bothered by it. Later, we learned that we both would have enjoyed stopping a little more and sitting in one place for a bit to enjoy the scenery. The things we learn on vacation!

We were happy we brought our water backpacks and proper clothing. I have no idea how people were doing this shirtless or in cute athleisurewear with no water. Think of the sunburns, folks! There were people in flip flops. Think of the twisted ankles! There were young kids and grandparents. For a split second, I felt bad that I was not dressed “cute” but Mike appreciated my realistic attitude and preparedness. I appreciated his, too, silly bucket hat and all.

It took about an hour to get to the top, maybe a little longer. It was a small summit with a LOT of people and zero safety precautions. You could literally fall straight down the side of the mountain. We took some pictures together and I offered to take some for other groups. We spent a little time up there, enjoying the perfect weather. We took turns standing on the tallest rock so we could be the highest person on the mountain, if only for a brief second. I love that we got to experience the summit’s views and weather together.

I was a little anxious about hiking down. I just knew I would fall. I did not trust myself, especially my legs and bum hip and knee. My leg hurt a lot more hiking down than up, but Mike took his time and was patient with me. I kept my center of gravity low and took it easy. We both slipped a few times but never actually fell. I thought it would take forever to get down given my hesitancy but it went fairly quickly. I got more and more confident as we went and started trusting my legs more and more. I could not believe the people who were essentially running on this trail or the people who were carrying babies and/or toddlers on their backs for this. I am all for family experiences, but doing that hike/climb with a child strapped to me does not sound appealing. Or safe.

We made it all the way back to the “easy” first part of the hike and what do you know… as we approached the final turn, I slipped and fell. I did not totally eat it but it definitely counted as a fall. On the flat, final part of the hike. Geez, Jillian.

We washed our hands in the trail-head restrooms and gave our sweet parking spot to a lucky black truck. This moment made the rental car worth it; to wait for an Uber after the hike would have been miserable. We both felt good and hydrated and not sunburned. The hike was a huge accomplishment! It was so much fun, even if difficult, and I was proud of us. I recognize it was not an impossible hike and as I said, there were people of all ages hiking too. Either way, I was still proud of us and happy we did it together. It was fun working together and climbing on things. My family nickname growing up was “Monkey” and my first AOL screenname was monkeygirl356 (monkeygirl365 was taken), so y’all know I love a good climb.

By this point, we had not eaten all day and were more than ready for lunch. The taco place Earl, our Uber driver from the night before, was called The Beach House. Y’ALL! These tacos were fan-freaking-tastic. Mike grew up in Austin so the man knows tacos, and even he said they were the best he ever had. We each got 3 and they were perfectly sized. Mike threw in a burrito at the last minute which was genius because it was so delicious. The shrimp was cooked beautifully and might have been the best shrimp I ever had. A part of me recognizes that it could have all been so tasty because we were hungry, but objectively speaking, these tacos were incredible. The brownie was tasty, too. We were 3 for 3 on top-notch food. Shout out to Earl for the rec.

We headed back to the hotel after lunch, driving down Roosevelt Row on the way. It was a cute area with plenty of art and shops, but I am glad we only drove down it vs. walking down it and stopping everywhere. Seeing through the car window was sufficient for now. It definitely seemed cooler online, and maybe on another visit it would have been nice to walk down it in the evening, but we were both ready to get to the hotel and get cleaned up. We laughed over the street names all named after obscure presidents. Pull up downtown Phoenix on Google Maps and zoom in. The city leaned-in to a theme.

Our plan after the hike was to swim at the hotel pool. We scoped it out before getting ready and I was glad we did because 1) it was SMALL and 2) the area was PACKED. Hard pass from both of us. We went to our room to shower off and rest for a bit. We watched more Love is Blind then went to the hotel bar to take advantage of our “destination fee” nonsense, enjoy drinks, and play cards. 3 hours later, I had lost nearly every round of Kings Corner. Arizona clearly hated me. We debriefed the hike and trip so far and talked about what we liked and whatnot. This was where we learned we both would have enjoyed stopping for longer breaks while hiking up the mountain. I love conversations like that because I love getting to know Mike more. There will always be something to learn when put in out-of-routine circumstances and I want to explore all of it. For a moment, we both felt lame sitting at the hotel bar and playing cards for as long as we did, but we both also really enjoyed slowing down and just hanging out and talking. It was nice.

We eventually made our way back to our room to get cleaned up for dinner. Our final restaurant, The Arrogant Butcher, was on *several* “best restaurants” lists, even the hotel bartenders said it was great, and was walking distance from the hotel. It was a beautiful evening (have I mentioned the weather…). Downtown Phoenix was my vibe. Once we arrived at the restaurant, Mike realized he had been there before! The restaurant atmosphere was cool, but the food was disappointing. Some of it was okay, some of it was not. The service was also disappointing. I enjoy every meal with Mike and we tried to make the most out of our final activity for the weekend, but overall it was simply disappointing. Going 3 for 4 on restaurants was not bad, though. We will get a perfect score next trip!

The original plan was to go to a casino after dinner, but we were both exhausted and axed it from the itinerary. Go team. The walk back to the hotel was just as lovely as all of our other walks. I love walking hand-in-hand with my fiancé all the time, but especially a beautiful evening after an awesome weekend. We watched Tick Tick Boom on Netflix, a movie about Jonathan Larsen (the brain behind the musical Rent). Mike had never seen it and I knew he would love it, and he did. I struggled to stay awake, but made it through. We were both exhausted and had an early morning and long day ahead of us.

Sunday, April 2

We were up and out the door by 6:30am, right on schedule. We filled up the rental car’s gas tank, dropped it off, and made our way through the airport to our gate. I think I had a hot flash because I got very sweaty for no reason followed by very cold. I hate my body sometimes. Mike got us burritos and we boarded the plane shortly after.

Mike sat next to the most perfect seat-mate for him. They were social almost the whole time, discussing data and charts. I read. When the guy, John, left to use the restroom, Mike whispered to me that the guy just got $1000 of free consulting. When he returned, I was suddenly part of the conversation and we ended up talking about our relationship. He does relationship counseling to some extent and per him, Mike and I are on the right track. We know that, but it was nice to hear from a stranger! I joked that now we had free pre-marital counseling so now everyone was even. I went back to my book and they finished their data conversation.

The plane took off just before 9am but because of the time change again, we landed around 1:15pm. The whole day gone! We got our car and headed home. Unfortunately, it was a short visit home because we had about 20 minutes, and just enough time to say hi to my outside cat, Stormy, before I needed to go to volleyball for playoffs! Mike dropped me off and went grocery shopping while I played. He came to the bar afterward to cheer us on. We played 3 matches and made it to the finals and lost in the 3rd set. It was the closest we had come to winning the whole thing in a while. We all wanted it really badly. I am sitting out the next season for my surgery and I really wanted this win for them. It was frustrating, but we had a good time hanging out with everyone!

As you can imagine, we were completely exhausted by the time we got home. Thankfully, my dad and stepmom agreed to watch Elliott until Monday so we did not have to go pick him up late Sunday. That was so helpful.

Phoenix felt like a random place to visit, but I am so glad we did! It was the perfect trip: great food, great hockey, great hiking, great company. How could I ask for anything more? And now, our first trip alone together will not be our honeymoon. I cannot wait to tackle Banff, and the rest of the world, with him!

Until next time,