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During my 32 years working in a St. Louis paint factory, all of my vacation time was spent exploring the Western part of the United States and the Gulf Islands of Canada. I traveled throughout that part of the world looking to find my retirement future in a region strongly connected to open air activities.

While bicycle touring on Vancouver Island I discovered Butchart Gardens, an old limestone quarry converted into a fabulous wonderland. I was astounded by the sequence of photographs depicting the once exhausted mine site being slowly transformed into a botanical paradise.

When I retired to Flagstaff in 1998, it was the fulfillment of my long anticipated dream of a new beginning in a special place dedicated to a healthy outdoor life.

In 2002 during its grand opening celebration, I was excited to tour the new home of the Willow Bend Environmental Education Center. Sited on land belonging to Coconino County inside the Flagstaff city limits, the Willow Bend complex is splendidly located on the rim of the Rio de Flag/Sinclair Wash canyon overlooking an impressive section of the Flagstaff Urban Trail. I remember being as captivated by the raw potential of the landscape setting as I was with the new center's educational goals.

Willow Bend's latest accolade is being selected as the 2018 Arizona Daily Sun's "Organization of the Year." A much deserved honor indeed, and easily understood when the list of Willow Bend activities and accomplishments are described.

But you have to personally watch the Willow Bend staff at work, discover the natural world contents of its environmentally innovative headquarters and invest some time in its educational venues to fully appreciate the value of this organization to our community.

And when there, be sure to explore the surrounding landscape. Under the outstanding leadership of my friend Susan Lamb and the help of many volunteers, there are now six showcase gardens in place. All are prospering in the distinct Flagstaff way amid a treasure trove of native plants, uniquely designed structures and the ever evolving potential of developing excellence.

Earlier I mentioned my admiration for Butchart Gardens. This truly beautiful heritage site contains over 50 acres of formal gardens tended by a multitude of caretakers and is supported by full scale funding. How could it be anything but awesome?

And when I walk through the landscape features of the Willow Bend Environmental Education Center and see for myself what has already been accomplished there and envision its incredible promise as a unique botanical attraction, I'm truly inspired by the possibilities.

If you would like to take a closer look at our own wonderful place, join us for a walk there on Sunday, Jan. 27 at 1:00 p.m. We'll be starting from the Police Department parking lot located at 911 Sawmill Road.

And yes, during the winter months the plant life aesthetics are less, but the wonderful contours of the surrounding terrain is much more visible. Thus an already scheduled walk there this summer will be even more enlightening when the Willow Bend topography is augmented by seasonal greenery.

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