Tag Archives: Flagstaff

Notes from Flagstaff

burn 2

“As for me, I am a watercolor./I wash off.” -Anne Sexton, “For My Lover, Returning to his Wife


It should be monsoon season in Flagstaff but the air is bone-dry and the only thing in the sky that isn’t hazy blue is a plume of wildfire smoke. I sit in a tea house while “Back in the USSR” plays on the radio, sipping oolong and watching passerby walk up Aspen Avenue in downtown Flagstaff. It’s just like the old days, or just like how I remember the old days, but something is different. I’m just like the passerby now. I can no longer be a smug local people-watching the tourists.

My childhood in northern Arizona was defined by two local features: The inevitably of wildfires and the possibility of leaving for outer space. In 1884, a fire destroyed Old Town, leaving only the part of the city closest to the tracks. Ten years later, Percival Lowell founded an observatory on a hill above the city to look for life on Mars, though his research would later lead to the discovery of Pluto. Flagstaff is a city of dreamers, artists, mystics, and scientists. I landed squarely in one of these quadrants, or all of them.

I left Flagstaff four years ago. It’s not as if this city is completely different. Instead, Flagstaff to me has entered the uncanny valley. It’s familiar enough that I recognize it for what it’s supposed to be, but enough of it has changed that it just doesn’t feel right. I am also a different person. We meet one another, the city and I, halfway at our respective crossroads, doing double takes.

Still, I have connections. In a tiny house in a semi-familiar neighborhood, I help fold veggies into egg roll dough with four Flagstaff friends, two married couples, both of whose weddings I missed because I was traveling or had already skipped town. We sit outside under strings of lights in the now seasonably warm evening air and catch up.

I used to live with one friend here in a house on Talkington Street near the ski resort. I’m glad how familiar this scene still is, how easy it is to cook with friends after so long apart. Later, we chat about people we remember from high school, wherever they’ve ended up. Sammie shows me an art project. Cari is going to seminary in New England in a few weeks. Ryan is preparing another album after a month-long tour.

This is the Flagstaff I have always known, catering to the ambitious and the adamant. Following the emergence of art, mysticism, and dreams, though, there is always some form of commercialization, and Flagstaff is not immune from the power of Capital to market nostalgia.

It’s fitting that the first settler structure here was a saloon, before the loggers and miners moved in. Gun violence was commonplace. In one apocryphal account, there was a saloon murder every week between 1882 and ’83. Were it not for the scientists who took an interest in the region, John Wesley Powell and Percival Lowell, Flagstaff would have likely become one more ghost town or company town, its residents finally driven out when logging and mining came to a standstill. Instead, Flagstaff became a tourist town and a college town. And, at a certain point, the college experience is sold to high school graduates using the same advertising techniques that tourist traps use. Come for the mountain view, stay for the nostalgia.

Except, most people who can afford to stay in Flagstaff are long-time residents. And expensive student housing structures have popped up across from the tracks, and parking is now regulated with warnings and tickets, and there’s a fire close to my old neighborhood. The last few days I’m here, my phone is constantly buzzing with evacuation alerts and flash flood warnings from late rainstorms. I am used to waiting for evacuation notices. This is something they don’t advertise in the college brochures, to be ready to go at a moment’s notice, to have a bag packed at the door. And I heed the warning. I am ready to leave.

-jk

From Coffee Shops to Mountaintops

Macy's

For a too-short time this summer, I’m on a pilgrimage to my hometown of Flagstaff, Arizona. Here, I’ve been working on a collection of short stories that will become my Master’s Thesis in less than a year (no pressure), because I won’t have much time to write come Fall when I’ll take four graduate classes, teach two classes, hold office hours, and try to get published. Flagstaff is a nice place to be productive. It’s also a nice place to be useless.

This month, I’ve been scurrying from one Flagstaff coffee shop (many in gentrified neighborhoods, admittedly) to the next. Maybe sitting all day in Macy’s or Firecreek or Steep (technically a tea house) is a bit of a yuppee activity, but for many writers it’s an easy solution. Coffee shops induce productivity with comfortable spaces, lots of light, energetic music, and socially acceptable drugs like caffeine. They remove us from crammed apartments, English departments, and work places; they spark quiet, collective inspiration. I’ve also enjoyed the aggressively supportive environments that seem to define the West, where even complete strangers encourage you to keep going and pursue your dreams, even if they’re strange and uncomfortable. My writing has been very productive.

But there was another pilgrimage I needed. Yesterday, after writing and reading stories in Firecreek all morning, I took the afternoon to hike up Mount Elden. I did not take anything to write with, and although I’m a strong advocate for making art in the wilderness (alone or with friends), I wanted a more complete silence. I wanted the overwhelming smell of bark and dust and dew. When I return to Nebraska, I’ll have to find the same solitude in the prairies, out on the range.

Mountaintop

From the mountainside where I stopped to rest, the only thing I could hear were crickets and the distant whistle of a train. There was no traffic; there was no music; sometimes a bird chirped, or a deer fluttered through the forest below the steep cliff’s edge. I was not alone, but I was alone from people, and from myself.

It was windy, almost cold, but closer to the sun I felt warm. It was peaceful to be nobody for a while, to be free of the need to be someone. The pressure to be someone these days, the millennial fixation with making something of oneself, being a successful talented individual with a totally unique, self-owned identity, is sometimes too much.

Sometimes I’d rather sit on a mountaintop and be useless. No fast pace. No updates. No news. No one to impress. Just one more organism in an ecosystem finding, at last, its place therein: a lone and unimportant creature in a society of deer, coyote, foxes, crows, ponderosa, a cityscape of boulders and greenery.

-jk

My Last Letter to Flagstaff

Dear Flagstaff,

autumn forest

There’s no easy way to say this, but I have to say goodbye.

Northern Arizona University

It’s not that I don’t like you. On the contrary, you’re the finest community I’ll ever know. Never mind that you’re the only community I’ve ever known. Having lived in Flagstaff for twenty years and with no actual memories of my life in Pocatello, Idaho, before moving to you, it might be unfair to future communities, but I mean it, Flagstaff. Where else can I see a herd of deer pass in front of my car just uphill from my high school? Where else can I have a mountain for a backyard? Where else will I be an hour from the Grand Canyon and Sedona?

Flagstaff

You’ve been great to me, Flagstaff, but it would be naive to say it was all fountains of chocolate. I mean, you are in Arizona, after all. The snow was nice, but driving downhill on an icy road to a stop light was a little scary. I appreciated the dog food factory, but the smell was a little overwhelming sometimes.

Macy's

Everything good and bad that has ever happened to me, with a few exceptions (Ireland, Montana, Minneapolis), has happened to me in Flagstaff: failed orchestra concerts, a broken arm, publication, falling in love for the first time, crippling self-doubt, hangovers in church, learning to play the violin, becoming an Eagle Scout, rejections from journals, writing my first good poem, writing my first bad poem, saying goodbye at the train station to the woman I loved. I’ve had colds and stage fright, I’ve had frog dissections and marching band performances, I’ve had reader’s theater and photography gigs. I lurched through high school and college in Flagstaff. Spending two decades in a place allows for the accumulation of immeasurable joy and bitterness, and leaving you, Flagstaff, is a tough decision, perhaps the toughest I’ll ever have to make. Sticking around is quite tempting.

Train Station Bench

But I need to see other cities, other states, other countries. I need to travel. I need to study and write and learn. I’ll start by going to graduate school in Lincoln, Nebraska. Lincoln may be the opposite of you, Flagstaff, but everything is packed, and I’ll be out the door by the time you read this. After graduate school, I’ll traverse shores yet untarnished by my footprints.

Duck Pond

Even if I fall for Lincoln, I’ll always miss you, Flagstaff. You were the rough draft of a misshapen side character dropped into the world; you were a place of enlightenment in the saints’ cult of writers; you were the architect of this backpack stuffed with art and questions that I am honored to call my soul.

Christmas in Flagstaff

I owe you more than I’ve given, and you’ve given me more than I deserve, Flagstaff. Perhaps I’ll come back to you someday. I would like to see you at least once more before I die. If I do make it back, I hope you have not changed except to become more beautiful, but I cannot, for the life of me, imagine a more beautiful city.

Pipeline Trail

I’ll miss the hippies and cowboys and geriatric motorcyclists. I’ll miss the perpetual smell of pine trees and incense and dog food. My memories of Flagstaff are like photographs in a gallery hung at random. No real structure binds these moments, and it’s more breathtaking that way. With that, I say goodbye Flagstaff. Wish me luck.

Appalachia

Sincerely,

Duck Pond After Hours

jk

Play Wins Contest, Writer Absent

stage fright

I’m pleased to announce that my ten-minute play “The Real Deal” is one of seven winning plays in this year’s Northern Arizona Playwriting Showcase. The seven short plays will be given a staged reading on August 28, 29, and 30. I’ve submitted to the contest before, under the guidance of various NAU Creative Writing faculty. Last year, I volunteered to be a reader for NAPS 2014, and was typecast to read for “Morons,” by William Baer. This year I’m honored the judges selected one of my plays, and I hope my Flagstaff friends will be able to attend. However, I will be absent, as I will be starting graduate school in Lincoln, Nebraska. It’s a two-day drive back to Flagstaff, and plane tickets are expensive.

The few times I’ve dabbled in theater have been rewarding, as well as painful. I’ve written, directed, and acted for fundraiser plays, and my experiences taught me that volunteer theater is a collectively-driven form of indentured servitude. The drama you see on stage is nothing like the drama behind the curtain. As a moron for NAPS 2014, I discovered the difficulty in holding a script while using props on stage. As with all volunteer activities, there is the challenge of people committing but dropping out at crucial moments.

Although I’ll be several states away from the stage, I’m still proud of my little play. Perhaps I’ll find similar contests in Lincoln; perhaps I’ll even see a full-length play of mine performed. Of course, that will never happen unless I keep writing.

Time to break a leg.

-jk

Once Upon a Time, Graduation Meant Something

Empty It finally happened. I graduated. I shook hands with the Dean of Arts and Letters and some of my favorite literature professors, and was handed a fancy diploma case for after the real one arrives in the mail. I went through the whole ritual, but when I left the Skydome amidst Flagstaff’s annual early-May snowstorm, I felt about as empty as the diploma case they gave me.

Most of my friends and family expect graduation to be a time of great joy, relief, sadness, and memory. I reflected on many things, but I tend to be reflective in general. For me, graduation offered no profundity. It was a mess of finding the right place, shaking the right hands, and enduring vague speeches about the future. Walking onto stage, having my name (and other information) announced, and receiving a diploma case should have been meaningful experiences, but I couldn’t keep myself from thinking that it was all a show.

Commencement was a self-congratulatory performance for the university, and the profiteering involved in the current education system was not only evident but ever-present. All students were required to have a cap and gown to participate in commencement, and the only way to obtain them, short of cheating and borrowing them from a friend, is to purchase them from a company; I was among those who cheated. After receiving an empty diploma case, students were ushered into two photo shoots. I was literally pulled into position, but I cannot get any of the photos taken unless I spend more money to purchase them. The commencement speeches had nothing to do with any of our own problems, our crippling student debts, an unnavigable job market, a scary world with an even scarier future. Instead, the speeches were about the university’s accomplishments, its growth and benefits, all at our expense.

College is no longer about advancing art and science and law; it’s become a business for the corporations benefiting from the on-campus dining, the corporations who make and sell caps and gowns, the construction companies profiting on new buildings the school can’t afford without cutting valuable tutoring and learning initiative programs. Education is one of the most important assets of the modern world, but the education system has become a method of exploitation.

All through commencement, I felt exploited. That’s not to suggest I did not receive an adequate education. Indeed, my professors exceeded my expectations, and they’ve changed me immeasurably. But college, as a system, profits regardless of anybody’s intellectual, scientific, artistic, political, technical, or social improvement. Instead, it encourages us to bankrupt ourselves so it can grow. In the end, NAU’s leaders do not care whether or not I graduate; they care about getting my money, and that realization hurts. I’m fortunate to have worked with professors who sincerely value their students’ collective improvement, to the point that they run themselves into the ground physically and emotionally by the end of each semester just to help us. But NAU, and the modern college-industrial complex, has done little, if anything, to contribute to its students’ intellectual improvements. I owe nothing to my university, but I do not blame it. This is a national pattern, and all of us are caught up in it. How long will it last? How long can it last before students realize that they are on a conveyer belt for the profit of private firms with no investment in literature, law, environmental science, political science, understanding globalization, or the development of compassion?

And now I’m going to pursue a graduate degree at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Now I’m plunging myself back into the factory.

Am I wrong about all this? Is it not the case that my friends have been placed on a conveyer belt for the past four years? For the next fifteen? Will the education system ever be returned to the hands of the educators and not the businesses? In a perfect world, the students gain more from a four-year program than the university they attend; we’ll never make it to a perfect world, but I think we deserve more than we’ve been given. We are more than crops with full pockets to harvest from. We are more than fruit to be drained and dried. We are scared, we are angry, we are curious, and we seek understanding. We are passionate and seek the means to express. We are knowledgeable and seek to use our knowledge. We deserve to be treated honestly about what we’ve been given, what we can do, and where we are going. Although I’m disappointed in my graduation, my university, and my country for voting the universities into such positions, I’m far from disheartened. Behind the curtain and the profiteering are professors who still work hard to teach and improve us. It is because of these professors that I have the means to express my discontent, and it is only through these means that I see any possibility for change.

-jk

The Snow, the Writer, the Time

Campus Snow Day

Yesterday started so safely. It was overcast and raining, but the roads were clear. By 11:00 AM, though, the city of Flagstaff was covered in snow and slush. Ponds sprouted in road dips and parking lots became marshes. Northern Arizona University cancelled all classes after 2:00 PM, after everybody was already on campus and desperate to get home. Students, faculty, and staff were told to leave before it got worse.

Com Building

I opted to stay on campus and not wait in the snow swamps amid dozens of tense drivers. I chose not to risk driving down Milton or Butler to get home, not wanting to wait ninety minutes because some inevitably bad drivers congested traffic after skiing their cars into each other. Instead, I found a warm corner on campus and set up shop with everything I needed: my computer, hot chocolate, a lengthy playlist of folk music, and a window giving me an unmitigated view of the snowfall.

Cline and Tree

I not-so-secretly harbor an obsession with snow. It’s often a subject in my writing. I’ve written many poems about snow alone, how it feels against my skin and glows under streetlamps. I’ve set numerous short stories in a mountain town in December, a Russian field in January, a Montanan cabin in February, or Flagstaff in March. Snow delights me immeasurably, and imposes an opportunity to sit back and do what I have so little time to even contemplate. When it snows so monstrously, I refuse to let the cold and darkness drag me down. Instead, I accept them as unexpected gifts. I don’t think sitting in front of a cold window improves my writing, but it often gives me direction and motivation. Yesterday, it forced isolation upon me, and isolation prompts writing. I’m grateful for being ushered indoors sometimes. Otherwise, I might never begin sewing the words together.

-jk

Flash Fiction: Train Tracks

I’m attempting to do forty creative things (stories, poems, music, art, photography) for Lent. Here is one of them, a short short story.

Train TracksThe chainlink fence delicately rattles. There is nothing in the distance, but the rattling persists like a stick dragged through broken glass. Then, in the distance, we hear it, the horn calling from the right. It’s coming. The fence shakes violently. At last, it spills into view, the bright lights on the front forming a trio of eyes glaring at us as we scurry up the gravel slope to the tracks. The train soars closer.
The all-consuming noise enthralls us. We dig in our backpacks for the ritual sacrifices: an action figure, a light bulb, a marble chess piece, and a platoon of plastic army men. We assemble them facing the train, the unstoppable bringer of death. We line them up on the bright steel tracks, then scramble back down the hill to watch the storm, the explosion, the apocalypse. The train blares its horn once more as we shiver in delight at our violation of the rules. We have been rebelling like this ever since we first discovered how easy it is to get away with it.
Moments before impact, one of us asks whose action figure we used. For a moment nobody speaks, but soon we realize it does not belong to any of us but to one of our old brothers. We look at one another, then take the hill once again, prepared to ambush the rumbling tracks like soldiers emerging from their trench. Amidst one last blast from the horn, an air raid siren before the bombs fall, we stop two feet in front of the train as it eviscerates the entire army we set up. It crumbles the chess piece, it pops the light bulb, it mows down the platoon of army men, and flattens the action figure. We do not turn our attention away, even after the last traces of our sacrifice have vanished. We stand and watch wheel after wheel glide past us where the toys had been.
After the train passes, we stand sullenly around the hallowed battlefield. An atomic bomb has just been dropped. A tornado has just hit. There is not a trace of the army men. We find some glass fragments from the light bulb and a single arm of the action figure. We pick it up and stare at it in horror. Just one severed red arm gnarled at the shoulder. What more can we say? We bury it and begin working on a good lie.

-jk

Photo and story copyrighted work of Keene Short, 2015.