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.
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.