Tag Archives: place

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

The Next Morning

game 1UNL is empty as I walk through it early in the morning. The overcast sky dulls the stadium’s shadow. The sun is smothered and wind blows garbage around empty parking lots, sidewalks, concrete corners in the university maze. Red beer cups flounder down an overpass, and greasy napkins mingle with cardboard signs. Tongues of red licorice are flattened onto the sidewalk. A cap drowns in the mud.

Yesterday began with an earthquake in the morning, shaking me from my bed. Rain poured throughout the day over throngs of fans, and fireworks boomed like tanks around me. The streets were full. The streets were alive. Today, they are empty. I feel like I’ve walked onto the set of a zombie movie filmed in faded tones. There are no fans around the next morning. There is only the left-behind collage of plastic and paper and half-eaten food, and of course the alcohol.

Somewhere in the detriment is a cross, a necklace that fell from a fan. Or maybe it was torn, or fell from a pocket. It’s just another post-game testament to football’s force here. The stadium rises like a temple; didn’t some messiah once point to a football stadium and declare that not one brick will be left standing? Didn’t some messiah once bless a team to win the next game? The stadium looks unused, run-down after rain and the mass of fans. Nothing could keep them away.

I wonder where the heroes have all gone to. I grew up witnessing people ruin sports for me through doping scandals, gambling, dog-fighting, domestic violence. I learned the consequences of commodifying people, the exploitative measures taken to earn a profit, the cost of products sold. Who cleans up the mess? Who loses a parking lot in exchange for more playing space? Whose funding gets cut? There must have been heroes here and there, some legendary folks who made the sport an art and not a business. But for me, they departed a generation ago and live only in history, and it is just an empty stadium surrounded by trash right now. Trash, and one small piece of jewelry that I leave where I found it. It’s not mine to move. It’s not mine to rearrange. I leave it as it is.

-jk

Like a Writer in a Candy Store

Lincoln

My books are on my shelves, my violin is tuned, and my spice rack is full. I’ve finally settled into Lincoln, Nebraska, with a few weeks before I start my first semester of graduate school. I spent yesterday exploring the city on foot, and a few sunburns and several hours later I returned to my apartment exhausted but satisfied.

Wandering alone in a big city is a new experience for me. I knew my former home of Flagstaff was relatively small, but getting lost in Lincoln proved to me that I am only one brick in the world’s framework. In my exploration, every corner I turned showed me a new organ in Lincoln’s body. I flew through decades into the Midwest’s past, into rustic red brick buildings, some dating back to the 1870s. I perused this place’s history, its survival on the plains, and those strange intersections where the past meets the present in the connective tissue of reinvigorated neighborhoods and gentrification.

River

Although being in a big city should be overwhelming, for a writer it’s like being a kid in a candy store. I can use any one of a dozen metaphors to describe my place in the city, a cell in a body or a brick in a building, and all of them describe how I feel. They all express my belief that individuality is overrun by community, and I’m sure that Lincoln will organically change me as a person regardless of whether or not I want it to. But for a writer, a city is just one big candy store because it’s not made of bricks or cells, but of stories. There is street art, there is sewage, there are coffee shops, there are dimly lit bars, and right now all of it is new to me.

UNL

One day of exploration has already transformed me. Today, I’ll find a few good places to write on campus and around town, all of which are within walking distance of my apartment. But for the moment, I am still freefalling through Lincoln’s grid of stories, hardly able to contain my excitement.

-jk

P.S. A surprisingly fitting song to have stuck in one’s head while wandering around lost in a new city is H.S.K.T by Sylvan Esso. I also find it suitable for writing about cities.