Tag Archives: travel writing

Notes from Flagstaff

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“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

Notes from the Four Corners

Desert 6.JPG“I cannot hate them, the tourists, because I am one.” -Nabil Kashyap, The Obvious Earth

They say that when you first encounter the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, it can be disappointing for two reasons. First, it is situated in a relatively small room that is always packed with visitors, so many that you have to shove to reach the painting, and second, even if you make it to the Mona Lisa, the painting itself is small and unsurprising. You already know what the Mona Lisa looks like. You can buy a poster of it in the gift shop. Instead, it’s the art in the hallway outside the Mona Lisa room, the unfamous work you’ve never seen before, that leaves an impression. The Four Corners Monument is similar.

Two days before the country celebrates its independence, I drive through the desert to Colorado, and make a stop at the Four Corners, between Navajo and Ute Mountain land. I drive slowly over the dirt road, following cars and followed by campers. I find a parking space and step out of the air conditioning into the heat. It is exceptionally hot, barely a cloud in the sky. I’m used to this. I’ve almost missed the heat, living in northern Idaho for so long.

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The Four Corners Monument is a square of shaded stands around the circular marker itself, directly where the four state borders meet at 90 degree angles, distinguishing jurisdictions and electoral districts from one another. When I enter the square, I’m confused about which state I’m in, but it becomes clear when I see the four stone markers around the circle indicating each respective state, like cardinal directions. There is a long line of people in front of the circle, each tourist standing in summer wear and waiting to stand in the circle to have their picture taken straddling as many US states as one can.

I don’t get in line because it’s hot and I’m on my way to meet a friend I haven’t seen since I visited Albuquerque in winter, and I impulsively don’t want to be a tourist. I grew up in a tourist town, as a local. It’s a habit I can’t shake off, wanting to distinguish myself from them. I’m not any different from the tourists, though, not here. I walk the square of shops in the shade, passing people eating fry bread from paper plates, passing locals selling jewelry, knives, Kokopelli decorations.

In Portland this spring, I saw Nabil Kashyap give a talk about the colonial nature of travel writing, the fraught history of the travelogue. Historically, the genre frames the traveler as a hero and the place visited as a backdrop for the hero’s self-discovery, transforming locals into objects, props. Kashyap’s own collection of travelogues wrestles with this history. In his panel, he advocated for a more ethical form of travel writing that “decenters the visitor” and emphasizes the place, the people, without claiming ownership over the stories that are intrinsic to the place and people. This time last year, a lot of people noted that Anthony Bourdain was an exemplar of this kind of travelogue, taking the role of a reporter, letting people tell their stories on their own terms.

Desert 2At the edge of the square, there is a sign telling visitors not to spread ashes of the deceased here because the scattering of human remains on this land goes against Navajo custom. I wonder how many tourists scattered their dead relatives at the Four Corners before the locals had to put up the sign. Despite the signs, tourists still come to the Four Corners and spread cremated relatives on this special dot on a map. I think about how weird it is to celebrate the alignment of state borders here in the Southwest. 150 years ago, this was Brigham Young’s Mormon territory called Deseret. 160 years ago, this was Mexico. 250 years ago, this was Spain. 450 years ago, this was Pueblo land. Statehood was only granted to Arizona in 1912. The land may appear static, but its cartographic meaning is always changing.

Instead of standing on the corners, I wander out to the trailhead up the hill from the square, but only a little ways. I’m not equipped for a hike in the desert at noon. I look out at the windswept emptiness of one state or another, this stateless terrain. I’m the only one who walks this way, and I’m glad to be out of the crowd. Later, I use the bathroom. I buy some fry bread. I take some photos. I leave with my fingers sticky with powdered sugar, wishing I could hike around this place in cooler weather, see what else it has to offer.

-jk

 

The Place-Based Writer Goes Places

Moscow Idaho“I suppose our capacity for self-delusion is boundless. I knew very well that I rarely make notes, and if I do I either lose them or can’t read them. I also knew from thirty years of my profession that I cannot write hot on an event. It has to ferment.” –John Steinbeck, Travels With Charlie

I’ve been on the road since June 4. I’ve traveled from Nebraska to South Dakota to Montana to Idaho to other parts of Idaho, and I will soon be on my way to another part of Idaho, then Utah, then Arizona. I’ve stayed in a lot of places, and seen a lot of places, and have plenty to write about. The problem is that writing on the road is difficult. Even John Steinbeck, known for writing about people (and dogs) traveling from point A to point B, knew that he had to let his stories stew. I’ve never had that kind of patience. I want to write the moment I get an idea.

I’ve often been accused of being a place-based writer. This makes sense, I suppose, because I place myself in bars with my laptop, then place large quantities of alcohol into my mouth, then place my fingers on the keys and type until I forget which place I’m in. But I also enjoy describing places. Setting is crucial for my stories, because most of my recent writing has focused on historical situations. Most of my stories cannot take place elsewhere, and taking place is an apt description of most of my plots. Setting, time and place, has more influence over my characters than I do, sometimes.

Right now, I wish I could write about the places I’ve seen, notably Moscow, Idaho,where I will live for three years starting in August, where I will hopefully get an MFA in creative writing. The town is small but quirky, surrounded by hills and distant mountains. There is a bagel shop that serves beer and a video rental stores on the same street. I drove into Moscow through a rain storm and misty curving roads, past industrial bridges and tall, deep green patches of forest and small, isolated towns. The campus is old and maintains most of its original architecture. It is a patchwork quilt of red bricks and green vegetation. Under overcast skies and in silvery clouds of mist, the town is surreal, even spooky. It’s the ideal place for a writer.

Not that I need an ideal place. I don’t want to be so tied to place that I need somewhere specific to be comfortable, to be myself. But I will admit that, as far as places go, Moscow looks like a lovely place to spend three years writing about all the other places I wish I was in.

-jk