Writers & Explorers











 

 
       

     First impressions are hard to shake.  Long before calling Flagstaff home, I used it as a base camp during the river season.  Working back-to-back trips left me only enough time to take a shower at the campus gym, grab a meal at the Grand Canyon Cafe, and then throw out a sleeping bag in the ruins at Mt. Elden.  Next morning it was off to Lees Ferry again.  In some ways I still think of Flagstaff as a crossroads town, a place where you're either heading out or you're on your way back.

     Part of the town's character comes from the river community:  outfitters and guides, swamppers and hydrologists, private boaters and inveterate passengers.  From April through October, you have a good chance of running into a river party crowding one of the local restaurants for their farewell dinner - boisterous and sunburned, wowing over real ice, amazed at the simple pleasure of a flush toilet, and trying to top each others' stories.  Even before you overhear it, you know the drift of the conversation.  "We were going for the Big One. . . like hitting a brick wall. . . flushed out the bottom. . . and I couldn't believe it, my cigar was still burning!

 
 
     

 

 

     If it's not boatmen up from the river, you're likely to find skiers down from the mountain or archeologists in from the field.  If it's not a climber returning from the big wall, then it's a photographer back from a shoot.  Globe-trotting visitors continually pass through Flagstaff, but the flow goes the other way as well.  Step out for a cup of coffee, and you might run into geologist Wayne Ranney who leads tours from the North Pole to the South, or Martha Clark back from floating down the Firth River to the Arctic Ocean, or biologist John Manygoats on his way to do research in the South Pacific, or Larry Agenbroad heading off to Siberia to retrieve a frozen mammoth.

     A week doesn't pass without a friend returning from some far corner - it might be anywhere from Ellesmere Island to Tierra del Fuego.  Looking around the office, I see a photo by Dave Edwards of an eagle hunter from western Mongolia and one by Bill Hatcher of a little girl staring out the rear window of a Guatemalan bus punctured with a bullet hole.  There's a moose-hide pouch from a trapper in British Columbia and an earth-pigment canvas by German artist Ulrike Arnold.  There's an email message from Katmandu and another from a research ship off Antarctica.  There's a postcard from the west coast of Tasmania and a Sue Bennett photograph of a Yaqui deer dancer.

     We live at a geographic crossroads where mountains, deserts, and canyons meet.  It's a gateway for those heading to the Grand Canyon, Painted Desert, and the Four Corners country.  It's also a cultural crossroads.  Fresh from Detroit, a black student attending Northern Arizona University knew something was different when he walked down the street and everyone said hello - Navajo, Hispanic, cowboy, Asian.  But what really surprised him were the women.  "I've never seen anything like it," he told me.  "Out at the Museum Club they were howling when they danced - just like coyotes.  It was unbelievable."

     Flagstaff is a community founded on restlessness.  When an engineer gives that long, drawn-out whistle you know a train is leaving just as fast as it's coming.  And some days it can take your thoughts with it.  The railroad put Flagstaff on the map and Route 66 kept it there.  Next to the tracks runs John Steinbeck's "road of flight."  Dust Bowl refugees passed through in overloaded Model-Ts, and the next generation returned driving Corvettes.  When I first began living in town, it didn't come as a surprise to spot a cowboy riding down the side of the highway, duster flapping in the wind and leading a couple of pack horses.  Now it's more likely to be a rancher in a tandem-wheel truck with a couple of hay bales in the bed.  Styles change, but the love of mobility remains.

     Whether you're equipped with an in-dash GPS or drive an old VW with topos crammed behind the sunvisor, the idea's the same - to find your way out there and then get back.  The other day, a Navajo drove a dust-coated pickup into town.  Wearing a hairknot, he sat upright behind the wheel with his Stetson hanging from the gunrack and a bumper sticker on the tailgate.  It read, "Been There, Done That."  No matter how far you travel, Flagstaff is the place to wash the dust off once you've seen it all.

Originally published in:
The View From Here
Edited by Peter Frederici, Jack Doggett, Mary Sojourner
Red Lake Books, Flagstaff
2000

 

 

 

     
 


 

 

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