March 29, 2011

The Grand Canyon, graduate school and some music, too.


The Grand Canyon
Last fall I blogged about Brandon Flowers' album, Flamingo. Although I have always wanted to go West, Flowers' music inspired me to adjust my compass southwest as I browsed graduate schools. Is a random album a good reason to relocate? No. Is a graduate assistantship? Well, it's better than an album.

Since I first heard the call of the Southwest, I have been craving a road trip. A long, blistering drive down desolate highways through the desert. Last week, dear reader, I got my wish.

I recruited my boyfriend to accompany me on the 3000 mile trip across Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Kansas. He is outdoorsy, easy-going and one of the few people with whom I could stand to be in a confined space for seven days. We had been planning this hard-core road trip for months. We would camp out in National Parks along the way, hike the Grand Canyon and save money on food by packing a minimalist cooler of sandwich fixings. Self-imposed hardship, I thought, makes character. Just like Cambodia. 

But in Cambodia, I always had indoor sleeping options, plenty of food, and very, very predictable weather. For reasons I don't understand, I often choose to do things the hard way. Or at least the more uncomfortable of ways, if it will make me look tough afterwards. As we set up the tent the first night, Green River, Utah seemed a perfect place to sleep outside and prove my toughness after ten hours of driving. Then it got really cold. And windy. I had a hard time breathing in the frozen mountain air, and my body kept trying to make heat by staying awake shivering. I shifted around in discomfort, hoping that my body would give up and sleep. I was happy to dismantle the tent the next morning and head for the camp showers. To my unrested body, the spray of water felt like a pelting of sand, but at least it was warm. That night, as we pulled up to Grand Canyon National Park after another day of driving, we discovered that a snow storm had blanketed Mather campground with several inches of soggy snow. I was nearly in tears just imagining setting up the tent, let alone trying to sleep in it. Two nights of not sleeping does not a happy girlfriend make, so I was absolutely thrilled when my boyfriend suggested we find a hotel for the night. Did I mention that he is smart, too?

As for our plan to dominate the hiking trails into the canyon, well, let me remind you that I am a total novice hiker. The Grand Canyon, though gorgeous and awesome, is an enormous chasm of death. Moreover, the snowstorm that had ruined our camping (but probably saved our friendship) had also iced the hiking trails into the Canyon. From the South Rim, we peered down at the people attempting the Bright Angel trail. They were descending steep downhill paths, totally exposed to sheer cliff drop-offs on one side, on ice. They are the definition of total stupidity, I thought. We inched down the trail for a few painful minutes, and when we saw a father guiding his four-year-old over the icy death trap, we decided that being life-flighted out of the Canyon would blow our budget, so we turned around. We instead took the 17,000 step (yes, I do wear a pedometer) trail around the South Rim. We were able to focus on the grandeur of the canyon from above rather than the incredible risk of free falling half a mile down into the Colorado River.

Yes, we wussed out of snow-bound camping and the frosted Bright Angel, but we survived the trip. I, however, wussed out of yet another part of our trip. Sandwiches, I found out, are made with bread. And bread, I found out, is full of gluten or some other evil that sends stabbing pain through my abdomen a few hours after ingestion. Now, I haven't been diagnosed with any specific gluten intolerance or other food-related ailment, but I do know that I've eaten two sandwiches in the past two weeks and I was very sorry both times. My dear boyfriend, unaware of my recent self-diagnosis, had supplemented our sandwich bread with flat bread wraps, which actually get along with my stomach, so we decided that I would just eat those, and he would tackle the loaf of bread alone. So there we were, eating our respective grain-based products slathered with mayo, mustard, provolone, and lunch meat. We had baby carrots and celery for crunch; and apples, oranges and bananas for sweetness. The first several meals of this concoction were actually very good, but by the third day, we started to run low on interest and flat bread.

Thank goodness for Flagstaff. Mechanics, food, and GA stipends. A town to fix all my problems at once. The squealing sound my new serpentine belt was making? Fixed. No Charge. The grumbling in my stomach asking for a hot meal? Chili and cornbread. And hot tea. The most anticipated news of the last year? Oh yes, I've got the Graduate Assistantship at Northern Arizona University, a full tuition waiver, and a stellar stipend. Flagstaff is my favorite. We stocked up our cooler at the nicest Wal-mart I've ever seen, and the hotel even had free breakfast with boiled eggs. Glorious. Perfection. Do I really have to go back? Can't I just move in now?

Impatient for sunset at the Grand Canyon
The official e-mail about my GA-ship was a great start to the trip. I got the news outside of Eagle, CO on my cell phone's tiny e-mail application. Since that's all I've been thinking about lately, it was a relief to finally have an official offer. This assistantship almost guarantees that I will move to Arizona, 1,500 miles away, this summer. I wanted that assistantship so badly, and I adore NAU, so I was thrilled that my dream was finally sort of official. My boyfriend did a good job of congratulating me even though my moving creates serious uncertainty for our fledgling relationship. The struggle of long-distance relationships has often plagued me, and it will continue until I either settle down or begin dating a lap dog that fits into one of those cute dog purses so I can just haul it around with me.

The Southwest exceeded my expectations of mesas, desert and Route 66 nostalgia. I feel a renewed connection to the American West, the spirit of the pioneers, and to my Mitsubishi's front seats. I spent seven days straight with the same person and we didn't kill each other or fight—though I did make fun of him for using the suffix “-wise” so often that I started saying it too. Although blindly choosing a graduate school based on an album doesn't guarantee a good choice; school- and city-wise, NAU and Flagstaff made me feel at home. At least until I download new music.