March 21, 2014

Blog Before Breakfast: Flagstaff, I love you.

Now that I'm officially emailing the Turkish consulate in Los Angeles, and preparing to send my passport for its newest visa, the American life in Flagstaff is feeling pretty sweet.

Yes, all the paperwork made it across the ocean, through customs, and to its final destination. I didn't have to hunt down anyone  in the Flagstaff post office, and I won't need any scuba gear to locate discarded documents.

For now, I'm here in Arizona, though for those of you who haven't been to Flagstaff, this isn't your grandmother's Arizona. The heat, cacti, and commercialism that consume the Phoenix metro are all but gone once you've driven two hours north on I-17. I once heard that there are at least 7 different ecosystems in Arizona, making it one of the most diverse places...probably ever. I'll just go with that. After teaching  first year composition for an entire year, my perception of good writing habits are a little warped. In any case, life in Arizona (at least for a white heterosexual person with an American passport) is good.

While most of the state is either desolate, arid prairie or mountainous desert, Flagstaff is nestled in a dense area of forest. Ponderosa pines and the San Francisco peaks are the defining feature of this place.  For me, the trees' only redeeming quality is that they are green. Otherwise, they are full of neon green pollen that causes me to need 2 showers a day, a netti pot, and two types of allergy medication. Besides, for a Nebraskan, these trees give me claustrophobia because I can't see all the way to the horizon. "The Peaks," on the other hand, are one of my favorite things in Flagstaff. They are somewhat isolated from the mountain ranges that protrude from Arizona's arid plains.  Held sacred to Native American tribes of the region, these mountains rise high above Flagstaff, reaching just over 12,000 feet. Scientists believe that The Peaks were once a single stratovolcano reaching at least 15000 feet. A major eruption created the multi-peaked skyline that is now familiar in Flagstaff. I like to imagine the volcano, and the dinosaurs of the time, though my perception is always too animated to take seriously. I used to watch "The Land Before Time" on a weekly basis.

The Peaks also orient the city of Flagstaff. Flagstaff has grown in an arc around the base of The Peaks. As it was built along an important railroad artery, Flagstaff is cut in half by a busy set of tracks that see 128 trains per day. Parallel to the tracks runs what used to be Route 66, brought to fame in the golden age of American auto travel. This road is now the basis one of the most frustrating aspects of Flagstaff--the traffic flow. As the city is not set up in a grid, but rather in a curve, there are few major roads for traffic to flow. On weekends and during the summer tourist season, Route 66, better known (depending on the part of town) as Milton/Sante Fe/Hwy 89, becomes a stuck drain. Tourists (especially those coming from the south of West) need to traverse the town in order to get to the Grand Canyon, or the myriad other natural wonders surrounding Flagstaff. Hence, the infrastructure for a small town crumples under the stress of traffic going to one of the US's most popular tourist destinations.

Luckily, Flagstaff has a few backroads and tricks up its sleeves for "locals" like me. Upon first moving here, in fact, I read an article with this structure, "You might be a local if..." One of the first signs was if you could get anywhere in town without using Milton--the clogged artery. If pressed, I think I could do it now, after three years of frustrating stand stills.

Now that I'm a local, I feel inclined to share local places that I frequent. No longer a slave to the concept of "Macy's Vegetarian Cafe"--I've only been there probably 10 times total. Here are some of my top pics:

1. Bookman's Entertainment Exchange: While I guess the books and entertainment should be the draw (admittedly, I have bought and sold several travel books), I spend most of my time in the cafe. One of the best things about this cafe is that you can bring old books that you don't want anymore, sell them to the store, and buy coffee with the money. Sweet deal. I do a lot of grading in the well-lit, cute-but-not-too-cute cafe section of the store. Tall Americano with room, please. Mexican hot chocolate (yes, I want the whipped cream--what kind of question is that?)

2. Campus Coffee Bean: This cafe, tucked into a tacky strip mall next to Target, has some of the best coffee, chai and food in Flagstaff. Plus, every day from 4-6 PM, it's buy one, get one espresso drinks. Convenient for dates--with people or with grading, studying, job searching... Yes, I've ordered two for myself. The second one was free--what should I do? Waste that? I'll have a house chai and a small latte. The gyro salad, please.

3. NiMarco's Pizza: Pizza by the slice: quick, easy, cheap. I've been there for graduate school meet and greets, for lunch with my colleagues, for dinner with my date, and after a long day when I don't want to cook. Anytime is pizza time. The shop itself isn't anything special, but the crust on this pizza is perfection! I've gotta have the pesto pizza with artichokes.

4. Kickstand Coffee: Definitely a cafe playing to the hipsters in Flag, this cafe mixes one part pretense with two parts delish. Modern art--including this really cool old window frosted, and painted with a power line--overwhelm the walls, while hipster music floats from speakers. The menu, clearly playing to the hip and the skiers has items like "Snow Bunny" and "Fixie". In case you don't know, a fixie is a bike built with no gears and no brakes. Why anyone would want such a bike is beyond me, but the hipsters can't get enough. I do order the namesake drink though. It's soymilk, yerba mate, rooibos, honey and cinnamon. Now I see why it's hipster-hippie. But it tastes good. And it's huge. Perfect for marathon grading of freshman writing.

I teach my students that less is usually more when it comes to writing, but it's hard advice to take myself. I woke up this morning wanting to write about my city before I leave it. I'm ready to move on to the next stage of life, but the American West will always have a piece of my heart. The open, desolate landscapes, the turquoise, the dust, the infinite possibilities. Here's a taste of Flagstaff so that I can remember the West how I really knew it: as a hippie-hipster-coffee-traffic-pine needling-ecosystem-volcano.