Lilacs bloomed on the corner next to the hostel. A freight train rumbled through the little downtown, the third one in the past hour; the swirling clouds of railroad noise carried echoes of Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie. A block south of the tracks, a black Irish beauty from New York stood in front of a coffee shop, holding hands with her boyfriend. The lucky guy was me. It was 1987 in Flagstaff, AZ, and we were on a Grand Canyon vacation. Manhattan felt as distant as Pluto.
That morning, for the first time in my 32 years, I had set foot in the desert Southwest. It was the same for her; we had both grown up in upstate New York. I was addled by the utter strangeness of everything in Arizona, high on all of it: the crazy, crumbling mountains; an electric blue sky; prickly, misshapen plants that seemed to have been invented by wizards. The sound of trains—like the smell of lilacs and the piercing silver light—added to the mix. The whole big show seemed to be rearranging my cells.
I read aloud from an index card scotch-taped to the plate-glass window: FOR RENT: Small cabin near town. Wood stove, electricity, and outhouse. No running water. $100/month.
“What do you think?” I said. “Could we do it?”
She laughed. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”
Something stirred under the sidewalk, deep in the earth. Yes, I was.
At that moment, anything seemed possible. We had just meandered up from the Phoenix airport on back roads, parking the rent-a-car to splash around in the Agua Fria. Hummingbirds chirped in the spiny branches of a paloverde. After swimming we unfolded a blanket, stretched out together, and found that our skin was already dry. Kathleen noticed some pale orange wildflowers. Like everything else here, they were both unfamiliar and beautiful. She pulled out her sketch pad and splashed the page with color.
We drove on. The newness was quenching a thirst in me that I had not even known existed. But Kathleen found this bony, sun-drenched place vaguely disturbing. “It’s so big that it’s scary,” she said. But she was happy to see me so excited.
When we had approached Flagstaff from the southeast, the naked summits of the San Francisco Peaks leapt up from the horizon like silver islands in an ocean of dark green. It looked like Shangri-la, from my side of the front seat.
Flagstaff had a strange sense of homecoming about it. Kathleen saw it too. Strangers smiled as if they knew us. In the crosswalks, drivers made eye contact. That would have set off a fight-or-flight response in Manhattan. Here it just felt friendly.
“You really could live in this place, couldn’t you?” Kathleen said, before we stepped into the coffee shop.
“Not without you,” I grinned. “But maybe I’ll write down that phone number just in case we do come back.”
We both knew that wasn’t going to happen. Kathleen had city dreams. I had moved to New York for a job, but that experiment had run its course in less than two years. I had a backpack and above-average enthusiasm for difficult endeavors in beautiful places. Kathleen was my only real tie to New York City. If not for her I would have left already.
That night we camped north of town in the shadow of the San Francisco Peaks. The cooling ponderosa forest smelled like vanilla beans. While gathering firewood at twilight, Kathleen took a fall on a heap of sharp volcanic boulders. She was not used to climbing on rocks, or to camping, or to the long shadows cast by mountains. But she was trying.
We discovered an impressive weeping bruise under her loose cotton pants. She looked up with sad, frightened eyes, and then smiled through tears: “What now, mountain man?” We joked about the dangerous wilderness while I found a bandage.
Backpacking in Grand Canyon was also scary, but she tried—and got heat exhaustion. When we headed back to Flagstaff three days later, crossing the Navajo Reservation at night, I chose not to point out the starlit silhouette of the Peaks.
Once back in Manhattan, I found myself imagining a life in the long, graceful shadow of the mountain. It felt titillating, like the start of an affair. When the Southwest finally won me over, Kathleen stayed behind in New York. I grieved that ending for a very long time, but have never spent a minute being homesick for the East.
I live and work at Grand Canyon these days. Kathleen and I lost track of each other long ago. After two decades, what is left from that first scouting trip hangs near my desk: a simple crayon drawing. The flowers that grew by the Agua Fria, I know now, were globemallow.