When I visited my hometown this past summer, I felt profoundly disconnected and alienated and a whole slew of other nasty things that, in all honesty, sort of freaked me out. Even though I haven't lived in Flagstaff since August of 2000 and I moved away from this part of the country entirely in 2004, Arizona--or rather, the southwest, both as a concept and in the contexts in which I've experienced it--and this town in particular have always felt close to my heart; I hate to generalize about “the land” and so I’ll try to avoid that, but this is where I’m most clearly from and I think that still counts for something. There was a profound ambivalence in my relationship to here for essentially the entire time I was growing up, as I think there is for most young people, and I regret still that I spent so many years here not hiking or biking or walking or even really looking around me. I was unable to appreciate its charms until I’d learned a little more about other places; time away allowed me to realize that I could come back, and things would have changed, but there was always some sort of core that I was returning to that felt familiar.
Until, as I mentioned, last summer. To have that connection suddenly lacking was shocking, but in retrospect it was probably less about the place (mountains and trees are more slowly changed than specific populations, I’d say) and more about becoming an adult; it was the first time I'd truly realized that eventually all of my friends would move away and so someday would my parents and old stores and restaurants would close and new ones I'd never heard of would open and more people would move here and this place I'd spent so many years first resenting and then nostalgically enjoying would become just a town, a place I had no connection to other than a past which had fairly conclusively become nothing but memory. I eventually soothed my anxiety with a long solo hike on an unfamiliar mountain and numerous helpings of the best vegetarian biscuits and gravy I've ever had, but I left feeling a little more like a city girl and a little less like I was ever going to be able to really return to some of the places I loved except as a stranger.
But home is home, still, even if sometimes it's comforting and welcoming and sometimes it's unfamiliar and vaguely threatening. The balance shifts every time: my last trip was profoundly unsettling, but this time my hometown seems to be trying to show me all of my favorite parts of itself. The weather, the people I have the opportunity to see, and even my parents (with whom I generally have a rather distant relationship) are in collusion to make me feel like this is a good place for me to be right this second. That feels good.
Things started inauspiciously: yesterday's travel was full of missteps and truly irritating setbacks. I was behind schedule and had already realized one major flaw in my preparations--I was nearly out of cat food and had no cash on me to leave to buy more--before the clock had reached 7 AM; this poor start was followed by a nearly missed bus, an incorrectly boarded train (I got on a train going the completely wrong direction for the first time in my six years here and rode two stops before I realized my mistake, although I'd still swear that the train was labeled as going to O'Hare), and a fuckup on the part of the airline in which they didn't bother to tell me that I was actually flying on their subsidiary which was conveniently located in another terminal. Finally, harried and sleep-deprived, I managed to make it to my gate with enough spare time to pick up my customary overpriced bottle of water and packet of trail mix from the in-terminal store. We boarded and I settled in with my book, hoping for an empty seat next to me so that I could just hunker down and make it through this portion of the trip in relative peace.
But hell, it often seems like when I'm the most irritable and tired is when awesomeness happens. And so as we took off, my nose buried in my reading (Freakonimics, which I wholeheartedly enjoyed), I turned to look out the window and I saw something I'd been waiting to see for well over a decade and a half. When I was in probably the fifth grade, I read a book about clouds and sun dogs and other such phenomena, and one of the things that struck me was the description of what a rainbow seen from an airplane would look like: instead of the customary arc that we see from the ground, an in-flight rainbow would appear as a perfect circle with the airplane's shadow in the center. And as we took off into the overcast skies of Chicago yesterday morning, I watched through my scratched plastic window as not only a rainbow but a double rainbow, the colors reversed and fainter the second time around but still clearly visible, appeared, the black shadow of my plane in the exact center. It lasted for maybe five minutes, and I wanted to whisper or maybe shout to my fellow passengers that there was something amazing happening right next to them, but I didn't. I just smiled, and when it finally faded I went back to my book feeling both calmer and more excited than I'd been before.
It snowed fifty-six inches here last week, which is amazing but means that by now the entire town is covered by dirty and generally rather unappealing snowdrifts ranging from waist-high to above my head. Today, though, I rented a pair of snowshoes and went, along with my friend E and two others plus one adorable dog, out behind a giant store and into the trees and solitude on a previously packed trail. It was raining when we left our cars, overcast and sort of icky, but almost as soon as we got out and away from things it turned into the large puffy soft clumps of snow that are my favorite form of precipitations and which fell down on us as we trekked out. We were walking over snow so deep and clean that every crack and hole was filled with a pale blue color that made me think of some of the things that cold might look like and I couldn't stop staring, at least in between the times I was attempting not to step on my own shoes and fall onto my knees yet again. There was very little speech; what mattered was my feet on the snow and my body moving forward, and my mind ranged from topic to topic more freely than it does when I'm standing still.
What I was thinking about, among other things, was November of 1998, a memory stirred up by a happy chance observation the previous night. As I was walking downtown to meet E for a drink before I passed out from travel fatigue, I was thrilled to note that the night was clear and the sky was full of stars, far more than I had seen anytime recently. One of the great disappointments this summer was that every evening was marked by cloud cover; Flagstaff is where Pluto was discovered in 1930, and as such has restrictions in place in order to keep it a “dark sky” city, rendering the stargazing fantastic. And so I was tromping down the unlit street, my face turned up, when I saw a shooting star out of the corner of my eye and I suddenly remembered my junior year of high school. I was taking a physics class that year that, due to the a heavy emphasis on astronomy, offered extra credit for watching the Leonid meteor shower that was peaking that year. Accordingly, because I am an overachiever and because my teacher had gotten me all worked up about the night sky, I woke up in the middle of a cold November night, dragged a sleeping bag out on my driveway, and watched the stars fall for maybe an hour. It’s been a mostly forgotten episode until now, but when I saw the stars here so much clearer and more numerous than they are in any large city, I remembered the cold and the darkness and the exhilaration I felt out alone in it, looking up and seeing everything bright and sharp and waiting for the suddenness of a streak across my vision and I realized that some things, I appreciated even then.