I’m sitting at a desk in Flagstaff, Arizona. I can hear the noises of construction outside—the way a building can groan under repair, the sounds that only improvement elicits from aging walls. I like Flagstaff. The mountains, the chill in the air, the proximity to the Grand Canyon—these are all part of the allure. But what I love most about this town is the train station.
Along historic Rt. 66, three blocks from this desk, there’s a lovely and picturesque stop, giving space for both entrances and exits. Flagstaff grew around the station, the tracks cut through downtown smoothly, leaving the impression that this was never a final destination, until, of course, for many one day it was.
My server at lunch yesterday told me how much he’d fallen in love with the land. At least that’s the excuse, he’ll say as he laughs from the belly, for staying here so long. He’d come here for college, as many do, at Northern Arizona University, and decided to stay for fifteen years after finishing his degree. “It was going to be temporary,” he said, “but I guess I like it here more than anywhere else.” He stopped talking, as the train rattled by the outdoor seating area. “AND THERE’S ALWAYS THE TRAINS.” I nodded, noting how his baritone cut through the squeal of brakes on rail.
I get it. My choice to stay in Pittsburgh is similar. Graduate school instead of undergrad, but what’s the difference? I found a place different enough to keep me. I like it there more than anywhere else. There are trains in the Steel City too. I lived above the train tracks for two years, on the shady side of Shadyside, and every few hours I felt their presence. The whistles and rumbles eventually sang me to sleep. For months after I moved out, I hated the silence of my new room, streaming a different type of train track through my headphones, trying to recreate the soft rocking of the midnight Amtrak.
I like the noises buildings can make.
Ah, the hammering outside has escalated. Just as I dream of catching up on old sleep.
The last time I was in Flagstaff, I was a different person. Or exactly the same. I can’t tell. It would have been November 2004, just near Thanksgiving. I came with my aunt and uncle to sight-see, but ended up running into a boy I knew. The next morning, as he drove me at dawn back to the hotel where my family still slumbered, I marveled at the snow on the ground. I’d never touched it before, silly as it may seem. And I had no idea the winters that loomed in my horizon. That morning, though, I was in love with Flagstaff, with snow, with trains, with the knowledge that the night before meant nothing (a thought that brought me a warm smile back then), and figuring out how to explain my absence to my still-slumbering accountability. Turned out, I hadn’t been missed, just passed silently through the night, even as I’d felt a rumble in my bones.
I wrote about this trip to Flagstaff. Brought it to workshop. Met the narrowing iris of judgment. “How can the narrator,” a woman had said, staring right at me, “be so indifferent about the whole endeavor?” I had never heard the word “endeavor” used to describe a one-night stand with an old friend. I laughed and pointed out that these things happen. What mattered here, I thought, were the trains—the way I’d been woken by one before dawn, shivering in a bed too far from my own, staring out the window of this boy’s house, looking at the mountain and feeling the slow churn of anxiety and engine alike.
In this exact workshop, I wrote a piece about my brother’s death. It had started from a prompt about looking at a photograph. I kept this essay close, constantly editing and cutting, adding and changing. Eventually it grew into a series of linked essays. My thoughts on death, and boys, and mothers, and pain, and guns, and secrets we keep—country and citizen a like. It became a memoir-in-essays, a nonfiction novella, a reportage in lyric. In two and half weeks, this little piece will have laid down tracks of its own, heading into a tunnel I don’t recognize. But I’m excited for the ride.
None of the people I used to know in Flagstaff back in 2004 are still here. They’ve all gone on their own journeys. I’m back here, but it’s temporary. Flagstaff, for me, has always been a stopping point. A place to visit, to see a thing, and learn another. I’m in town this time for a poetry tournament. Mostly, I’m hugging the friends I see, loving the work I hear, and missing my husband and dogs. I’ve become more stationary, you see. I’ve embraced the terminal—made a home, planted a garden, hammered my own walls.
Yet even as I write that, I can imagine my husband shaking his head. I travel more than ever these days, but I keep promising myself it’s only a different version of staying still. The way physics keeps me sitting immobile, even as the carriage is shaking its way somewhere over the next hill.
I’ve got a plan these days. I can imagine a destination. And that’s better than it has been for a long, long time.
I’m due at the train station on Sunday. That’s where my shuttle picks me up to take me down to Phoenix, where I’ll get on an airplane and eventually end up on the little train at the Pittsburgh airport. That may be my favorite one of all. It’s the one I most encounter—the excitement of leaving for somewhere different, and the relief at seeing something so familiar as I try to get home.
Maybe that’s why I like Flagstaff so much. It makes me realize how much I love home.
And there’s always the trains.
Image Credits: Marco Del Dotto