On Driving to Faraway Lands and First Nights in Flagstaff

Dec 10th, 2019 in Personal

A month back, I embarked on a one way road trip west from NYC. Over two weeks I’d drive a fully-loaded rental car out of Brooklyn on my way to Flagstaff, Arizona, where I now live! I guess I just can’t keep these Kerouac-like urges at bay, though we’ll see how my new digs work at calming and refining them as I adapt to desert living.

This road trip was my first time behind the wheel in almost nine years. A lot of anxiety had built up in me about this, and I had actively steered away from any chances to drive when sharing a vehicle with friends or considering how I’d manage my outings from the city. I’ve easily clipped 10,000 miles on my Surly I bought for my cross-country trip in 2017.

The terror just all sort of abated as I drove out of the rental garage to my apartment for the first and only time. Inching my way through traffic would be the theme of the day as I got to my place, fit all my belongings in the four-door Corolla I was assigned (tetris style, with thanks to my roommate Tom for his help) and then stop-and-went over the Verrazzano for possibly the first time not running across it. My first night was with Pamela in Lebanon, my first friend from Couchsurfing. I made the drive in three hours and change without stopping except for gas at the end.

I booked this car for two weeks, a little more than needed for a straight shot from NYC to AZ. I wanted to avoid any exhausting days and do some sight-seeing; I kept my max hours driven per day around 6, and you’ll see later what I saw, so I’d consider that goal achieved. I also had a wedding to attend in Minneapolis for my good friend Justin and his wife Franny, who lured me up there on last year’s wanderings. I may not have even embarked on this road trip (& move) if this good cause wasn’t prompted as a way to.. feed two birds with one scone. I generally find flying the most unpleasant form of travel, so I will go to significant lengths to avoid it whenever possible.

A lot of feelings pulsed through me as I retraced a path for the first week up to Minneapolis that mirrored much of the final two months of last year’s wanderings, seeing old friends each night. Following Lebanon, I drove to State College, Fort Wayne, and Madison on my way north. I got a prolonged taste of an early Winter as the temperature plummeted with the incrementing latitude and generally harsher Midwestern climes. It would rarely be above freezing for early November, and my heaviest clothing was foolishly packed deep. I did a lot of stepping around outside in the cold with fingerless gloves and multiple layers of my thinnest clothing.

Minneapolis is one of my favorite cities in the country, and a place I considered living in as I debated what I was doing with my life in 2020. It was a new perspective to drive around it, and see the downtown vibing despite the harsh cold. I stayed with some friends unaffiliated with the wedding, and as someone not in the bridal party with my own agenda, I was able to balance my different activities with the disparate groups I know here happily. There was a pleasant ceremony and reception, and all too soon I was saying my farewells to a very intimate group of my core NYC friends who were with to attend.

I had originally planned to drop down from Minneapolis to Omaha, a city I had a pleasant stay at last year, before being urged to travel through South Dakota and witness its splendor by my pal “Lucky” back in PA. With my straggling on departing for Sioux Falls, my only unknown stay on this trip, I’d be graced with the unenviable conditions of fighting through whiteout snow on the plains after dark. It was a pretty severe ordeal, but I’d be rewarded with the next two days being the most epic of my journey.

On the first, I made my way to Rapid City, which anchors the state’s western half and serves as the gateway to the Black Hills. My frigid way west across the state would be capped with navigating through the ice blasted precipices of Badlands National Park. Nearly alone on the winding roads, I savored the frozen desolation and splendors with unbroken snowfall along the short paths. As the sun began to set, I made my way into Rapid City and did a stay on Couchsurfing with Stephanie, a charming botanist in the NPS’s employ.

Stephanie’s enthusiasm for the local area gave me the confidence to take my last day off before I’d have to burn rubber the rest of the trip to make my rental drop off date in Flagstaff. Thus I drove around the thickly forested Black Hills, viewing Rushmore (more impressive in real life) and Wind Cave (no cave tours due to an elevator outage, less epic), again having the roads and trails mostly to myself. I understand this area is quite busy during the Summer. I did this loop all within a day before returning back to Rapid City for a second night.

Her advice helped steer my exodus from the state to Denver as well, as I ventured into Nebraska and hit Agate Fossil Beds & Scotts Bluff, both national monuments, on my way out, two areas of curious beauty in a state not well known for it. I do have to say it was a bummer to be in Denver & Santa Fe for only an evening each, but at least both were warm enough that the “Winter” of my trip had eroded as day temperatures creeped back into the 60’s. On the way into Flagstaff, It would even crest 70 and the hot Arizona sun would force me to flip on the A/C for the only time on the trip.

All the while, I hadn’t succeeded in locking down a place to live yet. As my entreaties on Craigslist went unanswered, and I ultimately didn’t want to throw down cash on a place without looking first, I booked an Airbnb for a week to avoid a crash landing. That would wind me up with a nice older couple out in the Flagstaff outskirts. Though they were interesting and very helpful, I ultimately felt deeply uncomfortable in a home that was loaded with Christian religious imagery, and definitely conflicted accepting rides in a car that had anti-choice verbiage on it.

I sucked it up, left them a nice review at the end, and got to work getting my life together in the time I was there. After arriving and unloading all my stuff in their house, I showered off the filth of the last drive, dropped off the car, dusty but unharmed, and rode my bike to a climbing gym in town. I cried tears of joy (a little) being back on my bike again, taking in the air, the pine trees, and the thrill of completing another feat. Not everyone gets to do the true American road trip, and I don’t take that for granted.

I resumed my work a couple days after arriving, and unfortunately, the Airbnb had lackluster wifi (& the aforementioned decor), so I wound up as a coffee shop hostage for the week. This is something I’m very used to, but for a sustained 40 hour workweek, was a bit of a drain on the end and not kind on the budget either. Fortunately, Flagstaff offers a cornucopia of options for settling in with a laptop, so I didn’t try any one barista’s patience too much. I even met a few people while migrating around the downtown coffee shops; one even wound up being a date (sourced from watching a democratic debate) that fizzled, alas.

Failed romantic pursuits aside, I lined up a few condos to check and one room-share. The condos all varied between depressing and dingy, and came with the daunting challenge of furnishing a whole living place by myself. I’m more inclined to take the risks of cohabitating, and found something great, sharing a home with Spenser up in the north side of town who’s hard at work refurbishing it and also writing a self help book for millennials. I have a backyard that’s all forest, a funny neighbor downstairs, Kelly, and a safe, comfortable place to figure out the way forward. Lastly, as I write this, I am closing on a car to allow unfettered access to the outdoors, finally.

Making the drive across the country, and settling into a new city, both alone, can weary one’s soul. I deeply feel pangs of homesickness that ebb and flow in me for that unique energy that thrums in NYC, but I do feel committed to building a life out here. Though the physical journey is now over, the spiritual one that runs parallel continues. I am excited to now focus on exploring the wonders of the area, grow my strength and wits, and as always, follow my quixotic cause of being part of a movement to swing the vote in 2020 and beyond. The pain I feel at leaving my friends and what I know behind is real, but being here, I see that the rewards are worth the risks. So far, they always have been.