(this story started here…)
So I woke in my little metal frame bed in Flagstaff to the sounds of a hostel: mummering, zippers zipping, showers turning on, half-asleep bodies moving slowly around. I had done it, I had survived my first night in a hostel. Pretty much boring. For being as personable as I am, there is something about hostels that have always turned me off. I retreat in my shell, I don’t talk to anyone, I put up the wall – at that point I thought it was just because I didn’t understand how it all worked, but this has pretty much remained true throughout my life so far.
I packed my big ass green canvas pack – you know, the kind with a big metal frame and about 100 hanging straps and 35 different pockets. Like this – big, square, made in the early 70s:
I can still hear the jangle of those metal tipped straps hitting the frame and each other. And I can still feel the intense pain from walking around with it packed full of clothes, shoes, and my discman. I only thought about space, not about weight, when packing for the trip – but that lesson would be learned very soon.
With my green pack and Deltron 3030 on my headphones, I boarded a small bus (more like a large van) slated to take us to Phoenix as the morning dew was drying up. For the next two hours I watched the long pines and lush green change to short brush and dusty brown, and the temperature in the bus went up about 25 degrees. It was my first time in a desert, my first time watching a terrain change so drastically, and my first time in the place my father was born.
My dad was born in a small hospital in Phoenix while my Grandpa was working a saleman job there – a few years later his father, mother, and four siblings all moved up to the temperate and more hospitable suburbs of St. Louis. He doesn’t remember his time living there at all, but it lives on in the legacy of our family. “Phoenix. That’s the place dad was born.”
My only contact in Phoenix was the biological sister of a friend who had grown up with an adopted family. They had recently reconnected, just before the birth of her second child. I don’t know how or why I thought it would be the best idea to stay with them, these complete strangers and their brand new baby – only that my friend was (and is) one of the most open-hearted and generous people I had ever met, and I assumed I would find them the same.
I called their house from a payphone at the bus station and the boyfriend gave me explicit walking directions, “Go north one block, our street is about eleven blocks down on the left. We are the fourth house from the corner, the door on the right.” Twelve blocks!!! What luck! In a few short minutes I would be delivered from the Phoenix heat to the open arms of some complete strangers, Huzzah!
What I didn’t know were two things: (a) Phoenix heat was in no way like St. Louis heat and (b) 12 Phoenix blocks was a whole lot bigger than 12 St. Louis blocks.
St. Louis’s thermostat generally tops off around 95 on really bad days, and though there is no escape from the humidity, you would almost always find your path crossed by the shade of a few of the 1000’s of trees in the Greater Metropolitan Area. Phoenix was hotter, dryer, and sunnier. I don’t think they even have trees there.
I trudged my first block with the 55 pound (oh, I weighed it later that night) pack on my back and many many curse words in my mouth, realizing it was the longest block I had ever experienced. By block four I was sweating profusely, getting a little dizzy, and sort of freaking out. Well, this must have shown on my face because moms in SUV’s started pulling up and asking if I wanted a ride.
I refused them, out of my “don’t get in a car with a stranger” policy. But for cripes sake!! What was wrong with me!?! They were nice soccer moms with big hearts. Many of them couldn’t believe I said no and stared at me shaking their heads as I walked away. I guess they knew just how dangerous that heat could be – I had no idea.
Finally I reached the house, parched but still conscious.
Their little apartment was littered with toys, rightfully so – a thing I didn’t mind and was actually quite used to from having younger siblings. Their place boasted an outdoor pool and beautiful citrus trees growing all around – these trees and this pool provided the only good memories of my short time in Phoenix.
So I had a plan for my first full day in Phoenix:
-repack my pack and send home what I didn’t need, because I HAD to lighten the load
-go up to see a culinary school in Scottsdale (…I think it was the Arizona Culinary Institute)
I marked the first thing off my list fairly quickly, then on to the second – without the aid of GPS, the internet, or even a cell phone. How did I do it?!? I’m pretty sure I purchased a map and got a bus schedule. Weird huh? Armed with my guidance tools and a bottle of water, I hit the road.
It was another sweltering, insanely hot and sunny day in Lovely Arizona. No, really, Phoenix is a dusty bowl in the desert:
I thought the phrase “fry and egg on the side walk” was funny and appropriate in St. Louis – oh no! it was meant for this little piece of hell.
While waiting for the bus I discovered the trick of spitting water on the ground and watching it IMMEDIATELY evaporate. It was cool! It was scary.
I boarded the bus with a few dusty people – no, really, they had dust on them – and found a seat near a Latino grandma. The foreign architecture rolled past the big bus windows. It was like Phoenix was made up of crappy apartment buildings from the 70’s. Ugly siding and nothing higher than four stories. Growing up in St. Louis and spending most of my time in the middle states, I had never seen a city that was so young before, one that wasn’t built around grand turn-of-the-century stone buildings with broad walkways, giant iron gates, and majestic spires.
Then the bus stopped. And wouldn’t start again. So we all sat in the sweltering oven of a bus until another one showed up. Then, a few blocks later, that bus stopped. And wouldn’t start again. As I exited the second broken-down bus my nose began to bleed, bright red blood trickled down my chin onto my shirt and hands. I am assuming this was from the intense arid climate and dust. Either way, it was the awful icing on a shit cake.
At this point I was officially freaked out and very hungry, so I walked to a nearby Chinese Restaurant with tissue in my nostrils and tried to drown my sorrows in some fried rice. BUT no one warns you that Chinese food tastes different in other parts of the country – I mean it all comes from China, right?! I choked down my weird “Chinese” food and defeated, deflated, tired, and very hot I got on a bus going back to that little apartment with the pool.
I never made it to that culinary school in Scottsdale.
I have never gone back to Phoenix either.