The Solo Retreat

I needed to get away and I knew that if I didn’t go now, it would be a long time before the opportunity would arise again. Two nights were all I could afford which meant my solo retreat would have to stay within the boundaries of my state. Luckily, Arizona isn’t all a sizzling, hot desert full of saguaros, prickly pears, rattle snakes, and buzzards. Just a couple hours drive north of Phoenix and I’m at a blissful nine thousand foot elevation, surrounded by pine trees and a cool, mountain breeze. I’m in Flagstaff.

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I’ve been to Flagstaff many times. I used to be intimately familiar with it because I’d gone to school, lived, and worked there when I was younger.

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Solo retreats are a wonderful way to recharge. I’ve had enough practice that each one I take is better than the last. This particular one couldn’t have come at a better time. A week or so prior, I’d had an emotional wakeup call from a rather unexpected source. Ten years ago, I would have let my emotions consume me. But this time I still wept, but I also interpreted this reality check as a sign. My life needed to change, in a big way. And for that, I needed to separate myself from the usual distractions. I needed to be alone.

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There was no plan really. I brought lots of books, magazines, paper and writing utensils. I left the laptop at home and went analog as much as possible. I posted a picture a time or two to Instagram and Facebook, but only when I was in my hotel room where there was Wi-Fi.

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I arrived in Flagstaff on a Sunday. Since it was still a too early to check into my hotel room, I browsed through the untranslated French at Bookmans, choosing a book by Françoise Sagan that had what appeared to be a squashed bug stuck to the title page. I bought the book anyway as well as a copy of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Then I sat down with a frozen coffee drink in the café. By the time I was done it was time to check in.

As soon as my hotel room was ready, I checked in, unpacked a little, and just rested until the sun was low enough in the sky for optimum photography. Besides, I needed a little time to adjust to the altitude.

IMG_4703Around four-thirty, I grabbed my camera and headed downtown. When I arrived, I followed the sound of drumming and shouting to its source: an anti-police protest.

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The protesters were a small but passionate group of young people. I watched them carry their signs chanting, “Black lives matter; Red lives matter; Blue lives murder.” There were no African American protesters but there were Native Americans and sympathetic white people shouting and marching through streets and alley ways. Ironically, they were followed by a few policemen. I’m not sure who they were supposed to be protecting – us or them. I don’t know the stories of the people the protestors seemed to be honoring either. Were they killed by the police too, like so many we’ve been hearing about on the news?

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I’ve never participated in a protest. I remember talking to someone about it when I was studying in France fourteen years ago, though. In France, it seemed like the young people were always protesting something. Protesting was second only to going on strike, it seemed. My French friend and I wondered if protests ever actually made a difference. He didn’t think so. From what he understood, most protests were more like social gatherings or parties anyway. It’s like, let’s all unite under a common hate, make signs, and yell at people because it’s fun. Afterward we’ll have a beer together.

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I went to the bar in the basement of Charlie’s for dinner. It was nice being the only customer and making small talk with the young bartender. But I should’ve known it was too good to last. Two young ladies came in and sat at the bar a little ways from me. They were blond, tipsy, and very pretty. I attempted to talk to them as well and, when that didn’t work, I pulled a book out of my purse and endeavored to read.

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As more people shuffled in, I abandoned the bar and finished my dinner at a nearby table. I must’ve looked like a sight for sore eyes anyway: fat, no makeup, and a scarf on my head to keep sweat from dripping in my eyes. The other people at the bar were, at the very least, a decade younger than me. I imagine when they reach my age, they’ll be married with children and bars such as this will no longer seem appealing.

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As I wandered around town, I’d sometimes overhear the newest generation of university students talking about their assignments or extra-curricular activities. In the poetry section at the bookstore, I witnessed two twenty-something ladies fan-girl over dead poets. They exuded a such a raw, youthful passion the likes of which I’d not seen since I was their age. One of the girls talked about lining her bookshelves with beautiful, vintage editions of the timeless works of great poets.

IMG_4922The next day I decided to I needed to see dinosaur tracks and headed north on 89A toward Tuba City and Page. I’d read about the tracks in Phoenix Magazine but I didn’t expect the road to feel quite so long. Most of the drive was through the Navajo Reservation and, aside from the occasional Navajo jewelry vendors, there weren’t many places to stop along the way. So I listened to my Voyage Imaginaire playlist with its 283 songs about journeys, destinations, home or being foreign. I also squeezed in a few songs to help me imagine I’m already far from here. Sometimes I tell myself it’s too long for a single playlist, and yet it sustained all the way there and back.

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The dinosaur tracks were pretty amazing. It remind me of my brief obsession with paleontology when I was a kid, before Jurassic Park was even a thing. I asked my guide if there was anything in traditional Navajo beliefs to explain dinosaurs and she said they don’t even have a word for dinosaur in her language (I think she said the elders used to call it “giant bird” or something like that). But she’d lived on that part of the Res her whole life. The fossilized footprints were kind of like her backyard where she played as a little girl.

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I had no clue where to go next but the day was still young so I just followed the signs to Page. Lake Powell, Glen Canyon and the dam were major tourist attractions, especially for international tourists.

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On my way out, I stopped to see Horseshoe Bend, a 1.4 mile round trip hike overflowing with international tourists. I heard, among other languages, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch, but the most pleasant sound for me was French. I spent a lot of time simply eaves-dropping on French conversations. But I couldn’t find the courage to interrupt the French. I’d been listening to French music in the car and still knew how to speak it well. I just didn’t feel like I fit in around so many attractive people. I thought of a time when I wasn’t fat and dining with Europeans. I remember how they’d make fun of fat people, especially fat Americans. It didn’t bother me then because I wasn’t the object of ridicule. But now I’m acutely aware of what I’ve become. I am the negative American stereotype, the person I never dreamed I’d become. Couple that with the scarf I wore on my head to keep the sweat out of my eyes, my lack of makeup (also due to sweating issues), and the adult acne that had broken out all over my lower face. If you knew nothing about me but what you saw, you might not feel inclined to talk with me either.

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I did speak to one French guy. I asked him in English how the view was from where he was standing and he silently signaled that he didn’t understand so I switched languages and suddenly he was no longer mute. He had lots to say, so long as it was in his own language.

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But our small talk was brief. He’d come with family. All the international tourists had come with family, or, at the very least, friends. The point is, no one came alone. As far as I could see, I was the only solitary tourist which also robbed me of my desire to strike up conversations with strangers. Each person already had with them the only person or people they cared to talk with. No need to have a superficial friendship with an American, especially a weird-looking, fat, thirty-six-year-old, unmarried, woman like me.

IMG_5014Maybe I’m projecting but I don’t think so. I’m very observant. It is what it is and, though I can’t change everything about me, I can lose weight and find a good dermatologist to help me with my face. It’s just going to take time and it’s not going to be easy. (More on this later.)

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Back in Flagstaff, I headed to the grocery store to score a picnic dinner. I remember when it used to be called New Frontiers. Now it’s part of the Whole Foods corporation. That didn’t bother me so much as the entire “village” that’s been built up around it. The fancy new apartments built above high-end retail chains are still looking for tenants. But what kind of people would want to live there? I know people who’ve lived in Flagstaff for most (if not all) their lives and they’d probably find this sort of thing appalling. Even the “village” street names attempt to give the new place a kind of “Old World” feel like “Piccadilly,” “Regent,” or “Cambridge.” It’s like they’re trying to make a miniature Europe except European villages derive their charm from their distinct personalities built over time. The people who own and work in the shops are the ones living above them. McDonald’s may be in cities the world over, but the village should not be defined by multi-national corporations.

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Tuesday I drove to Lake Mary hoping to snap some photos but it turned out I needed a permit to park my car there. So I turned around and headed to Sedona by way of Oak Creek Canyon where I also hoped to find photo ops, but I couldn’t seem to find a place to park my car for free there either. It was all national forest land and almost everything the government didn’t owned was privately owned.

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I wondered what happened to the commons. Is there anything that isn’t “owned” by anyone anymore? Then again, maybe it’s better this way. Nature’s worst enemy is man.

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Finally I found free parking near the most popular, touristy street in Sedona. I switched to a longer lens for this one. By the way, you wouldn’t believe how many people I saw with SLR cameras while I was away! There may be a camera on every smart phone but the more sophisticated amateur photography is far from dead.

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From Sedona I went to Jerome where there were more tourists, only in this case they were mostly Americans. Storm clouds followed me there, but I didn’t mind. Give me a cloudy day over a sunny day any day. Besides, in a place like Jerome, clouds only enhance beauty and mystery.

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The clouds followed me all the way home. There was a little rain as drove through Prescott Valley but mostly the sky was amazing. I had to pull over to the side of the road a couple of times just to capture the clouds. I wish I’d have caught some lightening as well, but lightening never seems to cooperate with me. I’ve seen some brilliant photographs of lightening by professionals, but I have yet to figure out how they do it. It can’t be sheer luck each time.

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Then I came home.

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