I live here.
I first moved to Northern Arizona a dozen or so years ago, after a rockslide during an extended cross-country road trip left me carless (which meant homeless, then) and broke. With no house, job, or other obligations I could choose anywhere in the world to live, and so I made my way to Flagstaff, though I couldn’t articulate why. When pressed, I told people the friendly town in the San Francisco mountain range just smelled nice, with crisply fresh dry springtime mountain air. My first day there, I lay on a park bench near downtown and just stared up at the bluest sky I’d ever seen, an impossible blue, blue like a smoothie of melted blue crayon, and at one point reached my arm into the air half expecting it to come back to me dripping blue. I didn’t have a place to live yet, but I had a home.
The Peaks were my playground for hiking, mountain biking, and snowboarding; though for over a decade I didn’t get around to summiting the high point. It was enough to just have it there in my backyard, gazing up and imagining the ghost of a single great mountain before the volcano in its belly blasted out the side, leaving behind the graceful dark snow-filled swoop between the twin peaks of Humphreys and Agassiz.
I dreamed of the mountain after I moved out of its shadow. Deciding to climb it wasn’t about conquering it, it was about being a part of it, just me and this mountain peak like partners in the sky. I can’t explain it.
The trail starts off partway up the mountain, at the parking lot where my future husband and I would sneak onto the slopes before they opened for the season and I shakily learned to snowboard. Today is summer, though, and the downhill run is a blindingly sunny field of yellow wildflowers before edging into the trees, cool and dark and unbelievably alive everywhere in a way you don’t think in the sparse deserts of Arizona, almost claustrophobically choked with life, the ground carpeted in moss and mushrooms and grasses beneath tall aspens shivering in the breeze and enormous pines dripping with heavy green boughs.
The narrow path creeps around rocks and dips under the huge tree roots that burst from the ground to snake swollenly through the mud. It continues switchbacking up the mountain, sometimes shrouded in trees, sometimes breaking to reveal a panoramic vista just beyond a spill of rough volcanic rock. It’s not a difficult hike but it is constantly and relentlessly uphill.
After the fourth mile the trees thin and the ground hardens, and every switchback reveals a view far below of the top of the ski lift or the backs of birds swooping in the empty sky. Still, it feels sudden and disconcerting to break above treeline onto the naked mountain. The damp path gives way to dry boulders, the moss to a delicate crusty lichen, and there I am at the saddle, the low point between the twin peaks, squinting out at a horizon point so far away it’s just a red smudge.
And oh hey there’s a storm.
I’ve been turned back by storms on this hike before, but this time I’m committed. Economics students would shake their heads at the “sunk cost fallacy,” but I’ve just come too many miles to turn back now. I’ve got less than a mile to go, and I pull out my rain jacket and a snack and begin to power up the higher northern peak in earnest. The trail is harder to find here, just a faint tread of dusty grey amid the rocks painted chartreuse with lichen, but I find the footsteps of the people before me as the rain starts to fall, taking steps so high up the steep range I press both hands on my bent knee for leverage and bounce up to the next foothold, always keeping a wary eye for flashes of light in the dark clouds rolling in from the west.
With only open sky above me I crest the first false summit and zero in on the next. A handful of hikers, bright flowers in their neon technical rain gear, are picking their way down from the summit. There is no one else going up. A pellet of hail bounces off my jacket hood, then another, and as I scramble over the next peak the sky bombards me with tiny cold white beads of ice. Okay, this is a bad idea. This is absolutely where I should turn around. But:
“You’re almost there!” one of the flowers shouts encouragingly as he passes by. He stretches out a wet pale hand and points at the peak behind him with a blue-tinged fingertip. “That’s it right there!”
The peak behind him, and in front of me, is straight ahead, the trail straddling a knife edge of black charcoal for the length of a parking lot and then topping out at the sky. There are no switchbacks, no curves, and for the moment no lightning. He slaps me on the shoulder and against both instinct and logic I race up the slippery wet ridge, driven by adrenaline and stupidity and for a moment the hail stops pecking at my head and then oh
There’s nothing above me and the world below me. Alone at the top of Arizona, I laugh out loud and throw my head back and spin in a circle like a maniac, taking in the view, the bowl-shaped scoop of the volcano below and the desert beyond, stretching all the way out to the rim of the Grand Canyon. If it were a clearer day I could see Utah, even Colorado, but here it’s enough to just see everything that I’ve passed on the way.
Amazingly, the rain stops and the clouds part, letting in a bit of filtered sun. I open the ammo box holding the log book– hilariously plastered with an “I CLOSED WOLSKI’S” sticker from my hometown of Milwaukee– and sign in to the highest point in the state, then toss my backpack on a bench overlooking the desert to crack open my summit beer. Just as I do another couple scrambles breathlessly over the ridge, having braved the storm just as stupidly as I, and we take each others’ pictures and laugh a bit nervously at our electrically-charged floaty hair and pass around my beer and their trail mix, toasting our madness a full mile above the town of Flagstaff shivering down below our damp boots.
About the beer:
Mogollon Wapiti Amber.
Maybe not the very best beer in Arizona, but it holds the distinction of being the first beer I’d ever drank here, the week I’d decided to make this town my home. At the time Mogollon bottled a handful of brews in a combination bar/club/brewery downtown; since then the bar has changed hands a few times and the brewery has branched out to distilling spirits in a hidden part of town. I think the Wapiti is the only beer they still distribute (now in a can, still featuring the mighty elk). It’s a super malty red/amber that smells sweetly toasty, like freshly made waffles sprinkled with brown sugar and maybe garnished with orange slices, and after you’ve climbed a mile to stand higher than anywhere else in the state, it’s a damned tasty brew to share.