Report on Flagstaff: Getting There

I arrive at BWI at nine a.m. for a ten a.m. flight. If I’d had any bags to check, this would have been a mistake: there are easily two hundred people waiting in the line for check-in with baggage at the Southwest counter. Bagless, I can duck into a separate “line” (actually, there’s no one in it) and I am checked in and free to head for the gate within minutes.

In security, the pregnant women come and go, discussing pregnancy. A new mother pushing a stroller is an elder statesman among them. Everyone quickly establishes how old the baby is. (8 months.) Apparently, he wasn’t even sitting up at Easter, and now look at him. The usual sounds of adoration are made.

“I don’t know what the hell happened to Trent Lott,” says the mean-faced man behind me in the security line. “He’s making nice with Pelosi and the rest of them.”

At the gate, I am one of the last people to join the “C” line, the third and final boarding group on a Southwest flight. This means I am doomed to a middle seat.

“We’re going to be last?” says an old woman in front of me. “Don’t they make allowances for senior citizens?”

“Yes, get out your AARP card,” says a middle-aged woman, standing with her balding, pink-scalped husband. Their hulking sons crowd the door of the jetway.

“Oh, I’m well past that,” says the old woman, mysteriously. (Is there an upper limit for AARP membership now?) “I’m 72.”

“Oh!” says the second woman. “I’m in my 50s, and I would have guessed you were my age.”

Her husband: “I would have guessed 30s.” He does not in the slightest appear to be joking.

The wife: “You have great skin.”

The husband: “And great teeth.” He looks like a dentist, come to think of it.

The wife: “You must hear that all the time.”

“Well, yes, I do,” answers the old woman. “But it’s all genetic, of course,” she continues, the very soul of modesty. Though I suppose these days it’s worth pointing out that it’s not all plastic.

Partway through the flight, Southwest passes out “snack boxes.” Mine contains a plastic pouch of dried fruit, a foil pouch of “shortcake cookies,” and a package of peanut-butter cheese crackers. I stick with my peanut butter sandwich. The flight attendant, who has repeatedly spoken of herself as “the mom of the plane,” makes an announcement.

“We don’t throw food away, so if there’s anything in your snack box you don’t like, just leave it closed and we’re going to come through and collect those. If there’s something you want more of, you can take it then, just give us the stuff you don’t want. Cause we don’t throw food away. Now just so you don’t think we box it up and give it to you – ” (by “you” she is clearly referring to “people who ride our planes”; like many people in the service industry, she thinks of all of her customers as the same person, which is why they get so upset when you don’t understand some process they’re putting you through: they explained it to “you” just yesterday, after all) ” – we actually collect it and give it old folks’ homes, women’s shelters and food banks.” She pauses for the applause that is expected in this country whenever someone announces how virtuous/patriotic/strict at parenting he or she is. The applause comes, on cue.

“Oh,” says the woman sitting next to me, who has been studying a binder that outlines the rules and procedures through which the U.S. Marshall Service can seize financial assets. (Apparently they are able to do so using some feature of the AFT process the rest of us use to pay bills online.) “They don’t box it up and give it to us, they box it up and give it to other people.”

I have 2.5 hours to kill in the Phoenix airport before my shuttle bus to Flagstaff departs. I wander the terminals. In a vending machine, I read the lead USA Today headline: “Troops’ 1-month breaks reduced.” This reminds of the apocalyptic science fiction I used to read in middle school, in which bloated interplanetary empires were depicted as sliding into ruins. This is the kind of headline that one of those writers would have thrown into the background details of the story, to evoke the giant dying slowly, of a thousand cuts. You’re already losing, of course, when such ideas start to seem like the only way to win.

The Phoenix airport, known as “Sky Harbor” (something else that puts me in mind of science fiction stories), is sprawling and small at the same time. There are four terminals (A,B, C and D), separated by a half mile of walkway apiece (with the requisite moving sidewalks), but, when you actually get to one of the terminals, there is often no unused gate at which it is possible to sit in peace and only a relatively small selection of restaurants. Through the tall windows by the moving sidewalk, it just looks hot outside.

My shuttle “bus” turns out to be a van. I am the last one in and must make do with a sort of fold-down jump seat right next to the side doors. Close enough to the side doors that I take a very personal interest in whether those doors are locked. The seat belt is a strange jury-rigged affair that barely stretches far enough to close around me (and I’m svelte) and then prevents me from sitting up all the way, due to where it’s attached behind my back. I spend the whole trip in a mild crouch, braced for death in a fiery crash, a passenger van not being exactly the best choice for high-speed freeway travel. (Their center of gravity moves up and to the rear, the more you load them – in a bus, you might walk away from a highway accident, but, in a van of this sort, you will almost certainly die.) For this I’m paying more than Greyhound? But at least they pick you up at the airport, otherwise I’d have had to take a cab to the Greyhound station.

We battle our way out of the city, through traffic-choked freeways and past utterly uninteresting subdivisions and strip malls. My seat belt never once locks as our frenetic driver works the brakes.

Near Camp Verde, firmly in the desert, with the old stagecoach road winding through the dusty hills below the highway, we stop at Burger King for bathrooms and sustenance before the final hour’s drive into Flagstaff. (The locals just say “Flag.”) I fall into conversation with a local, who then points out the natural features as we draw closer to town. To get to Flagstaff, the highway climbs up to the Mogollon Rim and onto the Colorado Plateau, where Flag sits 7,000 feet above sea level. The junipers give way to pines; the ground turns from dust to green. On a far hillside sits a rusted-out 1920s-era automobile, perhaps most recently used for target practice.

A. meets me at the shuttle-bus stop at the train station, carrying a six pack.

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