Report on Flagstaff: Some Notes on the Town

The Monte Vista Hotel opened in 1927 and trades on its retro image. There is an old-fashioned front desk with mail cubbyholes in the wall behind it. The decor is dark wood; the bar has a black and red color scheme. On the front desk, a brass plaque advertises “Ear plugs available upon request.” (Perhaps because, as I’ll later hear a local claim, 83 trains pass through Flagstaff on an average day.) In the elevator, a brass plaque asks “Please be kind to our ancient elevator.” The brochure A. sent me mentions that “several dozen rooms are named after our celebrated guests: Carol Lombard, Humphrey Bogart, Bob Hope, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracey, Zane Grey, Jane Russell, Bing Crosby and more.” Indeed, as we walk down the hall toward our third-floor room, we pass the Jane Russell room and the Alan Ladd room. So my head just isn’t in the right era when we come to our room, read the name beneath the black and white framed photo on the door, and try to place the name “Robert Englund.” It comes to me before we open the door, but, if it hadn’t, the framed picture of Freddy Krueger next to the mirror would have tipped us off. It’s autographed by “Freddy” and is annotated: “Suite Dreams — Ha, Ha!”

It’s not a suite, though, just a small room with a bed, dresser and sink, and the shower and toilet in a little closet-like space. Adequate to our purposes. There is no bedside table, which will be significant a few nights into our stay. By then, I’ll be in the habit of hanging my metal-framed glasses from the floor lamp next to the bed, by hooking one temple over the lampshade. This works just fine when turning in for the night, but on one occasion I do this while resting my eyes during the an “Office” marathon we’re watching on TV. (Probably I did this during the many previews of the apparently execrable movie “Evan Almighty,” also starring Steve Carrell, that they are playing at the commercial breaks.) The light is on. Fifteen minutes later, I scoop the glasses up and pop them onto my face too quickly to notice that the metal temple has been superheated by its proximity to the light bulb. All at the same time, I hear the sound of my sizzling flesh, feel the pain and find that I am yelling with pain and surprise.

Our room could have a cooler namesake, but it could also have a worse one. On our way out for dinner at Karma Sushi Tapas, on Route 66, I notice a Bon Jovi room next to the elevator.

The next morning we walk across the tracks to the laundromat and start a load of A.’s clothes before ordering breakfast next door in Macy’s, one of these places where you order food at the counter and some hairy young person eventually walks out into the middle of the dining room with your meal and yells your name. Mismatched, scarred wood furniture, a general atmosphere of virtuous reducing, reusing and making do. Ahead of us in line, a Frenchman apologizes for his English. “Don’t apologize,” the clerk instructs him. All of the Bird Campers are in town and we run into various of them everywhere we go; at breakfast, A.’s colleague Kara joins us. They eat granola, I eat a “steamed egg” sandwich (which is much better than it sounds). While A. and Kara talk birds and camp, I flip through a copy of Us magazine I’ve stolen from the laundromat. I had thought I wanted to see the “scandalous pictures” of Lindsay Lohan holding a knife to Vanessa Williams’s neck, pictures which the headline claims are “testing [Williams’s husband’s] love”], but I find myself transfixed by an ad for the Canon Powershot digital camera featuring Maria Sharapova, and not for the reasons you might expect: the camera ad features about a dozen photographs, but they are all pictures of Sharapova taking pictures, with no suggestion that the photos are supposed to represent what the camera is actually capable of. You should want this camera, in other words, so that you will look like Maria Sharapova when you are using it?

While we eat, a heavyset woman stirs coffee beans in the massive roaster that dominates the dining room. Her iPod and the coffee roaster are the same shade of red. On the way back to our side of the tracks, we are stopped by a train, an immensely long row of doubledecker cargo containers full of all the stuff China makes for us.

Flagstaff is such a small town that, when I visited last year, I drove through it thinking it was its own suburbs. There is a tiny downtown “grid” before the town peters out into suburban sprawl and strip malls. But the downtown has an appealing, defiant feel to it, remnants of the old west, no building taller than four or five stories. There are interesting restaurants and small boutiques where one can pay a lot of money for clothes to go for a hike in, and other stores with signs advertising “Crystal Sale” and “Sustainable Fashions.” The side streets feel sleepy and of another time, the local motels advertised by billboards on steel Eiffel Tower-like structures towering fifty feet above the sidewalk, a clear sign of the absence of zoning laws, like they were thrown up during a plutonium rush in the 1960s. One block over from the tracks is a street of old-fashioned motor-court-style motels, overgrown with unplanned foliage and obviously offering weekly and monthly rates.