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flagstaff, arizona

flagstaff, arizona
I’ve tried to leave. In earnest. Multiple times. I’ve looked at portland.craigslist.org, boulder.craigslist.org, I’ve created Zillow notifications for zip codes of places I remember having a nice time at a crowded bar, and I’ve even proclaimed the words out loud to friends, affirming them to the ether, “I’M MOVING!”
and yet, I’m still here. five lease agreements and two handshake deals later, and I’m still happily stuck here.
The wrestling of the two ideas, to stay or to go, has been a constant of my tenure in Flagstaff, Arizona. As each new season approaches, a grand plan for a summer, a fall, a winter away from this place grows in their allure. But then I go for another run on my favorite bootleg trail to the top of Dry Lake Hills, I escape a snowstorm by driving sublime switchbacks to the warm rock of Sedona, I spend the twilight hour of a long fall day climbing out of the Grand Canyon. Point and counterpoint. A push and a pull. One step forward, two steps back into the friendly confines of this familiar mountain town.
I ended up here with no plans for an extended stay, but more just plans to sleep in someone’s extra bedroom for a few months while I tried to figure out what life was like outside of a college campus. I knew a “real” job was on the horizon and I was fine with it. It was something I’d wanted and worked towards for years in school, but I figured a few months of exploring this almost mythical running town wouldn’t set me back very far on my trajectory towards capital A Adulthood.

Adulthood, in my mind, meant running was now a hobby, not a possible profession; it meant you weren’t living with your best friends when you’re in your late 20s; and it certainly meant you were kind of pissed off all the time. As the years rolled by in Flagstaff, running became a profession, I was still living with my best friends, and I was unusually happy.
adulthood seemed to be a can kicked further and further down the road.
And it’s this proverbial kicking of the can that, at times, tears at me. It’s what makes me believe that I’m living in a place stuck in time and not making real, genuine progress towards whatever we’re told Adulthood looks like. I don’t mean stuck in time as, say, a Blockbuster is around my corner; but more as in an existential-dread, am-I-stuck-here-forever type of vibe. Also I don’t mean stuck as a pejorative as much as just, like stuck in a very nice place with very nice people but maybe not answering life’s capital B Big questions. You know, the sort of things that keep you staring at your ceiling until dawn.

This gnawing, low-level anxiety around the self-made idea that I needed to get on with my life is why I was on Zillow, creeping through Craigslist, and screaming into the void.
Flagstaff can feel like a bubble. A place almost removed from the reality of the world it inhabits. Even just in Arizona, it is somehow (mostly) free of the ridiculous vitriol this state has come to embody during the last five years. And, during the last five years, I’ve been able to leave my front door and quickly bid adieu to the troubles of the present. The Ponderosa Pines relieve the notions of impending doom, a tough climb up Mt. Elden washes away — for a brief 30 minutes — the catastrophes of the day. It can seem unfair to not have the experience of humanity in the same way that someone who lives in a city of millions might. It can make you feel a certain level of disconnect from anything outside your bubble, while forcing you to become much more intune with what’s under your feet and in front of your eyes.

“What am I even doing?” I ask myself as I’m climbing up Weatherford Trail midday, middle of the week, surrounded by Aspen groves and not another person in sight. Trying to convince myself once again that I need to be sitting in an ergonomic chair in an office in a mid-major city, not kicking my own ass up at 11,000 feet above sea level. Clearly this is a form of progress, but towards what, I ask myself. The comparisons of good progress versus useless progress rain down almost constantly. Stories of what is worthy of focus and attention, and what is not.
it’s a deeply embedded fiction that toiling in the woods will reap less reward than toiling on a spreadsheet.
A close friend, and my coach at the time, sent me a text shortly after I had moved to Flagstaff. It was a bit of thought from F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.”

At its face, this can sound a bit fatalistic. Words like “hopeless” tend to do that, but I think it’s more about living in the middle of ideas with an understanding, and an overwhelming belief, in your ability to take action towards progress. Navigating life, any life, can feel hopeless. You get absolutely crushed by huge, cosmic blows of the reality of this situation we’re in but, in the midst of it all, you push on.

Flagstaff has taught me to face those questions and be okay with the unconventional answers.
each day I’m smacked in the face by thoughts of my ego and selfishness for still pursuing this sport, but also I’m able to experience my determination, my refusal to quit, and an overwhelming resilience.
Those are the pillars of my life, those are what influence and guide me in my navigation of the world. The more I come face-to-face with who I am, the more grounded I become.

Your reality, like your Adulthood, isn’t authenticated by anyone or given the green light by the world at large. It is something you feel, like the rising sun burning off well-earned brow sweat on another one of your perfect mornings.
about the author
stephen kersh

stephen kersh lives in flagstaff, arizona where he tries his best to get outside everyday and create things that bring a smile to someone's face. keep along with him on instagram @stephenkersh and follow the jokes he workshops on twitter @stephenkersh.