My best friend (my rock, my soulmate, the light of my life, my long-suffering, one-woman, support system etc.), Lauren, and I arrived in Phoenix after a harrowing flight spent trying to ignore the chaos unfolding in the row behind us. There was a baby screaming, a young child kneading her shoes into my spine, undeterred by the return blows I delivered to the seat-back in an, admittedly, immature fit of frustration, and a mom intent on playing both good cop and bad cop at a rapid-fire volley that would have left the Williams sisters’ heads spinning. It’s unclear to me why dogs are made to ride in the cargo hold, but children get a pass. They’re roughly the same size and children are undoubtedly of a poorer temperament.
After countless hours—perhaps several sunlit days, I can’t be sure—our plane landed and we were off to retrieve our rental car. It was cute, sporty, and cherry red, but no amount of aesthetic appeal could disguise the fact that the dashboard was flashing a temperature of 110 degrees. Welcome to Phoenix. The temperature climbed to 115 as we hit the road in the midst of a record-breaking heatwave and we watched the world shimmer beneath a blazing sun from the comfort of our air-conditioned car. We drove through rocks, bluffs, and vast tracts of desert in earthen hues of rust and sand. The landscape was dotted with an endless sea of saguaro cacti, tall and stout, waving us on through the valley with impossibly robust arms. As we climbed toward Prescott, the desert gave way to denser vegetation and the saguaro were replaced with stands of alligator juniper and ponderosa pine. Soon, I began to recognize road signs and store fronts from countless hours spent driving the town’s streets on Google Maps.
After two hours on the road, we arrived at our French-themed vacation rental in a complex just south of the town’s center. It was charming, if not exactly my taste, but I certainly appreciated the extravagant attention to detail—there were decorations EVERYWHERE. This made the condo’s immaculate condition all the more impressive and, after giving our digs the seal of approval, we headed back out to check out Sprouts Farmers Market and pick up some groceries. There’s something soothing about visiting a grocery store in a new town. Walking through the doors feels like a home-coming—seeing all those familiar items and creature comforts in a strange, new place. And Sprouts has Whole Foods beat by a mile. We couldn’t quite put our finger on it, but we both acknowledged that it was just better. It had everything you could want, and few things you didn’t, making grocery shopping a (costly) pleasure. We stocked up on fresh produce, oatmeal, soups, snacks, soy milk, hummus, and expensive, imported chocolate stouts. We would later find that, despite being a small town, Prescott has all the goods a crunchy, vegan, baking-obsessed girl could want, with two natural food stores and a liquor store carrying my favorite local, imported, and organic brands. Much to my delight, I even found the new Samuel Smith pear cider I had been hunting for, though, given then heat and aridity, I could only make it through half a bottle before my light-weight self was down for the count. (Lauren can attest to this as she witnessed my eyes roll back in my head after about ten sips.)
After settling in, we decided to hit the town and took advantage of a small, creek-side path our rental property owner had recommended that tumbled out of the creek bed right next to Courthouse Square. The creek was dry, but the dusty path had a certain charm and we stopped to admire the riparian flora—fuchsia sweet-peas and patches of wild squash—before drawing up short at the sight of a long-haired skunk picking its way across the rocks. We tracked its progress from a distance, watching it amble into a cut-out in the stone wall, chatting loudly all the while so as not to startle it. Its furry, white tail had just disappeared beneath the tall grass when a swatch of blue fabric caught my eye—that’s when I noticed the body. I turned to Lauren, who had already spotted it but was carrying on the conversation so as not to raise alarm while she tried to figure out what to do. We whispered back and forth—Do we get closer? See if he’s sleeping? Heat-stroked? Passed out drunk? ODed? Dead?! We debated about calling the non-emergency police before deciding the man had likely lain down to “sleep it off” (whatever “it” was, we weren’t sure) due to the intentional positioning of his arms. We settled on beating a hasty retreat and hopping on the main road to town, instead. Our decision was later rewarded when, on the way home, we saw the same man staggering down the street before us and ducking into the yard of his house, just beside the creek. He made one hell of a greeting committee.
The town square is charming, with a beautiful, grassy park in the middle surrounding the town’s historic courthouse, but it’s somewhat reminiscent of a poor man’s Santa Fe. Its streets are lined with tourist shops selling western wear and Native American jewelry, antique stores (my favorite being Mid Century Madness), the usual smattering of restaurants and cafes, and a series of dank, cavernous bars, each more dive-y than the next, with cheap beer and little decoration save for bargain furniture scattered across concrete floors and the usual haze of neon lights. The bar clientele appeared to be comprised mostly of bleach blondes in stacked heels and rompers and old men with scraggly, greying mustaches, wearing Tommy Bahama shirts with a few too many buttons undone, and, of course, the occasional cowboy hat and boots–to be expected out here in the West. But the general makeup of the town is, thankfully, surprisingly diverse in all areas–race, class, age, political affiliation, personal style, etc. There were conservative retirees done up in makeup and sweater sets, young hippies with bare feet and tie-dyed skirts, students on skateboards, dog-walkers, runners, leather-clad bikers, pick-up truck drivers, and soccer moms. One day we passed a group of protestors at one corner of the square brandishing horrifying pro-Trump signs before before making our way to the next corner where we were relieved to find their counterpoint–a group of activists with signs supporting immigration, equality, and general human decency. Much like the town’s people, the town itself is a haphazard collection of every conceivable manner of living–small, well-kept victorians, shotgun houses in varying states of adorableness or disrepair, trailer parks, luxurious retirement homes, lush lawns and wildflower gardens, dirt lots and rusted car parts, expensive boutiques and second-hand stores—all within a stone’s throw of each other with no real sense of organization or demarcation.
I discovered much of this on my early morning runs. I never did adjust to the time change and woke around 4:00 or 5:00 every morning, getting things done around the condo before heading out at 5:30 or 6:00 for a trail run on the soon-to-be beloved creek-side trail (despite its questionable first impression), followed by meandering explorations of the town in the quiet hush of dawn. I scouted quite a few rental properties this way, scoping out the neighborhoods and adding them to, or knocking them off the list accordingly. I always ended in the square, nearly deserted save for a few early risers and the enormous, Hitchcockian crows that cawed menacingly from their perches on building eves and atop street lamps.
The post-breakfast mornings were spent hiking and paddle boarding on Prescott’s stunning lakes and trails. In our short and busy stay we managed to hit Watson Lake, Goldwater Lake, and Thumb Butte, hiking at each in both the morning, and then again in the afternoon. We were determined to get our money from our daily parking passes and soak up the beautiful scenery amidst the chaos of school tours and apartment viewings. We admired the arresting geological formations at Watson Lake—smooth, undulating boulders of granite in dribbles and dollops, like life-sized, drip-style sand castles formed from the fists of giants. We inhaled the sweet scent of ponderosa pine bark at Goldwater Lake—a smell I once described as marshmallows and vanilla, but have since amended to cream soda after Lauren pointed out the incredible likeness. We huffed and puffed up the steep trail at Thumb Butte, drinking in the sweeping vistas of Granite Mountain to the north and the sprawl of the town of Prescott to the south, below. There were prickly pear cacti sporting vivid yellow flowers and countless more ponderosa pine to stop and sniff along the way. These adventures were the highlights of what was otherwise a very stressful trip—what can I say, I’m terrible at decision making.
And that’s really what this trip was about—making decisions. Is Prescott the right town for me? Can I really see myself at this school? Is this terrifying life change worth all the agony and upheaval? Ultimately, the answer to all three of those questions was yes—but I took my sweet time getting there. Accepted Student Day at Prescott College was a rollercoaster of emotions. After each discussion, each sample class and section of the tour, my mind flipped and flopped in a dizzying feat of acrobatics: I can’t stand this—why did I think I wanted to go back to school? This place is amazing! I can’t believe it exists! I just can’t imagine myself here, it’s clearly not a good fit. This place has everything I could want in a school—look at all the opportunities it will afford me! After a series of exhaustive discussions with Lauren on the walk home, with myself under the spray of a cold shower back at our condo, and with my Mom in an hour long video chat, I finally came to the conclusion that this adventure is worth the risk. It’s time to break out of my comfort zone and attempt something new and exciting. After years of comfortable boredom, I owe myself that much, at least.
You’d think getting that monumental decision out of the way would be a huge weight off my shoulders, but it was here that the real trouble began. Attending school means moving to Prescott. And moving as an adult, rather than a traditional college student, means finding a rental property, and let me tell you—it’s a seller’s market. There were stained carpets and peeling linoleum, leaky skylights and popcorn ceilings, weird smells and cabinet doors dangling from broken hinges—all at exorbitant rates that left me reeling with disgust and the sticker shock of having lived in a lovely apartment with a fixed rental rate for the past seven years. As I embarked on this torturous process, the first two apartments I saw–and that I was sure would be winners–were a real slap to the face. One was in poor shape with a funny smell and a gruff landlord who was the very embodiment of disinterest. After a dispiriting start, we traipsed back through town, stopping in at a beautiful, mercifully air conditioned, store and museum with exquisite Native American art and jewelry and, much to our relief, a water fountain and unreasonably cute bathroom (there are few things I appreciate more than a nice public bathroom). When we had revived ourselves enough to continue on, we headed out for the next showing—a small stand-alone house that turned out to be a long, hot, and dusty walk from the town square along a busy highway in what the owner herself described as one of Prescott’s lowest-income neighborhoods. We passed behind mechanic’s shops and a ramshackle store announcing BATTERIES, BATTERIES, BATTERIES! before arriving at the house, parched, dripping sweat, and sagging with disappointment.
After the showing we shuffled home with all the élan of the walking dead, heads hung low, fearing heat exhaustion might finally get the better of us and they would soon be scraping our charred bodies off the pavement like seared meat off a grill. Just when we thought we couldn’t go on, we spotted Sprouts ahead and our eyes lit up as though happening upon an oasis in the middle of the Sahara desert. We stumbled into the air conditioning and spent nearly an hour wandering the aisles, where a new love was born—a love of expensive fruit and vegetable juices. Normally I don’t purchase juice, or drinks of any kind, because water is free and a I’m a cheap bastard, but desperation and heat stroke will make you do crazy things. This would soon become our favorite routine—sweltering hikes and walks about town followed by the nirvana that is ice cold, four dollar bottles of bourgeoise, cold-pressed juice. Nothing else has ever inspired in me such simultaneous feelings of joy and shame.
Sadly, the next day’s viewings were no better, and after a series of frantic phone calls with my parents, they generously suggested I nudge the upper limits of my budget a bit in the hopes of finding somewhere decent to live before we had to catch our flight back to Chicago. This incredible kindness on their part opened up a few more options, and the next day, after jumping through a series of costly, bureaucratic hoops (a thirty minute drive to a rental agency in the valley, nearly a hundred dollars in application fees, the amassing of documents both provided on the spot and sent in from Chicago), I secured a showing for a promising townhouse I had run by earlier that morning. This was to be my last showing and by the time I arrived at the property I was a seething mess of desperation. I had just come from viewing a condo in the same complex we were staying at that was identical to our charming rental in terms of floor-plan, but was unrecognizable in every other way. It was water-damaged, outdated, and filthy, having been inhabited by a number of college boys whom I envision as a pack of wolves based on the condition of their bathrooms, kitchen, and the hunk of raw meat left rotting in their fridge.
Trying to push the distaste of the previous viewing from my mind, Lauren and I wandered the neighborhood, my spirits lifting at the sight of the surrounding pine trees and adorable, well-tended houses on the small stretch of private road. Soon, a car pulled into the townhouse’s garage and we were greeted by an incredibly gracious, warm, and well-coiffed midwestern couple who were renting the house while waiting for construction on their Yavapai Hills home to be completed. Before the rental agent had even arrived they invited us in and started in on the grand tour. The moment I walked through the door I nearly burst into tears—it was BEAUTIFUL. It was immaculately kept, well-finished, and beyond endearing with quirky spaces, octagonal windows, and not one, not two, but three balconies and patios—two of them overlooking a wooded lot where the cream soda scent of ponderosa pines drifted through the trees. The renters told us deer could often be spotted out there in the mornings. The kitchen was incredibly well-appointed—of the utmost importance to someone who bakes breads on a weekly basis and has just discovered an obsession with homemade ravioli—and there was the unexpected saving grace of the washer and dryer being included with the property. (I had been told there were only hook ups.) At the end of the tour I turned to the rental agent and nearly screamed, “I’LL TAKE IT!!!” before floating out the front door on cloud nine with an enormous, shit-eating grin on my face.
With that, our whirlwind of a trip was over, and we headed back to the airport the next morning in our trusty, red car–the dashboard now reading 119 degrees–stopping along the way for one last hike and to drop off a deposit at the rental agency. Now I’m back in Chicago with only six weeks left until the big move, trying to remind myself that this decision was a hard-fought battle, and that I spent the requisite time and energy making sure this was the right choice for me. I guess I won’t truly know until I get there, but between packing, moving out of my apartment, planning a road trip, setting up utilities, banking and healthcare, and sparing a few thoughts for the impetus of the move—this whole higher education business—there’s nary a moment to second-guess myself. So for now, I’m still fighting my way through that ever-growing to-do list and trying not to panic. When the dust settles, I’ll let you know what it’s like on the other side.