In 1914, preparing to shoot his first full-length film, Cecil B. DeMille headed for Flagstaff, Ariz. When he got off the train, the story goes, it was raining, so headed further west, making Flagstaff an also-ran in the Film Capitol of the World sweepstakes.
I accept the story, if not the conclusion. My family has solid roots in southern California, and I grew up with paradise lost stories of nothing but orange groves and sunshine. You couldn’t pick a better place to make movies, and somebody always would have picked it.
And Flagstaff can be mildly foreboding, given that it sits at 7,000 feet above sea level and is one of the snowiest cities in America. It’s not harsh there, but it’s complicated. And cold.
My personal geography doesn’t offer much insight; you really can’t get here from there. I spent my first 11 years in southern California, my next 14 in Arizona, and my last 29 up here in the Northwest. I’m western, certainly, mainly coastal and mostly local.
But if you draw a little circle around Flagstaff, you’ll find me. For better or worse.
You take I-17 out of Phoenix, heading north and up. It’s a drive I made so many times, often every weekend, that I can still see the landmarks in my mind. Desert slides into something else, although it can sneak up on you.
How I ended up at Northern Arizona University now feels like comedy, or maybe fate, but at the time it was just one choice after another, layered with tragic mistakes, which is the way you think when you’re 18. The way I thought, at any rate, not understanding that at that age there’s a do-over every day.
But I went, I changed, I grew, I did everything you’re supposed to do and a couple of things they never caught me at. I spent, if you calculate summers and holidays spent back home, a little less than 3 ½ years in Flagstaff, and still it shows up when my mind is rummaging around, looking for my keys.
A couple of dreams pop up every once in a while, mostly wandering the university hallways, looking at names on the doors. I have no idea about this, or much use for dreams, but I acknowledge their ability to mess with me.
Including the waking kind. I went to Arizona State University after high school, since they offered me a scholarship and I could commute from home, easing my way into practical adulthood.
Medicine was my first thought, but once I learned you had to take a chemistry class I switched to journalism. There were some dreams there, too, mostly vague and having to do with trench coats, but again: It seemed practical.
But my closest friend, Kurt, a kid I’d known since we were 12 years old, had gone up to NAU as a theater major, continuing the fun stuff we’d done in high school, building sets, painting flats, wearing makeup and practicing accents, this time for college credit, and it pulled me north. As I say, dreams can mess with you.
Kurt followed me up the mountain that next semester, helped me put chains on the car, introduced me around, woke me in our dorm room to see snow falling for the first time in my life.
I was 18 and away from home, and there at the same time. Home, that is. Practicality took a backseat, and if I look back now and cringe at dumb choices, I would do it again in a heartbeat.
So I went to Flagstaff this past weekend, leaving Seattle at 45 degrees and overcast, arriving with sun and 75 in Phoenix, and driving two hours into the dead of winter. A college reunion of theater types, in the works for five years, coincided with an April storm that dumped a foot of snow over 24 hours.
Not that we noticed much. Nearly 40 of us, ranging in age from 50 to somewhere no one really talked about, gathered in Flagstaff to remember, and snow was only a backdrop, a special effect to aid some aging memories.
We’ve all moved on, with wildly different lives and adventures along the way, and it only took us an hour or so to realize we were home.
We were, too, if only visiting, and with our ranks thinned. Two favorite professors have passed on. My old friend Kurt died in 1999 at the age of 41, the only set he left unfinished.
And there was no sign of our younger selves, of course. But we stood on that familiar stage again, in unfamiliar bodies and with some mysterious hairlines, laughed, reminisced, took pictures and posed for one.
We stood in front of a stage set, arms on shoulders, leaning on each other, and if you saw this photograph you would notice two things: Everyone is smiling, and everyone looks like they belong there.
And of course they do, and did, but it was nice to be reminded anyway.