I’ve had a list of dream towns in my mind for years. These are typically small western cities in the great outdoors, where someday I’ll work for an hour from home each morning in my pajamas, sipping coffee, before running out the back door to train in the hills, rivers and valleys (not for a race, but to conquer mountains). In the afternoon I would take a short nap before heading out to the general store, which would be like a Whole Foods only local, and then retire in the evening to an amazing restaurant, great friends, and the smell of a crackling fire on a crisp autumn night. Nastassja would have a real job that keeps her busy from 9 until 2, with Wednesdays and Fridays off. There are sometimes children in this vision, usually helping to pack camping stuff or cooking breakfast for me, and they are always between the ages of 7 and 12. And I’m not old or retired but have limitless energy to climb mountains, learn how to fly fish, and drink beer, and plenty of money to buy all the cool stuff I want from REI, including a drawer full of new Smartwool socks. I’m pretty sure all this could all be mine if I just move to the right town.
The one thing the dream towns on my list have in common is I’ve never been there so there’s nothing to prove the dream wrong. So Nastassja and I decided we needed to start visiting these places to understand if there was anything to my vision. Our first stop: Flagstaff, Arizona, which we could also use as a launching point to visit the Grand Canyon. We dropped the kids at the grandparents and set out on a scouting trip/getaway.
Three Days in Flagstaff, Arizona
We flew into Phoenix and rented a Tiguan. This is the world’s tiniest SUV. It was cute – something I’d own if I lived in a place like Flagstaff
We arrived at the “Inn at 410″ bed and breakfast in downtown Flagstaff a little over 2 hours later. Nastassja has never really been all that excited about B&Bs. I think it’s something about having to cohabitate with total strangers, that they are almost too personal. I’ve been to good ones and bad ones. And this… was a really good one. We had a great big room in the back of the house with its own separate entrance. And the location was just 3 blocks up the hill from the center of Flagstaff’s tiny downtown. We booked dinner at Flagstaff’s fanciest restaurant for a few hours later – located next door to the hotel – and got ready to explore the downtown. I was happy to see they had a “happy hour” set up in the living room, which looked a bit like the bar I had in my house in graduate school. Vodka? Gin? Tonic? Check and check. We helped ourselves to some lemon water and set off into the late afternoon of what was a perfect weather day.
The downtown was very compact, just a few blocks wide and long, with the old train tracks and rail station marking what I imagined was the boundary for the seedy side of town. There was a little mall that had t-shirt stores and reminded me of a place near where we used to live in Cambridge. There was an ice cream place. There were about 5 stores that sold hiking clothes. And yes, Route 66 ran down through town.
We had an hour before dinner so we looked for a before-dinner drink and found this wine place called Vino Loco
The patio was packed with people drinking wine casually with their dogs and a few babies. This was our kind of place. Unfortunately the patio was full so we sat inside alone, but the bartender (a U of Northern Arizona student?) was goofy and the wine was good and it was nice inside. We enjoyed our glass of wine and thought, “maybe we’ll come back here tomorrow night and drink way too much?”, but it was time for dinner
We went to Brix, Flagstaff’s #1 restaurant. It was still pretty casual, and we sat outside on a patio and had (more) good wine and pretty good food. It was a good night. We captured one picture.
We were jet lagged and wanted to get in a full day, so we got up at 5 and headed out to the Grand Canyon. This was only about an hour and a half away. The drive itself was pretty, through the mountains and then along some quiet highways. If you haven’t been to the Grand Canyon then I can’t really explain it. Pictures don’t do it justice. It’s just really big and quiet. We walked around the rim trail and set off down into the Canyon.
The trail down into the canyon was pretty crowded and slow. There are signs every 50 feet warning you that you will die if you hike too far down into the canyon in one day. A strong gust of wind blew my favorite Phillies cap off my head and down into the canyon. It was sad (see before and after below – the cap is somewhere a few thousand feet below the rock in the second picture).
So about an hour and half in we got to a reasonable turnaround point and I argued with Nastassja that we should go further. We got about another 100 yards and ran into a burro train. It was a sign to turn around.
We climbed back up to the top in about an hour. It wasn’t lunch yet and we’d pretty much seen what we needed to see of the Grand Canyon. It was time to head back to Flagstaff.
This place was about halfway back to Flagstaff and every bit as ridiculous and awful as it looks. I regret to say we passed on the theme park and just browsed the gift shop a bit.
We got back to Flagstaff, cleaned up and headed out to this brewpub. I didn’t take this picture, but it was just like this.
This is when I realized that Flagstaff had been frozen in time in 1997. This brewpub had the same food and beer as the brewpubs that were popping up around then, meaning it wasn’t bad but it wasn’t good. We had some heavy bar food and headed out.
We decided to check out the beer place that was next to the wine place from the night before. It was “Odell Brewery Tap Takeover night”, which meant they had 20 different kinds of IPAs from Odell brewery on tap. Nastassja was looking for a wheat beer or a belgian beer. No dice. We were tired and I had two heavy beers in my stomach so I thought that might be it for the night, but I thought maybe we’d try another glass of wine at the wine place before we called it.
Vino Loco – part 2
First we sat and started playing a board game. Again, this isn’t my picture but we were sitting at that barrel on the left near all the wine.
Then a dude started playing an acoustic guitar and singing 90s alt-rock songs. Here is just a partial list of songs you could request. Wouldn’t you like to time warp to that night and join us? What would you pick?
So we ordered a bottle. Then Nastassja was running up with requests. Then we ordered another bottle. Luckily we found out we could take the rest of the bottle “to go” which saved us. We shut it down before it got out of control. Fun night.
Morning punishment run
We got up early (again) and ran off the mild hangover from the night before. This was the thing I’ll remember about Flagstaff. We ran out of the B&B, up a big hill, then though a park with the mountains behind it, and if we’d had a bit more time we could have kept running right up into the San Francisco peaks. This was the dream, and tough work too. But we needed to get back to breakfast at the B&B.
Bed and breakfast breakfast
Which was again, super cute and delicious. I really liked this place.
We were undecided on what to do on day 2 so we did what came naturally. We went to the Flagstaff REI to get some hiking clothes. We were a little embarrassed to see the guitar player from the night before working in the shoe department, but we all pretended like it didn’t happen and got on with things.
We drove about a half hour to the outskirts of town and checked out Walnut Creek Canyon, an old native american site where the residents lived in caves carved into the canyon. Pretty cool.
Then we stopped at this weird tex mex place with amazing salsa. I don’t know how this wouldn’t be a hit in Houston. They gave you chips, then you went to a salsa bar and picked from 8 or 9 salsas which ranged from spicy to outrageously hot. The food was good too. Score one for southwest mexican food.
We decided to go to this red rock place to do one more hike, just on the other side of town. It was very quiet and deserted. It was a pretty cool hike, although it was a bit of an afterthought after doing the Grand Canyon the day before.
On the way back I almost ran out of gas. Nothing like creating a little stress out of an otherwise calm day.
This was a coffee chain that reminded me of a coffee chain from 1998. They had regular coffee and espresso drinks. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but the flagship Flagstaff coffee place just did not compete with the 2014 hipsterdom of Montrose or any other major city making pourovers with single origin beans or flat whites. I ordered a cup of something like “flagstaff blend” and we headed back out.
A few other random places
We went to a cuban restaurant for dinner, owned by the same people who ran Brix. It was nothing special. Then we walked around and watched a guy playing guitar in the square outside the t-shirt mall. We got an ice cream. There were kids running around getting ready to watch a movie being projected on a wall in the square. Again I couldn’t shake the feeling I was frozen in time.
We looked for gifts then grabbed a final glass of wine at a pretty corporate place near the square. I realized then that we’d reached the end of Flagstaff. It was Day 2 and we’d exhausted everything we wanted to explore. That was it… hiking, a few restaurants, one great unpretentious wine bar. Maybe we were missing something but I doubt it. So it had everything I thought it would have, but it would take some getting used to living in a small city in the middle of the high desert.
We got up at dawn and ate a to-go breakfast provided by the B&B. We were happy to get home and see the babies.