No picture of the Grand Canyon can do it justice. It can be a fantastic shot, capturing all the color and the vastness and perhaps even the entire panorama. But the power of the Canyon lies in what we can’t see: it stretches for miles beyond sight even from the best of the vistas, and there are only occasional glimpses of the bottom. The more the mind ponders its reach, the greater the awe. It’s not an uncommon sense in Arizona, where so many things are big beyond belief. The canyons, mountains, and heat trigger such opposed emotions: a sense of power and triumph, as we stand at the rim of the Canyon or the peak of a mountain and proclaim this dominion as our own; a sense of smallness and frailty, as we teeter on the edge of the abyss and realize just how small we really are. A paradox? No; they are inseparable, twin sides of the peak of ambition.
My trip to Arizona this past weekend was, by some absurdity, the first trip of any great distance that this travel-lover has taken in a couple of years. It was officially a business trip, a mission as part of my life as a secret operative who manipulates Arizona politics from somewhere up in the woods of northern Minnesota. For the most part, though, it was a chance to explore freely, to reunite with the kid who taught me the meaning of charisma, and to finally meet my partners on a campaign that successfully launched an exciting young woman into a position on the Phoenix Union High School District Board.
It began with a road trip up to the Grand Canyon, a drive that surprised with the sheer variety of the Arizona landscape. Yes, the area around Phoenix is a desert, and there are the expected mountains. But a short drive up I-17 leaves one suddenly out on an open mesa, and the region around Flagstaff has pine forests and stretches of prairie that look like they belong in Wyoming or thereabouts. On the way north we swung through Sedona, a beauty of a town nestled in between red rock cliffs, though the booming tourist trade has likely taken some toll on the New Agey vibe. Beyond Sedona was one of the most delightful drives I’ve ever done, one that whips through a narrow river valley filled with pines and plunges down a winding road that eventually switches its way back up to a view over the stunning (though not quite Grand) canyon below.
After a long day on the Arizona Autobahn, we came to the Canyon, which lived up to its billing. The trail along the South Rim gives a tour of the Canyon’s history over the past two billion years, showing the geological history and pointing out the little peaks and buttes, all named for pagan gods. Even that panoply of deities couldn’t quite fill the chasm, and in only two places could we see the muddy waters of the Colorado down at the bottom. Someday I hope to return and seek out that path that leads down to it; the allure of those slopes is too hard to pass up.
My enjoyment was sullied by one little observation that left me feeling a bit of shame on behalf of my country. Somehow, four out of every five tourists on the path were not Americans. They were almost all Europeans, with French and Germans being the most obvious, along with some Portuguese and Spaniards and some Poles who struggled to take our picture. The Americans were nowhere to be seen beyond the overlook at the parking lot. Are we really that incapable of walking down a flat, paved path? Has the genuine experience of drinking in the landscape and feeling something deeper really been replaced by the dull routine of snapping a picture and checking off a box that says ‘I’ve been here’? There is so much more to see, and it takes embarrassingly little effort to see it.
Phoenix itself is unlike any city I’ve ever seen, a sprawling grid of near-endless suburbia. There is so much space; to borrow my travel partner’s simile, it’s as if someone poured the development across the flat plane, and it has spread like water as far as it could. The downtown is similarly spread out, and it’s hard to find any sort of node or center of action. A Friday night street festival, however, did bring out a stunningly diverse crowd, and there were certainly pockets of wealth and poverty, from the mind-boggling array of tennis courts and private pools below Camelback Mountain to the parts on the west side that might as well have been lifted out of Mexico.
Whatever one thinks of its development patterns, Phoneix still seems like a city on the leading edge of American culture. When I call the U.S. an adolescent nation, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative way. (Well, not entirely.) It has its downsides, clearly, but there’s a life to it, too. There is a sense in which Arizona is still the frontier. There is so much space that it still has that feeling, even if most people go home to their perfect little subdivisions. There’s a love for guns and a boom in nondenominational Evangelical churches, tapping into a strain of religious belief that again looks to cut off the past and build something new. A majority of residents are transplants. History doesn’t mean a whole lot here, but there’s an awful lot of belief in the future. Phoenicians, one senses, are not a resigned folk, as us northern Minnesotans can be; their schools may be much worse off on the whole, but at least in some circles there is an energy dedicated to attacking problems that I haven’t always seen in the north. Phoenix’s dreams for the future will rest on its ability to take this energy and harness it and build things that last in place of the investment in the immediate that now predominates. That will take time, and a recognition of limits that are hard to see, but it will come, sooner or later.
Saturday brought a delicious authentic Mexican meal, a campaign victory party in the most eclectic club I’ve ever seen, and a hike up a mountain for good measure. What began as a leisurely hike escalated quickly, with sharp inclines difficult (but possible!) to scale without the railing, and constant reminders that mountains are always taller than one thinks. It was 95 degrees and cloudless, yet I couldn’t help myself from setting a brisk pace, barreling up and down the mountain to see it in all its glory. Flat Phoenix unfolded like a carpet below, and I was back on the edge as I’d been at the Canyon, once again in awe of the expanse of it all.
One might think that all of this vastness lends itself to broad thinking, but in reality, the deep thought needed no such catalyst. Instead, it came from a reunion of three Georgetown friends, back together to wrestle with questions great and small, keeping our little salon going until 4 AM, tearing into each other without a hint of malice as we probe at the foundations of our thought. Unsettling to those not a part of it, perhaps, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. We need to know.
There’s a common experience to Georgetown grads—especially for those of us who have taken somewhat less traveled paths after graduation—that we struggle to share with anyone else. We’re floating between two worlds, too aware and proud of our roots to cut them off, but too consumed by that chase and the things we’ve learned along the way to ever go entirely home. Call it the burden of ambition: how do we harness that restlessness, that frenetic energy that feeds on itself and makes us who we are? Even the numerous Hoyas who have gone straight for the halls of power—consulting, banking, law school—are often self-aware enough that they are fighting similar wars, trying to stay grounded while immersing themselves in worlds that will let them reach those dreams.
As most know, my position at the end of the day is on the side of the roots: it is my way of making sense of the world’s madness, and of resolving those older issues that need resolution. I know that going home saved my sanity, and it has also done wonders for my Arizona friend, whose relentless drive in certain areas threatened to derail his promise. Still, it was hard not to feel that twinge of allure when back in with that Georgetown energy, and, being a Hoya, I’m not going to run and hide from that, or worry that it’ll mess up my little narrative: it’s an important part of me too, and the story is still writing itself. It makes me think, it pushes me, and I live for those moments when we sit there and argue about it all, lurching toward something approaching understanding, at once both earnest yet able to laugh about it all.
As for my friends who are ready to go back to the climb, I have nothing but encouragement: it would be folly to cut off that drive. It’s exhilarating, and the view from the top can’t be matched. But the mountain is always higher than it seems, and that it’s a mistake to run too far ahead of the people carrying the water bottles. A few breaks along the way do wonders (and Minnesota will always welcome those who look to take one). After every climb comes a descent, and it has to be measured, taken carefully; it is all too easy to go plunging to a dramatic death. But it’s worth the risk. Once again: the trouble is not in the climb, but in the refusal to look back along the way we’ve come.