I’ve never met a college town I didn’t like.
There’s something about all that youthful energy bubbling up through a flat grid of streets, the free-flowing music from open windows and the shiny chrome bumpers plastered with psychedelic stickers proclaiming bands or bold mottos. On any given night, humble bungalow houses transform into epic parties drawing in dreadlocked sophomores like bees to a hive. There’s something fresh and thrilling about the mood of possibility that permeates these places, be it Austin, Texas or Normal, Illinois—and each time I encounter one, I remember how much America’s college towns rock.
About 26,000 students attend Northern Arizona University and it seemed to me they had each parked their own cars somewhere along Route 66. I teetered up and down the one-way streets in until I found a spot and then hiked back to the lights and action in downtown Flagstaff.
This is the green part of Arizona—not the saguaro cacti and yucca plant green of the southwest, but the monumental mountains of the high plateau, covered in dark green ponderosa pines that look like arrows shooting to the sky.
After days and days of driving through the unclouded desert of New Mexico, I was surprised by this cool and piney oasis.
“It is an oasis,” said one student, brandishing a serious nose ring and suede Birkenstocks. “We’re an oasis in Arizona.”
“What do you mean by that?” I asked.
“Well, Phoenix is like Los Angeles, and up here we’re the opposite of all that,” she shot back, fluttering her mascara-heavy eyelashes.
I wondered if her geographical reference to “up here” indicated Flagstaff’s northerly situation, or the city’s altitude of nearly 7,000 feet. Either way, the air was thinner and cleaner, and the stars seemed brighter and closer. Flagstaff was the first “International Dark-Sky City” in the world—it’s no wonder that this smartly-lit town is home to the famous Lowell Observatory and why stargazing is something people do here for fun. Are there any other cities this size in America where college kids stand on a corner and point out constellations to each other?
And yet the starlight doesn’t take anything away from the burst of historic neon along old Route 66, which cuts like a Disney parade through the center of Flagstaff. Pink, orange, red, blue and green letters glowed aloud pointing to hotels and motels and bars where bands played the blues. Outside a neon food truck I met a French couple, Alexia and Arnaud, who had just arrived from Las Vegas.
“All the Americans we meet are so nice—everyone’s helped us out so much,” said Alexia, surprised. “And a lot of them speak French!”
“We’re not so bad,” I laughed. “Bienvenue à les Etats-Unis—I hope you have fun, here.” We sat together at a park bench, while an outdoor DJ spun disco records to dancing crowds on the sidewalk.
“It’s nice here,” said Alex. “Not too hot.”
“Nope. Spring in the desert is the perfect time,” I agreed. We discussed their plans to go and explore the Grand Canyon, and I recommended they take a helicopter ride over the gorge. They looked at one another nervously.
“It sounds pretty expensive,” said Alexia, and she was right. Counseling a young couple to blow $600 on a 20-minute helicopter ride shows me to be a callus and spoiled traveler—I openly admit that the perks of my job sometimes put me out of touch with real-life travel budgets. They were two French students, sleeping at a nearby hostel with rooms for $25. But this is why I love Route 66—if you want, you can travel across America on very little money.
“You know,” I corrected myself, “Hiking in is a great way to see the canyon—and it’s free!” I wrote down a few of my favorite trails for day hikes and then went off to find dinner.
Having reached a saturation point with hamburgers somewhere back in Oklahoma, I was extremely pleased to find Pizzicletta, an Italian-style brick oven pizzeria that smelled like basil and bleached flour and burnt mozzarella. I was in heaven.
I took the last seat at the single family table, crowded with couples and kids and friends all eating amazing pizza. Sparkly goblets of rosé balanced on the table and you couldn’t help but talk to total strangers.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Fernando and Bryce both lived on the nearby Navajo Reservation, both of them students of the Navajo language.
“It’s a very complex and curious language,” said Fernando. “In Navajo, you can say in one word what would take a whole sentence in another language.”
“Show me,” I asked, handing them a piece of paper. “If I could write a story in just one word, that would be magnificent,” I said—Navajo is probably the most ancient language I’ve encountered on the Mother Road.
“Well, the word t’ah is kind of this universal reinforcing word,” explained Bryce. “It can mean so many different things.”
“Like if you say, T’aa áníinii—that means, ‘it’s just that way’,” he said.
“That’s just the way it is?” I asked, “Or, ‘Just sayin’?”
“Yep!” After nearly three weeks on Route 66, none of this surprised me anymore. It’s the beauty of this road, this town, and this country—that I could sit down at strange table and eat incredible pizza and get a Navajo lesson from two native speakers. That we could laugh and eat chocolate gelato and then stumble outside into the night of stars, all of us amazed by this little oasis in the high desert of Arizona.