A&E Columns

This must be the place: ‘Remember when we got drunk that time in Ontario, listening to Warren Zevon on the stereo’

Phoenix is the fifth largest in the United States. Garret K. Woodward photo Phoenix is the fifth largest in the United States. Garret K. Woodward photo

Hello from Room 6102 at the Sonder motel on the edge of Old Town Scottsdale, Arizona. It’s 80 degrees outside in the late morning, with the dry heat of the Southwest steadily rising like the hot sun above the high desert prairie surrounding this vast, metropolitan area. 

An hour ago, I found myself sitting solo at bar counter of the JoJo Coffeehouse on Scottsdale Road. Packed out with weekend brunch fiends and hipsters alike. But, one seat remained at the counter when I sauntered in, only to immediately be helped with my order of a breakfast burrito and cappuccino (with vanilla flavoring).

When I received the bill, it was $24 (before tip). One farm-to-table burrito and one tasty coffee. Sheesh. But, no matter. It is what it is. The food and beverage were superb, as was the ambiance of the open-air establishment with passerby traffic. It was a nice feeling to be at a place in life where you can afford a $24 burrito and coffee.

Even though we journalists aren’t known for affluence (or anywhere even close to it), gratitude is always felt when sitting down at a restaurant and being able to order whatever you heart desires off the menu due to gainful, full-time employment after years of scraping by — article to article, paycheck to paycheck.

Leaving JoJo and heading onto the sidewalk of Scottsdale Road, I was greeted by the bright sunshine and soothing heat of November in Arizona. It was a welcomed feeling compared to the weather experienced when I left Western North Carolina a couple days prior — temperatures in the 20s with snowflakes rumored to have fallen overnight in the mountainous ridges of Maggie Valley.

Making my way back to the motel, I noticed a farmer’s market across the street. Dozens and dozens of vendors selling everything from homemade hot sauce to fresh produce and beyond. There was even a guy offering recently caught Alaskan seafood at market price. Popping out from under the canopy of vendor tents, I spotted a Mexican import shop just down the block.

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The store was filled with everything you might expect from such a place. Inexpensive blankets, hats, toys and knickknacks. By the time I left the business, I had purchased a few small wooden animal carvings, a handful of arrowheads and a worry stone. Trinkets for not only my girlfriend holding the fort down back in Waynesville, but also my mother way up on the Canadian Border in Upstate New York. 

Ducking down First Avenue towards the motel, I could hear the sounds of a rock band echoing throughout the parking lot and nearby concert field. It was a sound check for one of the first acts of the day at the Dreamy Draw music festival. For myself, it’s on the road once again.

A weekend assignment covering the gathering for Rolling Stone. Interviews with artists backstage. Notes scribbled down in haste amid live performances in real time. Shake hands with new fast friends. Happenstance encounters with incredible musicians that were unknown to me until that very moment in passing.

All of those people, places and things mentioned above isn’t lost on me, especially when I find myself reflecting often this weekend about the last time I found myself in the Phoenix-Scottsdale city limits. It was 2009 and I was 24 years old.

Back then, I was two years out of college with a degree in journalism and a degree in history. Writing small articles for my hometown newspaper in the North Country for peanuts ($45 per piece). To supplement my bills and needs, I was a regular substitute teacher at my old high school — a scene that was as surreal as it was troubling for what I ultimately wanted to do in the realm of the written word.

September 2009. At that time, I was also documenting music festivals for an array of small online media outlets. My travel companion was Andrew, a 41-year-old former Southern Baptist preacher turned festival photographer once he discovered psychedelic mushrooms and the music of the Grateful Dead. We were a dynamic duo, traversing the country in search of good tunes, good people. We still keep in touch, too.

Following the culmination of the Burning Man gathering in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, Andrew wanted to go hangout with a lady friend he’d met at the Burn. She lived in Phoenix. We were on our way back cross-country to Upstate New York. Since he didn’t know if he’d ever see her again and I’d never been to Arizona, it was decided to take a side trip south before heading east by northeast.

While Andrew and his femme fatale were getting to know each other, I found myself wandering around Phoenix, Scottsdale and Tempe. The high desert aesthetic and slick cosmopolitan nature of the city was a far cry from the deciduous forest and rural farm towns of my native Adirondack Mountains.

A week later, Andrew and I hopped into his Jeep Cherokee and reeved the engine for New York. He said goodbye to his lady friend. And I said goodbye to Arizona. I wondered when the next time would be where I found myself back here — a landscape of sunshine and warmth that calms one’s restless soul of cold North Country winters and a lonely heart.

And I wondered if I’d find love by that next rendezvous with the Southwest. I wondered who she was and how much further along my journey it’d be until we crossed paths. I wondered what would lay ahead once we hit Interstate 40 — the nose of the Jeep aimed for destinations unknown, literally and figuratively.

Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all .

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