Arizona Reflections

Me during a family visit to the Grand Canyon, ca. 1996-1997

Googling Prescott Valley

Every few years I’ll Google a town called Prescott Valley. Officially incorporated in 1978 (though with a history dating much earlier), Prescott Valley is located in central Arizona. It’s east of Prescott, the capital of Yavapai County and former capital of the Arizona Territory before Phoenix claimed that designation. At an elevation of 5,000 feet, high desert terrain distinguishes Prescott Valley’s landscape, with prickly pear cacti rather than saguaro dotting its rolling hills. Given the aridity, the landscape is brown most of the year, briefly turning a blush green during the rainy season. Architecturally, there’s nothing spectacular about the place, though like every town it’s got its memorable landmarks and hidden gems.

Whenever I Google Prescott Valley, I look up different things. Sometimes I’ll look at the landscape, other times I’ll see what kinds of restaurants or shops are open. On one of my more recent online excursions, I toured their public library. In essence, Prescott Valley is like many towns in the United States. If not for my previous history with it, I probably wouldn’t know it existed.

But that’s the key right there. I know about Prescott Valley because I do have a history with it. A long time ago, this place was my hometown.

Way Out West

When people ask me where I’m from, I usually respond with “New England” because that’s the simplest answer. My parents were both born and raised in New Hampshire. Most of my extended family lives in either that state or southern Maine. My Dad’s side of the family has ancestry in New England dating to the 17th century. For the first ten years or so of my life, Kittery, Maine, was my hometown. I have fond memories of exploring tidepools and going sledding, depending on the season. My personality, from my sense of reserve to my often dry humor, is infused with New England tendencies. No one ever seems surprised when I say I’m from there.

But the full answer is more complicated because from 1996 to 2004, Arizona was my home. After helping a mutual friend relocate to Sedona, my parents decided it was time for a drastic change of scenery. Within a year, they sold our house and moved my sister and me out West. I know it sounds like an impulsive move, and in a lot of ways it was, but trust me, they had their reasons for making such a big change.

The high desert of central Arizona. Prescott Valley is the town located, well, in the valley between these hills and mountains. For eight years, this place was my home. Image source:Prescott Valley Has a Spring in its Step and a Lot on its Plate – Prescott LIVING Magazine

My sister was 16 when we moved, and she had mixed feelings about it at best. I don’t blame her. She’d spent her entire childhood in the same place, the same house, up to that point. For her, I imagine it felt like my parents had forcibly ripped her from her old life and made her start a new one. She never really did enjoy Arizona, and once she turned 18, she went back to New England. Today she lives in Dover, about a half hour from our old hometown in Kittery. I’m simplifying what actually happened, but that’s the basic narrative.

My experience was different. I was 10 when we moved, old enough to have the essentials of a New England personality but still young enough to be able to make friends by just living on the same street as other kids. Within a week of our arrival, I had a whole new circle of friends. By the end of the summer, I was going to a new school with a big playground, large windows in all of the classrooms, and even more friends. I wouldn’t say I was popular, but I wasn’t lonely either.

Raised in Arizona

For the most part, I remember my time in Arizona positively. It wasn’t all kittens and roses (middle school sucked but I have yet to meet anyone who liked it), but on the whole, it was a good place to grow up. I learned to play the flute there, which I still enjoy, as well as drive a car, which I don’t like but is an essential skill in American society.

I remember spending a lot of time outside at state parks or on day hikes, We’d take day trips to Flagstaff to ride the ski-lift up the mountains or wander around downtown. Phoenix featured all the big museums, but that was usually an occasional winter trip, as most of the year it’s unbearably hot. One of my favorite day destinations was Jerome, a former copper mining town that’s become something of a creative commune. Downtown Prescott was always a fun place to get something to eat, go shopping, or hang out. I’ve lost count of the number of hours I spent outside on the front patio with my Dad just looking at the mountains and watching the day pass.

Jerome, one of the many places I used to visit growing up. Image source: Why Jerome is Arizona’s Best Day Trip | Official Travel Site for Scottsdale, Arizona (

A big reason for my positive memories is that I felt like I was sharing this great adventure with my parents. My sister may have wanted nothing to do with Arizona, but when my parents invited me to share my input, I did. I accompanied them on their house-hunting trips and gave my two cents on how to decorate the front yard. Ultimately they made their own design choices for the house (for good reason, considering I recommended purple lava rocks for the front yard), but that feeling of involvement gave me a sense of agency. It made the whole experience feel less like an abrupt change and more like a fun adventure. Within a year or two, Arizona was home to me.

Leaving Prescott Valley

Like my sister though, I eventually went through my own rebellion. I loved the high desert environment but became angry with the lack of water conservation policies (Prescott Valley boasted four golf courses when I lived there). The state’s conservative politics frustrated me. So did the beliefs of the Christian fundamentalist populations living in the area, especially after I recognized my own queerness. Although Arizona was home, New England was never far from my mind. We’d spend a month there every year in the summer, so sometimes I felt like my life was split between two places.

As I got older, I felt the urge to leave Prescott Valley. My mother had been working or teaching at the same schools I’d attended since the sixth grade. I didn’t mind that but I also wanted to assert my independence. When I started looking at colleges, I decided to go to school outside of Arizona. A couple of years after that decision, I matriculated at Lake Forest College in Illinois.

I visited Prescott Valley once after leaving, during the winter break of my freshman year. In typical fashion for a world-weary 19-year-old, I remember being thoroughly unimpressed, thinking “This town is uglier than I remember.” To be fair, it was winter and everything was dormant. Perhaps I would have felt differently if I had gone back during the spring.

But that would never happen. After eight years of living in the high desert, my parents decided to return to New England. By the end of my freshman year, they’d sold the house. After that, I went to Maine for my summer break. Just like that, Arizona was no longer my home.

Arizona’s Impact

On the surface, Arizona’s impact on my life seems limited. I’ve only been back to the state twice since 2005, both for work trips, and both in parts of the state I rarely frequented when I lived there. With the exception of one longtime friend from high school, I’ve drifted apart from my friends and acquaintances there. Now that my parents are back in Maine and my sister lives in nearby New Hampshire, New England has resumed its place as the locus of my family. If anything, people are surprised when they learned I lived in Arizona.

And yet, this state and the town I once called home have indelibly shaped me, if not in personality or aesthetic taste, then in life choices. It’s certainly influenced my research preferences. I suspect a major reason why I’m so interested in the movement of art is that I’ve lived it myself.

I suspect that my interest in the movement of art stems in part from my own experiences with moving around the country for work. Image source: VMFA’s Artmobile: Past and Present – VMFA Connect

I’m also convinced that moving to Arizona gave me the courage to move to other places. New England may have shaped my personality, but I don’t feel tethered to it because I know I can be happy in geographically different places. I may have gone to college in the Midwest to get away from Arizona, but a major reason why I considered it an option at all was because I’d already lived in two different places. I honestly don’t know if I would have gone school outside of New England if I’d spent my whole life in Maine.

Living in Arizona gave me the courage to pursue my museum career by taking jobs in Texas and Wyoming. When I first visited Roswell, what struck me was how its terrain and architecture suggested a flatter, older Prescott Valley. Moving to Arizona and developing a taste for living in different places enabled me to meet Brandon.

If I hadn’t lived in Arizona, I doubt I’d have ever met Brandon, and that would be tragic.

I might be a New Englander at heart, but when it comes to my life choices, my experiences in Arizona continue to guide me. So I’ll keep checking on Prescott Valley every now and then. I may never revisit it in person, but its impact will always be with me.

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