South of Carefree

Credit: Zakker82 at en.wikipedia
Credit: Zakker82 at en.wikipedia

Carefree Highway.

Picking up the pieces of my sweet shattered dream, I wonder how the old folks are tonight.

Apart from a beautiful and, for me, deeply personal ballad sung by Gordon Lightfoot that lays bare the sweet shattered dreams of my youth whenever I hear it, the lyrics have taken on renewed significance in my life. I cross the Carefree Highway, State Road 74 on the map, twice a day along my two-hour commute, each way, back and forth between Prescott, Arizona, and Ocotillo, Arizona. And the crossroad, like the song, has the ability to stimulate different emotions depending upon the direction I am headed.

At the moment, it’s the wrong direction, and the Carefree Highway has me wondering what’s gone wrong with my life.

Nearly sixty miles of the heat island called Phoenix remain between my destination and me. A maze of tract housing shimmers all the way to the horizon, intersecting developments mass produced in the Santa Fe style, the Santa Barbara style, and the latest fad to sweep the valley, the Tuscan style, by corporate behemoths to the motto volume before quality, broken by the occasional assisted living high rise, the flash of digital billboards, and neon of strip malls at major intersections. The freeway parts the seething mass in a direct line direct to the city center, a collection of glass and steel sky scrapers obscured within a brown cloud rising like a mushroom some thirty miles due south.

Somehow, I decided that I needed a home in the country. And, as if that wasn’t enough, I got it into my head that I had to have horses, four of them to be exact.

There’s where the difficulty begins.

Her name was Anne and I’ll be damned if I recall her face, but she left me not knowing what to do.

Horses are magnificent animals, far too much so to let them languish in the meadow at the leisure of an absentee owner. They’re beautiful creatures, deep and spiritual if you take the time to understand them, or so I’ve been told. The fascination with them goes way back, all the way to the first men and women who awakened to the world with something like consciousness and tried to capture the mysteries they saw around them in charcoal and ochre on a wall of stone. If you’re going to confine them to a few acres of scrub oak and bear grass, you have an obligation to take care of them.

Or if you want to get practical about it, they need to be fed in the morning and turned out. They need to be groomed, their coats brushed and their hoofs cleaned. Their stalls need to be cleaned, and their water changed. They need to be exercised if they’re going to be of any use when you need them, and their tack needs to be maintained. The worst part of it is they get bored and can get into all sorts of trouble if they’re not given something to do besides pine under an owner’s admiring eyes.

And I had to build my little piece of heaven in the mountains of central Arizona, one hundred and forty miles to the north of, about 3500 feet of elevation above, and something like 50 years behind the big city culture of Phoenix, in a community where salt of the earth Republicans retire on oversized pensions and huge stock portfolios to relive childhood dreams of Stetsons, shit kickers, and side arms.

It’s that American obsession with consumption, this fantasy of mine, and I’ve taken on way more than I can handle. I’m caught between the country and the city, between a ranch at the edge of the wilderness and a cubicle in a corporate office complex, between the rigorous life of a rancher and grind of a corporate professional, and it hasn’t taken me long to realize that I’m not cut out to do either of them very well, rancher or professional, as long as I am attempting to do both.

My shortcomings became apparent not long ago on a day I decided to telecommute.

Carefree highway, let me slip away on you. Carefree highway, you seen better days.

It had been one of those “red sky in morning” sunrises when I strolled out into the crisp morning air, a cup of hot coffee in hand. I can’t tell you why I didn’t take the dark clouds gathering over me serious when I got around to turning out the horses, except that there is something intoxicating about the sun rising over a heroic landscape with the glory of one of those Albert Bierstadt paintings, all sunlight and big light filled clouds suggesting the glory of creation and purple mountains majesty.

So there I was in the middle of a conference call not five minutes later when the first hailstone hit my house with a crack, and then a second and a third, and before I could put the phone down, the entire house rattled with the percussion of a snare drum. I ran to the back door and fumbled with my shoes, nudging them with my bare feet to straighten them on the ground before stepping into them. I opened the door, then reached back into the house to grab my Carhartt from the coat rack and pulled it on as I stepped out onto the porch.

I felt almost as though I had been separated from my body. My senses were alerted to the slightest details of the storm happening all around me, the impact of hailstones bouncing off the ground, the sound of wind beating down the trees, and the faint scent of ozone on the air. But events were moving beyond control, and with each interruption in my rush to get to the horses, my shoes, the door, my Carhartt, I was a spectator in the urgency of my predicament.

I stepped to the edge of the porch.

I stopped and reached down to pull the back of a shoe up over one heel.

I jumped into the storm with the intention of sprinting some thirty yards to the barn.

I noticed that the horses were milling in a tight circle at the gate near their turnouts.

I veered toward them when a wall of lightning crossed between us, mere yards it seemed in front of me.

I was blinded by the flash of white light.

I felt the tingle of static, real but not real, palpable but forgiving, across the bridge of my nose, like the bristles of a soft brush.

I heard the near instantaneous crack of thunder.

Somewhere in between the flash and the fury, I fell to my knees and pulled the Carhartt up over my head.

And when I managed to look up again, I saw that the horses had bolted to the bottom of the pasture, a couple of hundred yards away.

Heady stuff, I realize, to be contemplating during a commute, particularly the long commute I make nearly every day of the week, but the infinite, synchronicity, the fates and the fortunes are actually appropriate for a good portion of the drive, particularly the part that winds through the Sonoran desert, before you get to the Carefree Highway.

Turning back the pages to the times I love best, I wonder if she’ll ever do the same.

Don’t tell anyone in case the word gets out, but the stretch of I-17 from Cordes Junction south to Anthem is perhaps the prettiest drive anywhere on the planet, particularly in the golden light of morning. The mountains, the mesas, the deep arroyos and gulches, the Aqua Fria flood plain rolling across the landscape with the motion of a shroud silk have been stripped through millennia of drought and the occasional microburst of pretense.

All that is left is native stone and a thin sort of soil, blanched and starved of nutrients, that makes no concession to the hardy life that has adapted to the desolation. Mesquite, palos verdes, and ironwood are interspersed among brittle brush, creosote, Saguaro, cholla and ocotillo in patterns lush beyond description, as raptors and scavengers soar on the wind and cats and coyotes, rabbits and hare, snakes and reptiles, and varieties of insect beyond count lurk in the shadows.

If you haven’t seen the desert in bloom, the paintbrush, the lupine, the mallow and the fragile blossoms of the saguaro, the prickly pear, the hedgehog, and cholla layered against the pink sky and purple shadows of sunrise, you don’t know color. If you haven’t watched a cougar stalk its prey or heard a pack of coyotes go off in a chorus of yips and howls over a fresh kill, you don’t know the wild. If you haven’t contemplated the raptors circle silent and persistent on the thermals in wait for what remains of the kill, you don’t know hunger. And if you haven’t smelled the aroma of rain in the desert, the telltale mustiness on the wind, tinged with the sharp accent of mesquite and creosote, you don’t know what it’s like to live your life on the edge.

This is where the early Native Americans, the Sinagua, Anasazi, and the Hohokam peoples conceived the creation stories that informed the peoples that became the Apache, the Hopi, and the Navajo.

There are places along the road where I can feel the spirits of the first people, at Big Bug Creek, at Bloody Basin, or at Dead Man’s Wash. It isn’t hard to imagine the first men contemplating their place among the vistas opening south toward the Ghost, the White Tanque, and the Estrella mountains. The landscape retains all that enchantment despite the encroachment of civilization.

Every boulder, every wash, every fold in the terrain would have been sacred to the first inhabitants. Every plant and every animal would have had a spirit to be honored in the cruel dance of life. Every phenomenon of the natural world, the sun dogs, the haboobs, the dust devils, and the monsoons would have had meaning in the lore of the community.

It is a landscape without coincidences, the desert.

Carefree highway, got to see you my old flame. Carefree highway, you seen better days.

I’ll admit it.

I cursed my misfortune as I rounded up those horses in the middle of that hailstorm.

But over the next couple of weeks, I realized that something remarkable had happened to me that day. I’m not sure I was ready then to acknowledge that I’d been spared a rare and untimely fate then — nor am I ready still. It was more like events had been staged to walk me up to that wall of electricity, close enough that I could feel its power and far enough back that I would walk away.

Forgive me if it all feels like it was contrived, a farce to walk me right up to the edge at precisely that time and that place. An instant earlier, or an inch closer, and the experience would have been lost on me. I can still feel the sensation of static against my brow whenever I think about it, even if I haven’t yet figured out what it means.

Of course, once I cross over the Carefree Highway, and into the stress, the grit, and the road rage that is Phoenix, all bets are off. I can’t sustain those deep thoughts when I’m cursing all the other cars on the road. I’m not a very nice person to be around these days, and that’s after the drugs the doctor gave me to smooth over the rough edges. But that’s another story, relevant only – perhaps – as a symptom of the problem that has been wearing upon my thoughts.

Now the thing that I call living is just being satisfied with knowing I got no one left to blame.

Sometimes I try to distract myself on the proliferation of mega churches popping up in strip malls lining the freeway, places of worship with friendly names like The Bridge, Desert Breeze, Passion, and Freeway Church of Christ, and even friendlier slogans that suggest that faith has dispensed with the old obsession with hell fire and brimstone. Many of the churches sport those new digital billboards that flash cute messages like “If God is your co-pilot, who is doing the driving,” “God is the answer; Life is the question,” or my favorite, “Got Jesus.”

It gets me to thinking what happened to that Biblical admonition, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them.” We live in the era of prosperity theology, I suppose, and with faith, unlike life, you can have your cake and eat it too as long as everyone sees you doing it.

But, today, the local radio station is airing a segment on golf courses in the Phoenix area, some seventy of them at last count. Golf courses lure tourists, we’re told, and tourists stimulate the economy with new jobs, and more people will move to the valley stoking demand for goods and services for the businesses that allow us all to earn a fantastic living in this place we all know and love as the Valley of the Sun.

Of course, what they’re really saying is residents shouldn’t begrudge the golf courses their windfall of precious water to keep the tees, fairways and greens from drying up in the heat. I’m left wondering why we should be happy that golf courses use all of that precious water watering grass that shouldn’t be there by any account to lure tourists who will consume yet more water to create jobs for more people to move here to demand more water still when the supply is arguably insufficient for the people who are already here, some six million of us by some estimates.

Naturally, I’m left to wonder right now about the other five million, nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine drivers with whom I’m sharing the road. It’s a game I play when I’m really frustrated – what kind of vehicles do I see and what do they suggest about the character of the drivers.

Carefree highway, got to see you my old flame. Carefree highway, you seen better days.

Take this rig I’m driving.

Purchasing a pickup, like just about everything else for that matter, is nowhere as easy as it used to be. We’ve come a long way from the days when you could purchase a Model-T in any color as long as it’s black. There are choices to be made, and the choice is often dependent upon the self-image one wishes to project.

So what’s the point?

I purchased a Chevy, as you might expect of a person enamored with the status of a home in the country. It’s a three-quarter ton pickup, somewhere between a half-ton model for those of us reasonably satisfied with our towing capacity and a full ton model for those who feel the need for more. I chose the largest cab option because I like to think of my junk as pretty special, but I went with the short bed because I’m not in need of the swagger of a regular or extended bed.

I thought when I purchased my pickup I was getting a heavy-duty model. That’s what the sales sticker said, but you soon learn out here in the Old West that things are seldom as they’re represented, especially among snake oil salesmen and horse dealers. I found out when I took the pickup in for the installation of a gooseneck for the horse trailer that what I was actually sold was light-duty model.

Make of that what you will, but I will say one thing in my defense. I have never felt the need to adorn my rig with custom license plates, a custom license plate frame, or bumper stickers.

Not that “point.”

The morning after blues from my head down to my shoes. Carefree highway, let me slip away, slip away on you.

What do the meanderings of a dissatisfied and overly cynical middle-aged victim of his own stupid choices have to do with anything anyone else might consider in the least bit relevant?

Hell if I know.

That we’re doomed to disappointment, from the moment of our first heartbreak?   That we’re perpetually in search of meaning we have no chance in hell of finding? That we’ve lost our connection with a cosmos that is bigger and more complex than we can hope to imagine? That we define ourselves with the things we purchase even as we judge the same tendencies in others?

Or how about this . . .

That life is nothing but an extended stream of consciousness. That the past and the present, the profound and profane, all rattle around in there on the superhighway we call the present. That it all has the potential to mix and remix into new and interesting combinations with each new bump in the road. That at any given moment, an unexpected vista can bring a lifetime — almost certainly past and present and I’m willing to bet the future — into focus in an instant of perfect clarity.

Searching through the fragments of my dream shattered sleep. I wonder if the years have closed her mind.

Just as I think I’m finally getting somewhere with this, a brand new Cadillac Escalade merges into the passing lane directly in front of me, and I’ve forgotten already where I was. This Cadillac, it was one of those big rigs, royal red in color, with little flecks in the paint job to give the exterior the appearance of crushed velvet, and gold accents. The tires are those low profile affairs, with big chrome wheels with spinning rims that keep turning when the vehicle stops. The molding and accents are all veneered in gold. The windows are tinted nearly black.

The vehicle oozes conspicuousness. I have in my mind an image of one of those brash young lions one sees in the posh parts of the valley, Scottsdale or Uptown, his hair slicked back, and a big stogie shoved into his mouth, oblivious to the fact that he’s irritating everyone around him with the smoke.

I see that the license plate is one of those alumni affairs. The driver apparently went to Arizona State University, which would make sense given the tendency of the student body of the state’s largest institution of higher learning toward excess.

The characters on the tag are “WPC 93” which could be initials, I figure, or the school at ASU from which the driver matriculated. He’s either one of those rich kids enamored with the family name, or he graduated from the W. P. Carey School of Business in 1993. The license plate frame is framed in gold, with the words, “Not Your Father’s Cadillac,” embossed in large black letters across the top.

On one corner of the rear window I see a bumper sticker attached, “We Support our Troops.” The driver is a patriot, which would have been obvious to anyone even without the bumper sticker given the fuel economy of the rig.

In the other corner, I see one of those neat little, “Not Of This World,” window decals, the one with the depiction of a cross in the shape of a dagger piercing the word, “NOW.” A patriot with a belief in the Almighty, if I hadn’t guessed already.

And in the center, between the bumper sticker and the decal, just visible through the tint of the window, I can make out the very image of modern rebellion, the Harley Davidson logo.

I have to laugh.

So this was one of those brash young lions of commerce who smokes his stogie wearing a dew rag, probably one in the stars and stripes pattern if I’m not mistaken.

Just as I am about to flip the bastard off, I look down the road to see if I can get around him.

I guess it must be wanderlust or trying to get free from the good old faithful feeling we once knew.

Everybody is merging into the passing lane, not just this prick with the shallow sense of rebellion, and for the briefest of seconds it all makes perfect sense to me. The road is one long line of left tail signals flashing red in the exhaust and shimmering heat, and I feel myself removed for an instant from the mindless conventions that drive our behavior from one moment to the next.

 It’s something we all suspect, particularly in rush hour traffic. The passing lane is always the slowest lane on the freeway. I’ve always assumed there is a reason for it in the deep, dark mysteries of our planet, right out of from the laws of quantum physics that say the left lane always constricts first in the push and pull of a traffic jam.

But, the reasons are far more mundane, I realized. Everyone just wants to be in the fast lane.

I’m looking at the metaphor of our age. The early bird gets the worm. Early to bed early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise. Time is money. A penny saved is a penny got. Well . . . not that last one so much, but along those veins.

Except that this is not just a metaphor. It’s a social norm. We’re engrained into accepting it almost from the moment we’re born. We have to go faster than everyone else as a measure of success.

That’s why I’m stuck in the rut, I realize, trying to take on more than I can hope to accomplish. That’s why traffic is moving along at the pace of a desert tortoise, inching forward for a few meters before slowing to a complete stop when somebody new wants to join the charade. That’s why I see smooth driving on down the road, if I only had the nerve to give up the pretense and move over into the slower lanes.

My predicament is actually a lot worse than that, however. I’m not the victim of my own choices, not by a long shot. I’m doing exactly what somebody in some corner office on Madison Avenue has told me I’m supposed to do so a big wig on Wall Street can get fabulously wealthy on my misery. I’m not even a factor in my own actions anymore, just some bloody automaton guided by subliminal messages of our consumer culture.

You’re doing just fine, there, big fella, they seem to be saying to me. Keep on doing what you’re doing and it will all work out just fine. And don’t even think of moving on over there to the slow lane. Nobody in their right mind wants to be seen driving there.

I feel the static beginning to tingle the bridge of my nose again.

Carefree highway, let me slip away on you.

It is almost a struggle at that point, like somebody else is pulling the strings. I try to resist the impulse to stay where I am as I hit my signal and pull into the middle lane and then all the way over to the slowest lane, even as some fool entering the freeway from a ramp behind me accelerates to take the space I just left in the fast lane.

I pass that Cadillac Escalade on the right without bothering to check to see whether the assumptions I made about his character were correct.

It doesn’t matter any more.

I’ve found my place in the cosmos, and I’m happy, as happy as I can be south of the Carefree Highway.


Mike Bates is a corporate attorney, recently retired to find the purpose in his life. He lives with his wife and daughter in the high desert of central Arizona. His work has appeared in Mobius, Copperfield, Scholars & Rogues, Gadfly, and The Fear of Monkeys.