Water-fat Saguaro. Phoenix residents tended to over-hydrate ”pet” cactus. Photo by Anna Sullivan on Unsplash

Getting to Phoenix

I always liked that song “By the time I get to Phoenix” by Glenn Campbell, because the road trip he sang about seemed to originate in the city of angels and head east to Phoenix and Albuquerque and Oklahoma. It was the exact route — in reverse — that I had taken west before turning north for Washington State.

The leave-takings and lost love at which Campbell’s song hinted — well, perhaps the song spoke to me because I had my own version of that story all bound up in my California memories.

After a sojourn in the Pacific Northwest, I found myself, on October 30, 1976, on the way to Phoenix, coming down out of the rainy country. I would have a hard time imagining an unlikelier twist to my checkered career.

A lot of country had rolled under the tires of my orange VW Super Beetle that day. Some of the scenery was pretty dramatic, old abandoned cabins and mining claims, revealed by sagging scaffolding perched on hillsides. Then the junipers suddenly appeared and thickened and spread like an encamped army over the low rolling hills that once were the bottom of an inland sea. A rest- stop information plaque spoke of the depths of that prehistoric sea, and the kinds of creatures that swam those lightless depths.

My imagination fired up. I saw some frontier youngster, quivering beneath the homemade quilts in a homesteader’s cabin, squeezing his eyes tight shut to avoid seeing, through chinks in the cabin mortar, the eerie luminescence of deep-water, glowing-eyed things that swam by in the night when the ghost ocean reclaimed the prairie.

I could see his hardy and unimaginative father laughing at breakfast, in the safe morning sun, telling the boy that he only saw cattle moving by in the dark, their eyes reflecting dying embers from the fireplace.

The boy not contradicting his father, but mutely wondering how cows could swim above the roof peak, casting cold phosphorescent gleams down the cold chimney…

The sun left me south of Salt Lake City and I drove on into the dusk. South of one of those old-fashioned little highway towns that probably will become the next ghost town when the freeway down this way is complete, a big Ford Country Squire station wagon braked violently in front of me. I almost rode the tire-shrieking, whipsawing Bug up its tail pipe, but somehow got it stopped ten feet short of her tailgate.

The woman was okay. The mule deer doe she hit was not. One rear leg was a twisted mess with protruding bones and there was blood puddled under her while she lay stunned, breathing raggedly. Cars and trucks were blowing by at speed, even though I tried to slow them down with a waving flashlight. The doe reared up, and flopped, reared up, and flopped — all her legs were broken and jutting at awful angles. She was trying to flop out into the road in the direction she had been heading when hit.

I went and got the Model 88 out of its saddle scabbard in the VW. In the flickering headlights I tried to focus on her spine through the scope and achieved the distinction of missing at point-blank range when I shot into the ground beside the thrashing neck. I placed a boot on the neck to hold it still and pressed the muzzle to the spine and delivered her from suffering. I never dreamed my hand-loaded .308 rounds would wind up being used for euthanasia on a crippled mule deer in the far southwest corner of Utah.

Things got stranger. The run from Southern Utah seemed to detour through the Twilight Zone. North of the Grand Canyon, a whole herd of mule deer leaped into the road, all around and over the roof of the VW, hooves going by above the open sun roof, before I could even react. Then they ganged up on the far side of the road and stared at me where I sat at the end of my skid marks. I was wearing my tires out in panic stops.

Before too long I found myself navigating the vast Navajo reservation, dodging pickup trucks driven by highly intoxicated Indians on the way home for the night — or to another watering hole.

As a matter of fact, they did own the whole damn road. The only saving grace was that their shoulder-to-shoulder ramblings were taken in a leisurely manner. I could slip up behind one, time his gentle sweeps back and forth across the highway, and gun by on one side or the other, winding the little Bug up into the redline and away. Fortunately they were happy drunks and not annoyed; I got a couple of friendly waves as I downshifted by.

The final mind-bender came as I approached Flagstaff from the north — a set of headlights coming up fast and hard, making me think either a belatedly angry Indian or a highway cop.

Neither: Bozo the Clown in full makeup, ruffled polka-dotted shirt and all, driving a big old Buick like a madman. He zoomed up beside me with that painted-on grin and white grease paint shining at me in the lights of his instrument panel, and under the paint I could see him chortling at my startled response. Weren’t there horror movies that started like this?

He roared off into invisibility over the winding hills. Then a little while later as I plodded tiredly on, here he came again. Same pass, same chortle, same grotesque painted grin — and this time a saucy little salute — before he was gone again.

It is no exaggeration to say I contemplated pulling off and taking the .308 out of its scabbard behind the seat. Why the hell had he stopped out of sight and then strafed me again? Maybe Bozo just had to pee — or maybe he was screwing with me.

I never knew. Bright lights in the night advertised some kind of agricultural inspection station. As I was pulling into the lights, Bozo went prancing around his car — the only part of the costume missing was the clown shoes, and his feet in tennis shoes were big enough anyway — and hopped in and roared off. The inspector went through his routine with me about any vegetables to declare as if he was on automatic pilot.

“Did I imagine that a clown just came through here?”

“A lot of clowns come through here,” he said in a slow Western drawl, without any change of expression.

“But I meant — “

“Yeah, yeah — that one was actually wearing his uniform,” he said, and turned and walked away.

I guess midnight duty on the Arizona border hardened a man.

By the time I got to Phoenix I was starving. When I sat at the counter of an all-night diner, I was surprised to see low ground fog blurring the lights off toward the city, like vapor rising off the wetlands of home. I said as much to the waitress and she just looked at me.

“That’s dust,” she said. “It never settles this time of year.”

It looked like I had definitely gotten to Phoenix.




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Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.