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DUSK AND MAGNETS: ON BECOMING
THE BUCKEYE HIGHWAY
by Jack Balas
It's dawn and it's Phoenix. Phoenix, a city twenty miles wide and one story high. A flat city rung with dry, scraped and barren mountains, a city studded with King palms and aqueduct lawns and Chevron trucks cruising slowly down the streets, trucks that reflect the coming on of day in mirrored, convex sides. I stand outside my room at the Comfort Inn on east Van Buren and gaze at the palms, asking myself how a million people just happened to "come on down" and live on this godforsaken patch of desert. For some, maybe, it was the lure of a God's Plan that included croissant dealers and Cadillacs and armored Purolator cars, all within sight of twelve-foot-high saguaros. For others, maybe, it was the thought of the sun at high noon shimmering off plastic-coated menus at Denny's, the ones embossed with windswept scenes of a lighthouse on some rocky New England coast. And for still others, perhaps, it was the promise of pistol-packin' waitresses at sawdust-on-the-floor Bill Johnson's Big Apple, just down the street and where I'm headed for breakfast. But I doubt, seriously, if anyone is here because of the lights out on the Buckeye Highway, thirteen miles of them, stoplights blinking red and green into the face of cottonfields. Most people would shudder at the thought of driving their gauntlet. But for me, today, they are exactly why I am here.
I used to drive a truck. A bobtail. Half as long as a semi, almost as tall, up to twelve tons loaded. Across the country from L.A. to New York and full of art, schlepping paintings and sculpture between artists and galleries, collectors and museums. But it really shouldn't matter to you how big the truck was or where I used to drive it or what I had inside. These things aren't important because they don't explain the thing about the lights I want to tell you about. Rather, what is important is how many gears the truck had -- ten, to be exact. And using them to keep from stopping is what, in fact, matters a great deal.
Ten gears may sound complicated, but really they weren't. There were only five stick positions on the floor, each one split into a high and low that you controlled by snapping a collar up or down on the end of the stick. So if you wanted to go, for instance, from low second to high second, all you had to do was snap the collar up and hit the clutch; you didn't have to go and move the stick any. When it was time to go to low third, then, you'd snap the collar down, throw in the clutch, move the stick to third, let the clutch out. What this meant was you could go through all the gears without much work before you were up to top speed, unlike the big semis that have twenty-eight gears or something and you have to move the stick for each one (you've noticed how long they take to get going from a stoplight?) And a nicer thing about all this was if you had a light load, you could leave the collar up (or down) the whole time and treat the truck like a five-speed, going from high first straight to high second, straight to high third just like a car. And, if you were like my boss, you could simply skip all of this info the first six months you owned the truck and treat the collar like you figured it was some kind of toy, until you happened to notice the gear shift diagram pasted to the back of one of the sun visors and figured it all out.
But the last place he should have tried explaining any of this to me was out on this Buckeye Highway on our first trip in the truck where he let me drive, and there he was finding out that all the stuff I'd driven prior to that day happened to be automatic (even those city busses), and now I was trying to figure out how to shift any gear, let alone ten of them, on this thirteen-mile detour around the last leg of Interstate10 still under construction, a road with a 50-mile speed limit and a stoplight every mile, every last one of which I was, of course, missing.
Now generally, you or I might consider a thirteen-mile detour around a stretch of incomplete freeway going into a major American city nothing more than a major annoyance, especially if it's been hot out (as Phoenix is rather known to be) and you've been driving all day. But being on this road was not like coming into some other city such as Dallas, where you approach the outer highway loop on four-lane roads that have eight lanes' worth of traffic. Nor was it like coming into the southwest side of Chicago, where the ship canals that run alongside I-55 between the power plants and the junkyards look a helluva lot more tranquil than the river of semis you happen to be navigating. No, I'm not talking about those roads. I'm talking about the west side of Phoenix and the Buckeye Highway, a two-lane asphalt causeway lapped on either side by cottonfields, fields dusty red that you ply in the dusk, alone, while a breeze blows in and cools off the day, and where cities light up on the horizon. If there ever was a road that literally pulled you into a city, it was this one. And because of the lights that I'm telling you about. But in order for me to tell you right, let me start in Los Angeles.
Pasadena, to be exact. You've spent a week driving around L.A. loading the truck, and now your stack of work-orders is spread out on the table while you have breakfast at the Salt Shaker. You picture the trip in front of you: deliveries in Scottsdale and Tucson and Dallas, pickups in Albuquerque and St. Louis, maybe a day off in Santa Fe, two in Chicago before you head on to New York. For days you've been anxious to leave, and today you're convinced that you actually will. When you called in to the office last night they had no more pickups for you, it's too early now to call in again, and thank God they're not going to call you here at the Salt Shaker. Your bag is out in the truck, you fueled up when you were down on Alameda last night, and now you're set to go. All you have to do for the next eight hours is drive. So when you head up Lake to the 210 you don't feel particularly concerned about anything. You know your tankful of gas will get you to Albuquerque. You don't have to remember which exit is yours -- just go till the freeway runs out. And all that traffic you've noticed, stop-and-go and stretched to the horizon? Well it is, after all, pointed in the direction you're not going. So when you pass that light at the top of the ramp and floor it you feel: Finally. Blastoff. Outta here. Next Stop, Phoenix. Autopilot time.
It doesn't take long, maybe five miles, before your hand stops hovering above the stick. Another five miles and your foot stops hovering above the clutch. You glance at your mirrors as the San Gabriels slide by in the haze. And everything starts to slide by in the haze: the swoop onto the 10, the big merge after that, the lane changes to avoid the ruts that go on past Ontario. It all merges with the other times you've done this drive, and what you're left with is a blur not unlike the one at the side of the road, a blur that, like the radio now, begins in places to fade, to white out in a snowstorm of static out of which, depending on the strength of the signal and the way, today, you finger the antenna, certain landmarks come in for a landing, loud and clear.
Here, for instance, is the Union 76 and five hundred semis huddled behind a hurricane fence gathering the nerve to drive to Las Vegas or, worse yet, to Hollywood. Here come the train yards at Fontana, the ones wrapped in barbed wire and those 20-story eucalyptus trees. Here's the hill up to Yucaipa and at Banning the sign that gives you the jitters: TRUCK SCALE TWO MILES. Do you go around today? You eye that last exit just short of the Super 8, but then you remember this outbound one's always closed.
You look at that snow up on San Jacinto. And that dinosaur truckstop at Cabazon -- have to go in there sometime. And these windmills at the Palm Springs exit, and the Motel 6 out at nowhere and the sign: Leaving the Indian Bingo Reservation. And the other sign: HILL NEXT 8 MILES TURN OFF AIR CONDITIONER TO AVOID OVERHEATING. No more radio, just the engine and the hot air blowing in the window. Now the ocotillo start, today with bright red blossoms. Here's Chiriaco Summit, where you can get ice cream bars. There's Desert Center, where the water comes in plastic turquoise cups. And here, maybe, you ignore the mountains because the sun has robbed them of every shadow, every bit of color; better to be on this stretch later in the day. You can't, however, ignore that 727 that's taken off and circled around for the third time. Nor, at Blythe, the temperature drop. The rice fields, water skiers, MOUNTAIN TIME, lose an hour. ARIZONA PORT OF ENTRY TWO MILES ALL VEHICLES MUST STOP.
You park and get out at this one; this one's always open. But here they just want your money, ask you what you're hauling, write you a one-trip permit. You stop on the scale, hope the green light doesn't turn red, and just when you start to climb the hill at milemarker five the first saguaros. Tall. Green. Everywhere. Full of woodpecker holes. (I mean, they can't all be from shotguns, can they?) Milemarker seventeen: Quartzsite. RV's everywhere, drawn up pow-wow style in circles, campfire in the middle, lawn chairs around under awnings. Sand and rock and scrub brush everywhere. And hot. What a vacation.
Milemarker 20. 25. 30. At 45 the Chevron stop and the road up to Vicksburg. 50. 55. The aqueduct here is still under construction; Phoenix is gonna drink it in like a sponge. 65. 70. Whoops! Is that a cop under that bridge? 85. 90. 94. 96. Damn, it's hot! 477th AVENUE EXIT ONE MILE. Some city planner is being pretty optimistic. Hundred and two. Hundred and eight. CORRECTIONAL FACILITY DO NOT STOP FOR HITCHHIKERS. Great place to break down, though. Hundred eleven, hundred twelve. This abandoned horse track -- it took me two years to figure out it was abandoned. Hundred and fifteen, hundred and twenty. Hundred and twenty-four. Then both sides, big and yellow: FREEWAY ENDS TWO MILES. ALL TRAFFIC MUST EXIT. Click.
Hello? Are you there? Jeez, it's late already. Sun's already down. That nap couldn't've been that long, wherever it was. You slow when you see the Waffle House; you turn. Weird to use your feet again, isn't it? Do your hands still work? Feels good to turn that wheel back and forth more than a couple of inches, huh? What's that? Radio! Yes, we have radio again. And people! Look! Wake up!
From there it's two miles south to the Buckeye Highway. Over the tracks. Stop light ahead. Left turn lane. Two left turn lanes. You turn left. And that's when it happens. You see them. There in front of you and fading to the horizon. The stoplights. The first one a mile away, the second a mile after that. Thirteen miles of them. And you've timed it just right. It's dark enough to make them out in the failing light. But it's light enough still to see the cotton fields and rows of palms to your left and right, the occasional beat-up homes with junk cars off to the side, the Mexican grocery and currency exchange and further on in the gas stations and more of everything else, everything old and covered with dust, nothing new and snappy because the new stuff's gone in along the interstate, whenever that gets done. And that's when it hits you. The breeze. It's damp and cool and a reward, blowing in off the fields. And those lights strung out on the horizon. Phoenix and Tempe and Chandler turning on in the dusk. Your eyes widen a notch looking at them. They seem to be like arms stretched out in welcome. You want to feel their embrace. Fast. And this is when the thirteen miles of lights start to work their magic. Because you know if you do it right, you can let those lights pull you in like a magnet on a receding strobe, a strobe not unlike the ones you see just outside of airports and lined up with the runways. So as you straighten out from the turn you step on the gas, and as you hear the change in the engine you, like the jets a mile above that have just aligned themselves for landing twenty miles east at Sky Harbor, begin your final approach into the Valley of the Sun.
You get up to 50 fast, and your eyes focus on the first of the lights a mile away. A half mile from it the light turns red and you begin to drop gears. Click. Low fifth. Click. High fourth. Click. Low fourth. A hundred yards from the light you go down to low third. Click. You're in high second a hundred feet later, the collar already snapped down, your foot poised over the clutch, you wait just one more second and ... Bingo! The light turns green and you barrel on through on your way back up to third. A hundred yards past the light and you're back in high fifth. But the next light is a mile away, and a half mile from it the light turns red. You begin to drop gears again, the clicks filling the cab. High fourth. Click. Low fourth. Click. High third. Again a hundred yards from the light and you're poised to go to second. Click. You wait on this one longer. Closer. A hundred feet from the light ... Green! But you barely notice it; your eyes are on the next light a mile away. The rush is tangible, part of the breeze pouring through the windows. Your ears listen for optimum RPM. Your feet keep a steady beat: up, down, up, down. Your hand orchestrates with the stick, fingers adjust the tempo. And the lights change right on cue, just at the crescendo. And again, and again.
Imagine, then, the alternative to all this: the typical freeway lanes sunk twenty feet below street level; gentle banks of Kentucky Bluegrass rising, fully watered, from the sands of the Sonoran Desert, revealing only the uppermost stories of the Ramada and Hampton Inns, only the highest of the Circle K and Seven-Eleven signs. Green slabs the size of tennis courts hang off bridges passing over you, signs promising 51st, 43rd, 35th, 27th Avenues. (You can only assume they're up there somewhere.) Your speed hasn't changed much since you left Blythe three hours ago, and now your tunnel vision has widened from four lanes to ten. Your feet have barely moved in those same three hours; your fingers are almost numb. You're practically in downtown Phoenix, but you haven't exactly tuned it in yet. Will anything trigger consciousness again before you miss your exit? Or will you rely still on autopilot to shoot you up some off-ramp in the nick of time? And whenever you do exit it's going to be nasty and instantaneous, a reurbanization in that insidious form Phoenix is best known for: crosstown surface-street traffic, baked and congealed at a hundred and ten degrees.
* * * *
Over the years that I spent driving in and out of Phoenix, I noticed more and more of the bumperstickers that said, simply, BUILD THE FREEWAYS. At the time Phoenix was not, to put it mildly, a city of them. And, on those days when I too was caught in traffic, when even 44th Street and Indian School were clogged and I too was anxious to get either to Scottsdale or out of Scottsdale, I began to agree: Yeah, what this town needs is about a million freeways. And so, as that last leg of I-10 skirted by the Buckeye Highway was completed over the years and opened a couple of miles at a time, I too felt the progress urge, the increasing impatience as the very last mile still under construction seemed to be taking forever and ever. And when, one day, about a mile west of the capitol, I made it all the way through the I-17 interchange without stopping (albeit on a shoulder opened to traffic, not the future sky-ramp itself), I too felt some kind of elation, not unlike that which I felt after four or eight or twelve years at school, walking finally across the stage for a diploma and a handshake from the dean.
But was anything lost in this process? Some would say not. Phoenix, they would say, is just becoming with the freeways more like a Dallas or a Chicago, easier at times to get around in, and less of a nuisance, for sure, if you are in a hurry to get to Tucson and don't want to hang out at every other stoplight between Goodyear and Tempe and Chandler. And that Buckeye Highway? What are you talking about? Just an old dusty road with a bunch of stoplights on it already anyway, stoplights blinking at a bunch of cottonfields that are just gonna get filled in with more houses and stores and schools and before you know it you'll need another freeway down there too. It's not like it was some luscious route through the Grand Canyon or something. And you can still drive on it if you're fool enough. Who's going to get romantic over it?
Well, maybe I can. Maybe because I got to know that highway back when it was the only road you could take, back when it was just the road and the cotton and the lights. And if it's been filled in since then, if you can't drive it and still hit all the lights anymore, then it's been lost forever, and with it something greater. You see, back then those lights meant more than merely stop and go out in the middle of nowhere. They were also there to talk to you. They asked you to sit up after a long drive and pay attention, to think about what you, the driver, had to do there in the cab of your truck to win this little game of red light / green light. And if you knew what to do, if you knew how to drive and were good at it, they rewarded you. They created this strobe that slowly pulled you in, and the closer in you got the more excited you got about being pulled in, about being put to this test.
It was an elusive reward, granted, one that wasn't for everyone. Maybe you had to be tuned for it. But if you were tuned for it, you were also tuned for the even bigger, more elusive reward: the sense that there you are, out on this two-lane field road, feeling very close to your truck. You've been in it all day, barely left it the whole drive from L.A. and now you're just very aware of how you drive it, how you control it, how you, moreso than the engine, are at the heart of it, the center of this machine that hovers like an electron around a city and then jumps, on cue, from the pull of one city to the pull of another. And now at this moment not only do you feel the new pull, via these stoplights, towards the nucleus of Phoenix, but you begin to feel too everything that impedes that pull. So when you begin to feel the friction of the asphalt under you, you realize then that this truck, on however many tangents of rubber it addresses this road, will never be separate from the road, and so this road must be part of the truck. And if the road is part of the truck and you are at the heart of the truck, then you must be at the heart of the road too, right? And what about the fields then? You can't really separate them from the road; I mean, don't they go under the road? They must be part of the truck too, and you must be at the heart of them. And what about the county then? And the state? And the planet? And this truck keeps getting bigger and bigger, the more things you can't separate from it, all because of a bunch of stoplights, and all the while there you are, sitting at the heart of it.
But you're not just sitting there, you think to yourself, you're moving. And you were moving long before you got anywhere near these stoplights, and you're going beyond them too -- this business of the electron jumping. So what makes all of this go? Is it really just the engine? Just the gas in the tank? Is there not something more here that propels you toward that next city, toward that horizon at the same time that you are momentarily propelled here toward Phoenix?
Well, if we were talking physics I might have to call this something the other magnet, the fleeting, unseen one deeper down somewhere. It faces or opposes the magnet of the stoplights and, in so doing, pushes away from it. It faces or opposes the magnet of the stoplights with some greater force, and the faster you speed toward it the faster it somehow grabs you and pushes you away. And it's this force of pushing apart that sends you down this road. It's this force of pushing apart that creates the wind you feel, because you're the one moving. It's this force of pushing apart that shows you dusk, because you're the one spinning away from the sun. And it's exactly this force of pushing apart that I've come back here, and now, to find.
It's dawn and it's Phoenix. I stand outside my room at the Comfort Inn on east Van Buren and gaze at the palms. I've come back to look for something, or else to create it again -- a thing I don't have a name for, but a thing I have felt before. I may not find it, but I think today my chances are good. The day will be hot, the cotton is just in bloom, and I know where, and when, to look. So later I'll head out west to Quartzsite or so, maybe even to Blythe, a slow drive on I-10 out to where the radio stations fade, and then I'll turn around. And on the way back maybe I'll watch for that 727 and find out if it ever lands. And while I'm out there maybe I'll look to see if those saguaros really do have bullets in them, or if the aqueduct has any water. And maybe, on that way back, I'll even ask someone why that racetrack went bust. But the main thing is that I get back to Goodyear when the light is just about right, when everything is just about right, so that when I head down to the Buckeye Highway I should be tired and it should be dusk and I should be anxious to get into town, and I'll do that left turn and those thirteen miles of stoplights will be waiting for me. And as I straighten out and pick up speed slowly down that causeway and sense the cotton waving on either side, when I hear the clicking sound again and taste the cool breeze arrive at last, that's when I'll feel that red and green magnet start to pull me, to pull me again, and that's when I hope to find it, this other magnet I've been telling you about, the one that seems responsible for so much, this other force that sits, alive, at the heart of hot cotton at dusk and at the heart of me, this unspeakable force --this soul-- that keeps me in a certain orbit of red and green and, at the same time, propels me constantly, urgently, toward the one thing I know I can never reach: that line of stars far away, flickering at and then rising above a broad, red horizon.