I am forever telling anyone who will listen about the town of Carefree and why I love it so much, so I thought I’d tell the tale of how I came to discover it, purely because I can and I want to and I haven’t posted anything of great length for a while. While I’m at it, allow me to talk about one of my favorite pastimes as well: driving. My love of Carefree and my love of driving are interconnected, so I’ll begin this little narrative by explaining why I love driving far more than any normal human being should.
It all started when I was thirteen and my then-step dad let me take his Infiniti around the block in our neighborhood in California. I remember my mom – looking terrified – watching from our driveway as I wheeled the car around and my step-dad and I whizzed on by. “Look, Mom!” I called cheerfully as I took my eyes off the road to wave at her, “I’m driving!”
Cue parked car that came out of nowhere. I looked back just in time to jerk the steering wheel and barely miss it, steering the Infiniti into the middle of the street at the speed of light and somehow managing to gun the engine at the same time so that my step-dad and I were at the end of the block again within a split second. In the rearview mirror I could see my poor mom putting a hand to her head.
Of course, I learned to drive properly when I got my driver’s permit at fifteen years and seven months old and happily started driving to school or the grocery store when one of my parents would settle for sitting in the front passenger seat. I liked having control of the car. I liked being able to do such a grown-up thing.
But when I got my license and a car for my very own the summer before my junior year in high school, I was given the keys to more than just a snow-white 1999 Toyota Corolla that I fell head over heels in love with. I was given something I had craved all my life, something I still long for to this day and the thing I will strive to have all my life until it is mine: total and absolute freedom.
In the end, my longing for freedom is what saved me and led me to Carefree. This is because when I was between the ages of fifteen and eighteen years old, I was going through a bad depression. Looking back, I am grateful for those years, because they have come to shape who I am today and they have always put everything in perspective for me… but I can never deny that those years were a very dark time in my life.
Now, I’ve come to notice that when people are haunted by inescapable flashbacks and inner demons, they cope with them in different ways. Some people drink. Some people do drugs. Some people throw the blame on others around them in order to escape their despair and sense of inevitable doom. Some people paint. Some people cook. Some people write poetry and short stories. Me?
I’d get in my car and drive.
I’d drive anywhere. Everywhere. Any place where I could escape my own thoughts and feelings and just be as adventurous and fearless as I could. As long as I was in motion, as long as I was flying on the roads and taking in the beautiful and somehow enormously comforting desert around me, I was safe. And it was during this time, after I had driven through my neighborhood and memorized the streets beyond, as I drove off road and drove down busy streets I had never gone down before, as I frequently drove so far away from my house it would take me forever to find my way back home, I discovered Carefree. I discovered Carefree in the same way that spiritually lost people discover God.
For those of you who are not from Arizona, Carefree is a little town nestled against Black Mountain in Cave Creek, roughly 35 miles north of downtown Phoenix and fifteen minutes or so from the neighborhood where I grew up. (It and Cave Creek share a border and are often grouped together as one city.) There are roughly 3,800 people living in Carefree; many of them are cowboys with cattle ranches, some of them are ex-hippies with artistic and spiritual outlooks on life. Lots of them have horses and frequently ride them through town. A portion of the population is composed of snowbirds. Small-business owners, average families… I think there’s even a retired politician or two. They all have one thing in common: they live in the most beautiful place in the entire world.
The place is surrounded by mountains. The town was built within the desert itself and peacefully coexists with saguaros and all other forms of cacti, palo verdies, desert bushes, dust, dirt, boulders, and the wildlife that comes with them. Think Old West. There is Black Mountain, of course, as the cling-on spot for the town, but in the distance to the north soar purple peaks that are clear as day in the air that can only be described as crisp. And in between those peaks you can see a huge stretch of land that is free from development and barely even dotted with houses. If you look on a map, you can see that it eventually turns into the Tonto National “Forest”. The town taxed itself in order to buy that land and save it. Furthermore, Carefree outlawed all big corporations several years ago – the only businesses that exist in the town are family run and owned. The only popular place you’d see there is a Dairy Queen, built before they could pass the law. The rest of the town is composed of little stores built in the early to mid twentieth century, and most of them look straight out of a John Wayne movie. And all of this sits under the grandest and biggest blue sky imaginable.
Upon seeing this splendor for the very first time, I briefly forgot how to breathe. My eyes could not take in enough. The part of my mind that controlled the anguish and despair I had been feeling when I got into my car that day briefly forgot how to convey such raw emotion. All I was aware of was one thing: if Heaven on Earth really did exist, or any Heaven at all, for that matter, this was it. And I had to be a part of it.
The summer before I turned seventeen, a month after I got my car, I got a job at the Bashas up in Carefree – a grocery store which I would come to discover was one of the main hang-out spots for the locals. Everybody knew one another. Everybody was family. Bashas was a family owned business, after all, and it showed. And even though I was pushing carts and bagging groceries, this little place became one of the biggest sources of comfort for me so that I most of the time, I actually didn’t mind going to work. Why?
Because the lady in the bakery knew what I was going to order before I ordered it, and to this day was the only person who knew how to make my coffee just the way I like it. Because the man who ran the seafood section became my guardian away from home and my source of jokes and laughter when I was feeling down. Because the man who was in charge of the produce sections became something like a grandfather to me and told me stories of his childhood as I’d sweep up lettuce in his section or sit with him on our breaks. Because the cashiers watched over me as though I were their daughter yet treated me like an equal. And, strangely enough to me, because the customers absolutely adored me.
The customers who came in all the time always wanted to see me, always wanted me to walk out to their cars with them so they could hear how I was doing in school. One elderly couple who frequently came in flat-out refused to let anyone else bag their groceries but me. The wife, always cranky with everybody else, seemed happy whenever I was there since I cheerfully let her supervise when I was bagging. A sweet girl named Lindsey was always brought in by her father and she always wanted hugs from me and the other cashiers. She was one of the strongest girls I knew, since she never let the fact that she had Down’s Syndrome get in the way of smiling at everyone and brightening their days.
There was an old cowboy who used to come in and call me darlin’ every time I asked him how his horses were. Another slightly odd man actually got down on one knee and proposed to me several times until one of my managers – laughing hysterically – eventually caught him at it and came to my rescue. Another elderly but tough-as-nails lady frequently brought her twin grandsons in and talked to us about her horses in between threatening to whip the hides off the boys who were usually getting into all sorts of shenanigans. Everyone – employee and manager and customer alike – was friendly. And that attitude, that atmosphere, that feeling of belonging and family and contentment no matter where a person is at in his or her life, runs throughout the entire town.
I lived for the late summer nights where me and one of my managers and the cashier on duty would be the only ones working until closing (which was 9!). We’d all hang out at the register as we waited for the last customer to leave so we could lock up. The registers were right next to the doors, and my manager would usually be just outside smoking a cigarette (all the older folks of the town, western cowboys and cowgirls at heart, were smokers) and we could all feel the hot summer air wafting in and hear the crickets chirping. Everyone retires early in Carefree, or so it seems, so there usually would not be any sound of traffic. Not that you’d hear any sounds of crazy traffic in Carefree, where the biggest road is barely two lanes.
I quit that job at the end of the summer before my senior year in high school, after I tried to balance working there and volunteering at a horse ranch by my house, but I’ve never forgotten what it was like to work there, what it was like to be a part of Carefree. I still frequently drive up to the town to bask in its magnificence and I still journey down other unpaved roads or streets that look like they lead to something exciting when I get bored. But now when I get in my car, I’m not trying to run from depression. I drive simply to enjoy the journey and take in the natural surroundings as opposed to man-made cities.
Maybe the reason I am head over heels in love with the town of Carefree is because the town embodies the spirit of the wild west. It’s not very often you find a town in Arizona that simply lives in harmony with the desert.
Above all, above anything, Carefree respectfully acknowledges the truth about the great Sonoran that a lot of people don’t understand: the desert was never meant to be tamed. It was never meant to be inhabited by people who use too much water to keep grass alive in their yards and complain about the lack of oak trees lining the streets. It was never meant to be inhabited by those who don’t see its beauty, its splendor, its wildness that mankind has not yet and never will destroy. Carefree sees that wildness. It embraces it.
The town embodies its very own name. It is peaceful, happy, loving, and, of course, carefree. And that, my friends, symbolizes the perfect life that we were meant to live. Is that kind of life always a reality? Of course not. But one day up in Carefree can sure make that kind of life possible.
Check out Carefree, Arizona’s website here for more information about the town!