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Carefree Highways & Big Bug Creeks: Real names for fictional places

Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot long told the story of how he got the idea for his 1974 hit song "Carefree Highway" from the name he saw on a road sign, which he jotted on a slip of paper – and almost left behind in a rental-car glove compartment in Phoenix, Arizona. Turned out to be a perfect name for a memorable tune.

On our first trip to Arizona in 2013, I actually found not one but two place names which made their way into my new historical novel GALLOWAY’S GAMBLE. Like Lightfoot’s Carefree Highway, I spotted these while driving our Alamo rental car near Phoenix (where we did see the famous Carefree Highway sign, and my wife Susan snapped this photo while we were stopped at that red light).

The first thing you notice driving out west (especially if you’re from either overpopulated coast) is that their ain’t a lot of people, once you’re outside the few big cities like Phoenix. Some scenery is stunning, some monotonous – but there’s not much traffic. Which makes driving more relaxing than, say, a day on the New Jersey Turnpike – where “adventure” means outrunning the speeding 18-wheeler nipping at your back bumper.

So, even though I was behind the wheel, I could glance about, admire mountain vistas, and read road signs with evocative names – like Horsethief Basin and Big Bug Creek, both seen while cruising Interstate 17 through the heart of Arizona. The names alone said “Pick me!” – which I did. But once we got home, curiosity prodded me to find out more about them.

Big Bug Creek flows under I-17, 65 miles north of Phoenix, and 26 miles south of Camp Verde, where we’d side-tripped to visit the magnificent ruins left behind by Indian cliff-dwellers at Montezuma Castle National Monument (a must-see stop if you’re touring Arizona; see bottom of page).

There was once a tiny town (a gold mining camp, really) named Big Bug along the creek. Established in 1862, Big Bug’s population peaked at around 100, then dwindled until the post office closed in 1910, and Big Bug faded into history as one Arizona’s many ghost towns.

Horsethief Basin is a lake and recreation area in the Prescott National Forest, about 86 miles northwest of Phoenix (below). I wasn’t able to pin down the true history, but the name does hint at an exciting old west tale in there somewhere.

I transplanted both Arizona names to the Texas setting of GALLOWAY’S GAMBLE. Big Bug Creek became the local hangout and swimming hole in the woods for my young characters, site of card games, frog hunts and rock-throwing contests.

Trading the humdrum word “basin” for the more dramatic “canyon,” I cooked up colorful local lore about horsethieves on the lam who drowned in a flash flood, and turned "Horsethief Canyon" into a place that reminds our characters of the fearsome power of nature.

Sure, I could have made up my own colorful western locations, but borrowing real names we encountered on our travels helped me add a satisfying little dash of detail to historical fiction.

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