E.B. White said that “everything in life is somewhere else, and you get there in a car”; a recent Dodge Challenger ad puts it a bit more directly: “Here’s a couple of things America got right: cars and freedom.” To most Americans, cars and freedom are practically synonymous. Getting a driver’s license is one of the most obvious signs that a teenager is leaving adolescence and entering adulthood. So what happens when you spend most of your life not in the driver’s seat, but in the passenger’s — does that make you any less of an American? Or any less of an adult?
My vehicular arrested development began, I think, when I was little and my next-door neighbors got a Power Wheels. Every day that it was nice out (and, it being Northern California, it was nice a lot), I basked in the passenger seat of that bright red miniature Jeep. Still, no matter how hard I lobbied for a Power Wheels of my own, my parents gently refused to indulge me. Disappointment: the first thing I learned to associate with a motor vehicle.
A few pratfalls put me off of other modes of transportation. A pair of skinned knees and a spectacular (I’m told) flip-over-the-handlebars convinced me that a bike without training wheels was a bike not worth riding. The X Games, founded in 1997, inspired my friends to try ever more daring stunts on their new skateboards. I, however, managed to do an ollie once, and after failing to stick the landing, vowed never to try again. I even ended a short flirtation with an ATV after one of my neighbors told me about a friend of a friend who, while riding his ATV in a forest somewhere, was decapitated by a random low-hanging wire.
It wasn’t until I turned 13 that I first fell in love with an automobile. My family had recently abandoned the trappings of suburban life — school bus service, cul-de-sacs, neighbors — for a five-acre ex-Christmas tree farm in rural Oregon. My dad reveled in the isolation; I resented the obscenely early school mornings and the power outages that could stretch for days. Scenic though it was, the view of Mt. Hood didn’t really make up for the inconveniences.
But I soon learned that the country life had some fringe benefits other than fresh air and plenty of room to shoot my .22 rifle. Our house came with a small riding lawnmower and a dilapidated old garden tractor that I quickly learned how to drive. Best of all, my parents let me drive those poor John Deeres all over our five acres as long as the blades were off — which suited me just fine, since they went faster that way. I got used to the wind in my face, the turtle-to-rabbit scale of the throttle, and the fact that I didn’t have to share our little gravel road with anyone (or even stay on it, for that matter).
Maybe those mowers ruined me for other vehicles. Two years later, when I got behind the wheel of my parents’ Dodge Caravan, I felt like I was trying to drive a blimp. Nothing was where it belonged, and nothing responded the way I expected it to. It frustrated me, of course, but it frustrated my mom even more, who was trying, patiently, to teach me how to drive. I think after the fifth time we attempted some rather complicated backing-up maneuvers, and I insisted on performing them no faster than five miles per hour, we both gave up. Which was fine with me: I was glad to never have to parallel park that whale of a vehicle ever again. As far as I cared, I was happier without a car than I could imagine myself with one.
While I remained wedded to the yellow gator seats of my John Deeres, my friends experienced the independence of car ownership, the financial and personal responsibilities involved in buying and maintaining one, and the inevitable disappointment caused by having to settle for a decades-old Civic, CRX, or Metro instead of something flashier (since no one I know managed to con their parents into buying an SUV or a Mercedes). I thought my friends were simply becoming occupied with car parts and gas mileage; I didn’t realize the chasm in maturity that was opening between me and them. They got deeper into the thrall of car culture, and into the mixed blessings of adulthood: the knowledge that they could, if they wanted, pack up and move a thousand miles away on a whim, and the understanding that relationships, obligations, and sheer inertia made it all but impossible to take that knowledge seriously.
It’s tempting to write it all of this off as a symptom of the same form of Peter Pan syndrome that led me to spend four years in graduate school and keeps me from throwing out things of purely sentimental value, all as part of a general refusal to grow up. After all, isn’t ignoring the call of the open road tantamount to turning your back on adulthood itself?
On the other hand, the cynic in me says that car ownership is over-romanticized, its promise of independence a lie (since we can’t really drive without the support of insurance companies, gas stations, washer fluid companies…), that fahrvergnügen — the pleasure one takes from driving — is nothing more than a glorified machine fetish. If I imposed on my friends to drive me to the store every week, at least I knew exactly who I was dependent on, and had no pretenses about the whole endeavor.
It took me eight years — when I was well into my twenties — to get my first driver’s license and my first car. To be honest, though, once I stepped into the cabin and turned the ignition into the car that I now owned and could legally operate, I felt more mature, ready to face new challenges and new experiences that I couldn’t even imagine. The feeling was well-timed: I ran out of gas on the way back to my apartment, and had to get someone to help me push my car 500 feet to the nearest gas station.
Just over a year later, I found myself about to use those vehicular privileges to their fullest: I decided to end what looked to be an unpromising career in academia, pack up everything, and move across the country to Seattle for no good reason except that I knew some friends there and felt like it was a good place to be for a while. I pointed my car westward on I-90, and didn’t really look back until I hit the Puget Sound.
So what took me so long to get behind the wheel? Well, a cynic might say that I was so lazy that it took dire need (the need to go to the grocery store at any time, the need to pack up my life on a whim) to make me grow up. But it might be fairer to say that I was just hesitant to take that last, irreversible step into adulthood until I could actually use the freedoms — and handle the disappointments — that it offered.