Let me clear about this right from the start: I love to drive.
Ever since I was a boy and my grandmother sat me down in the driver’s seat of her big, black, be-finned 1950s Chevrolet — a car she called “Mr. Big” — and taught me to use a three-on-the-column shifter, I have felt that I belonged behind the wheel of a car. Any car. It didn’t have to be fancy or expensive or even new. No matter what kind of car it was, from a clunker to my dad’s shiny sedan, I just wanted to drive.
I got my learner’s permit at age 13 and never looked back, except to check my mirrors. I drove car pools to junior high and escorted dates in high school in a clunky white Falcon station wagon with rusted-out floorboards.
In a second-hand Opel station wagon I bought in college, I racked up miles on cross-country trips. I loved racing down flat farm roads, cruising the byways connecting country towns, tackling the curves on mountain roads.
I owned my first car (that hand-me-down Falcon) when I was 16 or 17. In the years since I have proudly owned cars made all over the world, from Japan to Italy to the U.S. to Korea.
All that has changed. Because of an injury to my driving foot nearly three years ago, I’ve become a passenger, not a driver.
I miss it. Like others forced to give up driving as they’ve aged, I miss the freedom that comes with operating your own car. I miss being able to go where I want when I want. I miss the opportunity to be impulsive.
There is something I don’t miss: commuting to work on metro Atlanta interstates.
If driving down a mountain makes you feel more alive, driving I-285 during the peak of commuting feels something akin to dying. Slowly. During the endless hours I spent stuck in traffic watching the taillights of other cars also stuck in traffic, I thought at times that I could feel my life actually getting shorter. When you’re moving at an average speed of, say, 1 mph, something inside of you dies.
Now that I’m old enough to collect Social Security, I’ve come to realize that driving a car isn’t the necessary part of daily life I once thought it was. I stay home more, it’s true, but I can get around well enough depending only on the kindness of family members and friends and the ubiquity of Uber.
In some ways I feel freer than I did when I was driving all the time. Control of the car may be in someone else’s hands, but that means she or he has to deal with the annoyances that come with driving: how to get where you’re going, whether there’s enough gas in the tank to make it to the next cheap-gas station … the usual things.
I do occasionally feel like I’m wasting some of the lessons I’ve learned during my decades of driving. And some of those lessons were learned in hard ways.
Once, when I was about 15, my two teen cousins and I decided to take that old Falcon up a steep mountain road near a family vacation home in North Carolina. Heading up the gravel road, we scraped bottom on a large, exposed rock. We must have clipped a brake line because when we finally arrived at the top of the mountain, we discovered the brake pedal went to the floor and the car didn’t stop.
We suddenly faced negotiating four miles of one-lane gravel road down the side of the mountain without brakes in order to get back to civilization.
My older cousin, who was maybe 16 or 17, announced that as the most senior of us, he’d take control of the wheel as we rolled off down the mountain road. My younger cousin and I hung out of the car doors and dragged our feet to slow the car’s descent while my older cousin steered and pulled the emergency brake every time the car seemed to be moving too fast.
Halfway down the mountain, we rounded a curve at full speed and met our parents coming up the road in my uncle’s new sedan. They were looking for us because we hadn’t returned for lunch, which was very unusual behavior for teenaged boys.
They stopped their car and parked in the middle of the single-lane road, blocking our path. They expected us to stop, too, and park nose-to-nose so they could yell at us and otherwise express their displeasure at our general recklessness. They didn’t know we had no brakes and couldn’t stop. We thought we were racing into a head-on collision.
Luckily, inspiration struck my cousin. Instead of trying to slow down and stop, he jerked the wheel in order to run the car off the road and up a roadside bank. As we rolled up the hillside and roared past our shocked parents, we could hear them screaming at us. We could only smile ruefully at them, shrug and scream back, “We have no brakes.”
When our parents caught up with us at the bottom of the mountain and heard our explanations, we went from idiots to heroes. The car went to the shop.
What lesson did I learn from that? I don’t really know. Maybe to let your parents know when you’ll be late for lunch. Or maybe, just to check the brakes more often.
Things like that don’t happen to me anymore, of course. My days of wild country driving are gone, replaced by hours spent stopping and going and stopping again in city traffic jams. And even negotiating those slow-moving herds of cars is some other driver’s problem.
When I’m in a car now, I concern myself with the view from the passenger’s seat.