Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Vehicular Nostalgia and a Very Cherokee Christmas

I’m having a Cherokee Christmas this year. This means many things: my dad, my uncle, assorted relatives, and an alcohol-free Indian casino with abundant video poker. It also means that I’m going to have to drive to get there.

I have a somewhat checkered history when it comes to cars. I don’t own a car. I haven’t driven since October of last year. I’ve never been in an accident, and I have not received a ticket in over ten years. It’s rare that I make anyone panic when riding with me. I am neither absurdly aggressive, nor one of those people that causes accidents by chickening out of left turns at the last possible second. My biggest drawback is spatial relations. I can’t park straight, I can’t parallel park at all, and I usually wind up at least ten feet away from the window when I use a drive-through.

In short, I’m not exactly an expert when it comes to motor vehicle operation.

My first car was a white two-door Nissan Sentra. I used to do my math homework while driving to high school, with one knee jammed under the steering wheel and my notebook across my lap. I was usually done by the time I got to the hairpin turn at the intersection of Hoadly and Spriggs. If not, I was out of luck. This may also be why I had to repeat Algebra II. (Incidentally, a major step in Woodbridge’s ascension to suburbia was taking winding old country roads, straightening them out, and then tossing in a hairpin turn at the very end.)

I got my first ticket for doing 64 in a 40, also on Hoadly Road, the center of my bad driving universe. My justification was that it was a really nice new road and the speed limit was far too low. Then I cried. (Which, by the way, doesn’t work.) The worst part was that I was supposed to be coming home from a different part of town, which totally busted me with my mom. I hadn’t been where I was supposed to be.

In college, I learned how to drive partial stick shift. As in, I would operate the wheel and the pedals while a friend operated the gear shift. I learned a valuable life lesson, and he avoided DUI. By this time, my Sentra had developed a leak that would cause green water to slosh into the back seat whenever I braked too hard. I patched a muffler hole with a McNugget, I replaced my busted taillight with yellow cellophane, and I used control top pantyhose as a tow rope.

I received a ticket for illegal right on red, but the judge forgave it because he didn’t know that right on red was illegal at that intersection. I had as many as eight bumper stickers on my car at any given time. Most had feminist slogans or punchy one-liners like, “The road to hell is paved with Republicans.” You would think this would make my car stand out like an angel in a whorehouse, but let me remind you this was Chapel Hill.

I used to love road trips. I went to DC to see friends, I drove to the beach to stick my feet in the ocean, and I went to South of the Border to buy high-octane fireworks. My uncle gave me a CB, which I used for onboard entertainment. My handle was Vixen, my sister’s was Princess. The most important thing I learned from trucker chat was that the only thing that doesn't arrive by truck is a newborn baby.

Eventually, I sold the Sentra to my sister. I bought an old, beat-up Acura Integra hatchback from a sheriff’s son out in Waynesville. I talked the price down by $1,000, paid in cash, named it Delilah, and took it home. It didn’t look like much, but, boy, was it a fun car. Its maximum speed was 110 (which my sister found out on I-95, which is why I will never again take a nap while she is driving).

The Acura eventually died. I never drove it after I moved to D.C., the plates expired, and I even locked myself out one day. I paid a gentleman $10 to break into the car with a coat hanger. He showed his young son how to do it, which made me feel proud to be part of an important family moment. My boyfriend at the time replaced the battery, but no luck. Delilah was dead.

I sold the car to a Xando barista for $600, she towed it away and handed it over to her mechanic boyfriend to fix it up. I still sometimes see the Acura parked in Old Town Alexandria. I had no car, my license eventually expired, and I just plain forgot how to drive. As I never needed to drive, it didn’t matter. I became so mass transit-centric that it felt funny to be inside or even near cars.

Then I got married and moved away. When we came back, we bought a Subaru Forester named Lance. And, suddenly, I needed to know how to drive. I took the Alabama learner’s permit exam with a group of pregnant teenagers. A week later, after a few testy driving lessons, I took the road test. I almost ran over a dog, but the tester excused it and I was once again a licensed driver.

I drove in Sarajevo, because you can’t pass up the combo of all-wheel drive and diplomatic immunity. Mostly I drove to work and back, because my ex wasn’t comfortable with me driving on Bosnia’s rural mountain roads (in all fairness, I wasn’t totally comfortable, either). I had to nudge Gypsy squeegee kids out of the way with my bumpers every time I drove down Alipasina to the embassy. Occasionally, wheeled dumpsters would break free and skitter across Sarajevo’s icy gray streets.

The day before I returned to Washington, I decided to drive myself to the NATO base in Butmir to pick up some magazines and treats for the flight. I got lost. Worse, I got lost in the Republika Srpska (Serb Republic), where road signs are rare and the ones they do have are in the Cyrillic alphabet. I got there eventually, guided by Butmir Airport’s control tower. I returned home, and left the car behind when I left Sarajevo.

I’ve been car-free ever since. My dad offered me use of his car while he’s overseas, I turned him down. Car ownership goes against my love of simple living. I don’t want the hassle or the expense. But I’m looking forward to my Christmas road trip. I’m guessing there will be traffic, I’m sure I’ll have to do at least part of the trip at night, and I’m almost positive I’ll get lost. But it’ll be worth it to crank the music and be in my own mobile world for 529 miles of mountains and Waffle Houses.

1 comment:

Mike said...

I learned to drive stick when I was 17 or 18 and my best friend wanted to go to Blockbuster Video. Unfortunately, he was tripping on acid at the time (which made him even more adamant about having to go rent a movie (I don't recall which one.)) So I got to drive his sister's Civic hatchback.

I stopped at a Waffle House in Orlando once and was surprised to discover that the waffles weren't that good. I figured a place named Waffle House would have some really good waffles. But at least eating at Waffle House and sampling the waffles allowed me to type "waffle" seven times in 3 sentences.

Fare well on your trip.