Last July, I had to cat-sit for a week for my best friend. He and his family lived roughly two miles away, in a quiet neighborhood, and the route from my place to his is fairly quiet. For most people that’s not really a problem. For me, that was a problem.
Despite growing up in San Francisco, with its traffic, hills and occasional traffic, I was never comfortable with the idea of driving. My parents drove a stick shift VW van, parking on 30 degree hills, wedging themselves into tiny parallel parking spaces, and dealing with San Francisco’s notorious scarcity of parking spaces.
All the time I was a carefree passenger, reading day or night, window open blasting cold, foggy San Francisco air. I rode for years without a seatbelt, sticking my head out of the passenger window like a dog, spotting for my parents as they pulled out of a tight parking spot, and completely oblivious to the difficulty of driving a stick shift up and down the city’s hills.
Unfortunately, none of this familiarity actually helped me when it was my turn to drive. In my junior year I took driver training and dreaded actually being put behind the wheel. I was terrified. I only did it twice, briefly, driving very slowly around the Inner Sunset, as though some catastrophe could happen at any moment.
My father took me out again during college, and had me drive around Lake Merced. It went badly. I drove at about five miles an hour, petrified that somehow I might end up driving the family’s brand-new SUV into the lake. Cars drove around us, infuriated, honking.
Dad never brought up driving again.
My wife, who got her driver’s license at sixteen, has done most of the driving. She’s done it mostly without complaint but there have been times, such as the time she broke her foot exploring tidal pools and I made her drive home, that I really needed to drive but couldn’t step up to the plate.
What was the problem? Other people, mostly. I was afraid that other drivers would, not paying attention, crash into me. Regardless of who was at fault, any accident was mine to worry about.
I picked apart every possible driving opportunity. Contemplating even a short drive to the store, my mind filled contemplated disaster at nearly every driven foot. What if the car doesn’t start? What if I can’t make that turn? What if I get stuck in the middle lane and can’t turn? What if I get a flat tire here? There? Anywhere? What if I can’t find parking when I get there?
Ultimately, was driving to the book store worth getting killed? Which could—and was—reduced to is driving to X worth getting killed? Not surprisingly, I could not think of anything that was.
Of course, all of this is basically true. There are a lot of idiots driving. The car might not start. I might not be able to find parking. All of these possibilities, sometimes seemingly an infinite number of them, always negative, could indeed happen. And there is a lot of willful ignorance by drivers as to how dangerous driving really is.
Bu it’s also absurd. You can sit around all day and watch videos on Liveleak and watch cars bash themselves apart, catch fire, and hurl themselves off cliffs, but the chances of any of that happening to me was exceedingly remote. I knew that, but still.
Also—I was not a bad driver. On the contrary, people told me I was very good. When I drove. Unfortunately that didn’t make much of a difference. It was a frustrating situation to be trapped in for years.
Back to last July. My friends were out of town for an entire week, and that meant making the trek to feed the cats every day. On the first day, my wife gently reminded me of the obligation and suggested I drive there.
“Yeah, ok.” I said joylessly. In the previous year, I had probably driven a total of ten minutes. Driving there and back I have little recollection except realizing the trip went pretty well.
The second night I made the trip I realized I was not afraid, and I was actually enjoying the trip. Upon arriving at my destination I parallel parked in a very generous space. But then I did something strange–for me, anyway: for the next fifteen minutes, I practiced getting in and out of the space.
I never practiced driving. Who practices for something they don’t plan on doing? I began to realize that something extraordinary was going on, but I wasn’t sure what it was.
The third night after making the trip I drove around my neighborhood. I wanted to. I was also testing the boundaries of this new, good feeling, seeing if it had any limits. I drove for an extra twenty minutes, going places I used to loathe going, doing things I had begun to think I would never do.
By the end of the week I had come to a realization: at some point in my recent past, my anxieties and fears about driving had subsided. Completely.
In fact, driving felt great. I felt more peaceful and calm driving than I felt sitting alone, by myself, with nothing to do. Driving was relaxing.
By the third week, I started looking at cars of my own. All of the sudden, I liked cars. Car culture made sense to me. I stayed up at night looking at cars, measuring them, looking at aftermarket parts.
All of this amounted to a very noticeable lifestyle shift. “What happened?” People ask.
“I have no idea.”
Maybe it was getting older. Maybe it was frustration bubbling over. Maybe it was shooting dangerous guns and not finding it dangerous at all, and that sort of lending a perspective things. Maybe it was being shot at and facing my own mortality, and realizing it hadn’t really bothered me–driving was nothing compared to that.
Maybe it just happened.
I told my wife I wanted a car. One month after I started my cat sitting mission I had my first car, a 1999 Toyota 4Runner 4 wheel drive with a single previous owner. It’s reliable, the body styling still looks good, and mechanically it will easily last another 100,000 miles. And, if I want to totally lose my mind, I can pump thousands into aftermarket parts such as bumpers, rock sliders, and roof racks.
I’ve already put a fair amount of work into the truck. I had it wired for iPhone connectivity and installed a backup camera. I had the upper and lower ball joints replaced, the radiator replaced, off-road shocks and springs installed and virtually everything that could fail checked. It’s all good to go. It’s nice to know that if I woke up one day and decided I wanted to see the Panama Canal, I’d almost certainly make it without any problems.
A lot of the work, like the light bulbs and refinishing the spare tire, I did myself. I spent hours underneath the truck with a power sander, wearing a respirator and eye protection, knocking off rust that the truck picked up during a two year stay in upstate New York. After that I covered the affected area with a rubber underlayment and gave myself a pat on the back. Lying on my back, feeling the crunch of broken glass and asphalt through my t-shirt, hands going numb grasping the power drill was a wonderful feeling.
(Then I panicked when I realized I sprayed underlayment on the catalytic converter, but my mechanic was able to get the stuff off and didn’t even charge me.)
Did I drink the driving Kool-Aid? I did, like everyone else, and it was delicious. Driving is expensive, yes, but it’s fun and opens up nearly limitless possibilities. Could I still die horribly in a car accident? Sure. But I probably won’t. In the meantime, there’s places to go.