I'm trying to control my road rage. I refuse to pay outlandish gas and insurance prices. I'm a responsible inhabitant of Mother Earth and want to do my part to combat global warming. Those are all pretty good reasons that I could offer up when asked why it is that I don't drive. The only problem is that none of them are true. The real reason I don't drive is that I am simply terrified. At least I was until this past weekend.
Ever since I started learning how to drive in high school, the idea of manning a vehicle has given me a knot in my stomach. With an October birthday, I was one of the first people in my grade to take the license test. I alone would bear the responsibility of freeing my circle of friends from the suffocating confines of parental transportation. We were anxiously awaiting our new-found freedoms, and I was prepared to lead my people out of oppression to the promise land, otherwise known as The Jersey Shore. Never mind that winter was on it's way, we had parties to throw and beaches to pass out on.
The morning I turned 17 (you have to be 17 in NJ to get a licence), my mom took me to the Morristown DMV where I would meet my fate. Dressed in a new sweater purchased especially for my long awaited license photo, I whipped through the written portion--no problem. Things took a turn for the worse when the driving teacher requested that I back up the vehicle. It was then that my terror got the best of me and I stopped paying attention. With no more than a quick glance at my rear view mirror, I popped my car into reverse and went for it. At the end of the test, I was informed that I had failed due to reckless driving, something about needing to turn around to look behind you when you back up. Oh. My. God.
Despite the fact that my life was pretty much over, my mom made me go to school that day and I arrived while everyone was at lunch. The minute I walked into the cafeteria, I was swarmed by nearly hysterical girls wanting to know where we were going to drive after school. There was a bunch of balloons tied to an empty seat with a cake decorated to resemble my dad's black Saab Turbo 900 placed squarely in front of it. "Happy Birthday!" everyone screamed...right before the tears started to roll down my cheeks and onto my new sweater.
I eventually passed my test but my driving fears only worsened over time. There were some highway panic incidents in college that solidified my belief that there was nothing worse than getting behind the wheel. So for the next decade, I just didn't.
Fast forward 11 years. I had been teased relentlessly about how ridiculous it is that I wouldn't drive. I started to wonder if I even remembered how. Then a couple months ago, a friend of mine invited me to visit her at her new home in Pacific Grove near Monterrey...and I really want to go. I soon discovered that there were no buses or trains that could get me there--I would have to drive.
I came to the conclusion that it was time to grab the bull by the horns and attempt to overcome my fears. It would be a 3 hour trip each way and I was going to make it by myself. For the next several weeks, I worked hard to suppress memories of crying to gas station attendants up and down I-95 on the way to and from college in NC, of breaking out into a sweat every time I needed to change lanes on a busy highway, of that horrific experience on the Beltway back in '97.
The day arrived and I was feeling ready. I hopped in my rental car, a 4 door cranberry colored Saturn with manual windows, and took off Southbound. My odometer indicated that I was indeed logging miles on the car yet my eyes, somehow, remained dry and my heartbeat, to my surprise, remained steady. I was signaling like a champ, changing lanes like a pro, and I was CALM. What had I been so afraid of all those years? What happened to the hysterical girl behind the wheel? With This American Life playing on the radio, I took a deep breath and watched the sun set as I traversed I-92 with confidence.
Some people mark adulthood by buying a house, others by birthing children. For me, it was when I arrived in Pacific Grove, pulled up to a parking spot, put the car in reverse, turned around to look behind me, and backed in to the next phase of life.