Trains and buses

The last two summers, for two weeks each, I’ve gone to Europe with my boyfriend to visit family. I had been to Europe twice before that. Getting around there is unlike most anywhere in the US outside of a densely packed city like New York, and I think that while I may have recognized it as a kid, I see it so much more as an adult. My boyfriend didn’t learn to drive until he came to the US, and as a kid none of his family owned a car. His parents still live in their small town, and even in their 80s they can get around on foot to make jaunts to the grocery store and run nearly all of their daily errands.

In the Swiss town we were visiting, for anyone taking the train, which is part of the national system, not a local bus or subway, it’s a ten minute walk from downtown. The hillside rising up above town is awash with vineyards and wound with a few small streets for access. But even a road along the hillside sprouts an occasional bus stop. While I have not seen the bus running, and don’t know exactly where it goes since I’ve only walked there a bit on a weekend, I can’t say how it works, but the fact that it’s there surprised me.

I understand that the way that Europe probably was and the way it evolved to what it is now, has a lot to do with the fact that there are many people without a lot of space. In the US, we like to spread out. Eisenhower’s Interstate System certainly aided that spread. For a long while, though, this country was dominated by trains. Now trains are everywhere else it seems.

There is something of a renaissance in the US currently underway with our train system – the bastard child included in the transportation funding that no one in Congress seems to really want to talk about and most wish would just go away. Amtrak began to fail in the 1960s as the automobile caught the nation’s attention. By the ‘80s, my mother drove over an old train line that I always looked down, wondering if a train would round the bend of the old brown tracks with the overgrown bushes beside it. My mother said that before I was born she could hear the train whistle during the day. The line has long since disappeared, but maybe it’s a Rail Trail now; if not, who knows what’s happened to it. But I remember being dazzled, even as I sat in my car seat, by the idea of taking a train to somewhere far away.

I took a train a few years ago after visiting my sister in Oregon. I had planned to take Amtrak’s Empire Builder to Chicago. It’s one of the busiest lines in the country, but primarily as a vacation train for the views. I got a phonecall several days before departure that rains had flooded out most of the track, so I needed to reroute. Luckily I had a brother in Boulder at the time. I left Portland, OR heading south to Sacramento, CA and changed trains there for Denver, CO. After staying overnight with my brother, I flew east, missing most of the country that I’d hoped to see from the ground, but getting home in about the same amount of time.

A study came out recently that shows that Millennials, the generation of people born after about 1980, putting me on the line between Gen X and Millennial, have more interest in public transportation, or at least not owning a car, as the generations before them. It’s true that between the older friends I have and the younger ones, there is a definite shift, especially when given the options. I’ve seen how so many more people are pushing for better transportation and biking, and a shift back to trains and away from cars. My younger brother lives in NYC, doesn’t have a car by choice, and uses the train to visit our parents, but my younger sister who lives in rural NH with kids has to have a car. It’s not going to be like Europe anytime soon, but for making it easier to get around in the US, the push for more varied transportation options is a welcome change.

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Months now Car-free

I didn’t anticipate the way things would change with my moving. My life became easier – in part because leaving one overbearing roommate to move in with a friendly, organized, and easy-going roommate has made a big difference. My new apartment has been great.

In the months that have passed, my lack of wheels has been more good than bad. Looking at my break with the car has become like any relationship. A memory of times well spent, an occasional moment of sadness, but for me, I don’t think of my car as much as I did for the first few months.

Winter is, perhaps, one of the best seasons to go without a car in New England. Watching people digging out vehicles, whether they need to drive them just then or not, during and after snowstorms, is enough to make me feel relief as I sit inside where it’s warm.

snowed-carI look at the cars slowly inching down Mass Ave in the icy weather; the streaks of salt on the cars that won’t wash off until it rains; the number of cars that people believe they need to “warm up” even though with modern cars, they’re only wasting fuel – and if they’re hoping the interior will get toasty, they’d be better off getting inside and driving.

I have found new ways of getting around – finding ways to walk to a place, or checking out somewhere closer than where I’d been going before. For example, I no longer drive to a grocery store that was large, often busy, where parking was annoying and getting back on the highway was ridiculous. In the meantime, I’ve found several other options for grocery stores, one being a co-op, that I can easily get to by bus and sometimes hit on my way back from something else so I’m not going out of my way, either.

My shoes have taken a beating. This I was expecting. But a pair of well-made shoes from a department store costs between one to three tanks of gas and will last for about a year. I can get two or three pairs, wear them interchangeably and still be better off. I have come to hate cute shoes, though, that only have ‘cute’ going for them. It’s a lot harder to forgive a pair of shoes when it only takes a mile of walking to realize you’re holding your body in an odd position because something is now really too tight, too pinchy, too wrong, for which your entire body will hurt later. This problem can be hard to assess when doing a few short strides in a shoe store. I still have to get better at assessing the toes and width. Pointy shoes are gone. I dislike clogs and moccasins, but sometimes it’s like them and loafers are all that’s left. Sneakers, of course. But a lot of shoes around here seem to be made for standing or sitting. Maybe it’s always been that way – bad shoes, that is. My grandmother had terrible foot problems in her old age from trying to wear poorly fitted/shaped shoes when she was younger.

Carrying all my purchases is good for my wallet, too. It has made me question whether I really need to buy something or not. Thank goodness for reusable grocery bags with handles long enough to go over the shoulder. Winter has been noticeable since I do get all my stuff in one stop. In the summer there’s a local farmer’s market where I get all my produce once a week, so my summer runs to the grocery store are for the boxed/canned/packaged/bulk goods. The winter, consequently, means sometimes going a few times more often or reconsidering what I’m willing to carry.  The only thing I can think of that’s a bit tricky is if we want to get a bulk set of something like toilet paper, but since you can get them in packs of four, it’s not impossible to pay the extra twenty cents, or whatever it is, and get more sooner. And for some clothes and some housewares it’s back to catalog shopping – like Sears but online now.

August update

Spring moves into summer. Summer somehow turns to August. Life goes on.

It’s been nearly 3 months since I’ve completely been without a car, and to tell you the truth, it’s been easier than I thought in some ways, and only difficult in a few predicable ones.

First, the harder ways are those that I’ve been prepared for and have been dealing with for a while now, like big grocery store trips or leaving town. I think the most difficult has been the patience I have to have with public transportation, and mostly the buses. I’m a mile from work and a half mile to the nearest T station, as we call the train stops for the MBTA.

Most of the time I don’t mind walking around. I do a lot of it, and that was normal even when I still had a car. I think what annoys me now, though, is those times when I would have just taken my car to avoid hassle. The days when it was windy or raining heavily or I had an appointment after work, I would just drive to my office. I could avoid having to rely solely on the buses, and therefore had more patience when things didn’t go well. I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve been exhausted or it’s been raining, and the bus isn’t on schedule. It blows by me as I walk home figuring I’ve already missed it. And there’s always going to a bus you know should be there in 7 minutes only to realize it’s closing in on 15 and still no bus.

My mother is no longer able to drive, either. For her, it’s because of her eyes – she has something similar to Macular Degeneration and she no longer feels comfortable driving. She and my niece came to Boston earlier in the summer to visit the Museum of Science. In the last ten years a bus line between Boston and Hanover has gained popularity. It takes nearly the same time as if we were driving the whole way, and with gas prices, costs almost the same as well. The schedule is good, so on a weekend my boyfriend didn’t have free, I took the bus to NH. The route was familiar and I read as I used to when I was a kid and my parents drove me around. It was relaxing not driving, and although I probably would have preferred driving, it was a great surrogate.

The one benefit I didn’t expect came when I decided to move from my current apartment. I’ve lived in the same place as when I moved to the Boston area 7 years ago and I realized I need something new. Looking at my finances, and by moving my auto insurance and maintenance and registration/inspection into my housing/rent/utilities bracket, I realized I could afford something better and with only one roommate instead of two.Image

I wanted to stay in the area and near my office and obviously near the T and buses. One rule was the new place couldn’t be more than a 10-minute walk to a T stop, which means about half a mile. I also was hoping for something on a bus line that would get me close to work so I wouldn’t have to deal with walking far on bad weather days.

The past few years as a pedestrian have made me much more aware of how little drivers consider anyone outside their metal sphere. Puddles of salty, slushy ice water get sprayed up onto sidewalks without any apparent concern. I’ve seen numerous people sprayed and I’ve been close enough for a few droplets as well.

Last week I finally signed a lease and it included all the pieces I’d hoped for but doubted I’d find. I can get to a T-stop in 5 minutes, work in 5, a bus in 2, and a library, various cafes and food stores in under 10. Not having a car even made it easier to find a place because it meant that I didn’t have to negotiate parking or permits with my new landlord.

My only hassle now, of course, will be the actual move. I’m considering whether to hire a group of college movers to help me. My boyfriend has already warned me about his lack of interest in being responsible for anything larger than a car. I probably only need a cargo van, but I get the idea. I’m moving after Labor Day, so I have time to work that out. 

End of the Road

My boyfriend took me grocery shopping. I bought much more than usual for the week, thinking that since we had the car, I’d pick up some heavier items that I don’t need now but won’t want to carry home on the bus when I do. Dropping me off at my house, it was the first time in a few weeks since my car has been to my place.

Inside the car were things I’d just never gotten around to taking into my apartment – a pair of rain boots, a flowerpot to carry items I didn’t want to tip or roll. In the trunk was a blanket, bags of potting soil from last fall, and some loose ends which just needed going through. I took my groceries and these things inside. When I came out, my boyfriend was still tidying: a center console with storage space, CD storage in front of the gear shift, and the glove box. He pulled papers out of the console. He’s already deposited papers there and wanted me to go through mine. His CDs were stacked above mine. Our paperwork mixed in the glove box.

What was once my place to get away, literally by driving, and figuratively by listening to old CDs or the radio, is gone. He doesn’t listen to my CDs. When we’re driving together, I can’t even listen to the radio.

He handed me papers. “Put them in there,” he said, pointing to the center console – where I didn’t keep papers. But now he does. My registration papers were tossed into a plastic bag along with handwritten notes, directions to a hiking trail. These are things I might have needed or wanted, but now are mostly trash. My boyfriend will look up directions or plug them into his GPS should I ever ask to go there again. All of my things are useless, unnecessary, unwanted.

My throat tightened. I’ve lost time I could spend alone, to listen to the radio shows that once filled my weekend commutes, to be with my thoughts, to do my own thing. I’m giving up my time to do things I would like to do the way I want to do them – now someone else will drive the way they want, how they want. I won’t be able to control how fast to drive down a mountain road, how slow to go at night when there are deer about, how to merge without anxiety, how to remember directions without having to rely on the GPS Every Single Time. These are things that annoy me already, but I have to give in, give up, and give over.

When I began crying, my boyfriend didn’t understand. He didn’t get a license at sixteen in a rural culture that denies too much to go without one, wasn’t already steeped in car culture at a young age. I admitted to him that I realized it was silly to cry over a hunk of emotionless metal and poisonous chemicals. I imagine it was probably how people used to cry over the death of a horse, a living creature that provided friendship and mobility.

My world of transit is down to the confines of my boyfriend’s schedule or how far something is from a public transportation line. A few people have offered to drive if I need it. But I’m used to people being kind and saying things they don’t really mean, so I’m hesitant to ask unless it’s an emergency. Maybe soon I’ll be able to consider taxis as part of my world, but right now, they still seem too expensive to consider, even for short jaunts.

I’m lucky to be in a walkable city with public transportation options. I’m thankful that there are many people around me who also don’t have cars and live well mostly without them, but for me this will still take getting used to.

Car Gone

I was wrong. In my last post, I had thought I would have my car a little longer. But things don’t work the way you want them to. The car is no longer mine. Everything is happening much faster than I would like it to.

empty garage

empty garage (Photo credit: So gesehen.)

Last weekend when I got to my boyfriend’s house, his car was missing and mine had the prized spot in the driveway. He’d been able to sell his car during the week. So then we had to talk about what to do with my car.

We initially thought, as his insurance had told him, that we’d be able to put me on his insurance, and then he would drive my car. I had already paid for registration, inspection, and so it didn’t seem to make sense to pay for them all over again. When my registration runs out at the beginning of 2014, we thought we’d revisit selling the car to him.

But since he has no car and isn’t the owner of mine, his insurance wouldn’t allow our initial plan. He called me during the week and came by my place. It was too late to get in touch with my insurance, and he had only two days left to get his paperwork in order.  I was a little annoyed – I mean how would someone leave their car with someone else were they to go out of the country for a few months or a year? Do they just take a chance and hope that nothing happens to it? It seems ridiculous.

So I signed the car over to him, making him owner. I felt a little upset, knowing that the car won’t really be mine anymore. There was a tiny touch of relief, if only because I’ll be able to cancel my insurance and won’t have to deal with some of the bills for upkeep, but I felt like I was also losing something. She’s not going far, but I wasn’t so ready to lose her to someone else.

It doesn’t feel strange knowing I don’t have a car anymore — especially since I haven’t driven for a few months now, but when we go to NH, when we ride around the roads I know so well and pass the places I used to drive past, where my driving memories are strongest, I know I’ll be more upset, or agitated, or short-tempered — all the things that are usual when I get sad about losing something I love.

Cleaning Car

It’s that time of the year again – time for the spring car wash.

The weather is warming, the sun is mostly shining, and the April rain has mostly eased off. It’s time to visit the carwash, if it hasn’t already been done – to get rid of the winter grime, the salt, the sticky film of early season pollen. Since I still have my car, I’m going to have my boyfriend drive me to a carwash next weekend.

One thing I’ve realized, since he’s been in possession of my car these past few months, is how much of a difference we have in understanding the nuances and necessities of car ownership. Washing a car, for example, is, for him, something that can be left undone. It’s not a necessity. And if it is done – go through the automat.

When I fell in love the first time, I remember being excited about caring for my automobile. I was talking about taking it to the automatic carwash. Someone in my family advised me against it. “Don’t do it,” he said. “Wash your car by hand. Dirt gets caught in the automatic brushes and foaming spinners. You’ll get your car scratched. It’s not worth it.”

So the first time I took a car through the automat was with my present car a few years ago. Definitely not worth it. Several light scratches along the doors. And the places that needed a bit of a scrub were untouched. I needed to go around and pick and rub off road dirt and bird droppings afterwards.

The first car I really loved I washed twice a year. Once in the spring and once, lightly, in the fall before it got too cold. The spring wash was a day-long event. I loved that ’78 Ford.

The driveway was gravel, so it was easy to wash at home. It was blue with a red vinyl interior, and, as a two-door, large windows. It was built back when cars were still mostly metal. My ’78’s bumpers were metal and chromed. Only a few clips and non-essentials were plastic.

Each spring for the years I drove her, I would put aside a Saturday to make her shine. First came cleaning inside. A vacuum to the floors. ArmorAll to the vinyl seats and dash. Glass cleaner.  At some point, I’d get the washing soap in a bucket – proper car soap, no dishwashing crap like we’d do at school fundraisers. There were soft sponges and cloths that had been stored away from dirt or debris.  The car air-dried after a rinse. Then a slow study around the exterior with a polish.

The first time I did this, after the car had been sitting two years in a garage, it took me six hours. The car didn’t have any real value except to me, but I thought that it looked like a million bucks after that work. As a kid just out of high school, I didn’t  have a lot of money, so the polish wasn’t great and by autumn’s end, a few months after wash number 2, the paint would have returned to that matte look.

My boyfriend, who didn’t learn how to drive  or have a car until coming to the US, thinks I’m crazy for wanting to wash my car. It hasn’t been washed yet this year, and after all the snow and being left on the street to be regularly salted by plowtrucks and traffic, I’m getting edgy. I’ve tried to explain wear and rust and upkeep, but he looks at me blankly.

I told him that this weekend, when we’re up visiting my parents, that he should be prepared to drive to the nearby carwash with vacuums. I’m going to use the pull-through wash with the various scrubbers and water pressures I can control. I’ll have to hope that the last person in there didn’t run the sponges over the dirt after they finished.

The car could probably use a polish like my ’78, but I won’t have the time to spare. But I want to do one last really good wash and clean while it’s still mine.

Anger and Sadness and Roadtrips

English: United States Auto trail sign for the...

English: United States Auto trail sign for the National Park-to-Park Highway. The sign design was taken from actual Association logos designed prior to 1923. The Association has long ceased to exist. The sign was used to mark the automobile trail. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are so many different ways to approach grief and mourning. Some say there are 5 stages, others 7. One place mentioned 10. None of them fit exactly, but I’m not going through a regular breakup or normal grief.

I think I’m somewhere around the angry and/or sad stage. I’m out of denial. I’ve been slowly moving closer towards acceptance. I really feel like it, anyway. There are things I do to remind myself how much better it will be when I’m finished with my car and thoughts of driving. I tell myself it will be easier. My boyfriend and I’ve worked out that he’ll buy my car and sell his, so my car will still be close to me.

But then I go and watch something called Paving the Way: The National Park-to-Park Highway and it’s like all my good feelings go out the window – I’m angry and sad all over again.

Park-to-Park Highway

The show was a two-part series on PBS from 2009, but it aired again last night when I was itching for something to watch after my busy day.

Paving the Way details the beginning of the motor age in the US around the 1910s. The idea was begun to link up the National Parks of the west by one circular highway. The roads of that time were more like the NH back-roads of my youth – badly kept, mostly dirt. It was before the days of gas stations, fast food, or motels – people carried everything with them, like motorized wagon trains.

The first group of travelers of the Highway took two and a half months to make the loop in 1920. They started in Denver with Rocky Mtn, up through Yellowstone and Glacier, out to WA for Mt Ranier, south through OR and CA, stopping in Crater Lake, Lassen Volcano, Yosemite, General Grant and Sequoia. Then back east for Zion, Grand Canyon, and Mesa Verde. And turning north again, they finished in Denver.

One of the historians interviewed commented that people in that era felt like prisoners of the railroads and their timetables. Someone else pointed out that in a car you had the freedom to go where you wanted. So the great west was an unexplored terrain, doubly desirable in post-WWI era when Europe was rebuilding.

Cars & roads

This is some of what I learned:

  • at that time, an average train ticket to visit the parks the same way would have cost 1/3 of the average annual salary of most Americans
  • in 1900 only 8,000 cars were registered in the US – a number that exploded by twenty years later
  • even in 1920, most roads weren’t really good for driving being most were still dirt and built for wagons
  • AAA was already in existence
  • many auto clubs like AAA were for hobbyists – as auto interest was seen as a hobby
  • the auto clubs were responsible for much of the road signage

Cars for Conservation

One of the most interesting moments in the program came when discussing the building of the roads through the parks. In some instances, they were built to give people the grand views of scenery. In some instances, they cut through things and destroyed some, but on the other hand the roads could be seen as a tool of conservation. Because people never get out of their cars, the only land touched was that of the roads. People didn’t get out to trample around the land, they only observed it from the car, limiting destruction.

I traveled across country twice on my own, twice with my family. It’s true that I rarely got out except at overlooks or to stretch legs. And when I went to Australia, I had the same experience. If I hadn’t been able to connect with another traveler with a car, I wouldn’t have seen much of that continent, either. We spent hours driving, drove more through the park and landscapes, and only stopped for short walks.

Parks Without Cars?

When the auto first came into the American landscape, only the wealthy could afford it. But like current technologies, the price came down to where more could buy it and it became commonplace. Along with falling price the known corruption of the railroads of the time helped put the allure of the automobile on a shortcut to Americans’ hearts. But now, I don’t feel like I have the same freedom as I’ve been sold on all my life. Without a car, it’s nearly impossible to get to these things.

I remember this feeling when I got to Australia and realized how little I would see without a car. No trains or bus services would get me anywhere scenic. Bus tours were quick and by timetables and limited. I needed a car in Australia to see anything, and now, I realize, the same goes for the US. In this century, the car is the everyman transportation; the train is still expensive, and there are fewer options to get anywhere with it.

Parks Highway

Parks Highway (Photo credit: Travis S.)

End of the Road Trip

At the end of the program last night, the various people being interviewed were asked about road-trips and to offer a phrase or a single word to define how they felt about them. The American connection to the automobile was further solidified with phrases like opportunity, creativity, non-conformist, freedom, representative of life’s journey-the discovery, and exploration of the outside and inside.

Hearing this, recalling my own relationship with cars and road trips, I feel like a little piece of me faded out, like a candle being snuffed from lack of oxygen, like the feeling you have when someone you love is gone.

I haven’t been to more than a handful of the parks. And now unless someone else drives me, I won’t see any more. It makes me think that I’ve been lucky to see any of them at all. And I realize how unfair it is that without a car, I can’t be part of the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’. My days of American Freedom, of road trips with me behind the wheel have ended.