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.

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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.

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.

Cheating with public transportation

Stock Transportation school bus

Stock Transportation school bus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The school busmy earliest experiences with public transportation and often the only one in many New Hampshire towns, like many towns around the country. The big yellow birds swooped in early mornings in all weather, plucked me up, and dropped me off at school. In the afternoon, all the other buses and cool older kids with cars were already gone when my bus showed up. It took more than thirty minutes to get the two miles from school to home because of the bus route’s loops.

As soon as kids in town were old enough to get cars and get off of the yellow buses with their noisy elementary school kids, their cold green seats, and their long rides, most kids did. Cars were what adults have. Buses were for kids.

Amtrak – My senior year of school was the first time I saw trains as transportation and not just tourist rail like the Cog Railway.

Three of my friends and I planned a trip to Washington, DC to look at colleges. We would stay with Erich’s older sister, and we got out of classes for a few days. Our parents, who didn’t want to drive us to Logan Airport in Boston, suggested Amtrak.

In the 80s, each time we went to town, my family bumped over a train track that was old and lacking signage. Most lines were torn up and crossings were paved over. Visiting family in Vermont, we crossed other old train lines. I never saw a train. I figured they were all old relics. I wasn’t aware that trains still ran in the 1990s.

One early, early morning the four of us with our bags were dropped off next to the train tracks near the NH/VT border. There was no station; it was a flag stop and we were the only four people waiting there in the early morning dark with our tickets. When the train came into view, it slowed down, and a conductor waved us aboard for the 8-hour ride to DC. We slept or did homework most of the way. It was surprisingly simple.

JR East Tokyo Map

JR East Tokyo Map (Photo credit: Dushan and Miae)

Japan Railway – My love affair with train travel blossomed when I spent a year in Japan teaching English. It was mind-boggling how many trains there were just for the city. You could set your watch by them: if they were late, you picked up a pass on exiting to hand in to your boss. Otherwise – no excuses.

They weren’t always cheap, but they spiderwebbed the country making everything accessible. I think I visited every stop on the Yamanote subway line that encircled the city like a hug.

I could visit my friend Ayako by train. We went to Kyoto for a weekend by shinkansen or bullet train. I could meet all my friends by train. When I went to work, I had a choice of train or subway line. It was astounding.

Unfaithful – My year of train travel gave me time to question cars. There were plenty of them around Tokyo, but none of the foreigners like me had one, and it was okay. Taxes, parking, gas all cost more than we could imagine. And why bother? Trains meant time to socialize, read, or people watch. And above-ground trains gave time to watch the landscape. Why didn’t the US have trains like this? Where could you even find subways and trains? Fellow English teachers from the UK talked about trains being normal for them, though everyone agreed that Japan was the most amazing. But what about the US? What happened?

I still missed my car. I missed driving. I just didn’t miss it all as much as I thought I would.

Returning to the States, I still dreamed of trains. I wondered what it would be like to walk a short distance from my home to jump on a train. I learned about the Rails to Trails movement and all the old abandon lines that crossed NH. So many just left to nature. What happened to the trains that used to use them?

Driving around again, I realized I’d been unfaithful to my car. The damage was done, and we would never be able to return to where we’d once been.

Stages of Grief – Denial

I read today about breaking up. Some psychologists say that it often is similar to grieving.

The first stage of grief is denial. I think I’ve gotten past that already. Let me tell you what it was like: it was terrible.

I walked around in a daze. I wasn’t sure if I could do it. My car didn’t have an opinion. My doctors did. No driving.

But this is the US! Everyone drives! You have to!

No authentic images of Chief Pontiac are known...

No authentic images of Chief Pontiac are known to exist. Dowd (2002), p. 6 This artistic interpretation was painted by John Mix Stanley. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The US was built for driving! The English landed and immediately they began driving their buggies and wagons. Chief Pontiac tried to keep them from getting too far west, but they just stole his cars and drove over him.

So I vacillated, telling myself that maybe I could drive again in a few months. Or maybe a few years. Maybe. But in the meantime I’m paying for a big loveable piece of steel that is sitting in my driveway. But then again, we’d moved to the city a few years ago, and frankly our relationship had begun to lose its appeal.

I’d cheated on it numerous times when traveling. And now living together outside Boston, a town known for tough streets and bad traffic, I leave my car lonely and sitting during the week. But we always had good weekends. It was still good.

“I can’t give it up,” I kept saying. What would I do without it? How would I get out of the city if I can’t even rent a car? How do I get to NH? How do I visit people elsewhere?

I can say that I’m past denial now. I know it’s time to end it. I know it has to happen.

Breaking up is hard

When I was a little girl, I had a toy racetrack. I would set it up in the living room and race the cars over their plastic and electrified oval. I loved it. Occasionally the electric track would give me a jolting shock that turned me away from it for a little while. But I always went back.

I drove my Matchbox cars and trucks and tractors over the windowsills and tables and the floor. I was pretty pissed off when my mother up and gave them to my younger brother several years later – maybe because he was a boy. I only had dolls left. It wasn’t that I didn’t love my dolls as well, but those awesome cars were mine and my brother had no right to them.

Growing up in rural NH it’s hard not to fall in love with the automobile. It is the only mode of transportation

Muddy dirt road during Mud Season

Muddy dirt road during Mud Season (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

– even if you do get snowed in during storms, or require chains to get to town, or drive over dirt roads that might wash out in the spring or turn into sticky pits and mires during mud season.

When I was sixteen I finally got my own car. I’d saved up for it and although it wasn’t flashy, I was glad to be driving. The feeling has faded somewhat in the past few years. But I still love my car. I’ve traveled across two countries by automobile. I’ve owned six myself, one after another, until now.

So now I feel like I’m ending a relationship. I’ve decided to sell my car. And although I’ve been giving it a lot of thought, it’s not easy. Health issues mean I have to stop driving, although unlike my mother with her deteriorating eyes and bad knees, I’m only 35 and otherwise mobile. But an ultimatum has never sounded so harsh. Not knowing when I can drive again, possibly ever, has taken my relationship with automobiles from a friendly growing apart to a feeling of an ugly breakup.

I feel like a bitter Bogart in Casablanca. But instead of an Ingrid Bergman, I’m enamored with an oily, mechanical, cold set of metal, nuts, bolts, hoses, and a lot of fluids.  So I’m going to try writing to go through the motions and record the memories. But I’m also going to try to see where I’m going from here. What does it mean to live in America without a car? What are the other options? How easy is it to get around?