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.

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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.

Love, jealousy, and first signs

After buying my first car, the first time I was without was college. Freshmen weren’t allowed to have cars on campus, which meant I left mine in NH. Luckily my campus had a lot of fellow New Englanders and rides were easy to get each break.

parking lot

parking lot (Photo credit: concrete_jungler101)

During the semesters I stayed holed up on campus with studies. The city didn’t have much to offer apart from a few nearby bars. I missed my car.

Looking back, there probably was more to see, but I had somehow been convinced that there wasn’t anything worth visiting, even on my few forays outside. One semester, Karen, a fellow freshman, and I volunteered downtown at the art museum, helping with organizing and paperwork, and packing up visiting exhibitions. We didn’t stop anywhere on the mile-long walk.

We walked past parking lots, a grocery store, a drugstore or two, maybe a few other small chain stores. I avoided looking at the cars we passed. I remember cold and grey and concrete under foot. I just remember feeling exposed without my car.

Campus was less than a mile wide, long, or diagonally. I walked everywhere in all weather, but I walked. It was the first time ever.

The rest of my three years, I took my car with me to college, but only kept it in NY for four months of the school year. It was a better idea to leave it in NH during the winter. We missed each other. But when we were together, I gave rides to freshmen and others during breaks. I discovered shopping and hiking areas a few miles away. And I felt like my world had reopened. I never walked off campus again.

When I moved to Montana for AmeriCorps at 23, it was the first time I consciously decided not to drive everywhere. Maintaining my car was expensive; I was afraid of accidents, and I had to budget. I took an apartment in the downtown area of Livingston across from the library, my bank, and the post office. A few blocks away were the cinema and the coffee shop where my book club met monthly. I walked to work, a bit over a half-mile away. Luckily I could park on the side of the building, so I didn’t pass my car on my way to work. I was afraid of its being jealous, perhaps not working the next time I needed it. But we had plenty of other time together. I had to drive to buy clothes or groceries. I could walk to the doctor’s office, but I had to drive to the hospital. The only way to get to hiking trails or Yellowstone Park, or to my friends’ places a few towns away was to drive. I was so happy.

Early in the relationship

When I and my friends turned 16 in rural New Hampshire, we couldn’t wait to get our own cars. I purchased a used Ford after a summer of working to earn $1500 to pay for it. It was six months after my birthday. Most of my friends purchased their own cars in roughly the same time frame. Our cars were symbolic of who we were, from the music on the radio or the tapes we played, to the objects hanging from our rearview mirrors. We stopped taking the school buses or relying on our parents to drive us around. We had freedom.

Literary Digest interview with Henry Ford

Literary Digest interview with Henry Ford (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Babysitting jobs got easier since I could get there myself. If I felt like driving out to the store or the library or meet someone at the café the next town over, I suddenly could. It was a movement into adulthood, complete with gas purchases, oil changes, worries about weather and digging out from snow.

This is the world I grew up in. The car was the only way to get around. I lived two miles from my school with some major hills between. There was no other way to get downtown, where we had a single blinking light, library, pizza shop, and a few banks. The lake was further. And any fresh food or clothes shopping was impossible without a car unless you planned for a daylong walk, which would have been a ridiculous idea. Most of the way lacked any sidewalks and meant walking along some roads with posted speed limits of 55mph and up.

I never questioned any of this. I loved it.

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?