I realize that this probably puts my American citizenship at risk—a dangerous thing to do at the moment—since automobile affection seems stitched into the fiber of our national being. We’re the nation of the Model T, of giant parking lots and the infinite chain of interstates, of drive-ins, drive-throughs and Sunday drives. We mark sixteenth birthdays with drivers’ licenses, and owning a car is a mark of freedom, prosperity, even maturity. Driving is a big deal, a rite of passage and a necessity in many parts of the country. And I just don’t like it.
My dislike has a many-chaptered history. I stumbled through driver’s education as a teenager, vexed that my academic skills had no positive effect on my driving compared to the overwhelming problem that I was uncoordinated and had never played the video games that made people good at this. The streets of Seattle are wet and steep, so narrow that I’d scrunch my shoulders together (yes, inside the car) because it seemed like one sneeze could clip off a mirror or two on either side. After a while I moved to Germany, where I never learned to drive manual transmission and so effectively took a seven-year break from driving, and never missed it at all.
All this means that when I consider going out—especially now that driving involves two carseats and endless bags draped off me like a coat tree—I usually ask myself first if we could walk. In West Seattle, there are good grocery stores, cafes, the library and a few parks within easy walking distance. Or at least there were, until Sunday.
Sunday we run into the curse of Seattle winter: the end of Daylight Saving Time. Suddenly, the end of nap time comes just an hour and a half before the sunset, leaving us no time to go anywhere, even to the library where we have to go to return overdue books. I stew about this problem for a few minutes, scheming how to wrap my newborn to ward off the cold and the dark and how far Luci could walk without jumping in the stroller, all possibilities considered before I remember that we could drive.
So drive we do, with two little girls, two car seats, ten library books to return and one driving-averse mother. Arriving at said library, an elegant Carnegie affair with high ceilings and ornate windows, the only parking is parallel street parking a block away, so by the time we get ourselves into the library, I want to stay a while. But it is not to be. Luci is generally more interested in the puzzles than the books, so while Eleanor gears up to start shrieking in her carseat, I grab five books without looking at them, rush to check them out, and hurry us back to the car. It’s not a day for lingering in the library.
When we’re finally all buckled in again, we turn toward home, just five minutes’ drive away, and find ourselves face-to-face with the beginnings of an early sunset.
“Look at the sunset!” I say to Luci in the backseat.
“Wow!” Luci replies, peering out the window at the fragments of glowing sky we can glimpse between the buildings. Gone are the days of watching unobstructed sunsets from our upstairs window in Kandern, and we miss it.
“Should we drive somewhere and look at the sunset?” I ask Luci, aware that this spontaneous offer will mean more driving for me. I don’t know West Seattle well, so I’m not sure where we’ll go, except just generally west, hoping for a vista over the top of a hill.
As if by magic, we actually find one, a rare cul-de-sac at the top of a bluff overlooking Puget Sound. I park the car, unbuckle Luci and carry Eleanor, still napping in her car seat, over to the guard-railed edge. Below us the silvery Sound is still beneath ragged clouds, the day’s last light scattering splendor across the water, through which ferries and container ships cut in silence.
“This is amazing!” Luci squeals, to the amusement of the dog-walking couple nearby.
“We live here, Lu. And it’s so beautiful.”
A long time ago, I used to ask high school students to get out a piece of paper and write something. They’d write a letter or a reflection or a poem, just for a few minutes until the bell rang. When class ended, they’d try to turn it in, hoping for a grade in return for their efforts.
“No, that’s just for you,” I sometimes replied.
“You mean we wasted a piece of paper?” they would wail.
“No, you used the paper. That’s what paper is for. For writing on. You used it.”
As I stand on the bluff, watching the sun set early over a familiar body of water, watching my daughter see the sight for the first time, that’s how I feel about our drive. Not a frivolous trip, a waste of paper. I used the car to get here, to find something beautiful, to chase a sunset at the end of a long week, to share an adventure with my oh-so-patient toddler.
I may never be American enough to love driving. Yet as our four wheels transport us around the city, bringing us to sunsets and friends and adventures, we’re getting acquainted again. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll be friends someday.