Going to California

In-between Days — Sidebar: Drive

I wrote this on December 17, 1996 about my most pressing passion: driving. 

When I am dead, I know what my ghost will do. At the moment of this writing I am, to my knowledge, nowhere near death. I am taking a defensive driving course. Defensive driving is a six-hour prison designed to punish people who have, for whatever reason, made a mistake of some kind while operating a moving vehicle — a car, a motorcycle, a truck, whatever.

The world has tried many things to make me a cautious driver. I can remember, as a child, being forced to watch a movie of cars hitting walls. They were fascinating. Each car would plunge along in slow motion, edging closer to the wall and its eventual doom. As bumper touched brick, a chain of events started which would lead to the front of the car collapsing like an accordion and the dummy behind the wheel smashing through the windshield.

When I was two years old, my parents were in a minor wreck. I’d been in the back seat, straddling the hump in the middle of the floorboard, when all of the sudden — wham! — the car stopped and I flew forward, cracking my little head against the windshield.

In the 1990s, our society insists upon safety seats for young children. Neither have adults been neglected in the search for a safer driving experience. Air bags have become popular in recent years, though recent reports have shown they can be fatal when protecting kids. Seat belts are as far as many people are willing to go, and many belt up only because it’s the law.

In college, in the early 1990s, I had a professor who professed to despise the legal imposition of seat belts. “Seat belts only make people feel safe,” he argued, “and a driver who feels safe is not a careful driver.” If he despised seat belts, he loathed air bags. “Safe drivers allow themselves a certain degree of carelessness, and increasing a person’s feeling of invulnerability only makes him even more lax in his driving.” He was glad to share with us his solution. “Outlaw airbags,” he barked, “and outlaw seat belts, and install a six-inch spike on every steering wheel, extending straight up from the steering column.” All of us in the class grew quiet, nervously rubbing our chests. “That’ll make for some safe drivers,” he concluded smugly. And some stiff arms, I thought.

I do not consider myself to be a reckless driver. However, more than anything else, I love driving — and it’s this passion which I’m sure will some day be my undoing.

I drive a convertible. My mother calls it “pull-me-over” red, and yet the presence of the law has been surprisingly absent from my life. For almost three years, I drove the streets of Austin with relative abandon. My closest friends are my favorite passengers. We whip through twisting roads with our arms in the air, screaming with glee. They call me Six Flags, because going out with me is more than a drive, it’s a ride.

In first grade, the world first strongly suggested caution by striking me down in front of my elementary school. While crossing the street, on my way home for the day, a large American car ended up on top of me somehow. All I remember was crossing the street, and the next thing I knew some woman was screaming. Perfectly calm, I thought, I wonder what’s wrong? She must be screaming for a reason. I opened my eyes, not remembering having closed them, and saw my leg pinned beneath a fat black tire. I was lying in the middle of the road with people gathering around me. It was fairly easy to free myself by slipping my foot from the shoe. Luckily, I’d been wearing metal inserts, so my foot was not crushed. They rushed me to the hospital in an ambulance. It flew down the streets, siren blaring; my six-year-old heart raced.

A few years ago, out late cruising some empty back streets with Dana, we found that the road we were on emptied out to a major intersection. I don’t know how fast I was going, but the speedometer had read 60 before I’d accelerated to better approach the light, which was green. The intersection we shot into has a steep grade that drops off sharply in the middle. However, I didn’t know this at the time. When we hit the grade, entering the intersection, I knew something was up. Instantly, we were airborne, coasting for seconds in the serenity of free fall. We stayed in the air long enough for both of us to realize we were in the air, open our eyes as wide as they would go, turn to one another, and begin screaming. Then gravity enforced its rules, car met pavement and I quickly applied the brakes, my heart racing.

I have been sentenced to defensive driving for making my heart race. It was a beautiful day, and I’d been on my way to my chiropractor to continue working on problems with my jaw. The sun shone brightly, but not too warmly. The car’s top was down. Music played loudly. There was no one else in sight, and I was smiling — as was the police officer standing in the middle of the road, waving me over. He said I’d been going 58 miles per hour in a 35 zone. I thanked him for pulling me over, and accepted the ticket for which I am now paying through my presence at defensive driving school.

Several months before being ticketed, Mentor and I were witnesses to a wreck. It wasn’t a normal wreck, but a one in a million shot, a car wreck so singularly surreal that I remained a calm and sober driver for some time afterwards. It was a beautiful day, and I’d been on my way to drop Mentor off at home before I returned to work. The sun shone brightly, but not warmly. My car’s top was down. Music played loudly. There was a car behind me, approaching very fast — nearly 60 miles per hour, witnesses from another vantage point later recounted. The speed limit was 35 miles an hour. I’d spotted the car in my rear view mirror and glanced in front of me to see what my dodging options were, but when my eyes darted back to the mirror the car had vanished. It was as though God’s hand had descended, picked up the car and prevented it from smashing into us. I was partially correct. Mentor turned in time to see the spectacle of a car in mid-air, upside down, flying just behind and to the left but parallel to us. It’d hit a curb immediately before the short bridge I had almost finished crossing, flipped in the air, and in one single smooth motion flown for several yards before falling into the creek bed beneath the bridge. The sound of the impact was much shorter than I’d expected.

Mentor was the first person to scramble down into the crash site. I parked in front of a day care center where children pressed up against a mesh fence trying to get a glimpse of the awful wreck. The car had landed windshield first on one side of a creek bed, slid on the ground for almost a hundred feet and across the small creek itself, rolling at least once before settling on its side, up against a tree. It was lightly dusted in dirt. Weeds stuck out from the front grill. It looked as though it’d been sitting there for years, discarded long ago, industrial driftwood. Four or five of us gathered around the perfectly silent scene. Up on the bridge, a woman with a cell phone called 911. The driver was still breathing.

Those of us who witnessed the wreck were kept inside the police cordon, up on the bridge. Traffic was routed around the ambulance and firetrucks and police cars. Medics cut away part of the car frame and pulled the young girl out. I remember thinking, Strange, her hairline starts awfully far back. Then I realized it was because she had a very tall forehead. Then I realized that her forehead was so tall because her scalp had been peeled back at least as far as the top of her head. As they finished cutting away the parts of the car frame that’d trapped her inside, they also pulled out most of the detritus that had piled up against the windshield after the car’s final tumble. The girl’s bag fell to the ground, as if purposefully positioned right-side-up for those of us standing on the bridge, a round, yellow “happy-face” purse, smiling up at us.

They brought her up to the ambulance, which was parked right behind us. I turned around to watch while, three feet away, paramedics tied the girl to a board, cut off her clothes from the ankles up and prepared to transport her to a hospital. She was a perfectly healthy girl, perhaps twenty. I needed to know she was going to be okay. My eyes stared at her feet, then slowly moved up the length of her body. I was relieved to see that she looked fine. Her feet looked fine. Her legs looked fine. Her arms and torso looked fine. When I got to her head, my eyes had a hard time looking away. I swallowed and thought, Oh, that’s not right. It will be a long time before I forget what that girl’s face looked like smashing into a windshield and sliding something like a hundred feet across the ground. I don’t know if she survived; they wouldn’t tell us her name.

Only months later, my memories of this event had eroded in my mind: one day I found I had no memory of what I saw above her neck. Today, nearly twenty years later, her head is a white blur, clumsily airbrushed out of my mind.

The world continues to suggest caution, and I am finally old enough to listen. I no longer thrill at flying down a narrow street at speeds far above what you might call legal. Time and experience has dulled most automobile adventures for me, after years of exploring the turns and hills and straightaways of the city in which I live.

But there is one turn. It’s the perfect turn, the driving maneuver against which all other maneuvers must be compared. It’s on my favorite street, the cruising road, Red Bud Trail. I take Red Bud Trail when I require peace. Its windings calm me. I am enraptured by the hypnotic patterns of its turnings, lined on either side by tall pine trees and thick green shrubbery. You will frequently see deer, gracefully frozen, tracking you as you pass.

The turn itself is beautiful for two reasons. First, it’s misleading. After several hills and turns, you’ll see the crest of yet another hill approaching as you climb to the top of one you’re on. But while descending, you’ll see that the next hill — the one you’d thought continued ahead — is instead just a branching of the road. Actually, the road turns very, very sharply right with no warning. Were you to continue barreling ahead, as you had planned, you’d chance slamming into the side of an oncoming car as it navigated the turn from the other direction. You have to react instantly, pulling the steering wheel as far to the right as you can (and, if you weren’t anticipating it, hitting the brakes) while gritting your teeth and hoping to God that you make it.

I’ve never mastered this turn, though I’ve tried countless times at a variety of speeds under many different road conditions. But even though my mind has learned caution and my heart has learned to pace itself, I know for a fact that after I am dead you will spot my ghost tearing down Red Bud Trail, as I myself have done many times before and will do many times yet. No one will be able to stop my wraithly red lozenge of a vehicle as I press its tires against the road, taking that turn over and over again, until I get it right.

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