I can still remember the feeling of that plush gray upholstery against the back of my bare thighs as I slid into the passenger seat of a beat up van affectionately named “Gus the Bus” day after the day in the Wisconsin summer heat following my sophomore year of high school. My friend Andrew and I spent hours cruising the suburban streets of Whitefish Bay in Gus (and sometimes his younger brother, a black sedan named Joel, took us along for a ride.) We never had a destination. We rolled down the windows, my painted toenails and calloused feet finding the dashboard, and we cranked mix CDs of our favorite music. We talked about our friends and favorite comedians, invented band names and stopped spontaneously (everywhere from dairy queen to Doctor’s Park.) We were never romantically involved, Andrew and me, but our daily adventures in Gus the Bus had a certain romance to them. We loved the idea of going wherever we wanted whenever we wanted. We had great conversations, and the time flew by. We probably should have thought about the environment more. Well, more than probably.
Reading Stephen Dunn’s poem “The Sacred,” it is clear that the carefree feelings our summer spent cruising that Andrew and I experienced were not unique. Juxtaposing this poem with Jim Farrell’s chapter entitled “The Nature of Cars” in the book The Nature of College, and my own experiences with driving in high school and college, I see the extent to which America cultures us to love our automobiles. We see them not only as capsules of escape, but also as walled in spaces to enhance relationships. They become representations of our personality and success, and they take us from where we are to where we “need” to go.
Though I acknowledge Jim Farrell’s well made points that cars keep us importing oil, fuel numerous wars, perpetuate an individualist and selfish culture, eat away at our environment, teach shallow values, and cause thousands of deaths per year, I found myself defensive as I read his chapter. This is inevitably a product of our consumer culture and the identification of automobiles, technology, and “time-saving” with the word “good,” but I have sentimental reasoning as well. I spent every morning of my pre-school career crossing the golden gate bridge in the back seat of our tiny red car, singing along to Raffi and smiling at my father in the rear view window. I shared countless meaningful conversations with my Mom about boys and school and life from the right hand side of our beloved light green Volkswagon Beetle. I’ve written a hundred pages of thoughts and poems and dreams in lopsided lines from the back seat of our station wagon as we made the three hour trek to our cabin as a family. Though Jim tells us that kids today “traverse a landscape without experiencing it,”(95) I don’t think this is the case for me. I think that the hours I’ve spent watching the landscape blur outside of my window have been some of my most meaningful. That lull of travel and streaming fields and forests makes me think. I am thoughtful when sitting outside beneath a tree, and there is a value in that experience that can’t be forgotten, but I find that my experiences in trains and cars and planes have had an important impact.
Browsing through my library of photos that dates back to the summer I got this lap top for my high school graduation, I found several that depict my relationship with cars.
Behind the wheel of the green Beetle “Luigi” who I share with my Mom when I’m home in the summers, I often feel simultaneously carefree and anxious. I love driving to the places I know, blaring my favorite radio stations and singing along. However, whenever anything gets even mildly uncomfortable, or I take a wrong turn, all hell breaks loose. This is when I hate driving. It stresses me out. I would almost always rather be the passenger. My friends tease me mercilessly for my hopeless sense of direction and “old lady” driving. For this reason I don’t drive much, even when given the opportunity. Unlike my teenage brother, for whom the driver’s license “rite of passage” is fast approaching, I avoid the freedom of the road. It’s interesting to me how driving becomes a measure of “growing up.” Getting behind the wheel is a budding symbol of adulthood. You have the opportunity to leave the house and travel many miles from home, but with this freedom you also have the responsibility to do everything possible to stay out of horrific accidents and pay for gas.
Barreling toward awed guests, my cousin Meg arrived to her wedding ceremony in a horse drawn carriage. What would our country look like if we restructured it without cars? Currently, our entire infrastructure centers upon the “efficiency” of cars. How do we re-structure what we’ve always known? Do we unpave the roads and replace them with gravel? Do we invest in a light rail system that connects our cities? Transport goods by train? Delete the strip malls and suburban sprawl? Raise the prices of cars to reflect their real values and eventually slow the out of control production of gas guzzling vehicles? If we change the laws, how do we also change the culture of cars?
The culture of cars begins at birth. Parents worry about how long to keep their children in backward facing car seats–told by medical professionals to keep their children pointed toward the rear windshield until age 2. There is a fine line between promoting parent-child interaction and back seat safety. The car seat is a conundrum featured in sit coms and family films, and the screaming toddler writhing in his seat belt becomes a common conversation starter. Mini-vans are advertised to feature rear-seat entertainment for the kids, equipped with DVD players and sleek black headsets (my cousin Fiona models one such set in the picture above.) With advances like these, I understand exactly where Jim is coming from when he claims that our children don’t really “see” the landscape outside their windows–the view obstructed by screens.
How can we raise our children to understand cars differently? To see them not as mobile entertainment factories, or ways to “Waste” time, but as things to be used sparingly? How do we teach them to actually enjoy the ride?
To end this journal entry, I leave you with a video that exposes our American relationship with cars in a bass string melody of nostalgia and satire. Ben Sollee sings “Bury Me With My Car:”
When I’m gone, bury me with my car.
‘Cause if anywhere is wherever I
end up when I’m gone,
I’m gonna need my rockin’ ride.
So please, please, oh, bury me with my car.
Ancient Egypt, Cheops’ boat.
Back in Rome they had chariots.
China’s first emperor was buried with his army.
What’s a cowboy without his horse?
And in America, in America, they’ll bury us –
oh, they’ll bury us with our cars.
’72 Buick rollin’ by,
pumpin’ down Honda,
chewin’ up the road.
Double-decker Cadillac rollin’ up high
like a king upon his throne.
Last thing I wanna see before I die
is the flash of 22-inch chromes in my eye.
And in America, in America, they’ll bury us –
oh, with our cars.