Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Lately, I’ve been thinking about driving.

Because, I recently had the chance to attend an awesome Adventures by the Book event for best-selling author, Jennifer Niven, and her book, Velva Jean Learns to Fly, which is the story of Velva Jean Hart, a fiercely independent young woman from rural Appalachia. Well, it just so happens that this book was preceded by another written by Niven, titled, Velva Jean Learns to Drive. Which just goes to show you, that Velva Jean sure gets around.

Posing with my first car.

There was a time when I, too, had to learn how to drive. In fact, I cut my teeth clocking hours and hours of mad-dash driving through the streets of Washington, D.C., and New York City. The trick is to not look at the other lanes, whether you’re barreling down New Hampshire Avenue or heading to the Holland Tunnel. Otherwise you’ll likely start to panic when you realize that a three-lane road has been stretched to fit five lanes of traffic—cars, taxis, bicyclists, buses and trucks.

Driving on these roads taught me how not to let other cars merge into your lane, lest they slow you down. I’m sure anyone who’s driven in these cities knows what I’m talking about: it’s hardcore, aggressive, every-man-for-himself driving. So, as a result, I got a lot of practice under my belt. But it didn’t start that way.

In high school, I was lousy at driving. The worst. On the first day of my driver’s ed class, there were three of us in the car, along with our teacher, Mr. Simon. When it was my turn to get behind the wheel, Mr. Simon directed me to get onto the freeway. Talk about indoctrination. My blood pressure never rose so quickly.

This was my first time behind the wheel—ever! Needless to say, I didn’t know squat about merging, let alone merging in front of trucks, and when Mr. Simon asked me to get into the right lane, there was a humongous truck there, and so I ended up getting in front of it with inches to spare. And, when I slammed on the brakes, all because the driver of the truck blared its tootin’ horn at me, I nearly caused an accident.  I don’t think Mr. Simon had ever seen a driver more pathetic than me.

I ended up flunking the driving test three times, the first time because I got into the car on the driver’s side instead of the passenger side, as I was supposed to do. Anyway, you know what they say: Third time’s the charm, and so I figured driving just wasn’t in the cards for me, and I began to resign myself to living a car-free life.

All through college I relied on public transportation and the kindness of others, who’d offer to give me a ride once in a while. Then, I went to grad school and met Mandy, my roommate. That woman had the fortitude of a saint. (I’ve written about what a good egg she is in my post, Good Times with Country Boys.)

Mandy took this nervous wreck of a Nellie, and patiently turned me into a real honest to goodness, license-carrying driver—using her car, which was kind of risky, if you ask me. Mandy even drove me to the DMV on the day I had to take the test, and she cheered me on when I finally passed! (Mandy, if you’re reading this—thank you, so much. I still owe you one!)

Thanks to Mandy—and Marilyn, a wonderful friend I met in Seattle who taught me how to drive a manual—I am now quite adroit behind the wheel.  Only problem is, I tend to still drive as if I’m on the streets of D.C., and not on the laid-back roads of Southern California, where most drivers on the road act as if they have all the time in the world. As if everyday is Sunday morning, and they’re just going for a spin in the ol’ jalopy with Archie and the Gang.

Pausing at a STOP sign is not optional.

Unless, that is, you’re a pedestrian out for a walk with your, say, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, who goes by the name of, well…let’s just call him, Henry. Which is why, I’ve got to say:

To the fellow, driving a maroon SUV in my neighborhood this weekend:  Stopping at the STOP sign is NOT optional—especially when there’s a woman, with a bum knee, and her dog, trying to make it through the crosswalk in one piece, thank you very much!

Well, there you have it. Now, I can’t wait to read about Velva Jean’s adventures in driving and flying—and trust me, while I’ve conquered driving, flying for me, is out of the question!

So tell me, readers, what are your most memorable behind-the-wheel memories?