(Photo circa 2011)
Today I say goodbye to a car that changed my life. I know that sounds overly dramatic, but stick with me here. I never learned to drive a standard transmission growing up. I did try once or twice in friends’ cars, but I just seemed to lack the coordination. It almost seemed like a magical skill, something you were either born with the ability to learn or not. I thought of it as almost something genetic…I just didn’t get the stick gene, and that was that. This bothered me. What if I was in an emergency and the only car available was a standard? What if I couldn’t get someone to a hospital, or get out of the way of an approaching tornado? What if I was stuck on the Lost island and the only vehicle was an old Dharma Van?!
It was 2011, I was 30, and my car had died. I did some car shopping and kept coming across standard cars. Yet another option that was out of reach. Or was it? The more I thought about it, the more I realized this might be my shot. I would either be forced to learn how to drive standard, or I would have a useless, expensive piece of metal sitting in my driveway and no way to get to work. So with the help of a patient, stick-driving friend, I bought a car that I couldn’t drive. I should say I couldn’t drive well or reliably. I did get a few good lessons from said friend so that I wouldn’t be completely helpless when I had to finally take the wheel myself. I also spent a good amount of time googling how a clutch works…it was all so abstract to me, the pushing and releasing of multiple pedals. I know it all involved gears, but I needed to know what was actually happening.
My friend drove it off the lot for me and to my house, where I was then on my own and could practice by myself in the rural area in which I lived. I spent the next couple of days circling endlessly past cows and cornfields, practicing stopping and starting at 4-way stops in the middle of nowhere (where invariably someone would be behind me, sometimes patient, sometimes not). I had the driving at moderate/higher speeds down pretty well, and starting and stopping on flat ground was going better, but doing anything on even a slight hill was still a major struggle.
I found an empty parking/maintenance lot for one of the local major corn growers (it was November in Upstate NY), and it was the perfect setup. Two driveway entrances and one of them had a bit of a hill that you had to stop on before turning onto the road. I would drive up the sloped exit, stop, stall, and repeat over and over again. I was literally crying with frustration. Until I successfully did it without stalling, and then I was crying for joy. It was like a Rocky montage, where he starts off all out of shape and struggling, and then ends by victoriously jumping and punching the air. After some more practice the sunlight started dwindling and I decided that was enough for the day. As I exited the driveway the final time I noticed a face in one of the garage doors watching me. Apparently it wasn’t such an empty lot after all. I’d like to think whoever it was realized what I was doing, and they were just as happy as I was that I finally made it up the little hill.
I spent the next month or so taking a detour to work to specifically avoid one particular hill in downtown Saratoga, and then one day I absentmindedly took the old way. I did just fine, although I was extremely sweaty and nervous as I sat at that stoplight at the top of a steep hill on a busy Main Street. Over the next 7 years that car and I had many long commutes to and from work, moved several times including across state lines, took journeys to see friends and family, got in a relatively minor accident, carried Christmas trees, kayaks, 8 foot boards and a 160 pound dog (not all at once). And to bring it all full circle, the clutch finally wore out. At 13 years old, almost 200k miles and somewhat rusty, it would cost more to replace the clutch than the car is worth. And I just know it’s time to move on.
Back to how this car changed me though… that feeling that I got when I finally could say “I can drive standard” was something I hadn’t felt in…I don’t know how many years. Decades. It’s so sad when I say it out loud, but it’s almost as if I thought that I had learned everything I was going to learn. Like, I was past the “learning major skills” part of my life (which is ridiculous, I realize, and I’m embarrassed to even admit I felt that way). But something about forcing myself to learn to drive stick made me believe “I can absolutely learn new things” which was pretty powerful. Right after that I started teaching myself to play banjo (thanks YouTube!) While I eventually stopped playing and gave back the banjo I was borrowing, I did learn the chords, and I could play a few songs, and that was enough for me. It was enough to give me that sort of high of “yes, you can still learn new things.” I am probably due to renew that feeling with a fresh new skill. Hmmm….
So, with new car now purchased (and no, it’s not a standard. Just happened to be how it ended up this time), I say thank you to my old friend and companion, 2005 Pontiac Vibe, for teaching me that I can.