I didn’t actually earn my driver’s license until I was eighteen. I dragged my heels over taking driver’s education. My family lived in the middle of town, and I was within walking or biking distance of my job, my friends, and the college campus where I was taking classes part-time. Just before driver’s ed, my mother took my reluctant ass out to a country road south of town to give me some time behind the wheel before the first day of instruction. At the first corner, unused to the power steering, I cranked the wheel to the right and managed to do a 180 and land us in the ditch on the side of the road, headed back the way we’d come. Not an auspicious start (though no one was hurt). Still, I white-knuckled my way through the six-week course and soon passed my driver’s test — including parallel parking and highway driving!
Soon, I discovered that I loved loved loved driving. I loved being able to hop into the family minivan and take our golden retriever out to the state park for a run in the early morning. I loved being able to do the family grocery shopping. I loved the independence of being able to plan a trip to the movie theater or nearby Grand Rapids … or get to late-night classes without my parents worrying about my safety walking home late at night. It was exhilarating. Suddenly, my world expanded. Living in a city of roughly 80,000, with nothing but a skeletal bus service, cars were necessary for adult life.
In 2007, however, I moved from Western Michigan to Boston in order to pursue my graduate studies. I’d lived in urban spaces before, but never moved to a city with the intention of staying permanently — or at least, for the near foreseeable future. I moved out here and left the car I’d been driving behind, which my parents eventually sold. For the passed four years I haven’t owned a vehicle, only driving when we rent cars — mostly through the awesome organization Zipcar. Hanna and I depend on the Boston area subway and bus systems on a daily basis and, on most days, walk the two miles to work and — often — the two miles home as well. 90% of the time, this suits me fine.
But over the weekend, we rented a car to drive south of the city so Hanna could volunteer at a 4-H event and I got to drive. Whenever this happens, especially when we have occasion to get out of the city for a few hours or a day, I feel echoes of that exhilaration I experienced as a new driver back in the mid-1990s. It brings into stark relief how trapped I sometimes feel, living in the city where my daily life happens in a geographic area of a roughly 2-5 mile radius. I feel crowded. I miss the woods. And the big lake (Lake Michigan). Being able to get up on a Saturday morning, drive fifteen minutes, and be able to run five miles along the beach without seeing another human being. Less romantically, I miss being able to get in the car get the week’s groceries without worrying what two people can carry from the grocery store to the apartment (roughly a mile’s walk). I miss having the option of driving to work in five minutes on a rainy day. I become exhausted planning a Saturday running errands that, back in Michigan, would have taken two hours but here are a day-long choreographed endeavor involving foot, subway and bus travel, and the juggling act of getting the spoils back home before dinner.
Yes, public transportation is a wonderful, efficient luxury in many ways — and something that we should consider strategically on a national scale. I’m grateful for the opportunity to live within walking distance to work, be two blocks from a subway stop, and not have to work about parking permits, car insurance, and car payments. Not to mention gas prices! But none of these things quite manage to fill the automobile-shaped hole left in my soul when I moved east.
Have any of you made major moves during your life? What aspects of your previous life do you miss? Are there things about your new location that still feel alien to you, even if you’ve lived there for years?