On the Road Again

On the road with Harrison in Washington state.

On the road with Harrison in Washington state.

When I was fourteen years old, my dad took me to the parking lot of our local amphitheater, let me climb into the driver’s seat of his ‘65 Chevy, and taught me to drive a stick shift. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was one of the defining moments of my life. In that moment, my dad infused into me his love of driving. Not just using a car to get from one place to another, but the actual act of driving.

My first non-inherited car was named Nate. Nate was a 1986 BMW 325i. Of course, he was a manual shift, as all of my cars would be. (Driving automatic cars terrifies me. I feel completely out of control and, also, they are no fun.) I bought Nate from my family’s long-time mechanic who loved Nate long before I did. I must have gotten Nate around 1999, so he was already an old car with 144,000 miles on him. But Nate also had a new engine. On my inaugural trip, I drove him down to Los Angeles and was stunned when I looked down and saw that somehow I was going more than 100 mph on the straightaway that is I-5. I mean, Nate wanted to go.

Man, I loved Nate. I drove him on my first and best cross-country drive with my brother. Nate took me to a ton of DMB shows during the glory years (although, of course, I didn’t realize that at the time either). Nate escorted my two Big Loves around, who both happened to come in quick succession. Nate was there for a ton of pivotal moments as I drove into adulthood, with the soundtrack for all of the experiences that transported me from child to adult blaring through his speakers in the background. From a mechanical perspective, I am pretty sure Nate would still be around to this day. That car was like the world’s most reliable tank. Solid as a rock, and always revving to go. I always felt safe in Nate. But, unfortunately, after several years, he started to cave in around me. I will never forget the day I looked over to find my friend Laura sitting in the passenger seat, holding Nate’s door handle in her hand. In the end, it was a gnarly New England pothole that rang the death knell for Nate. RIP, friend. You will always be my first love.

Nick driving Nate in Iowa, 2002

Nick driving Nate in Iowa, 2002

Next up was Harrison, a 1999 Beetle. I thought I could never love again after Nate, but I was wrong. If Nate was my first love, Harrison was my Great Love. Harrison and I got around. We drove back and forth across the country more times than I can count, and everywhere up and down it and into Canada, too: from SoCal to Washington state, from Ontario to Florida. We had lots of things to do, the two of us. We went on camping trips; covered the road from Boston to NYC more frequently than the Fung Wa did; went to tons and tons of shows, weddings, and births; and a few tours during which I trailed ahead of or behind the busses, writing my books via voice memo as I got into the rhythm of the road. There was just so. much. life. So much music in that car. I will never love another car like I loved Harrison. He was my partner in crime.

Then things changed. Harrison was (understandably) tired and increasingly unreliable. My parents found a car in California (so, no weather damage) that they thought would be perfect for me—a 2007 VW Rabbit that had only 35,000 miles on it and was in mint condition. And, I mean, it made sense. I named him Phinneas and, well, we tried to make it work. My first issue with Phinneas was cosmetic—he was white and … I don’t know. He just didn't look like the type of car I would pick. We got off on the right foot, though. My friend and I flew out from Boston to California and drove him cross-country. It was a crazy road trip, where we actually managed to drive 4,500 miles cross country, because we weaved up so far north and then looped back south again.

But poor Phinn came around at a strange time in life, when things weren’t so joyful. The road trips had come to an end. I now lived in SoCal, where I hated driving. In the end, my ex drove Phinneas just as much or more than I did, and I would inexplicably find miscellaneous items of women’s clothing that weren’t mine shoved under the seats. I spent a lot of time wondering WTH was going on in Phinneas when I wasn’t there. I was also raged at in that car. That was really the only sound in Phinneas because, unlike his predecessors, there was no music. He was made right on the cusp of digital technology, so all he really had was a CD player, and I didn’t have many CDs by that point. Like everything else in life during those years, putting forth the effort to listen to music in Phinn just felt exhausting.

And then Izzy came along, quickly followed by Scout. It took no time at all before Phinneas became the bane of my existence. Cramming a monkey-toddler and a 60-pound dog with separation anxiety into a two-door car is not the greatest way to live your life. I felt a sense of dread every time we had to get in the car, which happened, you know, multiple times a day.

Phinneas is a good car. He tried. He just was never my car. And then, when the ceiling lining started to drop down from the roof (an easy fix, BTW) I couldn’t deal. From that point on, every time Izzy got in her car seat, she would look up at the rapidly-lowering roof above her and comment, “It’s not great.”

“We’re done!” I metaphorically shouted, shaking my fist up toward the sky. (As you can tell, my relationships with my cars aren’t dramatic at all.)

So then I did something I never expected to do: I bought a new car. Because here’s the thing—I love having old cars. I love their character and, frankly, I love not having a car payment. But, with Izzy and Scout in the picture, it felt like time for a new scenario. It felt like time for more security, more room to spread out. I also felt like I wanted us to have something wonderful, something we love, something we can adventure in. We are a great team and this team needs a Bat Mobile.

I hadn’t counted on the fact that it’s so hard to get a stick shift car these days. I literally had to place an order and then wait for ten weeks, while my car (Cooper, BTW) was custom made. Finally, he arrived a few days ago and I literally cannot remember the last time I was so excited. I knew that our scenario in Phinneas wasn’t good, but I didn’t realize exactly how crammed in the three of us were until we suddenly had all of this space. We’ve spent the past few days figuring out how to spread out and do things in a normal way, because it turns out we had grown accustomed to some pretty strange habits in order to make Phinneas work (for example, both Scout and Izzy would get into the car from the hatch back; Scout still presses himself up against Izzy’s seat, even though there is now no need for them to ride in such close quarters).

As I was in Cooper driving home solo the other day, with the sun glinting off of the new car and the music blaring once again, I had this massive rush of emotion. I know it might sound weird to some people, but finally being back in a car I love again, in a car that feels like me, in a car that is all mine with no baggage attached, doesn’t just feel great—it feels like a retrieval. Like I got back this part of myself that I had anticipated never seeing again. A part of myself that I missed way more than I even realized.

And, really, I guess that’s what all of this recovery has been. A combined process of rebirth and retrieval.

I will never take music and freedom for granted again.