The Tao of Getting There

The meaning of wheels, and the odd magic of going without

Illustration by Jon Estrada

Illustration by Jon Estrada

I like to drive. I have no prejudice against cars. If one of the many measures of friendship is pleasant hours spent together, and if you can set aside the whole creepy notion of a cherished friendship between a man and an inanimate object, I suppose you could say that some of my best friends are cars. My cars have names—not “Dodge” and “Subaru,” but special names I have given them, names I will not share with you. That is how much I like cars.

So what I am about to say is not easy. It has about it the acrid whiff of betrayal: Life is what happens when you don’t have a car.

Wait, let me complicate this a little bit: The best driving experiences, the ones when the road opens up and the traffic lights disappear and the land alongside you is painted in the colors of basalt boulders and Joshua trees, are intensive. By this I mean that they bring energy through the windshield and into the mind, where that energy, like gas in a hybrid car, sparks the mind-battery, which in turn sparks thought, rumination, conversation (with self or with seatmates) and even creation. The rhythm of the drive sets in motion a right-brained perpetual motion machine, in which all communication remains either inside the car or inside the head.

Fanciful stories and apocalyptic visions have come to me on drives; my wife and I (sorry to go public with this, my dear) once composed an entire freeway opera in the language of cats. On certain long drives, when gas stations are far, far away, I sing to my teenage son about toilets. It is a vision of a porcelain heaven, where all thoughts of gas-station bathrooms are banished and magical hallways are lined with history’s most lovely commodes. This seems cruel, but my son can take it.

Driving, as you see—or maybe it’s just me—is a mind-altering substance. “Don’t drink and drive” has, to me, always been an obvious commandment. Why would you need to drink and drive when driving is drinking?

So, what do I mean when I say life is what happens when you don’t have a car? Well, if driving is about rumination and private communication—about intensifying the links with yourself and those close to you—life without a car is about encounter and anecdote. It is an extensive activity, in that it forces you to extend yourself out into the world. Finding your way without your own private M&M shell raises the possibility that you’ll get your chocolate in someone’s peanut butter. (Wait, that doesn’t sound right.) Anyway, the self melts in the hands and you join the big, messy world. (That doesn’t sound right, either.)

Not long ago, my family went carless in Salt Lake City—not a bad place to go carless, considering the light-rail system and the statistically impossible concentration of nice, helpful people. We got to know a cabby named Ali. We stumbled into an organ concert and heard “Ride of the Valkyries.” We woke up on a Sunday morning and went to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on foot. We were briefly stranded in a neighborhood called Sugar House and met a bubbly group of archery kids from Las Vegas. My son is also an archery kid from Las Vegas, but he had never met these kids. See what happens when you don’t have a car?

That same day, we got stranded again, well after 10 o’clock, at an archery range far from the center of town. There had been a big national tournament. The place had been teeming with people. But almost all of those people were gone. Why were they gone? Because they had brought their cars! The owners were locking the place up. I had called Ali the taxi driver, but he’d already gone home for the night. Ali called a fellow-cabbie friend, but the friend, too, had turned in. (Utah!) A woman heading home from the range offered us a ride in her Corolla, but we couldn’t fit. Another man said he didn’t have room in his car, but told us he’d call a friend who was nearby, and the friend would take us downtown. While we were waiting, the man asked us where we were from.

“Las Vegas,” we said.

“Hey,” he said, “me too!”

Who knew that the unnatural concentration of nice people in Salt Lake City was due to all the visiting Las Vegans?

We caught a ride with a dizzily cheerful dad in a truck filled with empty Happy Meal bags and children’s toys. He couldn’t take us downtown, but he took us to a nearby Holiday Inn. The thing is, we weren’t staying at the Holiday Inn. But the lobby had chocolate chip cookies, and at the moment that was the only thing in the whole world that mattered.

Now it was past 11, all the cabbies were asleep, the light-rail terminus was miles away, and we were standing in the lobby with chocolate-stained lips and a very large bag full of potentially lethal archery gear. Who, I wondered, does this without a car? Well, nobody! All the smart people were home in bed. I thought that maybe we, too, should be in bed somewhere, and where better than a Holiday Inn?

I went toward the desk to ask about a room, but I stopped. Somehow, it felt like cheating. The goal of this game was to get back to the hotel we had already paid for. And then, from across the room, we saw him: A gray-haired man with round cheeks and a mischievous half-smile, as if he knew a great many things and among the things he knew was how to get us home. He had all the qualities of Santa, without the telltale beard. And, lo, as he approached, my eyes focused to see that he was wearing a Holiday Inn polo, and he introduced himself as the Holiday Inn airport shuttle driver, and told us that he would drive us to our hotel, which was nowhere near the airport.

Along the way, he told us that he had opened a doughnut shop, which had turned into two, and then three. He makes doughnuts in every flavor that occurs in the natural world, including “toast,” and a few that only occur in the unnatural world. His employees have a profit-sharing plan. It is the most utopian doughnut shop in the Promised Land.

“Where do you live?” he asked us. “Las Vegas,” we said.

“Well, then, you’ll be seeing me soon. We’re comin’ to town.”

We will await the sleigh, which always brings more gifts than a car.

We said goodbye to our new friend. All the doughnut talk had made us hungry. We stashed the big bag in the room and walked out into the shining street at five minutes to midnight in search of the last open restaurant in Salt Lake City. A man on a bike cab pulled up alongside us.

“How about a free ride?” he asked.

We took it.

Greg Blake Miller is the director of Olympian Creative Education.

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