Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Just a Regular Road Trip

Last Monday, I went shopping for a used car.  On Thursday, I drove my purchase off the lot.  But strictly speaking, it wasn't me driving: the driver was my friend Bau.  You see, the car that won me over, that I knew could satisfy my needs, fit my budget, and provide me with the satisfying road experience I wanted, was a 2008 Chevy Aveo.  And it had a manual transmission.
The Scariest Thing in the World, scheming in Eugene, Oregon.
Now, a short-term thinker might have shied away from such a purchase.  Not only had I never so much as turned the ignition on a stick-shift before, I had a stated commitment to embark on a journey of over a thousand miles just three days later.  I had to return to my ancestral lands to participate in my father's wedding, and there was a general expectation that I should arrive in one piece.  Were I to play it safe, I might have stuck, at least for the immediate present, with my dad's Dodge Magnum (pictured here, covered in snow).

But I had other considerations.  I wanted a car in my own name: one that was more practical for my lifestyle, easier to maneuver in tight spaces, and lighter in its fuel consumption.  I also thrilled at the unexpected opportunity before me, to learn a new skill and impress some folks.  So I signed on for The Unknown Quantity and spent the next three days mastering its conceptual intricacies, and trying really hard not to roll backwards into a line of cars when I parked on hills.

Finally, on the date of Saturday, July 15, having sufficiently leveled up (and placed all my meager skill points in hill-scaling), I set off down Interstate 5 on my epic adventure.  It was, for the most part, uneventful and unremarkable.  But I learned a lot about diving, lessons that rang truer as each of the ensuing, interminable hours passed.

I've made this particular journey several times, in both directions.  I've done it in a Suburban, a task that seems harrowing through narrow mountain passes.  I've done it in the Magnum, which is a lot more secure but not much more economical.  I had reason for trepidation, driving stick for the first time over such a long distance.  But I found that, on long stretches of sparsely-populated freeway, driving The Mighty Muskrat was a lot like driving an automatic.  I might glide in neutral over a slow curve or down a steep hill, or shift down to fourth or third while ascending an imposing mountain, but most of the time I could sit in fifth gear and cruise along at a steady 70 miles per hour.  I couldn't exactly zip past slower traffic with the greatest of ease, but you have to give some things up when you surrender a machine with an 8-cylinder hemi engine.

I stopped in San Francisco to spend the night at my sister's place; despite my fears, I was not defeated by that city's exaggerated, non-euclidean topography.  True, I only had to negotiate two hills in my time there, but it was an important personal triumph, not to mention a mercy for my transmission.
The Mountain Goat, greeting the dawn in San Francisco, California.
Monday morning took me out of the Bay Area and back onto the 5, where it is distressingly easy to go more than 80 miles per hour, whether you want to or not.  High winds swept across the central valley, jostling me on the road and somehow generating the ghostly sound of a windshield wiper on a dry pane of glass.  That noise was probably the scariest thing on the entire trip, but since I only heard it in high-wind zones and it persisted even when I was in neutral, I decided to press on without fear of catastrophic failure.  It's that kind of optimistic thinking that characterizes my general attitude toward drives like these.

Driving through California's great central valley is not one of life's most essential experiences, unless you're way into expensive gasoline, malodorous cattle ranches, and perennial angry placards accusing Democrats in Congress of taking away the region's water (which I suppose was once naturally abundant).  Fortunately for me, The Yellow Submarine has a capable sound system, with a quiet engine and decent isolation from the inherent noise pollution of a high-speed freeway.  Armed with a book of over forty CDs, I beat back the monotonous advance of insanity and kept my eyes out for the slightest change in elevation.

Passing through the Grapevine and into that mystical parallel universe known as Los Angeles county, I knew I was about to face my greatest challenge.  Armed with my stick-shift, I was to attempt a crossing of the most congested city of the American Nightmare, at just about five o'clock in the afternoon.  I would be forced to stop, and start, and stop, and start, time and again, inching my way through urban blight and doubtless ruining my machine with amateurish jolts and stalls.  And that was why I abandoned the direct route and made for the San Bernardino freeway.

I have no doubt I saved at least an hour from my total travel time, but that section of the 10, at that time of day, isn't much better than the 5.  Apart from a few glorious minutes of 60-mile-per-hour bliss, The Tiny Minivan and I crawled our way home in first and second gear, when we were allowed to move at all.
There was basically no rush in taking this shot before I had to start moving again.
It was at these low speeds, navigating the capricious currents of Los Angeles traffic, that I truly began to appreciate the joyful burden of the manual transmission.  Although I frequently found myself in the position of having to start in first from a dead stop, I avoided the stalling and lurching that plagued my early efforts.  I reached a level of basic understanding with my vehicle.  Although I obviously could not hope to control the traffic, I could control my car to an extent that I'd never been able to appreciate in an automatic.  When we finally reached the 15, and I was able to move about once more with freedom, it was a very satisfying release.

Finally rolling into the humble town of Poway, California, I felt a great deal of pride in my accomplishment.  I'd taken a car I knew very little about and finished a physically challenging drive.  I'd covered the last 215 miles of the trip with only about six gallons of gas, even as I pushed through stop-and-go traffic and steeply inclined grades.  I had renewed my confidence in myself as a driver.  And then, with less than half a mile to my mother's house, I stalled at a stop sign at the top of a hill.
The Car of Many Nicknames, relaxing in Poway, California.
My two-day drive was an important lesson in humility and in possibility, a chance to reevaluate my relationship with my car and the world I drove it through.  It was also dull, long, and by the end of the second day physically uncomfortable.  But it was definitely worth doing.  I'm not looking forward to doing it in reverse in a few weeks, but I'm sure that will be worth it, too.

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