How To Kill Your Car and Get Away With It
My car recently blew its head gasket, so I am now without a vehicle.
I couldn't be happier.
Traffic frustrates me. Not only because it exists, but because it is perpetuated by the driving culture who accept it like they do the weather, never considering there could be another way to get around.
My faithful disdain for endless lines of single occupant vehicles began in Phoenix, Ariz., a city that embraces driving as much as it embraces its cancer-like sprawl. Just before I moved from there to Alaska, I swore I would break the auto barrier. For my first eight months up there, I walked to and from work. It actually sounds like the old cliche, but it's true: I walked four miles both ways in the snow to work every day. I did it by choice. Later, when I worked 13 miles out of Anchorage, I would park my truck at work on Monday and ride my bike the 26 miles round trip during the week.
"What's wrong with your truck?" my co-workers would ask me.
It just seemed so outlandish to me to drive that short distance—a distance filled with single occupant vehicles. I rode during that fantastic summer on a curvy, paved bike trail. The ride was filled with long climbs and speedy descents, and at times would meander through wooded areas. I would get up to speed and just go rushing through the woods, all the while wary of the idea that at any second a hapless moose could emerge in front of me, and that would be the last thing I would see until I woke up three days later in a hospital bed, surrounded by flowers and get well cards. Still, it was much better than wasting gas, sitting in traffic and putting extra miles on the truck. And I got great exercise that way. In the winter I rode the bus. I know what you're thinking, but I just haven't ramped up to winter riding yet. It might have to do with the fact that I bit it on the ice while racing down a steep hill, sending me and the bike skidding more than 30 feet, causing both the startled onlookers and myself to wonder how I didn't get seriously injured.
After Alaska, I lived on a sailboat in Dana Point, Calif. I had no car, only a bike, and I worked four miles away, in San Juan Capistrano. It was perfect. I felt I had reached escape velocity from the gravitational pull of the auto culture. In Southern California, of all places. I rode my bike to and from work, and mounted all-day treks to neighboring towns for shopping purposes. It was wonderful. From there, I found it necessary to move to Portland, Ore., to make a good life for my new-born daughter. I survived without a car for the first nine months, walking and taking the bus, due to the fact that my bike was taken on my first night in Portland. Later, when my daughter got older and the necessities of getting to work and picking her up on time made having a car un avoidable, I reluctantly bought one again, and spent the next year or so as a dead-faced member of the long line of cars. Actually, since being here in Portland, I personally have owned a long line of cars. First, the 1968 Chevy flatbed I'd traded for my sailboat to drive up here, which I parked for a year and then sold to get a more sensible 1987 Honda Accord, which I totaled on the freeway one day because I was distracted by a homeless guy's sign that read, "betcha can't hit me with a quarter."
Next, I bought a co-worker's little '86 Dodge Colt for $600 and drove that for a whole summer until it nearly burst into flames. Undaunted, I went and got a little bit newer vehicle: a 1992 Nissan.
You may be noticing a pattern here. It seems I only purchase old, crappy cars, and then I either crash them or run them into the ground. It's true: I do not place much value on vehicle ownership. I think of a car like an appliance, a simple tool of practicality. Still, the practicality of such a tool is something I regularly call into question. It could be said that I am lousy at taking care of them, but I can assure you that I check the oil and keep the coolant levels up. I think it's just that I place almost no value on cars, so I try to get away with spending as little as possible on them.
Nonetheless, here I am again without a car. Actually, I'd been ranting about driving and about traffic for months—something that was driving my wife nuts. I kept threatening to park the damned car and start riding or bussing to work, but the daily routine held a tight grip, and I never made good on my threats. Until now. In fact, I have a confession:
I planned the whole thing. I murdered my car.
I carefully ran it out of oil. Not too much, just enough for it to get sick and die. But I had to be certain it would die at a time and place of my choosing. And it had to be dramatic: a wonderful last straw, allowing me to finally opt out of the dismal daily car commute. I was quite careful, and my planning paid off. On the day it all went down, I had just dropped my daughter off at preschool and then had driven my wife to the light rail stop. Both were safe. It was just me and…that car. Like clock work, the car began to rattle.
I kept driving.
Next, the car made a loud clunking sound, and I could hear large chunks of metal tumbling underneath as it lost compression and began to smoke like a steam locomotive until finally it quit running. I coasted to a stop, switched on the hazard lights and climbed from the smoking corpse while single occupant vehicles rushed by with loud hissing sounds. I buttoned up my coat, called my boss to say I'd be late, and began to stroll casually to the next off ramp.
It was finished. I was free again.
A tow truck took the corpse to a safe spot on family property, and now it's for sale. I plan to use the money to start a sailboat fund. In the meantime, I take the bus, carpool, and plan to bike to work when the weather turns. Now that my daughter is in preschool near the house, picking her up is logistically simple. I'm not sure if I can explain how nice it is to get to work and other places without being locked into a car in a river of other cars. I have interesting conversations, see things I wouldn't otherwise see, and generally feel more connected to my community. We do actually plan to buy a new car in March, but I am in no hurry at all.
Even then, I'll only drive it if we absolutely have to or if we're going out of town. I figure if I stay away from it and from traffic as much as possible, that will keep me from killing again.b