Learning to Drive

In the Cockpit by Alex Grichenko. Courtesy Publicdomainimages.net.
In the Cockpit by Alex Grichenko. Courtesy Publicdomainimages.net.

I was terrified of learning to drive.  It was something I put off and put off when I was still a teenager living at home.  I am, to put it kindly, somewhat uncoordinated; to put it less kindly, I’m a klutz.  I was the kid who never could throw a baseball and who always got hit in the face with the volleyball or the badminton birdie.   I was no good at video games, not even Mario Brothers.  I tried drums in the school band and could never get my foot and my two hands doing separate things.

So I just knew I was going to screw it up when I got behind the wheel.  And this time the consequences wouldn’t be humiliation in front of my more kinaesthetically apt friends; it would be killing myself or someone else.

My parents wanted me to get professional driving lessons, perhaps because they were aware of this failing of mine.  But I was too nervous to do it when they wanted me to, and then I left home early and didn’t own a car for several years.  When I finally did own a car, it was shared with my partner (and eventual husband) Erin, and he loved to drive and had been doing it for years, so he always did.

Erin loved it so much that he became a professional taxi driver, and I got a job dispatching at the same company.   But accidents are much more common for taxi drivers because they spend more time on the road than anyone else, and he was T-boned on the highway by a man who was speeding 50 km over the legal limit.

They flew him to Vancouver General Hospital with a punctured lung, a smashed-up arm, an almost completely-severed leg, and a split in his aorta.  They didn’t expect him to survive the trip, and so they wouldn’t let me travel with him in the helicopter.  I had to get my good friend to drive me the five-and-a-half-hour trip and stay with a friend in Port Coquitlam.

I knew he was going to lose his leg.  It was completely flat under the sheet between his knee and his foot when they brought him in to ER.  Signing the paper to finish the amputation already begun in the accident was the hardest thing I ever did in my life.

They still gave him a 0% chance of survival.  I was aware of that on some level; they were letting me bring anyone I wanted into the ICU for however long they wanted to stay.  But they never said as much to me, so I refused to believe it.  I prayed, I stayed at his side, I did Reiki for him and I read and sang and talked to him for hours; hours which became days; days which became weeks.

I will spare you the long saga of recovery, physiotherapy, and how I lived while all of this was going on, except to say two things.  First, I had good friends who took care of me while I was taking care of Erin.  Second, the gods were clearly looking out or us, because after eight arduous months in the hospital, he made a miraculous recovery.  It was nothing short of a miracle; everyone said so, and I thank Them every day for this blessing.

In a movie, that would have been the end of the story, but in real life, there are always consequences to these life-changing events, everything from bureaucratic red tape to major transformations and compromises in the way in which people live.  One of those consequences was that they took Erin’s driver’s license away until he had completed a special driving course to learn to use his left-foot gas pedal and a steering knob.  I shake my head at the irony sometimes.  If it had been the other arm and the other foot, or if both were on the same side, this experience would have been much easier.

But now I was relying on other people to drive me to the store, to Erin’s medical appointments, to work.  Finally, one day after an argument with the roommate who didn’t feel like taking me to work, I’d had enough.  At 35 years old, I was going to learn to drive.

I am grateful to my husband for his infinite patience!  I know I would never have been able to do it had my parents been teaching me.  Mom’s nervousness, or Dad’s impatience, would have defeated me through my own anxiety before I even had a chance.

We started as most teenagers do; in the parking lot of the local mall after hours.  I was terrified that I was going to screw it up, lose control of the vehicle, go too fast.  But I did okay.  After a while we took it on the back roads, and I did all right there too.

Highway driving for the first time, I’m sure, cost me a streak of gray hair.  I had to make a Pagan seasonal trade show in Vancouver in the middle of winter.  I’d done some puttering around on the local highways by this point, but with Erin’s license still in flux, if we were going to make it, it was up to me.

We drove the Coquihalla Connector at night in a rainstorm, all five-feet-zero-inches of me behind the wheel of a Ford F-150 pickup with a loaded-up camper.  And I mean loaded.  I sold ornamental crystals and books as part of my business and the shocks groaned under the strain.  So it took a while for us to get going up a hill, but once we started heading down, nothing was going to stop us.

Icy rain fell from the heavens in sheets, and between that and the mist, I could see maybe a couple of feet in front of me.  It was a high mountain pass so we were travelling up and down, down and up, with the truck accelerating despite my best efforts with the brakes at every downhill.  To my right was a sheer drop in places of hundreds of feet, with nothing but trees to halt the fall if we went off the road.  And if that weren’t enough, it was just my kind of luck that this trip all happened during a record rainfall in an area already notorious for the heavy rains.

For two hours, I clutched the steering wheel in a white-knuckled grip, going much faster than I felt safe driving at in pea-soup fog, thinking to myself that if I slowed down, I was going to get rammed from behind by a speeding semi, and how badly I wanted to get off the road, if I could see where the edge of the cliff was!

But we made it!  And we did the trade show, and it was worth the trip, if you don’t count the years cut off my lifespan.

That gave me the confidence to challenge almost anything.  Five months later, when invited to present at the Canadian National Pagan Conference in Montreal, I found it was cheaper for Erin and I to drive than to fly.  But we had just replaced our vehicle, and it didn’t have the adaptive equipment needed for Erin to drive it yet, so it fell upon me to get us from five hours north of Vancouver to Montreal in five days.

Never one to do anything halfway I took it on, even though I had never been farther east than Alberta, and that only once.

Our adventure could be a saga on its own!  I put in twelve to fourteen hours a day behind the wheel, through just about any kind of weather you could imagine save a good snowfall.  I drove along the madcap Yellowhead Trail through Calgary where they seem to try to run you off the road for sport; roads literally washed out to dirt; and the eight-lane monstrosity known as the 401.  I drove through narrow city streets and up highways that went straight up a hill for 4 hours without a store or a gas stations in sight. Damage caused by flooding in Saskatchewan caused the car to bottom out, which set off a chain reaction of breakdowns that resulted in an extended stay in Ontario replacing our CV joint, another in rural Saskatchewan replacing our battery, and finally, the timing belt giving out and the engine dying completely 30 minutes from home.

You would think that might discourage anyone from trying anything like that again!  But for all the struggle, I was enchanted with the experience of exploring this vast piece of land that is my country, and I knew I would do it again.

And I did.  When my first book was published, we got a little RV and did a book tour that took us all over Western Canada, with the farthest point in Winnipeg, Manitoba.  That’s just under 2000 km from where I live, and we were gone for a month.  I didn’t do all the driving, but I did my share.

Just this past year, we saved up and took a month-long vacation, to drive from BC to Cape Breton Island.  And I had the time of my life!  We saw historical monuments, ate some great food, and saw amazing landmarks and beautiful sites, like the tidal bore of Truro, New Brunswick, the red dune beaches of P.E.I., and Niagara Falls.  We saw the Terry Fox Memorial and toured the edges of Parliament.  We saw the cannons at Niagara Falls Park, Louisville, and the Citadel.

Everyone has to do things in their own time, like a flower blooming, and fear is relative for everyone.  But in retrospect I wonder why I waited so long.  I have done more travelling in the eight years since I got my first driver’s license than most people will do in a lifetime.  And I have never felt so free as when I’m behind the wheel with a prairie sunset in the rearview mirror and the Big Sky before me as far as the eye can see.


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