This Christmas, my son decided that the best way to see his grandfather and aunt in San Diego would be to drive. This decision, which I reluctantly seconded after thinking we might take a train/bus combination, had everything to do with the fact that he (along with his parents) wants to get a driver’s license before he reaches the age of 19.
On the way down Saturday, we got as far as Bakersfield before we started talking about why I believed we would not experience ideal conditions for driving practice that day.
Part of it was the fact that it was a day when the freeways were swollen with holiday traffic, the kind that is light enough to stay moving most of the time, but heavy enough so that backups appear suddenly and often force inattentive motorists to swerve off the road to avoid rear-end collisions. Most of it was that we weren’t in a very large parking lot with no other cars or lamposts to run into.
“It’s a Catch-22 situation,” he said more than once. I was very impressed with the fact that he had actually read the novel about the absurdity of military life in World War II, and even more so that he knew just the right time to invoke its title.
“I need practice to get experience, and you say I can’t practice because I’m so inexperienced,” he noted as I pulled out of a gas station where I-5 begins to climb into the Tehachapis. So I pulled over, switched seats with him, grasped the emergency break with one hand, the panic handle with the other and we began weaving into the mountains.
In about 40 minutes, he got nervous and we decided that that was sufficent practice for the day. The shadows were growing longer and we were heading into Santa Clarita and the beginnings of Los Angeles traffic, which was all I expected and then some.
So I got to drive the seven hours and 20 minutes, and he got to drive the rest of the trip.
On the way back, Christmas Day, the traffic was subdued and my young apprentice was eager to get back into the saddle. He drove from San Diego all the way to San Clemente, about an hour. I drove the worst part of the trip, through Orange and Los Angeles counties, and right across the freeway from where he convinced me to let him drive, he took the wheel again.
This time, he drove over 200 miles, to about the same latitude as Fresno on I-5. Along the way, he learned the joy of cruise control and the concept that steering at 70 mph is a subtle thing, like Midwestern humor. He also learned just how important that second look over the shoulder is when changing lanes. Some arrogant driver had sped up to block his lane change, and he was able to swerve back into the right lane and retain control of our Toyota Matrix.
While the incident was certainly frightening, I felt he had passed one of the worst tests a driver can be put through. It’s difficult to gauge how valuable that will be to his future driving.
I’ve always told him that driving a car is roughly equivalent to taking a gun to a public square, aiming for the spaces between people and firing repeatedly. If you’re good at it, you’ll only damage inanimate objects when you miss.
As he prepared for his driving test, I’ve wondered if I hadn’t instilled too much fear into him about driving, such that it paralyzed him from making the quick decisions required of everyday vehicular navigation.
After this trip, I have the sense he’s found a balance, with the daring to mix it up with the everyday creeps we all have to contend with while retaining a healthy fear of the dangers of the road.
As we rolled through the San Joaquin Valley, I found myself calmly reading a map, answering his questions about how far we’d gone and how long the entire Central Valley was. I wasn’t clutching anything or constantly looking over my shoulder every time he changed lanes.
As he told me, “I’d rather NOT drive,” but barring other choices of transportation, he seems ready for the new year and his new life outside the nest.