During my last year of college, my father offered me his old car. Coming from a generation of kids from one-car families who rode the bus to school, I was ecstatic to have a vehicle of my own. The car, a sun-bleached green Buick with neither power steering nor power brakes, had more than 100,000 miles on it and drove like a tank or so I imagined. I quickly learned what I couldn't do with it: parallel park, merge into fast-moving traffic, or turn left at intersections unless no oncoming cars were in sight.
The old Buick met my needs, though. It made the five-hour drive to the state university and got me around town. Battered, awkward to maneuver, and distinctly lacking in style, it was the appropriate car for an unemployed young woman with no money. Reminiscing about that car, I now see it, along with each of my subsequent vehicles, as a mirror of sorts reflecting my own evolution as I've traveled through life.
Along with my first job came my first real car: a used Plymouth Barracuda with a sloped back window and the gears arranged in neat little buttons to the left of the steering wheel. On my first-year teacher's salary, I couldn't afford the $2,000 asking price, but my father came to the rescue again.
"I'll buy it," he said, "and you can pay me back a little each month when you start earning a salary." I quickly agreed. The first time I pulled out of the driveway in that car, it might as well have been a Jaguar or a coronation carriage. I felt like a queen.
The Barracuda was an early career car not as cool as a real sports car. It lacked fancy wheels and had few accessories. But it was mine and I loved it. None of my friends had ever seen a car with push-button gears. "How do you even remember they're over there?" one friend asked. I prided myself in having mastered that feature right away.
No new car was forthcoming until after marriage, when children changed my life. Any suburbanite could have predicted what that car would be: a van. My husband talked me into it. I never loved that van. It was just a big, boxy vehicle. For the next 10 years, in addition to toting assorted kids to club meetings and soccer games, it also provided enough interior space to prevent our son and daughter from destroying each other on car trips north. It served its purpose.
Then my car of cars arrived. A present from my husband was a silver Volvo. I loved it immediately. Sleek and shiny, this beauty sported plush maroon upholstery, a sun (and stars) roof, and a lengthy storage area for the skis I don't own in flat Florida.
To me, the car and its accouterments bespoke a kind of materialism that I had repeatedly disavowed. What, then, accounted for my wild enthusiasm? There I was, a woman whose favorite article of clothing was a T-shirt emblazoned with Henry David Thoreau's face, captivated by an elaborate piece of Swedish machinery.
I loved backing out of the driveway in the morning, rolling open the sunroof, and gliding down the highway with the tires gripping the road, turning precisely on a hairpin curve.
I loved the sleekness and elegance of its body, its Nordic beauty adding a bit of the exotic to the steamy heat in which it traveled daily.
No car since has elicited the sheer joy of that one. Certainly not the one I drive now: a plain, beige Camry, indistinguishable from dozens of its ilk in parking lots. It's a settled car with a bit of blandness about it. "You got a Camry?" asked a friend, who in midlife bought herself a little red sports car. "Why?"
"I don't know," I said. "It gets me where I'm going."
"So would a bicycle," she said.
I had to smile. Last Mother's Day our son bought me a forest-green bike with hybrid tires and 21 gears. "You've had the same bike for 25 years, Mom," he had said when I protested his purchase. "You don't realize how much faster you'll go and how much more you'll enjoy riding if you have an updated bike."
He was right. I had let the old bike rust in the garage for years, and only recently had taken to riding again. At some level, with the children grown, I felt drawn to simple pleasures and simple possessions. The bicycle beckoned. Our son's old bike rack fit on the Camry, and I headed toward the longest trail in the area, eager to go as far as I could.
Here is my favorite mode of transportation to date. With the wind in my face I watch the shorebirds along the route and take time to reflect and dream a little as I go. My storage space, one small bag, holds only a banana and an extra inner tube, but the sunroof is as high and wide as the sky.
Every day my trusty Camry takes me wherever responsibility calls, but the bicycle, with its wheels spinning joyfully in the sunlight, carries me where my spirit calls. I ride in quiet contentment, at peace with the world.