Is it normal to cry when you say goodbye to something that has been a part of you for 17 years? Probably so. That’s almost half of my life. I came home to Laramie, Wyoming for Thanksgiving break during my freshman year at BYU. My dad took me to Burman Motors to test drive, what would become my ticket to freedom for the next 16 years.
I didn’t know how to drive stick, but like many many things, the best way to learn is to do it. I remember practicing with my high school boyfriend in a parking lot over Christmas break. I think high school boyfriends are the best teachers for this kind of thing. They don’t have the emotional and financial investment of a parent, or the judgment of an older sibling, so everyone can just relax and laugh as you stall and grind your way to competence. I struck out on my own, the 400 miles across Wyoming and into Utah, just after New Year’s 2002.
The car was very, very basic. No power steering meant impressive forearm muscles. I immediately bought a stereo with a CD player to replace the AM/FM radio. I buzzed around Provo swapping CDs from my fat CD case: No Doubt, Maroon 5, Lisa Loeb, Alanis Morissette, Jimmy Eat World, the Offspring…music that still feels like a formative part of me. I loved driving stick. In a car that has no power steering and a manual transmission, driving is an experience. I remember crossing the beautifully desolate landscape of Southern Wyoming, with a big vanilla Coke and Pringles, listening to Dwight Yokum sing, “I’m a thousand miles from nowhere…” and it felt like home.
When I was living Provo, the Saturn suffered its first assault—being keyed across the hood as it sat in my apartment complex parking lot. I was left feeling confused and vulnerable by this senseless act of violence. I had no known enemies. How could someone be so thoughtless as to inflict this on my innocent companion? I also got rear-ended twice while living in Provo. I learned that there is an upside to those gray, unpainted bumper covers. They look pretty good even after taking a beating. With both of those accidents, I pocketed the insurance money in favor of fixing the mild cosmetic damage to my car. This covered about half of the original purchase price.
The Saturn followed me to Boise. It spent a year parked and unused while I traveled the US and Central America. It was during this time that the driver’s side view mirror cracked. I felt sorry when I saw it—like my careless abandonment had manifest in that crack. I remember feeling trapped that year. That’s when I really understood that my car meant freedom.
I drove it while I attended Boise State, taking prereqs for PA school. I REALLY learned to change a tire during this time. In one month, I had four flat tires on four different occasions. I was picking up small nails somewhere (never figured out where) and it started to feel like groundhog day after a while! It was a pain but now I’m glad I got some proficiency in tire changing.
One evening I attended a baby shower close to campus. While the Saturn was parked on the street, someone broke out the two passenger side windows to sift through the contents of my gym bag that was sitting on the front seat. I remember walking up to the car feeling confused at first and then violated. The contents of my gym bag were strewn about on the ground. The only thing missing was my SkullCandy earbuds. Again—it seemed like a senseless act of violence to break two windows for some $20 earbuds. I drove the Saturn for more than a month, in October and November, with plastic taped over the window frames.
It was during this time, I took flight from my marriage for the first time. I crossed the wintery desert of Southern Idaho with the heavy plastic trembling over the window openings. I was looking for a way out. I remember my dad and Grandpa Whipple taping up the plastic, wondering about sending their daughter out on the road with only tape and plastic separating her from the elements. Grandpa Whipple always told me what a good looking car it was, which always made me smile.
I drove the Saturn into rural Idaho in January for my clinical rotation in Garden Valley. There was about a foot of snow on the ground there. My bald tires got me stuck at least five times in my first week there. I returned to Boise on the weekend and bought four used, studded snow tires. That transformed the Saturn into a snow traction machine! I could climb the mountain roads with ease, which made it easy to love the wintery white of Garden Valley in January. Studded snow tires felt like a new kind of freedom.
I drove the Saturn to Southern Utah for another clinical rotation. I stayed with my grandparents in their park model trailer. I explored the red rock desert before sundown and watched Jeopardy with Grandpa Hurst at night. One day, Grandma Hurst asked me if I could take Grandpa to his chiropractic appointment. Grandpa wanted me to drive him in their Cadillac, but I felt nervous about driving that big car, so I insisted he ride with me in the Saturn. Grandpa grumbled a little as he folded his 6-foot frame into my front seat. Grandma laughed. “It’s good for him!” she said. Maybe he didn’t think my car was as good looking as Grandpa Whipple did!
Grandma Hurst had always warned against stopping at Juniper Rest Area because of the many news reports of busted drug deals in that location. But on my way back to Boise, just over the border from Utah into Idaho, I had to pee something fierce. I decided to risk a stop there. I jumped out of the car and ran into the bathroom. When I emerged only two minutes later, my car had vanished from the lot! I was aghast. “I can’t believe it! The one time I stop here, my car gets jacked!”
I stood on the sidewalk trying to decide what my next course of action should be, when I noticed across the parking lot, a little maroon car nestled into the wiry branches of a juniper tree. In my rush to pee, I had neglected to set the handbrake or leave the car in gear. After I jumped out, the car rolled backwards across the lot, jumped a significant rectangular curb and came to rest in the welcoming limbs of the juniper trees. I laughed out loud at myself as the adrenaline from thinking my car had been jacked worked its way through my body. I tried to act natural as I crossed the parking lot, hoping fellow rest-stoppers wouldn’t notice as I drove out of my unusual parking place. Then there was the phone call to my then-husband trying to explain what had happened without using the inflammatory combination of the words rolled and car in the same sentence….I don’t think I pulled it off very well.
The Saturn carried me across Idaho and Wyoming too many times to count. I drove the road alone between Pocatello, Idaho and Omaha, Nebraska at least three times. It’s been reliable well into old age. To me, it’s been 170k miles of freedom. It’s been a space of my own at times when I felt I had no other. It has been the constant in my last 17 years, so a piece of my heart will always be in the driver’s seat of the Saturn.
Goodbye, friend, and thank you for the ride.