Queen of the road

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My little car, just after I bought it

 

On a sunny September afternoon last year, I was lying in my bed. I was mildly drunk, having been dragged out for daytime Bloody Marys by my very caring housemate. I was crying. My face was all puffed up and I was getting dehydrated and developing a bad headache.

I had just been dumped. It was a heartbreak that I would take months to get over.

Aimlessly scrolling through Facebook, trying to find some innocent video that would make me smile, I came across a post from a friend who was soon to move to Europe. She needed somebody to buy her car. It was a tiny black 3-door bubble, automatic and hadn’t done an absurd number of kilometres. I sent her a message right away.

A few weeks later, the car was mine.

It had been many years since I had driven regularly, so it was up to me to get used to driving again, and in the narrow streets of Glebe. But every chance I got, I took my new vehicle out for a spin. We drove over all the big bridges, through all the long tunnels, along the most stunning coastlines you’ll ever find (I’m quite fond of Sydney’s beaches), out to the sprawling suburbs and even to the fancy carwash near the airport. In the last few months I’ve been north to Tamworth and south to Jervis Bay, and am always planning the next lovely place to drive to.

In my car, nobody could bother me. I could play what I liked on the radio, talk to myself, get drive-through comfort food, and even cry if I needed to (which I did need to, quite often). The simple rhythms of accelerating, braking, turning and looking ahead were soothing, even more so if I had a nice long stretch of road in front of me. Buying the car was the best medicine I could have found.

A lot of people hate long drives, but I’ve always loved them. I remember another ill-fated romance from many years ago, that included a trip to Cairns. We hired a car and I did all the driving (he was not from Australia and not used to driving on the left) to and from the Daintree rainforest, along the most beautiful road I’d ever seen: lush shades of green on one side, sparkling ocean on the other, and the dizzying, hazy blue sky above. To this day, I don’t remember much of the tense conversations we had in the car, but I do remember the scenery and how much I enjoyed it.

Growing up in regional Australia, nobody really had a choice about driving. As soon as I was 16, my father’s best friend decided to give me lessons, as he had taught both his daughters and they had both passed their tests on the first go. I started off in a manual but went back to auto pretty quickly (something I’m still embarrassed about), but a few months later I did pass the test. From then until I moved overseas, I was allowed to use my family’s spare car to drive myself and my friends around: picking siblings up from school, running errands for my parents, going on beach trips to Newcastle and being the “deso driver” after parties. I was the last one of my friends to get my licence (I was the youngest) but it was so satisfying to have it in the end. Independence! The vineyards and bushlands of the Hunter Valley remain some of my favourite places to visit – by car.

My hometown of Cessnock is not connected to the train line to Newcastle. There is still a bus service to Maitland (30 minutes away) a few times a day, and one that will come to get you from the train station at Morisset (if you want to come from Sydney), but only if you are there very early in the morning or late in the afternoon. I think there are about 10 taxis in the whole town. This is pretty typical for regional Australia, and even most places in the suburbs. If you can’t drive, or get driven, you’ll be doing a lot of waiting around.

So that’s why I find it peculiar that a lot of my inner-city friends have never been at the wheel of a car. It’s not a big deal if you don’t know how to drive – but why wouldn’t you want to? I can’t imagine a better way to cheer up then meandering around a windy coastal road, seeing the sunlight reflected off the sea in the distance, or along a country highway punctuated by tiny service stations and little weatherboard houses.

This isn’t meant to encourage anyone to drive more than they need to – we’ve done enough damage to the climate. But the simple pleasure of driving has helped me out of many an emotional bind, and I look forward to clocking up many more kilometres in the years ahead.