Extra Pulp: Life Is a Highway

A teen, a driver’s license and a reliable car

David Vallejo

I recently read an article in The Atlantic about how fewer teens are driving. Only 25 percent of 16-year-olds have a driver’s license, when in 1983, almost half did. Teens today are content staying home and interacting with friends virtually through video games, FaceTime and social media. When I was a teenager, I was bursting at the seams to get out of the house and go.

I had no doubt I would get my driver’s license at 16. As soon as I turned 15, I  applied for my learner’s permit, taking a test I had studied for dutifully for months. My dad took me out on Sundays for driving lessons on the freshly paved roads of subdivisions under construction. Once I glided around the cul-de-sacs with ease, we moved on to my empty high school parking lot for parallel parking (without sensors or backup cameras, thank you very much!). We practiced in my dad’s 1987 blue Jeep Cherokee that would become mine on my 16th birthday. The eight-year-old Jeep already had well over 100,000 miles on it with no automatic locks or windows. My dad was buying a friend’s gently used Nissan Maxima that seemed ultra-glamorous by comparison with its sunroof, keyless entry and lingering new-car smell.

After our Sunday driving lessons, Dad and I went to a local diner for a chocolate sundae with two spoons. At first it was awkward being out with just my dad. We were rarely together without my brother or my mom, and I wasn’t sure what a teenage daughter should talk to her father about. But week after week, our conversations grew easier (and to this day, I call him often just to chat).

The morning of my 16th birthday, I failed my driving test. I ran a stop sign, but in my defense, it was blocked by a large utility van parked at the intersection. Embarrassed, I checked into school late admitting to my chemistry classmates I would not be driving myself home from school. Seeing my disappointment and determination, my mom took me to the DMV the next day to try again. I passed.

Driving that Jeep to school was glorious, even if it meant taking my always-tardy little brother along with me. I picked up my best friend on the way and played mixed cassette tapes compiled from CDs at home. We sang along to Phish, 311, Live and Dave Matthews Band, and when I needed girl time, I turned to Jewel, Indigo Girls and Alanis Morissette. Some days after school, my mom let me drive just down the highway to the mall. I only crossed the boundary she set for me once. I drove 20 miles out of the way to get a chocolate-covered glazed doughnut from Krispy Kreme.

In the age before cell phones, we high schoolers met up at the Subway parking lot. We never ordered sandwiches; we just went to find out where the party was going to be. In the days before we could look up a crush on Facebook, we drove by their houses, our tender teenage hearts fluttering if they happened to be outside.

As I got more comfortable behind the wheel, my parents expanded my radius. I took a job at the J.Crew outlet 20 miles away and worked at my dad’s office 30 miles in the other direction. I drove to the beach for Spring Break, manually cranking down the windows, my hair blowing in the salty breeze. I kissed a few boys in that Jeep and smoked a few cigarettes, burning a hole in the cloth ceiling. Another friend drank too much Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill and threw up in the passenger door pocket all over the owner’s manual. But mostly, I was a good and responsible teenager who wanted to make my parents proud.

When my brother turned 16 a few years later, he inherited the Jeep and its new flaws. As I moved on to a newer car, Will made his own memories in our Jeep, driving 5,500 miles to Portland, Oregon, and back before going off to college.

The Jeep was our passport to freedom. Like a good friend, it helped us find our way. We may have gotten off track a few times, but it always got us home again.

My kids are years away from driving—thank goodness—so I have plenty of time to worry about curfews and car insurance. But when they do turn 16, I want them to get their driver’s license. I hope by then they’ll have a strong internal compass and a good old reliable car.

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