Ten minutes into my first solo trip as a licensed driver, I got stuck in a parking lot. I had chosen a spot in the corner that was open only because everyone else knew better than to try it, a fact I discovered when I started to back out and realized that there were cars where mine needed to be. I hyperventilated for a couple minutes and then executed a sort of fifteen-point turn while the other suburbanites who needed to visit the Wells Fargo before it closed at five honked at me. The wind, needless to say, was not in my hair.
It was a rude but ultimately apt introduction to the reality of driving. Parking would prove to be my Achilles’ heel. My ‘98 Honda Accord, a hand-me-down from my father, bore the scars of my unusually bad depth perception. The scrape on my driver’s-side door is from the basement garage in my apartment building in Arlington, Virginia, where I lived — along with an army of GW postgrads in salmon shorts — for two years. I retired from driving shortly after I scraped my car against one of the dozens of poles that, I swear to God, popped up in the garage like Whack-a-Mole. You’d be backing your car out, certain of clearance on every side, when BAM! There goes your paint job.
One of the rites of passage at my urban high school was to sneak off campus for lunch. It was the height of glamour to throw out your Port of Subs wrapper as ostentatiously as possible in front of the suckers on the quad eating a peanut butter sandwich that had been flattened under a history textbook since six A.M. I was, as a rule, one of the suckers, except the one time that I let myself be convinced to drive three of us down Charleston and through the drive-thru at Los Tacos, where my classmate splayed herself across my lap to order for us in Spanish. It was seamless — and the tacos were delicious — until we arrived back at campus and realized the fly in the ointment, which was that the only place to surreptitiously re-park your car midday was on the street at the far edge of campus.
I had passed my driving test only because I was the last candidate of the day and my examiner couldn’t be bothered to get out and check my parallel parking job. To be fair, parallel parking isn’t a skill you really need in Las Vegas, land of the warehouse-sized parking lots, unless you’re trying to pull off basically the only bad thing you’ve done in your high school career without side-swiping the choir teacher’s Honda in the process. We finally resorted to a sort of combination airport tarmac/life coach situation where one of my classmates got out and guided me into a spot while the other one sat in the passenger seat and talked me through it. It was only the woeful underfunding of Clark County School District — and its attendant lack of security around our campus — that saved us. But some twelve years later, I still haven’t successfully parallel parked a car.
And of course there was the gouge on the bumper, from a few years after high school ended, when I drove clear to the other side of town because my high school crush invited me over. I was twenty-one, and I knew better, but seventeen-year-old me couldn’t let the opportunity slide. We played a round of Scrabble and fooled around for a while and then I got in my car and made a U-turn that crossed into the path of an automatic gate’s sensor and then there was a terrible scraping noise and there went my bumper. All at once I realized how many mistakes I’d just made, and I whacked my hands on the steering wheel wondering: What kind of automatic gate opens inward? How sad of a sad sack do you have to be to go running clear across town just to prove, years on, that you could have made it with that guy from sixth period chemistry? Why, but why, did we play Scrabble?
I drove all the way from Henderson feeling like an utter fool, back to my parents’ house in Summerlin, where I made up a story about a shopping cart that went astray and swore that I’d take the whole episode to the grave. Since then, that high school crush has unfriended me on Facebook, had a baby, and gotten married — in that order — so the gouge on my bumper will have to do. (I resold the car to a friend who, had I consulted her, would surely have raised one eyebrow high enough that I’d have thought better, hung the keys back up, and stayed home alone on my couch. But then how would seventeen-year-old me have made her peace?)
It was a relief to give up driving shortly before I moved to New York. I wasn’t very good at it, and I found owning a car stressful. But I had never felt control like I did after I got my driver’s license. I think often about how as a teenager, with adulthood in plain sight, the mountains that surround the Las Vegas valley began to close in on me. Behind the wheel, I felt for the first time that I had the agency to escape them.
That sensation was never keener than when I sat in traffic on my way home from school. On days when I had too much to feel, I liked to take the surface streets home so I could wallow in the belly of the mountains and imagine what it would be like to drive beyond them. The Postal Service was on rotation in my CD player (“I want so badly to believe / That there is truth and love is real”) and for as long as I could sit in traffic I could sit alone with my feelings, with no one there to judge me or mock me or, God forbid, try to comfort me.
Learning to drive was the freest I’d felt — but it wasn’t the first I’d felt free. That came the summer I turned thirteen, the summer I spent palling around with a group of friends who I didn’t jibe with as well as I wanted to. I was still a mouthy little Poindexter who couldn’t keep it together when there was an opportunity to correct someone’s pronunciation or offer up a fact. None of us were cool but the others had figured out chill while I bumbled, stuck on desperate.
It was a humbling summer. But it was the summer that I began to understand what it was to create a life of my own. I ran out the door at ten and the day was mine, all mine, to buy candy with my allowance or spray myself with strawberry-scented glitter in the Bath and Body Works sample aisle or make a fool of myself in front of a boy. I was home again at eight, sure, but it was enough to glimpse what it would be like to live as I pleased.
It was a summer on wheels. The boys rode skateboards, and I was struck recently by a clear memory of me, on a bicycle, grinding up a hill that felt like a mountain, then sailing back down it like I was unstoppable. (A few years later — the years between thirteen and sixteen, which might as well be a lifetime — I was astonished to realize in my car that the “Great Hill” was barely a grade.)
I half wonder if I’ve conjured this memory. It seems impossible now that we could stand gripping our black rubber-coated handlebars under the August sun, like we didn’t need the skin on our palms. And I was hopelessly clumsy, and my body was just beginning to give way to the softness that I would quickly learn to hate. I can picture myself tripping after the other girls in my gang while they rode their Razor scooters up and down the sidewalks. I knew better than to let myself be seen on one of those. (Those colleagues at the software company where I work who are reading this may note that they have never seen me on one of our ubiquitous Razor scooters. To which I say: It’s enough to get you all to take me seriously once you find out I was an English major. We don’t need to complicate things with a head-over-feet-through-a-glass-conference-room-door situation.)
I can’t imagine myself, at thirteen, on a bicycle. Nor do I have a photo or even much of a memory, but what I do remember is the hill, how daunting it was on two wheels, and then how simple it felt on four. At thirteen, when it was the indignity of begging a ride from my mother or a walk in the hundred-and-ten degree Vegas heat, my bicycle felt like a pair of wings. At sixteen, when the mountains that surrounded the Las Vegas Valley closed in on me like prison walls, the wheel beneath my hands felt like power.
Fast-forward to 2018 and the jarring experience of moving abroad. I felt impotent: Simple tasks like visiting the dentist or buying pants hangers became insurmountable obstacles, and so instead I sat on the couch and wondered if pants hangers would appear in my closet if I wished hard enough. I felt trapped, keenly aware that my residence permit was tied to a job that I vacillated between loving and resenting. I felt, frankly, like a teenager. The world was at my feet but my feet wouldn’t move… until I bought a bicycle.
Buying a bicycle in Copenhagen is like getting a driver’s license in high school. You imagine that you’ll hop on the seat and all the sudden you’ll be willowy and blonde and wearing a maxidress that will flow behind you like a wave while you somehow don’t flash your unglamorous bike shorts at the whole King’s Garden as you pass, and you’ll put flowers in your basket to carry home to your monochrome apartment that isn’t full of dead succulents. I thought, similarly, that once I drove to high school, I’d roll out of my car looking like the girls who flounced down the hall every morning with car keys in one hand and a Frappuccino in the other. I’d know how to tease my hair. I’d pull off smoky eyes. (I have never pulled off smoky eyes.)
So, predictably, there I was on the sidewalk outside the bicycle shop, paddling along like a penguin. The prospect of picking both feet up off the ground and pedaling myself voluntarily into the sea of svelte blondes racing by in their monochrome best was unthinkable. I was flashing back to 1996 and the cul-de-sac where my dad pleaded with me to let him take off the training wheels. To 2005 and the empty parking lot where my dad pleaded with me to pull out into the street. To 2012, the rack of Razor scooters lining the halls of my startup-style office, and the security camera whose operators could be sweet-talked into giving up screenshots of anyone who biffed in front of them.
But what I found when I finally willed myself into the bike lane was a revelation. No, I still can’t tie a scarf around my neck so it will flow behind me in the breeze without it looking like it’s there to keep my head in place, but I can get anywhere. You can reach the hippest places in Copenhagen by bus, sure, if you want to wait for one to show up and then bump along through traffic while the rest of the city sails past på cykel. Or you can climb on your bicycle and sail along with them. In minutes you’re out of the cloying, candy-colored tourist center, laying in the grass outside a converted warehouse with a glass of natural wine in hand, or pulling off your shoes to wade into the sea. I rode up and down the coast and underneath the planes landing at Amager. I clanked along the cobblestones until my teeth rattled. I weaved around tourists and flicked my bell like a truck driver laying on the horn on the highway. I felt that the world was my oyster again.
On wheels I feel like a cyborg. I am myself, but more capable. I can go where I could before but faster, on my own terms, on my own timeline. I am no longer standing shoulder to shoulder with every other twentysomething in Astoria on an N train that stopped halfway to Queensboro Plaza twenty minutes ago, or pondering the physics of air travel in a fiberglass tube that’s hurtling through the sky like a speedboat. I control my own destiny. I’m not carsick or airsick or cursing my mother for setting the cruise control two miles below the speed limit. I’m not stuck behind a tourist taking photos with their iPad. I’m not waiting, perpetually, until the icebergs melt and the mountains erode, for the G train.
At thirteen, at sixteen, and at 29 all I wanted was freedom. A vehicle is not a panacea. I got my driver’s license and I still couldn’t get myself out of a parking lot. I can’t ride my Danish bicycle to Williamsburg to meet my girlfriends for karaoke on Friday night. I could write a letter as lovelorn as this one to the subway, and I could live happily without owning a car again in my lifetime, but it’s the principle of the thing and what it gave me at sixteen when the world was closing in around me. Freedom, to me, is to know that I can get up and go. Wheels are what I need to do it.
Welcome back to wheel life. I’ve been fortunate in only being without a bike for very brief periods in my life (I didn’t a car until I was past 30). Now I’m 60 and I still find it a magic carpet. Ride on.