Shedding the Colorado 'Uniform' and Going Car-Free
If you live in the densest areas of New York City as I do and you own a car, it says you must have a damn good reason to fork over cash for parking, insurance, maintenance, gasoline, vehicle registration and possibly even car payments.
I don't, now that I live in the Big City.
So, for the first time since I got my driver's license in 1994, we sold our car and I'm totally car-free. I gave New York State back its shiny orange and navy blue license plates today, and you know what? Good riddance.
Take that, BP, Shell and Exxon. I don't have to buy your gasoline anymore.
Here ends my romance with cars, a rebuke of the notion that cars equal freedom. When the subway grinds to halt in New York City, my bike gives me the freedom I need.
I don't need four wheels and an internal combustion engine to feel like a full-blooded, freedom-loving American. But I used to.
The day after I graduated from college in 2001, a moment of epiphany came while driving west into the sunset on Interstate 10 in Mississippi. Tracy Chapman's "Telling Stories" was on the radio, and I realized that, except for the dreaded student loans I'm still paying back today, I owed nothing to anyone, and I could really do anything and go anywhere I wanted. I was plying the pavement west to my summer wilderness guiding job in Colorado, driving my blue 1995 manual-transmission Toyota Corolla, and it was one of the happiest, moments of my life.
I permanently left my hometown behind. I had no permanent job lined up. I had no plans beyond getting paid to spend a few weeks in the wilderness. My car was my ticket there.
Late that summer, I moved to New Mexico, where over the next three years, I drove 122,000 miles roaming the Land of Enchantment's highways, exploring every corner of the state and plenty of corners of the surrounding states, too.
Later, when I moved to Colorado to work as a newspaper reporter, having a car was a requirement of the job. During the 12 years I lived out West, I drove more than 400,000 miles exploring and, as a journalist, covering wildfires, coal mine disasters, fracking, endangered species conflicts, murders, suicides and oil spills.
You don't have to live in Colorado long to recognize that part of the official Colorado uniform in addition to a bottle of Odell IPA and pairs of skis and hiking boots is a Subaru Outback. The ubiquitous Outback (in Colorado, anyway) is among the most versatile of vehicles, as adept at sitting in a traffic jam on I-25 in Denver as it is negotiating snowy highways, unpaved two-tracks through the desert and winding mountain roads.
I finally succumbed to the allure of the Outback in June 2013, trading in my third Corolla for a fantastic blue manual-transmission 2006 Outback. It was a little frumpy, maybe, but I really loved that car. The day I put Colorado plates on it, I immediately took it to the mountains and spent a weekend exploring back roads in the first all-wheel drive car I've ever owned.
Just as I returned to Fort Collins from that rip, I got a job offer in New York. So we moved, but we started out as wimps, eschewing the car-unfriendly Big City for the distant 'burbs where we had easy car access to hiking trails in the Appalachians, Catskills and Adirondacks. The four-hour daily roundtrip train commute to SoHo grew old fast, though, so last January we decamped for Manhattan where owning a car was neither necessary nor affordable.
Jacob, who had his own Outback, sold his car, and we became a one-car household, using my Subaru for occasional trips to the mountains and our big Nova Scotia odyssey in September.
But there were periods of three weeks or more when the car sat undriven. I'd go down to the parking garage and, on more than one occasion, found the battery was dead. We were paying $100 each month to park a car that wasn't used. And the valets who took over the parking garage during an 18-month renovation don't know how to drive stick very well, so my Subie had to go.
And I'm glad it's gone. When we want to go to the mountains, we'll rent a car if we need to. If we want to hike in the Hudson Highlands, we'll take the train. If we really, really need a car to transport two vomiting cats to the vet, Zipcar will come to the rescue. End of story.
The idea that my identity has been tied to what kind of car I drive, and that I need a three-ton hunk of aluminum, steel, cheap plastic and rubber to feel like a full member of society is silly, wasteful, and frankly, a little arrogant, considering that most roads are built primarily for this lone gasoline-dependent mode of transportation. Many of us are realizing now that other modes such as cycling, walking and mass transit are preferable to driving a private car in many cases and a hell of a lot healthier.
As a cyclist, those ribbons of asphalt and concrete belong to me just as much as they belong to people who drive cars.
I'm happy I'm no longer as much a part of the driving culture that pays too little mind to me when I'm biking on the streets of Manhattan, Fort Collins or rural upstate New York. I'm a cyclist and pedestrian, and these are my roads, too, dammit. My righteous indignation at the idiot parked in the bike lane or the asshole who crashes into my bike as he's making a hurried left turn feels all the more authentic now that I don't own a car.
Maybe it sounds like I'm feeling a little superior to all the drivers of America. I am. Guilty as charged. It feels good. I found a way to eschew that most American of all things — car ownership. I challenge you to do it, too. The planet might even depend on it.
If you can't, I understand. You might live in Texas, where the state says the climate isn't changing and transit and train travel (I tried Amtrak in Texas recently; it's not fun) are anathema and often unusable. Or maybe you can't walk very well, or you really don't feel safe on a bike. Maybe you just got a promotion and you've just made an offer on that five-bedroom mansion in the Hamptons and your HOA demands you drive an Audi or a Maserati so property values don't dip too low. Or maybe you're addicted to driving that five-speed Impreza, and tearing up Route 6 in Westchester really gets you going. Or you might live in Colorado, where to feel like you're not taking up too much space, you're obligated to buy a ski pass and haul your friends over Vail Pass to the slopes in your Outback or XTerra. Or, maybe your yurt is off the grid in Catron County, N.M., where your only route to civilization and other human contact is a tank of gasoline and a rutted two-track across the desert.
Fine. I get it.
But if you see me biking down your lonely stretch of highway, slow down, wave hello and give me my three feet of space. Or if you pass me in the Big City as I descend into a subway station, I'll say hello as you go by and smile because the next time I need a pit stop, I won't have to give Exxon any of my money.