ALBUQUERQUE. Standing at Wyoming and Lomas, breathing the exhaust of nine lanes of traffic, I wait for the #33 bus to take me another 1 ½ miles to Menaul. I began this trip with an open mind, but have since come to the conclusion that traveling by city bus sucks. I even have a friend here in the city who offered to drive me around. But I am stubborn. I want to see how it works, what it takes to travel this way, and whether I could live in – or even visit – a big city without a car.
The first leg of my journey was ok. I walked four blocks to Central and only had to wait a few moments for an eastbound bus. But when I got off at Wyoming I realized I’d just missed the #33 northbound, by, like, two minutes. The next bus was not due for almost an hour. Wyoming and Central is a sketchy neighborhood, so I decided to walk it, not wanting to wait on the corner. The neighborhood only got worse as I went north. Sidewalks exist, but I am the only one out walking. There are vacant auto parts shops, bars on the windows, all the buildings are for sale. Tons of traffic going by, but no people. Cars aren’t people.
One guy rides a bicycle. Nearby, a white-painted ghost-bicycle is propped up on the concrete median, showing where some other rider had a fatal collision. On the opposite side of the road, more auto parts, a tire warehouse, a used car lot, then a place selling recreational vehicles. At this point I am ready to run the traffic gauntlet, max out my credit cards, and buy myself a car or an RV, so I can escape. No wonder everybody drives. Being out here in this is hell. I hate it because it’s all about cars, and to fix it I will buy a car.
I resist the impulse, and keep walking. Now I am at another bus stop, across from a Chrysler/Jeep/Dodge/Ram dealership, with a Ford dealership on the other corner; all with high fences, spikes on the top. The brand-new cars glitter in the sunshine. Interstate 40 is not far off. I could walk the rest of the way, really, it’s only 1 ½ miles, the same distance I just walked from Central. But curb trip hazards, intersection crossings, heavy traffic… I might not make it. And the air inside a bus is cleaner than what I’m breathing out here.
WEST TEXAS. Two days later.
I managed to borrow a car from some friends, and am excited to hit the road. It’s been a long time since I’ve done this: my last road trip was in 1999. There’s been plenty of driving since then, but always on a deadline, and with a destination in mind. Recreational driving: it’s so self-indulgent… sinful, even, in this era of pipelines and air pollution, climate change, crimes against humanity for the sake of oil. In fact, to make myself feel better, last month I called my financial advisor and asked him to divest my tiny little retirement account of all fossil fuels: gas, oil, shale oil, fracking, pipelines, coal. It was a token gesture. I am still part of the problem. It’s how things work around here.
“Hello, my name is Cindy and I’m an oil addict. It’s been 1,629 days since I’ve owned a car, but I’ve done lots of cheating (you know, driving other peoples’ cars) in the meantime. And I’m about to go on a binge.”
But wait – this is a Road Trip! Not a Guilt Trip! I’m on vacation! Lighten up!
Like every other good American, I love driving. The call of the open road, a full gas tank, the pages of a Rand McNally fluttering in the breeze from the open window. The aroma of hot coffee when you open a Stanley thermos, a cooler full of food and beer in the back, an unknown campsite up ahead, just waiting to be found.
Driving is fun: the road flows like a river through the scenic, hilly countryside. Driving is control: you are in charge of your own destiny (or at least your destination.) Driving is freedom: you can go wherever you want, whenever you want. Driving is solitude: hear your own thoughts. Or, listen to your tunes at full blast. Driving is the thrill of speed: I walk three miles per hour but can drive eighty. That’s 26.6 times faster! Driving is aggressive: this machine has power. This machine can kill. It demands respect.
We had a grand old time on my road trip, the car and I. She was my only companion, and I talked out loud to her. I even named her. She was my shelter from the storms, and took me to places I would never have experienced otherwise. After a day or two, we got into a routine, and I found just the right place for all my gear. The tailgate was the perfect platform for the kitchen. Traveling alone, and without a working radio, I’m sure I thought many profound thoughts as I glided through the landscape.
While I was out driving around, I tried to get away from other cars, traffic noise, and all the ruined country, marred by gas and oil development. Tanks and pipes and tubes and pumps and trucks were almost everywhere. The air reeked in some places, so I drove with the windows closed. I even passed a scary warning sign: “When light is flashing, stop here – poisonous gas!”
I did discover a few quiet places, where the night sky was dark and starry, and the air was clean. I loved them deeply, as only something that is endangered can be loved. When I got there, I parked the car and walked into the wilderness.
BACK HOME. After the vacation.
I burned about 102 gallons of gas on my road trip, which works out to a just under a metric ton of CO₂. Inspired by my friends Doug & Martha, I bought carbon offsets to help compensate for the impact of my trip. There are many carbon offset programs out there. I decided to support the Nature Conservancy, whose work protected some the of areas I enjoyed in West Texas. I bought a one metric ton offset, for $15. I hope the Conservancy will use it to plant some trees.
That may have been my last road trip. It conjured a nostalgia for the old days, the old ways of traveling, from back in the 1980s and 90s. In spite of the challenges, it was charming, and I enjoyed it. These days, though, driving a car… it seems to show a lack creativity. For my next vacation, I think I will walk, take a bicycle, ski, ride a horse, paddle or row a boat, or go sailing.