Thursday, November 18, 2010

Road Tripping

People thought I was crazy when I said I was driving to Mexico, but I've always had a comfort level behind the wheel of a car. There's something about having a full tank of gas, a credit card, and an open road that makes me feel both free and secure.

I learned to drive in London … in a stick-shift. There was a job I really wanted at Shepperton film studios, which were outside of town and no public transportation ran there. "No problem," I lied at the interview, "I have a car." I had two weeks before the job started so I went to a driving school and booked ten lessons. When I told the Jamaican instructor that he'd better teach me well because I wanted to take my test at the end of those lessons, he laughed good-naturedly and said the 1974 version of, "Yeah, right."
Nobody I knew had a car so I didn't have opportunity to practice between lessons. But I had the strangest experience. Every night I dreamed I was driving: not just moving in a car but actually steering and changing gears. I took the test at the end of two weeks and aced it; much to the shock of my instructor.
The first time I ever drove by myself was when I drove the ancient wreck I bought at a South London dealership home to Notting Hill Gate, negotiating the formidable Marble Arch traffic circle like a pro. The second time I drove alone was my first day at my new job. Don't I wish I had that kind of youthful chutzpah today!

Still, I always figured if I could drive London I could drive anywhere and road trips have been significant in my life. When I was offered the opportunity to move to California, I took a road trip around England with the idea that by the time I'd circled back to London I'd have made up my mind. England was experiencing an unusual Indian summer and was at its most beautiful. I distinctly remember sitting on a cliff-top in Cornwall – one of my favorite places – my back against a warm rock, waves crashing below, and rabbits gamboling in the grass. It'll be hard, I thought, but it's time for change.

I'll admit that driving in California for the first time was nerve-wracking. It was a huge pick-up truck, my first automatic, my first time on the other side of the road, and I was driving on the 405 freeway in rush hour. As I felt my way along in the slow lane, trucks honked at me and my cowboy-hatted passenger, whose truck I was driving, screamed instructions at me. (Yeah, he didn't last long.) But by the time I bought my 1974 MGB convertible in British racing green, I was totally at home zipping around Los Angeles.

Other memorable road trips involved driving a lake-like rutted road in the Costa Rican rainforest, and taking my then 80-year-old mother on her first trip around Ireland, where her father was from. When a friend died way too young, an early victim of AIDS, I tried to out-drive my grief. I got in my car with no destination in mind and when I came to my senses I was just outside of San Francisco. I slept in my car in a turn-out and drove home again in the morning.

As I was contemplating moving to Mexico, I took another road trip, this time up the coast of California. I love central Cali with its sensuous, golden hills and wide beaches. I stayed overnight at Pismo Beach, ate clams, and watched surfers. I got as far as Cambria before turning back. But before I did, I sat on gorgeous Moonstone Beach, and in a scene reminiscent of my experience in Cornwall thought, it'll be hard, but it's time for change.

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