On the Road
I was haunted by a recurring nightmare as a child. It didn’t come out of nowhere. My parents had very little money when my brother and I were very young, and as a result, we made our way around town in a beat-up, coppery-brown hatchback of make and model I cannot recall, but suffice it to say, it was a piece of junk.
One day, my mother needed to either pick something up or drop something off at my aunt’s house, so she left me and my brother in the car parked in the driveway out front while she made a quick run up to the front door. Apparently the emergency break in this old junker wasn’t up to snuff, because as we sat there in the car, it began to roll slowly — almost imperceptibly — backwards. And then it started to pick up a little speed. And then we started to scream.
Our mom caught the car in time and everything was fine — she had just been a few feet away on the front porch. But evidently that experience stuck with me. For the next 10 years, give or take, I had the same nightmare every couple of months: my brother and I were in the parked car waiting for our mother, when the car began to roll backward. But the laws of physics do not apply in the dream world, and instead of just rolling backward into the street and eventually coming to a stop, the car instead rolled forward down the street, picking up speed as it went. And then it rolled onto the highway of its own volition. And then it was speeding through six lanes of traffic, and the only option was for me — ranging, over the years I had the dream, from ages 3 to 13 — to take control and drive it. Luckily, I always woke up shortly before we crashed.
The dreams eventually stopped, but when age 15 rolled around, I wasn’t quite as excited as other kids my age to get my learner’s permit. In fact, I wasn’t excited at all. I was terrified. I had been driving cars since I was 12, in situations of varying legality, because that’s what people do in the country, and I loved it. But getting out on the suburban streets and highways of my hometown — away from the country dirt roads we would drive on as kids when visiting family — was a different thing altogether. It was too similar to the nightmares. And after a few halfhearted lessons in the school parking lot, I decided I just wasn’t going to do it.
Not being able to drive as an adult was unheard of in Texas at the time. Getting around in rural Texas without a car as an adult wasn’t an option. My family did all they could to explain this to me, as I dug my heels in deeper and deeper about not learning to drive, but I told them it was fine — after graduation, I was going to move to New York, so it wouldn’t be a problem. They would stare back at me in disbelief. And what if you don’t make it to New York? What are you going to do then? Not a problem, because not making it to New York was not an option, so everything was going to be fine.
And you know what? It was. I made it to New York. And after New York, I moved to Incheon, and then to Seoul, and so far I have made it through 37 years of my life without needing to know how to drive.
But now the party is over, and it’s time to face the music. If I want to move back home, I’m going to have to learn how to drive. I’ve put it off for almost as long as I can, but two weeks ago I took myself (on a series of buses, of course) to the outskirts of the city limits and signed myself up for a driving program. Sat through three hours of education, the contents of which I couldn’t elaborate upon for longer than three minutes, at the most, and yesterday, took another series of buses to the DMV to complete the first two of four total exams — a physical one, and a written one. I passed both.
A couple months back, I tried my hand at making kolaches for the first time. If you aren’t from Texas, the American Midwest, or a family with Czech heritage, you probably don’t know what kolaches are, and if that’s the case you have my deepest sympathies. They are buttery little pillows of brioche-like bread with a little well in the center for cream cheese and jam. Texas is also home to a unique variety that involves cheddar, jalapeños and sausages, and for one of those, I would have to think hard on any given day about whether or not I’d be willing to give up a finger or a toe.
I don’t know a single Texan who doesn’t share this one unifying memory of road trips through Texas as a child. No matter where you were from, or where you were going, if you were crossing through — or anywhere near — central Texas, you were stopping at the Czech Stop to eat kolaches. They’re just one of those nostalgic road trip staples for a Texan, like motel lobby coffee, chain diner breakfast and gas station snacks. And I have had road trips on the mind.
I love my dog, but I knew when I got him, it was going to be a choice between him and travel. Before him, I left the country at least twice a year for weeks at a time, and also did a fair amount of traveling within the country, but I haven’t been able to tear myself away from him to travel like that for the past six years. He’s the priority, and I’d rather not leave him more often than I have to. But damned if I haven’t missed it.
After spending almost a decade and a half in a country that is one fifth the size of my home state, hemmed in by water on three sides and the most infamously uncrossable border in the world on the fourth, I have developed a healthy appreciation for just how much I took the American road trip for granted when I had it available to me. There aren’t many places in the world where you can travel through so many different landscapes, cultures and climates without crossing a single national border. And the fact that I can bring my dog with me just makes it that much sweeter. I’ve been daydreaming a lot about road trips to get myself ramped up enough to get this whole driver’s license process going, despite my fears. I can’t wait to be back where I can decide on a whim that I feel like a change of scenery and — without booking a flight, a hotel or a dog sitter — I can just jump in the car and go.
Coming back home from the DMV on the bus yesterday, I messaged my brother to tell him I had passed. Throughout the studying process, I had been sending him photos of sample questions that were doing my head in. What is the fine for a 4.5 ton truck that exceeds the speed limit by 30 km/h in a school zone at 8:30pm on a weekday? Fuck if I know, and why should I?
My brother was up later than he should have been, worrying over his flight to Incheon — to here — the next (this) morning. He’s been put in charge of a group of reserve sailors who are arriving here for something or another. I don’t speak military. His flight just landed a few hours ago, although I can’t be sure when (or if, for sure) I will get to see him. It’s been three and a half years.
I told him not to worry too much if we don’t end up getting the chance to meet during his time here. In a few months, I’ll be back home and we can see each other whenever we want. We won’t have to grab at a few hours, a few days, here and there in between years apart. Won’t have to make do with phone calls on holidays and birthdays. All I will have to do is load the dog and a few changes of clothes into the car, and drive.
Sitting on the bus yesterday with my driver’s license application form marked “pass” in the first two slots in my bag, I couldn’t help but smile to myself. And then it went from a smile to a full-on grin. I’m almost there. Not quite — a lot more hills to climb before I make it. But I’m getting closer every day.