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  • Writer's pictureWilliam I. Atkinson

The Mindful Driver

Updated: Jan 31, 2021

‘Americans are always moving on,’ says Steven Vincent Benét in his poem Western Star. As a Canadian, I construe ‘America’ as North America, since people on both sides of the border pull up stakes at the slightest provocation. I’m no poster child; countless others are more peripatetic than I – military families, for instance. But so far I’ve been a citizen of Seattle and Spokane, WA; Hamilton, Ancaster, Ottawa, and Cumberland, ON; Vancouver and North Vancouver, BC; Toronto CU (Centre of the Universe); and most recently Calgary and Edmonton, AB – 21 addresses in all. And in each of these places, since I turned 16, I have driven a car. So even when I’ve stayed put, I’ve kept moving on.

‘My love is grey,’ wrote poet Martin Berzins, and he didn’t mean he dated seniors. His lady was the open road and he makes an excellent case for it, to which I too subscribe. Apart from the miles my family logs for practical reasons, groceries and outings and vacations and commutes, there are times I simply hop into one of our two machines and, without changing addresses, move on. “Poets have written of pleasures innumerable,” says Horatio Hornblower, C.S. Forester’s immortal sailor: “wine and women, reading and gardens. Odd that none has ever extolled the joy of walking a quarterdeck.” Or of driving for that matter: for its own sake, for the love of it. Driving not to change addresses, but just to move.

We have our motives and justifications, we pleasure drivers. For one thing, we are counselled to be mindful, lest the minutiae of life – that is, nearly all of it – slip away unnoticed. The sass of a magpie in a nearby tree. The glow of dawn. The way cream swirls in coffee. The air that fills our lungs when we breathe; a bite of pie; the smell of fresh laundry, the shine of a floor. That special smile your spouse gives you, and the way of a man with a maid. Every mindful instant makes you calm and still and thankful, whether you sense something for the first time or the Nth. Look, winter sunshine. Look, an eagle up high. O taste and see.

I get that mindfulness when I’m driving. The firm arc of my steering wheel; my leather seat, as welcoming and comfortable as my morning routine; my neighbourhood flowing by me faster than when I walk, bike, or run. And sensed indirectly-intellectually as a science writer, the functioning of all parts and systems in my car. Oil splashing from the drip pan, computer injecting its optimum ratio of fuel and air, the hum of my underappreciated long-suffering tires, electrical circuits that are my vehicle’s nervous system: my cars are as miraculous as my body.

A large part of my driving pleasure comes from the age of my cars. My Toyota convertible was made in Kentucky in 2004, my Hyundai SUV in Korea in 2009. I maintain both machines scrupulously; neither shows signs of wearing out, and their near-antiquity liberates me. They’re neither so old they’re classic, nor so new that they retain a money smell; they’re just like me – they’ve been younger, sure, but have now settled into happy dependability. My machines and I are wellderly. We rub along comfortably, like cherished old shoes. We work.

I have a friend who drives a gleaming new Porsche 911. He adores it, but he can’t enjoy it. He won’t take gravel roads, because a recent stone chip cost him $3000. If he saw an imminent collision, he’d leap from his driver’s seat and interpose his body between a hurtling dump truck and his beloved car.

I don’t have that problem: I own my cars, they don’t own me. My SUV like Coriolanus has some wounds about it; but it bears its scars with pride, as a handsome woman does her smile lines and silver hair. My car’s scrapes speak with eloquent silence of battles won and lost; of worldly wisdom born of experience. I’ve sanded them down and spray-painted them, but the evidence is there if you choose to look.

Not that my oldsters are beaters; far from it. I keep them meticulously. They pass every inspection for emission standards and mechanical fitness; snow tires go on in November and all-weather radials in April, and no tread ever falls below a recommended minimum. All tires have their own wheels to minimize manipulative trauma, also known as bead-breaking. Neither vehicle has a spot of rust inside or out; and oh yes, they’re both paid for. So when I drive, I drive safely. If you don’t peer too closely, both cars look new; I keep them clean and drive with pride.

That pride is inward, a quiet knowledge that I haven’t mortgaged my soul for my wheels and yet they serve me well. The SUV sets me up high, with great visibility and the knowledge that there’s no long trunk behind me when I park. (The fender scrapes come from concrete pillars in poorly lit, badly designed parking garages.) The convertible has even greater visibility. I lower its top on bright winter days; it’s cold but the heater roars, I wear gloves and a tuque, and the seat warmer sautée my buns. Bus drivers smile and pedestrians take videos of me when I breeze by. Women wave and whistle.

And oh, the fun of it. Blending in; flowing with the traffic so smoothly that I hardly touch the brakes. Looking so far ahead that I see slowdowns before they arrive. Knowing when that painfully loud, painfully coloured muscle car is about to jink lanes. Sensing cars on every side, and every dial and gauge, without consciously seeing them. It’s bliss.

In addition, both cars are solid. The SUV seems not to have been assembled so much as milled out of a single iron ingot. It has a little in-line four-banger, which when I lived back East was sluggish; it was good on gas but hardly frisky. Then I moved West. Now when the nights are long and the air is dense with oxygen, the thing’s a rocket. At minus 10 it’s a V6, at minus 20 a V8, at minus 30 a SpaceX BFR. It moves.

So does the convertible. The best descriptor for it is smooth. It has a 3.3L V6, four-wheel disc brakes, and an automatic transmission with a sport mode that lets me downshift-brake like a manual. It’s front-wheel-drive but has a lovely 55/45 weight distribution, and handles beautifully on blacktop, sand, and snow. And it never surprises me, even at 150 km/h. It makes me feel like I’m in good hands.

As I do not, would not, never will with self-driving cars. Here’s a joke from sixty years ago: Airline passengers hear what they think is a captain’s announcement. ‘Welcome to the world’s first totally-automated air voyage. Computers have replaced all human pilots. Sit back, enjoy, and be assured that nothing can go wrong / GGkhgo wrong / GGkhgo wrong...’ I’m going to trust a machine to avoid pedestrians and freight trains, take me smoothly through insane rush-hour traffic, and deposit me unfrazzled and in one piece to whatever destination I have dialled in? You gotta be kidding. Machines are born to trouble as the sparks fly upward – the Boeing 737 MAX, for example. Great idea, lousy execution. Or no, that’s not accurate: lousy idea, life-threatening execution. Rushed approval, massive death toll, stonewall corporate denial. A turkey irretrievably, dynamically destabilized by absurd mods to a decades-old design, relying on uber-complex sensors and software to keep it in the air. A corporation stiffing its own engineers in favour of better-paid lobbyists and flak catchers. What could GGkhgo wrong? Even if self-driving cars one day prove as reliable as elevators, which as the lawyers say is not admitted but denied: Where’s the enjoyment? Who rides elevators for their glad surprise? Who takes a lift for fun?

Still: What of our lovely planet? Surely the unnecessary kilometres of my pleasure driving put a few more grams of carbon into the atmosphere, thus increasing global warming. Of course: but so do my furnace, lights, and stove. So do the books I buy and publish, so does the screen on which I write this. What’s the alternative? To break back humanity to a global population of two million, each with a thirty-year life expectancy? To treat COVID-19 as a planetary killer cell, laudably cleansing Earth of its human infestation? To commit collective suicide so that the Big Blue Ball can roll on unsullied by the likes of Bill Shakespeare and J.S.Bach?

Bag that. We’ve won this planet, we’re not about to hand it back to the jellyfish. Sure, there’s stuff we can do. Conserve, not waste; grow less food and waste less of what we grow; reduce meat consumption; densify yellow-zone neighbourhoods by building eight-unit walkups in place of single houses. Ban private cars from city centres, vastly increase public transit, install dedicated all-season bicycle networks, put tolls on every highway, eliminate parking spots for downtown condos. The list goes on: we know what needs doing, even if we’ve yet to get politicos with the cojones to do it. But till the Guilt Police break down my door at three AM and haul me away for using excess energy, I’ll be out being mindful in one of my rides. Beep-beep to you.

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