Driving Lessons: Shifting in the Snow

I love driving, I always have. Since I was little I remember not being able to wait for the day that I would get behind my own set of wheels and race off into freedom.

Yet my love of driving exists despite my initiation, which went a little like this:

“Dad, I really want to learn to drive the truck” (the truck was a Toyota pre-little me, a.k.a probably from the 70’s. She took cooing and caressing everyday in order to start but it only made us love her more).

“O.K. Let’s start” he said as he backed into the lower driveway.

His house had a demonic driveway. There were ditches on both sides (one with a creek) and chunky gravel that left tires spinning and hearts racing. People would come over and once they had made it up the steep gravel slip slide hill of an entrance, they would ask my Dad (or me, eventually) to back their cars out when they left. Some of my friends’ parents who were savvy to the struggle would just drop them off at the bottom of the hill and make them hike the treacherous drive.

It was the kind of hill that you have to lean forward to walk up.

Not the best way to start a play-date but hey, that’s what plates of placating cookies are for.

There were two buildings on the property: the Music Studio (that when approaching the house turned off the driveway mid-hill into a parking spot) and the House (that sat at the top of the driveway).

So, needless to say, when I asked my Dad to teach me to drive that day, I was thinking we would start somewhere a little flatter.

Nope.

I was wrong.

He parked in the lower driveway and we switched seats. I would drive the car up to the house.

Looking back as an adult, this scenario is laughable at best and an ego crusher at worst but as a kid I just figured it was feasible. If he said I could do it I should be able to. Right?

A little background:

  1. I was maybe 8 years old at the time. Even with the bench seat pulled all the way forward my little legs strained to bring my feet to the pedals (I was nicknamed Thumbelina because I was so short while my Dad’s knees were basically up to his ears as he tried to fit back into the truck).
  2. I had never driven anything other than sitting on laps and steering.
  3. The old truck was a stick-shift.
  4. We were parked in the driveway, requiring us to go uphill at a 90 degree turn in order to make it up to the House.

It was starting to feel like I had bit off more than I could chew but what did I know? I just figured that’s how one learned. Right?

Well, I sure did learn something: the clutch is a tricky thing and the gas makes you go. Oh, and seatbelts. Seatbelts are a pretty good idea.

I put the car into gear and as I took my foot off the brake we started sliding backwards towards the Studio (the driveway too was on an incline). Geez! That was an unexpected complicating treat.

“What are you doing?! You’re gonna have to give it more gas than that, kiddo, otherwise we’ll crash into the Studio”.

I started realizing that indeed, this feat was going to be harder than anticipated. My Dad’s Studio was his world and the thought of crashing into the glass doors and crushing the instruments and equipment sprang a leak of fear into my heart. I was not going to hit it. I was determined.

And so I prepared again, feeling gung-ho about heading forward this time and well, I really found the gas pedal and head forward we did.

Straight into the creek.

The car engaged and before I could turn the wheel and we shot straight forward, nose diving into the creek that bordered the opposite side of the driveway (seriously, could this thing be any more treacherous? Ditches and creekbeds and gravel, oh my!)

A tow truck later and the car was finally out of the creek and back where it had started in the lower driveway. My Dad showed me how “easy” it was as he drove to the top of the driveway. I had failed and my love of driving was lost. I spent the rest of the day with a tummyache while my Mom spent the rest of the day Mama-Bearing my Dad (thanks, Ma!).

Looking back, he probably could have started me under better conditions. I spent the next few years terrified of driving. My Mom once even tried to get me to just sit and keep my foot on the brake of one car while she moved another where I would then gas it up the easy driveway. No one else was around to help her but I couldn’t. I ended up in a panic. No way. No wheels, thank you.

But, eventually, age and necessity caught up and my fear of driving was slowly replaced by my need for freedom.

Growing up in the boonies (or what I thought was the boonies back then) I was limited to where my feet and my parents could or would take me. My nearest friend’s house at my Mom’s was miles away (after you got up our mile long straight up and down driveway) through backroads with no shoulder and blind curves a plenty. My nearest friend’s house at my Dad’s was so far that the one time I attempted to walk to it my dog Dixie (a puppy at the time) gave up walking and made me carry her the remaining few miles. So, as I started approaching driving age, I got more and more restless to be self-sufficient.

The clear solution? Steal my parents’ cars of course.

My favorite to steal was my Dad’s girlfriend’s car. One, because it was a zippy automatic (I had yet to have a second stick shift lesson and all of my Dad’s cars were manuals) and two because well, we didn’t really get along so the guilt I felt was minimal at best. I know, I know, I am a terrible person…or just a bored and opportunistic country kid (you choose).

However, one day my friends and I wanted to leave and the only car available was my Dad’s stick shift. I took my girlfriend’s word for it that she was an expert stick driver and off we went.

Down the driveway (thankfully the car was already facing downhill),

down the street and…

straight into a mailbox.

After paying for that (both fiscally and in endless variations of the phrase “I’m sorry” for months) I took a little break from my auto theft days and distracted myself with saving for my own car for when I turned 16. Since I wasn’t about to ask for another manual lesson from my Dad (he was still pretty mad about the whole mailbox incident) I ended up buying an automatic and other than a few stints in friends’ stick shifts, it’s been automatics all the way.

Every time I drove a stick shift I loved it. It felt like I was really driving. I desperately wanted one but never had the guts to just buy one and learn how to drive it as I went (what a test drive that would have been).

And so, I stuck to automatics, kicking myself every time a situation arose where someone needed me to drive a manual and I couldn’t help.

Until now.

With the seasons changing here…

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A week ago there wasn’t an exposed rock in sight and the ice sheets were snow machine highways.

I consulted my What I Want to Learn Before the End of this Winter List and saw a lot of unchecked boxes (how did I not become fluent in three languages, become a guitar virtuoso and write a manifesto?) but the one unchecked box that stuck out the most was driving a stick shift. Lucky for me, The Chief has an old SUV that just got up and running again last Fall.

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Don’t be jealous of her lovely lady lumps n’ bumps.

It was time.

A few minor bumps in the road arose:

  1. I had never driven in the snow. Not in an automatic. Not ever. Now I was going to learn a stick shift in Spring snow (read: ever changing conditions, enormous puddles, sheets of ice, ruts and slush…oh joy!)
  2. I could barely reach the clutch again (seriously?!)
  3. The car is lovingly called “The Jack in the Box” because it’s shocks are so shot that when you hit even the tiniest of bumps it rocks back and forth and up and down for what feels like eternity, just in time to hit another bump and start the rock and roll all over again. Basically, it’s like driving a boat through big seas. But hey, I’ve got fishermen in my family. I can brave the seas.
  4. The ignition. The ignition is an exposed bundle of wires attached to where the key normally goes. In order to start the Jack in the Box one must first acquire a flathead screwdriver. Upon acquistion one must find the “sweet spot” in order to be able to start the car. Nervous? Flustered? Good luck starting this beast. She requires a gentle touch and a lot of patience (hmmm, this is sounding familiar).

Yet despite these minor issues, I was ready to roll. I’ll have to learn to drive in real snow (driving last month in Anchorage there was hardly any snow. They had to bring in snow on the train for the Iditarod start so, needless to say, it was minimal) someday and if I want a vehicle to drive here it’s going to be this one so why not throw it all together at once? This seems to be a common theme here: try the hardest way first. And you know what? I prefer it that way.

Jump on in, the water is intense but after this you’ll be able to swim in anything.

Learning Day: The Chief popped Jack into 4-wheel drive, backed out of the parking spot, and brought us to the main road. The road may have been covered in snow and rutted to pieces but at least it was flat(ish), wide and a long straightaway (Dad, if you’re giving any driving lessons these days, take note). We switched seats. The Chief gave me the rundown (oh, that probably would have been helpful back in the day too). I started the car with the screwdriver on my first try and…we were off. Just like that.

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Snowy? Check. Gorgeous? Check.

 

And then we saw an approaching 4-wheeler and all of the lesson went out the window as I panicked and stalled. The 4-wheeler carried a neighbor who wished The Chief “luck and safety in his teachings”.

Minor embarrassment aside, the rest of the lesson got us all the way to the footbridge (our final destination) from which we could walk into Town. I did it!

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The Footbridge into Town

Sidenote: there is a vehicle bridge that takes you into Town but at the end of Winter money is scarce and an investment like a bridge key for a couple hundred dollars sounds a lot worse than just parking at the Footbridge and walking into Town (that’s what feet are for anyways, if they’re able).

After that, I figured we would practice when we had time. I wasn’t completely comfortable, surely not ready to be on my own but I felt confident and proud.

Surprise!

It started to rain. The already melting snow turned to slush and just as my work week started the snow machine trails turned to mushy rock-laden crash traps. I drove anyways. It wasn’t that bad, right? After narrowly avoiding one rock, only to catch the tip of the ski on another and driving over dirt on some parts of the road to Town, The Chief and I decided it was best to stop using the machines before we ended up breaking something (on them or on us).

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Since the rains this is the best this road has looked. Ruts and all.

No problem, right?

Oh, except for that minor issue of getting to and from work twice a day (split-shifts). Well, one option was that I could become a half-marathon runner and clock 14 miles per day going back and forth. Or, I could test just how solid I was in the statement that I wasn’t ready to drive by myself yet.

I’m down with exercise but 14 is about 10 miles too many to walk, run or ski in any given work day. And so, I set out on my own.

The first morning driving on my own the temperature had dropped below freezing the night before and the windshield was a thick layer of ice. There’s nothing like rushing to obtain the calm, cool, collected demeanor necessary to start the Jack. After running back and forth to the house for credit cards and hot water to scrape and melt the windshield there was finally a shred of visibility large enough to gain exit (I had forgotten about the back window but there wasn’t enough time. Besides, that’s what mirrors are for, right?). I tried to start the car. I failed. Deep breaths, Julia-San. A few hurried belly breaths and a few attempts later and the car finally started. I had to give it extra oomph to back the Jack out of the frozen puddle it was parked in and then panicked as I flew backwards towards the 90 degree turn I needed to complete in reverse in order to right myself towards the driveway exit. I slammed on the brakes.

I forgot the clutch.

Stalling is humbling. It teaches you to pay better attention, slow down, take a moment.

I wasn’t in the mood for a lesson.

Three more stalls later and I was high-fiving myself for having avoided the trees and other vehicles around me. I was finally facing the right way. I made it out to the road only to see that indeed, conditions had changed overnight (as they always do, yet still I am always surprised). It was no longer the puffy little snow drive I had been hoping for. Nope, the road had become a skating rink.

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As I slid towards my destination I saw the next changed condition: snow melt and rain had caused huge puddles to form and the freeze the night before had caused sheets of ice to form on top.

Oh joy!

I geared up and headed through, finding out (as I hit one) that large rocks were also in this mixed bag of road dangers. The Jack bounced and bounded through the puddles rocking me to the next challenge: a small river had formed. I waded through slowly, too slowly, so that I almost stalled again but I figured four times of stalling was the charm, I didn’t need more, and so I was able to gas it through.

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This was made by…

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this. Which was made by melting snow. A week ago all of this was fluffy white snow machining paradise.

A few fishtails later and having avoided crashing or falling off steep banks I made it to the footbridge. I had gone outside to start the car at 7:15. I had driven 3 miles and it was now 7:42 am and I had to be at work in 18 minutes which was about a mile away still, over the footbridge and through the woods, which in slushy snow is slow going. But I couldn’t help pause for a celebration dance. I was on top of the world. I had made it! I hadn’t planned on driving solo for months but in true Alaska style, she had other plans for me. I stopped to celebrate my first voyage.

 

 

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Celebration dance not pictured. Celebration face, pictured.

and hurriedly slipped and slid my way to work to play dish pit stained glass:

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Just like with the snow machine, practice makes perfect and although the split shift can be tough, it’s been great for practice. Four trips per day for my shifts last week has made me confident, but anytime that starts to turn into cocky, Alaska will send a little fishtail action my way or an unseen rock to send me bouncing. Just like every lesson here, it comes with the requirement of respect and the check of ego. If you get too big for your britches the stitches will rip.

And so, britches intact (though with some patches) I try to remember that each day is different. Some days I’ll wake up to blue skies and a defrosted windshield, others I’ll wake up to rain and still others to a frozen Jack in the Box. That’s the deal.

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Without the snow melting and re-freezing, I never would have gotten to see this little ice gem. Everyday adds to the next.

Either way, I’ll still finally be driving (and stalling) a stick shift, a lesson that started 21 years ago. And no matter the weather, I still get to be driving here, in the middle of a national forest (**Correction: National Park & Preserve) with my trusty screwdriver and my Lou at my side (who I swear rolls her eyes when I stall but makes me feel safer nonetheless).

Cheers, to the closing of the chapter “Stick Shift Up a Creek” and to the start of “Julia and the Jack in the Box”.

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Even through a shattered windshield, it’s a view to remember.

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