Unlike most American teens, I didn’t learn to drive when I was 16. We lived in Belgium where the legal driving age was 18, so when I returned to the states I was uninitiated to certain Midwestern rituals. My first summer back, in central Indiana, I had one date with a guy who drove a Ford pickup with a bench seat. He thought it was weird that I didn’t sit in the middle next to him. I didn’t know the protocol.
It seemed to me that every other 18-year-old in Indiana had learned to drive a tractor at age 12, and got their learner’s permit at 14. On their 16th birthday, they took their drivers test, and went straight to the local dealership with their corn detassling money from the past four summers, where they bought a brand new, jet black Pontiac Trans Am with a gold phoenix painted on its hood.
Here’s a true story: When I was 10, I wanted to be an auto mechanic like my grandfather who owned his own repair shop. The sharp oily smell of the shop was familiar and comforting. I understood and was fascinated by combustion engines. Granddaddy always had a red shop towel draped over the front corner of the car or truck he was working on, with his wrenches and screwdrivers laid out like a surgical tools. Cars seemed marvelous, and fixing them would be the best job in the world.
I finally took a driver’s ed class, and learned that driving can be both pleasant and useful. Behind the wheel, I felt powerful and adult. I discovered I really liked to be in control.
My first—and still my favorite—car was a 1963 Ford Galaxy that had been owned by my great uncle Charles. What I loved about that car: It was fire engine red, a look-at-me car that practically seated six of us across the front seat. Weekends, my roommates and I took it to the drive-in movie theater north of Muncie, where I was attending college. The only thing better would have been if it had been a convertible.
Fast forward to my latest trip to Ireland, when my husband Mike rented a car so we could explore the west of the island without being tied to bus and train timetables.
Driving in Ireland presents a few challenges. First, the driver sits on the right and drives on the left-hand side of the road. Two, many of the roads are approximately the width of the king-size waterbed you (or your parents) owned in 1976, and are fraught with an equal amount of peril. Three, not having learned to drive that way—left-hand side, narrow roads—it takes a lot of mental effort not to revert to one’s usual driving habits.
It follows that if the driver sits on the right, the passenger sits on the left. This was deeply troubling for me; every time I got in the car, I instinctively felt around for the gas and brake pedals with my feet.
And then remembered I was not in control.
That first day our plan was to drive south on the Sally Gap Road to Wicklow National Park to hike. Actually, it wasn’t our plan; it was Google’s plan for us. Most Dubliners would have taken the N11 down the coast, and cut over from there.
The Sally Gap Road is a narrow, winding, hilly and long trek through mostly uninhabited bogland. There were a lot of cyclists doing long Saturday rides, and a few cars besides ours. We met actual flocks of actual sheep being herded along the road. The thing about sheep? They are always lurking just out of sight, around a bend, waiting for an unsuspecting or reckless driver. Vigilance is key.
At first, I was a nervous wreck. I could see precisely how many millimeters we were from going over the edge of a cliff, or how close a rock wall was to the side mirror. Every close call was a reminder: I Am Not In Control.
But by not signing the rental agreement, I made a deliberate choice to not be in the driver’s seat. Eventually, after days and miles of what seemed like close calls, I learned to relax, although “relax” might be too strong a word.
Looking out over the scenery, I realized that not being in control was probably going to be OK.