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Fun in the Slow Lane: Carless in Rural Maine
by Stephen Morris
As my wife and I pulled into our film school's parking lot in Rockport, Maine, a passing student said, "Your car is smoking." We got out of our little red Subaru, nodded, and smiled. At the time we didn't realize this was the beginning of the end. Of course we knew the car had been steaming a little and there was a hint of oil in the air, but this had been going on for weeks. We'd get it checked out once we were back home.
But the car didn't wait. As we drove back, a giant spray of bright green liquid told us that we no longer had a radiator.
No problem for a couple of die-hard greens, right? We hated everything about the car: the pollution, the insurance, the gas, the fact that we killed frogs when we drove on rainy nights. This should have been the part of the story where we simply threw the keys away and laughed.
Except I was afraid, very afraid. Too afraid to give up the car. Like most Americans, I unconsciously equated a car with freedom. Freedom to work, freedom to move, freedom to chase my dreams.
We lived in rural Maine. To me, not having a car seemed like voluntary serfdom. We would become part of an untouchable poor class, never able escape the poverty of the vehicle less. Our dreams would die. I'd never be able to save enough money to try a writing career.
So my wife and I spent more than a thousand dollars trying to fix something we hated.
But the gods of social change must have been smiling at us, or laughing, because the mechanics could never get the car to work right. And after a month of trying, even a car addict like myself had to walk away.
Later, in a fevered near-midnight sale, I agreed to sell the car to a financially irresponsible teenager on a payment plan.
It was the best deal I ever made. Walking in the dark back toward my house, I felt an overwhelming lightness of being. The physical absence of a car in my life made me feel as if I could fly.
Now carless for a year and a half, I am happy to report that my wife and I are neither homeless nor destitute. If we are earning less money than before, it is only by the slightest of margins. But we're also working at our dream jobs. No longer able to commute twenty miles to substitute-teaching and child-care jobs, we finally seriously tried the careers we've always wanted. My wife landed her first, second, and third jobs as a professional actress, and I'm now a successful freelance writer. I don't think the timing is coincidental.
Transportation didn't turn out to be a big issue. It's only six miles to town, which is an easy biking distance in three seasons. When that fails, walking takes only an hour and a half. It's not only doable, it's enjoyable.
And often, almost too often, we don't need to do either. Family or friends are always going into town. Or for a hike at the national park. Or to Nova Scotia. When all else fails, my wife and I hitchhike together (cue to the "Don't Try This at Home" disclaimer now), and it usually works. A recent National Geographic article pointed out that there are 774 vehicles for every 1,000 people in the United States. Invariably, one of those cars is going our way.
It's true that our nighttime activities have been somewhat curtailed, but we were never night owls anyway. For longer trips, I have a nice chat with Gracie, the Greyhound virtual-travel consultant. We've also rented cars twice, when we absolutely, positively needed to be somewhere. The experience and accompanying sticker shock has helped us remember that cars aren't cheap or easy.
Maybe we'll always be carless, maybe we won't. We might have children someday, and travel might become more of an issue. (Then again, do I really want to be away from my children because I'm working to afford a car?) And I'll be the first to admit that I salivate at the new hybrids hovering around town. But right now, I can't imagine trading in this life.
As I write this, we're back in Rockport, acting for our room and board. During a break yesterday, my wife and I took a walk to where there was a beautiful panoramic view of sparkling water, green islands, and swooping seabirds.
Just then, a huge, flat ship came into view. It was as long as one of the islands.
"Oil tanker," my wife said.
I silently prayed that it wouldn't strike a rock. And then I thanked God for my relative independence.
Craig Idlebrook is a Maine-based freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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