Amaxophobia Part 2

April 13

This post will make more sense if you read Amaxophobia Part 1 first.

The visit to the eye place was fine. A little shopping around Fred Meyer afterward was OK too. Here’s what wasn’t fine: I so rarely get out of the office on my own that I’d had a whole plan, after I got my eye exam, to wander around a little and explore. Only now, there was no way at all that I could face doing that. It was dark outside, still rainy (of course) and the traffic was as thick as ever. All I could think was how much I wanted to be away from it and home.

So I got in my car and touched the “Home” icon on my GPS. It instructed me, once again, to get on The Dreaded I-5. As I sat in the traffic inching its way onto the highway, the GPS popped up with a blue screen and a choice: There was traffic ahead. Did I want to stay on this route or try an alternate route? I figured I’d stay on this route since I couldn’t see an easy way out of the traffic to get on a different one anyhow.

That’s when I discovered that I couldn’t reach the GPS and keep my foot on the brake pedal at the same time. My new-to-me car had an aerodymanic profile that includes a long windshield angled low, so that when I suction-cupped the GPS near the bottom of the windshield so it wouldn’t obstruct my vision, I had also put it too far away for my short arms to easily reach. Until I made a selection, the blue screen would remain, which meant I no longer had a map to guide me. In a calmer state I would have remembered that whether or not I could see the map, the GPS would still give me vocal instructions and I would still make my way home. But all I could think was that I was alone in the dark in the rain in heavy traffic and effectively blind as to where to go.

Eventually, thankfully, the traffic got so bad that it came to a complete halt, which gave me the few moments I needed to squirm my way up to the windshield and touch the icon for “Current Route.” The map reappeared. Half an hour later I pulled up outside our white farmhouse and before I even got out of the car, I pulled the GPS off the windshield and replaced it where I could reach it.

Then I went inside in a high dudgeon. I’d have railed to Bill if he’d been home but he was out somewhere, probably playing music. So I did something I nearly never do–all by myself I poured myself a small scotch. I stood in the living room, with the lights still off, drinking my scotch and looking out the window and thinking: All I wanted was a damned eye exam! It would have been the simplest thing in the world to drive down to Kingston and go to Vision Excel on 9w. If only we were still back there.

But here’s the thing. Yes there’s nasty, nasty traffic here, but Washington drivers are also different from the drivers on the East Coast, and in a good way. In retrospect, one thing that added to my general sense of unease on the drive to and from the eye exam was the complete lack of aggression on the road. No honking. Washington drivers almost never use their horns. They don’t tailgate or flash their lights at you, except to warn of a nearby cop. Eventually, I came to think of it this way: Washington drivers don’t think it’s their job to tell other drivers how to drive.

That makes them different from New York drivers–even Bill. If Bill finds himself driving behind someone going down a country road at five miles less than the speed limit, he’ll complain bitterly to me in the passenger seat, but also might find himself tailgating and maybe flashing his lights. And if someone is going slow in the left lane, rather than pass on the right he’ll communicate in every way he can that the driver ahead of him should pull the hell over.

Back in New York I had become accustomed to this sort of instruction (to use a kind term for it) from my fellow drivers. Washington drivers may go around you if there’s room to do it. But most of them won’t pressure you if they think you’re going too fast, or too slow, or waiting too long to make a turn, or whatever it may be. This live-and-let-live approach to life goes way beyond just driving. I think it’s a legacy of the pioneer West, as opposed to the colonial East.

They also look out for other drivers in ways New Yorkers don’t. The merging lanes onto Route 9 from Second Street near our house seem impossibly–dangerously–short to me. But that’s because, in my mind, I’m imagining how New York drivers would barrel by them, not giving entering drivers much space to join the road, making things awkward for everyone.

Washington drivers always, always let other drivers in. To a fault. The first time I merged onto Route 9, I saw a car coming up behind me and slowed way down, assuming it would fly past and then I’d merge onto the road. Only it didn’t fly past as I waited, going slower and slower. Finally I heard the rare sound of a horn and looked in my mirror to discover that the other driver had slowed to a crawl and was patiently waiting for me to enter the road.

What a weird experience.

Image: Travis Juntara via Creative Commons

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Amaxophobia Part 1

Amaxophobia = The fear of riding in a vehicle. 

April 8, 2016

When it comes to some things, I’m a coward. Not that I’m not a courageous person in general–I think I’ve made some brave decisions in my life, as well as any number of cowardly ones. But there’s one activity where the fearful side of my nature emerges in full force, to the point where I’m nearly incapacitated.

Driving.

Most people I know are comfortable behind the wheel. But they didn’t live in Manhattan, then Iowa City, then Paris, and then Manhattan again–all places where most everything is walkable, there’s plenty of public transportation, and a driver’s license is nice to have but in no way a necessity. In concentrated cities with good public transportation such as New York or Paris, having a car can be more of an expensive nuisance than anything else.

Thus, though I took Driver’s Ed and got a driver’s license back in high school like everyone else, once I had the license I never actually used it except on the rare business trip or vacation until I moved to Woodstock at the age of 32. For the first time I began driving on a daily basis.

But Woodstock is very different from here. It’s 100 miles from New York City, whereas Snohomish is less than 30 miles from downtown Seattle. In Woodstock we were in the country. Snohomish is a small town, but drive a mile or two south on Route 9, and you’re unmistakably in the suburbs. Or you can just stand still and wait for the suburbs to come to you.

From my point of view, the big difference, the oh-my-God-this-changes-everything difference, is traffic. Living in Woodstock kept me out of any kind of traffic except on those rare occasions when I drove north to Albany, or even rarer, south to Poughkeepsie. I never drove to what we simply called The City–it was so easy not to, with the Metro-North commuter rail line right there on another North-South state road that paralleled a major highway and for some reason was also called Route 9. If you were smart, you stayed off the New York State Thruway northbound on Friday afternoons in summer, and then southbound on Sunday evenings. Other than that, traffic was something I never had to think about. Snow, ice, and winding mountain roads, yes. Deer leaping in front of the car were a constant worry. Traffic, no.

Here, traffic is all around, even on the thoroughfares through Snohomish (though we’re learning some back ways), up and especially down 9, on the way to Everett, which is what you might call our market town, and thick the moment you head in the direction of Seattle. And this is the West, where traffic is inescapable. You can’t ignore it by walking everywhere, you can’t circumvent it with public transportation, you’re stuck with it. It’s a major problem for everyone, but most people just find it deeply annoying. I also find it frightening.

Not long after we moved here, I decided to have an eye exam. Not because I couldn’t see but because I hadn’t had one in a while. As a matter of fact, I have the worst vision one can have and still legally drive without glasses in Washington State, although I always do wear glasses when I’m driving.

I made an appointment, headed to the eye place at Fred Meyer (a local big-box store), and found myself in heavy urban late-afternoon traffic. It was winter, and therefore rainy. I followed my GPS instructions onto I-5, also known as The Dreaded I-5. There are many good ways of going back and forth between Snohomish and Everett and none of them involve I-5, but nevertheless most GPS systems will send you by I-5 by default and I hadn’t yet learned any other ways to get there.

At least I wasn’t on the Dreaded I-5 for very long. In less than ten miles, I was instructed to exit onto Evergreen Way, a four-lane road that at that hour was a solid wall of traffic. The Fred Meyer was just over a quarter mile away–but on which side? The GPS would only tell me when I reached that quarter-mile. And if I guessed wrong, there would be no way I could get over in time. I eased to the right lane, partly out of a vague memory that it would be on that side and partly because the thought of a left turn in that mess gave me the heebie jeebies. By some stroke of luck, I guessed right.

Want to know what happens next? Stay tuned for Part 2.

Image of The Dreaded I-5: Jeff Wilcox via Creative Commons

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