Sunday, May 13, 2007


Today, I drove my own car for the first time. I am very proud of myself. It's not an easy task, learning to drive a stick. I spoke with my little sister last week and when she found out I had bought a manual she laughed and said, "Getting started is the hardest part. Once you figure that out, the rest is easy."

It's not often that my 20-year-old sister knows significantly more about something than I do, but in this case I trusted her wisdom. She bought her first car when she was 16; it was a 10 year old 2-door purplish Civic with a manual transmission, and she figured out how to drive it all on her own. "If you can drive on my car, you can drive any stick," she told me, "mine's a bitch to shift." Luckily, one of the first things the person from whom we bought Moxie told us was how easy shifting was compared to other cars she'd driven, and Hulk seems to have had no problem driving it for the past few weeks. Going into today, when we were trying to figure out where to go so I could practice without much traffic, we picked a neighborhood in South Denver that I'd learned to drive a couple of years ago before I got my license. It's got wide streets, a slow speed limit, and almost no traffic, so we figured it would work well for a first time practice on the stick.

When I first learned to drive back in high school, I was deathly afraid of the car and of driving. My first time ever behind the wheel I almost wet my pants I was so scared of what being behind the wheel meant if I hit someone or wrecked the car. I sweated buckets, something I never do even when I'm furiously hamstering on the elliptical, all flop sweat tinged with fear. I got to the point during driver's training that I was reasonably comfortable in the car and in my mom's minivan, but a near-miss when driving home one night from a relative's house with my whole family in the car made me refuse to drive again for many years. My family still talks about how I almost killed us, and whenever they bring that up I get uncharacteristically angry - it was completely an accident, and it turned me off from driving for years.

My college boyfriend drove an old manual Jetta and he just shrugged about the whole me not driving thing; he was definitely not the right person to teach me, as evidenced by the time he was in a pissy mood so he made me get behind the wheel in a parking lot once when we were on a road trip and tried to force me to drive the thing. At that point, I hadn't driven anything in about four years, let alone was I ready to try to learn a stick. So I had a panic attack and refused to budge, and he had to let me cry my eyes out in the passenger seat teasing me all the while about what a baby I was.

I didn't start driving again until the fall of 2004 after I'd started my current job and I *had* to get a license in order to do my job (travel around the metro area and the state are parts of the job). I had a good feeling that Hulk would be a much better (and more patient) teacher than College Boyfriend, and he had an automatic car that hadn't died yet, so I relearned on that over the course of a couple of weeks, got my license, and haven't looked back. But when I first climbed behind the wheel in that sleepy little neighborhood where Hulk's parents live (my first behind-the-wheel experience in about 8 or 9 years) I felt that same abject fear, the same rush of sweat making my palms all sticky. I got through it, and I was right about Hulk - he was a great teacher. That day I got used to neighborhood driving and even some rural highway driving, and I practiced a few more times in various parts of Denver and got my license and was driving state cars only a week or so later. I've had my license now for about 2.5 years, and I've driven long distances alone and with passengers, I've driven all kinds of rental cars and various state cars, so I've gotten a lot more experience than most people when they first have their licenses. I even drove through San Francisco a month after I got my license, and not many people can say they've done that!

This time, the feeling was different. It's something I have to get done - I own this car, I want to be able to use it and not be dependant on Hulk or anyone else to get me around in the thing. It was such a good deal that I didn't once hesitate when I found out it was a manual transmission - I just figured that we'd spend a few more hours in the car while I got comfortable with the whole stick shift thing. Today was my first opportunity. I didn't feel fear this time, just annoyance and frustration with myself that I was like a 16 year-old learning to drive for the first time. Because seriously? That stick shift thing is HARD. Today, I started out by feeling out the gears, practicing shifting, and practicing starting the car. I also practiced reverse a little. It took a good 20 minutes of trying before I could even get the car to go forward for longer than two seconds - the engine died every time I tried to make it go. Every time, over and over. I wasn't giving it enough gas. I was giving it too much gas. I hadn't timed the position right for the clutch pedal to know when to ease down on the gas pedal, so it would jerk forward a few times and stop. Finally, finally I managed to get the thing to go forward a bit, and then I had to turn around (3-point turn!) and go the other way down the street.

Eventually, I was getting it from stopped to going about half the time, so I got to start driving around the neighborhood, and figured out how and when to shift into second right away; how to time the clutch so the braking wouldn't be sudden and jerky, when to shift back to first at a stop sign. After a good solid hour of driving around the neighborhood, I think I got to the point where I only killed the engine about one in four times when starting from a dead stop. The shifting into second thing was fine. The shifting down to first thing was fine. Reverse was OK except right at the end where I tried to do a 3-point turn on a hill and couldn't get the car to go backward because every time I took my foot off the brake it went forward and crunched the curb a little bit. Eventually I gave up and had Hulk do it, and even he had trouble so I didn't feel so bad about being so inept. I'm still not comfortable moving on to the next step of driving where there's more traffic, so maybe next practice time (on the road trip? perhaps!) I'll get to shift into higher gears and practice shifting down to first from third or fourth. I'd like to at least be able to do that before I attempt driving in any significant traffic, because it's no fun to have someone behind you honking when you've killed your engine at a stop sign for the third time in a row. My sister was right; getting started is the hardest part, but so far after that it's not so bad. On our way home I told Hulk I felt like it was a kind of a dance, the coordination of one's feet on the various pedals to get the car to respond. I look forward to the day I can perform the dance without counting out the steps in my head.


Anonymous said...

I was a late bloomer as well, in regards to learning to drive a stick shift. I never thought I would like it better than an automatic, but after a couple years (!) I do. You'll be a pro in no time.

Yank In Texas said...

I still can't and we've owned the civic for how long now? Eh. Someday. I'd just take the car and go to the school down the street but starting it requires help...

Cilicious said...

I didn't learn to drive a stick until I was about your age, maybe a couple years older.
Once you get it, it's actually fun.
Good for you for being up to the challenge!