Sunday, August 06, 2006

Twelve: Cars of the Heart

I confess, I have never driven a Ferrari. Nor any other luxury car, for that matter, despite the fact that a fancy car magazine arrives in my inbasket monthly along with a multitude of other physician-targeted publications. I'm briefly torn between being amused by the persistent myth of the wealthy doctor and wondering exactly how many of my colleagues do, in fact, drive this stuff and how they manage to afford it. Then it goes in the recycling.

It's not that vehicles haven't played important roles in my life, I've just never identified with them as status symbols or longed to own something that could, in 3 seconds, achieve speeds not legal anywhere in Canada. (My husband feels much the same, but did put a little Alpina to good use on the Autobahn during a stint in Germany.)

The first car in which I ever rode (long before my conscious memory begins) was a little white Volkswagon Beetle. I am told I loosened my brand new baby teeth on its dashboard one day when my father braked hard to avoid a careening Citroen - I was of course, seated on my mother's lap, long before the days of car seats and, for that matter, seatbelts. Not long after, my parents bought a Volkswagon camper - apparently, the first on the French Riviera. As it was purchased from an artist who was a great personal friend of Princess Grace, we were routinely saluted by the Monaco police for the first year or so.

The camper hosted food and laughter and adventure and comfort. My father worked long hours, and my mother would pack up supper, pick him up at the office, and we would park by the waterfront and eat and watch the people and the poodles, and the impossibly luxurious yachts. Weekends, we explored the backcountry of Provence, and the fold-out table with the plaid cloth held fresh crusty bread and tangy Gouda for our lunch.

To me, the swish-clunk of the side door was the sound of security and home. I adored the smiling Volkswagon "face", and the musical crescendo of rising rpms, followed by the reassuring thunk of the gearshift, as we climbed steep mountain switchbacks. When we camped, the top popped up to accomodate my little hammock. Chilly spring mornings in the Swiss alps, I would wake in the soft orange glow of the canvas walls, bells and good natured shouting in the distance, as the cows were herded to summer pasture.

No vehicle since has taken that camper's place in my heart. I suppose its charm was inextricably linked with its location, and perhaps also with a happier, more innocent phase of childhood. We had another, right hand drive version in South Africa, but it wasn't the same, and the old Chevy station wagon, which was all we could afford during my teen years in Calgary, was just a car, its occupants folded onto sticky vinyl seats, volatile tempers incarcerated far too close for comfort.

When I graduated medical school, I bought a little red Toyota pickup, packed it to the brim with inadequately culled possessions, and headed east for Newfoundland. TW, though utilitarian and not at all ideal in snow and ice, was my ticket to independence. I spent many solitary weekends during the 2 year residency exploring the island and camping. Although the covered truck bed was not technically connected to the cab, there was a small opposing window in each which I could just squeeze through. This meant that I could lock the back and crawl into it from the cab, giving me a secure place to sleep in campgrounds (or roadside gravel pits) where I felt vulnerable as a single woman. I was just out of a very bad relationship, I had moved as far from Calgary as I could get and still be in Canada, and it was vitally important to me to be able to be alone with my thoughts and to go anywhere I liked without asking or waiting or depending on anyone but myself.

During my second year of residency, I spent 7 months in Labrador, where I met the man I would later marry. Our courtship was conducted in his ancient and highly unreliable Chevy Blazer, invariably accompanied by Meatloaf's "Bat Out of Hell", which was semi-permanently stuck in the equally unreliable tape deck. That truck came with us to Vancouver Island, where it died emphatically and with great billows of smoke at an inconvenient bend in the Malahat. We bought a three year old Toyota Forerunner the next day, which has served us faithfully now for 12 years.

The Forerunner brought each of our babies home from the hospital, brand new car seats anxiously checked, rechecked, and honey-are-you-sure-that's-as-tight-as-it-will-go? It is intimately familiar with the Trans Canada from Winnipeg to Vancouver, having carried our menagerie in unairconditioned discomfort to the coast and back every summer for six years. In a little less than two weeks, it will haul us to Whistler one last time, and enter a well earned, eco-friendly state of semi-retirement in the underground parking lot.

Yes, the next phase in our vehicular life is to be largely free of them, or at least the fossil-fueled variety. Whistler has a fabulous system of trails, the climate is mild, and there is really no reason not to walk or bike everywhere one might wish to go. It's great for the planet, and an excellent way to stay slim. I believe bike trails are an absolute prerequisite for lessening dependance on fossil fuels - I would have biked everywhere long ago if I didn't have to risk grievous injury and/or death to do so, and I'm sure I'm not alone.

And the future? There is still a part of me that longs to come full circle and trundle my family about the countryside in a camper just like the one from my childhood, warming up a pot of stew on the little gas stove while the kids play, slicing crusty bread onto Melmac plates, setting out the "camping" silverware and calling them in for lunch. Someday perhaps, but for now, the memories will suffice.