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Lessons from the Jeep

When my mother heard about the Jeep, she said, “Don’t set the field on fire, like you did in Helena.” I would try, I assured her. For the six weeks between selling my car and leaving the country for a year, a friend had loaned me his 1987 Jeep Wrangler. A far cry from my 2004 Toyota Corolla luxury edition, complete with moon roof, the Jeep was bruised and battered and barreled down the highway. I don’t know how I even made it home from my first jaunt; the only time I’d ever driven a stick shift was when I was fifteen, in an open field in Montana. Where I spun the tires over dried alfalfa. And started a fire.

That first night with the Jeep, I found myself at a stoplight on a sloping incline. The light turned green. I glared at the black Suburban behind me, inching its way closer. I let off the clutch, off the brake. Forgot the gas. The Jeep slid down the hill, closing the gap between me and the Suburban. SUV Guy honked. I screamed.

It’s been three weeks since I’ve taken the Jeep. I know all four of his sounds: the moaning rev when I left off the clutch too slowly, the purr-hum-silence when I forget to put the clutch in at all, the series of rattles under the front dash, and the clanging of the driver’s side door, a noise akin to something from a Hitchcock film. I’ve taken to leaving for my destination nine minutes earlier, wearing a winter jacket in San Diego’s kismet spring and not giving two shits about my hair. And since listening to the radio has flown out the flimsy fabric top, I’ve been doing a bit of reflecting. My Jeep, old as Buddha and wise as Yoda, has become my personal guru. Here is what he has taught me:

1. Listen to the Engine
My boyfriend told me that the engine had a “sweet spot.” I assured him my ears didn’t hear flavors. Nevertheless, I turned down the radio and tried to listen. There, between cradling the clutch and gunning the gas, the Jeep indeed, emitted a syrupy sound. For the first two weeks, I turned off the radio unless I was on the freeway (where I couldn’t hear a thing anyway.) I watched the intersection lights as a hawk watches a barn door, listened for cars behind me, listened to my motor. The Jeep spoke to me: “More gas, Linsey. Let off the clutch, stupid. Gas, gas, gas!” I honed my communication skills. With a Jeep.

2. Forget About the Fast Lane
Throughout my fourteen-year driving career, I perceived myself as a tortoise, though speeding tickets proved my lethal lead foot. In every lane on the highway, someone flew a faster, fancier, four-door than me. In the Jeep though, I rarely break 62.5. The clunker slows me down. Crawls up hills. Gives me patience, one gear at a time. And what I’m noticing at my sub-speed-limit is that in most people don’t drive 80. In keeping up with the Jaguars, my focus lay in how much quicker I could arrive somewhere. In my loaner car, I’m happy just to make it in one piece.

3. Put the Breaks on the Ego
There is no such thing as a graceful stall in the middle of an intersection. Now, I’m not one to worry about looking good or acting competent 100 percent of the time, but the Jeep did much to quell that remaining 24.8 percent sliver. Apologizing to the woman in the minivan full of four kids behind you for kissing her front bumper is not an option. It’s impossible to have decent hair when the zippers on the windows flap open like a war wound. I’ve been doing a lot of looking around and smiling, making my blue eyes look doeful. I want desperately to shout out, “Hey, this is the first time I’ve stalled all day!” But I’m the only one who cares. So long as I don’t hit their bumper.

4. Ignore the Honking
And when I roll gently back into that good Nissan, the honks blare, as if I’m not aware that my car is headed moch 10 into the Beemer behind me. The noise startles me, always, sometimes even to the point where I forget to put my foot back on the brake. I’m the master of hills these days, but still, I found myself the victim of a horn earlier this afternoon. Right, buddy, that’s helping my sanity, my confidence and my white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel. I have to bring myself back to Lesson #2: Listen to the engine; drown out the noise. Ignore the jerk saying, Hey, you can’t do it, You suck, You’re gonna hit my car! Drown him out and listen to my engine, listen for the sweet spot. Purr, chug … up the hill, away from the naysayer.

5. The Road is Bumpy
Corolla life was smooth, wind-resistant and temperature-controlled. Jeep life is not. The Jeep finds the pimples and dimples in the road and charges them. Once my head even hit the fabric roof. There’s no heater or a/c or cruise control. No friggin moon roof. I can barely hear the radio above the grrr of the motor, the thwack of the rear tires thudding over a speed bump. But I feel things now: the apex of those speed bumps, the grating of a scored road. I’m sensing lights change before they do, a kind of Zen feeling when, for so long, I drove on autopilot. The uneasy rickety-ness of the vehicle makes me anticipate, take notice, pay attention. I know again the prickle of night-induced goose bumps or the brush of breeze across my chin. And on nights when I’ve forgotten my sweater and the fog rolls in before I do, I bear in mind that a rocky road is, nonetheless, still road, and I will travel it.

6. Choose the Jeep

After to two days of listening my Wrangler woes, a colleague offered me her Explorer. I pictured it: automatic, power windows, air conditioning. I could once again drive, eat breakfast and talk on the phone simultaneously. We would charge up inclines effortlessly. Then I thought about the two days I had spent with the Jeep on empty hills, the smell of the clutch burning and the jerky forward motion the car made as I circled, circled around the neighborhood, practicing starts on hills. I remembered the “WOO-HOO!” I belted when I chugged along without rolling back, how the knot in my stomach dissipated after I didn’t descend down into the car behind me. Little victories. I hadn’t challenged myself like that since … I couldn’t remember. Driving the Jeep wasn’t something I had to do—I had an out with the Explorer. But the charge I felt from being successful, from doing what I thought I could not, from conquering my fears, made me crave more clutch. I wanted the rush of the hill, the oh-shoot-what-if-I-don’t make-it possibility. And making it to the summit.

In three weeks, I leave for a year of trekking through Africa, India, Nepal, Thailand and Indonesia. I’ll leave the jalopyed Jeep, his rattles and zipperless windows, parked in my friend’s yard. I’ve joked that the car provided third-world-country-training. If I rent a car overseas, the likelihood is that it will be a standard. Plus, I’m bound to endure hours of chicken truck, no bathroom, pneumonia-temperature-induced transport. If I jumped from the Corolla into that, I might have slit my writs. But jumping from the Jeep, well, I might even miss the windy sucker.