On Travel and Vehicles

I crossed the 100,000-mile threshold on the interchange between state Route 16 and Interstate 5 in Tacoma. It was about 11:15 p.m. I was commuting home from work.

Saying this feels as though I’ve admitted lying on a resume or reading somebody else’s mail. Surely nobody would give me flak for crossing 100,000 miles while commuting — that very event probably happened to scores of people this week.

But it feels wrong. I’ve taken an automobile, a piece of machinery that has changed the way humankind lives, and abused it, belittling its importance and astounding capabilities.

The beauty of vehicles is they allow us to overcome the limits of our own muscles. We can move incredibly heavy objects across incredibly long distances by doing little more than flexing our ankle enough to depress a gas pedal. This miraculous technology should be used for tasks of grandeur, but instead we use vehicles for mundane accomplishments that would disappoint the machine just as a physicist would be disappointed with rehearsing multiplication tables. Instead of transporting a half-cord of wood or shuttling a family 500 miles in a day, we use our vehicles for tasks that could easily be accomplished using our own legs.

I fancy myself a traveler, though in reality I’m not skilled at adventure. I’ve been out of the U.S. just twice — both times to Canada — and I’m the person who forgets matches on a camping trip more often than I’d like to admit. That being said, I feel I’ve used my car well. Since my parents gave me the Hyundai Sonata in 2009, it’s visited the red rocks of Zion and Arches national parks, climbed its way to a variety of Utah ski hills countless times, and delivered a newly engaged couple to the Pacific coast. Its four cylinders have conquered grunt work — the car hauled a moving trailer from Salt Lake City to Seattle, and it handled itself well on Wyoming’s dirt roads.

Some of my greatest memories involve the car, and I, like many motorists, hoped Mile 100,000 would be a memorable one. I wanted to eclipse the milestone on a journey to the car’s eighth national park, or through a snowstorm to an unknown ski area, or chasing a story that could change the direction of my young career.

Instead, my trusty Hyundai and I hit 100,000 beneath an overpass at the beginning of a drowsy drive I make five days a week.

I could easily convince myself to not feel so downtrodden about passing the milestone while commuting. My trip to work is just shy of 60 miles round trip — much too far for me to walk or bike. And with a shift that usually ends at 11 p.m., returning home via transit would be an eight-hour affair. Furthermore, my job is satisfying and provides for my family, so driving to work could be construed as a source of pride.

But accepting these excuses would allow me to justify further misuse of my car, which I already do. Rather than shopping nearby and purchasing just enough food for the day’s meals, I drive my car to Costco and buy almost a month’s worth of food. My rationale: I’m buying too much food to carry, even though I choose to buy that much food and drive a few miles to do so.

Few mechanisms have a greater impact on U.S. life than the car, but many lasting effects of vehicles are results of our abuse of them. The presence of automobiles virtually ended dense, walkable development in the U.S.; only now are we beginning to return to those core tenets of urban planning. We tear apart pristine land to provide fuel for our gas tanks, and the byproduct of that fuel sullies the air we breathe and the water we drink. Our nation is crisscrossed with highways that connect but also homogenize us. Because of our dependence, nearly every American family is forced to purchase an object that is often worth more than half of the household income. Cars are great and wonderful machines that can be used for immense good, but their misuse is far more dominant in the U.S. landscape.

So rather than brush aside my 100,000-mile disappointment, I choose to use it as motivation to live closer to where I work and shop; to reserve use of my car for events that require effort beyond my physical means, not events for which a car will simply make things more convenient; and to make any travel that requires a car a memorable road trip, one that produces photos and memories that provide great happiness and change the way I look at the world.

Vehicles are not substitutes for legs. If we walk and bike when it’s feasible and save driving for those instances that require the power of an internal combustion engine, we’ll enjoy gratifying road trips, smaller gasoline bills, and healthier lifestyles. Furthermore, we’ll likely be far more satisfied when the odometer hits 100,000.

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