Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Even after two years of sliding gracefully through stop signs and spinning in place while attempting to exit our well-glazed parking space, my husband and I had continued to question the necessity of a new set of snow tires. Was it really worth 1000 whole dollars just to be able to stop when we wanted to stop or go when we wanted to go? Then came the first genuine snowfall in November, which sent us van-skiing down a steep hill toward a busy intersection right in the middle of rush-minute traffic. That thrilling brush with disaster ended the debate. We wanted to live through another winter. So we slimmed down our bank account, handed over a hefty chunk of our savings to the hardworking folks at Les Schwab, and drove away, accompanied by the reassuring crunchity-crunchity-crunch of metal studs against ice.

And then the snow promptly quit falling. We spent nearly all of the last two months wearing down our shiny new studs on perfectly clear roads.

I'm usually the only one around here who's dreaming of a green Christmas, but the complete cessation of snow this winter has had me wondering whether that fat wad of cash would have been better spent on something useful like, say, a lifetime supply of washable markers. But then all it took was one more good snowfall and a slippery drive up a hilly country road to convince me that those new tires were worth every last penny.

Snow tires or no snow tires, however, I was grateful to avoid any extensive traveling this winter. Three years ago, as you may recall, we flew to Phoenix for Christmas, and in the process of missing our first flight on account of impassable roads, driving back home past stranded cars to buy all new tickets, spending the night in Spokane both before and after our flights, and staying at two different houses while we were in Arizona, I both packed and unpacked suitcases for our entire family six times.

Combine that with the experience of loading and unloading the portable crib, transferring and retransferring car seats, rolling and unrolling sleeping bags, slipping and sliding around the highway in winter storm conditions, and hurrying tiny children with tinier bladders through crowded airports, and you'll understand why holiday travel has, for me, lost most of its luster.

My inner pragmatist would be more than happy to swear off all holiday traveling adventures until the entire family is old enough to not only be out of diapers and car seats, but also to pack their own suitcases—and to help push the van out of a snow bank, should the occasion arise.

• • • • •

When I was a kid I used to enjoy winter travel, usually because it meant spending Christmas with my multitudes of cousins. Long road trips were always as much a part of our holiday traditions as Grandma Kvale's roast turkey, Uncle Ken's egg nog lattes, and Aunt Marilynn's "Hyill-hyill-hyill!" laughter emanating from the kitchen. Each year my family would open our gifts early and then pile into our boxy Toyota Tercel wagon for the drive to Tacoma, to my grandparents' house on the hill.

As we neared our destination in the evening, after six hours of sharing the back seat with my little brother, I would watch expectantly through the window for the brightly lit star my grandfather always set atop the roof—high enough to be seen from the freeway.

When we finally arrived at the house, I loved to run up the spiral staircase to the guest bedroom. From there, through the age-rippled window glass, I could glimpse ten thousand red brake lights and ten thousand white headlights forming a peaceful rolling stream along the interstate below.

After experiencing the speed and intensity of city traffic, the transformation seemed  surreal. Who, seeing that view, would consider the possibility that tragedy could, at any moment, interrupt that graceful slow dance through the fog? As bright and cheerful as a string of Christmas lights, rows of cars, trucks, and buses glistened under the pink-orange glow of the sodium vapor street lamps. What danger could there be in such a lovely procession?

• • • • •

As a child, of course, I never gave the road conditions so much as a second thought. I had implicit trust in my father's driving abilities and never once suspected that there might be even the slightest hint of danger in all that winter driving—not with my dad behind the wheel. Deep in the recesses of my mind lay an early memory of our brand new car being struck by an elderly lady's land yacht, but that did not shake my firm belief that accidents were distant events that happened in other places to other people.

My first true encounter with the hazards of winter travel didn't come until I was a teenager when, due to an impassable blizzard, we were forced to spend New Year's Eve in an Ellensberg Motel 6. As we set out along an ice-encrusted Interstate 90 the next day, we found ourselves watching in tense amazement as the pickup truck immediately in front of us slid out of control, started into a slow-motion spin, ricocheted off the median, struck another car, and then slipped, missing us by what seemed like inches, into the shallow ditch next to the freeway.

That's when I began to wonder if there was, perhaps, something slightly ridiculous about that annual trek over the ice and through the mountains. I began to understand that even the best of drivers can do nothing to prevent black ice, or drunk college students, or wildlife crossings. (I once watched my brother's Suburban collide with a swooping owl.) Scary things happen on the road—things beyond our control.

Every Christmas of my childhood had sent us weaving our icy way around the Palouse hills, through the Columbia gorge, over the mountain passes (chains or snow tires required), and along roadways blasted out of the rock with countless sticks of dynamite. We zipped through snow and ice and rain at historically unprecedented speeds, passing mere feet from other vehicles that raced along at equally breathtaking speeds. One unexpected bump, one careless flick of the wrist, one brief error in judgement, and goodbye family, goodbye beating hearts.

We—all of us—have been living on the edge, and yet most of us hardly consider whether this whole wintertime travel business is a good idea. In fact, most of us hardly think about driving at all, regardless of the season. Even when conditions are at their worst, we remain largely undeterred.

• • • • •

Last Monday the "check engine" light blinked on in our van, but for an entire week neither I nor my husband had time to take the vehicle in for a checkup. What was wrong with our engine neither of us knew, and on the way to school one of the kids nervously asked me if I thought our car might explode. I laughed and said I sure hoped not. How often does that really happen anyway? In my ignorance, however, I couldn't make any guarantees. But did that stop us from going where we wanted to go? Not at all. The kids must be educated, and the groceries must be hauled from afar. Driving is a luxury that most of us really cannot live without—not even at our own peril.

And it is perilous. Not to sound panicky or anything, but, well, you could die out there, you know.

As a mom with young children, I read and hear a lot of buzz about the terrible risks we take with our kids when we vaccinate them, or don't vaccinate them, or feed them foods tainted with high fructose corn syrup, or expose them to chemical pesticides, or (perish the thought) let them catch a breath of second hand smoke. But honestly, I suspect that all of those potential dangers pale in comparison to the kind of overt danger we face just driving our little ones to the mall—let alone across hundreds of miles of frozen freeway—on a snowy January day.

Stop and think about it. If there were any other behavior-related cause of death that was comparable to traffic collisions, the national outcry would be deafening. More than 6500 American children die—and tens of thousands more are injured—every year as a direct result of motor vehicle accidents. If that grim statistic were associated with a drug or a chemical or a tainted food product, you can imagine the backlash. If we could blame a corporation or the government or some other high profile scapegoat for knowingly gambling with the lives of these innocent victims, we'd all be writing letters to congress to make them stop, demanding fines, prison time, and heads on a platter.

But the thing is, even after hearing all about the risks involved, we're the ones voluntarily buckling our very own children into our minivans everyday. We're too busy stressing out about the the trans-fats that the children in the back seat are absorbing from their drive-through fries to think about the death-defying means we took to arrive at the drive through in the first place. We don't even blink when a fully loaded eighteen wheeler comes hurtling toward us at 60 MPH. We fret and worry about long-term hypothetical risks and completely ignore the immediate—but apparently acceptable—risks that are racing along in the lane next to us. Have we lost our minds?

• • • • •

If I'm reading the numbers right, traffic accidents kill more children in a single year in this country than the total number of US military deaths (combat- and non-combat-related combined) in Iraq during the three years from 2003 to 2006. Just a stone's throw from our home in Dallas, a drunk driver swerved out of his lane on Highway 183 and sent a gasoline tanker plunging off of an overpass, where it burst into an white-hot inferno and transformed the stretch of road next to the IHOP into a charred mass of unstable rebar and concrete. A few too many Budweisers and one careless driver had effectively detonated what amounted to a roadside bomb.

But I, just like everybody else, was back behind the wheel—on that very highway, no less—the same day. There was no question that the fire-blasted overpass would and must be rebuilt. Most of us read the headlines, shake our heads, and then cheerfully strap our little ones back into their car seats without a second thought. It's simply a risk that we've grown so accustomed to that we rarely think of it as a risk at all.

Most of us, after all, would rather not revert to the old covered wagon routine for bringing home the weekly mountain of groceries, let alone for heading across the mountains to visit grandma—especially during the winter months.

• • • • •

Driving at any time of year, of course, is risky—particularly if you live in a college town like mine, where roughly a third of the population consists of impatient, inexperienced, and irresponsible drivers.

Just a few months ago, a speeding car ran a red light and nearly collided with me as I was on my way home from my boys' school. And while I was in college, I had not one but two cars totaled by 17-year-old drivers—one that suddenly turned left directly in front of me on a residential street and hit me almost head-on, and one who ran a red light at an intersection and slammed into my front end with her uninsured orange Ford Bronco. Neither of those accidents happened on icy roads, and they both occurred years before anyone had ever heard of texting while driving. I've been an extremely defensive (translation: tense) driver, and an obnoxiously jumpy passenger, ever since.

• • • • •

What I've come to realize is that every time we go zipping merrily along the highway toward an oncoming car, we are defying sudden and violent death. Who of us doesn't have a few dramatic car-crash (or near-miss) stories to tell about a friend or a loved one—or ourselves?

I've spent a blazing hot afternoon stranded in the middle of a fallow field in Central Washington with my radiator punctured by a rusty, half-buried tiller—and with only a 300-pound Spanish speaking junk man and his great dane to keep me company. I've had friends hospitalized after being struck by incautious and intoxicated drivers. I've attended the funeral of a young man who fell asleep at the wheel on his way home from the university. One of my college friends lost her new husband to a wintertime car crash. The lives of the sister, brother-in-law, and baby nephew of one of my high school classmates were taken all at once by a drunk driver. Limbs and hearts have been broken on nearly every roadway in America.

And aside from the terrible human cost of driving, there are all kinds of animal casualties as well. Ten years ago, on a trip from New Orleans to Monroe, Louisiana, my husband and I drove past countless dead dogs, cats, possums, turtles, and even small alligators—a veritable natural history museum of roadkill. I know multiple people who have struck deer on the highway. The streets where we now live are polka-dotted with crushed squirrel carcasses—but then again, perhaps dead squirrels are an argument in favor of the deadly power of cars? In any case, as long as we persist in our driving habits, all sorts of traumatic events are likely to occur again.

So the question is, what keeps us going back for more?

• • • • •

Driving is, frequently, a mere matter of convenience. Even when walking or biking is a viable option, we choose driving as a quicker and easier way to get from point A to point B. Let's face it. Sometimes we're just lazy.

But often, driving is not a matter of convenience but of necessity. Unless you live in New York or Chicago and have nowhere to go beyond the fixed train routes, alternative forms of transportation are hard to come by. You might try to absolve yourself of fossil fuel guilt by taking the bus, but that does nothing to keep you off the busy roads. Besides, as my shocked children immediately discovered, buses do not have seat belts. Most American cities were not built for foot or bicycle traffic, much less for a horse and carriage. And for those of us with multiple kids and gallons of milk to haul across town, we need some kind of vehicle to help.

We also drive out of a sense of obligation. Because modern transportation has made it possible to visit distant friends and family, we feel that we must. Nobody with a functioning vehicle and some money for gas can legitimately say, "Sorry, Grandma. 100 miles is just too far to travel for Christmas."

And, in spite of the obvious dangers, most of the population isn't hitting the road in search of an adrenaline rush. Quite the opposite, actually. I'm not naming any names, but I know some people who  like to take a drive to relieve stress. There is, in fact, a whole genre of driving-for-the-love-of-it songs, typified by Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again." And even I can be carried away by that easy, free-wheelin' feelin' of watching the yellow center stripes flick past to the rhythm of a good-mood soundtrack. You just better hope that a stray moose doesn't wander across your path while you're, in the words of Son Volt, letting the "wind take your troubles away."

That brings me to what is, perhaps, the central reason for our automobile habit: it makes us feel free. "A car in every driveway" is still very much part of the American dream, and individual autonomy is arguably the reigning American value. According to American Public Media, the city of Los Angeles is home to nearly twice as many cars as drivers. It sounds ludicrous. But for us Americans, a car is more than a tool; it is a status symbol. It is more than a status symbol; it is an extension of who we are. To own a car is to hold a sense of power, independence, and importance. We select the time of departure. We set the speed. We choose the music. We decide where to go, and when to stop, and why. We are kings and queens ruling over our own little steel-and-rubber worlds. This might explain why sweet little old ladies can turn into cussing hussies when they get behind the wheel; on the highway we are tiny independent states vying for dominance, and pity the brazen fool who attempts to invade our territory. ¡Vìvà la vehicle!

So, while we may drive for convenience, necessity, pleasure, and the grand illusion of freedom, I have to wonder if even these motivations, powerful as they are, can fully explain our decision to accept the risks involved. Why are we so overwhelmingly willing to play the odds?

• • • • •

The odds themselves are, obviously, part of the answer. Even in the wintertime, you're not statistically likely to die on the way to grandma's house. For every trip that ends in a deadly crash, there are a million more that reach their destination in perfect safety. The bet is a fairly safe one. But that doesn't change the fact that it's our lives that are on the line. Even if there are a million empty chambers in the revolver, Russian roulette is still the game we're choosing to play. (C'mon, kids! Give it a spin!)

Why not stay off the roads whenever possible? Why take the gamble when the stakes are so high? For many, ignoring the risks and trusting blind fate are the best reasons they can offer. But for me the overarching reason is probably best summed up in a quote that I've heard attributed to General Stonewall Jackson: "My religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle [or behind the wheel] as in bed. God has fixed the time for my death. I do not concern myself about that, but to be always ready, no matter when it may overtake me."

In other words, the risks we take are never governed by impersonal chance. They are never automatic or meaningless. Which is to say, they are not, in the ultimate sense, risks at all; every outcome was fully planned before we were born.

The well lived life is not the one spent locked indoors, wearing a crash helmet, and popping vitamins. It is spent loving our kids, and visiting our friends, and doing our work with the confidence that comes from faith: Yea, though I drive through the turnpike of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.

This naturally raises deeper questions about the unfathomable relationship between God's sovereignty and human responsibility, but I will let the theologians and pastors expound that one more fully. I will simply say that I believe God uses indirect means, from Roman crosses to snow tires, to accomplish His ends, and that there is no contradiction between trusting God and buckling our seat belts. We are not called to express our faith by being stupidly suicidal but by living each day as we ought, in spite of the apparent danger. We can drive to school or go to battle assured that in God's hands we are as safe there—or as doomed—as in bed.

So, while purchasing expensive new tires was part of being a good steward of our family's lives, and while I may have been grateful to stay comfortably at home for the holidays, there is, perhaps, no better time than during the Christmas season to recognize that evading death is not the point of living. This life is not meant to be lived for the sole purpose of its own preservation. That momentous birth in Bethlehem was all about taking up a mortal life in order to lay it down. Because of this, we are free to take risks, even deadly ones, in order to fulfill our duties and in order to love others—which is, after all, essentially the same thing.

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