permission to learn.

My niece Sarah is fifteen years old and has her learner's permit. Let's go ahead and note that the term "learner's permit" is kinda goofy. It implies you need a permit to learn, as if learning were the same as burning brush or selling cocktails. Did you know that I was learning a whole bunch for the first years of my life, without a permit? Luckily, the statute of limitations has expired or they could come and take me away.

Anyway, she's got her permit. I don't know what it means for her, but I was kinda surprised at how blase she was about the whole thing. I spent last week with her (and her brother and parents), and she didn't request to drive even once. I remember wanting to drive pretty much any time I was allowed, but maybe I am mis-remembering. Maybe it got old after the first month or so, but I only remember those first few weeks of supervised freedom.

We drove up to the mountains. She was riding with me and Josh, and I considered letting her take the wheel, because I want to be a supportive aunt. And then I thought about that stretch of I-40 where you're going up and down the mountain, the road curving this way and that, giant trucks looming over you. I like mountain roads, but not everyone is so enamored of them. Maybe those people should try a good, responsive Japanese car.

As it turns out, it was good thinking that I stayed at the helm. Right in the middle of our journey down curvy mountain roads, a tumultuous thunderstorm hit. It wasn't a sprinkle or a drizzle, but big ole fat rain coming hard and fast. Motorcyclists stopped under overpasses, skittish drivers slowed down to 55 and put on their blinkers. Even with my wipers going as fast as they could, visibility was limited.

You can imagine the kind of storm I'm talking about, because you've probably driven through several just like it. The experience is a little white-knuckled, but nothing that you can't get through. Slow and steady does it, and watch out for idiots. Don't worry about the guy behind you; if he's impatient, then he'll get over it. Had Sarah been driving through her first downpour, I would have repeated those bits of advice to her over and over in between words of calm assurance. I also would have told her that if she wanted to pull over at the underpass and switch seats, that would be just fine. She would have been alright, most likely, but I'm not disappointed that her first bad weather driving experience didn't happen in my nearly-new car.

I remember my first downpour. It was in my dad's truck, which was clunky to drive anyway. Also, the wipers were torn, such that each swipe scraped hard plastic against glass, while the useless rubber trailed along behind. I kept turning them off and then on again full-blast, unable to decide which gave me a less impenetrable view. It was absolutely terrifying. But I made it that time and I could probably do it again.

I remember my first blizzard, and I've since been through a few of those, too. The advice is mostly the same: go slow, no sudden movements. Don't panic. I credit my surviving the first one to my ex-boyfriend, who sat beside me in the passenger seat, talking me through it with equal parts advice and encouragement. He did a great job of acting like he wasn't scared. Driving through a snowstorm sucks, and I don't want to live in a place where it's common, but I've done it so much that I approach it with a kind of tense determination rather than wide-eyed terror. Ah, yes, this again.

What could have been Sarah's first big storm on her first mountain interstate passed. The motorcyclists came back out and everyone turned off their emergency flashers (except for the old people). I drove on, my responsive Japanese car hugging the turns and passing the trucks. We were headed for a cabin on the side of a mountain. We had the GPS, but we soon got to the point where the lady giving us directions became very confused about where we were. So we turned her off and just followed the instructions. From a marked two-lane country road to an unmarked two-lane road to an unmarked one-lane road, we eventually came to a fork. The right path was much like what we were on: steep, narrow, and paved several years ago. The left road was steep, gravel, and half washed out from springtime thaws, but we thought it might be the driveway. That's my only defense for taking what was clearly the road to insanity.

About halfway up the road less travelled, it became clear that my responsive Japanese car was not meant for this kind of terrain. It's possible that with enough initial momentum, we would have made it up, but instead we just parked halfway. Josh got out and determined that both roads off the fork went to the same place, and only a suicidal person would ever have picked the left road. I was much relieved that I would not have to attempt this road every day of my vacation; the mere thought of it made me tired. The only trouble now was that I wanted to either be at the top or the bottom of this road, and I was neither.

The situation reminded me of a time right after I first got my license. We had left my station wagon at a neighbor's for some forgotten reason, and my dad dropped me off so I could drive it back to our house. I had to back out of a driveway 200 feet long and covered in a couple inches of snow. The terrain was dirt, but completely flat. Really, it was no big deal, but I was so scared. I'm sure my dad thought nothing of it at all, but then he wasn't in the car to hear me holding my breath until I let it all out in a huge sigh of relief once I finally pulled out into the road. It was a complete non-event. It doesn't even make a good story: once when I was sixteen, I had to back out of a driveway. But it was sort of pivotal for me. Like everything when I was sixteen, it seemed important at the time.

There I sat, halfway up and halfway down the left road. I threw her in reverse and eased back down. In the backseat, Sarah listened to her iPod. Maybe she was aware that the situation was a little sticky or maybe she thought that grownups were confident in all their maneuvers. After all, I've been a licensed driver for nearly twelve years (gah). I wasn't really worried, but I was conscious of the fact that extra caution should be used. And I was thinking about backing out of that snowy, flat driveway.

I don't think the importance of experience has ever really struck me before. I mean, duh, obviously it is, otherwise insurance rates wouldn't be so high for teenagers. But it's also why there is such thing as a learner's permit. We could raise the driving age or force kids to take more classes, but in the end, we have to let them get in the car and go down the road. It is terrifying at first, and maybe it gets worse before it gets better, but eventually they'll know what to do. They'll say, "Ah, yes, this again," and they'll deal with it.

There is probably some bigger message here, some parallel to life in general, but I can't think of it.

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