She was knitting when the brakes went out.
Thinking back on it now, I have no idea what the hell she was knitting. She was with me for half of a seven-thousand mile road trip, and she was knitting for a lot of it, and it feels weird that I can’t picture in my head what she was making that whole time. I’d always thought she was a little clairvoyant, but in retrospect, I guess if she had been, she would’ve been knitting a serpentine belt. Knowing her, the product didn’t really matter. The point was the verb, not the noun. I can get behind that sentiment.
We were verbing at about seventy miles an hour in my 1973 Camaro (Z28, split bumper, rebuilt 350 under the hood, mostly original apart from the five-speed transmission dropped in by a previous owner and a midlife crisis dropped in by its current one.)
Place: Salt Lake City. Time: rush hour. Supporting cast: the rest of Salt Lake City, proceeding at seventy miles an hour all around us. It was aggressively sunny. It had been 340 miles since the car had broken down in Rifle, Colorado—the lights-camera-action of an alternator failing at speed—and we were finally making good time.
I tapped the brakes. The pedal tapped the floor. I gently informed my companion that brakes were no longer one of the options provided in this sports car for four.
She put down her knitting and picked up her phone. She murmured serenely, “There’s an exit in half a mile, then stay to the left.”
I could describe the years I’ve spent learning to pilot this particular car at speed and what that exit from the interstate looked like, but instead, I invite the reader to spend that time watching their favorite YouTube compilation of surprising animal noises. Substitute this as a soundtrack as any for the Camaro’s tires during this brief action sequence.
Eventually chaos and inertia released us and, having failed to easily diagnose any altitude misadventures, we eased into a shop.
Noting my Virginia plates, the mechanic asked what I was doing way out in Utah. I roughed in the basics: author. Book tour. Coast-to-coast.
“Your publisher won’t fly you?”
“I’d rather drive,” I said. “Nothing’ll stop me.”
Especially now, it seemed, since it turned out that my master brake cylinder had failed. What was left for me now that my steed had faltered halfway through my midnight ride? My publisher would’ve happily put me on a plane to the next city. A media escort would have picked me up from the airport and set me on my path.
Instead I told the mechanic to see if he could apply some leeches to the ailing Camaro in time for me to leave. And just in case he couldn’t, I rented a car.
Because I’d always rather drive.
There’s two things going on here. Car (noun). Drive (verb).
Car versus plane (nouns, both of them.) Plug the nouns in for a straightforward equation that too many humans have solved for the answer to be revolutionary.
In a car, I don’t have to arrive an hour before departure, I don’t need to limit my shampoo to three ounces, I don’t have to endure the ignominy of an artificial atmosphere composed of strangers’ farts, and if I remove my shoes and belt before getting in, it’s for pleasure, not business. Plus, my cars look fucking cool, and I enjoy looking fucking cool.
In an airport, I’m a styrofoam peanut in a box of hundreds of other styrofoam peanuts. In my car, I’m an individual. No one tells me what to do. Delta isn’t my real mom.
This isn’t science, it’s just goddamn reality.
Drive. (verb) Even though they frequently travel together, loving a car is a different thing than loving to drive. If it were just about being in a car, rather than controlling it, my transportation landscape would look very different. I’d take a bus. I’d take a train. I’d eagerly await the appearance of our new automotive overlord, the self-driving car.
But I want to drive. And you know what, people give me a lot of grief for this, but the joke’s on them, because it turns out that most people would also rather drive, even if it costs them more money than taking a train, is more likely to kill them than taking a plane, and makes a statistically significant number of their adult passengers want to puke. Brits love driving. Australians love driving. Americans want to be able to take the wheel from Jesus at any point.
It’s not just me, you assholes.
Recently, I lost several hours on the Internet reading abstracts for scientific papers on apes.
Having just concluded yet another seven-thousand-mile book tour, I’d been thinking a lot about the joy of driving: namely, how odd it was that so many people would enjoy an activity that was not inherent to our species. Babies don’t dream of driving Camaros across the desert.
Fossil fuel pimps—adults who already drive Camaros across deserts—have to whisper the pleasures of driving to the next generation. Come on kid, try it. Check out what I’ve got in this alley. We’ll start you out on something mild, take a puff of this Sentra.
So I was reading about apes, because they’re slightly more ethical to run long-term experiments on than babies. I didn’t really know what I was looking for. I wanted to know if apes loved movement. I wanted to know if apes rode horses recreationally. I wanted to know if a bonobo would ever think to recreationally drive a Kia if another bonobo hadn’t already told him it was a good time. I wanted to know if bonobos had an unknowing hole in their lives where a Sunday drive should be.
Screw bonobos, actually. I just wanted to know why I love to drive.
The answer is this: nobody knows. That’s not true. Nobody knows the all of it. It turns out that a number of studies have been done on why humans love to drive, mostly so that we can be eventually be talked out of it.
Here are some of the reasons we drive:
Our vestibular sense is what allows us to recognize where we are in relation to the rest of the world; it’s how we perceive movement. Turns out, humans love the hell out of having their vestibular sense stimulated. Babies like swings. Teens like roller coasters. Adults like Ford GTs.
Unfortunately, we’re pukers.
The older we get, the more likely we are to get motion sick. Motion sickness shows up most commonly when we’re not directly controlling the movement — so, while playing video games, watching those infernal 3-D movies, or as a the passenger of a car. Driving gives us the joy of movement without the nausea. But—sailing into existential seas now—what is joy?
Is this joy? Some pin the joy of driving on the racing high, but if the average pleasure driver were aiming straight for adrenalin, none of us would ever get stuck behind a leisurely puttering Boss Mustang ever again. And in any case, there are cheaper adrenalin kicks to be had. It’s not that I don’t get why people think adrenalin fuels drivers. I drive a lot of miles, and I drive a lot of miles at speed. If the points on my license were dwarves, I’d have enough to populate Snow White’s house twice over.
But I drove Porsches on an ice track this spring and while it was a good time, this old heart of mine didn’t turn over any faster than it did on pump gas. Adrenalin was not the ghost in that machine.
Sports psychologists wouldn’t be surprised. They’ve been poking at the weirdos who participate in extreme sports for years and they keep finding out that they aren’t thrill-seekers but challenge-seekers who have outstripped the easy levels.
“It’s hard for people to understand why someone like me would want to charge down a Class V river. They don’t understand, because my skill level is beyond theirs.”
“Participants do not freeze with fear; instead their perceptions seem to open up, resulting in the same heightened sense of awareness and calmness associated with meditation.”
That shit is the sound of your prefrontal cortex being blown, ladies and gentlemen. I think that happens to me at around 4,000 RPM and up. Which leads into:
This is the chemical that makes us happy: it’s associated with joy, reward, pleasure, and love. There’s all kinds of way to get some. Meditation. Hotties. Gambling. Roller coasters. Coke. Food with tyrosine. Accomplishing a goal. Music. Surviving trauma, like driving through Boston. Six hundred horses at the wheel.
Dopamine is a wash of good feeling, a sense of well-being. We love it. We need it. It’s good for us. It’s bad for us. It’s everything it means to be human.
And what’s more, the chemical puzzle of dopamine also beautifully explains those leisurely puttering Boss Mustangs previously mentioned — the differences in individual dopamine production allow for an enormous range in driving pleasure.
People who naturally produce little dopamine require only small additional amounts to feel the positive effects: cue the Mustang toddling along happily. Those who naturally produce a lot of dopamine require larger amounts—and more extreme efforts—to feel the glow: cue the Mustang serenely screaming past at three digits. We can all love driving for the same reason. Some of us just need a bit more horsepower to get there.
The Camaro made it out of Salt Lake City on time. Spirits were high. We didn’t yet know that we’d only make it another 350 miles before I had to repair the alternator again in Winnemucca, Nevada, and honestly, even if I’d known, I probably still would have been in a good mood. Because for the moment, I was behind the wheel of a car, and as long as I was behind the wheel of a car, I was happy.
Do I care if it’s dopamine or adrenalin or the exhaust leak I can’t seem to keep repaired? Not really. There’s something spiritual about driving, and something downright mystical about driving an old muscle car. Especially after dark, in a cool California night, when you’ve finally made it to the coast opposite the one you began on. Everything runs better, everything seems louder.
The vinyl seats creak and the dashboard groans and the engine kicks and it’s all organic and living; I become the fast-firing machine, it’s the animal.
Dopamine’s just a noun. Driving’s the verb. That’s all that matters in the end.
Maggie Stiefvater is a novelist, musician, car enthusiast and occasional rally driver based in Virginia. She’s more badass than you are.