My dad sat beside me in our Toyota pickup truck and watched the straight country road as I drove, my ten-year-old hands dreamily languishing on the wheel. A turn loomed before us, a sharp one that bent left, and I gazed at it without seeing it. I don’t remember what occupied my mind—maybe I was saving the human race from a horrible natural disaster, or rescuing animals from a gouged and ruined wilderness, or fighting in the American Civil War, my hair shorn like a boy’s and my heart beating to the rhythms of justice and liberty for all.
“TURN!” My dad’s elevated voice popped my heroic daydreams. I stared at the snowbank that fast approached and pressed the clutch with my left foot, preparing to shift to a lower gear so I could turn without crashing. Since I had just learned how to drive a manual transmission, I still had trouble not looking down at the gear stick so I could see the numbers and know which gear I needed to shift to. I tried to stare at the road and sneak a glance at the gear stick at the same time, but my dad, as always, caught me.
“Don’t look down,” he said, his hands hovering over the wheel so that he could grab it in case my ministrations did not succeed. I cringed as I grabbed the knob and shifted down and turned left, barely escaping a collision with the pile of cold smoke. Back then (in the early 2000s–oh so long ago), few people drove on that road, and no cars’ drivers witnessed my feeble driving skills or my young age. My dad always said that as long as we stuck to country roads and I did not break the law while driving, police could not pull me over and discover that I was ten.
We both allowed puffs of relieved breath to spill from our lips as we continued down the road. After my dad lectured me on the importance of paying attention to my surroundings, we both laughed a little. That’s what we do when we’re nervous or sad or relieved.
Five years later, I had taken Driver’s Ed, had a learner’s license tucked in my wallet, and was again driving in the pickup truck with my dad in the passenger seat. This time my sister was also with us, and I had long left the country roads in favor of the I-90 freeway that led from our home to the town of Bozeman.
“Exit here,” my dad said, pointing to an exit that curved into a cloverleaf ramp.
“Got it,” I said, staring at the mountains and missing the yellow sign that advised drivers to slow down to a speed of 25 miles per hour. My odometer read 75 miles per hour, and before my Dad could tell me to shift down, I flew onto that cloverleaf ramp with gusto. The poor pickup danced on its left side of wheels while its right side hung in the air above the road for a split second, and icy fear clutched my bones as the lives of three-fourths of my family dangled in the hushed and taut space between life and death.
When the pickup came down again, my Dad’s mouth gaped and his eyes bulged. “There was a sign,” he whispered. “25 miles per hour.”
“I didn’t see it,” I said.
“You have to pay attention,” my Dad said, laughter bubbling from his throat. “Or else we could all die.”
My sister and I joined his nervous laughter, and I swore to myself that I would always pay attention, for bringing tragedy to my family was the last thing I wanted to have happen as the result of my daydreams and imagination.
The snowbank and the cloverleaf incidents have lodged themselves in my mind, and I have recently begun to apply them to a situation besides driving: writing. I keep a notebook in my purse for the whispers of inspiration that sneak through my day, and that makes me pay more attention to my surroundings—to the people and nature and words I see and hear and feel. But I also learn to see the moments in my writing where I have nearly crashed. Those moments come when I do not invest a proper amount of time and thought into a piece of work, or when I have written something I know is not wholly honest, or when I have failed to allow a story or anecdote lead me in the direction it needs to go.
Because of the cloverleaf and the snowbank, I know that when I make the mistake of not paying attention to what I write, I can recognize it, laugh, and move forward.
I’m linking up with Kirsten Oliphant for more Not So (Small) Stories at http://kirstenoliphant.com/2014/03/11/small-stories-sixth-edition/ . This week we’re working on the hook and our writing prompt is ‘drive.’ Join us!