A white woman's hand is shown in the side mirror with a desert landscape behind.

The first car I remember was a silver Toyota Hi-Ace van. It was my father’s first new car in his entire life and he was very excited about it. I was just learning to write, and, helpful to a T, I held high-level discussions with each of my family members about who would sit where. Dad was the only driver so his seat was secure. He liked to hold my mum’s hand, so she would be in the front with him. My brother and I took pains to choose our seats, considering the window views, the feeling of the seatbelt across our chicken-skin shoulders, and the dual annoyance and honor of having to slide open the van door for our sibling. Eventually, it was settled. So in the neatest hand I could wrangle, with a fresh Sharpie, I wrote each of our names on the back of my dad’s first brand-new light-grey leather seats.

I learned to drive in the cheapest car on the market. A Hyundai Elantra, in burgundy. More plastic than metal, it was already a little beat up when I got it and my ownership helped it none. But the car—or at least to begin, the car loan—was mine, and I was excited about all the places it would take me. My driving instructor taught me good habits: Neutral at the traffic lights, a foolproof way to parallel park, and how to set my mirrors. This was a time before cell phones so he told me not to get distracted by billboards or a beautiful view. Hands at ten and two, thumbs astride not inside. At a slip lane, I ran it up the back of a metal tray truck, which was completely unscathed, but which left a tin-deep 20-inch scratch on my hood in the shape of a phoenix or maybe a demon. I never fixed it, or anything else that I didn’t have to. Plastic parts fell into the wheel well and I wrenched them off with my hands. The seats cracked apart in the harsh Queensland sun. The radio died so I plugged in a portable CD player. The back door stopped locking. One day, while I was volunteering at my local housing projects, someone helped themselves to my dodgy door, my CD walkman, and Ministry of Sound’s Sessions II. I moved with the Elantra across the country to Melbourne but not back. I left it there and bought another car. I left my girlfriend. I left my life.

Back in my hometown, new job, new flat, and a cobalt blue friend: A Mitsubishi Lancer. Only eighty thousand miles and not a scratch on it. One owner, services all registered in the precise hand of the same mechanic in a log book that was neatly stacked in the glove box along with all the other papers I might need. Instruction manuals, even! Everything was pristine and organized. I tracked down the same mechanic—the same neat hand—to continue the scheduled services. They didn’t know me but they knew my car. The dedication of that first owner inspired me. Maybe if I could get my car serviced the way they did, the rest of my life would be as neat as I imagined theirs was: Calm. Orderly. Successful.

I drove that car all over the dusty state. It had a few bumps, and when I smashed the side mirror I just replaced it with a thrift store hand mirror and called it good. One day, driving a love interest home, he said “I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve danced to this song” so I pulled over on the verge, cranked the stereo, and there, by the side of the highway, we added one more to his tally. It was Lovecats. We were young. The drizzle landed soft and cool on our skin.

The company I worked for was selling part of its land to the government for a highway on-ramp. While the new car park was constructed, our company leased a vacant lot a few streets away for our cars. My shift ended around midnight and the flirty security guard insisted on walking me to my car. She did not insist on pressing me up against my door and making out with me but I fucking loved it. Cool metal at my back and, at my front, the amorphous threshold of our bodies. Every now and then across the paddock, a car started up, and I’d wonder if it was someone from my department or hers. I wonder now if they said tsk tsk or awww.

New habits die hard

When I left the country for my new life in America, I gave that car to my brother. To my knowledge, it is still his second car, though it’s getting very long in the tooth now and I suspect the log book is irrelevant. When I borrowed it back on my first visit home, I grabbed the keys, opened the door, and confidently sat … in the passenger’s seat. New habits die hard. When I left, I intended to go back home every eighteen months to visit family. My last visit was six years ago.

My next car was my fiance’s and it came with some emotional baggage. He had bought it from his dad under duress because his previous car had been wiped out in an accident that permanently disabled his back, ended his romantic relationship, and put him in debt. At least, that’s how he tells it. He says a 16-year-old drunk joyrider called Jesús came screaming down the Grapevine and smashed into his car. Jesus ruined his life, he would say, darkly.

One Tuesday morning, a check would come for $10,000 from the uninsured motorist scheme. God bless the nanny state of California. Ten grand for the inflection point of his thirties, but it was a lot of money for us. We spent it on a black Scion XD. It was the right price, it was a good car, and he loved that the model badge looked like a grinning face in old-school text emoji. We packed it up with camping gear every month during California’s long season and covered it in soot from our fire while we drank dark beers and watched the owls swoop for field mice. We were in love. We were in the same place.

The roof of the XD was the perfect height for him to put his iced tea and iPad every morning while he sleepily fumbled with the keys. Not once but twice, the iced tea made its way inside but the iPad did not. The first time, someone found it in a garden by our house, its case gnawed by raccoons but otherwise unscathed. The next time, we both saw it fly from the roof on the highway on-ramp and then unceremoniously drop to the asphalt. It looked OK so we stopped and I ran back for it… just in time to watch the next car run right over it.

It doesn’t take much to write off a $10,000 car. The Scion XD was rear-ended at a stoplight one sunny San Francisco afternoon and even though we swore black and blue that it was driveable, the insurance company pulled rank and sent us a check. We drove the check to Sacramento and gave it to a man who looked like Kenny G in exchange for a silver Subaru Forester that smelled like burning oil on our test drive. I asked what the smell was and the salesman said he had just filled it and maybe spilled a bit. I asked if we could get an independent inspection and he said no. We bought the car anyway.

It had broken down twice before we left California that summer and the repair shop said we needed to spend $3,000 to save it. By that point, my husband had rage-quit his job, literally throwing his keys at his boss and walking out. We moved north to Oregon, where the Forester sat in our driveway for four years while we tried to find the money to fix it. I don’t know what happened to that car. I left it, and him, during the summer that didn’t exist in 2020. All told I might have driven it seven times in its whole existence. I liked it though. I’d own a Forester again if the circumstances were right.

What about half a car?

In the spring of 2021, I had a writing residency planned in the Black Hills of South Dakota. I was completely burned out from the divorce, running a business, and the year that never was. I planned to take a month off my work and camp in the back of my car from the Pacific Northwest to the Plains. The trouble was, I didn’t own a car. I considered my options: Should I rent a car, knowing I was about to take it on some of the worst roads in the west, or should I buy a beater and risk that it would shit itself going over the Rockies? I talked it over with my good friend Steph, who said: “Well, what about half a car?”

Steph had a doggo and errands to run around town. I had no need for a car except to get the hell out of my own head and drive into the desert for weeks at a time. She had a driveway the car would live in, and we would negotiate access ad hoc. It turned out to be a perfect arrangement because in Portland, like many world cities, you really don’t often need a car. And when you do, you need a Jeep.

The Hagwagon, as it became known, was a slate-grey Jeep Patriot. It had already done some miles but it was looking good. Log books in order, cosmetic problems but nothing wrong under the hood. It would accommodate a double bike rack on the tow ball, a futon in the back, and an aux cord to bring the CD player sound system into the modern world. We took a hairdryer to the model badge that neither of us was comfortable with and thus, the Jeep RIOT Hagwagon began its life with us. Over the years, it gained a few features: A plastic elk gifted by a girlfriend’s kid, some dog toys, and a National Parks pass or two. It was a good friend to us both, and we treated it kindly. If scouring its duco with sagebrush on Bureau of Land Management roads (but keeping it serviced regularly) counts as kind. Which it does.

Inevitably, though, my pattern is to leave places, people, and cars. I left Portland in early 2023 to find out what would happen if I lived in the same city as the person I loved and we could see each other without the need for United Airlines. As it turns out for me, distance is a feature, not a bug. Steph said she would happily keep the Hagwagon and when I picture her house, there it is, the RIOT in her driveway between the lavender and the tulips.

I don’t own a car right now. From time to time, I hire one for a Costco trip or solo hike in the forest. And for the most part, I don’t miss it: The hassle of parking in the city, the insurance, the servicing costs. Plus, the desert I dream of driving into is now 2,000 miles away. I left its doorstep and I’m now on the sullen muddy shores of the Atlantic.

But in my mind’s eye, and in the photograph I keep in my living room, my hand lolls out the window, lazy in the desert sunshine. I’m not sure where I’m going but no one is expecting me anyway. The radio is blasting something I love, I’m supremely distracted by a beautiful view, and on the back of the driver’s seat, there is my name.