By Ryan O’Connell
I never really understood why people got so excited over their driver’s licenses.
I remember getting mine on my 17th birthday. I missed part of school, went to the DMV in Milford, and passed the test without very much fanfare.
It was neither particularly easy nor difficult, but I do remember being nervous. It helped that my instructor and the proctor talked about Disney World the entire time with a nonchalance that went against every driving test I’d ever seen on TV.
I don’t remember very much about actually learning to drive, though, except for one very common question.
“You must be excited to finally get some freedom, huh?”
Members of my extended family, my friends’ parents, even strangers all asked some variation of this question whenever my age came up in conversation. It was always focused on the concept of “freedom,” or “escaping.”
I would respond with a “yes,” or an “of course,” every time - but I never really felt that excitement they were talking about.
The question always struck me as a little strange - it implied I had entered an entire new chapter in my life, akin to graduating high school or moving out.
Learning to drive is a milestone in a small, unwalkable suburb like the one I grew up in, that’s true.
But I never saw it as that new chapter, or a car as some golden ticket to a free life. After all, wherever I went, I’d have to be back home by nighttime, right?
In my eyes, just having the means to get away still didn’t make it possible.
Besides - I liked my house, my town, my mother and sister. I liked my school, riding my bike, and taking walks in the woods. I had an appreciation for the time, place, and privacy of where I grew up.
Even then, I recognized not everyone shared that appreciation - but I never made the connection between it and why I couldn’t ever give an enthusiastic answer to the question.
Five months ago, in the dog days of summer, I visited a friend in New York.
The first time I had been to New York was earlier in March of the same year, when I represented The Gatepost at the College Media Association conferences in Times Square. The city enraptured me.
While we did have a few opportunities for sightseeing on that trip, like 30 Rockefeller Plaza, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and even The New York Times office - or at least its front doors - close to eight hours a day were spent in the hotel learning how to build a better publication.
The conference, I felt, was extremely fulfilling.
But there was still a lot of New York City I wanted to see when we left. So I decided to go see it again.
It took a little over four hours to get to my friend’s house. I avoided going through Connecticut, and instead opted for the scenic views of western Massachusetts and I-90.
I spent it talking on the phone, listening to music with my windows down, and shooting film photography out the driver’s side window when I made it to the Berkshires.
I passed “the highest point of I-90 east of South Dakota,” which I found to be a hilariously specific landmark. I stopped on the side of the road to look at hills. I rolled through the very same part of Great Barrington I visited two years ago when I climbed Mt. Everett with my best friends.
It was the longest, farthest drive I’d ever taken. And I had done it alone.
The drive, only 200 miles, wasn’t even very far by American standards. I was still proud of it.
And being the lone traveler on so many beautiful back roads, I did start to feel like I had my own freedom.
When I got to the house, turned off my car, and stepped out under the spotty street lamps of a neighborhood I’d never seen before, I felt excited.
And I think I finally understood why everyone kept asking me that stupid question.