Take to the open road

Gray Hughes

Roughly 10 years ago this time (I cannot remember the exact date) I got my driver’s license.

Now we in Maryland need to wait a little longer than those in South Dakota to get our license (if I recall correctly when I got mine you had to be 16 and 6 months), but I still remember that feeling — that feeling of true freedom and the first time as a youth that you are handed adult responsibilities.

In Maryland then, the license exam was pretty hard, and my local DMV (in Maryland we call them MVAs) were pretty hard on first-time takers, especially if you were a male who seemed a little cocky, like I did.

I failed my first time taking my exam. Apparently you can’t tap the cone when you are parallel parking. Whatever.

I remember, though, I walked in there so cocky that I was going to pass and I remember telling my coworkers at the time (I was a takeout counter worker at a local seafood restaurant) that the next time they see me I’ll have my license. Well, I was so embarrassed that I failed that I told them and all of my friends that the MVA overbooked and I couldn’t take my exam. In fact, this might be the first time I am admitting to this publicly.

Anyway, I went again the next week and took the exam again and passed with flying colors. I remember getting my license and thinking, “Now I’m grown up” (boy was I wrong). For the first time in my life, I was entrusted with doing the things that grownups were doing. That was a fantastic feeling.

I took to the open road in my 2004 Volvo XC90. I had that car until I was a junior in college. I’ve written about it before. It was a tank that was faster than any other car I’ve had since then.

That baby couldn’t be destroyed and believe me, my juvenile brain tried hard. I hit so many curbs that my car had yellow paint on the rims. And these were nice rims, too. They were aftermarket and I ruined them because I had a love affair with the curb at the Taco Bell by my high school.

But I remember driving all of my friends around who didn’t have their licenses yet. I remember thinking, “This is the life.” We would drive up and down Coastal Highway in Ocean City (the main drag through town) or down country roads, windows down, music blaring whatever terrible song we were into at the time.

Now, as I am writing this, I am thinking it’s a miracle that I didn’t get into an accident. You might have gotten a feeling through this column that I wasn’t the greatest driver. Those feelings would be correct. I got my license before I had to start wearing glasses and, in hindsight, glasses might have been needed even at that time. I was so small (I didn’t hit my growth spurt until I was 18) that I had a hard time seeing everything around me. Plus having subpar vision at that time probably didn’t help, either.

Here’s a little story about how bad I was. My high school was on the same campus that my sister’s elementary school was on. I would drop her off at her school and then circle around to the high school. Well, apparently, I pulled out in front of another parent dropping off their child. They complained to the school that some reckless high schooler was driving like a maniac. The school figured out it was me and I was barred from the lower school carpool line. I had to park in my spot at my high school and walk my sister down to her school.

Now, let me tell you there is nothing more fragile than a teenage boy’s ego who thought he was all that (looking back at it, though, I wasn’t all that). That one hurt for a while.

Anyway, my driving improved once I got glasses and hit my growth spurt when I was a senior in high school. I could read road signs and actually see the other drivers on the road. Funny how that works.

Over the years, I started driving more and more and driving seemed less and less fun. Joy rides turned into the daily commute to work. But I always found time to take to the open road.

After graduating from college, I drove about two and a half hours most weekends from my job in Delaware (or Maryland depending on the day) to Philadelphia to visit people there. Navigating through traffic on Route 1 in Delaware and in and around Philadelphia was a chore. Believe me when I tell you that traffic is one of the things I don’t miss about home. I would routinely find myself sitting in traffic for hours at a time.

But there was something therapeutic about that drive, too. I would drive up, listening to music for the first half and then when I got in the area I would flip on 94.1 WIP (the sports radio station I’ve written about before and I still listen to even today). It was the road and me. I would set the cruise control on 76 mph once I got to a certain point, and I could cruise (those drives back from Philadelphia at 5 a.m. Monday morning, though, weren’t as much fun).

Even to this day, I find my half-hour drive to and from work every day calming. I think the drive between Hill City and my house is one of the most calming drives out there. I’m treated to beautiful views and uncrowded highways. I’m really blessed. It calms me down before work and relaxes me after a long day.

So, this summer, if you can’t get away take a scenic drive, drive the Needles or Iron Mountain Road. If you need some solidarity, take some time to think and do those roads by yourself. But if you want to relive those glory days when it was just you, your friends and some bad music, take those roads with family or good friends, windows down, music blaring.

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