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184,000 miles. This is the number glowing green on the dashboard of my 2008 gold Prius. Although most people might interpret this number as a sign my car has been on the road for far too long, I see it as a badge of honor. Despite the strange noise that accompanies speeds over 30 miles per hour, and the persistent smell of old Thai food, my car is one of the most cherished spaces in my life. It is quite literally a vehicle for discovery, both a means of transportation and a physical space where I have the time to think, debate, and dream.
Well before 184,000 miles, probably closer to 80,000 miles, I was sitting in the passenger seat of the car at 11 years old. With no choice in car entertainment, I was compelled to listen to my father’s hours-long biographies of famed political figures. I would put my scrawny legs up on the dashboard, lay my head back to watch the pink-blue sky filter through the sunroof of our Prius, and listen to the smooth voice of Richard McGonagle narrate the highs and lows of Andrew Jackson’s political career as we rolled through the farms of Central Valley. I did not always understand the specifics, but the biographies continually led to intense discussions about purpose, morality, and determination. At 180,000 miles, I was driving through eastern California with my two best friends, the car full of laughter and music. While exploring the caverns of Salvation Mountain, I did not find myself thinking about the next spot to snap that insta-worthy shot. Instead, my friends and I considered the implications of this tourist attraction in a rather destitute area. While driving through Imperial Valley, we discussed the plight of migrant farm workers who depend on the growing seasons for work, and we dreamt up solutions involving sustainable farming practices. And when we came upon the Salton Sea, we stared out among the dead fish that littered the shores and contemplated how human carelessness erodes the environment, and in turn how it affects the economies of the surrounding communities.
I’m at 184,000 miles now, driving to and from school everyday. The car has become an extension of the classroom. On these daily rides, my brother and I trade hypotheticals: he asks me what historical event I would change if possible, and I ask him if he thinks the world would have ended up any different if I had changed something. From there the conversation shifts, as we ponder ancient philosophies, modern poets, the very best snack foods. From the social theories of Diogenes to Fermi’s paradox and the zoo hypothesis, we are unembarrassed to entertain every idea.I know my relationship with my car is unique. In California, where most people equate the car with rush hour traffic and pollution, the vehicle gets a bad rep. As someone who is passionate about the environment and social justice issues, I understand the grievances that the car elicits. The car is the poster child of mass production, a principle figure behind the conformist culture of post-war America. Yet, I find beauty in the other aspects of the car, the things that I have been able to do as a result of this machine.
Time in the car is time unallocated to any other activity. I cannot be frantically cramming for a test, answering emails or checking social media. I simply must exist in the moment. 184,000 miles is soon to be 185,000 miles. I don’t know where I’m going next, but I’ll let you know when I get there.