Refinery29 is proud to partner with Autotrader to celebrate the pivotal, impactful relationships women maintain with their cars. Ahead, hear how one woman’s car purchase fueled an important self-discovery.
By the time I was 18 years old, I had totaled two cars, racked up an impressively high car-insurance rate (paid begrudgingly by my parents), and purchased a used road bike on the internet. After my second accident — I’d rear-ended my mother’s friend’s son’s car and destroyed the front axle of my car — it was only fair that I downgrade to two wheels.
At the end of that summer, I hitched a ride to Austin with my future college dorm-mate, and for the remainder of my freshman year, I cruised around town on my dinky, secondhand bicycle. Sure, I loved it, but I was restless — I’d adjusted to the comfort and convenience afforded to me by a car. I missed the act of driving and the freedom that came with it.
So, at the start of my sophomore year, I decided it was time for my third motor vehicle — one I would be far kinder to (or so I hoped). I spent much of my free time over the next two years clocking hours at a dismal shoe store with awful fluorescent light bulbs in service of my future car fund. And sure enough, by June 2013, my shoe-horning days had finally paid off (literally). At long last, I was searching for a new (used) car.
Eventually, standing beside my dad in a used-car dealership in Dallas, I found “the one”: a 2001 Jeep Cherokee Sport with 100,000 miles already on it and a caramel-colored interior that smelled like old cigarettes and stale coffee. It had a white exterior — only slightly dented! — and a gently peeling bumper sticker that read “My child is an honor student!” No, it wasn't for everyone. But to me, it was perfect.
I knew I’d found 'the one' the moment I laid eyes on it: a 2001 Jeep Cherokee Sport with 100,000 miles already on it and a caramel-colored interior that smelled like old cigarettes and stale coffee.
At the time, I was living at home for the summer on the outskirts of Dallas, and my dad had agreed to split the bill with me. I handed over my half — $2,000 — glowing with pride. On our drive off the lot, I gripped the steering wheel so hard my knuckles turned white. The cassette player (yes, a cassette player) already had a tape inside, which felt like a good omen — classic '80s rock, a staple of my childhood. I rolled down the windows and we raced home, hot Texas air whipping across the dashboard as we sped along the five-lane highway that carried us into my suburban childhood town.
When I returned to Austin in August of that summer to reunite with my boyfriend, I was enamored of my newfound freedom. I could go anywhere...but only until Labor Day weekend, when school would restart and my vehicular journeys would be confined to the library and the grocery store. At the time, we had been together nearly three years — but our relationship was in something of a rocky place (to say the least). So, in the hopes of reigniting something between us, we sat down together to devise one last excursion before summer came to a close: a 1,084-mile journey across the Southwest desert to the Grand Canyon. We eagerly packed my Jeep, and it groaned with the weight of our camping gear.
We spent the next few days coasting across a seemingly never-ending expanse of desert, first in west Texas, then New Mexico, and finally Arizona. For the most part, I drove. I loved the genre of control it gave me over the space — driving felt like its own small way of interacting with a piece of the globe that was new to me. On occasion, we bickered. Sometimes, our talks were long and philosophical. Other times, we sat in silence, awed by the landscape as it stretched along on either side of us.
Whenever the scenery became so striking that we felt compelled to stop, we would pull over and simply stand side by side, watching the sun hit the desert sand or, if it was later in the day, the sky melt into a mix of pink hues over a flat horizon. At an overlook point in Sedona, two women stopped us to comment on our coupling: How perfect we looked together! Were we on our honeymoon? Hearing this, I had a strange, visceral reaction. Absolutely not, I snapped back.
Instead of feeling as if each mile was contributing to the restoration of my relationship, what I felt was something far better — I was happy of my own volition.
Then, as the immensity of the desert continued to open up for me, conversely, I began to feel suffocated sharing the car space with my boyfriend. It wasn’t that I didn’t love him or even enjoy his company, but rather, I was learning that this trip had really been for me; perhaps his presence was a hindrance rather than an asset to my own personal journey. Instead of feeling as if each mile was contributing to the restoration of my relationship, what I felt was something far better — I was happy of my own volition. As I drove, I came to peace with the idea that maybe codependence wasn’t what I needed. Then, we made it: the Grand Canyon, the single most beautiful place I had visited to date.
Standing at canyon’s edge, I watched as visitors hiked further and further down the crevices, shrinking into tiny dots below. Suddenly, the two women who had asked if we were married in Sedona appeared beside me — two days later and many miles from where we first met. This time, they didn’t comment on our relationship.
I once read that the fissures of the Grand Canyon were evidence of the fact that, centuries ago, the Earth had opened up and folded into a new kind of landscape — an opportunity for growth. Looking now, it all felt symbolic — the whole idea of breaking something down in order to explore something new. Intuitively, I understood that I wanted to experience that very sensation — alone.
When the trip was over, we coasted back to Austin, willing my car to make it all the way. Soon after, we ended things. It wasn’t dramatic or volatile — it was amicable. We loved each other but not in the way you ought to in a romantic relationship. And when we said our goodbyes, I felt myself breathe a sigh of relief. I felt that same form of wild liberty that I’d felt standing under the shadow of the Grand Canyon. I was excited to be alone.
In less than a year, I moved to New York — and as I settled into a new geographic location, far from home, I began to unearth a new version of myself: I grappled with a new queer identity, I pursued a career as a writer, and I began to rely on the subway for the sort of agency I’d once found in my car. My (ex)boyfriend stayed in Austin and stayed kind. We both grew into our own, in our separate personal spaces.
Naturally, I couldn’t bring my Jeep to Brooklyn — it would have nowhere to live. But all the same, the car had become an emblem of something much larger to me: the intense freedom that comes from propelling your own forward motion. In New York, I’ve discovered that same sensation in less literal terms. Though, in truth, I still miss driving.