In order to pass my driver’s test, I had to learn the art of driving 55 on a gravel road.
Driving on gravel is not especially difficult or even different, really. That’s what they tell you. It’s all about the going. Driving on gravel demands going confidently and swiftly and flexibly.
Where pavement is a relatively constant and familiar force, gravel is a shifting, volatile thing. It moves without warning underneath you, pulls at your wheels, alters your trajectory unexpectedly. It’s full of rocks that launch themselves up into your undercarriage with a startling ‘clang!’. It’s hard on your tires.
The danger’s really in the stopping and the turning when it comes to gravel. Gravel knows fear. It can sense hesitation and trepidation and punishes both. Smooth corners, a loose grip and steady, sparing pressure on the brake are the keys to safe passage.
To be comfortable driving on a gravel road is to be comfortable with change, with unpredictability. To be comfortable driving on a gravel road is to trust your instincts, to trust that you’ll know what to do when the gravel shifts or you drop a wheel into the Deep Stuff. To be comfortable driving on a gravel road is to accept that you don’t know a damn thing and that you’ll just have to take things as they come.
The first time I drove on a gravel road, I drifted too far into the Deep Stuff on the right side, kicking up a cloud of dusty on my way. The gravel grabbed ahold of my tires and pulled hard. I panicked, my hands unaccustomed to fighting with a wheel that moved with no action on my part. I let go of it, as if distancing myself from the problem might somehow help.
It did not.
The truck–a hulking two-ton amalgamation of rust and metal and aging upholstery–drifted further and further afield until my dad grabbed the wheel and deftly corrected course.
The second time I drove on a gravel road, I took right-angle turn at 30 and felt the back tires stray from the path that the front wheels had set forth. Still a stranger to the sensation of surrendering control in a shuddering four-thousand pound death trap, I dug into the brake, leaning on it heavily as the skid worsened and the truck slipped sideways. The thing stopped fender-deep in weeds on the shoulder. It was only when we’d stilled that I saw my dad’s white-knuckle grip on the dashboard in front of him.
“You gotta steer into the skid, kid,” was all he said.
The third time I drove on a gravel road, it was hot and dusty and midday and sunny in the way that sunglasses only kind of seem to remedy. I took a similar turn–one \ that looked almost identical to the aforementioned, as 99% of the turns in Iowa’s 99 counties tend to do–at a similar speed and felt that similar skid taking hold, pushing and pulling the tires.
My heart jumped up into my throat and filled with the fleeting desire to let go of the wheel so that I might remove myself from the reality with which I wasn’t sure I that I could fully contend. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my dad’s nervous grip on the dashboard. And in that moment, I took a deep breath, loosened my own grip, and turned the wheel into thee skid.
Course corrected. Crisis averted. Steer into the skid. Of course.
For the most part, my transportation needs keep me on the pavement. It’s predictable, relatively unchallenging and effectively separate from the world around it. Bolstered by curbs and poured even, pavement on its own presents no exhilarating moments of uncertainty.
I keep driving on gravel roads because the deeper the gravel gets, the more it pulls on you. The more it pushes you away from where you thought you ought to be. The more dust you kick up. The closer you are to the Rest Of It. There are no curbs on gravel. There’s nothing but a patch of weeds between you and the field or the creek or the ditch.
I don’t take my hands off the wheel anymore, but I still feel that pinch of fear every time that backend starts to slide or the gravel starts to tug at my wheels. I’m still kicking up too much dust as I barrel down at 56, 57, 58, 59, too close to the edge of the road. I’m still hard on the tires when I take the gravel over the pavement, because now I crave those rocky curveballs. I’m still hitting rocks and banging up the undercarriage of my car, on some level enjoying it when the satisfying ‘clang!’ rings out over the lone Dixieland Jazz Compilation cassette that’s wedged permanently into the tape deck. My dad’s knuckles still turn white on the dashboard.
In order to pass my driver’s test, I had to learn the art of driving 55 on a gravel road: go swiftly, move confidently, brake sparingly, steer into the skid.
For most of us, life’s not a highway but a gravel road, and our ability to learn how to steer into the skid will ultimately determine how happy we allow ourselves to be. The gravel’s going to grab hold, the back wheels will stray, the Deep Stuff will yank you off of your path and remind you that you don’t know shit. In all things, it’s never the skid that determines who you are, but how you maneuver through it. Resistance and anger and panic are futile. The only way out is through.
Megan Logan hails from Iowa and is currently living in California, where she's writing for Wired, penning unsolicited reviews of Christmas albums, hanging out at the bottom of her fantasy league rankings, and eating objectively too much barbecue. Find her on Twitter at @meganlogan or online at meganlogan.com