We often remember the milestones of childhood: our little boy’s first steps, our daughter’s first words, maybe even the moment they finally ride a bike without training wheels. Well, last month I experienced a first like that. I waved good-bye to my son as he drove out of our driveway to school for the first time — alone.
He turned 16 a few months back and the boy was determined, once that birthday arrived, not to let another day pass without having his license in-hand. I’m not sure what the big rush was. Oops, strike that. I know exactly what it was. Freedom — sweet freedom! Freedom from me, freedom from his father, freedom from the restrictions that come with being tied to someone else’s schedule and decisions.
I can’t say I blame him. I learned to drive my junior year in high school, and remember all too well how heady it felt to pull away from our house (and out from under the prying eyes of my mother). It was simply amazing. Like a bigger, badder version of my bicycle. It made me feel SO grown up, I could almost taste adulthood. I suspect he feels something like that, too.
In Tennessee, a teen can receive his learner’s permit at 15, although as a beginning driver, he must always be accompanied by an adult during that first year behind the wheel. It’s not until they turn 16 that teens can venture out on their own, and then only with friends if they’re being transported to and from school. Once my son had passed the written test (the driving test comes at 16), he was always looking for some excuse to practice driving. His friends might have been ambivalent about this passage but not my kid.
So he drove, a lot. He would typically take over the wheel after school most days, and cart his friends home for carpool or motor down to the bowling alley for team practice, with his dad or myself sitting shotgun beside him. He drove up north a couple of times with his father to visit family, and eagerly took his turn during that 10-hour drive. His experience even started on the highway with our summer vacation last year. I told him in the spring that if he got his learner’s permit, I’d let him start driving during our trip to New Mexico. I thought it would be a memorable way to mark the journey.
Once vacation time rolled around, he made sure I kept my word.We talked about it as the highway opened up before us on that first day, and the verdant hills of Arkansas and Oklahoma eventually yielded to the flat, open plains of Texas.
“I tell you what,” I said as the city of Amarillo faded from sight. “Once we’re about an hour from here, I’ll let you take over.” My son looked on with a mix of apprehension and zeal as the traffic hummed. “Okay,” he stammered.
About an hour later, at Adrian, Texas, I exited onto old Route 66, which parallels I-40 here. There isn’t anything very memorable about this dusty panhandle town except for the Midpoint Cafe, a 50s-style diner that pays homage to the famed highway. While they had already closed for the day, we had parked in their lot to trade off drivers when I noticed a sign across the highway. We strolled over for a closer look and discovered we were at the exact halfway point of Route 66 — 1,039 miles from Chicago, 1,039 to Los Angeles.
It was exactly here that my boy slipped into the driver’s seat, and with a deep breath, slowly pulled out onto the highway. No matter that the road actually dead-ended a mile or so later. He was officially in. He logged his first miles as we continued west into the sunset, towards the beautiful terra cotta buttes of northern New Mexico.
He’s been on the road for awhile now. Yet watching him drive away that morning still proved to be bittersweet. I think as parents we want to eventually work ourselves out of a job. The whole point of raising children is to help them become independent, self-sufficient people, able to meet the world on their own terms. Yet I couldn’t help thinking about the fact that this was one more task my son wouldn’t need me for, and that reality stung. It’s a good thing, ultimately, this step towards independence. But the milestone reminds me that he’s growing up, whether I’m ready or not.