There’s been an unfamiliar new addition to my university life throughout this All-American year; the car. The open road has long characterised the values and soul of the states. The freedom to “take off”, to get in a self contained machine and drive, to roll the windows down, in complete control of the interior, and to reach out into the warm breeze, almost touching the tumble weeds following the hot tires down the desert highway.
The journey is not quite so romantic and picturesque when taken around a Greek style, doll-house like campus, but the car – a machine almost entirely cut out of my student life in Glasgow – has suddenly merged lanes with my life. This was never more evident than last week with the coming of the ultimate road-trip holiday; spring break. Running, open-eyed in my new blue florescent ‘sneakers’ – as I often do to spy on the social wildlife and have a nosy at the tree-lined frat houses – the streets were lined with boys in khaki shorts, holding crates of Bud lights and Daddy’s credit card, girls in short summer dresses around their arms. They were all packing up their oversized pick-up trucks and four wheel drives. Cars so big they towered over my ever slowing pace as I gazed in awe and slight terror at these gas-guzzling machines all heading to the beach.
America – especially Alabama – is not built for walking. The sheer vastness of this country means it is impossible to get around without a car unless you live in a major city. The pavements – or ‘sidewalks’ – are small and sparse and, even on some parts of campus, it’s almost impossible to make the choice to walk or cycle. Most students live off-campus anyway and so a car is mandatory. This means that space on campus is being eaten up, sprawling further and further towards to the nearby town, with the building of new parking lots. Although – in slight hilarity – one might note that the entire campus is bound from extending too far, being boxed in by a mental hospital and a graveyard. I haven’t quite yet worked out what this means. Nevertheless, the car is a necessary part of the student diet. Everyone has one. And so I immediately – way back in August – knew that I needed to acquire a friend who had one. You can try and walk everywhere here but you will fail, or be picked up by class mates, on your quiet stroll home, who think you are mad for walking the pleasant half-mile across the green quad back to your dorm – as has happened to me in the so called ‘cold’ winter months.
It’s definitely a change. It affects the possibility of what you can do, it affects the time of youth. Whilst most of my teenage years were spent waiting at Leeds bus stops and drinking cheap vodka on the back seat into town, here kids grew up driving around, blasting tunes on repeat, parking outside the all-night diner or graveyard, drinking and driving (a common and terrifying thing on college campus). It seems a little ironic that the small town mentality is characterised by a machine necessary for a place too big to walk around. But that’s just the way things are built. And it’s been fun for a while. We have driven out to abandoned peach stands next to creepy, isolated barns in the Alabama countryside, out to the lake to watch the sunset and all the way to Nashville to watch a bit of line dancing. All of these activities would have required an unreachable level of organisation had I tried to instigate anything of the like in Glasgow (granted I couldn’t quite offer a quick weekend break in the home of Honky-tonk). But the truth is, I’ll be quite happy to return to my morning stomp through Kelvingrove. Walking is a necessary and important part of student life and has characterised so many of the memories I have of being young and free. The open road here might provide a sort of freedom and escape, but walking gives you time to think, its rhythms and exposure make you aware of the world around you and – more importantly – the damage cars can do to it. It can be solitary or social but either way it is a breath of fresh air. One that no flashy convertible (and yes, many students do drive such like) can ever live up to.
Words: Lucy Cheseldine