By RYAN M. TAYLOR
For the Capital Press
When I was learning how to drive, Dad started me out with the pickup in the hayfield.
"Keep it in first gear 'til you get the hang of it," he told me. The only obstacles were some duck sloughs and hay stacks.
"Just stay out of the sloughs and don't hit the stacks," he said, although the hay stacks were a somewhat soft, fairly forgiving bumper.
Before you knew it, I was trying my steering hand in pastures, on prairie trails and on seldom-traveled gravel roads -- all before getting a formal permit.
However, the licensing process forced me to learn another whole vehicular environment -- one with other cars and drivers. Instead of maneuvering around hay stacks and cows, I had to look out for cars that were right there on the same road as me. Crazy stuff.
But in a small town with no stoplights and only several hundred people, a new driver could survive as long as he could handle the one four-way stop and parallel park. Sometimes it was hard to find two cars parked close enough together to practice parallel parking, so the driver's education instructor would have to give you another landmark, like a light pole, and tell you to pretend that was the second car.
The challenges kept coming. To pass the behind-the-wheel portion of driver's ed, we'd have to go to the big city of Minot, N.D., population about 30,000 or so with unhurried and courteous drivers back then. The trip would expose me to traffic lights, the single one-way street and some "who's got the right-of-way" exercises with drivers you didn't even recognize at the intersection.
I got my driver's license, so I guess everything worked out OK.
The driving skills have had to step it up a notch since I've gotten older. As a North Dakotan, it's kind of inevitable that I've had do some driving in Minneapolis and Denver. I've gotten behind the wheel in Dallas-Fort Worth, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and a few other cities. Not that I lacked the courage, but I did take a cab and let someone else drive when I was in New York City.
Most times when I'm driving in a big city, I'm in a rental car, so it's not like I have to worry about wrecking my own vehicle when I'm out learning the local traffic patterns. I should take out the extra insurance at the rental counter, but I always heard that was a ripoff, so I never do.
My big-city driving experiences haven't been too traumatic. But I've missed a few exits, driven past my destination and remember finding myself in the "bad" part of town at night where the stores have bars on their windows and I wondered if my rental car would still have hub caps when the light turned green.
Now I can cruise the cities with complete confidence, thanks to the global positioning application on my smartphone. A blinking red dot tells me exactly where I am at any given moment. I miss fewer exits. I know when to abandon course and regroup.
I drive with confidence. And when you got your first driving lessons on a North Dakota hayfield and you find yourself careening down a Los Angeles freeway in a rental car, you need to have confidence.
For me, the GPS navigator is the great equalizer -- helping hesitant country boys become confident city drivers around the globe. Thanks, technology.