On my 16th birthday I forced my dad take me to get my learner’s driving permit. I wasn’t waiting another single day to be able to drive. I had already been waiting far too long in my underdeveloped teenage mind.
I passed the written test with flying colours and began my driver training immediately. Eight months later, I succeeded in acquiring the second stage of my license that allowed me to drive on my own without a chaperone. I had finally made it.
By the late Spring of 1998, I had been driving solo for about a year now. My parents were about to embark on a RV road trip with my uncle. Since I was nearly 18 years old and accident free (and seemingly responsible, more on that later), they left my sister and I with their two cars. We both worked jobs in different parts of town, with very different hours, so sharing a car was near impossible.
My sister of course preferred driving the 1994 Chevrolet Cavalier because it was smaller and was a ‘car’. She never forgave my parents for owning a station wagon and a minivan as their sole forms of transportation when she got her license – how uncool for a teenage girl to be seen driving one of those family haulers.
Me, my weapon of choice was always the 1996 GMC Safari Ext. I loved that damn van more than anyone rationally should. I loved that I could take seven friends with me on late night trips to Taco Bell. I loved taking it camping or to concert festivals and using it as a big tent on wheels.
But most of all, I loved it in the winter. Anytime it snowed, I would conjure up the most outlandish excuse in the world to take the little brute out for a drive. See, the GMC Safari wasn’t a regular minivan. It was built on a truck chassis. That meant it had an oversized V6 engine upfront that sent a glorious 250 lb-ft. of torque to the rear wheels.
In slippery conditions, the all-season tires attached to an open rear differential had no chance of finding grip. I would spend the winters loading the Safari up with my friends and sliding sideways all over the neighbourhood. The word drifting hadn’t made it into the mainstream yet, so I was doing what I would refer to as donuts and fishtailing. I was getting pretty good at it as well, trying to keep the van sideways as long as possible while continuing down the road.
Back to the Spring of 1998. My parents time away had been uneventful and I was off to pick them up from Uncle’s. I hoped in the van and headed out. Along the way it was possible to take a route that involved a dirt road, so naturally I went that way. During a sweeping left-hand corner, I decided now was the time to live out my Dukes of Hazzard fantasies. I mean, I was so good at sliding on snow, how much different could it be on dirt and gravel? The answer is, very different.
The Safari began sliding the rear-end out a bit, then the lazy four-speed automatic decided it was time to change gears. The pause between changing from 1st to 2nd was so great, and engagement into 2nd gear gear so abrupt, it was like doing a clutch kick. The van immediately shot sideways, but with so little power under the hood, the rear tires quickly regained traction, catapulting me right off the road.
In a flash I bounded over a drainage ditch, across a small boulevard and directly into a large wooden sign for a local farm. Panic set it in. Before I knew what had happened, or had time to think, I grabbed the column shifter, slammed the van into reverse and peeled back onto the road. Luckily no other motorists were around.
After a quick glance at the sign I’d just buckled, I drove 300 feet down the road to leave the scene of the crime, and pulled over. Shaking and worried, I hopped out of the van to check the damage. I had hit the sign square in the middle where there was not support post, but I had still hit it hard. As I nervously walked around to the front of the Safari I was in disbelief. There was hardly a scratch on it. A small white paint mark was on the bug deflector (what minivan in the ‘90s didn’t have a bug deflector?) and a small crack in the bottom of the bumper that was near impossible to notice.
My love for the indestructible Safari grew three sizes that day. Relieved and nearly laughing, I got back in the van and slowly, cautiously drove the rest of the way to pick up my parents.
Now this happened over 22 years ago, but I will never forget the look on the dad’s face as I approached my uncle’s house. He was standing outside as I arrived, and his face quickly descended into that look only a parent can give you. That look of inquiry and anger, seemingly saying “What have you done?!?!” without saying a word at all. The jig was up. I have been outed.
In my shock, panic and haste to check the front of the Safari after my off-road adventure, I had failed to check the rest of the van. The running boards on either side of the van were jammed full of straw, grass and cattails. My dad could see the Safari masquerading as the world’s worst combine harvester from a mile away, with brush sticking out of the running boards like the world’s cheapest curb feelers.
He asked me where I had been driving and I quickly came with some excuse about avoiding a rabbit and having to veer off the road briefly. I am sure he saw right through the lie but not another word was spoken on the matter.
After we got home, I washed the van to remove the dust, debris and white paint. Although I seemingly got away this exploit of foolishness, it was my first lesson (of many to come) that maybe I was not as amazing of a driver as I thought I was.