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Best Travel Writing–Solas Award for Riehl’s “Driving Lessons”

Travelers' Tales gave a Best Travel Writing Solas Award to my story "Driving Lessons" in the category of "Family Travel: The best story about traveling with family of all generations—or journeying to discover roots." My story won a Bronze Certificate. It's such a treat to go to an awards list an find one's name there!

In the story my father teaches me how to drive in a sand track in Africa and how to ford a river--both in Botswana during one of the three trips my parents made to visit me during the 1970s. Here's how "Driving Lessons" begins:

by Janet Riehl

A girlhood in rural Illinois wasn't bad preparation for life in upcountry African nations. "Up country" meant the northern regions innermost from newly built capitol cities. My training as a future African driver began on my family's farm at four years old?old enough to sit on my father's lap?his left leg, to be precise. He held me firmly around the waist with a sunburned arm that sprouted a crop of sun-bleached hair. From this early training, I learned the body rhythm of the stick shift dance. Clutch in while revving to the desired speed. You know when to let it out when your body vibrates at a particular rate and you hear a certain sound. My father's thigh muscles underneath his overalls tightened and slackened in the rhythm of this dance.

Steering with Pop, my small hands rested on his large ones moving the John Deer tractor down the road to pull out a neighbor stuck in the mud. My dad kept the same tractor going through the years with little more than spit and bailing wire.

Pop was a knight of the roadway, his conduct guided by a simple code of ethics: get those stranded back on the road. He collected stories of his road knight adventures like other gentlemen store fine aged wine: the one where the road washed out under the flooded creek; the one where he came mighty close to delivering a baby by the side of a road, but luckily didn't have to. From my father, I leaned to carry jumper cables, jack and tire repair kit. He taught me how to use these implements of rescue, too. "You never know," he told me. "The right tools might help someone else?or they might help you."

Teaching rescue skills was the opening gambit in my father's school of driving. While mother was anxious when I drove with her, cringing beside the door and jamming down on an imaginary brake, my father was cucumber cool.

Pop taught me how to drive in every conceivable weather and road condition. Driving on ice, for example, required chopping your brakes and having the wit and courage to steer into the skid when every bit of you wanted to steer the other way. We drove on the flats, up big, long hills, around 100 degree curves, through ruts and potholes. We lurched over the back roads of our place. Later I graduated to parking lessons in a deserted asphalt bank lot.

Thus prepared, during my first year in Northern Botswana's safari country, I learned to drive a jouncing Land Rover. Fortunately, Maun Secondary School reserved one Land Rover just for staff trips and errands in Maun, the nearest village, or Riley's, the nearest watering hole and only true community center where all races and classes mingled. Usually, the rented Land Rover waltzed over the paved road into town before we engaged the four-wheel drive for cruising through sand tracks on the side streets while shopping for groceries and other supplies.

While I'd learned certain rudiments of bush driving during my first nine months in Northern Botswana, it wasn't until my father and mother came to visit that I learned how to double-clutch. With me at the wheel, my mother in the middle where she'd feel safe, and Pop by the window dodging thorn branches, we barreled along a thin slip of road towards Moremi Wildlife Preserve where the road grew softer, changing from packed earth to ever-deepening sand. . . .

Travel Writers News was kind enough to mention my award and site. There's some good information there for travelers and travel writers.

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1 Responses »

  1. Notably absent from Janet's driving lessons account is the
    experience of driving up and down her driveway -- on ice! (Picture Cashel in Ireland with the road winding around the hill to get up to the castle.) I guess that steep, winding drive was part of Janet's landscape such that she didn't notice it. Sort of like how, because we Altonians had to go down hills to get to downtown Alton, I thought all "downtowns" were thusly situated.

    Great piece!

    Liz Parker, contributor, Heartland Women's Writer Guild anthology, "Orchids in the Cornfield

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