Overlandia: I Drive. Get Over It

I’m not going to apologize for driving. I’m not going to say that I’m sorry because I love road trips or that I pilot a four-wheel-drive van or that so many of my friends drive pickups and SUVs. Nor will I cower before those who would try to shame me for using my vehicle to get to the trailhead instead of walking, who deride me in smug judgment across the steering wheel of their Prius.

At some point in the last 20 years, it became politically incorrect to own a vehicle that has the chops to get you where you want to go, in all conditions, and return safely. Part of the blame can be hung on urban and suburbanites who wield massive, 12-mile-per-gallon tanks to take the kids to preschool, vehicles that are never used as intended, that rarely see dirt or snow. Part of it, too, is very clearly (and appropriately) grounded in the reality that climate change threatens our existence while causing a lot of suffering in the near term, and so every molecule of carbon does indeed count.

But as somebody once said, changing light bulbs isn’t going to stop global warming. We can do better with our vehicles, yes. But unless you live in a city, you’re going to drive. When you recreate, you’re going to drive. To get to the farflung places that all of us visit, treasure, and fight to preserve, you’re going to drive. And you shouldn’t apologize for that.

Now, I’m not some redneck crushing spotted owls in my Hummer and I’m not tone deaf to the cultural trends. I don’t think you can consider the legitimacy of driving a truck, or driving period, without taking into account the larger issues. But, speaking for myself, when considering those larger issues I would posit that I’m more environmentally responsible and lighter on the land than your average bear. My total mileage in any given year is about 8,000, including road trips. I rarely fly. I work from a home office, and one of these reasons I’ve chosen to pursue an online publication rather than continuing to work in print is the impact on resources. When we redid our yard last year, we switched to native plants with extremely low-water requirements. We carpool the kids to and from school. I ride my bike for errands, and my kids do, too. I, or rather Adventure Journal, is a member of 1% for the Planet. And I’m sure all of you who keep posting comments telling me to leave politics out of AJ will admit that we have a pretty strong commitment to covering environmental issues, even if you don’t agree with the stories or they aren’t as fun to read as the pieces glorifying stoke.

None of this is written to claim I’m an environmental saint. I’m not. But I’ve learned that passing judgment is fraught with peril, that jumping to conclusions about a person based on, say, what they’re driving, can leave you tripping over your assumptions. Shoot, you could look at my 23-year-old van and figure that I’m belching heaps of clunker carbon into the sky, when in fact I’ve replaced the engine with a five-year-old Subaru Legacy motor that gets better gas mileage, burns cleaner, and passes California emissions requirements.

I’ve also come to understand that the world and our actions in it are more interlocked, complex, and opaque than we can really comprehend, and while some situations may tilt obviously in one direction or another, I don’t believe that driving a dirt-ready vehicle is one of them, nor that seeing someone behind the wheel of one can begin to tell the whole story of that person. You have to take the entire picture, and only each of us can do that for ourselves. When I look at my life, I feel pretty good at how much I’ve been able to reduce, recycle, reuse, make do, act, petition, and communicate the issues, both through Adventure Journal and through people I meet and know. Of course, when I look at friends like Alison Gannett, who devotes more of her energy to fighting climate change in one month than I do in a year, I feel sheepish and chagrined. But also inspired to do more.

Fifteen years ago, when Yvon Chouinard was spreading his message of planetary doom, I thought he was being pessimistic. With what we know today, I actually think he was an optimist. But I’m not going spend the rest of my days in misery over the clearly deteriorating state of affairs. No, I’m going to push myself to be more effective, to be a model for my kids and teach them to take action, and, just as important, to enjoy myself in the life I’ve been given. One of the curses of so many hardcore environmentalists is their disapproving, shrewish dyspepsia toward anything that consumes more resources than inert contemplation of the universe off in some darkened teepee. They grimace the fun out of life, make Puritans seem like freshmen on their first spring break, and come across like they’d only be happy if the human race committed species suicide…but in an eco-friendly way, of course.

I say, screw that. I say that you can drive a Tacoma and love your Mother. I say that you can ride a dirt bike and not be the devil incarnate. I say that the starkly black and white scorn of treehuggers not only ignores the reality of a polychrome world, it turns off people who should and do care about the fate of the planet, and it drives potential activists away from the movement because they think they’ll be judged and unwelcome for what they drive. Finally, I say that the issues facing all of us are far more looming and in need of collective action than to squabble over how we get around — we desperately need to act, desperately need to pressure our leaders to cowboy up and deal with global warming, but what we drive is far less important than driving change.

If I could have an electric motor in my van, I would. If I could afford the $20,000 to install a high-mileage clean diesel, I would. If I could convince Land Rover or Toyota or Ford to build electric or hybrid SUVs and trucks, I would. But I can’t. So, I’ll do what I can do, and the next time I get behind the wheel of my Syncro and head into the dirt, I’ll do it happily. Happily and without apology.

Overlandia is the art, science, and romance of driving in the dirt.

{ 34 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Shidan Towfiq

    Well said Steve. I feel the same way about riding my motorcycle and snowmobiles while mountain biking is my primary passion. And I prefer to shuttle, if possible.

    I don’t hear about hardcore environmentalists speaking out about human reproduction. Creating more consumers is arguably worse than driving a SUV or enjoying motorized recreation. I know parents love their children and we need them for the pyramid scheme of life, but it’s one thing I’ve never heard “environmentalists” address.

  • Bret Edge

    Thank you for writing what I’ve been feeling but couldn’t articulate for quite a while! I drive a 4WD and for the princely sum of $20,000 I could have it converted to a clean diesel but unfortunately, I’m not wealthy and don’t have that kind of coin lying around. If Toyota would ever get off their butt and drop a small turbo-diesel into the U.S. spec Tacoma I’d be the first one at the dealership to trade in my current truck. Until then, I’ll continue to drive it to the trailhead for a ride or hike, or even deep into the backcountry to go camping with my family.

  • Alex Gauthier

    As an adventure photographer I’ve spent countless hours in the field documenting motorized recreation in Mexican desert to Sierra Baldrock to Northwest timberlands. Easily, the environmental aspect of motorized recreation in wild places is always a complicated balance and if there is one thing I noticed it’s this: Everyone (mountaineers, 4×4 enthusiasts, fishermen, hunters, hikers) is concerned about protecting our resources but as with most political issues these days, we are all too worried about placing blame and pointing fingers that we fail to come together on this issue. No one is innocent in any group. You put impact on land when you use it. Certainly, all of us try to minimize our impact but depending on your sport you put more or less impact. Instead of pointing fingers at people who drive to a trailhead or beach in a lifted Toyota or leave chalk all over pristine stone, maybe we ought to focus on what we can PERSONALLY do in our own recreation to be more responsible. If more people set an example and spent less time pointing fingers, I bet we’d all get along better and have more wilderness to use responsibly.The point is, as land users we need more unity and more compromise. Come to think of it, wouldn’t that solve a lot of other problems in this world? Yeah, it would.

  • Jason

    Amen. drive what you want, but for health (personal and planetary) drive less when biking options exist!

    -Fellow subie syncro owner

  • Jim

    Shidan : http://www.populationconnection.org/site/PageServer?pagename=about_us

    Population management has been around for quite a long time, but it’s not exactly a popular platform here in the land of the free.

    And while I do agree Steve, that driving is necessary in getting to the outdoors, the the devil is in the taking of compromise so far that it justifies doing nothing. John Mayer once publicly advocated for a “light” green lifestyle, taking the points to justify his private jet. He did recycle after all. And while one could certainly find a rationale to fit even that situation, the hard reality is that the real work is in proliferating the knowledge that Steve puts forth here – the whole-systems view that everything is connected. We simply cannot cease to have an impact, nor should we cease to try to reduce it. The greatest opportunity we have is in making sure that as we rationalize consumption, we balance it with a considered approach to learning how to minimize it. As with most everything, the real answer lies somewhere in the middle, and being lazy about it will never be an effective answer.

    Long live the Great American Road trip AND all the beautiful things that draw us to get the hell out of the city..

  • Nick

    You’re defensive about your driving because the car is the centerpiece of our Western culture. The car is not the issue. The battle is fighting overall consumption. We consume when we lose our creativity, knowledge, and skills. How many bikes did I sell on Craigslist because I didn’t have the tenacity to learn how to rebuild hubs and wheels? How many times did I drive to the trailhead because I didn’t want to make the effort to link together public transportation? The examples are endless.

    We’re all hypocrites. The challenge is to push ourselves to do better with less and set an example for others and the future.

  • Justin

    *sniff-sniff*

    This article reeks of common sense… I applaud you for being sensible and not cowering to pressures of being politically correct.

  • Kris

    I love my Westy and never have felt guilty about driving it. When I relocated from California to the UK I shipped it over, unfortunately gas is about $8 a gallon over here, so a Subaru conversion would be helpful. Got any recommendations? My philosophy is I don’t have any offspring so I’m doing my part to cut down on carbon emissions.

  • Jenny

    hmm…a big rant defending your right/interest/want to drive. Meh. not very unique or new, especially in the outdoors community. I hear justification for driving all the time. Heck, I love going to the mountains and yes, I drive there. BUT. here’s the thing- I am constantly evaluating it. Not feeling guilty, but asking myself about my driving to the mountain habits – could I reduce by a day a week? Is it ethical to proclaim to love the land and yet not be willing to think about making some small sacrifices in my driving habits? In some ways, I think those among us many, many humans who love the earth and the experiences we get to have in this world (and like it in the condition it’s in) could do with a little less justification and a little more consideration. I really think that climate justice is going to take a bit more effort and less excuses from we who have all the resources and the power to make decisions about our own futures (less so the majority of people who are going to get majorly screwed over, and soon, by a changing climate). Are we really going to cling to driving above all else as the area in which we are unwilling to make compromises? The luxury of choice doesn’t exist for many people and someday won’t exist for us either. I don;t think that just because we identify as “outdoorsy” means that we automatically get to keep our car-lovin’ ways.

  • Tim

    I’d guess that if you’re writing about this you indeed do feel some sort of nagging reminder every time you have to pull into a gas station. Twas’ a good “green” spray as well, but I call B.S. on your argument. “Unless you live in a city, you’re going to drive.” Not true. “When you recreate you’re going to drive” Not true. “To get to the far-flung places that all of us visit, treasure, and fight to preserve, you’re going to drive” Well, do we all go there? Are you actually doing anything do preserve these places, besides living in a low impact way when you’re there? And perhaps there is a fossil-fueled illusion of what places are within our reach for adventure, or at least how fast we can get there, how long we can stay…etc.

    Your assertiveness for being unapologetic towards fossil fueled transportation is borderline ignorant, and you pretty much allow for that when you talk about making efforts to drive less and live smaller. You proclaim not to be some “hummer driving redneck” but your prose smacks of arrogance and egotism.

    You speak of “hardcore” environmentalists are some sort of masochistic religious cult bent on self mortification in the name of the environment. I think you’re scared of how lame and boring you think your life would be without a car. Well, trust me, it’s not. Living car-free in todays society is infinitely more adventurous then not. Especially when you’re trying to climb, bike, ski, or generally be in the mountains(read: adventure).

    “we desperately need to act, desperately need to pressure our leaders to cowboy up and deal with global warming, but what we drive is far less important than driving change.”

    Wrong.

    Responsibility is ours. Not driving makes a difference. As outdoor enthusiasts it is our responsibility to set a positive example as environmental stewards, and the most powerful way we can do that is in how we approach mobility. In a world where human’s impact upon the environment is so widespread and obvious, your article is a step back in awareness and action. Aside from our food system, how we approach mobility is one of the most direct ways we interact with the world. If you can’t afford an electric rig, or a biodiesel conversion, but you can afford tank after countless tank, I’m going to go ahead and guess you can afford a bike, and if you’re creative you can afford to find the extra time and energy it’ll take to get out on your adventures. Buck up and ride your bike. Apologize more, drive less.

    Tim

    • steve casimiro Post author

      Tim, thanks for your comment. I’m just wondering, though, how did that drive from Salt Lake City to Zion to go climbing work out for you?

      You are to be admired for living what appears to be a mostly bike-centric life. However, your comment smacks of hypocrisy. From your blog: “Although we planned on bicycling from SLC to Zion for a week of climbing, we ended up renting a car due to the constraints of time and weather, but more to the point, due to our overriding passion to spend all of our available time climbing.” What you’re saying, in this case, is that riding your bike wasn’t impossible, but that it simply wasn’t convenient. That you would rather climb than spend your time transporting yourself to the crag.

      On this, we agree. On this, you are the same as the people you decry. Perhaps I should have qualified all of my comments with a footnote that said, “Of course, if you have the time, yes, you can always ride your bike or walk instead of driving.” But let’s get real. Most people don’t have the time, just as you discovered. Or rather, when they assess everything in their lives, they make the decision that days spent riding from Salt Lake to Zion simply aren’t worth it. Like you.

      Also, you apparently don’t have children, as I do. While getting from Southern California to Zion with two children without driving might not technically be impossible, let’s just say that you can see impossible from there.

      Look, I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, and that’s fine. The debate is important. But what’s also important is understanding progress. Improving internal combustion gas mileage from 18 to 26 will save far more fuel than a few thousand hybrids, and encouraging people who DO drive for their recreation to rethink and reconsider their consumption will have a bigger impact, too. Your ideals a laudable, but they’re every bit as “arrogant” as mine, and worse, they’re foolishly unrealistic. I’d rather be accused of spraying green and actually get people who drive trucks and SUVs to think about their impact and, perhaps, make a change, than spout a solution that no matter how admirable is so divorced from the reality of how people live their lives that it will be dismissed without consideration.

  • Andrew

    Steve,
    I enjoyed your article and feel you have many valid points. Your second to last paragraph was great. I especially like the comment about a dirt bike. Mine gets 65mpg and when people see me on it they are pissed. The bottom line however is that the problem with carbon emissions around the world is a complex global economic cluster*#@:! It cracks me up to hear people, who don’t bother to look at the big picture, get angry at someone driving what they perceive as “the wrong vehicle.” As if it is the cause and cure of global warming. They would for example rather see an electric vehicle. In my neck of the woods those are powered by coal powered electricity. One of the worst greenhouse polluters. Not to mention the fallout of mercury and other chemicals down wind. Perhaps a hybrid would be more to their liking. One that requires more energy to create than it saves. A little research into the environmental impact of mining rare earth elements, something the hybrids have a boat load of, would do a lot to quiet this argument. Basically all we are doing is standing around bickering while the people who actually run the show go about doing what they have always done. Make money. And they are laughing all the way to the bank. Turn off the T.V. do some research and stay focused on the big picture.

  • cheif

    Its good to know that my favorite blog is not run by radical tree huggers. I’m not a redneck, I went to college and I am not ignoring climate change, but I continue to ride my dirtbike.

  • Hayduke

    Nice job, somebody needed to say it. I drive a Dodge 4×4 Cummins turbo diesel, with a 3″ lift and 35″ tires, and average 24 mpg on the hwy. It’s got a big ass bumper and winch (that actually get’s used). I run biodiesel whenever I can. I love my truck, no apologies, and use the hell out of it. Rednecks for Wilderness!

  • Pat

    Shidan Towfiq — you say: about human reproduction …. it’s the thing I’ve never heard “environmentalists” address. Pretty strong and off-the-wall statement.
    If you don’t hear, or read, then of course you’d not likely come across environmentalists addressing population growth. That topic has been addressed for decades; where were you?

  • Jared Hoke

    A vintage Westfalia campervan with a Subaru engine? I don’t know how that conversion was figured out, but it must be a wonderful rig. For intelligent, logical and beautiful function, those Westfalia interiors were sui generis, and Subaru’s boxer is a far better than VW’s. I am green with envy.

    Oh, and by the way, your rant was right on, too.

    Keep ‘em flying …

  • Tim

    Steve,

    Thanks for calling me out, really. The drive went great, mostly because the car we rented was a brand new toyota that got over 35 mpg for the whole trip. If I was to own a car, it sure wouldn’t be as efficient as any one I’ve rented(and it’s been two in the last 6 months).

    I’ve never claimed nor expected to live a life free of hypocrisy. In todays world we will never be free of petrochemicals, they’re in everything, even us, as they’re used to boost production of food we all depend on. My bike is made of steel, skis: plastic, there are so many things I rely on that are are part of some industrialized process. The point is to do your best to curb our appetite, so to speak, and consume less, and thats pretty much where your article, as Jenny noted, dropped the ball.

    You claim to understand the complex and interlocking nature of the world and our actions, but if we don’t start by changing light bulbs, which I’ll bet you’ve done, and our driving habits, how else are we to make an effort? Surely not by continuing the status quo. Calling me a hypocrite is pretty lame, I’ve never claimed to be some patron-saint of the environment or to have zero-impact upon the world, in fact it’s my understanding of my far-reaching impact that drives me to consume less, drive less, bike more, and adventure in a responsible manner.

    Calling my ideals arrogant are even more ridiculous, after all, I never spouted anything about my car-free awesomeness except to say that not having an automobile in today’s car culture is so very fun and an adventure in it’s own right. Also, I’ve tried to convince many folks to get rid of their car’s not get a new one, but I’ve never decried anyone who owns one. And as far as arrogance is concerned, I’m pretty sure you claimed to be “lighter on the land than your average bear”. Wow.

    We should never feel bad about living our lives. None of us chose to be born into this world, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be making an effort to make it a better place, even if it’s at the cost of certain “liberties” or “freedoms” we take for granted, like our mobility. You admit to labeling the scorn of “treehuggers” as black and white, and I admit that my response was an equal one-sided rebuttal, but that doesn’t mean I don’t consider the infinite interconnections that exist in my life.

    My partner and I didn’t get rid of our car just to rent one every time we go climbing. Our trip to Zion was an anomaly, one we’ll do maybe once a year. We also accept rides from friends, carpool, take the bus, and generally get creative with our mobility. Does this make me a hypocrite? Yes, but only if I’ve claimed to be some sort of omnipotent environmentalist, which I never have. We have to get creative and make an effort to consume, and drive, less in today’s world. That doesn’t mean not doing the things you love, but it also doesn’t mean continuing on unabashedly driving for recreation. Not owning a car doesn’t mean not driving, but it means driving a lot less.

    I’m not trying to make excuses here, just saying that to point out this one trip as a canker on my claim of omnipotent car-lessness is a poor attempt at proving our lifestyle is unreasonable. Maybe you failed to check out any of our numerous car-free climbs this summer, but either way you’re choosing this one example as some sort of blemish that negates any efforts I’ve claimed to have made. I’m proud to not own a car, and stoked to share my experiences and motivation with others, but do you really think I don’t realize that negative reinforcement doesn’t work? Telling somebody not to do something might be about the worst way to go about it, being a role-model and showing them a positive alternative on the other hand…

    You’re right to point out that I’ve got it easy. We don’t have children or any other numerous responsibilities that could hold back (read: make excuses for) many others from making the sacrifices and adopting a car-free life. But we’re not that different, my partner has thousands of dollars in university loans, but to be honest, since we’ve gotten rid of our vehicle, we’ve only saved money and she’s been able to pay off a substantial portion of her debt. Choosing to not have children is just another facet of our environmental efforts. For most people, choosing to have children comes with the understanding that you will be making sacrifices to your personal life, not consuming more to continue to gratify your, and your family’s adventure needs. To me, a child means a potential end to my personal goals, and yes, I’m still too selfish for that. But actually, there are many families out there who are car-free. Do some google.

    I really don’t feel like arguing with you, and I’m sorry if my comments come across that way, we’re kindred spirits who both enjoy the open road, travel, adventure, and the natural world. I just felt like your admittedly unapologetic stance on driving is a slap in the face to many outdoor enthusiast’s environmental efforts, as Jenny so eloquently put. I don’t feel like my ideals are arrogant, or foolishly unrealistic, not many of my friends or co-workers know I don’t drive, and if it’s that unrealistic, then how am I getting it done?

    To call our lifestyle “foolishly” unrealistic is just plane wrong, we’re here, we exist, we’re doing it. It’s not easy all the time, but it’s fucking awesome. And it’s way better then “inert contemplation of the universe in some darkened tipee” I’m not spouting a solution, there is no divorce from reality, this is my life, I’m living it, it’s real. And if that’s arrogance or hypocrisy, then I’ll own it as much as you. I don’t drive, get over it. Those that dismiss our efforts without consideration are still caught up in the illusion of the “reality” of fossil fueled personal transportation, and terrorized by the media to fear a life without it. Divorce from reality is consuming at a rate that would require 5 of our planets to sustain it.

    You say you’d rather spray green and get people to make some changes then advocate for a lifestyle like mine, well, besides that really hurting, cause I believe in what we’re doing, put your 1% where your mouth is, and spray on, cause the “I drive, get over it, no apologies” argument sounds a lot more like ignorant babble than informed reasonability. Your article makes it clear that someone’s been making you feel ashamed for driving, and while it might be us environmental nut-jobs, more likely it’s your own intuitive conscience. Indeed it seems like it’s mainly the general trend in environmental awareness and increased efficiency in our vehicles that’s got you feeling pressured. If you don’t expect everyone to agree with you, well then you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised, cause not many folks are ready to adopt the car-free life, us humans love our cars, weather or not we actually need them.

    You think my argument reeks of hypocrisy and arrogance, I think yours sounds ignorant and arrogant. Well at least you’re not a hypocrite, but next time you have the chance to ride your bike to do some errands better think twice or all call you out for being some sort of environmental tree hugger :-)

    Again, you say: “that the issues facing all of us are far more looming and in need of collective action than to squabble over how we get around — we desperately need to act, desperately need to pressure our leaders to cowboy up and deal with global warming, but what we drive is far less important than driving change.” Well this is my action, and I’ve gotta ask what’s yours? Driving more and owning it? I realize that our trip to Zion wasn’t very noteworthy, pretty run-of-the mill for most climbers, drive, camp, climb, dirtbag, but what would you think if this trip, or a similar one, were completed by bike, under human power? You run a great site here an I love it, not this post so much, but I’m just asking you, do you think readers would enjoy that kind of stuff? Or would you not want to run it on the chance that it might make them feel guilty for driving? Maybe it would at least generate some comments when all the readers nit-pick their attempt while they use white gas to cook and ride on aluminum steeds.

    Tim

  • Devin

    So happy you wrote this.
    I get routinely scoffed at in my 4×4 Tacoma that people aren’t mechanically inclined enough to realize that I it’s a 4cyl. that gets 23 miles to the gallon. And I put premium filters in it and keep up on maintenance to help it run cleaner so we can all continue to enjoy the outdoors that we all love.
    People shouldn’t generalize.

  • Max

    The fact that you feel the need to justify your vehicle choice with all of your positive environmental habits suggests that there may be something wrong with driving a 4WD. Everyone who drives should reflect on their footprint, especially if you opted to buy a 4×4 with less than half the fuel efficiency of a compact.

  • Nate L

    Steve – well-written piece. I think the comments above help to frame what you were getting at. Thanks for having the balls to open up the debate, and to stand your ground.

    BTW – I drive a hybrid Camry, if you ever want to trade for that sweet Syncro. ;)

  • Karen @ Trans-Americas Journey

    I’ve been driving a Chevy Silverado through 23 countries in North, Central and South America since 2006. After nearly six years and almost 140,000 miles I’ve made it as far south as Panama….my journey proudly continues as ROAD TRIP and the math shows that my driving footprint is far smaller than if I’d flown from place to place. That said–I, too, would love to be running on love and old French fry grease, but at this time that’s neither affordable or practical.

  • scott

    I’d just like to say that this is a beautifully crafted sentence:

    “One of the curses of so many hardcore environmentalists is their disapproving, shrewish dyspepsia toward anything that consumes more resources than inert contemplation of the universe off in some darkened teepee.”

    It hit home, hard.

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