I drive a Jeep Grand Cherokee. It is my second; I bought my first in 1995. I bought it for two principal reasons.
The car I had prior to that was a Toyota Camry. The Camry was an excellent car; it never had mechanical problems and got good gas mileage. But one winter's day in 1994, we were driving up to Vermont in a heavy snowstorm and hydroplaned right off the road into a snowbank. If we had slid off a couple of miles back or further along, we might have hit a guardrail and just possibly gone off a bridge. So I wanted a four wheel drive vehicle. I knew that these could still skid but the chances seemed less.
At the time, I also was an avid fisherman, out on the water every weekend day, and my favorite fresh water fishing spot was a nameless pond three miles deep in the woods in Hither Hills State Park in Montauk. I often hiked back there with my fishing rod, waded the pond and caught three pound bass and bluegills the size of plates. A quarter mile beyond the turn-off to the pond, the trail continued to a beautiful deserted beach on Long Island Sound where you could fish for flounder and bluefish. I was so bothered that I couldn't bring my kayak to these places that I even speculated about the idea of hauling it the three miles on a two-wheeled platform I had bought that attached to one end of it.
The trail to the pond was a pitted and uneven dirt road, and I often passed other happy people driving their SUV's down it. One day, and this indicates the depth of my fishing obsession, I secured the kayak to the top of the Camry and crept the three miles, my heart in my throat. I managed not to blow a tire or break an axle in the holes, and after fishing the nameless pond for an hour from the kayak, I thought: "That was great, but I'll never do it again."
When the Camry was five years old, and we were talking about another car, my wife was easily persuaded to agree to a Jeep, because of the incident in Vermont.
Well, as often happens, the fulfillment didn't quite match the desire. ("It is rare that happiness comes and perches directly on the desire which called out for it"; Proust). I probably hauled my kayak back to the pond fewer than ten times. Within a year or two, the pond, overgrown with some invader weed, grew much shallower; in any event, the bass I caught from the boat in the center of the pond were not as large as the ones I got wading the margins. I had better fishing from the kayak in the bay, where I caught a few keeper-sized flounder which I contentedly cooked and ate. I never caught a blue-fish from the kayak, which is just as well, as I would not care to share that cramped small vessel with a thrashing, sharp-toothed and angry blue. On the other hand, the Jeep was involved in the best day of fishing I have ever had: a birthday, circa 1999 or so, when I fished the beach alone for three or four hours, wading in the surf and catching a flounder and a five-pound blue, both of which I cooked that night. I would not have cared to hike out with those fish, though of course it would have been possible.
I also briefly experimented with driving the Jeep on the beach itself. I obtained the necessary permits. I was planning to be one of those grizzled prospectors of fish who drive vehicles festooned with surf rods up the sand until they find a spot where the birds are working a school of bluefish, then wade in and hammer them. In the end, I drove on the beach twice, swamped my vehicle both times and had to dig it out. Something that others made look easy turned out to be a difficult art. You had to judge the sand carefully, and in places you had to know to speed up; a hummock you could take easily at twenty miles an hour might be a trap at ten. The first time I bogged down the Jeep, I was just exiting our favorite bay beach, it was late in the afternoon and if I couldn't free the car, I faced the prospect of leaving it there and hiking the three miles out with my wife in the gathering dark. I put a wooden board under the wheels (I carried it for this eventuality), backed out of the hole I made, came around on the beach and then went over the mound at speed and at a better angle.
After my second such experience I lost interest in beach driving. I knew I could learn to do it and I was proud that at least I had gotten off the beach both times without the help of other people. But it wasn't very pleasurable and it was around this time that my obsession with fishing began to wane. (One of these days I will also write a piece on the ethics of fishing.) Today, I rarely drive the Jeep on the dirt road to the beach; we hiked it five or six times this summer, and I drove it once, also to fish for a few hours, the only time I had my tackle out this year.
It was not until I purchased my second Jeep in 2001 that I began to understand that in the minds of some people I had committed a social and environmental sin. There seem to be two over-lapping trains of thought on this. The first and more specific held that SUV's were an environmental crime principally because they were gas guzzlers. A later overlay on this idea, championed by Arianna Huffington, was that SUV's support terrorism because more oil has to be imported to create the gas which fuels them. Under this extremely diffuse line of reasoning, I gather that owners of Toyota Camrys support terrorism just a little, while the owners of Jeeps support it a lot. Judge for yourself the solidity of the chain which says that oil= Arab states=terrorism.
Now, I'll cop to being in a particularly naive state when I bought my first Jeep, but at the time I would have told you that I was getting it in large part because I was an environmentalist. I associated the Jeep with the ability to spend more rewarding time outdoors, in beautiful places remote from other people, engaging in careful, low-impact fishing for species I would either eat or release, and hauling a muscle-powered small craft which itself did not harm the environment. (Is there an algorithm which calculates the extent to which the extra gas I've burned in the Jeep is offset by the fuel I haven't used paddling the kayak?)
Without being aware of it, I was playing a tiny role in an ongoing debate about the relationship between the use and the preservation of natural resources. Sad but true, nature is affected even by the most benign uses by humans. A prime example has been the coral reefs in Pennekamp State Park in Florida. These are much diminished from when I first saw them a quarter century ago. Though global warming and boat accidents have played the largest role, the extremely fragile coral is also harmed merely by well-intentioned scuba divers touching it. Though most people know not to do this on purpose, when you are hovering a foot or two away and admiring it, sooner or later a wave will carry you into the coral or you will inadvertently put out a hand to steady yourself. The most fragile parts of nature sometimes appear to be the strongest, like hard corals or rock surfaces which nevertheless may be corroded merely by the warmth and breath of too many visitors. The adage I have seen on numerous park signs from my earliest childhood, "Leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but photographs," begs the sad question of the amount of damage that could be done even by feet and flashes. In short, nature-loving humans can love nature to death.
Another commonly given example is whale-watching. Anyone who has been out of Provincetown on a beautiful summer weekend, and observed forty boats following a trio of humpback whales, understands the extent to which the whales may be harrassed and harmed by too much human interest. I have seen such boats hounding the whales from much too close, causing them to sound before they are ready, and I have even seen small boats collide with one another and overturn while following whales.
The counter-argument is that people will only protect what they can see. Allowing reef diving and whale watching gives people an emotional attachment to nature, this theory goes, and later they will vote their hearts. You have to see a whale in order to understand why no-one should be permitted to kill a whale.
I suppose, to be really thorough, you should also calculate the amount of gas which is burned by people exclusively for the purpose of driving to national parks. In a perfect world, we would protect nature by fencing it in and prohibiting any human visits.
In my mind, owning an SUV brought me closer to nature. The people who drive the beach in Montauk are passionate advocates of the existence of the parks in which they drive. You are only allowed to drive in order to fish and will get a ticket if you are found on the beach without fishing tackle. However, I feel on even firmer ground, literally and figuratively, now that I no longer drive the beach. The road to the nameless pond and to the bay is, after all, a road.
However, even that isn't so simple. The three miles of woods are inhabited by box turtles, which are an endangered species. Every year or so, I find a heart-breaking little crime scene, a box turtle crushed on the dirt road. Personally, I drive slowly and look for turtles, and have stopped my car and moved live ones off the road several times. Anyone who kills one is probably going much too fast. One day I was hiking in and a Wrangler full of raucous, laughing young people drove out of the woods, at forty miles an hour. A few hundred yards further in, I found a large box turtle, in the middle of the path, freshly run over, and I am convinced the boys had done it on purpose.
These turtles are long-lived and produce only twenty or thirty eggs a year, most of which are dug up and eaten by raccoons and other scavengers. The turtle the boys killed had lived many decades to grow to that size. I later heard the naturalist for a local environmental group comment that while box turtles are not likely to become extinct on Long Island, the populations that will survive are the ones which live in woods unreachable by vehicles. Anywhere that the turtles come up against cars, they will lose, as their reproductive rate cannot keep pace with the rate at which they are run over. After hearing this, I wished for the first time that "my" woods be closed to vehicles.
To complete the environmental discussion, I am not proud to drive a gas guzzler. The laws have not kept up with the evolution of SUV's, which were originally regarded as trucks and exempted from gas efficiency regulations applicable to cars. Now that the SUV has so emphatically become a personal vehicle, there is no reason (except that our government is run by oilmen) that they should not br brought under the rules applicable to other cars. For financial, environmental and political reasons, I would be very happy to drive a SUV which consumed much less gas.
The other related concept, championed in a recent series in the New York Times, seems to be hold that we all have a moral obligation to drive small, fragile vehicles and that it is a sin to own more car than this. The Times series concentrated on the idea that SUV's cause more harm than they sustain in accidents. This is evidently true, but what the journalists (who probably drive Camrys, if not Honda Civics) missed is that, morally, this is a neutral factor. Everything depends on the human sitting behind the wheel.
What the Times writers did was to take a factor that I regard as a positive and turn it into a negative by making some assumptions they never stated. Although the Jeep's increased immunity from skids was the main factor which originally attracted me to it, I bought my second one with full knowledge that it would also make out better in a collision. My expectation was that as a cautious driver, I would be much more likely to be hit than to hit anyone, and I wanted to be in the largest, most impregnable vehicle I could afford when the eventuality happened. My forethought was justified when I was rear-ended twice in one day, the first time at a red light with minimal damage to anyone, and then later that afternoon on the highway, by a driver who was turned around talking to his back-seat passenger. His car was totalled, mine had a dented rear fender.
The Times journalists appear to assume, and should have stated, that most SUV's are driven not by me but by turtle-killing boys who will inevitably drive them at high rates of speed while drunk and inflict mass carnage on others. I am very frightened of such people too, but my response to them is still to want to be in the toughest vehicle I can afford, and not to meet them in a Civic.
I am aware of some uncomfortable parallels to the gun debate. Some years ago, when I wanted to satirize the NRA, I wrote a piece in which the Second Amendment protected the right to drive instead of guns, and imagined people driving on sidewalks in huge, frightening vehicles, with spikes on the fenders, while traffic cops had to wear protection which made them look like the Michelin tire man. Yes, guns, like vehicles, are technology, and much depends on the use to which they are put. However, "to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail", and technology eventually militates in favor of the uses for which it was designed. Ultimately, the uses of a car are to get you someplace, and those of a gun are to kill things.
The vilification of SUV's by the Times series and by Arianna Huffington's silly campaign leave me mainly with an impression of a kind of reverse snobbery, coupled to a puritanical prudishness which says "you must live as I do".