In a country booked on internal-combustion engines, writer-poet Richard Brautigan is an anomaly—an American who would rather walk, thank you. He is 46 and has yet to acquire a driver’s license. Brautigan is just as unconventional on paper, especially in his whimsical celebrations of gentleness and the outdoors in such novels as Trout Fishing in America and A Confederate General from Big Sur, which made him a cult figure in the late ’60s. Then Brautigan effectively dropped out of sight in 1971. Divorced, with a grown daughter who is an aspiring actress in New York, he only resurfaced last autumn when he left his Montana ranch to embark on a cross-country tour to lecture and promote his latest book, The Tokyo-Montana Express. During four months of campus-hopping, he employed every means of transport short of the ox cart, except one—he never drove a car. Brautigan has in fact never driven. In a conversation with PEOPLE senior writer Cheryl McCall, he discusses his deep distaste for the automobile and explains how he successfully remains in the driver’s seat by staying out of it.
Not driving is a personal decision, not a protest in a socially active way. I don’t carry signs saying “Down with the car. Up with the skateboard.” My lack of appreciation of the automobile doesn’t extend to other forms of technology. I’m very interested in cybernetics and computers. I watch television, I have a stereo, I use an electric typewriter. I don’t dislike the modern world. I just don’t have a love affair with the car.
I do think it’s unacceptable that we have to walk around breathing what’s left over from swamps and dinosaurs from prehistoric times. The noise pollution, hum, drone, shifting, grinding and roaring are enemies of silence and contemplation. Then there are people who use the automobile as some kind of sexual extension. God only knows what fantasy they’re acting out by shifting gears and gunning their engines. And what about the high cost of gasoline? I wonder what essential items or luxuries people eliminate so they can have dinosaur juice to shoot around?
I started to learn how to drive when I was a teenager, but I lost interest quickly. I had no fear of driving, I was just into hunting and fishing instead, and to me driving was awkward and not pleasing. I was out to lunch as far as status symbols are concerned when I was in school. I used to bicycle a lot, but there were no bicycle drive-ins to go to and watch movies.
Not driving is almost considered a character flaw in America. I just accept it cheerfully and have evolved the Zen art of nondriving. Because I’ve made this conscious decision not to drive, I’ve accepted and created a lifestyle around the fact that I do not have spontaneous movement. In Montana I spend a lot of time by myself. I have an old Plymouth in the barn and if someone’s around, they drive it. I have neighbors nearby and I go into town and shop with them. I prefer to deal with feeling dependent rather than to actually get into a car and drive it. I adjust to the availability of cars and people to drive them.
I’m always on the passenger sides or in the back seats and when I look at the drivers, they always seem to be enjoying themselves. It’s a total mystery to me. The person who is driving always has to keep his eye on the road. Whenever I’m in a car as a passenger, I get to look out and see everything. I’m always pointing out things they can’t look at.
I tend to pick cities and districts within them that I really like which have good public transportation. There are some really beautiful places like Boulder, San Francisco and Tokyo which have good transportation, or the city is compact enough and attractive enough to walk around in.
In Boulder they have this thing called the Ride which takes you around for free to certain parts of the city. It cuts down on pollution and gas consumption and makes you part of the solution rather than the problem. In Tokyo, there’s a tremendous train system, subways and public transportation designed to get you very rapidly from one place to another. Los Angeles is the worst city for transportation. If one tried to use cabs there, eventually you’d get in a cab and have them drive you to the poorhouse.
Public transportation is a great form of entertainment for me—everyone is going someplace and I’m just watching. I have a great curiosity about people and I love to watch them, analyze their lives, look at their clothes and see how they interact. You could almost do the Canterbury Tales on the subway.
Just walking around the streets, you have far more encounters than you ever would in a car. The whole cornucopia of people, emotions, drama, real life. I don’t know how much real life goes on in a car. People are sealed off. It’s often the only privacy they get. Then they drive home, and turn on television to watch other people drive. There are so many programs that center around cars, and for dramatic tension and transitions they use high-speed chases and driving from one place to another.
There are real benefits in not driving. I don’t have to drive friends around and I don’t have the frustration of looking for a parking place. That one would deliberately seek a form of transportation that requires circling for hours just to stop seems ludicrous. I don’t need a car for any kind of work. Being a writer, I can work anywhere. My office is just where I happen to be at the time.
Driving is such a part of our culture that the driver’s license is a more respected document than a passport. It’s almost like I don’t have an identity without one. I can cross borders in Europe with just a passport but I can barely get into a motel without a license and a car. I walk in with my suitcase, fill out the form and then they ask me about my car. They look at me like I’m crazy, staying in a motel unaccompanied by an automobile.
My favorite form of transportation is walking anywhere with somebody I love. I’ve never gotten a parking ticket for walking and I don’t need a license. I take the bus, cabs, airplanes and sometimes I hitchhike. I don’t care if I get wet. I was born in the Pacific Northwest and spent most of my growing-up period soaked to the skin, so I’m used to getting wet. I’ve done a lot of hitchhiking, when I was a kid and during the hippie times, but it can be very, very dangerous. I would not recommend any woman to hitchhike under any conditions.
The last time I had rollerskates on, Harry Truman was President. I do not like to row a boat. It’s one of the most boring things on the face of the earth. I prefer to be a passenger in a boat and look around while somebody else is rowing. I no longer skate, and I don’t ski because I don’t like the idea of two slats on my feet. I didn’t learn to swim until I was 28. I don’t swim that well and I don’t like swimming but it’s a good idea to know how.
I’ve never had a woman refuse to go to bed with me because I couldn’t drive. And it makes no difference to me if a woman can drive an internal-combustion engine. One of my opening questions is not “Can you drive?” And women don’t seem to get frustrated because I don’t drive—I can provide them with enough other frustrations.
Maybe I’m an anachronism—not of the past but of the future. A portent. The days of the automobile are numbered. I have a Montana trash garden on my place and part of it consists of old cars. They sit there as kind of mementos on the south forty. I won’t move them even though some people out there consider them an eyesore. I like the cars there and just watching them slowly decay gives me a kind of haunted pleasure. I don’t know if it will happen in my lifetime, because my lifetime could end tomorrow, but I don’t think the internal-combustion engine has a great future. Anyway, at my age, it looks like I’ll never learn to drive. I can’t see any circumstances that would cause me to learn. That’s based on past experience, of course. Who knows, maybe five years from now I’ll be driving alongside Paul Newman at some raceway. Stranger things have happened.