I've never been comfortable driving in big cities. I've lived in the same small town of Ashland the past 57 years, and our main thoroughfare is controlled by a total of four traffic lights, four lanes, and a maximum 35 mph speed limit.
My sister Laurie told me, "Once you get on the other side of the bridge, just keep taking lefts."
I also voiced my concerns about missing the exits.
"Get into the left lane after each ramp and you won't have to worry about that. People might get mad that you're in the passing lane, but they'll go around you," my sister said.
Since that first visit back in 1985, I've traveled to Duluth many times. I don't feel that panic anymore. But I must admit, I don't rely solely on my mirrors to make lane changes, either.
Flunking my first driving test taught me a few valuable lessons. One, don't tell anyone you're taking it. Two, you must be aware of your surroundings.
My second attempt, I checked every intersection, swinging my head left, then right. I literally looked over my left shoulder when making a lane change at 24 mph.
That kind of hypervigilance has saved me from crashing - more than once - over the years.
I'm still not crazy about traveling at speeds over 75. What I do to fool myself into a sense of safety is assign a leader car and keep up with his or her flow of traffic. I make the lane change when the leader car does. I slow down when it slows down.
I still won't take the wheel when faced with more than three lanes of traffic. If my husband and I are going on a trip that passes through a metropolis with a cloverleaf interchange, I let him drive, my right foot ready to slam on the imaginary brake.
What works better for my husband and me is if I read the map.
"You need to take a right in eight-tenths of a mile," I'll say.
This heads-up is usually not enough. Stress levels can heighten when you've got five lanes to change in less than a mile.
"What's the name of the road?"
It's usually about the time of such a question that I lose cell service or the phone battery dies.
"I don't know," I reply. "I lost the site."
I see the exit looming closer two lanes over.
"That can't be right!" my husband bellows. "That exit takes us south! We need to go north!"
I grip the sides of my seat. The stress tenses in my face. I stare ahead and snap, "I don't know what to tell you - just turn!"
With summer travel just starting, I'm guessing the anxiety is getting to me. Funny how my trepidation of our next car ride came through recently in a dream.
In that dream, my husband and I were on a trip in our ageless Subaru. I don't know where the destination was, but my dream plunked us dead center in a metropolis. The interchange was at least six stories high.
I was trying to find the beauty of the nothingness below us when I felt my body thrust against my seat belt harness. Our car came to a screeching halt. Wouldn't you know it, right there in front of us was a gaping openness where the highway had been!
"What the heck?!" I turned to my husband, my words of thanks still milling around in my head. "That was close."
And that was when I knew. We were the next in line for the final ride of our life. My hair twirled like a skirt when I whipped my head to check the rear. There was no amount of prayer, brakes, or wishful thinking that would stop what was inevitable.
Because the human brain processes information at record-breaking speeds, it was like our car started floating, and I watched my life story replay from the beginning. The joys, heartaches, sheer luck, and struggles. I felt the nose of the car start to dip into the nothingness. I was heartbroken knowing that in less than five seconds, it was going to be all over.
I wondered if it was going to hurt.
The car started to tip into a dive. With few seconds to live, I decided that the last emotion I wanted to feel was love. I was overcome with peace. I was almost excited to begin my next journey. I've always believed that the soul lives on after the body dies. The ground neared when I reached over and took my husband's hand.
"I love you!"
He was still fighting the inevitable. He stared straight ahead and said, "If it were up to me, I would've taken a different route."
I swallowed my spit for the very last time. The bleeping of our car's alarm screamed in my ears. "Look at me!" It took less than a second for him to turn his head. There was one more flash of all those silly fights about who was right, who was wrong, who worked smarter, who worked harder, who should say sorry first. Closer to death, I realized those conflicts were necessary. They taught us to appreciate each other's differences.
Inches from the ground, my heart raced. My husband and I shared a smile while bright lights exploded around us.
I woke to the rising sunlight streaming upon my face. Covered in sweat, I shut off the alarm. I breathed a sigh of relief. In my dream, we finally understood what love was all about.
I sure hope we don't have to die to remember that.
Doris Rauschenbach is a writer in Ashland. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at P.O. Box 267, Ashland, WI 54806. She can be followed on Facebook at facebook.com/doris.rauschenbach.