LOS ANGELES -- "No one in the state of California will rent you a car," proclaims the clerk at the Dollar Rent A Car counter at Los Angeles International Airport. I stand there drop-jawed, withered by the mortified look from my daughter standing next to me. We face the prospect of spending four days without a car in Los Angeles, visiting three colleges 60 miles apart.
Our carless college tour is neither a frugal plan nor a go-green gesture, but simply the embarrassing oversight of this working mother of three teenagers. My driver's license had expired. Emily, 19, repeating, "I don't believe this," is too young to rent a car.
We are named Walker . We are also frequent travelers whose annual mission trips to South Africa were once marred by my forgetting the plane tickets. And there was that expired passport on the way to Costa Rica. (I blame e-tickets, e-reservations, e-forms, and e-everything for my confusion.)
"Mom, there is no public transportation in LA," Emily declares. "My friend says no one walks in LA." She later proudly verifies this by playing the techno-pop song "Walking in LA" by the band Missing Persons who indeed sing, "Nobody walks in LA."
But to me, a '70s Eurail-er and backpacker, carless means we could be carefree despite destinations scattered among unknown bus and train routes. Of course, Emily has never relied on a school bus and, for her, walking and biking are reserved for workouts, not for getting somewhere.
We leave the rental counter only to discover that information for the car-free is as hard to find as a pedestrian. College websites provide suggestions about where to stay, where to eat, and driving directions . But resources for visitors without cars are barely listed. When we finally negotiate the trains, buses, and taxis to get to these campuses, no one seems to know how long it will take to walk to the supposedly nearby hotels. Nobody knows because nobody walks. Car-free in Los Angeles requires hours of extra time, either traipsing distances guessed at or searching for the often poorly marked stops, then waiting for the infrequent buses and trains.
Waiting is unfamiliar to Emily, an admitted member of the instantaneous and impatient generation. Even the travel commentary is instant. She reports to friends back home, "Want to hear what we are doing for public transportation today? Two trains, a taxi, and a bus instead of by that one beautiful word, invented by Henry Ford, a car."
Emily tells me that there is a food chain in the public transportation hierarchy, "OK, a train is understandable, people take trains. But a bus says , straight-up, you don't have a car." Her look is now menacing. I think back to what her younger sister said last year, disembarking from her first long-distance bus trip : "Sure , Mom, buses are great. My seatmate showed me his probation papers."
But we are sharing with strangers -- not just the ride, but the same music, the same air, if possible, the same conversation, even the same price. (Traveler's disclosure: We spent 75 cents to $1.25 for bus rides. But totaling up the $20 train tickets, the $60 shuttle van ride, and the two inevitable $25 and $75 cab rides, our car-free expenditure is estimated to be only slightly below what we would have paid for a rental car and $3.50 a gallon gas.)
When we are walking, we are talking, not separated by the blare of the car radio. Along the shaded streets of Claremont, we breathe the fragrance of honeysuckle, observe the Arts and Crafts-style bungalows, and notice the peek-a-boo American Girl doll perched in one of the windows. After a train ride to LA, we feel swallowed by the cathedral-high ceilings, burnished leather arm chairs, and Spanish-tiled floors, all soaked in the amber light of Union Station .
In a downtown LA neighborhood, we observe the empty storefronts, one with cracked lettering "NAILS 4ever," and pull our bags over weed-strewn, buckled sidewalks. We see, breathe, smell, and converse about the campuses and their surrounding neighborhoods, outside of a hermetically sealed car, more informed than if we had relied on the sunny descriptions of college guides.
Then there's the all-important matter of how we look, we car-free ones. Each intersection brings glances from oncoming drivers as we perch on the empty sidewalk's edge. We suspect we are the waiting room story in the college admissions offices.
And we begin to notice the energy-consumption double-speak in the land of the educated. One college tour begins with the student-parking garage ("Fifty to 60 percent of our students bring their own cars and parking is free"). We hear an admissions official boast that this small liberal arts college is an educational mecca "at the hub of LA's major freeways."
Yet we hear breathless explanations about a campus theme, "the cost of oil," and overhear faculty members discuss the ethics of energy consumption. But we don't see these people on the sidewalks or at the train station. We realize we wouldn't be at these places either, except for what my daughter calls "Mom's stupid travel brain." We begin to feel the creeping guilt and the growing awareness that too many of us are talking the talk and not walking the walk.
My daughter wants to explore, wants to cross the country to attend school. She wants to get out of her New England comfort zone. You know, mix it up, be a citizen of the world, and all that.
But perhaps the lesson learned from our journey is that getting out in the world begins with getting out of the car.
Susan Walker, a professor of journalism at Boston University, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.