Wrong Way Down the Highway of Life, pt. 1

Our faithful companion…

Such a peaceful, sunny day! Windows down, the green of the summer grass reflecting off the chrome of the car’s hood, a gentle breeze blowing slantwise across the cab, refreshing, invigorating. The low chirp of cheerful little birds wafting through the cool air. And in the rearview, a crowd of cursing, angry construction workers pursuing the automobile across the lawn at top speed…

In the summer of 2006, I finally was able to capture and hold a dream I had been chasing since the day I first cracked open a copy of A Tale of Two Cities. It was a project fifteen years in the making. I hopped across the pond. I visited the Jolly Old. I went to the UK.

But going, you see, was not enough. Although we’ve been back once since then, at the time I was fairly convinced the trip was a one-shot deal, and I wasn’t therefore content with seeing a part of the island. Instead, we decided to see all of it. In two and a half weeks. I also wasn’t content with letting others show it to me. Tours are stifling–look over here, look over there, die of repetitive stress injury to the neck. So, instead of package deals, instead of piling onto a lorry or a train with a bunch of hurried sightseers, we went for the car rental, and set out to conquer the British Isles.

It was at this point that I discovered MapQuest UK. The next step was clear: If driving in the Isles would be fun, then taking the scenic route would be AWESOME!! So, where’s that “Avoid Highways” button? British back roads, here we come!

Little tip for those of you who are adventurous enough to pull this sort of stunt but haven’t as of yet been able to. Consider jetlag. Suffice it to say, I did not. After crawling from a plane at 6:15 in the morning, following a nine-hour flight during which I did not sleep at all, and having waded through a two-hundred person pile-up in Immigration, I stood bleary-eyed in front of the counter of the airport Enterprise, regaled with stories of Yanks who thought driving in England would be a good idea and, upon trying it, decided very quickly that it was not. One lady, the clerk said, brought her vehicle back after having made it once around the Gatwick complex, slapped the keys down, and staggered from the establishment looking like she’d seen a ghost. Or at least the possibility of becoming one.

I am not one to be easily deterred from a challenge. Also, I am not one to kiss fifteen non-refundable hotel reservations goodbye, which is exactly what we’d have to do if we gave up the car. So, morality tales not withstanding, off we went.

The clerk’s stories began to come true about fifteen seconds after we pulled out of the rental lot. It was here, you understand, that we first encountered the circular devil, the whirling dervish of traffic management. It was here we came face to face with the roundabout. Now, you may snicker and raise your eyebrows at this. You may wonder how much of a threat a simple traffic circle could be. Bite your tongue and mind your manners. It will kill you if you let down your guard.

What those who have never experienced this particular level of hell fail to understand is that a brush with this type of monstrosity (which has brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins spread throughout the UK countryside) involves a suspension of the laws of physics. Observe the photo above. If I want to reach the South Terminal, for instance–which is to my immediate right–I must make a sharp left. Nothing is straight ahead–directions in the UK often require the inquirer to “go straight,” but I’m not entirely sure they’ve understood the concept. What they really mean is: “Go straight, once you’ve driven in circles for a nice good while.” “See that lovely pub right there across the way? Establish synchronous orbit, and you can’t miss it!”

Of course, when need of clear wits and brave heart arose, I went Neanderthal. Cro Magnon man took the wheel. And somehow, having evaded collision with on-circling traffic, we found ourselves safely out of the flow and headed gracefully away from averted disaster. Into a restricted area. With barbed wire and those little red revolving security lights you see in old episodes of MacGyver. Perfect. Two hours after setting foot on British soil, American idiot deported for trespassing. Oh, the headlines we will make.

“Flipped out” doesn’t quite cover it. I lost the capacity for non-profane speech. At that moment, I could have rivaled the saltiest dog on the Seven Seas (in everything but coherence). Back to the roundabout, post haste! If when you were a kid you ever tried to leap onto a moving merry-go-round without losing an arm or a tooth, you may actually know how I felt at this moment. Car after car flashing past, Tammy hoping for the best (and expecting the worst), and me in the driver’s seat, between bouts of Tourette, counting the intervals and attempting to establish some sort of rhythm, as if I was preparing to insert us, car and all, into a pick-up game of double dutch. This time was all or nothing–no mulligans. Either we made it out of the airport, or we took the car back and gave it up as a lost cause.

Another traveler’s tip: Pick an outlet before entering the stream. The key to roundabout survival is having an exit strategy. Also, discard etiquette. There’s plenty of time to be polite once you’ve stopped being afraid. The second time through, we knew where we were headed, and we didn’t so much care how we got there, so long as we did. Birds (and I do not mean the feathered kind) were flying as we scooted around the circle to our artery of choice, but somehow we did it. Not only were we headed away from circular chaos, we were also actually headed in the right direction.

But not to worry. The fun was far from over. This is the point at which I realized that back roads in the UK are not what they are in the US. Remember my brilliant idea of mapping out the scenic route through England? Turns out almost all routes (including some of the “major” highways) are scenic. And most of them are narrow enough to render the question of lanes a moot point. There aren’t lanes; there is simply a lane, and you share it with oncoming traffic as best you can (which in many cases means you aim, close your eyes tight, and pray). Now, this became second nature the longer I did it, but that first morning I was barely conscious, and driving in a straight line was more of a challenge than usual. Look at that cute little house with the quaint thatched roof! And the neat little hedgerow in front of it! And look how the side mirror is ripping its way through the neat little hedgerow as we go! How delightful!

Once again, panic ensued. The one thought in my mind was to slip out of these by-lanes into something a bit more comfortable. We soon discovered, however, that broader streets serve only to invite the parallel parker. Soon after this, we discovered why side mirrors are collapsible. As we sped down the street, accompanied by the steady staccato of fiberglass on fiberglass, envisioning another two weeks of rampant destruction, England seemed a less and less welcoming place. I thought wildly of ditching the car and disappearing quietly into the underbrush, leaving people to survey the damage, scratch their heads, and wonder aloud, “Who WAS that masked mangler?”

By now, the highways I had made such an effort to avoid were my sole reason for being. I couldn’t help thinking that the longer I wandered around wreaking havoc, the more likely I was to end up before a modern-day Star Chamber. So we stopped at a gas station to ask for directions to a fairly major thoroughfare which, according to our map, ran through the middle of the town we were in. Not unlike asking someone in Joplin, Mo., if they knew how to get to I-44, or someone from Waco where to find I-35. Or anyone, how to find their own front yard. And the attendant had no clue. Never heard of it. This is apparently a universal failing in the Isles. We learned quickly not to ask directions, as blundering would almost always get you where you wanted to be more efficiently than waiting for inquirees to call in a dozen more people who also had no clue.

Side note: rest stops. If you are one who carries the misfortune of a small bladder, pack a Ziploc. A big one. From time to time, you will stumble across the British equivalent of a truck stop. If you see one, for God’s sake take advantage of it. Because exiting the roadway is not the same proposition there as here. Consider the fact that all exits involve the dreaded roundabout, and few of them were designed for ease of interpretation. You may end up driving madly in circles forever, all the while in sight of where you’re trying to go, completely unable to get there. And if you do, you may never get back to the highway you were on–at least not without travelling miles in the wrong direction first. So, drink little and carry a big bucket. It may be your only hope.

Finally, we found ourselves on a four-lane, divided highway. The left side of the four-lane divided highway, of course, but counterintuitive beats cataleptic any day of the week. After that first day, instead of forcing its hand I let the scenic route reveal itself as we went. And by the middle of the second day, I felt I’d been driving British pavement my whole life. In retrospect, it is the most fun I have had in my life. I will never go back to the UK without renting a car and hitting the road (and perhaps a few hedgerows and sideview mirrors).

In any case, it wasn’t long after leaving behind the tiny village lanes that we arrived at the first stop of our tour. Naturally, this wasn’t before driving ten miles out of our way to find a roundabout to make up for missing a turn, but all our pain disappeared as we crested a hill oustide Amesbury and saw below us the ancient stone circle of Stonehenge. The Sundial of the Gods. In my life, I have never felt more like cheering, weeping, and donning a druidic robe, all at the same time. It is truly a breathtaking sight. Oddly, the closer you get, the less impressive it becomes, but from the overlooking hilltop, the sensation of glimpsing beyond the centuries is overwhelming. The historian in me could barely breathe. And the irritations of the day fell away. I knew, after fearing the nightmare, that my lifelong dream was coming true.

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