Bombing along the M-90 between Edinburgh and Inverness at an 82mph clip, screaming past semi-trailer trucks in the “Dual Carriageway” passing zones that are “only” doing 70, sneaking sideways glances of epic green valleys and bald mountains — of that fabled Scottish countryside so seductive that I happily volunteered to guide a missile for three days just to see it — I was struck over and over again by the ease with which it could all end right then and there.
Running along Regent’s Canal in London, there were times when I could just barely make myself not jump into it; when biking, I’d be so focused on not making a wrong move and falling into the canal that it was all I could do not to just turn right in. What is that? What is that thing in which sometimes you’re trying so hard not to do something that somewhere, deep down, you can almost feel yourself about to do it? You don’t, usually, but… it’s there.
Running or biking along a canal and fighting the urge to willfully fall in, of course, is entirely different than cruising at warp speed down a freeway and not, you know, crashing. Seeds of tentative doubt are not a good thing for your psyche while driving. It’s all about positivity, confidence, and self-assured safety guarantee, right? And yet, as I chauffeured us towards Inverness…
Change lanes at the wrong time without checking your blind spot — uh oh.
Logs tumble off the trailer two chevrons ahead of me — Final Destination 8.
Take a wee-bit-too-long look at those rolling hills and see the sudden stop in traffic just a little too late and — ouch.
Or, along the lines of riding my bike into the canal, abruptly turn the steering wheel 90 degrees in either direction — thanks for playing!
I haven’t owned a car since the week before I moved to New York in 2001, when I somehow fetched around $1,000 for a vehicle that desperately needed new brakes and featured a digital dashboard that was no longer digital. Before this recent three-day UK roadtrip, the last time I’d driven a car was eight months prior in Michigan; the only time I’ve ever driven European-style — sitting on the righthand side of the car while driving on the left side of the road — was on a roadtrip through South Africa back in 2010.
A little laminated piece of paper in my wallet, however, ensures I’m completely capable, at least through 2016, of not only driving a car on sudden notice, but apparently also of driving one when key components of the experience are the complete opposite of my dormant training.
“I’ll just need you to sign here, acknowledging that you have declined insurance, and initial here, here, and here. Great! Have a good trip.” A cheerful college-age girl handed me a pink slip at the Edinburgh Airport rental lot and said her colleague would meet me outside to hand over the car keys.
It was a bit terrifying, really, climbing into that Renault Scenic.
I had no idea how to turn it on, for starters (first time in a key-less car), or how to disengage the parking brake. The digital dashboard, all GPS and Bluetooth and media plug-ins, was just slightly more advanced than the dysfunctional digital dash on my old car. (I never figured out how to program the GPS.)
There were no instructions, but as I left the parking lot the first thing I saw was a road sign with “Drive on the Left” printed in four languages. Sound advice; cheers for that.
Following iPhone directions haphazardly copied onto a full sheet of paper, I managed to get onto the city bypass and take the correct exit before Gut Check #1. A roundabout mishap, one related to which lane to be in to go in a certain direction — such a trifling matter– resulted in a near wreck and a woman honking and demanding my head on a platter, with a side of haggis. Enduring her wrath, I overcompensated while trying to right the ship and bumbled onto a raised sidewalk, no doubt to the horror and chagrin of the Scotswoman calling for my neck.
The next thing I know I’m cruising down an open road, sweating, turning the stereo down, the farmland expanses and pungent odor of manure providing not-so-subtle clues that I wasn’t heading towards the Edinburgh city center. Gut Check #1 ended there: I turned around, successfully navigated the roundabout, and eventually found my way back to the B&B. Not a particularly big deal, but I was rattled.
Getting out of Edinburgh and onto M-90 was an occasionally harried endeavor, and despite the freeway fretting about dual carriageways and deer crossings and hyperspace speeds, during the three-hour drive to Inverness I was comfortable enough for singalongs to The Smiths. Gut Check #2 came on the A-82, a treacherous two-lane expressway that dips and winds and takes blind turns along the banks of Loch Ness.
Related: Scotland’s Western Isles
Here the speed limit is 60mph (60!) and the lanes are just narrow enough to fit a perfectly centered mid-sized car. That means semi-trailer trucks pushing 70mph and going over The Painted Line of Trust barreled towards me as I struggled to line up the Scenic so that it wasn’t running onto the barely-there shoulder, or being set up for a lovely little head-on collision with the truck from Duel.
Good times. Good, horrifying, pitted-out t-shirt times.
In the end, I made it. We made it. The Scenic made it, barely, as I nearly sideswiped the metal barrier at the first Loch Ness pullover. The only reason I didn’t was my wife screaming, “You’re going to scrape the metal! Holy shit, get over, get over! What are you doing?!” Cheers for that — seriously, cheers to A — because something tells me a significantly damaged car may have put something of a damper on the rest of the trip, which took us past Loch Ness, into Loch Lomond National Park, through the Lakes District, and finally to Hampshire.
There are road signs all along the UK freeways that read “Tiredness can kill. Take a break.” Tiredness, though, was my last concern.
Lead photo taken by Flickr user ciukes; other photos snapped by author.