Intrepid as I am, the prospect of negotiating left-hand lanes from behind the wheel of a right-hand drive in Scotland for two weeks had started to fill me with feelings of dread. “I’ve always wanted to go to the Highlands,” she declared shortly after I had shared my upcoming itinerary for a solo trek in October.
Instead of blithely changing the subject, I fell for the bait and let drop the casual mention that I was dubious about driving, especially in big city traffic. “I could come along and research my ancestors,” she volunteered. From that point on, the vacation was never quite mine again.
Perhaps it’s just the nature of accountants to micro-manage everything. Although the trip was four months away, Carol immediately took it upon herself to oversee every last angstrom of detail. Armed with brochures, guidebooks, road maps, magic markers and a ledger to judiciously log our split of expenses for meals and lodging, she became the quintessential planner, intent on ensuring we didn’t squander a single minute of road time on nonessential pursuits.
Even our departure to the airport “at 05:00 sharp” had a militaristic precision. I tactfully reminded her that we were going on vacation, not invading Normandy. The humorless side of her stepped to the fore before we even got off the tarmac.
For those of you who have always been blessed with the kind of amicable companions whose faces grace the pages of travel brochures, the arrangements I endured on this particular trip may seem difficult to fathom. How was it, I wondered, that two people who saw each other every day at the office and had dinner twice a month could be so ill suited to share the same hotel room for two weeks?
Part of it, of course, I blame on the ledger. At 10 o’clock on our first night in London, for instance, she informed me that I owed her 1£ and 7 pence for lunch earlier that day. Why exactly she needed me to reimburse her before she went to sleep I’m not sure, but it does give you an idea of what the entire trip was like.
“You’re 3£ ahead,” she remarked after dinner one evening at St. Andrews. “Why don’t you order dessert?” My insistence that I was already full didn’t dissuade her from suggesting that I could order a piece of cake to go just so that our account could be properly squared before midnight.
Unfortunately, it was too late by then to uninvite her. And I really did want to see as much of the Scottish countryside as I could, preferably not through the windows of a rain-drizzled bus.
All good things must come to an end. The road, however, shouldn’t be one of them.
There’s something disconcerting, of course, about being a passenger in the front seat of a British rental car.
For one thing, there’s no steering wheel or dashboard in front of you. For another, the rear-view mirror is angled entirely the wrong way so that you can’t even check your lipstick. Finally, you keep wanting to reach over, wrench the steering wheel out of your companion’s hands, and scream, “My God! We’re in the wrong lane! You’re going to get us killed!”
“Just shut up and read the map,” Carol snapped.
It was going to be quite possibly the longest two weeks of my life. It also brought us a near encounter with royalty.
In retrospect, I can’t remember exactly how we got lost, only that it was impressed upon me (several times, in fact) that it was my fault for not following the map which she had so diligently marked with yellow highlighter. I personally blame it on the roundabouts, a road system comprised of spokes instead of off-ramps to force tourists to keep circling back to the same town they have just left until they buy enough souvenirs that will finally permit them to continue on their way. Since I unwittingly directed us back to one such town three times, Carol deemed that my skills as a navigator were sorely lacking, and she decided to take the very next road that appeared.
This brings us to the second problem inherent in traveling with someone this compulsive. It is that it’s anathema (I had to look this up – chances are our readers will, too!) to ever admit they are wrong, even if all road signs literally point to the contrary. Whatever obstacles beset our plans prior to leaving San Francisco were deemed by my companion to be “challenges.” Whatever happened once we touched foreign shores, however, instantly became the fault of powers that were clearly beyond her control. In other words — mine.
As a writer, of course, I have come to believe that there are no accidents in life. The people and events that fall into place are all essentially part of a grand scheme to provide the author with free material. So it was with the frontage lane onto which she pulled off. It was this same road that would figure prominently in the next novel I wrote when I got home.
A Scottish time-travel, The Spellbox, was spun from the premise of two American women getting lost in the Highlands, spending the stormy evening in a Medieval castle, and awakening to the realization that more than the weather has changed during the night; they are now living in the time of Scottish liberator William Wallace (1272-1305) and have no idea how to get back to their own century.
“I really don’t think this road goes anywhere,” I pointed out after the first couple of miles of nothingness.
Carol, however, insisted that it had to go somewhere. “Besides,” she said, “as long as we don’t make any turns off the main drag, all we have to do is retrace our way back to the freeway.”
Moments later, a light rain began to sprinkle, accompanied by the ethereal mists for which the Highlands are famous. We began to notice something else, as well. The farther in we traversed, the less well kept the road. Suddenly it went from two lanes to one, and a narrow one at that. Was it my imagination, or had the sky grown darker? The Scottish breeze, which only a little while ago had gently rustled the trees, was now whipping the branches into a frenzy.
“You filled the tank before we left, didn’t you?” I asked, my mind already racing with the possibility of running out of petrol in the middle of the woods, of having to sleep in a freezing rental car as night descended, of waking up and seeing enterprising wolves using coat hangers to try to break in and eat us.
The road had now disappeared altogether. “You realize that you’re just driving mindlessly through a wet forest, don’t you?” I remarked.
Her response, which most assuredly would have been unprintable, was preempted by the unexpected sight of a high wall. Two walls, in fact, with a large gap in the middle where one might have expected to see a gate. “Civilization!” she proclaimed. “I told you we weren’t lost.”
“That still doesn’t explain where we are,” I replied, as we eased to a stop in the clearing. From where we sat, whatever the wall was hiding was situated too far into the property to be discernible.
“The rain’s stopping,” she said. “Let’s get out and go see what’s back there.”
“Shouldn’t we stay in the car?” I prudently suggested. Intrigued as I was by what lay on the other side, the fact there wasn’t a gate didn’t necessarily seem an open invitation for strangers to just walk in out of the woods and say “hi.”
We were still debating the subject when we discovered we were no longer alone.
We saw the dogs first. A pair of big, muddied hunting dogs, followed by a pair of equally big, muddied Scottish hunters, both of whom carried big feathered bouquets which, upon closer inspection, also had bird beaks and feet sticking out. I wasn’t sure whether to be overjoyed to see them or to start running for my life. Carol decided to take the offensive. “We’re lost,” she said.
Oh great, I thought. Why not also throw in that absolutely no one knows we’re out here and that we’re carrying scads of credit cards and travelers checks.
The two men looked at us, looked at each other, then back at us again before one of them informed us in a thick brogue that we’d best be on our way. He obligingly pointed in the direction we’d just come from.
“Can’t you at least tell us where we are?” Carol pressed, pointing toward the wall. “Is this somebody’s house or what?”
“It be Balmoral,” the second man replied, “and Himself in residence.”
Carol gasped. “You mean Prince Charles is actually—“
“Ye lassies best be on your way,” the first man repeated, a little sterner than before.
“We really should have stalled for time,” Carol wistfully opined as we wended our way back to Edinburgh. “Just think! We could have met the future King of England coming back from a day’s hunt, and he might have invited us in for dinner.”
“Just shut up and drive the car,” I said.
So did I ever travel with her again, you may ask? The week after our return to the States, we got together for dinner to divvy up the double prints of the multitudinous rolls of film we had shot.
“Wasn’t this the most incredible trip of a lifetime?” she gushed, her eyes misting over in remembrance. “We should do it again next year…”