Scotland the brave

We love Scotland, and we love the ease of fixing travel and accommodation in one mode – the small campervan. I say small, because apart from motorways, driving on UK roads is stressful in anything larger than a motorbike and sidecar, but camping in one of those is difficult. So, the small European camper was the next best thing, or so I thought. Being almost brand new, it was my introduction to automotive artificial intelligence. The relationship went south rather quickly. It clearly knew everything, and let me know when I tried to ignore it. More bipping alarms than a row of dump trucks going backwards, and the messages that came up on the ‘driver information centre’ all directed me to do something or other. Ignoring it was not a good idea; the relationship was clearly headed toward troubled waters. It wasn’t long before the ‘new information for the driver’ became a rather tart ‘read the driver’s manual before proceeding further’. I have been driving since I was a kid and don’t think I have ever read a driver’s manual – a workshop manual sure, but not how to drive a car.

Such thinking – yes it knew what I was thinking and detected that Robyn was leaning toward doing what it said (two relationships headed south now) – made the little foreigner deeply offended. I am sure it knew I was a headstrong Australian, so it decided to turn this little threat to its intelligence into a defence of National pride.

It knew the moment to strike and I was caught off guard. I mean how careful does one have to be just taking a photo, we were tourists after all. All hell broke loose. I can’t recall the exact sequence but it went something like this: I can’t open the door unless the thing is in park; can’t put it in park unless the brake is on; have to get back in to put the brake on; engine switches off when the brake is on to stop diesel fumes upsetting the atmosphere; can’t get out of the car if the key is still in the ignition; take the key out and the alarm sounds because the window is down to take the photo; can’t get the window up because the key is out of the ignition and alarm is still sounding. Robyn, sick of the alarm tells me to just do what it wants me to … I get mad at that as well as the car. Then she says I am developing a complex about it and it was that comment that convinced me she had been won over by the sneaky little devil. So, not many photos of Scotland. Just kidding. I must say if it was my car the wire cutters would make it more user friendly. Wouldn’t even need a workshop manual for that.

Nearly all the roads on the Scottish islands are single lane with passing places. And, surprisingly, it works rather well. Drivers are so considerate, one notices a car and quickly decides to pull into a passing place or, in response to a flick of lights, drive on, acknowledging their courtesy with a cheery wave. There are exceptions sadly. Drivers of high-performance European cars (no names but they have an ‘M’ and a ‘B’ in them) have an expectation of right-of-way and take it, always without a wave to acknowledge the fact that I reversed to find a place to pull off. Being an easy-going Aussie I wave when they pass, but only one finger.

Probably it was the complex Robyn talked about. When I delivered the camper back in Edinburgh, I left it out of park, the handbrake off, the keys in the ignition, the windows down, a string of instructions on the driver information screen, the bippers all going full blare, and walked away as a man who chooses intelligence of the non-artificial kind. Composed, assured, and confident that his wife will attend to the problems it causes. Intelligent camper, and headstrong to boot. Just kidding, again.

USA – the armchair ride

They say ‘young men see visions and old men dream dreams’. After seven decades I guess I am in the dreamer category, happy to admit it. Not sure about the visions but for as long as I can remember I have been a dreamer. By dreamer I mean those reflective moments (dreamers have a lot of those) when one explores: ‘I wonder what it would be like to …’ And then the dream takes shape, waits in the shadows for a while, then bursts centre stage and becomes the glorious reality. That’s why I don’t apologise for being a dreamer.

One such dream was an American road trip – the Interstates; the National Parks; the Midwest; the pioneer museums; the Native American memorials; and of course a romantic version of Route 66. Our elder son married a girl from Pennsylvania and they settled in Georgia, so staying with them meant we had opportunity to knock the dream into shape. An early consideration is what sort of vehicle, and either hire or buy. Dreamers can be rash, so it didn’t take long to settle on buying a Corvette convertible, for a road trip is about the driving after all. No lumbering RV for this old guy. The RV may have let me see the boats from a bridge instead of a guardrail, but I would have missed seeing all those truck wheels just beside my ear. We still camped in State Parks with light-weight gear and from our tent door we watched grey squirrels fascinated with the chrome wheels on the Corvette.

We got to love the open road. I can still feel the excitement of accelerating along the on-ramp. It became a bit of a joke between us. My reasoning was that I didn’t want to get in the way of that truck, but Robyn would notice the truck was nowhere near us. We were amazed at how far one could travel on the Interstates in a day. Our pattern was mostly an early start, a late breakfast, fruit and snacks at roadside rest stops, mostly with a memorable chat to the veteran volunteer keeping things tidy, then an evening meal before either a motel or camp. Restaurant food was mostly such a generous serve it became a next-day meal. In all we travelled 8,384 miles across 22 states over eight weeks in a dream car with arm chairs. Although we didn’t camp as often as we had intended because of the cold weather in the northern states (anything like an overnight low of low thirties was out of the question), we were still well below budget. Robyn’s ‘armchair ride across America’ didn’t cost the earth.

While we loved the open roads, the Blue Ridge Parkway was a highlight. Four hundred miles of following various ridges and valleys of the Appalachian Mountains, a road without any commercial vehicles or towns, but lots of scenic views. Blessed with sunny weather, we drove it with the roof off, waved to other Corvette drivers, and let the hundreds of motorcyclists pass by pulling into a scenic overlook. We took our time, camped beside a little creek in a deep river valley. Robyn asked about bears and was told “We haven’t seen any this season …” Hardly reassuring, but he added that the dogs would bark if any came close. They did bark, I told Robyn it was definitely a Doberman bark, perhaps a Bull Mastiff, or maybe an Irish wolf hound/Rottweiler cross; all very cross so no bear would dare come near the camp. She believed me, because dreamers can be awfully charming as well as dreadful liars.

People ask about ‘best part’ of the road trip and it is difficult to list just one. However the dogs bark camp on the Parkway is certainly one. I remember the two of us after having cleaned up supper things and before climbing into the tent just having that couples chat. ‘This is as good as it gets’ we agreed. It was nearly the end of our weeks on the road and we couldn’t bring to mind a single misfortune, any car problems, roadside delays, being shot at, and, best of all, never a cross word between us. Yes, the dreams that old men dream can burst into glorious reality, and remain the memories of a life well lived.