“Sat Nav Sally versus the DASH”
“GEHEN SIE AUF DIE ROUTE”
A rental car, a sat nav unit, golf clubs, hiking boots, a small cooler, plenty of Smidge (the world’s greatest midge repellent), a handful of Highland reservations, and we were ready for a road trip to the tip top of Scotland. Along with three other couples ready to get their holiday started, we bumped and bustled about in the rental car office that was tucked into a chain hotel reception area. The small space was under construction and next to the hotel’s restaurant and smelled of waffles and sheetrock dust.
Waffles in the UK, to be clear, are made with SUGAR. A ton of it. Actually in the batter, and even the sometimes with chunks of tablet (a heavenly butter-brown-sugar-caramely-fudge-like thing that haunts the dreams of dentists) rolled into the batter. So it’s like sugar-cone funnel cake batter with huge brown sugar cubes rolled into it.
Someone had stolen the navigation chip from the on-board Sat-Nav in our Ford Focus, so we were provided with an after-market unit that plugged into the car’s USB and hung from Garfield suction cups just over the dash. Paperwork signed, ready to hit the road, we sat in the idling car, patiently trying to plug in our flat’s address. But the unit was stuck in German and wouldn’t allow any menu changes, so Hubby walked back inside.
This graphic of horror depicting a child dying is standard
In every Ford Focus sold in Europe.
When he returned, he was accompanied by a rental car honey (they are always these skinny men with string ties that look like they walked out of a Robert Palmer video in 1987) shimmied noiselessly into the backseat, where he easily slid between the seats, leading with one shoulder and deftly maneuvering all the things on the dashboard. This service was accomplished with the pseudo half-eye roll and passive aggressive inhales that accompany all retail jobs where the customers are idiots. (So, I guess, all retail jobs.) He was actually a little flummoxed when he couldn’t manage to get the unit to stop shouting “GEHEN SIE AUF DIE ROUTE” at us. (1)
Meanwhile, I sat quietly.
But, he smugly advised us that he had thought ahead and brought another one with him. This one, however, wouldn’t power on at all. Car Rental Honey had become visibly nervous. “Hmmm” noises were all he could muster. Now the pseudo-eye rolls (the ones that start with a sharp look to the right, then go quickly skyward with a fluttering eyelid) belonged to Hubby, who told him plainly, “We must have navigation. We’re headed to the Highlands for a week and they have unreliable cell coverage, so we can’t rely on our mobiles.”
Meanwhile, I sat quietly.
We waited for about 15 minutes, listening to a 1980s station play the Boy George hour. When we see Car Rental Honey bee-lining to us, Hubby looks at me purposefully and says “Do NOT kill him.”
After what I can only assume from his pungency was a smoke and waffle break, he was returned with a third unit – this one from 1996 that had no dash mount and plugged into the cigarette lighter. When it powered on and said “Welcome” in English, and Rental Car Honey bolted from the backseat like we were going to drive away with him if he did not. It was hard not to be a little offended, but Hubby, unruffled as ever, programmed in our flat’s address.
“The menu’s stuck in Spanish,” he said.
“Proceed to the route,” Sally SatNav said.
“But she is speaking in English, so let’s just leave,” I said.
“Proceed to the route,” Sally insisted.
“Turn her down,” Hubby said, easing out of the parking lot. Going in for another round of State fair flavored attitude and a new unit was clearly out of the question. I pulled out my iPhone and told Siri to get us home, and in tandem, Siri and Sally SatNav delivered us safely across town. (2)
Finally! Inverness, then Strathpeffer, via dinner in Dingwall, where we found a small restaurant that, like many in Scotland, is unpretentious and yet has amazing food. No reservations, no problem. It looked like a place that might be serving bagged salad and generic Italian food and yet the braised vegetables, venison medallions, and rack of lamb were extraordinary. For those of you who think that Scotland has terrible food, you have no idea what you are saying.
Admittedly, I did not take this photo. But I DID take a photo of our meals that night and texted them to GB, just to rub it in. #ThatswhatSiblingsDo
When we arrived in Strathpeffer we were routed up the side of a small hill where we were informed by the “ding ding” of Sally Sat Nav that we had arrived at our Inn. Despite her assertion that “You have arrived” and the very positive sounds repeating from her (think the technical-chime equivalent “ta da”) we were not only NOT at our destination, we were nowhere at all. To our left, forest, to our right, trees. In front of us, a dead end road, behind us, the road leading back to Dingwall. So we called the Inn. And we learned that in addition to being not-so-great drivers, and signage not being a particular strength, Scots are also really bad at giving directions.
I used to think that no one could be worse at giving directions than Hurricane. She once, as a part of (very serious) directions, told Hubby to “go round the doo-lolly that takes you past the hardware store, then go along that road with all the corn fields. It goes up and down a bit but when you get to the top of the very big hill, turn left at the top. That’s our little neighborhood.” No shit. And when we asked for more (street names, for instance) she huffed as if we were exasperating children and said it was clear enough – and that nobody uses street names anyway. No shit.
I guess if I lived in this neighborhood of mutant children,
I would want thru-traffic to be cautious too.
So the innkeeper tells us to look for a sign (which turns out to be an 8×10 piece of paper stapled to a power pole) that says “Bunny Drive” – a sign we pass three times before we actually see it. Nevermind that the power pole is situated across the street from an enormous 17th century inn with a large sign in front. As in, a massive landmark RIGHT WHERE WE NEEDED TO TURN. But forget that. Nevermind the enormous Tudor inn with manicured trees and wooden sign the size of a mini Cooper – Look instead for the HANDWRITTEN 8×10 PIECE OF PAPER that looks like a yard sale that happened 3 weeks past.
The innkeepers were nice. They escorted us through the mountains and over the woods to the inn, the path of which resembled nothing in their directions. We were greeted by two mutts (mixed breeds are called mongrels in the UK) named Scooby and Keith, and by virtue of these pups, we instantly forgave the innkeepers for being directionally challenged eejits. The bed was cozy, the showers hot, and in the morning we enjoyed a full Scottish and headed to our first golf course. All signs of a good holiday.
Just like in the States, we are golfers who can’t afford to play the posh links, but luckily, like in the US, there are links here for all budgets. Invergordorn was one. (Reay was another.) So affordable, in fact, that we hired a buggie (golf cart) which is not all that common here. Like the country in which it’s situated, golf is a sport for walking, not driving. Without the driving heat of the US southern states, this is not nearly as bad as it sounds. Unless it rains. Or the wind blusters. Both of which are apt to happen the moment you hit the course. So we dressed like onions, bought wind-proof lighters, packed plenty of whisky and extra balls, and hit the course for our very first round of golf in Scotland.
We played golf, smoked cigars, drank whisky, and giggled like teens who were skipping school when we ran into other people on the (mainly empty) course. There were more rabbits than people, in fact, fat lazy brown ones who seemed to know the course much better than the locals. Parallel to the 16th hole, we discovered the field in which fat lazy brown Scots rabbits are grown.
Photos, of course, don’t do it justice. Like trying to capture an entire island or the Grand Canyon without a drone’s vantage point. Its majesty proves too much for the lens. So instead, I’ll just give you a pic of Happy Hubby.
A 5-minute downpour on the 10th hole meant that we missed the transition to the 11th and ended up playing some other hole twice. YES. WE GOT LOST. ON A GOLF COURSE. A local Scot (playing with his two wee ones in wellies and brellies pulling his bag) told us that he lives on the course and gets lost all the time. SIGNAGE people.
For fuckssake. Signage, people. Signage!
We would continue, despite our best plans, to get lost.
Over the next 7 days of our Highland road trip, Sally would ding “ta da” at us as if we had arrived somewhere, when in actuality we were in the middle of nowhere, more or less yielding to a small group of sheep who had decided to congregate and/or nap in the middle of a country road.
There were quite a few things that were more consistent than actual signage in the Highland roads. Sheep were definitely one. And you didn’t have to worry about the one sheep that was in the road – it was the bump ty sheep that was chasing it, trying to catch up, that would join it in the road that you would – just narrowly – miss.
Sally would also decide to stop working altogether and the road she showed us traveling, with her reassuring blue arrow, would go blank, and read “unnamed road” when 10 seconds earlier it had both a name and a slew of crossroads. We employed Siri in a supporting role whenever we could, but often we drive blind.
“It’s a bloody island,” Hubby said at one point, when I was threatening to throw Sally out of the moving vehicle. “Where can we go, after all? We just drive north until we see water, right? Then we turn left.”
Yes, these are actual vacation photos. I promise not to bring out the carousel with negatives encased in cardboard slides, but only because it’s in storage somewhere in Milwaukee.
He wasn’t wrong. It actual irked me a bit that he wasn’t wrong. But I get disproportionally angry when something I have paid for (especially tech) doesn’t work. It’s one reason that I am not allowed to use vacuum cleaners any more. (3)
But we arrived. We arrived each and every time at our destination.
EACH AND EVERY TIME.
My growing obsession with Highland Coos was a tranquilizer to the exasperating Sally.
And we always found a few more interesting destinations in between the dots on the screen. Sometimes we called ahead to say we were running late. Sometimes we stopped and asked for directions (inevitably these were as poorly communicated as Sally’s “unnamed road” moments) and sometimes we just said “Fuck it” and drove on.
And, just like that first day of golf, things came together as they ought to.
Unsurprisingly, signage for drinking in Scotland is the best of all signage in the country. All other signage is incorrect, misleading, or altogether absent.
So you must be flexible and you must be patient. I am one and Hubby is the other. (Guess which is which ha ha ha)
In the grand gardens of Dunrobin Castle, I listened to the woman next to me, through a thick French accent, call her dentist and arrange for an appointment for the following day because she had bitten into some chocolate and lost a crown from her tooth. She conducted this entire conversation openly, with little regard to those around her, gathering for the falconry display.
And when we were introduced to the birds, she knew them all by name. She loved the falcons and owls and hawks, and her energy was childlike and contagious. That’s her head in the center of this photo, as memorable to me as the birds themselves.
We took photos (both in flight and posing) with the incredible birds and then wandered the museum of exotic taxidermy and ocean-view grounds before heading back to the car. We spent that afternoon lounging on a beach and talking about all of our favorite waters.
The beauty of the Highlands is not to be under-estimated or oversold. We strolled The Duncansby Stacks, near the north-easterly tip of Scotland, and the
glorious views erased what little remained of our sat nav stress.
There are many different ways to arrive at a destination. You can use Sally or Siri, or try to follow some poorly constructed directions or ill-conceived signage. But in the end, the journey is the thing. Hubby calls it the dash. You have two dates in life you can’t control. The day you are born and the day you die. The dash is what appears between them (on your tombstone), and represents all of the LIFE in between, the life you lived and the love you filled it with.
We’ve been given a lot of advice during our marriage, most of it useless. (4)
Choose your directions wisely!
Directions can be a good thing; don’t get me wrong. Anyone who struggles with anxiety will tell you what asinine advice it is to tell them to “just run with it”; for some people this is neither practical nor responsible instruction. And having a general goal or direction is a good idea; I’m talking about flexibility here in broad terms. While I understand that some people need strict structure to everything, including their vacation (more on this in Highland Roadtrip: Part Deux) I also understand this is a virtual prison for me.
Some of my greatest joys in this life have come as a direct result of getting lost.
Meanwhile, in Scotland…
I have seen the sun set over New Mexico dessert and rise over Monterrey Bay. I have been welcomed in an Arkansas truck stop that seemed to have been designed for a horror movie film set, and I have been shunned by a petite woman who smelled like cinnamon in a small boutique in Firenze. None of these were my intended destinations.
Somewhere near Wick and the Old Pultney Distillery.
I have stumbled into beauty and grace and greatness, and found that often when I am looking for it one place, it is waiting for me in an entirely alternate location. One that Sally and Siri wouldn’t have lead me to.
One of the reasons that I write is because sometimes I never know where it will lead me, where I will go and how it will change me. I find joy in the writing, but road trips remind me that I find joy in the living. It gives me joy to take the “directions” and re-write them, re-purpose them, or have the courage to throw them away altogether.
And for me, there is virtually no fear in the unknown. Take the 2nd left and see where it goes. Order #4 on the menu without first seeing what it is. I think that monotony is much more menacing in life than risk. Every now and then we need to toss the tech and use a map that folds like an accordion – or better yet a compass – to guide us. Head in a general direction and find joy in the variety of paths and possibilities that exist for us to choose from.
The beginning and the end of a day’s drive are just two dots, and like the two dates of your being – they are fixed and boring. The exciting bit comes between, in the adventure and the journey, at the living and loving with which you fill your Dash.
(1) German for “Proceed to the Route”
(2) I sat in the passenger seat (where the steering wheel usually is) I had vivid flashbacks of a mid-90s road trip to Vegas from Los Angeles, in which I used my very first TomTom GPS toy as co-pilot with a car full of Queens headed to my first same-sex wedding. That unit also had language problems, in that had been programmed for Big Sur and every time we got in the car, it tried to take us there. After three days of recreational drugs, I thought that maybe the TomTom was channeling Kerouac and took to calling it JackJack, which the Queens thought was funny because the wedding party was anything but beatnik.
(3) Vacuum cleaners have one job to do. Suck shit off the floor. Dirt, mainly, but other things as well, like the occasional piece of thread or staple. Or miscellaneous piece of plastic. I do not believe that I should have to pick small items (smaller than a Lego) off the floor prior to vacuuming. Sucking shit off the floor is its entire raison d’etre. That is the VACUUM’S JOB, its identity. This is why I bought the vacuum. And I expect it to DO ITS JOB. This is also why we’ve had 2 burn out and one cause a small fire. And I am banned from using them.
(4) There are always those who think that if your life’s narrative does not conform to the standards with which they are comfortable, you are on the Wrong path and they feel they must guide you to the Right (read: Their) path. It took me longer than it should have to develop the skills needed to cut these people from my life. It isn’t easy, especially when they are related to you, and often use religion as a bludgeon. But it is possible, bitches. It can be done.
Forgive the delays, my Devoted Dozen!
Highland Road Trip: Part Deux is coming soon!!