You have to love the British, what with their double-decker buses and roundabouts and humo[u]rous street signs. I’m thinking particularly of one sign I saw repeatedly on our recent vacation in Scotland: “Oncoming vehicles in middle of road.”
It’s basically their way of saying: “You might be about to have a head-on collision. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.”
I actually like driving in the UK. Driving on the wrong side of the road, in a car with the steering wheel on the right and the gearshift on the left, concentrates the mind wonderfully.
But this trip pushed me to my limits. Oddly, part of the problem was driving in places where there was hardly any traffic at all, in the remote Hebridean islands of Islay and Jura.
Islay has more sheep than people and more whisky distilleries than schools. It’s a veritable Manhattan, however, compared with Jura, the island to the north, which is so isolated that it’s where a tubercular George Orwell went to finish writing “1984.”
We loved Jura’s stark, windswept beauty. There is but a single road, which stretches from a ferry landing in the south before petering out two-thirds of the way up the island’s east coast. The one-lane track is dotted every 100 yards or so by crescent-shaped areas of gravel called “passing places.”
When two cars meet, one is supposed to nip into the nearest passing place to let the other by. It worked remarkably well until our last day on the island, when I met an oncoming car nowhere near a passing place. I moved gingerly to the left, hoping to give him room.
A lot of the island is a big, peaty bog and it was with horror that I felt the front left wheel of our rented Peugeot sedan slip from the road into a runnel-like ditch. The other car squeezed past, but I was left futilely spinning my wheels, frantic that we’d miss our ferry. I was stuck there about five minutes, until a driver who came up from behind suggested that I turn the steering wheel the other way. I got enough purchase and popped back on the road, the air ripe with the smell of burning clutch.
The gods have a way of punishing the smug, and just as I could see Jura’s one town — Craighouse — approaching in the windshield, I saw another car headed our way. The dilemma here was that the nearest passing place was behind us. I put the car in reverse and crept tentatively toward it.
In my defense, I should point out that I was not entirely well. I was incubating a cold, and my head was a little fuzzy. For days, I’d been chain-sucking lemon-flavored mentholated cough drops until I was perspiring pure Lysol.
And you know how confusing it is to reverse: Turn the wheel to the left to go right, to the right to go left. Now try doing that with the wheel on the wrong side and a bunch of sheep watching you.
With a sickening lurch, the back right tire went into a ditch, so deeply that the entire car heeled over. When My Lovely Wife and daughter opened their doors and got out, the car tipped even more.
I climbed out like an astronaut leaving a stricken capsule and surveyed the situation. So too did the driver of the car I’d let past, who felt bad about his tiny role in the affair. Meanwhile, my wife called the hotel we’d just checked out of, asking if there was a tow truck on the island.
No, said the lady at the hotel. She advised us to wait for the next passing farmer.
“We pull tourists out of ditches all the time,” she said.
I looked at the stricken car — enditched twice in 20 minutes! — and thought that perhaps it was time to just set it on fire and move the family to Jura, where I would become a shepherd or a Gaelic storyteller, living in a tumbledown stone croft and wearing a kilt. Would it really be such a bad life?
But I gave it one more try, directing my wife, daughter, the other driver and his wife to stand in the doorways of the car, adding their weight like the crew of an America’s Cup yacht.
The wheels spun, the tires bit and we were free. My Lovely Wife offered to take the wheel but I declined her offer. I don’t think she’s as good a driver as I am.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.