This morning I left the delights of Las Vegas and headed back to the airport. This was not to catch a flight but to enable me to pick up my rental car for the week. Renting a car is incredibly cheap in the US and is by far the easiest way to get around: public transportation generally leaves a lot to be desired (except in the big cities) and sidewalks appear to be illegal in quite a few states. In some places it is almost impossible to walk to a shop or restaurant that is only a few hundred metres away. If you do decide to brave it and scramble over the grass verges / gravel banks then you run a fair risk of being picked up by the police. (This has, in fact, happened to me twice. I think the assumption by the police is that if you’re walking from one large out-of-town lot to another you are either planning on robbing your destination or are fleeing from the place you’ve just robbed. I found the best strategy if is happens is to put on your best British accent and play the ‘I’m from England’ card. You’ll then get a series of questions about the Queen and London but otherwise escape without consequence.)
So the upshot of all this is, if you’re serious about seeing the US, you have to drive.
I remember the first bit of driving I did in the US. It was from somewhere called the ‘Winking Lizard Tavern’ in Paradise, Ohio, a few miles through a forest back to the hotel I was staying at in Akron, Ohio. This was when I spent a month based in the US for work purposes. I was with a colleague and we had decided to go to the Winking Lizard for our evening meal. He drove our hire car (a Ford Fusion) there and, as far as I was concerned, he was going to drive us back. Things did not proceed as expected.
The Winking Lizard Tavern is famed (as we later discovered) for its spicy wings. It buys in chillies especially and offers wings in twelve different levels of ‘hotness’. My colleague, who was never one to shy away from a challenge, opted for the ‘magma’ wings that particular evening. Magma was the highest of the twelve levels of hotness and, given the disparaging comments that my colleague made when he ordered them (never be as hot as curry x he’d had in y) I think the bar staff took it on as a personal challenge to get these things as hot as they possibly could. This was affirmed by the fact that, when the wings emerged, a small huddle of bar staff and regulars gathered at a safe distance to witness the fireworks.
In the UK, we would say that the magma wings ‘disagreed’ with my colleague. This would be a characteristic British understatement as the wings didn’t so much ‘disagree’ with him but completely annihilate him. He was in tears about three bites into the first one and started desperately downing pint after pint of diet coke to try and douse the fire. This proved to be mostly in-effective and the tears continued to stream down his face. He then made his fatal mistake: he tried to wipe the tears away. Now, you eat wings with your fingers. So if you then try to wipe your eyes with those fingers all you succeed in doing is wiping whatever the ‘magma’ formula was into your eyes.
His eyes became red and swollen, his nose was streaming and he was crying uncontrollably. He would have been better off if someone had emptied an entire pepper spray into his face. Suffice to say the regulars in the bar found the situation hilarious and the bar staff mixed their concern with ‘helpful’ comments about how ‘you really shouldn’t wipe your eyes you know’. I was left with an incapacitated colleague several miles away from our hotel and, hence, had to drive in the US for the first time.
I was pleased to see that the car that was waiting for me today in the Avis depot was, once again, a Ford Fusion. The Avis desk didn’t try to upgrade me to a truck or Ford Mustang this time which left me a tad disappointed as I usually enjoy that battle. I headed out on the 270 mile trip through Arizona to Flagstaff, a trip that started in 80 F heat under azure blue skies but ended in thunder-snow with the temperature closer to 30 F. It appears that the first snowfall of winter has arrived, suddenly, and a few weeks earlier than expected. The snow may put paid to my plans to head to the Grand Canyon tomorrow as the roads out I’m that direction are at an even higher altitude (up to 11000ft ) than those I travelled down today.
I’m currently going through my usual series of teething problems associated with driving in the US. Despite having driven over 15000 miles over here since 2009 there are still a few rituals that I have to go through:
Ritual 1: Get in the wrong side of the car. This will happen no matter how much you think about it and tell yourself that the steering wheel is on the other side. Today, it’s happened twice. I think this may be because of the fact that it’s been pelting it down with snow and rain which has meant that I’ve been hurrying to get in the car. The decision you have to take is that, once you’ve jumped in the wrong side, shut the door, and gone ‘oh crap, not again’, do you get out of the car, walk around, and get in the other side, or do you try and move across internally while not impailing yourself on the gear stick. This decision usually depends on how many people saw you get in the car and how many times you’ve done it on that particular day.
Ritual 2: Scrabble around over my right shoulder for the seat belt, then realise that a) I’ve got in the corrects side of the car (result!) and hence b) the seatbelt is therefore over the other shoulder.
Ritual 3: Spectacularly screw up a freeway intersection and end up having to do a second (or third) pass to get in the correct lane to exit. I think my best effort on this count was when I went to (or perhaps through) Salt Lake City. You entered the freeway (six lanes of traffic) from the right and had around a quarter of a mile to gets across to an exit ramp located off the lane on the far left. The first time I did this I missed it. I didn’t even get as far as lane two. I then left the freeway, turned round, and came back at the junction from the other direction. I missed it again. I left the freeway, turned around, and came back at the junction again from the original direction – and missed it again. It was not until the fifth attempt that I managed to get across six lanes of rush-hour traffic in less than fifteen seconds, which I thought was quite an achievement.
Ritual 4: Go for the clutch when no clutch it there. This is a common problem as 95% of cars in the US are automatics. This usually only happens once and will result in one of two this happening: either you’ll put your foot down on thin air or you’ll push e break pedal to the floor. One is more exciting than the other.
Ritual 5: Loose the car. This happens a lot. With the size of the parking lots you get in the US it’s very easy to completely forget where you parked. Most cars now have a button that you can push on the remote key to get the horn to beep to help you home in on its location – but this doesn’t necessarily work if there are six other people wandering around doing the same thing.
I also added a new driving ‘lesson learnt’ to my list today:
When driving along a freeway or highway that goes through the mountains you will often encounter steep gradients that stretch out over several miles or more. What you’ll find is that a lot of trucks will sit in the right hand lane on these gradients and put their hazards on – as they will slow to speeds of 30mph or less and have to warn the traffic coming up behind them. Large trucks will often have an additional bank of yellow flashing lights that they switch on to add to the hazard lights for effect.
About twenty miles away from Flagstaff I encountered quite a few of these slow-moving trucks. The weather was moving in and, while the carriageway was still remarkably clear, the snow was building up on the hard shoulder and I wanted to get to the hotel before the worst of it arrived. I spied another slow-moving truck ahead with a spectacular array of flashing lights on its back. As I got closer my windscreen started to become obscured by the sheer amount of spray that this thing was putting into the air. Through the hyper-speed wipers I could just about read a sign on the back of the yellow monster that read ‘please keep well back due to spray’ (touché) so I decided to go around. The instant I pulled out from the slipstream of the yellow truck the spray got much much worse. I pressed on through the deluge and glanced to my right as I drew level with the front of the vehicle to see what on earth was causing so much mess.
It was at is point I realised I was overtaking a snow plough.
So that’s why the carriageway was so clear…