The Distance

As I prepare for my annual long-distance haul across the U.S., I'm reminded of one big difference between Americans and Europeans: we view distances in completely different ways.

This was first brought to my attention when I arrived in Manchester in September of 1983 for my college exchange year.  I'd spent the previous three hours on a train from Heathrow; the seven hours before that I'd been on a plane; the twenty-four hours before that I'd spent working on a final paper for an American Studies professor, trying to clear up an incomplete from the previous semester before I departed.

And I can't sleep on planes.

So there I was, arriving in a new country, loaded down with a year's worth of luggage (including five books I apparently believed could not be obtained in the UK:  The Lord of the Rings, The Wind in the Willows, The Once & Future King, Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, and Roget's Thesaurus), and so sleep-deprived that I couldn't even tell whether I was jet-lagged or not.  I staggered up to the taxi stand at Victoria Station, shoved my baggage into the boot of the next cab in the queue, fell into the back seat, and croaked "Grosvenor Place, please," to the driver.

I didn't know where Grosvenor Place was--all I knew was that it was my dormitory for the next nine months.  But the driver, he knew.  And as he turned around the loop and passed by a friend's cab on the way toward the street, he let this fact become clear to me.  "Where you headed?" asked the friend.

"Grosvenor Place!" my driver spat through the open window.

blearily tried to figure out what was ticking him off.  I certainly didn't look my best, what with bags under my eyes larger than the ones I was carrying, and my full beard and longish hair may have further put him off, what with its similarity to the style popular with terrorists.  Then again, maybe it was my overalls; in those days I preferred to travel in a pair of white canvas painter's overalls, primarily because they had a pocket right at the chest where you could safely tuck a passport without fear of its being picked.  As I later learned from my British friends, in England there were two groups of people likely to wear white overalls:  painters and homosexuals.

But though he may well have been xenophobic or homophobic, I soon understood the real reason for his irritation:  Grosvenor Place was only a few blocks from the station.  In June, I would actually march with a dozen or so friends to the same station to make my way home--but they'd be helping me with my luggage.  Just now I was alone, lost, and groggy.  It might have been a distance I could walk, but there would have been no way for me to find my destination, let alone haul my bags that far.  The cabby plainly thought it was too short for a cab drive, but I had to disagree.  Still, I was capable of realizing was that he'd get only a couple of pounds in fare for such a short trip, and then he'd have to go back to a long queue of cabs to get his next passenger.

Thus, as he hauled my baggage out of the boot, I fished one of the improbably-colored notes out of my wallet:  a strangely blue-and-purple sheet with Charles Dickens on one side.  A tenner.  "Thanks," I said, pressing it into his hand.  "Keep the change."

If nothing else, perhaps that cabbie now thinks that terrorists and homosexuals are at least good tippers.

It would be my honeymoon before I had another chance to consider the distance between my idea of distance and a Brit's idea of it.  For two weeks Kelly and I had been driving all over Great Britain--well, to be accurate, I had been driving.  The rental car had a manual transmission, and Kelly did not yet know how to drive a stick.  I reasoned (correctly) that any attempt to teach her how to do it while simultaneously teaching her to drive on the left might lead to a divorce before the honeymoon was over.  Nonetheless, I'd been perfectly happy in the driver's seat, carrying us from London to Windsor to Warwickshire to Suffolk to Lincolnshire to Manchester to Wales to the Lake District to Scotland to Skye.  Now it was morning in Scotland, we were all but broke, and our return tickets from London said we'd be taking off the next day.  This meant staying somewhere cheap that night--preferably somewhere free--and getting there from Scotland in the next 24 hours or so. 

As we zoomed south in the early-morning light, I looked at the map, hoping to find an answer, and realized there was only one person we could reasonably ask for lodging:  my friend Ann, an American Studies major who'd first told me about the Manchester-UNC exchange program back in 1982.  Unfortunately, Ann didn't live between Scotland and Heathrow Airport.  She lived in Orpington, just outside of London.  Nonetheless, finances dictated that I give her a call, and as soon as the morning was advanced enough to preclude my waking her, I pulled off the motorway, found a phone, and asked Ann if her offer to put us up was still good.

"Of course you can stay the night," she said cheerfully.  "Where are you?"

"Just south of Carlisle," I replied.

There was a brief silence.  "Oh, Pete!" Ann cried.  "You'll never make it!"

Ann's bafflement lay in the relative locations of Orpington and Carlisle.  Carlisle is the nothernmost city in England, lying only a dozen miles or so south of the Scottish border  Orpington is on the southeast side of London.  This was a distance of roughly 350 miles.  To Ann, then, this was a multi-day trek, one requiring two hours of driving, tops, and that probably punctuated with a stop for lunch somewhere.

But to a guy from North Carolina, this was merely a six-hour drive--not even as far as the trip from Murphy to Manteo.  Even today, a trip to my parents' house involves a four-hour drive--five to my mother-in-law's.  Heck, we can't even get to a decent concert venue without driving nearly an hour, and the nearest IKEA store is nearly two hours off.  The modern American views time in the car as part and parcel of life, particularly when there's not a mass transit system around.  Even in 1986, with only seven years' of driving experience, I knew that Orpington was well within my reach, whatever Ann might think.

"Watch me," I laughed, and sure enough, about six hours of heavy motorway driving later, we pulled into Ann's driveway, had a lovely dinner, visited with her family, and spent the last evening of our honeymoon in luxurious (and inexpensive) comfort.

And next week, somewhere near the Virginia-Tennessee border, when I've been on the interstate for six hours, I'm going to remember Ann's words once again.  I'll never make it?  Ultimately that's true for all of us.  But some of us will go out with our hands at ten and two, our mirrors adjusted, and the horizon roaring up under us.  It's the American way.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on February 26, 2009 8:00 AM.

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