I’ve always been drawn to the romance of the road trip. The forward motion. The escape. The discovery of new worlds, exterior and interior. The surreal stops along the way. The artificially accelerated character development. The potential for lasting existential change.
Last night we went on our first road trip in more than two months. It was slightly accidental. After several weeks of taking the car no further than Tesco, about 200m away, we decided to drive up to a favourite spot in the Mendips to enjoy the last of the daylight and a view over Bridgwater Bay. Predictably, as soon as we’d changed up into third gear, a warning light came on. My car is not very old, and therefore it comes fully equipped with a forest of descriptive orange lights and angry alerts, to remind you to do everything from checking the oil and pumping up the tyres to fastening your seatbelt. Once I drove all the way back from Plymouth being beeped at because I couldn’t figure out that my laptop sitting on the front seat, unbelted, was confusing the poor thing.
Because I’m quite a law-abiding person who doesn’t like things being wrong, I demanded that we pull over until we could figure out what the warning light meant. Quickly we ascertained that it was probably not something critical, and it was also not something we’d be able to fix immediately, so we decided to ignore it and carry on, but modify our route to drive through a string of little villages towards Cheddar, sedately skirting the base of the hills rather than trying to drive straight up into them.
As Wells receded in the rearview mirror, we scented freedom – and, quite honestly, it smelled weird. Despite my usual reluctance to sit still, in the past few weeks I’d let go of the urge to get out and about, contenting myself mostly within our four walls, or within a couple of miles’ walk of them. Earlier that same day I’d even been feeling quite happy with things – not the bigger picture, which is still extremely worrying, but I’d been feeling grateful to have as much work as I could handle (much of it interesting), I was feeling at peace with the whole children-not-being-at-school thing, I was enjoying a steady routine in which there were relatively few surprises. But the inadvertent road trip would disturb this equilibrium.
I’d seen signs of changes in the wider world even within the confines of Wells. Twice in the last couple of weeks I’ve been intimidated while out walking with the children, and this is not just in my imagination. We’ve been shouted at by men, explicitly wanting to scare us. One of them saw that he’d at least partly succeeded, and pursued us for a short distance, growling and urging us to run. This was in the high street. There’s a strange atmosphere out there, like you wouldn’t necessarily be able to count on getting help if you needed it, in the way we’ve always been encouraged to believe that we could. And it’s not just on foot that this applies. Because the roads are emptier, people are driving crazily fast. A few weeks ago, at the height of the crisis, a car didn’t make the bend just outside my front door and bounced off the wall of the church opposite. The emergency services took a good twenty minutes to arrive.
Even in the best of times, Cheddar can feel like a universe apart from Wells. I used to live very close to it, but now I rarely go there, only now and again to walk along the lip of the gorge like a tourist. (Actually, most of the tourists remain at the foot of the gorge, in the tangle of fish and chip and ice cream shops, cheese outlets and mini golf courses.) Last night as we drove through, I had the possibly irrational sense that if we were to stop and walk around, people would know we were out of place, and would tell us to go back to where we’d come from.
Driving up through the gorge, I began to feel as if I was waking from a two-and-a-half-month dream. All life was still going on there, and perhaps it had been all this time. A thirty-year-old souped-up Ford Escort drove up my arse for a while, until veering off to one side in a screech of tyres and a spray of white dust to join a vast congregation in a car park. The road ahead was covered in a lattice of black rubber, and it was clear what the gorge would be used for later that night, as on every other night. Families picked their way on foot along the verges, between blooms of litter and tiny, dark Soay sheep. Climbers were roping themselves up. I drove around blind bends like an old woman, craning to see ahead, clutching the steering wheel, anticipating disaster at every turn.
At the top of the gorge, we’d reached the summits of the hills almost without realising. The orange warning light remained illuminated, but the car seemed fine, so we decided to push on to Charterhouse, where we could walk to sit on a bench outside the little Arts and Crafts church. We’d sat there on just such a mild Thursday in summer last year, and watched the swifts.
Yesterday we sat on the bench for a few moments. The swifts were there again, but we didn’t linger. Although we were technically free, roaming at will for the first time in weeks, I felt flat and sad. We both had a sense of dislocation, of unreality. The world seemed unstable. We didn’t quite belong. But for the feeling of having skipped an entire season, it looked just as it had before – and yet, in some barely discernible way, it was off.
On the way back down to Wells, a more direct route, I was the passenger.
I took photos of the landscape rushing past, trying to capture a sense of motion that I’d almost forgotten.
Glimpses of worlds I couldn’t quite access.
By the end I barely knew what I was looking at.
When we arrived back in Wells I realised we’d done exactly what I’d hoped we could manage not to do. As we were about to turn into our street, it was one minute to eight. I’ve never done the clapping thing, but I can hear that many of the neighbours do, week in and week out, along with copious banging of pans. I’m not ashamed of not clapping (I love the NHS; hell, I live with the NHS), but at the same time I had no desire to make an outright display of my refusal to be drawn into it all by quietly parking up mid-clap. To avoid this scenario, we carried on around the block, and as we did so, I witnessed the strangest thing. A wide road full of people, some in fancy dress, all clapping and cheering outside their front doors, then clapping and cheering even harder as an actual ambulance happened to drive past, blue lights flashing and sirens going – not on some kind of lap of honour, but presumably on its way to try to save someone’s life.
And I don’t think I quite understand where I’m living any more.
Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and freelance since 2008. She still likes road trips, in theory.