This Side of the Pond – June 7

By Sarah Pridgeon

When it comes to international travel, there is no doubt in my mind that I have been the victim of a curse. I’ve gone so far as to check both of my palms for a black spot, but that apparently only applies to boats and it’s mainly in the air that I find myself going in circles.

You may recall, for example, the four days I spent trying to get home through a polar vortex, when one plane after another failed to leave the ground. It’s only rarely that I make it to Britain and back without at least one painful incident along the way.

Case in point: last Monday, which I had intended as the prelude to an average working week. I booked a flight back from the motherland that should have been several hours shorter than usual and would have brought me back to Wyoming just in time to unpack my bags, get some shut-eye and drive to the office to resume normal service the day after Memorial Day.

I shouldn’t have been so quick to congratulate myself on my masterful flight-booking skills. Whichever sky demon felt strongly enough to curse me was apparently offended by my arrogance and set me an assault course instead – though the majority of it took place on terra firma.

We set off at 6 a.m., utilizing the time-honored ritual of “ask Dad for a lift”. I loaded the suitcases, folded the husband into the back seat and made sure to do the appropriate passport checks. So far, so good.

The route to Heathrow Airport in London follows the busiest roads in the south of England, so we left ourselves plenty of time. It was a national holiday in Britain, so the roads were shockingly clear.

This was wonderful news because it’s hard to get your head around the sheer volume of traffic you’ll usually find on our motorways – especially when you’ve grown used to Wyoming roads. The motorways are packed with cars in all four lanes and only stopping distance between them.

If you need to change lanes, you’d best have surgical precision with the steering wheel – you’ll often have to swerve into a gap that’s barely a yard in length. Tailbacks stretch for miles and miles, leaving thousands of drivers at an absolute standstill.

But on that morning, we could easily have been driving on I-90 – what little traffic we encountered was moving at a reasonable rate. It was glorious, so of course it wasn’t going to last.

Halfway there and traffic was getting heavier, but we weren’t all that worried. Our first inkling that we might not make it was a distinct popping noise and a rhythmic rumbling from the back end of the car.

It’s not even the first time I’ve experienced a tire blowout on the way to the airport, such is the extent of my curse. I couldn’t quite believe it as we came to a bumpy halt at the side of the road.

We’d managed to break down on one of the rare pieces of motorway without a hard shoulder – the mechanic later told us it has something to do with the new “smart” motorways, which regulate the speed limit so as to keep the traffic moving as efficiently as possible, though I’ve no idea what that had to do with the lack of a place to stop.

So there we were, stranded at a standstill, in a live lane of one of the busiest roads in the country. Not much chance of changing the tire ourselves in the middle of that danger zone, even with proper tools, but all we had was the pesky little wrench that came with the car.

We clambered over the crash barrier, where my father began the endless list of calls to mobilize help while I tramped in circles like a dog on its bed, flattening the weeds to create an insect-free zone.

For some reason, the breakdown service decided my parents weren’t members (even though they are) and refused to come out until we signed up (even though they had). Bureaucracy kicked in as various representatives decided we should go about this in different ways, none of them very helpful.

It took half an hour for the traffic police to get to us and we still hadn’t secured any help. While we waited, we stared at oncoming traffic, willing each driver to spot the car in time and get out of the way.

The two friendly chaps who finally turned up were calm and laid back as they surrounded us in orange cones and called a tow truck to take us somewhere safer to change out the tire. It didn’t even ruffle them when we complained that we were bound to get hit by oncoming traffic as they’d brought a vehicle without any warning lights, gently pointing out that we just couldn’t see them because they’re positioned on the back. Which does make a lot of sense in hindsight.

Bureaucracy continued to add a dash of seasoning to the experience when the control room couldn’t work out how we were supposed to pay – something about the rules changing. Our tow truck man was suitably unimpressed; “It would have been nice if someone had updated us chaps on the ground,” I heard him chastise his supervisor. “Maybe in a newsletter or something.”

All was well that ended well, though not for our flight – by the time we limped back to the road on three tires and a donut, the plane was somewhere overhead. Fortunately, United Airlines came to the rescue and got us back home the very next day.

Of course, we did have to navigate a delayed flight, missed connection, several extra layers of security at Denver’s airport and the opening of every container of food I’d brought back from the homeland, none of which would likely have been problematic had we caught the right plane.

As it was, we finally arrived home a day and a half later than we’d planned; still not the worst flight I’ve ever taken, but definitely there on the shortlist. The moral of the story is thus as follows: when planning a long-haul flight, either take your tools and check your tires or make sure you’ve packed your patience.