This Side of the Pond – Nov. 20

By Sarah Pridgeon

I had an epiphany earlier this week. It wasn’t exactly well-timed, bearing in mind that the last place you want to be while you’re engaged in deep thought is upended in a ditch with your wheels spinning. Nevertheless, I think I’ve finally answered the question of why I find certain Wyoming skills so difficult to pick up.

I’ll begin by setting the scene. A single day into winter, just a few short hours after the flakes began to fall, I achieved my inaugural snow slide of the season. To be completely honest, I’m sort of impressed it took that long.

Travelling down to an evening meeting in town, I hit an ice sheet on the canyon road and my tires gave up pretending they could stick to the snow. As I was only traveling at a nervous 10 mph, I turned in a sedately circle before coming to a gentle rest in the ditch. It was an elegant crash that could easily have been set to an orchestral harmony from Swan Lake.

There appeared to be no damage to me or my poor, misused vehicle, so my initial reaction was to breathe a sigh of relief. Two feet further down the road and I could well have been knee-deep in a creek, so apparently my guardian angel was in a good mood.

As I performed at 403-point turn, inching backwards and forwards to get the rig facing in the right direction, I had plenty of time to wonder whether any of my neighbors were attending the meeting. I was selfishly blocking the entire road, and I wasn’t planning to change that in too much of a hurry.

I crept along the rest of my route with about as much confidence as you’d expect, the whites of my eyes more visible than usual. Nobody at the meeting seemed at all shocked to hear that I’d met with a winter disaster, and a couple of them promised to keep their eyes out for me on my journey home.

The implication of this is that the community in general has now accepted that snow driving is not my foremost talent. This does not depress me as much as you might expect, because I now understand why it is happening.

For a while there, I assumed it was because this old dog isn’t interested in learning any new tricks. Now that I know this to be untrue, I can rest easy in the knowledge that I probably do have a few more up my sleeve.

I’ve always watched the younger members of this community and wondered why it is that they can zoom around the frozen streets without a care in the world. They’re fresh out of driver’s ed, while I’ve been practicing for three years – am I just too ignorant to learn from all these lessons?

But then I realized, from my undignified position in the ditch, that before I can learn these new skills, I must unlearn the ones I already know. A chunk of knowledge must be purged from my brain to make way for new, more relevant understanding.

Unfortunately, my previous knowledge is deeply ingrained. Everything I know about driving has long since become second nature – it’s muscle memory, which is tough to ignore. Rather than simply learn how to drive in Sundance, I must stop myself from driving in London.

The skills I know and understand include dealing with saturated roads during rainfall, navigating incredibly complicated street designs, finding the right lane of a roundabout and keeping a constant eye on hundreds of cars as they duck and weave through the traffic. I am a defensive driver – you have to be in the city, because it’s a bad idea to just trust everyone else not to crash into you.

These are excellent skills to possess, but they’d suit my new life better if I’d moved across the pond to partake in some NASCAR racing. When I ought to be paying attention to ice patches and snowdrifts, my brain is instead watching for unexpected motorbikes pulling out from side roads. There’s a reason that the UK comes to a standstill in the rare event that we get a decent amount of snow, and it’s the same reason that I keep finding myself in the ditch.

This doesn’t just apply to snow driving – my epiphany has explained all sorts of misfires and mistakes. The reason I am incapable of packing properly for a trip into nature, for example, is because my brain is packing for a day out in the city.

I have learned to check for my wallet, travel card, umbrella and a bottle of water in case the train is delayed. I know to give my front door an extra tug to make sure the thieves can’t get in and I’ve learned from experience that it’s handy to have your keys with you, rather than leave them in the apartment. What I am not checking for is survival equipment, gloves and proper shoes, because my brain has not accepted that these are necessary.

The husband has also noticed that I sometimes seem singularly unobservant – there are buildings in town that I’ve never even realized were there. It turns out, however, that my mind is simply filtering information the same way that it was in the big city.

When you have endless sensory information beating down the door to your brain, you learn quickly to block out everything but the most necessary facts. You notice only the things that are relevant to the task at hand, whether that’s travelling to work or looking for a particular address.

You also notice any changes to the norm – if road works were to appear, or something was on fire, I’m pretty sure I’d spot that right away. But if it’s not an object I need and it’s not going to affect my day, I will quite simply fail to see it. While the husband sees the big picture, I see the world through a filter.

It’s also why I’m incapable of spotting the need for interior décor – in rented London accommodation, it’s a cardinal sin to hang new curtains. One may not put up shelves or paintings for fear of losing one’s damage deposit. My brain is therefore concentrated on not ruining my surrounds, rather than improving them, and sees absolutely no reason for me to learn to paint the walls properly.

The problem of unlearning also applies to the way I speak – I naturally tend towards a certain vocabulary, whether or not my audience can understand it. It applies to the way I shop – I’m used to certain groceries being cheap, such as vegetables, while others are prohibitively expensive. For the most part, it’s the other way round over here, which plays havoc with my ability to write a shopping list.

The list goes on, and in a way it makes me happy. I can stop feeling like the class dunce when I don’t know how to operate machinery and I can explain myself properly if you come across me in a ditch.

So if I knock over your mailbox this winter or drive straight into your bed of begonias, at least there’s a small silver lining. I’m unlikely to ignore your house if it catches fire and I’m always going to see you pull out of a side road, so at the very least you’ll be safe from me when the snow finally melts.