In our more than twenty-year marriage, Leo and I have seldom traveled more than a hundred miles from home. We are quite content to stay in our little log cabin on a beautiful hill here in south, central Maine. So, when the opportunity presented itself for us to travel to another state here in New England, we were excited to go.
More than twenty-five years ago, I'd been fortunate to have a teaching position in Taipei, Taiwan and I'd also had the good fortune to have met a lovely young woman by the name of Mary Green who was a businesswoman in Taipei. She also taught at the National Defense Language Center with me from time to time and we always got together after classes to have lunch and catch up on what was happening in Taipei and at home in the states.
So, when I received an e-mail from Mary about six months ago, it was like a bolt from out of the blue! I was so surprised to hear from my old friend after all that time and when she told me that she was now married and living in Hong Kong and was coming to Vermont to accompany her oldest daughter back to her college classes, we immediately made plans to meet at an inn in Shelburne, Vermont on the weekend of October 1st. I couldn't wait!
Leo and I discussed our upcoming adventure in minute detail and when Friday, October 1st arrived, we were ready. We awoke with heart thumping and minds imagining all the wonderful sights and experiences we were going to encounter in our two day trip.
As he carried the suitcases down to our basement, I commented to him that the local weather had just announced that the remnants of a hurricane was wrecking havoc on all the states to the south of us and they had predicted that the northern states of which our destination state was one, were going to receive very heavy rain squalls and/or torrential downpours along with strong wind gusts upwards of sixty miles per hour.
Upon hearing my dire predictions about the weather, Leo, ever the optimist, glanced out the garage door into our driveway and said, "Oh Honey, you know how they always exaggerate! Let's not let their dire predictions spoil our trip. It's going to be a lovely day, I can just tell!" With that pronouncement, he slammed the trunk shut, ushered his "doubting Martha" into her seat, jumped into the car and we were off.
Leo, ever the "gadget" lover, had bought himself a cheap little GPS system the year earlier and he'd programmed it the night before for our latest, longest trip and set it up on the dash in front of me. As we approached the end of our street and prepared to turn right onto Brighton Hill Road, the silent little contraption suddenly erupted with a snarky female voice which commanded; "Turn right onto Brighton Hill Road! Drive approximately two miles until you reach Route 119, then turn Left!" Leo looked at me and his brown eyes were light up with the fervor of a true "gadget" man, and he said, "See Honey! This thing was well-worth the money we paid and it's going to guide us right to our destination, to the very door of our inn!" Ever the "doubting Martha," I had to concede that maybe this time, he'd be right.
As we happily sped down the beautiful Maine highways through West Paris and Bethel, we never gave the GPS system another thought until it spoke with new directions. Since there was no way to secure the GPS system to the dash, inevitably, every time Leo made a sharp turn or stopped a little too abruptly, the GPS fell off the dash and hit me in the knees! Determined to have a lovely, uneventful trip, I made no comment, and simply placed it back from whence it had come and we continued on.
The miles flew by and so did the time and as we ventured further into New Hampshire, I began to feel the gusts of wind as it buffeted the car when we changed direction or stopped for a light. The rain had also increased and it hit the car in unrelenting sheets. Every now and then, Leo would check the time against the computer printout to see if we were on track and in the right place.
Suddenly, approaching Rochester, we were stopped short by an intersection that the GPS hadn't warned us about. After checking our rear view mirror to make certain that there were no accidents behind us because of our abrupt stop, Leo turned to me and asked; "Where do we turn now?" I looked at him in disbelief, "Don't ask me! I've never been here before." "Well, why didn't the GPS tell us where to turn?" He demanded. "Well, now that you mention it, it hasn't talked for a long time." Leo looked at me and as he turned his head to check the driver's side, he mumbled, "Ain't that jist like woman!" "What?" I asked and just like every man who is challenged by his spouse, he backed down and said, "I guess she got tired of talking to us.
Maybe when you set it back up on the dash the last time, you accidently turned off the system." With the blame in his voice hanging in the air, he didn't look directly at me as he shifted the car into gear and continued across the intersection. "Ain't that just like a man," I thought to myself as we continued on our way. "They always have to blame the woman!" The line was drawn, the gauntlet thrown; it was now every woman for herself!
As I consciously willed myself to calm down and not to take his remarks personally, I thought, "A road trip with a spouse is very much like a long-term marriage, in that, they both start off with love, harmony, united interests and high expectations and seem to fall apart at the first speed bump in the road!" Our trip was turning out to be much like that!
I shifted in my seat and glared at the GPS system, mentally daring it to fall onto my knees again and that snippy little voice would soon find itself flung out the window to boss all the New Hampshire roadside bushes around for the rest of its sorry life!
"Honey," Leo said and I looked at him. "Do you think you could turn the GPS system on and reprogram it for me?" "It really helps, especially when we don't know where we're going." There was a slight "wheedle" in his voice and I gave in. I didn't want something as silly as hating the GPS system to spoil our trip. I pulled the system off the dash and following Leo's instructions; I reprogrammed the damn thing, flipped the antenna back into place and set it back on the dash.
We continued on through the picturesque country towns and lovely roadside farms and all the while the wind and rain had picked up strength. As we drove along a two-lane county road towards our final destination of Middlebury, Vermont, I noticed that the road elevation had changed and we were now in a very mountainous valley with miles of trees in their full autumn colors of crimson, yellow, deep gold and green. We were now surrounded by such beauty that it took our breath away! As soon as another unremitting gust of wind and rain abated somewhat, we would turn and stare at all the lovely mountains and woods around us. As we drove into an open area, with the colorful tree-line all the way up the side of the mountains, I commented to Leo that "it was just like driving into Heaven," and it was, it really was!
Leo began to mutter to himself every now and then and I waited for him to tell me what was bothering him. "Have you noticed that the road signs are not clear or that they are missing altogether?" "No, I haven't but I'm not driving either." I replied. "Well," he said. "Maine has a lot more roads to maintain than either New Hampshire or Vermont and we always have our roads marked properly!" "And another thing," he added. "Have you noticed that the edge of the roads drop off into deep cravasses and they have no guard rails anywhere?" I had noticed that and I said, "If a driver had an accident, lost control and drove over the edge, it might be weeks or even months before anyone found him." "Scary isn't it." I had to agree with him.
As we got closer to Burlington, the traffic picked up and even with the constant wind and downpour, we were shocked at the rate of speed that other drivers were driving. "Did you see that fool who just passed us?" Leo asked. "We're doing sixty-five and he must have been doing eighty or I'll eat my hat!" "How do they dare to drive that fast with all this wind and rain? Haven't they ever heard of hydroplaning?" "Well, maybe they drive this road everyday and they are used to all the twists and turns." I told him. No sooner had I gotten these words out of my mouth when Leo pointed at the left side of the road and we could see that a car had left the road and it was now down in the gully and it had come to rest half way up a granite mountain. "See," he said to me, "I'll bet that damn fool got the shock of his life when he drove over the edge of that cliff!" We could see that the rescue personnel and the State Police had the situation well in hand so we drove on.
We finally made it through Burlington and Leo glanced at the map and announced that after four and a half hours of driving, according to our on-line printout, it shouldn't be too long before we were in Shelburne, Vermont and I'd get to meet Mary once again.
The GPS had decided that it no longer wanted to talk to us and no matter how many times I reprogrammed it, it wouldn't work. It seemed like every ten miles or so, we'd have to stop and ask for further directions and that got old fast. Leo, normally not a swearer, found a few choice words from his childhood and just as we were sailing through a very high mountain pass, another motorist passed very closely on the left and then cut so abruptly in front of us that Leo had to stomp on the breaks. A string of "not nice" words came flying out and I looked at him and said, "I wouldn't swear too much if I were you, we're up pretty high and you know that old saying, "Nearer my God to thee." And he burst out laughing and on we drove. Finally, we saw the signs announcing that we were on the outskirts of Shelburne and we knew that our destination the "Quiet Valley Bed and Breakfast" couldn't be too far away. Boy were we wrong!
As we drove down a street that divided the Middlebury College campus, towards the Ethan Allen Highway, we reached an intersection that had no visible street signs or road numbers. There were also no overhead traffic lights, it was a four-way stop and it was now our turn to either turn or go straight. A huge truck over-loaded with logs had pulled up behind us so closely that his bumper was nearly touching our car. Impatient to be moving on, the truck driver gave us a blast of his horn that nearly tore our ears from our heads! Leo panicked and didn't know what to do and suddenly, we realized that we were indeed "strangers in a strange land!" and the GPS system had died a long while back. We didn't know which way to turn or what to do. I could see that Leo was very fatigued and I said, "Well, just drive thru the intersection and we'll stop at the first place that's open and get directions. I'm sure the worst is over."
He put the car into gear and we sailed through the intersection and down a street of majestic country homes. It clearly was a suburban housing development. We drove on for miles and never came to a gas station or any place where we could stop and ask for directions. And just when we were about to give up, we saw that the road forked and there was a small gas station on the right side. "Thank you God!" Leo muttered and he made a swift right turn into the driveway only to find that it had been abandoned and was all closed up. Just as we sat looking at the building, two men, carrying a couple of old tires emerged from the back of the building. Suddenly Leo had a smile on his tired face, "See, God does answer prayers!" And he quickly undid his seatbelt and slid out the door.
After about ten minutes of talking and arms pointing this way and that, Leo slid back into the car. "Well," I asked, "Which way is it?" "I'm not sure," he replied and he didn't meet my questioning gaze. "What do you mean?" "Didn't they tell you which way the Quiet Valley Inn is?" "Well, yes and no." he cryptically answered. "The older guy had never heard of it so he wasn't any help and the younger guy thought that it might be about twenty miles down that country road." "Well, let's just drive that way and we can stop again and ask. Somebody's got to know where it is."
We drove and drove and drove and no Quiet Valley Inn. We found dirt road after dirt road and country lanes but no inn. All the stress of constant driving and not knowing if we were going in the right direction took its toll and it wasn't long before it was "open" warfare. Little digs and snips of blame began flying thru the cool air and the word "divorce" flung its self through my mind more than once!
Finally, we spotted a weary farmer mucking out the back of his barn and Leo drove into his barnyard to accost him for directions. I leaned over and glanced at the clock and was shocked to see that we had been driving over six hours and still weren't at our destination! No wonder we were so tired and ready to kill each other!
After what seemed to be a long time, I looked up to see Leo coming back to the car and this time he was smiling. "Well!" I demanded, "Where are we and how much further is it?" "It's not too far now honey, just a little further down a dirt road." He replied as he jumped into the car and we sped off into the setting sun to find the right unmarked dirt road. After nearly an hour's more of driving, we finally found the right road and were we ever happy to pull up in the drive of the Quiet Valley Bed & Breakfast!
The owners came out to greet us and were more than gracious to us. Leo and I staggered along behind those lovely, gentle folks and we were so happy to find a seat in their welcoming kitchen. They quickly showed us to our room and the bath and after freshening up, we made our way back downstairs to sit and let our nerves unwind while we waited for my friend and her daughter to arrive.
The Inn's owner brought us a fresh cup of tea and as we headed for the living room, I noticed a very large, multicolored cat sitting on the other end of the sofa. I turned to the owner and said, "Oh, I see you have a lovely cat!" The owner replied. "Well, she is lovely but she doesn't like strangers, she's very standoffish and she's very old." "Well, we won't bother her, after all it's her home, isn't it kitty." I said to her.
I took a seat next to where the cat lay and Leo took a chair across from me and we made small talk with the owners. Suddenly, the old cat sat up and looked at me. Then she walked over to me and rubbed herself against my arm. Surprised by her sweet greeting, her owner told us that the cat didn't like most people and she couldn't believe what the cat had done. As we sat and talked the cat let me pet her ears and forehead and I felt very special, that she had chosen me to pet her. I was just glad that somebody liked me after the terrible day I'd had! Maybe we were going to have a lovely trip after all.
As we sat and quietly sipped our tea, Miss Kitty and I became good friends and then my old friend finally arrived with her lovely daughter and we immediately bonded once again. We sat and talked and got reacquainted and then we decided to go over to Annie's campus because her dorm roommates were cooking dinner for us. When we got outside, it was decided that Mary, would drive so Leo got into the back of the car with Annie and I sat upfront with Mary.
As soon as we'd droved out of the inn's driveway, I realized that it had been a huge mistake to allow Mary to drive. She clearly had no idea about what "safe" driving was as she sped down the country dirt roads at a hellish speed. When she'd barely missed driving off the edge of the road a couple of times, I turned and looked back at Leo and saw by the look on his face that he was scared stiff. Every couple of scary minutes, her daughter Annie, would admonish her mother to slow down and that fell on deaf ears as Mary happily drove on, oblivious to our fear.
As we approached an area that was being reconstructed and was all torn up, Mary slammed on the brakes, looked around at all of us and sheepishly said, "Oops, I'd forgotten about this part." And she laughed apologetically but that didn't deter her. As soon as the signal was given by the workman that it was our turn to drive on, Mary floored the car and off we tore over the potholes towards the college spewing gravel and dirt into the air behind us.
By this time, the sun had set and since Mary had only driven back from the college to our inn that very day, she wasn't at all clear about the return directions either so Annie kept instructing her about where to go, from the seat behind me. "Mom!" "Mom!" "Slow down!" But Mary drove on at breakneck speed, oblivious to her daughter's appeal. "Mom! You've gotta slow down, you need to turn left at the next street!" All Mary heard were the words "Turn left" and she immediately turned onto the next lane. The small car lurched in a stomach crunching turn and we all waited for the impact. But Mary drove on, and Leo finally found his voice, "Mary, I think you're on a one-way street!" Upon hearing this, Mary laughed, floored the gas pedal and replied, "One-way, two-way, they all take us to the same place!" And Leo, as he pulled his head off the back of the seat, commented under his breath, "Yah and that's got to be Hell!" And on she drove, totally oblivious to the laws she was breaking and the danger all around us.
Finally, Annie announced that her dorm was up ahead and instructed her mother to slow down and pull into the final parking space across the street from her dorm. As we skidded to a halt behind the last parked car, Mary turned to us and said, "Well, I got us here in one piece after all!" As Leo, Annie and I pulled ourselves out of the "death car" we resolved then and there not to allow Mary to drive again!
As we followed Mary and Annie back up the street to the dorm, Leo pulled me over and muttered, "I sure hope they have a men's room handy because I'm sure my shorts are wet!" I looked at him and said, "You know, I worried all the long way across from Maine to Vermont that we might have an accident, what with driving through the tail end of a hurricane and those crazy drivers, but I never thought we'd be killed driving the wrong way on a one-way street, after we'd finally reached our destination!"
Martha Stevens-David Column Magic City
Childrens Stories include:
See also Vengeance is Mine a short mystery novel published at Magic City over 4 days.
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