A Story of Unexpected Extreme Vacationing!
Has anyone ever asked you what you’d bring if you were somehow stranded on an island? You probably gave them a fun answer safe in the knowledge that you’d never have to live out this hypothetical island scenario. Well if someone had asked me what I’d bring if I was travelling across the Alps I’d probably have given a joke answer too, but my scenario didn’t stay hypothetical and what I brought was my adventurous friend Amy, a bunch of two litre bottles of water and a sixteen year old Toyota Yaris.
Most people probably don’t know this, but when you realise you’ve accidentally began driving up a 15,774 foot mountain you start wondering about the decisions that led you to this terrifying point in your existence. There’s the obvious moments like when I decided to drive around Europe for three months or the day we chose the order of the countries and placed France next to Italy, but this particular predicament goes back a bit further.
Years before, and only one floor above the ground, I sat in a geography classroom half listening to the teacher talk about various rock formations. Maybe it was the smell that naturally occurs in a room filled with sweaty teenage boys or maybe it was the view from the window, but somehow I was distracted from the very important information being passed on to me. Most of the boys in the room would only see the world drunk from holiday resorts, but the teacher tried to explain the natural wonders of the world to us anyway and I guess I should have paid more attention.
Somewhere during these lessons the topic of the Alps must have come up. Sure I’d heard of them, but you would’ve had to put a red striped “Where’s Wally” jumper on them if you wanted me to find them on a map and I took higher level geography so the teacher wasn’t willing to do that. Instead, the exact location of this vast mountain range remained a mystery to me until we started our ascent.
Funny how little time Amy and I spent thinking about mountains during the planning stage of our crazy European road trip. The Europe of our minds was a lot flatter than the one that actually exists, a realisation we had both come to even before the Alps got in our way.
Stay calm, take a deep breath, keep your eyes on the road and other clichés all raced across my mind as we slowly travelled up and down mountains on winding roads with far fewer barriers than either of us were comfortable with. It’s not that I’m a particularly slow driver, but driving along the Alps awakened a fear in me that I didn’t know I had; the fear of re-enacting the flying car scene from Harry Potter. Experts probably put a lot of time into calculating the most likely places drivers would misjudge a turn and plummet to their death, but wouldn’t it have been easier just to put barriers along the whole road?
As a calm and thoughtful Latte, I’m normally the one who keeps a level head. On this occasion however, neither of us were calm. Inside that car were two people coming to terms with impending death. While this was going on, other cars sped past taunting us with their lack of safety concerns. We crawled along, moving way under the speed limit, which is always a good idea if you’re trying to avoid falling off a mountain. Hands gripped to the wheel, entire conversations passed wordlessly between us. Any chance of regaining composure disappeared when we saw what was blocking the road in front of us.
You may be thinking that a Yaris isn’t designed to go over mountains, and you’re probably right, but I don’t think any car is built to drive through clouds and that’s exactly what we did. For the record clouds are yet another topic taught by geography teachers. Way back when I was a child I took my first ride on an airplane. Despite having an older brother, somehow I got to sit at the window. Looking out I saw the clouds and I really wanted to touch them. Years later I finally got my chance, but I chose to stay in the car and panic instead of realising that particular childhood fantasy. This is not a decision that I regret.
Another childhood fantasy that I actually got to live out was “The Little Engine That Could” story by Watty Piper. Turns out Yaris’ aren’t designed to travel a large mountain range full of ups, downs and windy roads. Going uphill was unintentionally slow with the danger of sliding backwards always lingering around and what do you do if the breaks can’t stop the car? The answer isn’t jump out of the moving vehicle, but it sure was tempting. Steep descents meant using the clutch to slow down, which is why manual cars are better than automatics. Though at this point I was sure that this road trip would kill my beautiful car and this was before we got to the crazy pothole filled roads of Italy. After hours of driving we were finally back on flat ground, with the idea of coming back this way looming in our not distant enough future.
When it was time to head back over the mountain, on the way to Andorra, we ended up paying about €60 to use the toll road which goes through the mountain and avoids a lot of the panic induced screaming. So sometimes saving money isn’t everything, but when you’re young and on a three month road trip with your best friend there’s no better bonding than mutual panic and fear of death.