**reading this post may cause anxiety and pangs of panic. It is not recommended for people with heart problems or those who enjoy meticulous planning. Also this post is long, so it’s also not recommended for people who don’t read good.**
I’m going to fess up to something here: typically while traveling I spend a lot of time watching the local news. I enjoy to compare and contrast how coverage is different, while maybe picking up a few tricks along the way. It’s also a good way to be in tune with the local culture.
I’ve consumed zero news since landing in the U.K. and that is about to be a tragic mistake that will lead to one of the most epic travel days in the history of me.
ACT I: TILL THE LANDSLIDE BROUGHT ME DOWN.
As the sun paints the low morning clouds pink we rumble along the street with our suitcases towards the London Bridge tube stop. We have an early train to catch to Edinburgh. This is the part of the trip I’m most excited for. I’ve been to the U.K. a couple times, but I’ve never been able to make it up to Scotland.
This is that chance.
And to make for an even better trip Jon and Em are joining us for the weekend. Quickly and easily enough we’re at Kings Cross. It’s a Saturday, mind you, so I’m in a bit of shock at the ease of the trip. If this were Metro in D.C., on an early Saturday morning, it’d be an epic journey in its own right. But here we catch our transfers without waiting more than four minutes. Basically, it’s like rush hour service back home.
This is my first time back through Kings Cross since the renovation, and I gotta say it looks terrific. In fact, much of the tube system has been significantly updated since my last time here.
The main waiting area is spacious and modern with mammoth information boards. It even comes complete with the new platform 9 1/2 for the Harry Potter fans. Our train isn’t leaving from here, we just have to pick up the tickets before walking a few blocks to London Euston. Kings Cross it is not.
We’re taking the Virgin Trains West Coast line, which makes this our point of departure. With just a few minutes to spare we hit up the grocery store for some snacks and sandwiches. This is when I remember that these people put mayonnaise on ever-y-thing. Mayonnaise is my kryptonite. And it is their country. But still, surely there exists a sandwich on the other side of the Atlantic sans mayo. Today is not my day to find said mythical sandwich.
On the train, and off we go to Edinburgh.
We have crisps, we have candy, we have cookies, we have sandwiches thoroughly lathered in mayo, we have positive attitudes and we have two bottles of prosecco to pop once we cross the frontier into Scotland.
Taking the train in Great Britain is a different beast from the U.S. They cover more of the country, they’re more often on time…and they tend to be more pleasant. The total trip is about four hours and some change. With that mindset we all were lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking of the train. Probably about an hour and a half into the train ride and we’re all back awake and excited.
And the train stops. No big deal.
“I’m afraid we have some heavy winds and rain up ahead, so it looks as though we will be delayed our apologies.”
Delay…no big deal.
The train moves.
About 30 minutes later we stop again.
“I’m afraid to report that there has been a landslide north of Preston and all trains have been told to stop. I don’t know how long this will take to clear, I will update.”
Landslide…kinda big deal. But, it’s 2015 surely you can just fix everything in a jif…right….right?!?
“Due to the landslide north of Preston….I’m terribly sorry but we have to cancel this train after the next stop.”
Cancelled?!? WTF does that even mean? Based on the looks around the train car, no one knows.
15 more minutes pass. Now we’re in logistical recovery mode. Between the four of us we have a very special skill set for moments like this. So yeah, we have no idea what to do.
“This train is cancelled at Preston. There will be coaches organized to Carlisle, and from there connections on up to Edinburgh and Glasgow. Look for our agents in red coats on the platforms.”
Okay, it seems like they have a plan. We gather our stuff and deboard the train onto the platform. Everyone else is looking around at everyone else. It’s like a herd of deer collectively standing in the middle of a 20-lane superhighway as an armada of tractor trailer trucks bear down.
And there are no red coats to shepard us away. Eventually the herd starts to gravitate towards the top of the platform where one guy in a red coat is shouting instructions. He’s surrounded by the herd and these deer seem to have developed a taste for human flesh.
Emily sneaks right into the middle of the gaggle. She seems to be nodding affirmatively, we can’t hear what’s being said. A few more nods and she snakes back through the herd.
“They have no idea what they’re doing.”
Enter random exciteable English lady from platform left.
“So, I just talked to my sister’s boyfriend’s aunt [she didn’t really say that part] and she said that this is a monster of a storm. She says they are closing the motorways because the winds are too high. And that roads and rail a flooded out. And she says that the news is telling everyone to stay home…it’s just that bad!”
Exit random excitable English lady.
We all just stare at each other hopelessly befuddled. Jon breaks the silence.
“So, we could just continue on with this travel day from hell, or we can turn around and go back to London. But, it’s your decision. You guys came all the way over here and we don’t want to stop you from making it up to Edinburgh.”
“Well, why don’t we figure out all of our options first, there’s gotta be a workaround.”
Lauren sneaks into another gaggle of people listening to one of the reps in a red jacket. She listens for a bit and comes back.
“Okay. That guy says they are putting everyone on buses and then sending them past the landslide to get on a train.”
We stand around and debate for a minute.
Enter random excitable English lady.
“I just got off the phone with my uncles best friend’s dog walker [she didn’t really say that part] and he says that everything is shut down. I don’t think I’m even going to make it up there. I know it’s not what you want to do, but I don’t see you making anywhere to the north. I think I’m just going to stay with a friend in Blackpool. This is just dreadful…they are calling this Storm Desmond. It’s so silly, this is the fourth storm of the winter and they said all of them would be the end of the world and they ended up being nothing and nobody took this one seriously. Everything’s flooded, the motorways are at a stop and the trains don’t work anywhere…Welcome to Great Britain!”
Exit random excitable English lady.
Lauren and Emily go in search for updated information from one of the red coats. I see a guy who looks like he’s in charge. Jon watches the luggage as we all go in search of information.
A train pulls up with a destination listing as Newcastle.
“If I get on that train, is there are way from me to get from Newcastle to Edinburgh by rail?”
“Not by rail. All trains are shut down for the rest of the day. You may be able to make it by bus. But the rail service probably won’t resume until Monday (it’s Saturday).”
That’s some new information.
Lauren and Emily come back after talking with different red coats. We all have different information, which is pretty much how this afternoon is going. Conflicting information in a situation like this is as good as no information. But, I talked to the big boss. And he seemed pretty certain that this was the end of the road.
With BoyzIIMen stuck in my head, the unthinkable spills from my lips.
“I think we should turn around and go back to London.”
Emily and Jon break the silence.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, this is your vacation. Don’t make a decision because you think it’ll be easy on us.”
Enter random excitable English lady.
“I just got off the phone with my gardener’s stock-broker’s husband’s college roommate [she didn’t really say that part] and I’m getting on that train to Newcastle and he’ll pick me up from there. I’m giving up. But, I did hear that the trains are running from Carlisle to Scotland. Good luck!”
Exit random excitable English lady.
“Let’s try. I mean at the very least let’s get to Carlisle and see what our options are there. And if it’s impossible we can turn back then. We have to try.”
Having talked myself in a full circle the type-A’s take over.
“If that’s what we’re doing, we have to go now because another train is pulling up and all of those people are going to be lining up for the same buses we are,” Lauren says.
Jon leads the way as we rush across the platform, through a tunnel and back onto another platform with a line about 300-yards long. And that’s only the interior portion of the line. Outside it wraps back up the building. Oh, and it’s raining. It’s not a sprinkle. It’s a steady, cold rain. And it’s windy. It’s not a breeze. It’s an umbrella-destroying hurricane-force wind.
The line is so long that we actually start outside at the very end of the platform…in the elements. There are hundreds of people in line in front of us. Lauren starts counting, and doing the math.
“I’m pretty good at gauging group sizes…it’s what I do. They’ll need at least seven coaches, and that’s just for the people on the platform.”
This is the logistical equivalent of the 2015 version of the Philadelphia Phillies (for my non-American friends…that’s bad, really bad). Still though, people are in line and, for the most part, keeping an even-keeled, if not positive, attitude.
The attitude is rubbing off a bit. We’re on a mission, and the only thing we can do is have fun with the mission.
90-minutes later and we’re outside. This is no longer fun. We still have no idea what’s happening. News filters down the line.
“There’s a bus going directly to Edinburgh.”
“There’s a bus going to Glasgow and a rail connection from there.”
“The rail is fixed at Carlisle.”
“Everyone’s getting a magic Harry Potter broom to fly to Edinburgh.”
The rain is coming from all directions. The wind almost carries me away under my umbrella.
This was a poor choice…
90-minutes later, five empty coaches queue up and a red coat comes walking down the line.
“All of these coaches are going to Carlisle. And from there we will have coaches to take you to your destination.”
“What about Edinburgh?”
“Yes, from Carlisle we may have rail service back up to Edinburgh.”
This is a great choice!
It’s a bit of chaos as the herd pushes toward the coaches. Throughout our time in line Jon and I were drawing every possible comparison to The Day After Tomorrow. Was it possible that we were just living the movie? Is Desmond one of the three massive storms churning in the northern hemisphere? Was the ocean conveyor belt broken? Were we about to instantly freeze to death?!
At the moment though, it’s feeling a bit more World War Z-ish. I suppose you can pick your disaster movie poison.
As we board load our luggage on the coach the driver tells Jon and I that we also have to load our backpacks underneath.
“That’s not happening. All my money is in this bag.”
I’m not sure if Jon was lying, but I went with it.
“Yeah, this is where I keep my important stuff.”
“Well take your valuables with you, but the bags go underneath or you don’t get a seat on this coach.”
We acquiesce and get on the coach. Everybody else has their backpacks. Every. Single. Person. I sit down, trying to balance my camera and iPad and iPhone. Jon looks across the aisle, juggling with the same problem.
“I guess we just caught him at the wrong time.”
But at least we’re on the coach. It’s dry and relatively warm. But, in this state of relative comfort I realize something. I really have to pee. I mean for real.
“I wonder if I have enough time to run into the station to pee?”
Lauren looks at me like I’m a madman.
“You are NOT getting off this bus! We just spent three hours waiting in line, why didn’t you go then?”
“I don’t know…”
I feel like a five-year-old.
“There’s a bathroom on the bus, just go once we start on the road.”
With everyone and everything loaded we start driving. Fifty people exhale in relief as we turn out of the rail station. The driver gets on the PA system, speaking with a thick Scottish accent.
“My name is Grant. And I’ll be your driver today. First, make sure you wear your seatbelt. We have reports of high winds and vehicles being blown over.”
“It should take us about three hours to get to Carlisle. Please stay in your seat. Also, because of the weather the toilet is not to be used.”
There is no way I can make it three hours. This is going to be the end of me. I can already see the epitaph on my tombstone, “Here lies Kris, died for need of a piss!” I spend all my time focusing on an iPad game to distract myself from the intense personal discomfort. And I manage to do a good job of finding some peace, until about 45-minutes into the trip.
Have you ever fish-tailed in a motor coach at 55 mph? No? Well, you really should NEVER give it a try.
A gust of wind blowing across the motorway pushes the bus off to the side. Grant wrestles with the wheel like he’s trying to take down a rabid dog. He oversteers. The coach veers against the wind. I brace for impact. The coach swings back into the adjacent lane. A little bit of pee leaks out. The wind stops, and Grant retakes control. Everyone is awake.
Grant slows down for about five minutes before speeding up again and weaving through the traffic on the road. Another gust of wind. Another momentary brush with death. Another little bit of pee.
Grant slows down for about five minutes. He speeds up again. Changes lanes. Another gust of wind. Jon looks at me.
“This guy’s a dick.”
Nodding in agreement I contemplate a walk down the aisle, just peeing everywhere. I’m on edge for the next hour. Every gust conjures disastrous visions of the bus tipping over. But, we make it to Carlisle. Pulling into the station everyone is geared up to grab their luggage and rush to the next line. Before anyone can get off the bus a red coat hops on.
“Everyone please sit back down.”
A guy comes running up from the back of the bus.
“I need to use the toilet”
“Please, sit down!”
“I’m going to pee myself right here.”
“Please, sit! It will only be a moment.”
The guy sulks into his seat. He may, or may not, have been peeing. At least I’m not alone in this struggle.
“There is no rail service to Edinburgh, all rail service has been officially discontinued due to the weather. We will have coaches to take you onward. Once in the station you will be directed to the line for your destination.”
Everyone looks thoroughly confused. Enter the type-A’s.
“We need to get our bags ASAP and get in line. Kris, you go pee. We’ll get everything.”
I run to the bathroom. Full-on Carl Lewis 100-meter dash sprint to the bathroom. It’s the fastest I’ve ever run. And peeing is the greatest feeling in the world.
ACT II: IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT.
“Desmond is the worst name ever,” Jon says to me.
We’re near the front of a line that’s just as long as the one we waited in at Preston. This feels like the apocalypse. There’s an edge, as if everyone’s about to crack. Loosely strung caution tape flitters in the wind, herding us into lines with no real idea of destination.
The aging structure of steel and glass and iron and stone croaks and groans with each gust. The lighting gives the sense of a refugee camp. And we’re all, everyone in this front section of the line, staring through an open door at the end of a short tunnel waiting for a coach to pull up.
And coaches do pull up. But, they offload…and then disappear.
After watching this happen a few times Lauren and Jon make moves to take control of the situation. I, happily, go to buy treats at the only little travel kiosk in the station. As I walk back to the line with a bag of candy and chips/crisps I see Lauren at the front of another line at the customer service window sternly talking with a customer service agent in a voice I’m all too familiar with. It’s her “you will do exactly what I tell you to do, and you’ll do it right now” voice.
I’m about ten feet from our spot in the line when a Virgin red coat starts shouting for everyone’s attention.
“We are canceling all service for the rest of the evening. There will be no trains. There will be no coaches. It’s too dangerous right now, we just had a report of a coach being blown over with injuries. Unfortunately, there are not enough hotel rooms available in Carlisle to house everyone. We are working on a plan to transport you to a place where there will be shelter…”
Everyone is standing, frozen. I pick up my pace, basically jogging to Emily.
“We have to go now, this is going to get ugly.”
There is screaming…bona fide shrieks. There are curse words and shouting. The line is dissolving into an angry mob. But no one is walking anywhere, yet. Emily and I walk briskly out of the front entrance to the station where Jon and Lauren are already shouting down the half-dozen parked cabs.
People start streaming out of the entrance with a new sense of purpose, the same purpose as us: find a ride by any means necessary. Lauren starts yelling for us to run to a cab.
“Load everything in, hurry. He’s going to take us to Edinburgh.”
Jon materializes out of thin air and starts negotiating with the cabbie as we load our suitcases.
“250 pounds…that’s our offer.”
The cabbie nods as we all hop in. Now a flood of people are streaming through the ranks of the cab queue. Our driver starts the engine and starts pulling away as someone knocks on the window. He says something that I can’t hear. The cabbie turns to Jon.
“I want 300.”
“No, we agreed to 250 that was the deal. You agreed to that.”
From the back seat Emily shuts the negotiation down.
“We have the cash right here, right now!”
Another cabbie walks up to the window, they have a conversation in another language. But, from what we work out he gets the nod that 250 is actually a good price for a ride to Edinburgh.
We pull out of the parking lot to the soundtrack of screaming and yelling. People are sobbing as they walk out of the station. It’s a complete collapse…and we’re escaping.
ACT III: PUDDLE HOPPING
As we hit the motorway Lauren shows us what she was so busy working on at the customer service window. It’s a signed document from the agent promising reimbursement for our means of travel to Edinburgh. It’s a receipt for an expensive cab ride, and reimbursement for the original train ticket.
Jon starts talking to the cab driver. We find out his name is Amman, he’s from Preston. His intent was to simply ferry people back and forth between Carlisle and Preston, which explains his initial reluctance to take us. Jon gives him 100 quid and promises the rest once we get to Edinburgh.
Even this four-door sedan is buffeted by the wind, although it’s nowhere as frightening as the motorcoach. My eyes start to get heavy and I pass into something I call “secret sleep”. I’ll write another post about secret sleep, it’d be too much of an aside at this point. Just know, I’m sleeping but I’m also awake.
I hear Jon and Amman discussing routing. The cabbie Amman had talked to back at the train station recommended a route through Glasgow, but there was a more direct route that Jon saw on his map. We weren’t really sure whether to trust this guy, and we thought the route through Glasgow was a runaround. But, here’s the thing: The route through Glasgow was all motorway, but the direct route was a windy two lane road…in the dark…in the middle of a massive, deluge of a storm.
So, yeah. We went our way…the wrong way.
I came back to full alert awake status thanks to a question about why it was raining instead of snowing. Only darkness appears outside the window. Amman is gripping the steering wheel with enough pressure to create diamonds. Water claims big portions of the road about every half mile. Each time Amman slows to a crawl, steers into the middle of the road and passes the puddle.
But, for every puddle that Amman sees in advance, there is one that surprises him. And his reaction is consistently wrong: slam on the brakes and turn the wheel toward the middle of the road. Each time we hydroplane just a little. And every once in a while there’s another car coming in the opposite direction, just to make things interesting.
We’re all on edge. And we’re in the middle of nowhere with a cab driver who knows we have money and we’re vulnerable. This is the second time on the day that I’m questioning the string of decisions that led to this moment. As we drive up and down the Scottish hills I’m counting down the miles to Edinburgh, looking for any lights in the distance to prove we’re almost there.
Driving up a steep hill I can barely make the outline of a taller mountain, the road is stringing along it’s side offering a reveal of a new horizon below. The lights of Edinburgh come into focus and, for the first time since being on that first train, I feel relieved.
Minutes later we’re unloading everything from the cab. We ended up paying Amman more than agreed, we kind of felt bad about what we had gotten him into…especially since we convinced him to take the back roads instead of the motorway thanks to our irrational fear of being taken advantage of.
Walking up to our Air BnB everything looks perfect. After about ten minutes of freshening up we hit the streets with empty bellies and a huge sense of accomplishment for having made it to Edinburgh, literally through hell and high water. The rain finally stopped, but the wind was still howling as we searched for a restaurant that was still open.
The Mussel and Steak Bar fit the bill. Stuffing our face with mussels and, er, steak while downing red wine by the bottle we all look across the table with same sense of exhausted amazement. Recounting the events of the day we all knew this trip had morphed from “fun” to “remarkable” to “mythical.” And this is what travel is all about…you know the whole cliche “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey” thing. But, really it’s not the journey. It’s the determination behind that journey, knowing that there’s an experience you want to achieve, and then doing everything to see that come true. Moments like this aren’t about leisure, they’re about a real sense of growth and development…lessons that apply to life. And that is, after all, why we travel: exploration, discovery, growth and enlightenment.
Like the Scottish whiskies that the bartender at the Bow Bar is showcasing for Jon as he tries to make a perfect selection.
Here we sit, swigging whiskey and beer at a pub in Edinburgh that looks exactly as I’ve pictured a Scottish pub to look.
Just this is worth it.