Four a.m. Thursday morning I was awake and peering out the blinds over the kitchen sink. One would imagine there wouldn’t be too much traffic at that hour of the morning, but surprise surprise, Montana never disappoints with traffic at all hours. Usually people headed to work at Plum Creek, or coming home from closing up the bars. I was looking for my cousin’s Sportage. She had already called to let me know she was on the way, and my two bags were packed and waiting by the door. Four a.m. is not my usual get-up-and-go time, but I was wide awake and triple-checking for my passport. It wasn’t just any day, it was the day.
I stepped out of my room after retrieving a necklace I had forgotten to pack, and Shaunna’s headlights were illuminating my ceiling. It was time! I grabbed my bags and pulled the door open. She took one as I locked the door and handed her my hank of keys. “You’re the only person I know who would only pack two bags for a weekend in England,” she said. “Yep!” I said. “And one of them is just a laptop and books.”
Maybe most people would figure that just spending a weekend in England wasn’t really worth the twenty-five hour (with layovers) journey and the jet lag, but I am not most people. Neither is my well-travelled uncle, who was my traveling companion and the patron of the trip.
Most people might also wonder how on earth a weekend trip to England possibly comes about. For me, it happened something like this: Besides being an avid fan of British Literature, comedies, movies, poetry, accents, geography, and whatever else comes to mind, I’ve simply always wanted to go to England. That desire came up frequently over the last few months when I was chatting with my uncle (often and henceforward referred to as Unkyl, for reasons which shall not be described here). Unkyl called me back in November to talk about some pieces of writing I sent him, as well as a new guitar he was going to get. “It’s made of bog oak,” he told me. “There are trees in the fenlands in England that have been submerged for at least five thousand years. The wood is unlike anything you’ve ever seen, and there’s a luthier who is using it to make guitars. Your aunt and I are going over at the end of January, and we’re going to spend three weeks around the fenlands seeing where the wood came from, sightseeing in the countryside, and we’re also going to visit the town that your [insert required number of ‘great’s] grandfather lived in back in the 1500s.” I, of course, caught up in the thrill of this wonderful instrument, responded with “I wanna go to England,” in a long, drawn-out whine. We made plans to go together someday when I’m a rich and famous novelist.
A few weeks later, I wrote a post on my blog regarding the influence ‘The Wind in the Willows’ by Kenneth Grahame had over my writing. In it, I noted that one reason I loved the book was because it is, of course, British. These are not the first remarks I have made regarding my love for England, but they seemed to come rather fast and furious.
The Friday before Christmas, I was doing some tutoring on my computer and I received a call from Unkyl. He was telling me that his trip details had changed; he was still headed to pick up the guitar, but he would have to swing over to England, pick it up, and head for Orlando to work. He had rescheduled his trip with my aunt to later in the year when the weather would be more pleasant. We talked for a while about various details regarding the guitar, and he said how he would be staying at the luthier’s house while he was there. Would I like to go with him?
Yes, I thought he was joking, and said as much.
“I wouldn’t call you up, ask you to go to England, and then say ‘oh, April Fools!’”
Yes, he was serious. And that was the moment I remembered that I don’t have a passport. The next several days were a mad rush of gathering documentation, running from government office to government office, to my parents filing cabinet, to my filing cabinet, to my computer, back to the government office, to the UPS store, etc. But it worked! The passport arrived on New Year’s Day. Unkyl contacted the luthier to check if I would be able to stay with him as well, and he said I was more than welcome. We were set to go!
It’s funny…you can live in the same town all your life, fly to Portland and Seattle, pick up family member or friends time after time at your local airport, and still never know that there are actually three gates and a coffee shop at said airport, rather than just one gate and absolutely nothing. Huh.
Security took about ten minutes in Kalispell, a benefit to living in a teeny town which generally makes people scratch their heads as to how or why we have an international airport, and I struck up a conversation with the lady sitting across from me while we waited to board for Salt Lake. After discussing family, Shih Tzus, and California, she nearly fell off her chair when she realized that her husband and my grandpappy had both worked together at Lockheed in the Skunkworks division several years ago. She also realized she had met me once before when I was knee-high to a grasshopper, and she still remembered meeting me and my brother at my grandparent’s house. (Cue “It’s a Small World After All.”)
We separated when we boarded the plane, and we were off to Salt Lake. The airport there was basically sinfully boring, and I spent two of my three hour layover on my computer in a queue for work, but nothing ever came through. I played Candy Crush on my phone for the rest of it. It was also in Salt Lake City airport that I found this little gem:
I had been warned about Atlanta’s airport. I’d never been there, but I did a little research to find out about the plane train. (Again, redneck, Podunk town kid here.) I had one hour to get from my arrival gate to the departure gate, and no idea where I was going. Unkyl was flying separately from Portland, and I actually saw his plane touch down at the same moment mine did. He sent me a message and informed me that the information I had found told me the wrong gate (good thing he told me…I would have gone two gates in the opposite direction). We wound up in separate terminals, and we had to meet up at the departure gate. We met just in time to board, and we were off!
We spent the first four hours of the flight discussing bits of writing and work, and I enjoyed several stories of his travels before we both decided we should try to get some sleep before we landed. Midnight for me would be 7 a.m. in London.
We landed earlier than planned at Heathrow (Heathrow!) and made our way through the terminal to “International Arrivals.” I didn’t expect quite so many people to have arrived that early in the morning, but we made it to the queue before most of the others did, and we also sort of accidentally cut in line…whoops. So we made quite good time getting through immigration. Armed with a brand new stamp in my brand new passport, I followed Unkyl to the Underground.
At this point, we were up against a problem: neither of our phones would connect to the Wi-Fi. Later we also learned that they charged for nearly all the public access Wi-Fi. We boarded the Underground, headed for King’s Cross, while Unkyl tried to get some form of signal on his phone. Mine would hardly even recognize the fact that there were signals available. It would have been less of a problem, save for the fact that we were supposed to call the luthier when we arrived, and the only means we had of doing that would be to use Skype on Unkyl’s phone since neither of us had international service.
Upon arrival at King’s Cross, we purchased tickets for a train to Grantham station, and stood outside every little café and shop we were close to, but we still couldn’t manage a successful internet connection. Unkyl went to find an ATM (called a Cash Point), but he couldn’t find that either. I must admit that I was rather worried, standing there in the middle of a giant railway station with no money and no means of contact, but as Unkyl travels frequently in places like Nigeria and always seems to come out all right, I figured we’d come up with something.
I had been told that the trains in England were built better, sat on the rails better, and were all-around more enjoyable than the trains in America. Well, it’s all true. The train was fantastic, but the view less so. I was enormously disappointed riding the train out of King’s Cross. All I could think as I looked at the dilapidated fences, crumbling buildings covered in graffiti, and old, run-down cars was “if I really wanted to see this, I could have just driven to Havre.” Outside of London it was marginally better, but the clusters of houses I could see looked a bit the worse for wear. The fields, however, were lovely and green, some of the trees were unique, and church spires signaled little villages all over and mostly out of sight. That began to raise my spirits a bit. Although the land was flat – which usually bothers me – the trees and small hills broke it up just enough to be interesting, even inviting. I started to see sheep in some of the fields, and we passed a few small ponds with swans circling in the quiet water. It was beginning to be the England I had read about and imagined.
Throughout that train ride, there were four young men playing blackjack at a table across the aisle and up a few seats. I spent the ride listening to their accents and rolling my eyes because the girl two seats ahead of us—who was very blatantly American—was comparing Yorkshire and the West End to Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. She was also telling the guys every tiny detail about her life, how much better things were in America or how silly they were in America, handing them her ID to tell them how often she got carded at home, picking on American diction, picking on English diction, and talking about how odd little things in English culture were. “I mean, when you guys have a bunch of biscuits on a plate, nobody ever takes the last biscuit! I mean, nobody ever takes the last of anything. Come on! Has the concept of splitting it never occurred to you?!” (To which one of the lads replied “No, I wouldn’t take the last of something. Why would I?”) and on and on it went. It was, at least, free entertainment.
Rail customers were granted fifteen free minutes of Wi-Fi, and Unkyl managed to connect long enough to make the call when we got on the train. An hour later, we arrived at the station in Grantham. It was an uncharacteristically pleasant morning. The sun was out and the sky was mostly clear. The luthier, Gary, had not arrived yet, so we spent a few minutes looking around the platform and getting some cash. Neither of us knew what sort of car Gary was driving, so I looked at all the cars going by. I’ve always found it interesting how different the cars are in England. Here in Montana we see a great many trucks and SUVs. Besides the occasional lorry, all I saw in England were mostly Ford Fiestas, Peugeots, VW cars, BMWs, and the occasional Toyota or Nissan. So, I was rather surprised when Gary arrived and led us to an older VW van (which he referred to as a bus). It was larger than any of the other vehicles at the station, painted with orange stripes and black dots on a light background. A green sticker in the window read “Dogs are for life, not just for Christmas.” Inside, patches depicting the VW logo, peace signs, happy faces, and a yin-yang were clustered on the ceiling, and (much to my delight) there were Wallace and Gromit floor mats under our feet.
When he opened the back of the van to put our luggage in, we were greeted by a giant, inflatable penguin that was pushed aside to make room. When it was safely stowed, Unkyl and I automatically headed for the right side of the vehicle to climb in. “You’re this side,” Gary said, leading us to the left side passenger door. I had thought I’d be sitting in the back, so I didn’t figure it mattered which side I headed for. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
We started out from Grantham, and Gary told us there was one thing he’d forgotten to mention. “I live with a lot of animals,” he said. “I’ve got three dogs that live in the house with me. I’m also a falconer, so the falcon lives in a cage in the garden.” He paused for a moment to point out a kestrel hunting along a hedge. “I’ve a friend who has sort of a sanctuary for wounded and rescued birds, and I’m looking after them while she’s away. One of the kestrels was being bullied by the others, and it got all wet, so it’s in the kitchen at the moment so I can look after it and it can get some rest. If any of that doesn’t sound all right, the local pub also has lodgings, and you can stay with me or you can stay there if you’d prefer.”
I must admit, at this point, I had him pegged as a Missoula-esque fellow with a house overrun with wild pets, and my heart was sinking faster by the second. I'm afraid I was having visions of a rather unkempt menagerie with full run of the house. Unkyl said that we would absolutely love to stay with him if it was still all right, and in a few minutes more, the van turned rather suddenly into a driveway I hadn’t even seen, and there we were.