Do roads have the power to heal? With all apologies to modern medicine, yes.
It could be a forgotten stretch of highway. It could even be a walking path or bike trail. You just need to let it take you away.
Travel takes a lot out of a person. The right road gives it all back.
This is what came to me on a drive through the Scottish Highlands. My wife and I had spent a long night and day being disassembled by the airlines. A cancelled flight. Delays on the re-booking. Baggage troubles. As all of you kind enough to be reading this know, when air travel goes bad it never goes just a little bit bad. And at the end of it all was waiting an hours-long drive on unaccustomed roads to the Glengarry Castle Hotel, where we still held out hope of making an 8:30 dinner reservation.
I was beginning to wonder if I’d even have the drive in me after the ordeal with the airlines. Let alone manage an arrival before the kitchen closed.
So it was with visions of nodding off and high siding a curve straight into some dark Scottish loch that I drove the rental car out of Edinburgh’s airport. We were originally supposed to land in Glasgow. Edinburgh was as close as the airlines could get us. The NAV indicated a three-and-a-half hour drive, exactly enough time to make dinner. Otherwise we’d be dining on the bag of trail mix packed in my suitcase.
The M9 north out of Edinburgh is a fast double-carriage affair. I’ve heard a lot of terms for a four-lane freeway. “Double-carriage road” has to be the most charming. With the divided highway it was easy to forget I was driving on what is to me the wrong side of the road.
North of Perth the signs informed me the going would be single-carriage. So two-way traffic. But the lanes were decently roomy and straight. So far I was lucky enough to be receiving a gentle introduction to driving in the UK.
It was at the one-distillery village of Dalwhinnie that we turned onto the frightfully narrow A889. That’s where the magic happened.
We were following the path of an old military road built in the 18th century by General George Wade. His assignment was to find a way to move British troops quickly and keep a lid on the rebellious Highland clans. He made the best use he could of the area’s long, narrow glens. But still the road zigs and zags like a thrill ride across the steep mountainsides.
I’d later learn that the sharply curving A889 has a reputation as one of the most dangerous roads in Scotland. But at the moment, in the fading light of a soul-crushing day, it only felt exhilarating. The hairpin curves carried my wife and I high up toward the rocky peaks. Then dropped us abruptly down to run alongside the rivers and lochs in their deep glens. Streams cascaded down from the rocks above us.
The sun was low in the sky, the fleeting part of the day photographers call the sweet light. The final bits of the day’s sunlight played cat and mouse with the mountainsides as we wound in and out of forested glens. It was the prettiest drive either of us could remember.
The healing effect happened quick as flipping a switch. One moment we were wondering why we’d come so far only to be tortured by the airlines and car rental companies. The next we were holding hands between the seats, awed by the surrounding beauty. The exhausting flight forgotten. The damage repaired. And it just got better from there.
We were alone with the towering mountains and looking-glass surface of the water alongside the road. This section of the Highlands is the one of the most sparsely populated places in Europe. We rarely had to deal with oncoming traffic, which was a mercy. The sight of a logging lorry coming at you around a narrow bend, its wheels nudging well past the centerline, is a heart-stopping experience that sends your foot stabbing frantically for the brake pedal.
The road threads through a small village or two. Other than that it’s only the occasional rustic croft: an old stone house, some sheep dotting the pasture, maybe one of the strangely hairy Highland Cows.
The sweet light gave way to twilight. The approaching darkness and prospect of missing dinner prodded me to take the curves in the road faster than I should. My wife urged the opposite, and the road supported her opinion. At each bend was a red sign saying, “Reduce Speed Now.” The pavement itself was painted with big block letters. SLOW. SLOW. SLOW. Maybe that was part of the healing process. We were on a road that doesn’t give you much alternative but to relax and enjoy the ride. You get there when you get there.
The place names floated by with a Gaelic lilt. Loch Laggan. Glen Albyn. I realized the damage being repaired went deeper than just the wear and tear of a grinding travel day. Work, in the weeks leading up to my trip, had taken a toll. There had been an illness in the family to deal with.
There was the 24-hour newsfeed. My home state of Minnesota wasn’t hit by the wildfires devouring much of the Pacific Northwest. But it’s far enough west that we got the smoke. Seeing the sun filtered through a sky filled with ash added to the end-of-times vibe of the daily headlines. Waking up and reading about two infantile leaders poking one another with nuclear-tipped missiles does its own sort of damage.
All of that fell away as the pretty road carried us on.
We arrived with five minutes to spare if we still wanted our table in the dining room, and that was enough. The two exhausted travelers who’d landed in Edinburgh what seemed like an eternity ago would have just gone facedown on the bed. But that’s not who we were any more.