In July last year I went to Illinois. I left Bristol early on a Monday morning. I had already been up all all day and all night on the Sunday. By the time I reached Chicago’s airport, minus a couple of half-hour snatches of non-sleep, I had been awake for 36 hours straight. Reality was a dreamworld to me. The sensible thing to do would have been to get a hotel locally and get some sleep. That’s not what I did though. What I did was hire a car and drive for over 150 miles. My one concession to the ridiculous risk I was taking – driving an automatic for the first time, driving in America for the first time, driving in busier traffic than I’d ever driven in before, first serious drive on the right – was to get satnav. There then followed the hairiest drive of my life, with the satnav guilty for much of the trouble.
First problem was the way interstate driving works in the States. There is no such thing as lane discipline. You just go where you want, overtake on the inside, overtake on the outside, indication optional. Just do what you like basically. Paranoia is the best policy. This suited my mood, as I was near hallucinatory with fatigue. The roads are just packed with behemoths too – massive trucks on the inside and on the outside, front and back. And there’s no space. The lanes are as wide as the vehicles. As you pass your fellow man you could reach out and snatch the cigarettes from their mouths.
The tolls were my problem. Coming South out of Chicago you have to pay a toll every few miles. There’s one in the photo below. The way they work is that most are reserved for regular users who are subscribed. They can drive straight through without slowing down. At the very far left of the picture there are reg’lar old cash tolls, the ones I had to use.
The satnav kept telling me to get all the way to the left. It made sense most of the time too, because the roads would keep forking and joining, and I needed to keep to the right lanes. Time and time again though I found myself all the way on the left when I needed to be 7 lanes over on the right to get through the cash toll. In this fast moving traffic and in this dreamlike state. On one occasion I remember a sudden tired confusion because of only having two pedals under my feet. I knew the big one on the left was the brake, I knew it, but there was a sudden doubt. I could picture myself a moment away from wilfully hammering on the accelerator and going through a queue of traffic at 100mph. Of course when the time came I automatically braked like a good motorist.
I was terrified witless now, and doing everything I could to focus my attention on what I was doing. Everything seemed so unreal though because I was so far beyond tired. I thought of the Simpsons moment where Homer falls asleep at the wheel and his car turns into a bed.
Things improved when I found a radio station that was playing a song by The Police. I’m not a particular fan, but at this moment it was nice to have something familiar with me. I jacked up the volume and started singing at the top of my lungs. This worked well to tie me back into reality. The song ended and was replaced by another Police song and I was pleased. I had a crutch that was going to get me through this journey. For more than a hundred miles, this strange radio station played nothing but the greatest hits of Sting and The Police without word of explanation.
On one of the Toll navigations, with Don’t Stand So Close to Me in my ears, I saw that it was impossible. There was no way I was going to be able to scream across all the lanes to get to the cash toll. So I simply sailed through one of the subscriber lanes. I expected sirens and flashing lights and for someone to shoot out my tires but nothing happened. Sting and I carried on to our destination. As we got further out of the city, I was getting more and more tired but the roads got progressively easier to manage and things stayed at about the same level of difficulty. I got where I was going in one piece. When I dropped off the hire car, not a word was said about my toll indiscretion.
I forgot about the whole episode until today, when Illinois automotive justice caught up with me in the form of a £23.87 fine.