The flashing lights ruin what, up until this point, has been a journey of unparalleled joy and wonder. It’s utterly apparent why Highway 12 through southern Utah’s rugged nothingness regularly crops up on lists of America’s greatest drives. Red rocks! Canyons! Mountains! And, perhaps less glamorously, a distinct lack of signs informing what the speed limit might be.
One substantial drawback of giddily gorging on scenery as you drive through it is that you don’t tend to look at the speedometer perhaps as diligently as you ordinarily might. Something similar applies to the attention lavished on the rear view mirror, which merely serves to enhance the terror of seeing a police car behind you, its lights flashing like an especially tacky fairground ride. And not knowing how long it’s been there is an integral part of the stomach-clenching fear.
There’s something about being abroad that makes any encounter with authority far more intimidating than it normally would be. Something as simple as showing a ticket to a conductor on a train leads to sweaty brows and feverish flapping of paperwork. Primal instinct kicks in, flinching in preparation for the worst. It’s probably the wrong sort of ticket, and it needed to be validated in a well-hidden machine, and please officer, don’t beat me against the urine-streaked walls of a primitive quasi-official dungeon. All I did was make an honest mistake…
It’s even worse at passport control. Innocent questions take on quiver-inducing import. It only takes one little: “So what’s the purpose of your stay?” to reduce me to pathetic, overly-detailed yabbering. It only serves to make me look really, really guilty of something. Extend the inquisition with: “And where are you staying?” and I’ll probably sink to my knees, praying and confessing to stealing those traffic cones while at university.
After spending far too long thinking that the lights mean the highway patrolman just wants to overtake, I pull over to await my fate. He marches over like Robert Patrick in Terminator 2; I open the door to get out and chat. In a noble bid to avert a potential gun battle, and me being shot to smithereens, he blurts out an authoritative, “Stay in the car, sir”, then strides up alongside.
“Are you aware of what speed you were doing?” he asks.
I genuinely haven’t a clue, but I figure I must have been about five miles over the limit and that honesty is the best policy. “About 70?”
“Well, I clocked you at 55. You do realise that there’s a 40 limit on this road, don’t you?”
If you ever want to see a formerly happy man turn pallid white and start stuttering hopelessly, this is precisely the sort of scenario you should set up as a needlessly elaborate prank.
At this point, there’s only one course of action: the global get-out card of playing the dumb tourist. Given I didn’t know how fast I was going and I’m not sure what I’m meant to do when I see those crazy disco lights, this doesn’t exactly require De Niro-esque method acting.
He gets out a notebook and asks for the car registration number, which is an excellent time to realise I don’t know what it is. “It’ll probably be on the key fob, sir,” the cop says, realising he’s dealing with an A-grade imbecile. “And your registration papers?” He gets another blank look, and I reach for my wallet. “I think you’ll find them in the glove compartment, sir.”
After emptying out the random paperwork, National Park guides, petrol receipts and Snickers wrappers, the disconcertingly polite cop wanders off with his desired documents and my driving licence. He seems to be gone for an eternity. Is he going to give me an huge fine for basically being a complete moron? How will I get my driving licence back? If I get out of the car to see what’s going on, will he turn me into a bullet-riddled human colander?
As I resist the temptation to bury my head in my hands, he finally returns. “I’m going to let you off with a warning this time, sir. But keep an eye on your speed while you’re enjoying the scenery, hey? Drive responsibly, now.” In relief, I promise I will do, add a few more apologies, turn the key to ride off in freedom, and promptly stall the car.
Published in the December 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)