Adrian Phillips

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS - Adrian Philips is Man­ag­ing Di­rec­tor of Bradt Travel Guides and was voted Travel Writer of the Year in 2012. This and other sto­ries ap­pear in The Ir­re­spon­si­ble Trav­eller: edited by J. Bar­clay and A. Phillips and pub­lished by Bradt guides www.bradt­

It was 11.30 am on a sum­mer’s day in Canada when I dis­cov­ered that the only way to open the boot of a Chrysler Sebring hard-topped con­vert­ible is by press­ing a but­ton on its black key fob. I dis­cov­ered this a mo­ment af­ter clos­ing the boot with the black key fob in­side. I could pic­ture the fob sit­ting neatly on top of my suit­case. Nev­er­the­less, I pat­ted my pock­ets in the hope it had some­how spawned a twin. I ran my fin­gers around the boot in search of a hid­den han­dle. I re­traced my steps across the car park, scan­ning the ground for the thing I knew was some­where else. And then I put my hands to my head in a state of welling panic and fought the urge to have a good cry.

Peo­ple tend to as­sume a travel writer spends his life sprawled in beach­side ham­mocks killing time be­tween cock­tails and seafood sup­pers. But be­hind the juicy bits in the mag­a­zine spreads are a thou­sand cut­tings on the floor of the writer’s me­mory: cramped flights, up­set stom­achs, toad­y­ing emails to ed­i­tors, te­dious meet­ings with ho­tel man­agers, missed buses, drop toi­lets, lost pass­ports, colour­less mu­se­ums, aching feet, end­less scrawls in count­less note­books. Keys locked in hire cars parked in the mid­dle of un­fa­mil­iar places. Press­ing dead­lines.

Eleven forty and the clock was tick­ing. I’d been com­mis­sioned to write a fea­ture about a tree-top canopy walk deep in the High­lands of On­tario, and so early that morn­ing I had col­lected a hire car and set out from Toronto. It was a four-hour drive, the city’s glass and con­crete spin­ning free, re­placed by a thick­en­ing wilder­ness of pine trees that I knew hid big black bears and packs of wolves on the prowl. My guide and his group would be leav­ing the visi­tor cen­tre of the Hal­ibur­ton For­est Re­serve at 1 pm sharp – the sharp­ness had been stressed to me – but, with time in hand, I stopped at a soli­tary store to buy some wine for the evening. That’s when it hap­pened. I popped the boot of the locked car, laid down the fob while I wedged the bot­tles be­tween my bags – and slammed the boot shut. I was eight miles short of my des­ti­na­tion.

Stand­ing by the car, I tried to ig­nore the but­ter­flies buf­fet­ing the in­side of my stom­ach and as­sess the op­tions be­fore me. Op­tion One: com­plete the re­main­ing eight miles on foot. This was an unap­peal­ing prospect, cer­tainly, but it wouldn’t be im­pos­si­ble to cover the ground in time if I jogged parts of the way. How­ever, by the time I re­turned night would have fallen, the store would have closed and I’d have no-one for com­pany but big black bears and packs of wolves on the prowl. I crossed Op­tion One off the list. Op­tion Two: re-sched­ule the canopy walk. Out of the ques­tion, un­for­tu­nately, be­cause I had no con­tact num­ber for the guide and I was any­way fly­ing home the fol­low­ing day. Op­tion Three: find a light-fin­gered boot cracker who could re­trieve the key – and quickly.

A cashier from the store phoned Henry, who ar­rived at mid­day in a black pick-up truck with a hook hang­ing from a lit­tle crane at the back. He was a re­as­sur­ing fig­ure, with a brim­ming box of tools, oil-smeared dun­ga­rees and an ex­pres­sion I in­ter­preted as one of heroic al­tru­ism. ‘It’s great to see you! I’ve locked my key in the trunk,’ I ex­plained, adopt­ing the lo­cal lingo. Henry didn’t an­swer. In­stead he walked around the car, peer­ing through each of the win­dows, be­fore re­turn­ing to my side.

‘ How do you plan to pay?’ he said, avoid­ing any open­ing niceties. On re­flec­tion, I de­cided there was some­thing weaselly about Henry’s ex­pres­sion. ‘ You don’t take cards, I sup­pose?’ ‘ Nope.’

I’m afraid I’ve only twenty dol­lars

in cash. Will that cover it?’ Henry just shrugged, and then got to work.

His first act was to test each of the door han­dles, work­ing on the the­ory that this wouldn’t have oc­curred to an im­be­cile from Eng­land with only twenty dol­lars in his wal­let. To Henry’s sur­prise, the doors re­mained un­moved. Next he pulled from his bag a flat piece of metal that he at­tempted to slide into the door mech­a­nism from the bot­tom of the driver’s win­dow. But the gap was too nar­row. Fi­nally he turned to a long piece of thick wire, forc­ing one end be­tween the top of the win­dow and its seal, and feed­ing it down to­wards the un­lock but­ton on the in­side of the door panel.

Henry crouched with fore­head pressed to the glass and tongue stick­ing through white whiskers as he at­tempted to prod the but­ton with the skinny fin­ger of metal. It was a painstak­ing, teeth-grind­ing process. Sev­eral times the wire landed on its tar­get only to slide away, a string of mut­tered swear words trail­ing in its wake. But af­ter twenty min­utes of near misses there was a sat­is­fy­ing clunk. With a smug glance in my di­rec­tion, Henry lifted the door han­dle, and trig­gered a ca­coph­ony that sent him leap­ing like a hairy sal­mon.

The blar­ing rhythm of a car alarm com­mands ur­gency. A flus­tered Henry hur­ried into the driver’s seat and jabbed at the ‘open trunk’ but­ton on the steer­ing col­umn. Noth­ing hap­pened. He pushed it again and again, but the electrics ev­i­dently only worked with the key in the ig­ni­tion. He clam­bered awk­wardly into

The clock and Chrysler and Henry and the world were against me. It was 12.30; there was no way the car rental com­pany could send help in time for me to make the canopy walk. Why had I stopped for booze? What would I file to the ed­i­tor? I’d have no tale to tell of a hike through the tree­tops, noth­ing to show for the cost of my flight.

the back, hunting for a lever to drop the seats and gain ac­cess to the boot. But this was a con­vert­ible and the roof-rais­ing gear sat be­hind the rear seats, so they didn’t lower. The alarm con­tin­ued its loud com­plaint, sup­ported by an­gry orange blinks from the haz­ard lights; a sprin­kle of shop­pers gath­ered to watch.

‘ You’ll have to phone the rental com­pany,’ Henry said above the din as he emerged de­feated and red-cheeked from the car. He was right, I knew; we’d ex­hausted all other op­tions. I punched the dig­its into my mo­bile, but the line wouldn’t con­nect.

‘ I think it’s be­cause I’m us­ing a for­eign mo­bile,’ I ex­plained to Henry. His non­for­eign mo­bile sat on the bon­net of his truck while he rolled a cig­a­rette. He looked at it, and then at me. ‘ There’s a phone booth about 200 me­tres

up the road there,’ he nod­ded. I felt the prickle of frus­trated tears some­where be­hind my eye­balls. ‘ But I’ve no change, Henry.’ He care­fully licked the length of his cig­a­rette pa­per, be­fore reach­ing into the front of his dun­ga­rees. ‘ Here’s a quar­ter,’ he said, and turned away to find a lighter.

Those were a lonely 200 me­tres, trudged list­lessly in the knowl­edge the game was up. The clock and Chrysler and Henry and the world were against me. It was 12.30; there was no way the car rental com­pany could send help in time for me to make the canopy walk. The sun had dis­ap­peared be­hind a bank of gloomy cloud and the branches of the pine trees drooped like sag­ging shoul­ders. Why had I stopped for booze? What would I file to the ed­i­tor? I’d have no tale to tell of a hike through the tree­tops, noth­ing to show for the cost of my flight. Of course, in the greater scheme of things this was no dis­as­ter; I hadn’t been kid­napped by pi­rates or bit­ten by a ra­bid racoon. But life isn’t al­ways lived with an eye on its greater scheme, and at that help­less mo­ment in that strange place there seemed no worse a predica­ment.

‘ Good af­ter­noon, how are you do­ing to­day?’ chirruped an ir­ri­tat­ingly up­beat voice on the other end of the line.

‘I’ve locked my key in the boot.’ ‘The boot?’ ‘The trunk.’ ‘Oh, poor you! Have you tried push­ing the “open trunk” but­ton?’ Pa­tience; he’s only try­ing to help. ‘Yes.’

‘And pulling the seats down?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Hmmm, in which case I’m all outta

ideas!’ he de­clared with a cheery laugh be­fore putting me on hold while he con­tacted the Chrysler man­u­fac­tur­ers. I stared into space with the phone to my ear, lis­ten­ing to Sha­nia Twain sing about var­i­ous things that men do that don’t im­press her much.

A sharp knock on the booth made me jump. ‘Hey, I’ve got your key out!’ said an ex­cited man out­side. I recog­nised him as one of the shop­pers; he’d man­aged to shine a flash­light into the trunk through a small space be­tween the back seats, he panted as we hur­ried back to the store, and hooked the fob with Henry’s wire. There were still twenty min­utes to get to the visi­tor cen­tre and the game was back on; I could have kissed his round, pink face.

I ar­rived with a whole minute to spare. The mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle was pub­lished a cou­ple of months later, a piece de­scrib­ing the tran­quil­lity to be found in the High­lands of On­tario. There was no men­tion of the less-than-tran­quil pre­ced­ing two hours; they were to re­main cut­tings on the floor of a travel writer’s me­mory. But for all the splen­dour of Canada’s tow­er­ing trees and heavy-headed moose, it’s the faces of those un­told hours I’ll re­mem­ber best: those of the kind stranger and the weasel Henry – whose quar­ter I never did re­turn.

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