Tuesday 28 March 2017

'Alex went a bit quiet. I thought he was just nervous about the bears - but then he took out a little box...'

In our series on summer memories, novelist Ruth Gilligan recalls a Californian road trip - with added sparkle

Route 101: Ruth Gilligan and fiancée Alex.
Route 101: Ruth Gilligan and fiancée Alex.

At the start of this summer, my boyfriend and I decided to go on a road trip.

Staring at the grey London skies - and this was even before the apocalyptic cloud of Brexit loomed - we decided we could just about afford a little holiday. A Californian road trip seemed justifiable since, for one year only, I have three close pals stationed along the West Coast of America. So I called them and told them to ready their sofa beds (and to pop a bottle of gin in the fridge), because we were on our way.

Like so many couples, Alex and I had visions of ourselves in some gorgeous red, convertible Cadillac, cruising down Route 101 with the wind in our hair - a sort of English/Irish Thelma and Louise slash Jay Z and Beyoncé. Sadly, having reminded ourselves of our strict budget, we settled on a decidedly unsexy Mazda instead.

I should mention, although I was the co-mastermind behind this road trip, I cannot drive. At all. I realise this is ridiculous - my friends constantly remind me that I hold a PhD, but have failed to master one of life's most basic skills. I tell them that I will get around to it soon. Well, I might.

This left Alex in the driver's seat and me as chief navigator/DJ, the latter mainly involving playing all the 'OC' soundtracks on repeat - when in Rome, and all that. We set off from San Francisco, having spent three nights with Pal Number 1, and traced the famous Big Sur Drive south. We stopped at all the vista points; guzzled In'n'Out burgers by the dozen; we took a million selfies with the jaw-dropping coastal scenery as our backdrop. We also got caught in a vicious sand storm, grew increasingly car sick and realised that the 'OC' soundtracks grow rather dirgey by about Season 3.

Nonetheless, on we (he) drove.

Our next stop was LA, where Pal Number 2 has been relocated with work, and the following day, she drove us down to San Diego where Pal Number 3 has been living. We spent the weekend by the beach and also attended an Easter 1916 concert, which involved two hours of rousing poetry and song. As the only Brit in a packed auditorium of rowdy ex-pats, I suspect Alex felt a bit like the odd one out. But as a show of how far we have all come, the crowd proceeded to ply him with drink for the rest of the night, and he spent the next day humming 'Fields of Athenry'.

From there, it was back to San Francisco, and then across to Yosemite National Park. We arrived just after lunch and set off on a hike to try and catch the last of the sunshine. I noticed Alex was a bit quiet (I wondered if the hangover was still lingering), but then eventually, I figured out the problem.

"Are you nervous about the bears?" I enquired, remembering the guidebook's warnings about the local wildlife. He looked at me. "Yes," he said.

We hiked on for two more hours, keeping full alert for any fuzzy critters, until we reached the most beautiful waterfall. We stood under it, on a rickety old bridge, getting soaked and savouring the moment. And then out of nowhere, Alex reached into his pocket, took out a small black box and asked me to marry him.

To say I have never been so shocked in my life is an understatement. Obviously, after almost eight years together, it is no surprise that we are tying the knot. But I couldn't believe that we had spent the last 10 days travelling around America, and he had a ring (and a secret plan) on him the whole time!

Streaming tears, we eventually dismounted the bridge, whereupon we bumped into an elderly couple. "We just got engaged!" I blurted, my elation spilling over. They smiled. "We saw the whole thing, but we didn't want to interrupt. So we've been hiding behind that rock for the last 10 minutes."

The last days of the trip were a blur of celebrating, hiking and trying desperately to find some sort of signal so that we could convey the news back across the Atlantic. We did one last return drive to San Francisco. We ate one last In'n'Out burger. We dropped our beloved Mazda back to the rental shop. But of course, we both know, the journey is only just beginning…

Ruth Gilligan's new novel, 'Nine Folds Make A Paper Swan' is published by Atlantic Books and is available online and at all good bookshops, priced at €15.99

Irish Independent

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