On July 25th, 2016 at the age of 49, I received my driver’s licence.
Two weeks later I flew to Halifax, Nova Scotia, picked up a rental car, and embarked on my first solo road trip.
It. Was. Awesome.
Not only was it my first solo road trip, but it was also my first trip to Nova Scotia, a part of Canada that I had long wished to visit. Each evening, I posted a summary of the day on my personal Facebook page to let friends and family know that I was still alive, so part of the story will be told through those messages. But first, a bit of the backstory.
For all of my adult life, I have lived in large cities, close to public transportation, so I have not felt a need to drive. Over the last few years, though, as Janice and members of the Solo Travel Society have written posts and shared photos of the solo road trips that they have taken, I have begun to wish that I could do the same.
Where I live, it is an expensive and time-consuming process to acquire a driver’s licence. Let me tell you, it was a humbling experience to sit in a classroom with 25 teenagers for several days—especially when one of them offered to let me copy her homework and the answers from her test paper, assuming, I guess, that it would be too much for me at my advanced age.
But if that was embarrassing, the in-car lessons were much worse. Hour after hour I drove around residential streets in Toronto with my instructor, practicing parallel parking, changing lanes, and navigating intersections. More than once, the lesson ended with me in tears, frustrated at my lack of progress and terrified that 48 years of being a passenger had rendered me incapable of mastering the necessary skills to become a licenced driver.
Then, one day, the instructor declared that I was ready to take the government road test, so I did. Sadly, the examiner did not agree with his assessment that I was safe to be let loose on the roads. The trip that I had been planning had to be postponed, because I would not be able to drive alone.
I spent a couple of weeks feeling sorry for myself. Then, I started to think about what I was missing: driving Romania’s Transfagarasan, like Lia; exploring the back roads of Emilia Romagna, like Janice; taking a soul-searching road trip through Patagonia, like John. Surely, I thought, I can do this. I booked a few more lessons and made an appointment to take the test again. In this case, the second time was the charm!
Day 1: Halifax to Kemptville
Just getting out of the airport on Day 1 was an adventure. As I filled out the paperwork for the rental car, I thought, “There is no way that they are actually going to give me a car.” Surely, I thought, they will see the fear in my eyes. Well. if not the fear, maybe the fact that I couldn't figure out how to start the car! First lesson learned: always ask the staff at the rental lot to run through with you how all the different features work. It can be different on every car, and even if you are an experienced driver, it's a good idea. It will prevent you from doing things such as driving onto the shoulder while looking for the rear window wiper control. Not that I'm saying I've done that. Ahem.
Leaving the airport, I came to a “T” in the road. In the underground parking, the GPS hadn't started working. But as I crested the hill and had to decide which way to turn, the portable GPS and the GPS on my phone (I hadn't decided which one I would use) suddenly began giving me instructions at the same time. I couldn't decipher what they were saying. Worse yet, one was giving me directions to Trout Point Lodge, my actual destination, and the other was giving me directions to the last destination that had been entered into it: Oakville, Ontario. Argh!
I had to make a quick decision: would I turn left or right? I had a 50 percent chance of choosing correctly. Fifteen kilometers later, I was able to turn around and correct my mistake.
After that, though, I was off and running! To tell you the truth, most of the drive from Halifax to Kemptville is a bit of a blur in my memory. I was concentrating so hard on following directions, keeping to the speed limit, and maintaining my death grip on the steering wheel that I can't remember what I saw. Except for the deer that jumped out in front of the car – THAT I remember! I slammed on the brakes, then, like a scene in a Disney movie, the deer and I sat in silence and stared at one another. It was a bit surreal. Unfortunately, it didn't occur to me to take a photo. After a couple of minutes, we went our separate ways.
When I finally reached Trout Point Lodge, I was afraid my fingers would not unfurl from the steering wheel. I realized that I had not thought to stop, have lunch or coffee or use the washroom for the entire trip. But I made it! I experienced a real feeling of accomplishment that day. And the setting could not have been more ideal for helping me to unwind and relax. You can read all about my brief stay in Trout Point Lodge: More than a Culinary Dream Trip.
Day 2: Kemptville to Argyle
I spent the morning and early afternoon at the Lodge, then headed out to Argyle, where I was planning to have dinner and watch the famous sunset from the wraparound porch of Ye Olde Argyler. I didn't really want to admit to myself that I got lost (again!), but I'm pretty sure I passed through the same town twice along the way. The great thing about a GPS, though, is that it just keeps recalculating every time you fail to follow the instructions that it has given you. And recalculate it did. Repeatedly.
As I got closer to my destination, the fog began to roll in. By the time I was checked in and headed to the dining room, I could only see across the lawn to the edge of the water, not beyond. So much for watching the sun set. On the upside, dinner was delicious! You can read about it in Flavors of Nova Scotia: My Top 5 Tastes.
Day 3: Argyle to Wolfville
If it was foggy when I went to bed, it was really foggy when I got up. By coincidence, Janice, who was traveling in another part of the Maritimes, called to see how I was making out, and gave me advice on driving in the fog. Thank goodness! It was quite a scary driving day, as there were long stretches of curvy roads, with very low visibility. But I did it! And thank goodness for that, as I would have been incredibly disappointed if I hadn't made it to Wedgeport for my Tusket Island Tour. It was so much fun. Heading out on a lobster fishing boat with about 25 other people, it was one part education (about lobster fishing and the lifestyle of those who dedicate their lives to it), one part family dinner (we were invited into the LeBlanc family shanty for homemade chowder), and one part down-home party, complete with musical entertainment and drinks.
After getting back on land, I headed for Wolfville, but added to my itinerary a stop at a gas station to provide some entertainment to the local police as I pulled in, got out of the car, and realized that I had pulled in on the wrong side of the pump. I pulled out, drove around to the other side, got out of the car and realized that while I was now on the right side, I was too far away from the pump. So out I went, and back in again, as some men in blue got their laugh for the day. You're welcome, officers.
Day 4: Wolfville & Hall's Harbour
Heading out from Wolfville the next morning, I had a wonderful lesson on lobster – and then ate a gigantic one – at Hall's Harbour Lobster Pound. You can read more about that in this post. At Hall's Harbour, you park on one side of the harbour, then walk around to the other side to access the restaurant and gift shop. In the middle are boats, which, if your timing is right, you can watch sink to the bottom as the tide goes out, or rise to the top as it comes in. The tide was mostly out when I arrived, and the sandy bottom was entirely exposed by the time I left. But that wasn't the only surprise waiting for me after lunch. More embarrassing than being a laughingstock at the gas station, not being able to start the car, as described above, took the cake for ridiculous situations that I encountered on my first solo road trip. On the other hand, I will always know what to do if I ever encounter a locked steering wheel again. Oh wait – I did it again the very next day, in Lunenburg. But I knew how to fix it. I'm learning.
Day 5: Wolfville to Lunenburg
By Day 5, I really felt that I was getting the hang of things, at least as far as highway driving went. On the way to Lunenburg, I made a stop in lovely little Mahone Bay. Being a Sunday, the town was absolutely jam-packed with both people and cars. After my many hours of highway driving over the course of the previous few days, maneuvering through very narrow, very busy streets, was quite nerve-racking–as was trying to find a washroom that didn't require me to also sit and enjoy lunch. I will admit that I drove around and around and around the tiny downtown until I realized that what I really needed was that most Canadian of institutions, the local Tim Horton's coffee shop. How many times has a road tripper been saved by Tim's? It is quite possibly the worst quality coffee available, but when you really need it, it seems like the best, most familiar and comforting taste in the world–and 24 hours a day, you can use the facilities.
Driving in Lunenburg was different again. It involved a lot of either accelerating or braking, as the town is built on a very steep hill. And when I say steep, I mean steep. So much so, that when you walk downhill towards the water, you have to lean back to keep your balance. Luckily, the walking tour of the city that I took with Lunenburg Walking Tours was all downhill.
Day 6: Lunenburg to Halifax
Although part of me was thrilled to turn the driving over to Taste Halifax and allow them to whiz me around the city to experience some of the best of their food and drink, I was actually sad when I had to return the car in Halifax. Not just because I was finally feeling comfortable behind the wheel–my two runs at that roundabout on the way into Halifax notwithstanding–but because I had fallen in love with the people and the landscape and the food and the culture of Nova Scotia. Everyone was so kind to me, from the woman at Trout Point Lodge who took my keys out of my hand and replaced them with a glass of wine when I arrived looking shell shocked after my first long drive, to the people who stopped to help when my car wouldn't start in Hall's Harbour, to the taxi driver in Lunenburg who declared, “You're alright. You're not nearly as stuck up as I expected a Torontonian to be.”
I declare my first solo road trip a success! If you have not taken one, I encourage you to give it a try. Trust me, if I can do it, anyone can. Now that I've got one under my belt, I can't wait to start planning the next. You'll find lots of tips and advice in A Solo Road Trip – Why You Can & Why It Will Be Fabulous!
I have to give a shout-out to my driving instructor, Joel. He repeatedly told me that the only thing holding me back was my lack of confidence. It seems he was right. And it seems I found it in Nova Scotia.
My sincere thanks to the folks at Nova Scotia Tourism, who are just now discovering that they set a completely inexperienced driver loose on the good people of their province.