Nathanael on a rock looking out over the Peak District, England, UK.

On the road, upwards.

What makes a memorable road trip? Why did we choose to drive to our destination? How does it affect the way we see our surroundings?

*

The map unfolds across the width of the back seat, the full extent of the Algarve – so tiny on a globe – illustrated in minute detail on the brittle paper. The meticulous labelling is a world away from the carefree, countryside idyll rolling out before us. We take turn after nameless turn, eyes on the shadow of Monchique in the distance, finding and losing our bearings at each hamlet and stream we pass … but eventually, unmistakably, the road begins to climb inch by careful inch as we ascend towards the mountain pass. The lane winds back on itself, hairpin bend after careful hairpin bend; I study the map, my finger following our progress along the road.

The tall, dry grass tickles my ankles and invites me forward.

The next time I look up, waves of bristly trees have quietly enveloped us on either side, brief darts of sunlight peeking through as we flash past. Rounding the bend, we pull over and step out onto the deserted plateau that stretches past the road, crashing suddenly into lush green valleys just a few feet later. I walk a few steps away from the concrete; the tall, dry grass tickles my ankles and invites me forward. Above us, a single sparse cloud has torn itself into four cottony trails, as if mapping the compass points for our benefit. We pile back into the car and I let the dappled sunlight flicker over me, eyes closed, imagining the Portuguese sky leading us into the wild.

*

It’s always parked on some ridiculously steep gradient, and it rolls back just a millimetre or two when the handbrake goes down. We feel the tyres give a little as the brakes hold us to the road; the car rocks on its hind legs before it crawls slowly forward, up and over. The people here say that Sheffield, like Rome, was built on seven hills; the inner city nestles tightly in the central valley, the glimmering heart of South Yorkshire. We veer manically around this natural rollercoaster track, dipping from the hilly suburbs as we follow the road deep down into the central pit. Traffic, noise, life. The car swings carefully around the roundabout, and we take the western exit; it leads to a different world.

The narrow terraces of the city collapse rapidly into elegant mansions that dominate the view, looming over the ever-narrowing road. The trees flanking us on either side turn from solitary sentinels to a fully-fledged sylvan army, keeping watch over the passageway from city to country. We pass carefully beneath their opaque canopy, silent now as we wait to emerge from our green blindfold. We are alone.

The road runs perilously close to the edge; we lower the windows to peer over the drop.

We blink and the shelter of the trees is suddenly ripped away as we escape the forest and the car plunges forward into the wide open. We carve our route into the side of the hill; its towering outline traces a soft peak above us before flowing gently into the distance. Snaking along the matchstick-thin lane, we pass local pubs and quiet cottages, their owners and patrons nowhere to be seen in the crisp afternoon. The road runs perilously close to the edge; we lower the windows to peer over the drop and the cold Yorkshire air rushes up to meet us, cold yet comforting on our skin. After a few seconds or hours or days, or maybe all our lives, we leave humanity behind and allow ourselves to be utterly engulfed by the unfathomable beauty of the English Peak District.

*

Before that moment, the mountains hadn’t seemed real, their glossy peaks a world away from the sweltering heat of the Moroccan day. The road is a straight arrow, four empty lanes bridging the gap between us, in the lowly city, and the colossal might of the High Atlas; we shoot past olive trees planted like pawns on a chessboard, a neat row of green against the stark brown fields. They guide us silently to our destination.

I feel alive with an inexplicable spirit, contained somehow in the agelessness of the Atlas.

We are alone on our concrete pilgrimage route, not another vehicle in sight, heading ever onwards to the otherworldly peaks dominating the skyline. The rising heat waves ripple across those sharp zig-zag edges; the line between reality and mirage blurs. As we approach the vast shadow of the mountains, the air loses the dust of the city, cleansed by the chilled waters of crystal-clear springs. I feel alive with an inexplicable spirit, protected by this remote place, contained somehow in the agelessness of the Atlas.

The mountains are entwined together in soft gradients of blue, thin veins of snow trickling from their summits, ethereal creatures bleeding white under the intense sunlight. They run from south to north, as far as my eye can see, seeming to mark out the very curvature of the earth. The tallest one is silhouetted, solid navy against the feathery-blue sky; I imagine it is Atlas himself, holding the entire world on his shoulders; holding up the sky while the world revolves, unknowing, beneath him.

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