Confidence Shifting Into Gear

Last month I traveled to Iceland for a ten day adventure in the land of fire and ice. The country is absolutely beautiful filled with strong, stoic men and women and painted with landscapes that are out of a fantasy novel.

I did some research for the trip and read about people driving Route 1, also known as the Ring Road, which is an 825 mile highway that runs around the entire country. I also read that it was very popular to rent a campervan for this excursion.

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On an impulse I went ahead and booked a campervan for 5 days and 4 nights through a company called CampEasy. I was going to drive around the entire country and sleep at night in this van that came equipped with a little stove, sink and a back seat that folded out into a bed.

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Two weeks before the trip I looked more closely at the details on the campervan and saw that it was a manual. Crap! I had not driven a manual car since I was sixteen years old and had only driven around my neighborhood. (It was a Volkswagen Thing and not really well suited for highway driving or any speed over 30 mph.)

My friend Eric volunteered to teach me and he patiently provided an hour long lesson on driving stick shift. We drove around a cemetery in Minneapolis, taking advantage of the quiet setting and lack of traffic so I could practice shifting gears, going into reverse and driving up hills.

My first four days in Iceland were spent with feet on the ground, walking around Reykjavik, visiting museums, walking along the coast and passing on the whale and puffin meat sliders at restaurants.

Finally it was time to pick up the campervan and head out on the open road. To get to the point of this post, driving stick shift in Iceland was a mini-lesson about confidence.

When I first got the car, I was nervous and felt ill prepared. As you can imagine, it took a few tries to just get the car out of the parking lot at the rental agency. Then I had to navigate my way out of the city to get onto the Ring Road.

The roundabouts through me for a loop as I did not know how to properly keep the car idling when I had to brake or slow down for traffic. I killed the car in the middle of the roundabout with cars honking and giving me dirty looks. Driving a manual car is all about flow. You have to feel in control of the car and seamlessly shift from one gear to the next and have a good command of both your feet as you slow down, speed up, go up hills and down, etc. You can’t think, you just do.

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My flow had stoppage. I was clogged with nerves, fear and doubt about my own abilities. The first day I clutched the wheel with a white-knuckle death grip as it was rainy and windy and I discovered the Ring Road was one lane in each direction and no shoulder. There were sheep crossing signs all over and warnings about slowing down and avoid blind turns as you went through the mountains. There were bridges that were only wide enough for one car to pass. I wondered if this was to be my fate to die in a car accident alone on the road in East Iceland as my car flipped over into a lava field.

My lack of confidence led to a few more incidents of killing the car and not being able to get it going on numerous tries. This occurred in the parking lot near an awe inspiring waterfall. I screamed in the car at my inability to move matching the roar of the cascade nearby. No one offered to help or ask what was wrong. I was left to my own devices.

“The way to develop self-confidence is to do the thing you fear and get a record of successful experiences behind you.” William Jennings Bryan

Over the course of the five days, my confidence grew even as I was faced with never ending rain, strong winds, countless sheep, gravel roads and a foreign country. Part of it was the sheer amount of practice. I would suspect anyone would become well versed in driving stick shift if they had to spend that much time constantly switching gears. But much more was just my ability to take a deep breathe and believe in my ability to handle the car and the road.

I experienced a lot of alone time. Two of the days it rained so much that I barely got out of the car. And even when I did, I was hiking along glaciers and ravines by myself. The country only has a population of 315,000 and there were long stretches where I was the only car on the road.

I had to trust that I was good on my own. I could conquer this campervan and the road and enjoy this once in a lifetime trip. The car would keep stalling if I didn’t believe in myself. The car won’t move, the barbell won’t budge, the job won’t change, the risk won’t be taken if one lacks the self-confidence to try.

My last day as I drove back into Reykjavik I was like an old pro. The countless roundabouts and stop lights were no longer troublesome. I parked the van with a big smile on my face as I reveled in the adventure I had just experienced.

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