Our bus was stuck well outside of London. An hour earlier, I’d been standing at the foot of the Roman Baths, looking down into the murky green water and seeing my silhouette floating on the surface like it was a rubber duck. That was neat, but now I was sitting in the window seat of a bus, right next to an older man from the States, a vet from the Korean War who had a camera dangling around his neck the same way rappers used to wear gold chains. I’d use the word “trapped” to describe what it was like being on that bus, only I actually liked the war vet sitting next to me and so I refrain from using such rhetoric, as to not offend him should he ever read this. Our conversation was pleasant, his stories interesting, and so, instead of saying “trapped,” I’ll instead use the phrase “charmingly immobilized.”
I looked at his camera and thought about how it, in its small digital cartridge, held exactly the same images that I did in my memory. The halls of Windsor Castle, with their grand excess. The city of Bath and its lovely medieval charm. But what we were waiting for, all three of us – me, the vet, and his camera – was the last stop on our guided bus tour, the mysterious monument known as Stonehenge.
In truth, I’d wanted to see Stonehenge mostly because I’m a big fan of the movie This is Spinal Tap and any mentioning of Stonehenge makes me giggle. This was my motivation. Not to see an ancient monument shrouded in mystery, but instead to see the thing Nigel Tufnel drew too small on a napkin and some midgets almost knocked over. While we sat motionless in traffic, I kept myself excited by repeating the lyrics to the song in my head.
“Stonehenge/Where a man is a man/And the children dance to the pipes of Pan.”
The man running our tour was a handsome English chap around the age of sixty named Owen. He wore a bowler hat and made clever jokes, which is exactly how I assumed the British people would act. Thirty minutes into the Bath traffic jam, Owen got on the bus’ PA.
“Yes, it seems we’re a bit stuck at the moment,” he said, “but rest assured, we will be arriving at the great enigma that is Stonehenge within the next hour or so.”
Then, two hours later, he was back on the PA. “Ladies and gentlemen, I am relieved to inform you that we’ll be arriving at Stonehenge shortly. Regrettably, we’ll be arriving approximately fifteen minutes before the park closes. So please, be quick, enjoy the monument, take your pictures, and move swiftly towards the exit.”
Soon the bus pulled up at the entrance to Stonehenge and Owen rushed us off. People were literally running from the bus door to the entrance gate, the staff at Stonehenge looking woefully displeased at our arrival.
“We close in ten minutes,” one of them shouted. “Take one picture and go!”
And so this would be my experience at Stonehenge. I walked rapidly down the roped path, stopping now and then to snap photographs of the tall grey stones. My mind raced through thoughts of druids and sun dials and Michael McKean in a blonde wig. The sun was setting and the Stonehenge staff ushered our tour group in a large circle around the monument. I thought of rituals, ancient ones, the druids gathering around Stonehenge and doing whatever the heck they did, and then I thought about how lame our rituals have gotten, going from spiritual and mystical to just plain reasonable and economical, the ritual of clearing out the last tour group from the Stonehenge site so that the workers can go home without having to get paid overtime.
Back on the bus, I looked through my photographs. There it was, Stonehenge, locked in my camera, only a hundred or so pictures after a shirtless selfie I took of myself in the hotel. I’d only spent about seven minutes at Stonehenge, and while I felt as though the place required more time…maybe it didn’t. I mean, what else was there to do? What would I have done there with, say, an hour? Try to climb the rocks? Stare at them more? Knock them over in dominos fashion like Clark Griswold?
Perhaps, despite the weight of the place’s name and reputation, a few minutes was all one really needed to grasp the complexity of Stonehenge. Maybe this place – while iconic and world famous – required less time to take in than an episode of Saved by the Bell.
Stonehenge was a quickie. A satisfying quickie. I thought of other things, tried to make a quick list of everything that takes longer to enjoy than Stonehenge. A Starbucks coffee. A hot shower. Listening to one Grateful Dead song or three songs by the Ramones. Scratching an itch that’s been driving you crazy, located somewhere in the middle of your back.
I thought about how people say life is short and, as I did, Owen got back on the PA and apologized, saying he wished we had had more time.