A couple of years ago, I found myself stranded in a remote Utah canyon on a hot summer’s day. It was the first time I ever contemplated my mortality.
Let’s rewind a bit. I was exploring northeast Utah and had some time to kill. I knew about a remote canyon road with spectacular views of the surrounding desert and mountain scenery. I also knew the road was unpaved and windy, but I didn’t bother to do my homework.
A few miles into the drive, my rental car came to a natural stop from a mixture of sand and stone someone had carved into this canyon to make it traversable. Ahead of me was a giant boulder above the road, wedged between a high cliff on my left and a steep drop-off to my right. Under the boulder was a series of large stones and rocks strewn across and embedded into the road.
Without high clearance, passage through that mini-tunnel was impossible. And the road was only one lane wide. Plus, a wrong turn could cost me my life.
For a few minutes, I feared the worst. I was alone. I had only a gallon of water. I hadn’t told anybody where I was. And I told no one, not a soul, of my plans or what to do in case they didn’t hear from me.
Worst of all, there was zero cell service. I was at least a dozen miles away from any semblance of humanity. I had passed a couple of vehicles on my way up the canyon, but this was well off the beaten path.
So as I reckoned with sudden danger, the specter of my mortality crept in. Never before did I face such startling circumstances. Perhaps I’m overexaggerating a tiny bit, but I felt scared in a way I never had.
Luckily, as I baked under the hot desert sun (about 95℉ or 35℃) wondering how I would escape this hell of my own creation, two vehicles approached. A tour group was descending the canyon, and they begrudgingly helped me get my car off the road and onto a tiny platform in front of the boulder. Once they had clearance to descend, they did. I pleaded with the tour group to follow me back and make sure I made it out safely, but they refused.
Thus, I had to reverse my way downhill with no one to help and plenty of things that weren’t helping, namely my delirium and the cliff to the left and drop-off to my right. With no one to guide my descent, I rolled down my windows and alternated between the driver and passenger sides of the vehicle, darting my head like an owl scouring the forest floor for unsuspecting prey in the depths of the night.
Soon into my daring descent, I heard the unmistakable sound of a car rubbing against something firm. Immediately after I heard the screeching, I maneuvered my SUV into a safe stopping position and got out of the car.
My car had some scrapes and peeled paint, but mercifully nothing too severe. After thanking the heavens I was unscathed and my car was only a little scathed, I continued down the road. A short time later, I had safely escaped the canyon and made my way back to civilization.
Last year, I found myself in northeast Utah again. As I drove into a dispersed camping site at dusk, I sought a nice place to park and sleep for the night.
A few minutes off the main road, I found what looked like a decent spot right next to the road. It had no shade or other protection (from the elements and from any loud people nearby), but it seemed flat and spacious. So I turned off the road and tried to maneuver my car into a good position.
As soon as my tires fully escaped the dirt road, I knew something was off. No matter how much I depressed the pedal, I couldn’t move. When I leaped out of my car, I quickly realized what had happened:
I had driven into a pile of sand. And I had no way out.
For what felt like an eternity, I thought through my options. In my crazed state, I envisioned trying to push my car out of the sand. I considered pushing the sand away from my tires to give myself room to create momentum and maybe speed my way out of the sand. Yes, these ideas were foolish.
I was worried, and I had neither the physical tools nor the mental tools to extricate myself from this predicament. I’ve driven tens of thousands of miles in my life and yet I’ve basically never performed any form of meaningful car upkeep myself. Manual labor on a car is anathema to me.
But I kept the faith. I had a feeling I’d find a quick solution. Worst case, I told myself, someone would be able to help me out in the morning.
Indeed, help arrived at the drop of a hat. About a minute after I got stuck, a Jeep approached and saw my distress. The driver jumped out of his vehicle and assuredly asked if I needed help. As soon as he opened his mouth, I knew I was safe.
We grabbed some traction boards off the roof of his Jeep and got to work maneuvering my car out of the sand. The transmission overheated a couple of times but after a 10-minute masterclass in escaping quicksand (both physically and mentally), I got out. I thanked my lucky stars (many of which were in clear view above my head on this clear, starry night), profusely thanked the Good Samaritan who saved my day, and made my way to a safer sleeping spot for the night.
As I reflect on these experiences, I realize they relate to two life lessons I’ve learned the hard way through both my travels and other life experiences.
#1: Control what you can and accept the rest.
Traveling is the ultimate exercise in Stoicism: controlling what you can and accepting what you can’t. Depending on your travel style, you can control a lot. Regardless of your travel style, a lot cannot be controlled.
You can choose to dispute your circumstances. You can curse the driver of the bus that broke down. You can lament the closure of that park you really wanted to visit. You can forsake the language and cultural barriers that can make life awkward or vexing on the road.
Or you can behave differently and accept your circumstances wholeheartedly. A still and calm mindset is most helpful in times of distress. Cursing your fate or wishing for an alternative experience will only aggravate your negative mindset and blind you from a path out of your troubles.
Sometimes you’ll feel trapped or uneasy like I did. Sometimes you’ll feel embarrassed or anxious. Those emotions are your body’s way of telling your brain to act against your circumstances. But they lead you astray when you encounter issues you can’t control. Learn to understand when your negative emotions are healthy and when you’re better off going with the flow.
“Travel is the best school; it has the best teachers because everything seen is a teacher; and this colorful school’s diploma is wisdom!” ― Mehmet Murat Ildan.
#2: Find something to suffer for.
A lot of your life lies outside your control. Many of those things will cause pain. You cannot eliminate pain. But you can find the right ways for you to experience pain. In essence, you should find what you’re willing to suffer for.
Travel could be something you choose to suffer for. Real, meaningful travel is never seamless. You don’t regale friends and loved ones with stories about perfect vacations: they’re not entertaining, and you don’t learn anything from them. And they’re rare.
You learn about yourself when you’re stuck in a desert canyon or stuck at a border because some guard didn’t like the look you gave them. You learn about yourself when you sleep outside on a frigid winter night or get stuck in a country because of a sudden pandemic. You learn when you suffer.
You’re willing to suffer through those things because you love everything about them. If you love traveling, you love everything about traveling: the planned joys and the sudden problems, the walks on the beach and the visa issues, the fine dining and the food that rebels inside your stomach. Ultimately, you love seeing new things and stepping outside of your shoes.
As Paula Bendfeldt put it, “travel opens your heart, broadens your mind, and fills your life with stories to tell.”
Everyone enjoys the sunset beach walk with foie gras and caviar for dinner. Few enjoy the broken down car and the gastrointestinal revenge.
Life is risky. The world is a harsh and unforgiving place. You will experience difficulties and hardships. Whether you’re a prince or a pauper, you will have pain. But will you find the right pain to endure? Will you find something to suffer for as long as you live?
Traveling can illuminate your answers. Give it a shot.
Sign up for our new newsletter to stay informed with up-to-date curations from our editors:👇