I was deep in the Arizona desert. I was lost.
On the highway before me were options to turn left onto Route 66 and right Route 66. Since I was already on Route 66, it felt like I was in the Twilight Zone.
I could feel the tightness in my chest as panic took over my body. I hadn’t had an anxiety attack since high school, but here I was, just one day out from Las Vegas, on what was supposed to be mine and my girlfriend Christina’s first adventure.
Yet I was frozen. I had never really been away from home before. Sure, I’d been on trips with scout troops as a kid, and to Disney with family, but I always had someone there who was there to guide me. Now, sitting behind the steering wheel, sweaty palms gripping the steering wheel so tightly that Christina was worried I might break it off, I felt like I was losing my mind.
After nearly two hours of trying different routes and just wanting to scream, Christina reached over and touched my leg for support. I swatted it away in frustration. Not a frustration with her, but rather in myself for letting her down. In reality, I was just a little lost. But in my mind I was trapped, drowning in my own inability to make a decision.
Being trapped in the desert isn’t something to be taken lightly. I felt like I had led her and I to a slow, agonizing death.
Christina couldn’t understand how to help me, and I couldn’t understand how to help myself.
Not long after, a lone car rumbled by on the dusty roads. I jumped out to get their attention and get directions to Sedona, our destination for the night. I don’t know if he could see the sweat and stress in my face, but he was calm and cool and local. He was exactly what I needed. The man, an older gentleman with a dirty pickup truck that looked like it was at home in the arid landscapes of Arizona, pointed me in the direction I needed to go. He told me how far I needed to travel, and which turns to make along the way. We were saved.
I returned to the car, my hands slightly shaking with adrenaline.
Christina and I drove the rest of the way in silence. Her, unsure how to break through to me about what had just happened. And me, ashamed of my own inability to deal with a simple fork in the road.
We arrived in Sedona near sunset and I stopped the car to walk among some of the famed red rock mountains that make the region such a legendary attraction.
I climbed up on top of some rocks so that I could get a last view of the sunset as it lit up the valley. And as I stood there, I looked down and saw Christina staring up at me. She was worried. Not angry, just worried. And I began to think about what had just happened to me.
This was supposed to be our romantic night in a romantic town. But we ended up eating at a local Denny’s. All of the other restaurants in Sedona had closed by the time we reached the town. The Denny’s was freezing inside and it was almost as cold as the silence between Christina and I.
That night I lay in bed. And while Christina slept, I thought. I thought about what had made me freak out so hard that day.
I thought about my life in high school, dealing with bullying, stress, and a school system that didn’t really fit with how my brain worked. And I thought about what it was that stressed me out about that intersection. And it all came down to a fear of failure. I felt I had failed Christina and I felt I had failed myself.
But what is travel all about? It’s about experiences. Both failures, and successes. It’s about pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and finding beauty and wonder in new and inexplicable circumstances.
Sometimes travel is about getting lost and finding more than just the right direction.
It was 5 am. I had a choice to make. I could either keep second guessing my decisions and risk losing myself to anxiety and fear, or I could choose to take each fork in the road as a challenge. To learn to accept that sometimes I might fail. And ultimately, isn’t failure just part of the learning process? If I couldn’t learn to accept failing, how would I ever learn to succeed at something?
Outside the motel door there was a world of experiences just waiting to be had. We still had plans to visit the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, and Bryce Canyon. I had to make a choice about whether I could face my fears of failure and experience those wonders myself or to stay safely and comfortably at home and just read about them in a book.
The next morning, when Christina woke up, she found me packing the bags and putting them in the car. “Are we heading home?” she asked me. “No baby, we’re hitting the road,” I answered.
We finished our journey – a tour through Arizona, Utah and Nevada – and it was spectacular.
There were moments where we were lost. There were moments when left the beaten path and explored new sights. And at each new situation, I challenged myself to see it as an adventure, as a teaching moment, as a chance to see through my fear and reach through the unknown to grasp at the adventure on the other side.
After we had returned home, I decided that I must continue to look at each moment with the same anticipation that I did during that trip to the American Southwest.
Soon after, Christina and I booked a trip to Europe. We would backpack through Italy, France and Switzerland. It was amazing; I learned so much, not just about the places we visited and the people that we met, but about myself. With each step into the unknown, I grew more confident in my own ability to deal with challenges.
Through 10 countries Christina was by my side. She would reach out to touch my leg when I could feel the stress rising. But now, instead of swatting her hand away I reach for it and hold it and offer her my strength in return. Because together we are even stronger.
Christina became my wife. We were married in 2007, and in 2011 our first son was born. With all the confidence and experience that travel had given me, I knew that I would be showing him the world as well. His first trip was a road trip in Mexico when he was three months old.
Two years later our first son was blessed with a younger brother.
And five years after that, our family of four has travelled to nearly 20 countries together. Although now, we always make sure to bring a GPS.
The experience and maturity that they have gained through their life of travel is miles beyond what I had when I was their age. And with each new challenge that we encounter, I know that we will come out the other side stronger, wiser and more experienced than before it happened.
Anxiety is something that will always be present in my life, I’ve learned to accept that and embrace it as a challenge instead of a disability.
Now, when challenges happen, there are three hands that reach out to give me support, and we are all stronger together.
Ready to take the plunge and see the world with your loved ones? Check out Intrepid’s range of family tours.
(Road photo courtesy of Intrepid Travel; all other images courtesy of Kevin Wagar.)