I didn’t realize—or tried to ignore—that the man was talking to me until he was standing in front of my car. I had pulled in for gas in Cameron, Ariz., a dilapidated reservation outpost with a couple of gas stations and a gift store along the highway that most people drive to the Grand Canyon. As I strode purposefully from the convenience store restroom past two loitering men, back to the van, I heard a loud whistle.
I had not made eye contact, and assumed the man was signaling to someone across the parking lot. I quickly got into the van, locking the doors and starting the engine immediately, only to realize one of the men had followed me and was now standing in front of the van, gesturing toward the side door. My body prickled with fear as I was forced to decide how to react.
Realizing that he was asking about the logo painted on my van’s side door, I unrolled the window a couple of inches, already creeping the van forward and ready to gun it. “What is it?” he asked, pointing to the logo.
“It’s a web site,” I said, trying to sound friendly and not afraid. “A blog.”
“What about?” asked the middle-aged Navajo man with a pock-marked face in a black sweatshirt.
“It’s about the outdoors, you know. You should check it out!” I was already rolling the window up before my last words were out, pressing the gas as hard as I could without looking like I was peeling out. I hated that I felt like I was rude to a stranger. I also hated that I felt threatened. Sometimes it’s hard to know when you’re being safe, and when you’re being paranoid. Especially when you’re on the road—alone.
I don’t always travel alone, but sometimes that’s the way it works out. And it’s one of the most difficult, most wonderful things I’ve ever done in my life.
That day in Cameron was the first day of what would be a month of solo adventures. I was already having mixed feelings, a tinge of loneliness. And the guy’s assertiveness rattled me, eating into my stoke for a trip that I had really been anticipating.
I had left the Grand Canyon that morning, headed toward Moab to fulfill my singletrack craving. But the road between the two was long and lonely. I pulled into a campsite in Valley of the Gods, having spent much of the driving hours trying to shake off lingering icky feelings. It was nice to pull in someplace familiar, but the fact that I’d be spending a solo night sans cell service kept me from feeling completely at ease.
That night, tiny birds tweeted around my campsite as the last glow of sunset disappeared, comforting me with their cheery voices. A giant, almost-round moon rose, illuminating the red cliffs above me and the crumbling wash below. I could only see one tiny flickering campfire in the distance, and the entire valley of sandstone monoliths was bright with moonlight. My confidence and peace of mind returned with my growing sense of solitude. My fear melted away, and I cherished having the sunset, the stars’ cycle, the moon’s trail and the slow sunrise all to myself.
Don’t get me wrong, I love traveling with friends or family. Sharing a sunset or a campfire with a loved one so special, and the deep conversations you have on road trips are one-of-a-kind. But sometimes it takes time alone—and off the grid—to get back in touch with yourself.
However, finding these places of space and solitude has always been a battle with fear for me. I’m trying to learn how to follow my intuition, when it tells me something’s not right. But I’ve found that, most of the time, the fear I feel isn’t exactly intuition. It’s something else entirely, and not necessarily beneficial. Often, it’s a fearful state of mind I’ve been conditioned to have by media, society and my poor mother, instead of my own personal experience.
There’s a line between being foolhardy and being brave, but often our fears are based more on cultural expectations than they are on actual threats. I’m aware that as long as I’m traveling alone, I’m a potential target. But I’m also learning to sense within myself when I’m letting unreasonable fear get the best of me. I want those stars, sunrises and miles of highway all to myself, without the weight of unreasonable fear.