I’m not much of a philosopher. I never took any philosophy classes in college or read any books by Plato or Socrates. I’ve never really considered the way we think or the fundamental truths of human life.
But my boyfriend Will is quite the philosopher. Specifically, he regards himself as a stoic. In basic terms, a stoic is someone who focuses on what they can control and doesn’t get upset or complain about what they cannot, someone who chooses to go with the flow rather than try to regulate everything that happens in their life. (If you knew Will, you would likely agree that this is an accurate description of him).
While he has been studying these ideologies and shaping his life into that of a stoic, I have been struggling with anxiety of my own. Recent major changes have made it harder for me to relax and let my life play out without trying to manage every detail. Unsurprisingly, Will has often shared his wisdom on stoicism to try and ease my worries and alter my perspective. But I found it hard to change my mindset.
That is, until our road trip through the American Southwest.
For nine days, we would be touring some of the regions most famous sites from the Las Vegas Strip to Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon National Park. It would be our first extended solo trip together and our first time car camping. I knew there was a lot that could go wrong, so I did my best to plan out every detail. I scheduled out each day of the trip and printed out itineraries for us to follow. I typed out extensive packing lists and recipes. I even planned extra time during our trip in case of unexpected mishaps.
But once we were on the road that first morning, I made a promise to myself. I had been anticipating this trip for months, dreaming about exploring America’s most beautiful places with the person I loved most. All that mattered was we were going. Our bags were packed and we were on our way. The last thing I wanted to do was let my anxiety get in the way of enjoying every moment of our big adventure. So I decided no matter the setbacks or unexpected obstacles in our path, I wouldn’t let myself feel overwhelmed by worry. I would make the best of our journey, every step of the way.
Unfortunately, my commitment was tested on our very first day. Pulling up to our first stop at Palo Duro Canyon, I was informed that I had reserved our campsite for a week after our arrival and that there were no spots available for us that night. I immediately considered the worst possible scenario: had I booked our entire trip a week late? But luckily, that wasn’t the case. The rest of our trip was still on track; I had simply made an error while making this one reservation.
I took a deep breath. That was one crisis averted. Now how were we going to deal with this one? Thanks to some friendly park rangers, we were directed to a nearby campsite with plenty of spots available. Our problems were solved. For now.
After a beautiful but hot hike through the canyon, we were more than ready to eat some dinner and go to bed. But after wrestling our tent stakes into the ground and plopping down at our picnic table, I noticed I had forgotten to pack a crucial item: our propane. I groaned aloud, my voiced traversing the entire campground. Going to the nearest store to buy fuel would take at least 30 minutes. But I quickly stood up from our empty table and hopped in the car. Mistakes had been made. All I could do now was move forward.
I started the short drive to the nearest Walmart, my stomach grumbling. But I was surprised to discover how much I enjoyed looking out at the Amarillo landscape. Growing up in hilly Northwest Arkansas, I had rarely seen such flat land, stretching our for endless miles before me. It turns out that our half hour delay was just another opportunity to discover new places and appreciate them fully.
After that, “just go with the flow” became our new mantra. So the next morning, when we tried to pack up our tent in 25 mph winds, the tarp flying from our hands as we did our best to hold down the fabric with our knees, I would catch Will’s eye. Instead of grumbling in frustration, we would burst out laughing. We knew we probably looked like a couple crazy, inexperienced kids trying to take on the world for the first time. And we were. But what a great story to tell.
It became an unspoken agreement that we wanted to savor our time on the road, not just at our final destinations. This became especially important on our way to the Grand Canyon. As we had done for the other parks, when we left our quick visit to Zion National Park, we typed into our Apple Maps app: “Grand Canyon National Park.” For those of you who have visited this park before, you can probably see how this could be a crucial mistake. It turns out this park is so massive, a search so broad is unlikely to guide you to your intended destination.
Two and a half hours later, ready to stretch our legs, set up camp, and check out the nearest viewpoint to see how grand this canyon really was, we drove through the park entrance only to be handed a map that read “North Rim Services Guide.”
I bit my lip. We were supposed to be camping and hiking at the South Rim, but how far apart could they really be? In fact, another quick search on our maps app said the two locations were just 11 miles apart. But when we searched for the quickest route, I gasped audibly. The only way to drive to the South Rim was to encircle the entire canyon in an extra 4-hour drive.
I won’t lie. I was pretty upset. As we came to terms with the fact that we were not even close to our campsite, I experienced a wide range of emotions, fighting back frustrated tears while hysterical laughter crept from my throat. But after the initial blow, I recentered myself and stepped back to look at the big picture. We were here, in Arizona, at the Grand Canyon! So we had to drive a few extra hours to get to our campsite? Was it really the end of the world?
Will seemed to read my mind, and in that moment, we silently resolved to make this section of the drive our best one yet. And it truly was.
As we drove back through the Kaibab National Forest, I observed the colorful ponderosa pines as Will read from our new Illustrated National Parks book to pass the time. And the two of us spent hours admiring the colossal Vermillion Cliffs that towered over our car during this impromptu scenic drive.
Although at first this unfortunate news led to a great deal of stress and disappointment, we soon pushed those feelings aside to appreciate what was in front of us. Even through the hiccups, we were still on our greatest adventure yet. So why not enjoy every part, even the unexpected ones?
I discovered a quote that changed my perspective while listening to a podcast (our favorite form of entertainment while on the road). In the series Travel Tales, guest speaker Erik Weihenmayer describes his journey kayaking through the Grand Canyon. Blind.
Despite his prior inexperience with paddling and his inability to see incoming rapids, Erik successfully completed this raging section of river with the help of his trusted team. But his story isn’t a perfect fairytale. He insists that despite his long list of impressive achievements, Erik experiences the same nerves and uncertainty that we all feel. While on the river, he often felt out of control which not only impacted his confidence but kept him from living in the present moment. He didn’t like how his imperfections and mistakes were associated with worry and disconnection. So he began to regard his unforeseen challenges as especially impactful, each one “teaching you something so that you’re more prepared for the next time.”
There is no doubt that we learned many things on our trip, From triple checking our camping reservations to preparing for setbacks to granting ourselves forgiveness and finding joy through it all, the lessons we learned will not only impact my future travel but my perspective on life and the way I cope with the unexpected.
I’m not saying I’ve found the remedy for impatience and frustration. In fact, I still struggle with these daily. But the beauty of travel is being able to look up from the worries that overwhelm you and immediately experience gratitude right where you are. Anxiety doesn’t feel as heavy when you are surrounded by a new and beautiful place.
And when we’re together, especially on one of our grand adventures, Will and I remind each other to never let our own thoughts get the best of us. Things will go wrong – they always do – no matter how much you plan and prepare. The key is to find ways to enjoy the moment when they do.