Take the road less travelled – Why it’s good to scare ourselves

I got back from a holiday in the US a few days ago and it was one of those trips with a before and after –  I left as one person and returned another.

It was a bucket trip list; over my 53 years I’ve traveled widely but every time I had plans to go to the USA something always seemed to happen. But there is nothing as persuasive as a cold Wellington winter’s night, with the wind smashing against the walls like a berserk toddler while the rain pounds sideways against the windows.

Fortified by a glass of Marlborough Pinot Noir, I decided to browse the Air New Zealand site, and there it was – an airfare to Los Angeles for $938 return. I sat there, finger poised over the book button – it was a now or never moment so I knocked back the wine, whipped out the credit card and woke up the next morning to discover I was going to Los Angeles.

At first it seemed like a dream but the day finally came when I found myself standing outside LAX  in the pouring rain waiting for the shuttle bus to Union Station. I was in America!

Not quite the sunny California I was expecting
Not quite the sunny California I was expecting

It was the beginning of three amazing fun-filled weeks, which I am going to write about at length so that others can have the same fun-filled weeks. But one thing happened that was completely unexpected.

Normally I’m keen to try most things, but I was scared of driving there as I thought the change from right hand to left hand would be too hard, so I left it until the last week when I wanted to go to Joshua Tree National Park and then on to Las Vegas. First, I drove down the massive six-lane freeway to San Diego. I was holding on to the steering wheel so hard my ribs and stomach started cramping. It was terrifying especially as it was raining hard, at one point almost a white out, and huge trucks would roar by drowning my little Hyundai in a curtain of spray.

The next day, I decided to forgo the freeways so when I punched in the destination to google maps I turned on the ‘avoid highways’ option. It brought up an alternate route which looked simple enough, so I jumped in the car and headed out of town.

They seem nice

At first it was the usual progression of mobile phone shops, strip malls, and fast food outlets. Away from the tourist centre, all cities look the same but gradually the city gave way to a rural landscape of ranches and farm supply stores. It began to pour and once again I was riveted on the road, repeating my mantra ‘left shoulder to centre’ as humongous pickups roared up behind me and I timidly pulled over to let them by. The mist got thicker, but when I passed a sign saying ‘altitude 2000 feet’  I realised the mist was in fact cloud. I was in the clouds with no idea where I was.

That's not mist, that's cloud
That’s not mist, that’s cloud

I found out later that the route took me through the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and across into the Santa Rosa and San Jacinta National Monument.

It was spectacular scenery, but having only driven a left-hand drive for two days, it was also terrifying. I was starting to freak out when I came to a small town that had a pie bakery –  the Julian Pie Company. I love that pie shop! I stopped and had a calming pecan pie covered with a mountain of whipped cream.

The Pie Shop!
The Pie Shop!

Bolstered by heapings of carbs and fat, I headed back out to my car, went to the passenger side, pretended that was what I meant to do, then went to the driver’s side, got in and cautiously hit the road again. It led me up into the cactus-filled mountains, past casinos and little towns, and around corners with tantalizing hints of the spectacular scenery beyond.

The clouds give a sneak peek

Slowly the clouds began to lift and mountain ranges peeked through. As I came over the range and started down the other side, the clouds cleared away and the most amazing vista opened up before me. I was gobsmacked!

Urrgh – I have to go down there?

The last part of the road down the mountain was a two-lane road with a series of switchbacks. Only minutes before I went down, emergency services flew by so I stopped at the look-out point. Far below the traffic was backed up and when I finally ventured down a car was totalled on the side of the road.

By the time I reached my Airbnb in Joshua Tree my brain felt like a sponge that had been thoroughly wrung out and then stamped on a little more. But the next day, after some sleep, I started thinking about what I had done. After only two days, I had managed to change sides and drive some of the most daunting roads in the USA – the Los Angeles Freeway and over two mountain ranges and a desert. For some people, it might be a walk in the park, but for me it was not only physically but also incredibly mentally challenging. And I had arrived at my destination in one piece! And I had had great pie!

Gorgeous and peaceful Joshua Tree
Gorgeous and peaceful Joshua Tree

I had an epiphany. The trouble with getting older is that you get into this mindset that you are, well, getting old. It struck me that I had been shying away from major challenges for some time and using my age as an excuse.  However after being given no choice – I had to drive down that bloody mountain or live up there forever in the mist – I had managed it with no issues at all. Sure it was hard and nerve-wracking, but it was also exciting!

And something changed inside me, unlocked even. Sure we get older but how we age is up to us. I have had some knockbacks over the last few years – back surgery, job setbacks and a toxic relationship – and it came home to me how much I had withdrawn and become risk averse – scared even.

A couple of years ago, I interviewed Dr Rick Hanson, who writes about how we can rewire our brains and make lasting change. One of the things he said that has stuck with me is one of the most fascinating aspects of the brain – the constant tension it has between flexibility and speed.

“Perhaps the easiest way to understand it is when we move to a new house but two weeks later find ourselves driving to our old home,” he said.

“If our brains were super flexible, we would have to constantly relearn everything we do on a daily basis. So our brain sets up patterns of behaviour so we don’t have to learn our way home every day.”

However, if the brain was too rigid, we would never learn anything new. It is a constantly juggling act between established patterns and learning new things.”

The difficulty,  he said, is that although we have this lifelong potential for learning and growth, our brain also has a “negativity bias” whereby negative thoughts and experiences are retained far more that positive ones.

In my case, having gone through some difficult times, I had fallen into a pattern of being overly cautious – long past the point to where it was helpful to me.

Challenge is the fuel that drives our brain and by not challenging myself, I was stagnating. If I could do this, then there was nothing wrong with my brain – I’d just become a scaredy cat!

Well, that is going to change. I have lots more adventures in me and I am going to write up the ones I had so far so hopefully reading them will inspire you to have your own. We have one life, just this one, and it is up to us to make the most of it!

On the road less travelled!
On the road less travelled!

I hope you enjoy reading about them and please email me any questions or comments. I’d love to hear from you.




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