I am not a well-traveled person. In fact, at this point in my life I am probably one of the least well-traveled people you will ever meet. In 29 years I have only been on a plane a whopping total of four times, and each and every one of those planes was on its way to Disney World, just a two hour flight from New York City. So, you might not be surprised to hear that I have just a bit of travel anxiety. I'm a Type A person and a Capricorn, so I like to be fully prepared, feel wholly confident, and not take any outsize risks if I can help it — none of which, frankly, is entirely possible with so little adventuring experience. But re-reading Sloane Crosley's essay "Up the Down Volcano" recently is helping me rethink my discomfort with travel... thanks entirely to Crosley's own undeniably disastrous trip to Ecuador on assignment.
"I am told that Ecuador is graced with all four seasons in the course of a single day, and so I pack for none. Instead I stuff a bikini and a fleece vest into the pocket of negative space that appears as I zip my bag shut. A sense of satisfaction washes over me as I force-feed nylon straps through plastic teeth. There is no reason for me to feel satisfied. You need more items than the ones I have chosen for a day in Malibu or circumnavigating Greenland. But I am done with old habits. I have spent my whole life escorting aspirational accessories around the globe as if they were children on a disastrous family trip."
And, in fact, Crosley takes this jaunt to Ecuador as a chance to travel in an entirely new way. She feels excitement at getting her vaccines, pride at asking for a malaria medication in the line at the pharmacy. She even chooses not to do any research about Quito beforehand, deciding on a whim that she will climb a mountain once she is there. If you're anything like me, the thought of doing any one of those things probably fills you with dread. It's a new experience for Crosley, too.
"This is not like me. I am a profoundly lazy person in real life. I won’t meet a friend at a location more than five blocks from my apartment if it’s too windy and the sidewalk looks especially hard today. I will walk past a restaurant and have the thought: I should order out from there later."
Now, that, I can relate to. However, we soon see that for all of her travel confidence, Crosley is in for a rude awakening once she arrives in Quito. She packs inappropriately and, more importantly, the mountain she has decided to climb is Mount Cotapaxi, which clocks in at 19,347 feet above sea level. And, no, she has not taken any altitude sickness medication with her. In fact, she didn't even know such a thing existed. After a treacherous journey through mud, rain and snow up to a mountainside shelter with her less than personable guides, one of whom offers only an exasperated tranquillo whenever Crosley expresses concern, she begins to feel the real effects of the journey. She has chills, a fever, dizziness, nausea, poor breathing, rapid heartbeat and, oh yeah, she just so happens to be on her period.
"I start to wonder about the weight of inexperience. How much of this is ignorance and how much of this is difficulty? It feels like guessing beans in a jar.
Let's just the say the early morning journey up the mountain does not turn out as planned. And it doesn't much matter whether inexperience, ignorance or difficulty is at play here. Though it's probably a little bit of all three. At this point I almost start to get the impression that Crosley would really rather not be sharing her short relationship with Quito and Mount Cotopaxi at all ... this story is so, well, embarrassing that it seems gleaned from the pages of a journal where she keeps all of the stories she won't put into print. Still, she wakes the the morning after deciding not to climb further and finds herself awed by the scenery, fleetingly wishing she would have kept going.
"I know that one day I will be relieved that I had not seen a photograph of Cotopaxi prior to being located on it. Because if I had, I would never have come. I will try to remember but ultimately forget the mental horse blinders that come with feeling as sick as I feel or as sick as I'm about to feel. I'll just think: Here is something I did."
And that, really, is what I took from Crosley's treacherous tale: that something done, however disastrously it turns out, is always better than something undone but wondered about. "So, NOT the fact that travel, even for the most confident of people, can be rife with sickness, loneliness and utter disaster and that it's better, always, just to stay home?" you might be asking. And believe me, that is 100 percent my first instinct where anything adventurous is concerned.
But there is something supremely comforting about knowing that even people with 10 times the travel confidence I have (so much so that they might not feel the need to study every single possible thing about the place they're going and how to get there, ad infinitum) can end up feeling totally lost. Because if a well-traveled person could have an unexpectedly bad trip, couldn't a not well-traveled person have an unexpectedly great trip? I guess it just takes one step up the mountain for me to find out.