Like a lot of travel bloggers, I tend to preach that travelling is a lot safer than many people think. Unless you’re exploring a war zone (in which case, different rules obviously apply), travelling probably isn’t much more dangerous than staying at home.
But life is life, and there are always going to be moments that give you a scare, wherever you are in the world. After all, we’re all just mortal humans. And what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger – or at least makes for a good story over a cuppa once you get back home.
On my 3 week road trip of Western America, I had a few close shaves. Things that threw me bang smack into the present moment, the way that only sudden and unexpected danger can do. Moments where I was brought face to face with the full possibilities of nature and how huge it is compared to how tiny we are.
And you know what? I never felt so alive.
1 // IN A FLASH FLOOD
Just hours after collecting our hire car in the dry desert heat of Las Vegas, it was pouring down.
We were driving through Arizona on long, flat roads, between jagged rocks and wide open plains. The roads were slippy with water, and you could see the raindrops bouncing off the tarmac. To the sides, dry gullies became rushing creeks within minutes. The flat spaces were awash with muddy water. What had been arid ground was suddenly a water-world. It was terrifying to think how quickly a landscape like that can change.
At first, I wasn’t too concerned about it. After all, I drive in the rain all the time at home – one of the downsides to living in northern England!
Then came the noise. A harsh, grating, mechanical alarm call flooded the car.
For a second we couldn’t work out where it was coming from. Was something wrong with the car itself? It would be just our luck if we managed to break it less than one day into our trip.
But no, it was a warning on my friend’s phone: ‘DANGER: you are in a flash flood zone. SEEK HIGH GROUND IMMEDIATELY’
To me, ‘flash flood’ conjures up a certain image. It’s a torrent of water gushing through a canyon, ripping up trees, sweeping away people and obliterating everything in its path. For some reason, I’d never really considered the possibility that it might happen somewhere as ordinary as a road. But of course, ground that’s been baked hard by intense heat and sunlight isn’t going to be very absorbent. And standing water on a road can be just as dangerous as a torrent.
The creeks at the roadside were gushing more fiercely now. The road was a dull metallic grey with all the standing water. Our little car’s windscreen wipers were going full tilt and still it was hard to see out. Like in a disaster movie, the sky turned black and menacing. Everything went dark, broken only by the stark flashes of lightning on the horizon. We drove through the rain in hushed awe.
Luckily, we didn’t have to worry about where to find high ground, as the road naturally started to climb. We left the flash flood zone behind, although we ended up following the storm all the way to Flagstaff.
Needless to say, we decided to leave our hike along the Canyon rim until the following morning.
2 // STRUCK BY LIGHTNING
I was lucky. During a 5 week trip to America, I only saw rain twice. It just so happened that both of those were desert monsoon storms, which means that they rolled in fast and struck violently.
The day after our flash flood experience, Arizona gave us another spectacular storm.
We’d arrived in Lake Havasu City mid-afternoon, after a Grand Canyon sunrise hike and a 3 hour drive back across the (now much drier) desert. To top that, it was 107 degrees Farenheit (about 41 Celsius). We couldn’t wait to get into the shimmering blue lake to cool off.
The first ten minutes or so in the water were idyllic. With our clothes left in a shady patch under a palm tree on the beach, we got down to our swimsuits and waded out.
The lake itself was flat as a mirror. Around the other side, rocky hills rose up to a forget-me-not blue sky. The water was the perfect temperature, warmed just enough by the sun that it didn’t feel cold compared to the air around us, but also cool enough that it took away some of our excessive desert heat.
We swam. We had a water fight. We sat in the water chatting and watching the boats leaving from the jetty across the beach. Nothing could spoil our fun.
Nothing, that is, except the deep purple clouds rolling over the edge of the lake like a bruise.
Suddenly, the air wasn’t just hot – it was also thick and stuffy. The heat felt like a pillow pressed against my face, and the lake was suddenly darker and colder. There was a storm brewing.
At this point, I’d like to point out that I consider myself a fairly sensible traveller. I don’t seek out dangerous situations, and if I find myself in any kind of peril, I hurry out of it as quickly as possible. So, obviously, when we saw the storm beginning, we got out of the lake. (Lightning + big body of water = bad idea.)
We dried off. We got dressed. We went to grab dinner at Denny’s and watch the storm play out from behind a window.
By the time we’d finished eating, the storm seemed to have passed, and we were left with water-covered surfaces shining like mirrors, reflecting the strange pink-and-purple light of the sunset trying to push through a layer of cloud.
It was such a strange and beautiful light, that on the way home, I got out of the car to take a photo. This photo:
The rain had gone, the air felt cleaner and fresher. Everything looked eerily beautiful. I ran out into the middle of this deserted car park, trying to get closer to the view for a better shot.
That was when the lightning started again.
Here’s a little a something to remember about storms: they have eyes. In other words: big dramatic dangerous storm, then quiet where it looks as if it’s safe to be outside again, and then more big dramatic dangerous storm.
And there I was standing in the middle of a huge empty parking lot, holding my camera in the air, with no buildings or upright structures anywhere near me. In other words, I was a lightning rod waiting to be struck.
So I ran. I ran back to the car as fast as my legs would carry me (which isn’t very fast). And all the time I was running, I could see the brief illuminations from the lightning flashes behind me, and hear the thunder rumbling ever closer.
Obviously I made it, or I wouldn’t be writing this now, but I learned a couple of things about myself in that moment:
1 / I am definitely not a stormchaser.
2 / If I’m ever being chased by a wild animal, I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to outrun it.
3 / I need to do more exercise!
3 // IN A FOREST FIRE
My third near-miss came not from water but from another element: fire.
We’d seen the smoke from a different forest fire a few days before, and it hadn’t really bothered us. The actual blaze was nowhere near the road, and all the other tourists and locals along the Big Sur seemed to be going about their business as normal.
Then, as we headed north from San Francisco, we saw our second forest fire beginning to appear.
As always, it was the smoke we saw first, billowing up in great yellow clouds to the north. Again, we didn’t think much about it. We assumed this would be like the first forest fire.
It wasn’t until we got closer that we realised it was right ahead of us. Just above us to our right, we could make out a small plane flying through the smoke cloud, and as we rounded the corner, it dropped its cargo of red fire-retardant on a group of sequoias right at the side of the road.
Suddenly, there were fire-fighters everywhere, their clothes and faces smeared black with soot, sirens blaring and lights flashing. Smoke billowed across the road as the trees hardly a meter away from us smouldered and burned.
It was like driving through a scene from a film set, or living inside a news report. I’d never been so close to such a destructive natural force. Helicopters whirred overhead carrying enormous pouches of water, but when they dropped it on the fire, it looked like barely more than a raindrop.
We came out the other side, pushing north away from the fire as quickly as the speed limit would allow, and with huge appreciation for all the fire-fighters striving to contain the fire, even if they couldn’t control it.
Apologies to my mum & dad for this post. Probably not the kind of reassuring tales that parents want to hear from their daughter! But at least I made through all the natural disasters, and came home able to tell them all about it.
Have you ever had any frighteningly near-misses on your travels? I’d love to hear about it – would be good to know I’m not the only one!