Reconciling wanderlust with anxiety: Traveling to Yellowstone in a group

Posted November 12, 2015


WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont. — The familiar feelings fastened to my bones and I held my breath as wheels scraped against concrete and ground shifted into air. I prayed that with each exhale, the restlessness, the panic, the thing would descend and dissolve into the night sky and not follow me to Utah. I looked around and saw my classmates all comfortably dispersed across the plane – Vivian was sleeping, Melissa eating a bagel, Sharry staring out the window.

I must have looked normal to them too. Bored, even, except that beyond the perfectly crafted surface, my blood was melting and my heart needed more room in my chest and my bones were shaking at the mere idea of leaving my comfort zone and going to a new place, despite my desire to see it.

There is something to be said about fear. Something about an immediate threat that triggers the typical symptoms – sweat, pulse, fire, fire, fire. There is almost something comforting about it. It’s our body’s evolved shield to danger – the string that allows us to act, to self-preserve, to run.

That is not the case when there is no detectable stimulus present. When that happens, it’s just your body’s war-torn rivalry against itself. You are a prisoner to your thoughts, to the stones of unreasonable horrors tossed at your brain as the same symptoms take flight in your core – sweat, pulse, fire, fire, fire.

I closed my eyes as Miami became but a shadow behind me and let thoughts of golden fields and sparkling waters comfort me. I prayed that they’d be worth the internal onslaught. That they’d put out the fire.

The first things we noticed about Montana were its leaves.

“It actually feels like fall here,” my roommate Melissa said as the sun-painted trees blurred out through the screens of our rental van’s windows. We were about four hours into the trip from Salt Lake City to West Yellowstone; six students evenly divided between three rows of seats, two professors in the front alternating between driving and sleeping.

Luckily, I’d managed to sit in the first couch and away from the window – a place that years of being in a car had taught me was basically a life jacket against panic attacks.

Five hours and 15 bathrooms later, we arrived exhausted yet sated. It was clear that the town we were staying in was built around the park. Lines of quaint, wooden restaurants and shops greeted us in an orderly fashion, like a strip from a cornfield pulled out of its domain.

There were few mainstream businesses except the infrequent McDonald’s, even fewer cars coughing smoke into the street. It was a scene straight out of a Western film, save for the six city kids in leather jackets and skinny jeans waiting to get into a motel.

So this is what silence sounds like, I thought.

Maybe I could like it here.

I stayed up late that night clutching my covers to my chest, going over every possible thing that could happen at the park the next day and simultaneously convincing myself that the chances of a bear breaking through our car window were slim to none, despite the stories I’d heard before coming.

“Okay, but what if you trip off the edge of a cliff?” “Or you get separated from the group with no cell phone service and it’s impossible for you to find each other” “Or what if you can’t fall asleep tonight and subsequently have a panic attack in the middle of the park?”

Somewhere between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. I must have dozed off, because before I knew it, it was morning and it was freezing and we were back in the car heading into the park.

We drove about an hour and watched while houses slowly faded into bushes and bushes faded into mountains. There were flashes of bison and elk breaking through the perimeters, a heavy fog dissipating to reveal strips of water, a sunrise stretching its golden fingers through the surrounding foliage – it was beautiful. The deeper we got into the park, the more our environment was elevated and altered.

For a second, it horrified me. I was so completely out of my element, so separated from the surroundings that nurtured and raised me that I broke out in a sweat despite the 30-degree weather and I started to remove the layers I’d piled on. Just as I was about to abandon my sweater, the breath of the engine seized and the doors were quickly opened and there was that foreign sound I’d just begun to become acquainted with – silence.

My roommate Sharry smiled into the distance.

“We’re here.”

Our plan was simple: explore and write. Each of us had two stories to focus on, a different lens we wanted to use to view the park. Somehow, though, we managed to all agree on the day’s agenda. We saw the park’s sign, which was surrounded by road construction when we got there and I watched as my classmates took selfies next to it.

I hung back and counted the number of trees that could fit one each hill. When the day grew warmer, we drove up to Mammoth Hot Springs and hiked up to watch as water and heat and limestone converged to form color and steam and sound.

Later, in the car on our way to Tower Falls, riding up the mountains as the road tapered over to the side – turning so that you feel like you are about to fall off and disappear into rows and rows of pine trees. Melissa and I would make an exaggerated joke of grabbing on to the seats every time the car leaned over to one side. It was an effortless type of laughter, yet foiled by the tiny pricks weaving their way through the blood and bones beneath it.

We stopped by a family of elk and a herd of buffalo, listened to the sounds of birds ruffling their feathers through the skies and water roaring down mountains at rates we couldn’t even begin to fathom. They were flowing, streaming, powerful forces of nature whose echo could be heard from a mile away.

“I can’t feel my legs,” Melissa said after hiked down the extensive trail to see the lower falls of West Yellowstone. We had not taken into account just how draining the trip would be on the way back up.

“I don’t think I’ll ever be able to move again,” I agreed, wishing there was a way to teleport myself back up the trails without any physical exertion.

She laughed. “Come on, three more seconds and we move again. One, two…”

And ironically, on that trek back up I felt the fire lose its oxygen. I felt calm, unafraid. Like maybe the world wouldn’t shatter beneath my feet with every step I took. Like maybe I would be okay taking more steps.

The next morning, at the Grand Prismatic Spring, we arrived early and were dismayed that the rainbow we expected to see in the water was completely masked by the 8 a.m. fog and thermal steam coming up from the fumaroles and springs into the frigid air.

“Well this sucks,” my classmate Vivian said as we stood in front of the hazy grey clouds that were supposed to hold one of the park’s most beautiful attractions. Her story was intended to be about the spring, but nature didn’t give her much to write about.

“You could write about the lake’s hiking trails, it was my original story but I changed it,” I offered, mildly relieved because the spring was on my potential list of writing topics before she chose it first.

“Thanks, I’ll look into it,” she smiled sincerely, seemingly unaffected by the whole debacle the way I would have been in her situation.

We struggled to maintain our balance on the icy bridge as we left, and it wasn’t until I almost slipped that I was forced to turn around and acknowledge the view behind me. The fog had thinned to reveal a flowing and sparkling river, the kind so breathtaking you have to blink just to make sure your brain isn’t playing tricks on you.

I learned firsthand how nature can alter with every second and that you have to be alert to see it. You have to walk down slippery trails and hold onto railings and breathe and breathe and breathe. I wouldn’t have seen that if I hadn’t turned around – I wouldn’t have seen any of it if I hadn’t choked down my initial gut reaction and gotten on that plane.

After that, at Old Faithful, we watched as crowds of people from all over gathered to watch the water spring up from the cracks of the famous geyser and evaporate into the afternoon sun or fall back to the ground below.

“It’s all a big volcano underneath,” Melissa said, as we waited for the show of steam.

One explosion and it could probably wipe out the whole of us.

That so much beauty could come from so much potential destruction astounded me. The geyser that drew so many people to stop and stare was created by something dangerous, something dark. And yet all they saw was the outside. I understood now. Somehow, oddly enough, I’d felt more connected with this geyser than I had anything else. We both had fire burning beneath the surface, only transparent steam to signify that something boiling ever existed.

I remembered something my abnormal psychology professor at the University of Miami, BreAnne Allen Danzi, had said to me about anxiety.

“Taking the opportunity to travel anyways and not letting that stop you is the best way to fight anxiety. Seizing fun life experiences (even when anxiety-triggering) and not letting anxiety have control over one’s life can actually reduce anxiety over time,” she said.

So you live. Even knowing that at any minute the Yellowstone caldera and its geysers could explode. You go see all of it anyway. And the truth is you’ll have to sit in crowded car rides to get there. You’ll have to brush shoulders with strangers and get on an airplane and fly, fly, fly, into the unknown, into the discoverable – into life. Because as much as I was afraid of it, as much as I body quivered at the mere thought of trading in my everyday routine for an adventure, it also fed off of it.

Connecting with nature, feeling the wind wrap its fingers around you and holding on to all faith when the world around you starts to shake and you lose your footing, that’s life. Maybe being afraid on the way there is a part of life, too.
Even dangerous things can be beautiful.

Tips for Coping with Anxiety and Travel

  • Get enough sleep, especially when traveling
  • Limit caffeine intake
  • Practice breathing and mindfulness
  • Exercise if you can
  • Count to 10 slowly
  • Distract yourself with anything
  • Maintain a healthy and well-balanced diet