OUTDOORS TRAVEL

On Fear: The Time I Almost Died in Idaho

One of my worst fears when camping is unexpected company showing up when I’m in the woods, at night, by myself with no phone service. I’m way more afraid of other people than I am of animals. I’m afraid of pretty much everything you would expect me to be afraid of in a situation where I’m alone in the woods… and that fear is not only natural, but important.

I’ve been in lots of less-than-ideal situations when traveling. I’ve gotten the flu in the middle of the jungle, gotten off at wrong bus stops in the middle of nowhere, been on sketchy buses and motorbikes that looked like they were put together with paper clips. I’ve gotten myself into messy relationships and fights outside of bars in Rome (ok, that was once). I’ve had food poisoning more times than I can remember and I’ve probably, at some point, eaten dog. You get the idea. I do not recommend that you try to do any of that.

Of all of my travel experiences, the ones that have invoked fear are not few and far between. Taking taxis by myself at dawn, waiting alone in empty bus stations, walking to bars alone, and even walking by myself in broad daylight in some places has scared the shit out of me. But I’ve never been as downright afraid as I was on this one particular night in Idaho.


This past fall, I went on a big solo road trip around the western US, and I was passing through Idaho on my way back to Colorado. I had heard there were some pretty epic hot springs in Idaho, so I googled a few and planned to stop by… only I realized that it would be dark by the time I got there.

I had been sleeping in my converted car for the past six weeks and was pretty comfortable with the set-up, and with finding camping last minute. I figured there would be somewhere to camp. I was wrong. There was nowhere. It was early November, and all the campgrounds I could find were blocked off for winter.

I though to myself, “I’ve been doing this whole sleep-in-the-car thing for six weeks. I can pull over and sleep on the side of the road, no problem. People do it all the time!”

So it was 9pm, and I pulled over. I was on this woodsy windy road– not quite a highway but not a backroad either. I had avoided doing this so far on the trip, always sleeping in campgrounds, rest stops, or Wal-marts (yup). For some reason, side-of-the-road naps just freak me out, and there I was on this pull-off in some random-ass woods in Idaho getting my bed all set up for the night as my heart proceeded to beat so hard it was painful.

It was a cold, wet and misty night. Lots of horror-movie style fog. No stars, no moon, just the lights from the occasional car.

I got my curtains set up, got into bed, and locked myself in. I closed my eyes and told myself to fall asleep.

Obviously, I couldn’t. I just kept seeing bits of light creep in from passing cars, hearing them as they sped by. And I couldn’t stop thinking about how I didn’t have phone service, and how literally at any moment some creep could pull over right next to me.

And then, that’s what happened.

I peeked out of my back window to find a guy parked right behind me. He got out of his truck wearing a headlamp, and began fumbling around with something in his backseat.

My brain said, “He’s probably just getting something out of his car.”

My gut responded, “He’s going to kill you.”

All I could think was: It’s happening. My worst fear. Is. Happening.

From the inside of my car, I pulled off all the curtains I could grab, tried to flip back the hinge on my platform bed, and squeezed myself into the front seat. If you’ve ever seen my set-up in person, you know this would be logistically difficult for anyone over four feet tall. I started my car and, in the process, set off the alarm. Really smooth, Erin.

I put the seat back and peeled out of there, heart pounding, hands shaking. And because I was so curious, and also now moving at 50mph, I turned around to see what the truck man was actually doing.

When I drove by him from the comfort of my moving vehicle, I saw that he was just a normal guy with a headlamp and a towel, walking on the side of the road to the trailhead that I had parked across from. The trailhead to a hot spring.

womp womp.

womp womp.


At this point, I let out a sigh of relief that this guy was apparently not trying to kill me. But I was still on this huge adrenaline high, and so, goodbye hot spring, see you never.

I drove for two hours until I felt okay again. I pulled into a rest stop and parked in between camper trailers, which I always imagine are full of really nice old people. I stayed in bed until noon the next day.

As silly as the actual situation was, and as much as I laughed at myself when it was over, feeling like I was running for my life in a sense really knocked the wind out of me. When I did finally hit the road again the next day, it was with great regard and a sense of respect for my own intuition.

This is not about how unsafe my decisions may or may not have been. This is about trusting your gut. This is about knowing when to listen to fear, when it is very real. This is about following your intuition even though your brain might be telling you to quiet it.

I’ve probably been way closer to death crossing the street than parked on the side of that road in Idaho. I didn’t “almost die,” like the title of this piece suggests. But fear spoke to me and suggested that as a real possibility. And I listened to it.

Whenever fear speaks to you, listen to it. Identify if the fear is rational– what kind of fear is it? Good Fear is the voice that tells you something is right or it isn’t. It alerts you to danger, wants to protect you, and gives you superhuman strength when you really need it. Bad Fear is the voice that tells you to not take risks in your life, relationships, and career. It’s always asking you “what if something bad happens?” Bad Fear sucks and should be told to get out ASAP.

The hot spring would have been nice– I probably would have been fine that night. But I’m glad I listened to fear. Fear has an important place in life, and I’m thankful for the reminder.

Photos by Nate Luebbe & Austin Presas

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8 Comments

  • Reply
    Garrett
    January 5, 2016 at 6:35 pm

    Good job! My sister did tons of traveling acroS the world and I think women like ya’ll are very brave! I do a lot of traveling on my own too, but it is a much different story for men traveling alone ! Nice story, glad you’re okay!

    • Erin Sullivan
      Reply
      Erin Sullivan
      January 12, 2016 at 9:20 pm

      Thanks Garrett! It’s true we have to think about more than guys do. But kudos to you too for traveling alone! :)

  • Reply
    Michele Dillon
    January 5, 2016 at 6:35 pm

    Yay! Another blog! I love your writing style and it’s always a fun story and/or good information. I’m glad to know that those that camp alone aren’t just completely fearless like I imagined them to me. One of my goals this year is to camp solo because I want the survival experience. So good advice, listen to your gut.
    I actually had a similar type of guy gear when I was hiking alone on this new trail that seemed desolate and I had no phone service. I eventually turned around after 3 miles because it was knawing at me. I felt really stupid about it for weeks. Then just a few days ago I found out that that specific trail is a campground for a big group of homeless people. Not to say that homeless people are all dangerous but they can be in certain situations! So I’m glad I listened to my gut.

    • Erin Sullivan
      Reply
      Erin Sullivan
      January 12, 2016 at 9:21 pm

      Thank you so much Michele! I think your goal to camp solo this year is totally attainable and an awesome way to challenge yourself. And listening to your gut is SO important– we always need to trust ourselves! Thanks for sharing!

  • Reply
    Sara
    January 5, 2016 at 8:55 pm

    Great post! I was just telling my husband how, as women, we can get scared waaaay more often just doing day to day activities. I live six blocks from core power (the one we went to with FP) and every single time that I walk back form class I get scared. And I’m not even without phone service in the middle of nowhere. I agree that sadly, this is a healthy fear. Although 99% of the times, when I cross the street because I see a creepy guy, it’s probably for nothing, it’s still the right thing to do.

    • Erin Sullivan
      Reply
      Erin Sullivan
      January 12, 2016 at 9:24 pm

      Thanks Sara! I totally understand that– it’s natural to get spooked in that situation! Glad you are trusting yourself.

  • Reply
    Michael
    February 26, 2016 at 8:00 pm

    Situational awareness, keeps us safe. Helps put life in perspective and guides you to making good decisions. I seriously doubt that fear will slow you down.

  • Reply
    Jon
    May 4, 2016 at 10:25 am

    Get yourself a .9 mm. When seconds count, the police are minutes away

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