Managing fear/panic

My recent drive from Nanaimo, BC to Fresno, California and back home again — over three days — required a lot of night driving. I haven’t had reason to drive at night over the last few years, let alone drive in drizzle, and sometimes sleet, alongside semi-trucks on curvy, mountainous interstate highways.

I think anyone would be a little scared. How could you not be? The potential for disaster is huge, and with my history as a journalist I’ve seen plenty of deaths caused by a miscalculation of road conditions. The most likely cause of a crash on my trip would have been me taking a corner too fast, hydroplaning or hitting black ice. Then there are other drivers who may be drunk or stupid or inattentive. Or my death could fall in the category of “wrong place at the wrong time” with the rain causing a rockfall onto the highway.

I’m a realist. Bad things can happen to good people. But in the face of all that risk, I’m going to focus on making second-by-second decisions to get me home. It requires constant focus, and I had to fall back on my meditation teachings of dropping a thought, NOW. My mind tends to imagine catastrophes and I have to quash those images whenever they come up. It takes constant vigilance.

I spend most of my mental energy trying to stay present and ignoring unhelpful thoughts. I scan for new radio stations that aren’t Christian, political rhetoric, Spanish speaking or hard rock. If I find soft rock I have to endure five minutes of commercials, so I turn down the volume during those breaks.

The worst stretch of Interstate 5 is between Roseburg, Oregon and Shasta-Trinity National Forest in Northern California, location of the volcano Mount Shasta. This impressive mountain reaches a height of 14,179 ft, and is the second-highest volcano in the Cascade Range (with Mt. Rainier being higher).

From the time I head south across this section on Sunday night and north again on Monday night/Tuesday morning, a blanket of snow fell. The road was clear, however. Thank God. But it did bring up the possibility of black ice on the road.

The interstate speed limit of 65-70 mph is higher than I’m used to. My speedometer has kilometres-per-hour in the large, outside curve of the gauge and miles-per-hour in smaller type on the inside of the curve. I soon figured that 110 kph was about right, although at times I would go up to 120 kph. It felt fast, but I know safety generally requires drivers to keep up with the pace of traffic.

Driving curves at night and in the drizzle on an unfamiliar road and alongside large trucks is unnerving. I assessed the risks and realized that I didn’t need to feel rushed. There was rarely anyone bearing down on me. The only time I felt a need to accelerate was to get by the side-wash of large trucks. Once I got ahead of them, I slowed to their speed. As I say, I’m unfamiliar with the road. Night-driving means I can’t see how sharp a curve will be, so it’s hard to gauge what speed to enter the curve.

I generally resist braking in these conditions because there’s a parental chiding in my head that I’d be showing the drivers behind that I’m hesitating. It’s weakness. But that’s really bullshit, and I take to tapping the breaks at the entrance to many corners. Better too slow than too fast.

Occasionally I do feel a flash of panic when I realize I am driving a little too fast for a sharp curve. The roads don’t feel like they’re engineered for the current speed limits, and it seems like centrifugal forces push the car toward the outside barrier. So these instances prompt me to moderate my speed for other corners.

I’m frustrated that I can’t see ahead of me because of darkness, drizzle and road spray of other vehicles. I realize I’ve shortened my gaze to what I can see with certainty. So I look farther ahead, to the farthest reach of the headlights and find I drive more confidently. Traffic at the hours I’m driving tends to bunch up. I realize during those times I’m on my own, I can use my high beams. That helps to settle me a lot. Even if the road is straight, it feels safer to see farther down the road.

Nothing bad happens. I’m able to navigate the mountain roads without skidding or have any close calls. And I’m grateful for the opportunity to address those physical and mental obstacles that cause anxiety.

My new dog Pete and I got home safely.

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