How a solo adventure in America’s Wild West helped me heal

Utahs ancient, seemingly endless landscapes offer a unique sense of perspective
Utah's ancient, seemingly endless landscapes offer a unique sense of perspective
Alex Allen

Commissioning Editor

After a health scare a decade or so ago knocked my life off course, I was left numb and detached. That is, until I took a chance on a solo adventure through some of America’s most awe-inspiring landscapes – and found an unexpected source of healing.

In my mid-twenties I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. It was serious, the doctor had explained to me in no uncertain terms. It had spread to lymph nodes in my lungs and around my heart, and required an immediate and aggressive course of chemotherapy. My life as I’d known it ended that morning, and the year that followed was a colourless limbo of fear and loneliness. Even after eventually getting the all-clear, the months of intensive chemo, surgeries and blood tests had left me hollowed out, exhausted and unable to properly enjoy the good things I had going on. And there were plenty.

I’d started a dream job as a writer at a big-name travel magazine, moved into a nice flat, and was in the exciting early days of a new relationship. But it was as if I was standing on the outside, looking in on my own life. I could see it, hear it, but couldn’t feel it. Couldn’t taste it. It was a numbness I didn’t know how to shake off. It was around this time that I had the opportunity to travel to the US to write a piece for the magazine on what’s known as the Grand Circle – a road trip through Utah, Arizona and Nevada that hits six national parks as well as Monument Valley.

Utah’s Monument Valley at sunrise

It was an opportunity I’d have been out of my mind to turn down, despite the niggling concerns. For starters, I’d never been abroad on my own before, and here I was going away for 10 days, driving over 1,000 miles through some of the most remote parts of America. Add to that the fact I hadn’t driven in over three years, and never on the right-hand side. Oh, and I’d need to be taking notes as I went so I could actually write something when I got back.

In the end, I was on a flight to Las Vegas before I really had time to get worked up about it. I was in the city for two nights before hitting the road, so had time to tick off some of the big-ticket sights: the Strip; the Elvis impersonator at the shotgun wedding chapel; Caesars Palace casino. Las Vegas is a surreal place to spend time in, and even more so when there’s no one else with you to act as a counterweight of normality. But it was refreshing to be free to wander in a new place, and distracting enough that I didn’t have time for too much introspection.

Roadside Americana in Bluff, Utah

Oddly enough, the opposite was true when it was finally time to hit the road. Driving through the deserts of Nevada, Arizona and Utah, the roads are long, straight and largely traffic-free. The sense of space and distance was unlike anything I could have imagined – to be able to drive for hours without passing a town or notable landmark was both thrilling and slightly unnerving. I had more time to myself than I’d ever had before in my life, but rather than feeling claustrophobic it was liberating. I would set the radio to a local station (usually country music was the only available option), and let my mind go wherever it wanted while cruising from one mind-blowingly beautiful place to the next.

In the national parks themselves I would take self-guided hikes, being careful not to stray too far from the beaten paths. It was winter after all, and generally speaking there were few other visitors. In Arches National Park however, I did bump into some other travellers. They were a group of friends and family from Florida, doing the same route as me but in reverse. After chatting about why I was out there, and realising we were all staying close by in the nearest town of Moab, they invited me to join them at a local brewpub later that evening.

Canyonlands National Park is hauntingly quiet in the wintertime

After having spent the last five days on my own, I’d become accustomed to doing things at my own pace. But I had to admit, it was nice to have plans, and a bunch of friendly faces to share stories with. They gave me some great tips about what was coming up on my next leg of the route, and I did the same for them. We had a laugh about the weirdness of Las Vegas, and how they were going to go looking for Area 51. At the end of the night, we didn’t exchange details, but joked we might see each other back in Vegas at the end of our trips.

Unsurprisingly, we didn’t bump into each other again, although I kept an eye out. I thought about them a few times as I continued on my way. Meeting them had made me realise that, while solo travel was something I’d discovered I liked, the fondest, most vivid memories come from the encounters you have with other people. I was thankful to have had this experience to myself, but I could imagine doing something similar with a small group of strangers – the collective excitement of discovering somewhere new together is a bonding experience.

Mainly though, I was thinking about life back home. Having the time and space away had given me the perspective to really appreciate what I had – supportive family and friends, an exciting career and a relationship I cared deeply about. I felt that slowly, day by day, the fogginess I’d been feeling for months was clearing, my sense of self returning. This trip was something I’d dreamed about as a teenager, and here I was really doing it – and in the process reconnecting with the version of me I thought I’d left behind that morning in the doctor’s office.

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