When I was growing up, most of our summer vacations involved a two-day drive—from Huntington, Best Virginia to Wytheville, Virginia to North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina—a week in the ocean-front Hartford C Motor Inn, then two days to travel back home. Yep. Two days each way. Don’t laugh. My dad was that driver.
The summer after my fourth-grade year, though, we did something different for vacation, something amazing. My family traveled by train to Flagstaff, Arizona to visit my legally-blind physics professor uncle—Wirt Cassius Ward—and our Aunt Virginia. Decades later, I learned why we rode the train.
My parents suffered from aviophobia: fear of flying.
I took the MegaBus partly because the thought of driving in or around New York City made me anxious. I am my father’s daughter, after all. But really, I rode the bus because in order to return to West Virginia from New York, I would have had to traverse multiple frightfully narrow and heavily-trafficked bridges. Which I can’t do.
Because I suffer from gephyrophobia: fear of bridges.
Oddly, there’s no problem when I’m a passenger, but ask me to drive over a perilously high, seemingly decrepit, and/or unusually skinny bridge, and I experience heart palpitations, muscle rigidity, and sudden perspiration.
For grad school residencies in South Carolina, I rerouted my trips, adding 30 minutes each way, in order to avoid West Virginia’s New River Gorge Bridge—the world’s fourth longest, single-span arch bridge. The fact that it is 876 feet off the ground terrifies me.
Some may think it inconvenient to perform travel gymnastics due to certain fears but,
I recently learned “maladaptive behavior” can lead to experiences more enjoyable than avoided ones.
Our train trip to Arizona, one of my favorite family memories, provides a great example. I can still hear the deafening clatter, feel the bone-jarring shimmy, as my three older brothers and I crowded onto the connection platforms between cars. Again and again, we jumped back and forth, each leap a small victory.
We played cards for hours and ate sandwiches snugly wrapped in wax paper from the dining car.
All four of us kids tried and failed to hold our breath over the giant pan of peanut butter fudge that was the Mississippi River that summer.
Our trip out west was a grand journey, way better than shoe-horning the six of us plus our grandmother “Nan” into an unairconditioned Plymouth bound for Myrtle Beach, my mom puffing her Benson and Hedges cigarettes all the while.
To me, riding the Megabus, though less glamorous than Amtrak, was also an exciting adventure.
My fare was a mere $23, and for two bucks more, I sat at a table with dual cup-holders—one for my gas-station cappuccino and one for my water bottle—and since Megabus Frank was driving, I was free to nap, read, and text family and friends.
I also got a little writing done. My favorite line being,
“As we draw close to Happy Valley, I behold a Jerry Sandusky sky—gray and striped.”
Lately I’ve been thinking about my various fears, thinking I need to “snap out of it” or “suck it up.” Desensitization counseling might help, or hypnosis. This kind of thinking, however, assumes something’s wrong with me, that my fear is a flaw.
What if God created me with quirks on purpose—fear of heights and certain bridges, a slightly claustrophobic bent at times, a brain that functions like a ping-pong table—right after he gave me blue-green eyes, curly hair, and a high metabolism?
Maybe our individual fears, as well as our looks and special skills, are what make each of us interesting and unique.
Perhaps I’m not a failure because I do some things differently than everyone else. Maybe I’m a success because I adapt.