A snake slithering out there, lightning on the horizon, a strange ticking sound every 17 seconds in the middle of nowhere…the art and science of managing Worry Clouds.
This is an unscholarly treatise on the tricks our minds play on us—or vice versa. In fact that very distinction is such a mind boggler that one can stop trying to identify any particular situation as one or the other. But have no fear. This game does not extend beyond the confines of the inner mind. So, you, the reader, are exempt. Just to show that I really mean it, I shall henceforth refer to my own mind when it comes to playing these games.
There is this region in my mind that I’ve been trying to isolate and quarantine for several years. I tend to call this region the Worry Vacuum. But this is wishful thinking as it very rarely stays a vacuum. It tends to get occupied by anxiety-provoking thoughts. The technical term that I assign to these thoughts is Worry Clouds. Most of these are a result of what is in store for me in my immediate future, but there are exceptions when the occupant is not necessarily related to a future event but a more abstract entity unrelated to the passage of time.
I have tried to interfere with the lodging and dislodging of these mostly unwelcome guests in my Worry Vacuum and have met with occasional success. However, the most common occupants are those that have the ability to force their way in, leaving me a helpless spectator. Fierce competition arises from rival occupants and a very absorbing game of occupation and evacuation takes place frequently. The dislodging of a particlarly irksome occupant—either by conscious effort on my part or through the machinations of a rival occupant—usually brings on a sense of euphoria—like the kind when one has successfully balanced a particularly elusive financial sheet or successfully killed a task on a Windows computer—but that sense does not last long. The Worry Vacuum does not like to stay that way and seeks lodgers avidly and succeeds easily.
Time to step down from the lofty heights of abstraction and let the rubber hit the road. I use that cliche deliberately as the anecdote I am about to narrate does involve that duo. There is this remote park in the US state of Utah that I’ve been fascinated with ever since my first visit there some years ago. Two rivers merge into one with the dominant one retaining its identity and flowing on further, pulled down by gravity and impeded by dams en route to its eventual Pacific Ocean destination. The passage of time and the effects of weathering on the surrounding rocks have left behind a wonderland of amazing vistas. The land bounded by the two rivers is the most visited part of the park, but the area nearest the river edge—called the White Rim—is only accessible to four-wheel-drive vehicles.
Earlier this week, a fellow traveller and I found ourselves descending into the canyon in a rented 4×4 for the 100-mile loop drive that skirts the Rim. Recent torrential rains had rendered sections of the road impassable but we heard on our arrival that repair work had been completed. But we were warned that several sections had caused considerable difficulty to drivers with far more off-road experience than us and so decided to do the drive for only the first 40 miles—considered relatively easier than the remainder—and return the same way.
We managed to acquire a backcountry camping permit at one of the designated sites so that we could spend the night in the wild and return the next day rather than attempt the whole thing in a single day. Within minutes of entering the drive, we encountered a park ranger who gave us a first hand account of what lay in store for us. He looked at our vehicle and found the tires wanting but decided that the car seemed otherwise capable, except for a brief stretch that would challenge us. He gave us an approximate idea of its location and told us that we would know it when we saw it.
We managed the 40-mile stretch in about six hours—stopping several times to admire the views of the Colorado river over the edge and the bizarre rock formations that surrounded us. For the most part, we stayed with two-wheel drive but there were stretches where the vehicle got stuck and required the engagement of four-wheel drive to extricate the vehicle out of the rut.
There was one particularly rough stretch where the path going up an incline had been completely washed away by the recent rains, leaving the underlying rocks exposed. We had learnt to deal with the rhythms of the rubber and unpaved earth, but this stretch did give us some pause. The ranger, we had no doubt, was referring to this very incline. We engaged four-wheel drive and managed to get the vehicle up the incline. The hardest part was to push the gas pedal down despite the severe lurching of the vehicle and being completely unsighted as one could only see up through the windshield. On cresting the incline, we heaved a sigh of relief that drowned out the smell of burning rubber. But we knew that the real challenge would be during our return trip.
We were the only occupants of our backcountry campsite—there were only two designated slots—and nearest campsites were 10 miles away in either direction. We could not recall when we had been that far from other humans. We chose not to install the rain-protecting fly over the tent despite lightning on the horizon. It had been a warm day and we needed a cool tent to sleep in. Moreover, one of the great pleasures of spending a night in the wilderness is to enjoy the dark night sky and there is no better way to do it than to lie flat on one’s back and soak in the black hemisphere with the innumerable holes that let the light in. Our near-transparent tent roof afforded us this luxury.
The first occupant of my Worry Vacuum was the threat of rain. Did we want to risk being woken up by a lightning storm in the middle of the night and then rush to install the fly cover or do we play it safe and install it right away and give up the cool night sky? We opted for the transparent roof and I worked on trying to eject the Rain Threat occupant out of my mind hollow through mental exercises.
But as I headed towards our tent, I heard a rustling noise—a snake was curling its way in the twilight. We are no snake identification experts, but we looked at the tail and convinced ourselves that this one had rattles. It was nowhere near as large as an adult. We watched it carefully from a distance as it eventually crawled away from our tent and car. As darkness enveloped us, it disappeared. The lightning continued to strike at the horizon but the Rain Threat occupant had vacated the Worry Vacuum without any notice or payment of arrears.
How safe is it for us to get into the tent? Haven’t we spent nights at camp in similar desert conditions where such creatures are active at night? Haven’t we heard bears growling outside our tents on many occasions? Why should we assume that the probability of an encounter is decreased just because we’ve had a recent encounter? But none of these mental exercises could succeed in evacuating this current occupant.
Why not just sleep in the car? So we got into the rental vehicle to see how far the seats would recline and were not reassured. But isn’t this better than coach class on one of those many aircraft that we could see criss-crossing the continent right above us? Is that the Milky Way right above us? Yes, but let’s first deal with the ground situation. Since we cannot leave the engine running, we have to pull down the windows partially to get some circulation. But won’t that leave us vulnerable to malevolent critters? Can they crawl up the sides of vehicles and enter through open windows? No, this is not going to work at all.
So we got back into the tent and I tried hard to dislodge the newest occupant of the Worry Vacuum (WV from now on) with something else. Being woken up wet and shivering in a violent thunderstorm should surely be very unpleasant? Let’s dwell on that and see if one can entice the Rain Threat occupant back in. A tentative knock on the door of the WV revealed the presence of another welcome intruder and potential lodger. Our vehicle is surely going to get stuck on that incline on our way back tomorrow? Even if we extricate ourselves, it’s certainly going to cause some damage and the rental agency is going to give us a hard time about it? These are legitimately unpleasant outcomes to dwell on, right?
But, what is that ticking noise? That does not sound like an insect! And keeps repeating. Let’s time it…every 17 seconds. That is not a sound of nature. It can only come from…wait a minute, the car! Is there some kind of leak? Did we hit a rock or something while bouncing up and down that rough terrain? No, that sounds like drops falling on metal. Leaking drops falling on the ground don’t make that metallic noise. Have we left something on and are being warned about it? Modern cars are computers on wheels and that is not always a good thing. Is this one of those pesky Task Manager-type things that cannot be killed? Is the battery going to drain overnight because of a software bug? Will the car start tomorrow morning? Do the park rangers cover the drive every day?
I try and calm my nerves listening to David Attenborough on my MP3 player talk about three-toed sloths and the giant flower of Sumatra. The rattles on the flower drove over all the four wheels of the three-toed sloth roving wild over the red plateau drenched in the battery fluid pouring forth from the thunder under the 100-mile long Milky Way with the park rangers jeeping back and forth for eternity and they all came in the morning to pay their rent for occupying the WV.
I wake up to the bright morning sunlight with the discovery that the one sure antidote to all Worry Clouds is the arrival of a new solar disk over the horizon. But you cannot force it up with your mental exercises. You have to wait for it or fall asleep.