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  • Alex Hu

Risk, ignorance, and meaning: The lessons we learn from peril

What is life without risk? How should we make decisions that expose us to new experiences? How should we navigate challenges that we’ve never faced before?

PART 1: To Boston

On November 12th, I drove to Boston on a week-long trip to visit friends and go to concerts. On November 19th, I drove back to Toronto. This blog post details the adventure which blossomed and the lessons upon which I stumbled.

“The biggest risk is not taking any risk.” - Mark Zuckerberg

While quoting Mark Zuckerberg in an era where Facebook seems like a fever dream may seem rash, his sentiment remains timeless. To truly experience life is to risk what we already possess to continue making forward progress.

After I dropped out, I set my mind on building startups. By November, I had worked from home almost every day for six months. I was hungry for a new adventure radically out of my comfort zone.

On the morning of the drive to Boston, I was giddy on my feet. After breezing down the highway to Niagara, the clouds overhead turned from foggy to gloomy as I crossed the border - seemingly foreshadowing the journey ahead.

I had never driven in the US before. Being accustomed to wide and well-maintained Canadian highways, I was immediately introduced to uneven NY side roads. Nevertheless, I remained optimistic.

3 hours into my journey (1 hour into the US), I stopped at a coffee shop in Rochester. When I came back to my car, the dying light had disappeared. A voice in my head started asking if it was safe to leave the city.

Darkness engulfed the plains as I continued deeper into the US countryside. A combination of Waze’s traffic-avoidance algorithm and making a few wrong turns had left me on a single-lane road for 150 km, snaking through small towns and distant farms.

My isolation was fully realized when I lost cell service and music streaming. The lack of streetlights became apparent as the road ahead and mirrors only showed darkness. Farmhouses on the side of the road set the scenes for horror movies, with no cars on their driveways despite dim lights deep within.

As the car’s range dwindled to 50 km, I found a lone gas station with 2 pumps. I was slightly panicking since the remaining fuel would not last the night if I slept in the car. The gas station did not have the required octane-rating fuel, but I had no choice.

Another half hour later, the farm roads ended and the twisting, turning mountain roads began. What a way to be thrown from the frying pan into the fire.

If arrow-straight rural roads lulled me to bed, the mountain roads threw a chilling bucket of water onto my face. I went from dreading the drag strip to cherishing any moment during which I was not turning. From sharp, twisting corners to blind dips and crests, I had become acutely aware that any lapse in concentration could mean tragedy. Despite it being only 8 pm, my mind was drifting and my motor skills were slackening.

After several close calls with oncoming cars, I stopped at the side of the road and peered over. My flashlight illuminated the jarring cliff face, with the bottom engulfed in shadow. I had lost cell service again, and Waze struggled to find my location. The seclusion grew even more apparent when I turned off the engine and only the howling of the wind remained.

Once again, the only path was forward. Keeping in mind that any wrong move could be catastrophic, I calmed my mind until the oncoming lines and reflective markings in the road settled me into tunnel vision. I have no idea how long I slithered through those hills, but when I finally saw a bar of signal and heard music resume, I almost cried tears of joy. I found the main road and welcomed with open arms the first red light I had seen for what seemed an eternity.

While I was electronically reconnected with civilization, my mind was not. Blasting music and friends’ voices kept me awake for the next few hours. Nevertheless, I was ready to give up until I saw the words “Boston 120 miles”. The thoughts of a warm shower and clean bed provided fiery hope that made the last leg fly by.

Throughout the drive, the grooves on the side of the road prevented me from wandering off - they were the heroes of the night. I had a long week ahead, and the drive was supposed to be easy and relaxing. The sunrise prompted a thought - I could have died last night.

Strangely, that thought consumed my daydreams for the next few days. I felt incredible gratitude towards my car, coffee, roadside grooves, and even Waze and wifi providers. The fact that I safely traversed a thousand kilometres in 1 day, having made a plethora of poor decisions, is astounding.

While I was glad I made the trip, I promised myself I would not let myself make the same mistakes. I had a draining yet rewarding adventure navigating US roads. That was enough for me.

Oh, if I knew how soon it would be until I was proven wrong…

PART 2: Interlude

I wanted to reduce costs as much as possible with everything in Boston being overpriced, so I turned to Airbnb. The best option I could find was a $70/night room in an attic, with a shared bathroom for 4 guests. As it was a far cozier and cheaper option than staying in a car or unkempt motel room, I thoroughly enjoyed my stay.

PART 3: The Journey Home

After a week, it was time to return to Canada. Despite the perils I faced on the outbound trip, I was now armed with a risk deterrent - I now had a passenger in the form of a friend visiting Canada.

We set off 6 hours late at 3 pm. Then we saw a snowstorm hitting the Buffalo-Niagara region (an area we had to travel through to cross the border into Canada). News reports were using words like “unprecedented,” “state emergency,” and “DO NOT TRAVEL.” I was directly warned and strongly recommended to avoid driving in the snow at any cost.

Oh well, let us be guided by the youthful belief that we are invincible.

In many respects, the trip started smoothly. After stopping for some Chick-fil-A (wow, is it delicious), we hit the highways and smoothly ran for ~5 hours.

Well…it was smooth, apart from receiving my first-ever speeding ticket. In my desperation to avoid the snowstorm, I found myself miscalculating miles → kilometres and the next thing I knew, a set of flashing lights was pulling up in my mirrors.

My hands grew cold and my stomach churned. Despite my disdain for rules, they should be respected. It was a severe mistake to overlook something as trivial as speed.

I set off again after collecting my bearings. I told myself that this speeding ticket signalled that I was acting rashly and must make rational decisions.

Then came the snowstorm.

At first, the fluffy snow resting like a blanket on the ground provided a false sense of safety. As we drove into a town, we entered a winter wonderland.

The illusion soon dissipated. The moment we exited the town, the car started sliding. At the next intersection, I completely missed my braking point and slid into the middle of the road.

Thankfully, the intersection was empty. However, it was also apparent that I had almost no control over the car. As I realized that, my car started sliding towards the right into vehicles parked on the side of the road. Even on full left steering lock, we only just avoided crashing.

New rule. We only travel half the speed limit.

As I turned onto another one-lane side road (thanks, Waze), I could no longer see any road markings and could hardly feel the road grooves which had saved me so many times before.

In addition, I was now falling to sleep deprivation. I had driven for 9 hours and desperately needed a break.

That drowsiness almost proved fatal. A touch of lazy throttle input and the next thing I knew, the car was sliding to the right. Immediate full left lock and emergency brakes were powerless - we were going into the ditch no matter what I did.

You know that moment when you realize everything is going to shit, and you become calm in your acceptance that fact?

By instinct, I turned the car into the slide. The car painfully rolled into the base of the ditch and stayed there. I felt the car’s floor slam into the ground.

Well, shit.

My heart sank to the Earth’s core. I thought we were completely done. I sat there for several seconds for what seemed like an eternity contemplating our next steps. We were in roughly 2 feet of snow in a farmer’s field, with no cars in sight. I was unsure if my car was damaged, but it’s impossible to drive out of a ditch in that weather...right?

I had to try. I stepped on the gas pedal, and the car jolted forward. We waded through the field of snow like an icebreaker parting a glacier, clawing its way toward the farm. I held my breath as the engine sputtered and struggled onto the driveway.

My heart cried in relief. Saying that I felt lucky at that moment is a drastic understatement. I consider myself an atheist, but I swear god had given my car magical wheels. I felt like a movie protagonist 20 minutes in, imbued with plot armour. My car was a marvel that evaded inevitable catastrophe.

I believed these sentiments even more when I stepped outside to check the damage, and there was none.

After further inspection, it turns out the culprit was sludge that had caked over the car’s grooves, turning the tires into ice blocks. From then on, we did not surpass 15 mph until we arrived on salted roads.

After resuming the journey, it wasn’t long before we came across those who were less fortunate. Several kilometres down from where we went off, a stray Honda sedan was buried in the ditch, with its back wheels sticking in the air.

The freezing air felt like knives on my skin as I walked out to the car. A teenager barely 16 years old greeted me outside, and inside I saw the silhouettes of 3 others.

We could barely hear each other over the shrieking wind, but I gathered that his name was J (shortened for privacy). They had lost cell service and could not ask for help. Seeing as I had 2 bars, I asked him if he wanted me to call 911, and he replied, “yes.”

After he had given the emergency responder his information, we exchanged phone numbers and I got back into the car. I was about to set off when I noticed 2 headlights in the mirrors. Thinking help had arrived, I shut off the engine and patiently waited.

I’m not sure if it was instinct or angst, but I kept my eye on the vehicle as it hove into view along the arrow-straight road. Suspicion turned into confirmation as I recognized the plow attached to the front.

I suddenly became aware that I was parked in the middle of the road, and the plow had nowhere to go. Reflexively, I turned on the engine, stomped on the pedal, and veered to the left. 3 seconds later, a gigantic truck blasted past, just missing us.

It’s difficult to describe the anxiety I felt at that moment. Setting off again at 15 mph, I could feel my heart pounding as the path darkened and we returned to isolation. Near-death experiences are always exhilarating, but I was also greeted by remorse this time.

My mind kept voicing a disturbing thought: “What if I had reacted a few seconds slower?” If I had been alone in the car, it would not have shamed me as much, but that was not the case; I refuse to play any part in causing harm to those I care about.

Eventually, my mind was forced back to the road as we encountered other beached cars. Every other vehicle was either an SUV, pickup truck, or semi-truck.

I had committed to driving firmly in the middle of the road, so every time vehicles approached from both ways, I slowed to 5 mph and pulled to the side.

For the next 4 hours, we navigated the minefield and trudged along that solitary road. Before the snowstorm, our ETA was 3 hours until we got home. 3 hours had come and gone, and we still had 4 hours to go. I had stopped thinking about the consequences, the absurdity of the situation, or even where we were going. The only thing that mattered was inching along slowly but surely.

An eternity later, we arrived in Niagara. The city roads were already salted, so I did a few break tests to trust the road again.

Speeding up to 30 mph through the city streets, we could distinctly observe the storm’s severity. Snow was piled up to 4 feet in some areas. The cars parked on the side of the road looked long buried under the weight of fallout. I felt like a soldier maneuvering through a bloody graveyard of my fallen comrades.

Seeing the “To Canada” sign at the border, I breathed a cathartic sigh of bliss. My problems were over, and I could enjoy a nice, relaxing drive home. Apart from falling asleep a few times and being saved by road grooves, we encountered no other obstacles. I love wide Canadian highways.

PART 4: Reality

The following morning, I woke up to the following text from J, the stranded teen from the night before.

Having yet to process the previous night’s events, I was confronted by reality’s jarring injustices. Even now, I am at a loss as I write these words.

Feeling at least partially responsible for setting a family for separation, I set out to offer all the help I could provide. After some initial research, J provided more context.

I was entirely out of my depth. After consulting with everyone I thought could help, I was directed to several people who fight unjust deportations. Those fantastic people provided direct law clinics and resources for J to contact.

Nevertheless, I do not know what else I could do. (If you have other resources or ways to help, please let me know immediately.)

After I made mistakes and slid off the road, I was granted the opportunity to continue. This family will not have that opportunity.

Part 5: Questions

What is the way forward? How do we face the curveballs thrown at us in life? I certainly cannot reuse the same mindset that enabled these catastrophes.

Is there any other approach to life other than to crawl along at 15 mph? Should we risk sliding off the road to travel more quickly? Is it reasonable to stop, rest, and wait until the snow melts? Maybe install snow tires before the journey? Use a car better suited for the conditions? We also could have stopped in Rochester and heeded the snowstorm warnings.

How do we approach situations to which we are unfamiliar and ignorant of the implications? How can we offer help without being a bridge to calamity? How do we fend off a situation in which we are powerless to be anything other than spectators?

These questions have swirled around my head for the past week, interrupting my moments of focus and consuming my attention.

However, one question stands out from the rest: “Is risk necessary for growth?”

Of course, no. Obviously, we can learn these lessons without risking the well-being of ourselves and others.

However, the risk certainly stimulates and amplifies the stickiness of growth. I count these 2 drives among my most memorable lessons learned, my most gripping adventures, and my most emotionally taxing experiences.

“The closer you are to death, the more alive you feel.” - James Hunt

After both drives, I was incredibly grateful for everything around me. Simple tasks like brushing my teeth, sleeping on warm sheets, and eating felt like gifts. Few other experiences can impart such a deep sense of appreciation.

However, I was also weighed down by the alternate possibilities which may have occurred. Any wrong move could have resulted in a far more unfortunate outcome. Those outcomes are commonplace for many people, including those we met on the way.

This journey is a human experience of fear, a demonstration of the perils of risk, and a story to blog about. While absurd, it gave me a pair of rose-tinted glasses that illuminated the world around me while making it crystal clear what the world would look like if those glasses were to break.

Any insight into these jumbled thoughts would be deeply appreciated.

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