How I got into Salt Lake City, Utah, is the sort of story that backpacking veterans like to tell each other to show off who’s got the most travel chops. “So there I was…” is the traditional way to begin these stories. And there indeed, was I, at the Greyhound station in downtown Salt Lake City. It was 3 a.m., about 16 hours later than I was scheduled to arrive, fresh off a four-day bus journey. (Have you ever wanted to be locked in a rolling tin barrel for days with the same people and no access to showers while a bewildering landscape flows by? Cross-country Greyhound is for you.)
I could have left the bus station to have a cigarette and take stock of my life, but the security guard cautioned me that the area was rife with violent drug dealers. “Last week someone was shot a block from here,” He informed me helpfully.
I guess nicotine could wait.
I was in Salt Lake City to meet strangers from the Internet and go off into the desert with them, far beyond the range of cellphone reception and civilization. And yet, it was the safest I had felt in years, all thanks to Couchsurfing, an online haven for people who wanted to go hiking on the cheap, with others planning road trips and camping weekends together. Thanks to the ratings system and the general quality of the community, it was a foolproof system at the time. Colonized by backpackers, it was the way to travel. And on my year-long trip to the US, it was how I met Sam and Adrien, with whom I went to Canyonlands National Park, and where my life changed.
I’ve been a city boy all my life and even my short excursions to places with natural rather than urban beauty have always been close to cities and civilization. But Canyonlands is far from any city. And according to an online survey, at night, minus the sun—it’s the darkest place in the continental U.S. Except it’s really not. Because out of the cosmos, travelling for billions of years, comes light. Light so ancient it drips with majesty and grandeur. The light of the stars, the light of the Milky Way. Drowned out in cities at night, by our artificial bulbs and tubes, chased away each day by a jealous and young sun. But visible, and ever present in these dark corners of the world, shines light that came from stars formed before our Earth even existed.
Now, imagine never having seen this. Never, in 30 years on Earth, seeing something that was so vast and magnificent. It made everything that came before, into a pale shadow if itself. In that moment, watching the Milky Way rise over the horizon and sweep over my head, I gained a view into how utterly large the world really was. I had set out on my travels with the admittedly foolish hope of seeing as much of the world as I could. What I found was that I had gotten the scale wrong. There was so much more to discover in the universe that my mere scratchings on the surface of a dustball was not even a rounding error. The sum of all human knowledge amounted to less than a fingernail’s worth in the Pacific Ocean, compared to what was waiting for us in the universe.
I suppose some people might be disheartened at that thought, with their insignificant place in the grand scheme of things. I wasn’t. To me this was a cosmic message. “Slow down”, it said. “You can afford to relax, now that you know your place in the world. Enjoy yourself.” And so I did. I started almost immediately to travel a lot slower. To appreciate each place I went to, each person I met, each meal I ate. I did new things not because the world needed discovering, but because I knew—objectively knew—that I would not be able to see everything and do everything. So why not appreciate as much as I can see, to the fullest? If you can’t go wide, go deep. That’s the gift the stars gave me: A realisation of the value of time.
For other stories in “The Trip That Changed the Way I Travel” series, click here.
Vahishta Mistry is proud of his ability to adapt to anything. A few years ago, he quit his job, sold his apartment, and lived as a backpacker. He's now saving up for a farm in the mountains. He tweets as @vahishta