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I originally wrote this article for the October 2003 Wide World Books & Maps Newsletter. If you click on any of the book links in the article, you will find yourself at Wide World's site where you can purchase the books. -Terrell


In Honor of Halloween: The Scariest Places We've Ever Been

I've never been the kind of person who likes to be scared but I know there are lots of you out there. You're the ones who read Stephen King novels and go to see the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. You love roller coasters that make a huge racket to convince you that they're on the verge of falling down. At our store, you're the ones we refer to as "adventure travelers." You reserve copies months in advance for the new edition of Robert Young Pelton's The World's Most Dangerous Places. I must admit, though, that even those of us who prefer to feel safe and comfortable can occasionally appreciate the thrill of perceived, and preferably vicarious, danger. The spurt of adrenaline. The goosebumps on the skin. And even if we don't court these experiences, we can appreciate the lessons they teach and be proud of the fact that we had the inner resources to master the situation. So in honor of this season, we present to you the Wide World Books & Maps Scariest Places.

My own scariest situation started out in the most mundane way possible. I was driving from Arizona to Texas to spend the Christmas holidays with my family. An hour after leaving my motel in Van Horn, Texas (a Holiday Inn! I told you it was mundane), I turned on my wipers to remove the mist on the windshield. The mist didn't move. It was ice. Oh, (expletive deleted). Ice was quickly covering the road. I was already seeing cars beginning to slide. Some pulled off to the side to wait it out. They clearly didn't understand the nature of a west Texas ice storm. They cover a lot of territory and they last for days. I had two choices. I could stop at the next town and spend Christmas alone in a Pecos motel or I could drive on and hope to find the edge of the storm. After five hours of white-knuckled driving, seeing cars, RV's, even tractor trailers slide off the road, I made it to Abilene where the ice changed to snow. A few hours later I was home. The worst part of the whole thing was the how long it took. Five hours is a long time to be terrified. My muscles hurt for days afterward.

  • The lesson I learned: always listen to the morning weather report before driving.

  • The book that makes me think I was a total wuss about the whole thing: No Horizon Is So Far by Ann Bancroft and Liv Arnesen. These two women walked, skied and ice-sailed across Antarctica. They did 2300 miles on ice compared to my 230.

Weather also figures in Ron's scariest story. Last year he decided to do a solo transverse of the Olympics. An experienced hiker and outdoorsman, this seemed a reasonable thing. Unfortunately, he miscalculated how much snow would still cover his trail at the late spring date he had chosen. Although he laughed as he told me of the completely snowed-over path and the several times that he slipped and rolled fifty or a hundred feet down the mountain, he confessed that he had visions of a lonely end by hypothermia. Fortunately, he knew the area well enough that he was aware of a trail at a lower elevation. Bushwacking down the mountain, he struck this trail and within a couple of hours was relaxing in the warm waters of the Sol Duc Hot Springs.

  • Lesson learned: reward yourself with something good after getting through a scary spot. You'll remember the good as much as the bad.

  • Book that makes it funnier than it really was: Weird Hikes by Art Bernstein. This collection of strange but true hiking stories shows that hiking can be funny as well as fun.

Nadia's scary story takes place in a country that I'm not sure I would ever consider visiting, Malawi. Actually, almost all of Africa makes me a little nervous. But Nadia's adventurous traveling rewards her with unique experiences that most of us will never have and is well worth the risks in her opinion. She and her partner had decided to walk from the old city to a zoo park a couple of miles away. Although the path was well populated in the morning, it was deserted as they returned in the noonday heat. Hearing footsteps behind, she turned, only to be knocked down by one man while another man kept her partner from coming to her aid. After taking her fanny pack, the two men ran away, leaving them shaken but unhurt. Nadia says that the experience completely changed her perception of travel, making her realize that although in this country she is relatively poor, in Africa she is comparatively rich and therefore a potential target.

  • Lesson learned: read your guidebook. It actually warned them not to take that particular path unless traveling with a group.

  • Book that can help us see Africa from the inside: The Anchor Book of Modern African Stories edited by Nadezda Obradovic, one of the few anthologies of writings by contemporary black African authors.

I think I found Simone's story the scariest because it was one of those things that it's impossible to predict and hard to guard against. She, her husband and her mother were flying from London to Kenya for a well deserved post-holiday vacation in 2000. At first, they thought they were just experiencing extreme turbulence when the plane began moving erratically. After watching the cabin crew run forward to the cockpit in spite of the violent motion, they realized something worse had happened. A passenger had gone crazy, rushed the cockpit, which at the time had no security measures to stop such an assault, and had taken over the plane. Other passengers managed to subdue the man and the flight landed without further incident. Although Simone says that they were sure at that moment that the plane was going down, it has not stopped her from flying again. In the eighteen months that I have known her she has flown once to China, three times to Hawaii, several times to Ohio and is preparing for this winter's trip to Costa Rica.

  • Lesson learned: you can't let scary things stop you from doing what you love.

  • Book to keep the mood light when terrified: the Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook Mad Libs. Remember how fun it was playing Mad Libs when you were a kid? This latest title in the series lets you fill in the blanks on articles from the popular Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook like "how to deal with a charging bull." Laugh in the face of danger!

So keep traveling, keep safe, and have a Happy Halloween. And, oh yeah…