I will confess I’ve encountered terror in my life. Over the course of my 7 months of chemotherapy and subsequent surgeries he and I actually become friends in a warped way. When the spectre of death points an ethereal finger at you it seems a bond is formed, whether you acknowledge it or not, and while you seek to keep those forces at bay there is a tacit understanding, a subtle nod of the head, that terror is a part of everything you do. Because once it invades your soul you can never completely drive it out, only seek to extinguish it with joy and purpose, douse flames of fear and hope the embers never spark up again. With such an intricate relationship with terror you would think I’d be equipped to handle anything the travel lifestyle could throw at me, but here I was, lost in a Mirror Maze, and I was terrified.
I’d flown to America with plans to explore the East Coast over 3 weeks. The golden triangle of celebrity culture from Los Angeles to San Francisco and down to San Diego. If there was a clichéd place to go or photo to take on California’s West coast, I’d be there. I even went on a Star Homes tour in Hollywood which really opened my eyes to the fact I could drive around my own suburbs back in Australia and look at the front gates of houses too. I don’t mean to brag but I also got a photo with Johnny Depp in full Jack Sparrow costume. He was just on the street in Hollywood, it was crazy. I mean, he looked a little different, a little heavy set and his wig kept sliding off but he only asked for $10 for a picture so that was a real highlight. But with the glittering lights of Hollywood, and those of the In-N-Out burger joint outside my hostel window, fading in the distance, I rode the Greyhound bus line to my next stop – San Francisco.
San Francisco is one of my favourite international cities. Buzzing with life and smelling like clam chowder it’s everything you could want in a major metropolitan destination. A diverse and inclusive population that manifests in a modern and friendly city. A proud sporting heritage with no shortage of emblazoned flags to wave. And a deep historical and cultural link to America in icons like the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz.
As a traveller in San Fran there are so many things to do. Golden Gate Park offers a city escape within a city, with the California Academy of Science a great way to realise how little you know about science. And if you’re feeling urban then Lombard Street’s famous 8 hairpin turns, Union Square or a cable car ride culminating in a hike to Coit Tower are all great ways to pass the days. Having said that I was coming up to my next Greyhound out of town and I still had time to kill. I’d already got a photo in front of the fog in front of the Golden Gate Bridge, so what else is worth your time and money in San Francisco?
Ripley’s Believe it or Not museum, on the famous Fisherman’s Wharf down by Pier 39. It stood out to me like a bloke wearing shorts at one of San Fran’s nude beaches. Now I love a good museum, believe it or not, and I love a good freak show, which made for the perfect afternoon’s activity. There was no shortage of oddities to ogle from a wax figure of the world’s tallest ever man (he was pretty tall) to some shrunken heads (they were pretty small) and even a wedding dress made out of toilet paper, perfect for any bride who wants to look like shit on their wedding day, in more ways than one.
However, as I reached the end of my journey through the warped mind of Mr. Ripley I came across an innocuous mirror maze to whom responsibility and care was entrusted to a bored looking teenage girl. She explained briefly, in between eye rolls and long, deep sighs directed at the universe, that if I got lost inside and could not find the exit then all I had to do was call out and she would come and help me. With such advice nestled firmly in the back of my mind I strode into the flashing LED lined mirror maze with no sign of hesitation and no shortage of confidence.
And 15 minutes later I was lost, every direction was a dead-end and I started to panic. And that is how I became trapped in a mirror maze.
There’s an expression about mirrors that says ‘nobody really knows what they look like, the mirror shows you only what you want to see’. But in this moment, I wasn’t so sure about that. I didn’t particularly want to see a grown man sweating and drawing increasingly shallow breaths. Pushing for exits but only clawing at his reflection to escape a narcissist’s dream house. Every direction I tried to escape I ended up bumping into myself. An endless matrix glitch only I don’t know Kung Fu and the only bullet I’ve dodged was cancer. After a frustrating and ultimately fruitless first foray at finding freedom I let out a barely audible “Ok, I’d like some help getting out now”. The only thing that greeted me, apart from my own clammy mug in every direction, was silence.
“Can anyone hear me? I’d like to find the exit please!” My voice a little louder now. The reply, like a childhood plan I’d made to live naked in the forest with my two best friends, never materialised. For those of you who live with the unruly roomate that is anxiety, this will sound familiar. The symptoms started slowly. I felt my heart beat a little harder and faster as I tried to stay cool, still pushing at random mirrors with an external calmness I hoped would convince my mind I was in charge. My hands trembled slightly as they pushed on yet another dead-end door. I could feel my body tense up and with a symptom that has come to define my anxiety, my chest tightened like the world’s tallest man was standing on me.
“PLEASE LET ME OUT!” It was becoming a scream for help at this point. Now I’m the first to admit I’ve not always been ice cold under pressure. I once gave a Big Mac I’d just bought to a homeless man in Honolulu simply because he asked for it and I couldn’t think of a good reason not to. On this occasion though control was ripped from me quicker than you’d rip a toilet paper dress off your bride on the honeymoon and I felt my chest tighten further and my pulse race out of control. Air escaped my lungs and the all too familiar symptoms of a panic attack began to strike. My fingers went numb as blood raced from my extremities to protect my vital organs from a perceived threat and I had officially handed control from my conscious brain to my subconscious.
What had begun as a slow lit fuse was reaching an explosive point and my methodical search for the exit turned manic. Throwing my body weight against walls that wouldn’t budge. After so long in hospital my body was programmed to go into autopilot in times of stress. A noble sentiment, but entirely out of context right now. But I’d lost control and had the pleasure of watching endless versions of myself act out the same desperate dance to the floor as I slumped to the ground. Surrounded by terror as my breathing went rogue, hyperventilating to the point I was ready to pass out.
If the old adage is true that hard times don’t create heroes, but that during hard times the hero within us is revealed then my saviour was forged in the glass cage around us, hardened by her own reflection and sharpened by her insatiable appetite to have fun. Because my saviour, all three feet of her, was a 6-year-old girl.
She wandered in front of me, or maybe behind me, you really can’t tell in a mirror maze, and although I’d only been a captive of the maze for around 15 minutes it had quickly become a place to which I expected to live out my days. So it was a shock to see, not only another person, but one so tiny and who didn’t have to walk around arms outstretched like a drunk looking for the light switch after a night on San Fran’s Anchor Steam craft beers.
“Please help me find the exit” I managed to shoot in her general direction (or reflection) while she stared back quizzically, perhaps confused at the swapping of roles which saw her asked to lead while I lay prostrate on the floor. “Sure” she squeaked in an accent almost too cute for words. “Just let me find my brother”, before disappearing once more. Learning there were others in the maze had reinvigorated me and I rose to my feet with what little shreds of my dignity I had left. It couldn’t have been more than a couple of minutes before she popped up again, this time holding hands with an even smaller human, her little brother, who grinned up at me with what I can only assume was a sense of Machiavellian mischief that he was part of such a sorry state of affairs.
She took my hand and started pushing through the swinging mirror doors, her aura of confidence untouched while mine was shot to bits. Like a little Dorothy to my Cowardly Lion as we skipped through the maze. It was as if she instinctively know the way out and while we walked in silence it was a chance to reflect on just how far a little gesture can go. How many others like me had she saved? Was this even real? Or would I wake up surrounded by my loved ones back in Kansas with an amazing story to tell. (Yes, I know that metaphor isn’t great because the little girl is Dorothy and I’m the Cowardly Lion but I’m working with what I’ve got).
Before long though we were greeted by the blinding light of reality, and that of the Ripley’s Believe it or Not gift shop. She scooted away from me to her mother while her brother turned and ambled back into the maze, his little legs carrying a bravery I was more than a little impressed by.
I found the girl who had sent me into the maze, with the promise of a quick and simple retrieval, sitting behind the gift shop register. She was flicking through her phone in what I assume was some sort of ‘Apathy or Empathy’ app where you swipe right to ignore someone and left to help them. “I was yelling out for you to help me in there, could you not hear me?” I directed towards her general aura of ambivalence. “Oh” she replied, “I guess not?”
It was at this moment I turned to the real hero of the story, a young girl who’s name I never got, and maybe that’s for the best because this way she can just represent the unnamed good in everyone. She was still by her mother’s side as I dodged past an expensive row of 4D jigsaw puzzles to thank her very much for helping me find the exit and to thank her mother doubly so for raising such a considerate and conscientious daughter. I downplayed the stress I was feeling when I couldn’t escape (that’s something I’d save for therapy) but made sure she knew how very much I appreciated the help.
From my time in hospital, spending months on end confined to a room on my own, I knew just how valuable a small gesture could be. I was so thankful back then every time the woman with the two big Golden Retrievers would visit me, even though I was in the adult ward, and I was every bit as grateful now that a little girl who should have been enjoying her day uninterrupted took the time to extend a hand to help a panicked stranger in a mirror maze.
My experiences in hospital and my experiences in travel are both microcosms for life in general. You will experience lows undoubtedly, but by doing so you’ll realise in contrast the stunning altitude upon which your highs can take you. I did get lost in a Mirror Maze and I did need help, and not for the first time in my life it was the littlest things that made a difference.