Small Wonders: Making a voyage of self-discovery

Editor's note: While Patrick Caneday takes some time off, we’re running some of his choices for re-publication. This column was first published Aug. 29, 2009.

I was feeling rather morose the other day. Kind of pathetic, lowly, defeated and self-loathing. There was a dull pain in my chest that I attribute to being unsatisfied with my job, having not left a significant mark upon this world by the age of 42, having neither made the best-seller list — which would actually require writing a book — nor being a millionaire and owning a vacation home in either Cambria or Palm Springs. Or it could be the high cholesterol.

I needed to get myself out of this funk. Sometimes we have to do something physical to trigger something emotional and spiritual.

I started looking for something to write about — forcing myself, really — and opened an old journal I'd written in 1994 while on a road trip through the Four Corners region of the Southwest.

Not long ago I read that the Four Corners marker is not actually in the right place. The cement block famed for being the exact location where the corners of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah meet is in fact 1,875 feet away from the real geographical location, experts say. Placing too much faith in the man-made can be a mistake.

I recognize the words in this journal and the person who wrote them, and I am embarrassed for him. He was young, so young in so many ways — single, and without responsibilities. His words are the rhapsodic ramblings of an adventure-seeking dreamer. And he's scared to death when he finds it.

With the music of Arcangelo Corelli blaring from the tape deck, I'd left Flagstaff, Ariz., and drove through Monument Valley into the remotest regions of southern Utah. As day's end neared, I followed a line on a map that was supposed to lead me to a small town. The paved road turned to dirt, and the dirt to mud as an ominous rain began to fall. And what I found in place of civilization was an abandoned motel and several acres of junked cars.

I turned back, gas gauge showing empty, and retraced my route. It was at least 50 miles in any direction to any dot on the map, not that I trusted the map anymore. The words in this journal entry are that of a scared, lost, intimidated and humbled fool; lost in the wilderness that I'd put myself in, about to stall out on a dirt road and overcome with panic at being alone in the wilds of Utah.

I haven't changed much in 15 years.

I have days when I feel like a competent parent; never a great one, just coping and not making too many mistakes. Those are the good days. Most of the time I feel like fodder for my daughters' tell-all book 30 years from now; a lazier, heavier version of Joan Crawford in “Mommy Dearest.”

I go to church, but often forget to take it with me. I am an employee, but would rather not be in the office. I am a son, but haven't said thank you enough to my parents. I am a citizen, but water my lawn more than recommended. I am a cook, but don't feed enough people. I am a human, but am too often inhumane.

I am not a man of action. Never have been. I'm one who lets life unfold before him, rather than wrenching it open myself. And while I'm letting the world happen, I'm constantly distracted — by work, chores, tabloid headlines and Discovery Channel shows about fish or bridges. All of the things we fill our time with, the things that keep our minds occupied so we can't hear the silence or feel the real emotions inside that scare us. We're so distracted that we neglect to see that the needle is on empty.

What we need to do once in a while is put ourselves 50 or 1,000 miles out of our comfort zone down a dirt road and see what happens. We need self-discovery, not just the looking-inward kind, but the looking-outward-at-the-world kind. Make things out there known in here, in yourself. The Grand Canyon is just a myth until you see it for yourself. And so is happiness.

Ever notice how you feel a little more at peace with yourself when you wear your favorite shirt? How your car seems to drive better after you've washed it? How much more you appreciate life after you've jumped out of a plane and the parachute opens?

It's communion. Taking a cracker and imparting it with the power to change you. A physical action symbolizing a spiritual benchmark. An expression of faith in something outside yourself, for we can't do it on our own.

You don't have to walk on hot coals, but there's nothing wrong with that. Maybe all you need is a new haircut.

As my car sputtered into a campsite that wasn't on the map, I came across a park ranger named Nate. I about cried. He told me he could only sell me four gallons of gas; more than I needed. I took his gas, but stayed the night in his beautiful hidden campground. I can still picture that southwest sky catching fire as the sun set after the rains.

I've been thinking a lot lately about change. And it scares the hell out of me. It's an understandable fear, but it paralyzes me with inaction nonetheless.

At some point I have to learn that I'm not in control. Nate is.

PATRICK CANEDAY is a Glendale native who lives and works in Burbank. Stay in touch with him on Facebook, at and

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