Tales from the edge of the world

Charles Wong
5 min readFeb 3, 2021
Overlooking Coal Mine Canyon, Arizona.

It started off like any other year. The New Year Countdown, my birthday, and the end of winter.

Little did I know it, the remainder of this particular year was filled with personal fulfillment and lessons. Not just any lessons, but lessons from my journey to the edge of the world. Well, at least to the edge of my known world.

You see, my work as an engineer in the auto industry had required me to visit Arizona for the first time in my life. An extended stay with a personal vacation was in order. After all, it had been 5 years since I enjoyed any real time off. I took it as a sign and could not pass up on this opportunity.

Heeding advice from the kindness of helpful locals over the internet, my itinerary was extremely ambitious but complete. In 5 days, I would cover over 4,000 KM across the desert, with detours through ghost towns, canyons, scenic lookouts and endless stretches of road and avoiding tourist traps along the way. I was beyond prepared with two cellphones, two GPS units, an emergency medical kit, and even a 30-case of water and food from the closest Walmart. Embarking on this journey alone required a thoroughly detailed plan that the most meticulous part of me was proud of. After all, getting lost or stranded in a place like this was not an option. There were neither the modern conveniences nor the usual safety net afforded by visiting any bustling metropolis.

What was the desert really like? Well, all the usual elements from National Geographic photos were there — plenty of cactus, canyons, a world devoid of greenery, and miles of endless road that extend as far as the eye could see. Sure, all these things were part of my adventure. But the real story is far more enlightening. In the desert, the strange Martian-like landscape welcomes you with waves of tranquility and mystery alike. During my long drives, the intense heat radiating off the pavement often created ghostly, dancing mirages reminiscent of a dream. Out here, given the right conditions, even the curvature of the earth became apparent sometimes.

Finding my way.

Day 3 of my trip was particularly inspirational. I had 8 hours of driving and various scenic points to hit that day. Unfortunately, at the 4th hour both of my GPS units lost signal and the cell phone coverage had gone dark. This, plus my car’s fuel gauge tipping closer and closer towards empty, had put me on edge. There were no friendly neighbours whose doors I could knock on for help. In fact, there was nobody in sight — no houses, no gas stations, and not even any wildlife out in the open. I had been a team leader many times in my career. Yet, this was different — it was a matter of survival and not merely balancing the needs of different individuals. In many ways, this was a marked contrast to our spoiled everyday lives living like domesticated pets in the safe haven of our major cities. What would my friends in the military do? I did not know, but my instincts told me to drive faster until I regained signal or found help. And that’s what I did, outrunning the dawning sun in my rear-view mirror carrying the hopes and dreams of a lone adventurer displaced thousands of miles away from home. In moments like these, the signage by the side of the road whisked by like the chorus of a song stuck on repeat. These were the mile markers in the desert, which were the most reliable way to convey your bearings when roads extend forever before hitting the next “intersection”. On smaller roads, these mile markers were completely missing. Actually, you would be lucky to register that you were on a road, as many were unpaved dirt with no clearly visible boundaries and various branched off paths along the way. Painted lines and reflective barriers? There were none, so forget about it.

Luckily, the navigation signal was eventually restored and I had finally reached a gas station. Believe it or not, the worst-case scenario where I drove in the wrong direction, drove in circles, or had my car break down was deeply entrenched in my mind. To this day, that had always been an alternate reality that was all too real.

“ - outrunning the dawning sun in my rear-view mirror carrying the hopes and dreams of a lone adventurer displaced thousands of miles away from home.”

What did all these adventures teach me? Getting lost in life is inevitable and is often a discomfort that accompanies growth and direction. In fact, I would argue that most people are driving in circles their entire life, always staying in the safe confines of familiar roads. These circles of complacency were familiar to me and the many coworkers I had worked with who had spent 10, 15, or even 20 years constantly circling around. The mile markers of birthdays, annual vacation getaways, and recurring milestones simply became the tape that had been stuck on repeat many years ago. As the miles accumulate, we become increasingly compartmentalized into our highly specific functions in our job and decreasingly relevant for any other role outside the one we had for as long as we could remember. Oftentimes, we would try so hard to ignore the signs that we would stop chasing our dreams altogether until one day the sun had finally dawned from the sky.

In life, it doesn’t matter how fast you drive when you are on the wrong road. So, on one particularly sunny day in 2020, I stopped driving around in circles and officially embarked on an adventure into the exciting world of Tech in web development. As a teenager, I had designed my first web page to find my place in the world in a small corner of the internet. Today, the internet had grown to be a world that is especially beautiful and full of endless possibilities. In this place, I could finally combine my skills as an engineer, as an artist, and as a lifelong adventurer without being defined by any specific label. I felt at home with the creative, forward-thinking community who is more interested in changing the world with their ideas than filling their time clashing into each other in their circles of complacency.

2020 could have been like any other year. The New Year Countdown, my birthday, and the end of winter. But that’s not how the story ended — I made sure of it. I can’t wait for all the exciting new stories out in the horizon.

In the words of my anonymous friend and guide from the internet:

“Never drive anywhere without at least half a tank of gas, but most of all — don’t ever stop exploring.”

Life in the desert — from the year that started off like any other.



Charles Wong

Professional product engineer navigating into web dev. Relentlessly champions the user’s journey.