Healing Waters: The Case for Kids Outdoors

Camp for sick children
Yesterday I was told to remove one crutch and walk on my dang leg already. The doctor couldn't believe I hadn't removed both of them at this point; my reply was that no one told me I could do it. So, without further warning (or fanfare, which I was kinda expecting), I had to walk. 

It was nerve-wracking. I put all of my weight on my left leg; my right hand, feeling the loss of an ever-present crutch, reached over to join its compadre on the left crutch. I was scolded. "You're strong enough. Do it right." 

I didn't know how. After 3 months of weightlessness, trying to walk on my injured leg surely meant it was going to give out. I felt heat building up inside me as my physical therapist stared intently from 10 feet away. I leaned on my one crutch and looked at her with eyes begging for the second back. 

There was no relenting. 

My hands started to feel a little greasy as I gripped the rubber cross bar under my white knuckles. I inched the crutch forward to initiate momentum and found myself at the deciding moment — I either took the leap or chickened out. I took it. 

Leap? I misspoke. It was more of a hop, with my injured leg touching the ground for no more than a mere millisecond. The therapist wasn't impressed and frankly, I was embarrassed. My lack of confidence brought back a reminder that it was now 95 days since I last participated in any of the activities that bolstered my sense of self or took my mind off my condition. I softened my outlook as the therapist reminded me of my ability and I tried again. 

A little longer on the ground with the injured leg, a little more glide in the gait: Each step progressed in smoothness and in weight until I felt good enough to meet the gaze of the therapist who was now smiling at me. I continued on until I had walked the length of the hall — studiously, but with amazement — with only one crutch.

If I had tried this alone, it never would have happened. I needed to be reminded of my strength because I'd forgotten I had any left.

Camp for sick children
A camper at Brigadoon, catching some dinner ;)
Photo: A for Adventure
I'm one of the least in the medical world: an otherwise able-bodied adult with a capacity to overcome — given time. The journey still isn't easy in my mind. However, compared to those who find themselves in more serious positions, I had it easy, especially when considering kids who have less autonomy. After being around my nephews, being a godparent, and volunteering regularly with munchkins teaching them to climb and ski, I've become impressed with their ability to work through challenges. But they need encouragement: Just like I progressed from two crutches to one, kids will walk away victorious from something that seemed insurmountable just because someone stood by their side and told them they could. 

And their grins after such victories are ridiculously priceless. 

That's what kids need. Heck, we all deserve it, but those little people so often end up alone during this process because they haven't yet learned to communicate their feelings, their friends are too young to know how to reach out, and the programs supporting them are too far apart. Growing up is tough enough without adding in the confusion of medical conditions and parents who are hurting as well.

Camp for sick children
Photo: Curt Hamilton
Thank goodness for people like my buddy, Curtis Hamilton, who has given a good chunk of his life to helping others with his spirit of giving. I see the things he is doing (including his current plan to swim nearly 11 miles in an effort to raise money for a children's camp) and know that even these youngsters have a cheerleader. 

Brigadoon is the only camp in the Maritimes (a 51,126 square mile area of Canada) set up to fully provide little folks with major medical conditions the outdoor fun and camaraderie they desperately need. They'll also be the happy recipient of Curt's efforts. Here, campers will not only be distracted from their pain but, as we outdoors-people know, their time spent outside will increase mental health and self-esteem which, in turn, reflects positively onto their physical health. 

Man, what a gift for these kids!

Hi5 to Curt for laying aside his own pursuits to bring sunshine into the lives of those who can't serve themselves. These mini-campers may never know the effort he put in to train and raise awareness for them, but his reward is so much greater. 

From someone who understands the value of being wrapped up in encouragement and the outdoors when the road seems long and bleak, a huge thank you goes to you, Curt. Here's to you surpassing your goal and helping to bring healing to hundreds of lil munchkins.
. . .

It's a team effort: If you've experienced healing in the outdoors or have struggled through injury or medical conditions yourself, give up one morning's cup of Starbucks or that lunch you were gonna eat out and pitch in. I promise you're gonna feel pretty darn good. 

Camp for sick children
Photo: Chris Surette

Roughing the Road to Recovery

Roughing the Road to recovery
A really boring thing they like to call "exercise." Prescribed torture is more accurate.

...13 (voice shaking)
...14 (leg shaking)

"FIFTEEN!" I dig my knuckle into my burning hip flexor and sit up straight, trying to alleviate the tension in my thigh. The final set of my physical therapy sums up a routine of exercise that is simultaneously boring and painful. Besides, calling it exercise is a joke; any sweating is merely a side effect from the excruciating discomfort of trying to get my leg into a position it hasn't experienced in over 2 months.

"Repeat 3x a day," say the instructions.

Roughing the Road to Recovery
Fell asleep eating post-surgery.
Photo: My mom
Doing so leaves me with about two-point-five hours of freedom sandwiched between PT time. This would be fine if I knew it was all working toward freedom from crutches. But it's not. It's merely leading to a second surgery, after which all the effort I've put in so far will be annihilated and I'll be back to trying, once again, to bend and straighten my leg.

Sure. In the grand scheme of things, it all works hand-in-hand. But I'm humanly short-sighted and not appeased with the grand scheme of things.

Last week, one of my Outdoor Women's Alliance managers, Tiffiny Costello, sent me a quick text to ask how things were going. Most days I'm absolutely fine. Cheerful. Laughing at my predicament. I mean, even free spirited adventurers eventually learn coping skills to deal with their injured imprisonment.

But there are times when the situation rushes back to mock me as well.

78 days since I last skied. Climbed. Ran. Walked. Heck, moved at all without considering if my knee was gonna make me yelp in pain. 78 days of you people — you lucky people — saying things like, "I don't want to go to the gym today;" or "The skiing isn't that good. I'm staying inside;" or "I'm tired." During the days when the situation comes back to mock, my patience wears thin with you. "Two good legs," I think to myself, "and you don't even care." I want to shove you into adventure.

Talking with Tiffiny it dawned on me: Everything I missed, from skiing to running, made up the core of what I identified with as my strength. A day ending with burning quads and frozen strands of hair, a trail run that left me gasping for breath, a climb that pumped my forearms and left gashes near my knees — I didn't realize it, but I did those things for strength. Not physical strength. Strength of self. And for the past three months there was no chance to draw from that once-daily well of renewal. My level of strength sat stagnant; or worse, diminished each day.

Roughing the Road to Recovery
Bouldering in Leavenworth, Washington
Photo: Steve Weiss

This dawning hit hard. No wonder there was occasional frustration. No wonder there were days when I felt like my brain was a fraction of what it once was — not to mention my muscles. I questioned my predicament: How was it fair that someone like me could suffer from this when there were others who spent every waking hour watching tv after sitting in a cubicle all day? My spirit can't stand the couch; why weren't they the ones holed up indoors — it would make no impact on their life other than to make getting up to grab chips from the cupboard more difficult. Sorry if that's snarky. But you know I'm right.

For someone who doesn't feel comfortable indoors, experiences attention deficit disorder with her surroundings, and is used to acting out on the passions of her heart, my reserve of strength sometimes feels as though it's about to go bone dry. I'm not sure how to restore it in this condition so I am looking outward and hoping those who have gone through the rough spells of recovery can offer their wisdom where mine fails.

Feel free... I'm all ears.

Roughing the Road to Recovery
Topping out in Moab, Utah
Photo: Maria Paspuel

Canada: Where the Wild Things Are

Exploring Parks Canada By Road - Bugaboos

This injury has me at 47 days without walking, without my car, without snow and ice. I'm one person in over a million strung along mountains I cannot access but that are crucial to my well-being. There's been one too many "Keep Calm and _(fill in this blank)_" and "The mountains are calling and I must go," quotes thrown at me. I've kept calm. Cheerful even. But the mountains are calling and I can't go. Instead, I'm holed up under a covering of yellow smog and rain. Don't talk to me about John Muir.

The other morning, instead of waking up early for a powder day, I woke up early for hockey. The Canadian men were making their push for gold at precisely 5 a.m. MT and I was ecstatic. It would have happened anyway, regardless of my being hurt; I have a crush on hockey and am in love with my second country up north. But never once before have I set my alarm to watch something on television.

What was happening to me?

My road trip partner on my first trip north.
The journey began a few years ago while I was carrying out life from a tent in the high Uintas. That entire summer, I shivered through alpine nights (it snowed in early July), but craved the cold air on my face as I unzipped from my bag each morning. Daytime temperatures were incredible — so different than what I was accustomed to in the asphalt-charred city a couple of thousand feet below. Green surrounded me, made alive by braided rivers and summer showers. I needed more.

On all sides of Utah stand desert tracts, but only in one direction on this continent, if you push just a little further, do you find mountains erupting out of deep forests, ripping apart the sky. Only in one direction do milky blue rivers, electric in color, smooth glacial rocks in passing. And if you so choose, only in one direction is there a land that stretches, beyond comprehension, into not one single other city.

North. The word alone made me feel wild and unbound.

There were only 4.5 days.

Glacier. Waterton. Banff. The quiet wonder of Jasper. Eyes grew increasingly wide as the stunning view unfolded inside the windshield; the further north my tires rolled, the more surrealistically beautiful the scene grew.

My heart capsized in Jasper. As an American, I grew up singing "sweet mountain majesty" but didn't fully comprehend the impact of these words until I experienced the profound allure of this national park. Arriving 365 miles north of the U.S. border, I was surrounded by land that undulated through glacier-strewn summits and valley lakes. It was a land owned by wildlife and covered in a lush carpet of chlorophyll.  If it hadn't been for a travel partner who needed to return for her job, our road trip would have concluded instantly.

I've since traveled well over 50,000 miles (possibly twice that) of lower 48 roadways in a search to find the same verdant intensity as our northern neighbor so easily displays. There were hints of it in Washington and Montana, but they were bookended beauties — capped by cities or dehydrated land.

Limitations have never been a favorite of mine.


So I returned north. Each year, my car transported me to a country that felt more like home. Visits extended from 4.5 days to weeks, then months. I explored coves, skied isolated backcountry, waited for caribou to cross, and enjoyed the ready smiles and playful accents of the Canadian people. Nothing in my cross-continent travels brought me greater happiness than the days spent in this friendly country.

Exploring-Parks-Canada-By-Road-JasperThe charm of this wild northland wove its way into so many of my thoughts that action was taken to make it legitimately part of my identity. Blazed with a red maple leaf and inscribed in French and English, my Canadian citizenship papers filled me with humble pride: the most beautiful country in the hemisphere had accepted me as one of its own.

So I watch hockey. Not to pose as a born-and-raised Canadian, but because I'm finding that certain things that were already a part of me before I stepped foot on Canadian soil — enjoying poutine, loving hockey, superfluous amounts of saying sorry [er, soorry], etc. — mean that I have found kinship in that country. Maybe these things were inherent, passed through my father's French Canadian side. Maybe I was just born in the wrong place. The game point comes only from rectifying the situation.

Not being able to walk will only temporarily hold me back from the place where my soul finds life's purity — much further north than this Salt Lake valley — across a border, in a wild land. It calls, John Muir, so I must go.

Game point: The Move to Canada. Coming Summer 2014.

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