Work Until it Happens: (Even Major) Setbacks Can't Keep You Down

Never Give Up
My 1st adventure back.
Photo: Brent Malysh

I don't always have pretty things to say. Forgive me.

2014 has seen a smile on my face for the majority of it. It wasn't fake; I felt it in my soul. But at the original time of this writing (time has since passed), I broke.

. . . 

I spent over 2.5 years on the road, living in my car, going where I wanted. Time was spent skiing, climbing, mountain biking, and hiking; the latter if there was nothing else to do. 

If I had to label what I would call the perfect childhood vacation, this was it. 

Except, unlike childhood, I had to make ends meet. It wasn't easy, but I did my best to find internet connections so I could record personal perceptions of my journey and, from that, gather enough gas money to take me to the next location. 

Somehow, it worked. So I kept writing and traveling and living. My "work," as I was fond of calling it, required that I develop a very minimalistic lifestyle — but I was happy.

Things change and that's okay. We stretch, pull apart, then learn how to become whole again because of it. We adapt. But 2014 chimed in and I watched as the plans I had lined up — outdoor skill courses, going back to college, additional income I thought I could count on — fell almost in sync with the New Year's ball dropping over Times Square.

January 10, 2014: Only 22 days of skiing into the season, a ski accident ripped the ligaments apart in my right knee, somehow managing to bruise the bone marrow in the process (I'm still not clear on how that occurs). Just 3 days shy of my lead ice climbing course, 4 days before my on-snow training to recertify as a PSIA Level II Instructor, and 2 days before getting my car fixed (for which I'd been saving since October), I was suddenly confined to a couch with no answers on when or how I'd be back on my feet. 

This was the first time I actually had the money to put major plans into motion in my life — things I'd been saving to do for as long as I loved the outdoors — and then, this. 

My winter plans of traveling, learning new skills, and testing them out with willing friends slammed into a brick wall. My car repair savings were forked over to cover health insurance premiums. I helplessly watched as my account dwindled each month without the income I gathered from adventure writing.

After all, what adventure could I write about from a couch?  

Yet, there was optimism. I felt in my insurance-paying American heart that things were going to be taken care of soon enough. I mean, the injury was somewhat standard for skiers, especially females, and the only reason I wasn't up and walking already was due to a misdiagnosis during my initial exam at Canyons resort. I was certain that only a couple of weeks and a few obstacles (like two surgeries) stood between me and my normal life. 

Oh, the optimistic trust of youth.

105 days later: My crutches were finally taken away, but only after the discovery that my physical therapist had somehow forgotten to tell me, a few weeks prior, that I was ready to walk and should be well into a biking program by this point. Thus, when the doctor saw me that day for the first time since my initial surgery in March, he almost seemed accusatory of my using crutches. 

"No one told me," was my baffled reply. 

I hobbled out of his office, feeling an incredible amount of frustration overtake me. I wasn't some sloth who lived her life on the couch; if I had been, my not being able to walk would have made little difference. But lack of mobility changed my entire world. I couldn't work. I couldn't keep my physical strength up. And mentally, well, that strength was failing as well. 

Anger hadn't yet inflicted my mind, but maybe it should have. 

As I left the office, I came face to face with my physical therapist who seemed to have a strangely "coincidental" epiphany that it was time for me to start walking. My crutches were snatched from me and in that harsh transition from crutching to bearing my own weight, I was forced to regain the skills that once seemed as natural as breathing. Fear of my knee collapsing under my own body terrified me for days as I worked, alone, to make my way up stairs and through everyday normalcies, like showering — which frightened me much more than the mountains I've met in my life.

But it dawned on me that walking meant I could drive, so I sucked it up and walked. As soon as I could make it upstairs without slamming into a wall (this happened), I sat behind the wheel of my car for the first time in much too long. 114 days, to be exact.

It felt like home. 

That is, until I put it in drive and began to inch from the safety of the driveway toward the intersecting road. Suddenly, I became the 16 year old who was motoring all alone for the first time. 

Funny how only a few months of being out of a routine can radically increase the challenge of simple tasks. 

As I drove around the block a few times in the spring rain, testing my ability to move my leg in the most ridiculous ways — just in case a sudden driving maneuver required it — I immediately knew my next drive would take me to Canada. I'd been stationary and within 4 walls for almost 4 months; I was going to take full advantage of a limited window of freedom before a second surgery confined me to what had become a holding cell.

Then the crash came. Not to my car, but to my world. Two days before I was set to refresh my eyes with a view of the beloved open road and northern lands, the news came that yet another company I wrote for was slashing its payments to writers, making four times the same news had come in two months. It totaled a loss of 3/4 of my monthly freelancing income.

And my freelancing income is all I have.

It is what pays for my medical bills; to be able to walk again — eventually even normally. It is what would pay for my car to be fixed — what I had just saved enough for just before my knee got taken out. It is what was going to pay for me to move into a place and away from sleeping on a love seat in a living room or in the reclined front seat of my car. It is what was going to get me to Canada and to the land that I love.

And yet, time after time, 2014 was finding a way to stall my progress. A shoulder injury & loss of job occurred on the threshold of, and spilled over into, 2014. The knee injury & losing the ability to walk came just 10 days into the new year. Losing someone dear to me happened on the 12th. In March, there was the con artist who moved in where I was living and ran off with my things, including the pain medication I took when I woke up nightly at midnight with throbbing pains shooting through my knee. And then the least of my concerns: my clients' budgets being cut over the course of it all. 

But the year still found me smiling. "Life can be so crazy," I laughed at every instance.

When the final news of two writing gigs being slashed came within days of each other, I stopped laughing. 

And then the anger inflicted my mind and stung my eyes. 

. . . 

It's been three months since I sat down and wrote my reflections above. I tweaked it only to explain that it was written in a different time, to help explain the mindset and challenges that a small-time adventure writer can face in the valleys between the peaks. It's not always the glamor you see in the photos we post or the excitement we portray through exclamation marks and smiling emoticons littering our social media dialogue. 

Seven months later, I still don't have a leg that functions properly. But two weeks ago I limped beside a very patient boyfriend on my first hike. My eyes couldn't rest the entire time as they darted from alpine granite to rock-floured lakes, feeding the famine they'd withstood for months. 

Seven months later, I'm still missing an ACL and waiting to be cleared for surgery. But I'm in Canada and sleeping in my own bed, living independently in a place where the four walls are broken by windows filled with green peaks and sweet air. 

Seven months later, I'm still paying U.S. health insurance I'm being told I can't use. But I'm getting closer to a Canadian citizen's right to healthcare, where, no matter what they say just south of the border about the healthcare up here, I would never have had to pay so much money to wait so long. 

Soon, I'll never have to worry about that again.

Seven months later, I'm working with new and returning clients doing freelance writing and marketing work, opportunities that came knocking just a month after I lost my former income. These things have led to having a couple of pieces published by the Huffington Post and an opportunity to write for British Columbia's tourism board, amongst other happy chances to grab my dream.

Seven months later, I'm surrounded by wild, mysterious mountains and beautiful, friendly people, both here in Canada and remotely — all supporting me until my adventure resumes. 

In a way, it never stopped.

In spite of it being one of the most difficult periods of my life, I was able to reach goals of becoming independent. And because of all of this, I still have optimism.

(So take that, 2014.)

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

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