This is a photo taken in 2006 on the aptly-named Gold Coast of Ghana, West Africa. The person walking into the sunset is Emily, my dear madamfo ('friend' in Twi). We'd met only a few hours before on the bus en route to this idyllic scene.
I'd just flown in from the University of Montana for a semester of study abroad at the University of Ghana. She had just arrived from the University of Idaho. Though we only lived a few hours apart back in the states, we'd never met before. Little did we know this picture would mark the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Our days in Ghana were, in short, colorful. We stayed balanced though. Going to the bank was a full-day effort. Some days, we'd carry buckets of water up three flights of stairs for showers when storms shut off the sewer system. Machete-armed muggers on motorcycles weren't afraid to slash purses and backpacks straight from pedestrians braving traffic-choked streets.
But indulgences were bountiful. Leisurely mornings over coffee at Cuppaccino were a particular joy, scribbling in our journals, listening to heart-stirring folk music, like single, longing 20-somethings often do. And cheeseburgers, for one, were really good at the Jazz Club in the embassy district where we'd watch keyboardist, Victor Dey, put the room in a trance with his spindly fingers sending tunes into balmy evenings.
One sweltering night in Ouagadougou, we took turns soaking sarongs when nighttime temperatures refused to budge from 125-degrees; one person would lay as still as possible while the other would drape the refreshing cloth over the sleep hopeful waiting for evaporative cooling to offer some relief.
On a month-long road trip through Togo, Benin, Niger and Burkina Faso, our eyes were opened to a world that would send us home changed forever. We pounded fufu and braved bowls of grasscutter soup (fancy word for rat) paired with Akpeteshie. After exploring a voodoo marketplace replete with monkey heads and human eyeballs, we shared spaghetti with an Italian NGO-worker at her beach house in Benin beside a church where an exorcism took place while we apprehensively relished spoonfuls of homemade pasta.
Moonlit nights wandering the dusty maze of Agadez found us in the midst of a mystical gathering for Muhammad's birthday with residents draped in long white robes. We rode camels and discovered dates for the first time. We killed scorpions the size of our palms, took too-long bus rides past children splashing happily in dirty riverbeds while their mothers boosted babies on their hips, shouting "mango!" to us. The exchange of sweaty money took place, followed by the incomparable taste of fresh, juicy mango.
After Africa, we returned to school, catching up occasionally at festivals, and, on the day of our respective graduations, boarded a plane instead bound for Oslo, Norway, for the inaugural International Ecotourism Conference. From there, we bounced to Israel (with a brief stop for paddleboating below the Charles Bridge in Prague).
In Israel, we lived in an apartment in Tel Aviv, road-tripped around the Golan Heights, climbed Mount Masada and Mount Sinai for some unforgettable sunsets, dove with dolphins in the Red Sea, explored the pyramids and got chased by Bedouins after an innocent afternoon drinking tea in a cave above Petra.
Eleven years later, neither of us are practicing economic development in third world countries, like we imagined. Rather we found the loves of our lives, me with the man of my dreams in Colorado, Emily still in Idaho with her fabulous Nathaniel. She's now the mother of three little ones, and pregnant with a fourth.
Her sweet mother, Susan, was diagnosed with cancer in 2015, at the time given a life expectancy of two years. Like her daughter, Susan has an irrepressible spirit and zest for living and grandiose adventures. I've had the pleasure of traveling parts of the globe with her and her husband, Ron, a few times over the years and am endlessly inspired by Sue's passion for culture and people.
After her diagnosis, Sue took smart steps to protect the health she had but hell or high water can't keep that woman from traipsing around the planet to visit friends, seeing sites she'd always hoped to lay eyes on and experiencing all of the tastes, sounds, tunes, textures she possibly could. When she isn't globetrotting, she's back at home with family, engaged in her kids finding their true loves and falling into that happiest of roles as beloved grandmother.
On a recent trip in Scotland with a girlfriend, Sue fell ill and was flown home, told by doctors there was nothing left to be done; she had two weeks at the most. That was last week. She's now in her home in a hospice bed, saying goodbyes to the many souls she's touched with her light and love.
Emily told me yesterday her mom seems at peace, ready to move on from this broken body. Emily added that she'd heard dying was like bringing a child into the world, like your body is giving birth to spirit. The body goes into this very protective place, a quiet place where maybe you want to be alone. Emily watched as her dad wrapped his arms around Sue, blanketed knees pulled up to her chest.
I sat outside yesterday while an odd sprinkle fell from a sunny sky dappled with a few non-threatening clouds. The sun was brilliant, and the spits of rain were magical. I thought of Sue. I thought of how our lives are touched by people. I thought of family and health. I thought of my dear madamfo, Emily, and how hard it must be to let go of the person who brought you into the world, while preparing to bring in your own.
"Nothing grows in comfort zones," she said before our conversation ended.
It's funny how some people in your life just stick, despite time, distance and life changes. Thank goodness for their honesty, wisdom, wit and grounded openness to all of the character-building moments life presents. Thank goodness for old friends.
First run of the day on a slope I'd skied hundreds of times before. Late-morning sun had warmed the April snow to a nice corn, and my Dynastars were making lovely arcing turns. The next moment, I felt snow grab the inside edge of my left ski, jerking my leg backwards as the rest of me continued forward. The pop of my knee reverberated in my ears, and down I went, sliding off towards the edge of an aspen grove into the shade. When I came to a stop, I sighed. No tears. No curses. Just quiet.
Not again, I thought. I'd torn my right ACL 15 years earlier going in for a game-winning jump shot, minus the game-winning part. Would've been a lot cooler, but injuries hardly ever happen when we're doing super rad things. It's usually something lame. Like skiing a groomer on Gaper Day dressed in a gold one-piece suit with glitter in your hair.
Even though I knew it'd be futile, I took a deep breath and stood. Both skis were still attached. I braced myself into a slow turn, leaning into my boots. A nauseating sensation followed, like the feeling that my femur had slipped behind my tibia. I crumpled back to the snow. Maybe I could walk a couple hundred yards to the bottom of the hill?
I popped my ski off, took a step, and immediately collapsed. This time the femur-slippage uproar was too much. Reality check. A heavier sigh ensued as I called ski patrol. Ten minutes later, I was once again schussing down the mountain, only this time belly-up on a toboggan. Thank goodness we weren't in the backcountry, I thought.
On the drive home, sadness settled in. As the San Juan Mountains slipped out of view, all I could picture were the impending adventures planned and unplanned that I'd miss out on. No mountain biking. No peak bagging. No trail running. No skiing. No fun.
My husband pulled me from that doleful reverie with a challenge, something he knew I could act upon right away. He said I should make a list. Not a list of all the things I would do when I was better, but rather a list of all that I could accomplish while injured. This was most excellent advice.
With my knee and some whiskey on ice, I opened a new Excel spreadsheet. SURVIVAL BOOK: The Silver Linings Knee-less Checklist, I titled it. At the top, I wrote headings for Task, Deadline, Notes, Date Completed and of course a box to put a big ole satisfying X in. I was surprised by how much stuff I came up with during that primary script.
After an MRI and initial consultation with the orthopedic surgeon a couple of days later, I learned I'd torn my ACL, LCL and meniscus. Surgery would be two weeks from the time of the injury. After the surgery, I would be six weeks non-weight bearing. I'd never been down that long. The projected time before I could be back to my hundred-miles-an-hour lifestyle was six months. October. Forever.
I decided that the overarching goals over the coming days would be 1.) to not run out of things to do, and 2.) to not be miserable. Now, four months post-operation, fresh off a mountain bike ride (ahead of recovery schedule), I can look back on the experience and confidently say that it was not only not miserable but fruitful. Besides three or four days of wallowing in frustration or pity, I made the most of it, and built some character in the process.
Someone told me early on that injuries can be the greatest teachers. I'm a really good student. Here's my cheat sheet on how to not only cope with but triumph over injury:
9. Maintain perspective.
Daily perspective checks were the greatest tool in calling me back to the light when I would start to feel sorry for myself. I'd lost a friend to cancer a few months earlier, and another friend was in the throes of fighting ALS. Both guys were formerly strong, athletic, healthy, 30-something-year-olds. Those were real battles. Mine was just a knee injury with a shelf life, not a terminal illness.
From Googling professional athletes with similar injuries, like Lindsey Vonn and Emelie Forsberg, to hanging out with friends going through their own recoveries, there's guaranteed comfort in commiseration. Note: this is not your free pass to a pity party but a chance to vent, laugh about and acknowledge the suffering with someone who gets it.
7. Do stuff.
I read that Lindsey Vonn got a puppy after her most recent epic knee injury. Hmm, I thought. Maybe it's time to get a puppy. Then a wise friend suggested she probably had someone to take that puppy for walks and clean up after it. This was a terrible idea. The point was that it's amazing how much time you have when you can't ride your bike or fill up the hours with long days in the mountains. Brew kombucha. Grow tomatoes. Research how to build shotskis. Watch every single NCAA March Madness game.
6. Treat yo'self.
Little comforts go a long way when your body is healing. Since I couldn't fully submerge in water, a simple foot bath was the ultimate luxury for me. I would take a book and a glass of wine into the bathroom, draw a tub of steaming water, soak my feet, maybe even shave my legs. The warmth was good for circulation, too. I also ordered a stylish pair of Crutcheze pads for my crutches. Game changer.
5. Limit screen time.
An empowering move for me: I quit Strava cold turkey and weaned myself off Instagram. While movies and Netflix were a nice distraction every now and then, I made myself busy with other time fillers, like listening to records or radio programs. Okay, I binged on Master of None, but that's a really clever show.
4. Feel the burn.
After surgery, as soon as I could get on the floor, I created a 30-minute daily workout routine conducive to my injury. My circuit included 30 pushups, 500 crunches of various positions, all sorts of leg lifts and stretching. While I watched my quad muscle disappear, my triceps and core - two weaker spots prior to the injury - benefited immensely.
3. Do physical therapy.
I was an angsty 17-year-old after my first ACL reparation so opted out of physical therapy then. Bad idea. I've paid for it ever since. This time around, I went to physical therapy twice a week for four months. My physical therapist is one of my good friends, so each session served as the highlight of my week. Not only was I kind of exercising, but I could easily measure progress, hear positive feedback and commiserate with fellow recover-ees (see #9).
2. Be the shuttle driver.
Offer your services to others while you're down and out. Whether that's an airport run or coordinating with friends who want a lift to the trailhead for a ski, bike or backpacking adventure so they don't have to deal with a car shuttle, now's your chance to be that guy or gal. This one always comes back around.
1. Be grateful.
Gratitude is good medicine. Instead of focusing on what's been taken from you, concentrate on what you have. Beyond thinking grateful thoughts, I started writing Thank You cards to anyone and everyone, whether they cooked a meal, or came over to hangout while I was couch-bound, or sent me packages in the mail stuffed with chocolate and trashy celebrity magazines. Nothing will make you more grateful for your own afflictions as reading about the Kardashian's.
If you're getting after it in the great outdoors, chances are you've either been here before or know of someone going through it. Enjoy your health while you have it. Be safe. Be primal. And, when you discover that you're in fact breakable, too, take heart. There's more to life than gnar shredding. Besides, not much feels as good as that first time you get back on the bicycle, or, dare I imagine, skis...
It's not uncommon to pickup folks hitchhiking on Highway 550 north of Durango. Skiers, bikers, hikers - all of us have thumbed a ride at some point after a grand adventure. There's a great chance though that no one hitchhikes more on that stretch of road than a backpacking addict named Stew.
I picked up Stew this time last year, actually, and didn't even consider that our paths would cross again. So when I saw the scrawny, sunscreen-slathered old man today standing with outstretched thumb, smiling in blissed-out mountain highness on the side of the Million Dollar Highway, I happily pulled over. He tossed his pack in and said he was excited to see a familiar face. He remembered me! I couldn't believe it.
"That is a very cute outfit," he complimented sweetly.
I smiled in gratitude, refreshed to hear someone thought my go-to, washed-out summer dress is still cute. Not that Stew is a fashionista. From under his baseball cap were a pair of dark prescription sunglasses perched on a weathered nose. He told me his orange tech shirt and evergreen zip-off pants were two years old, and every year he gets a new pair of boots. They look like huge blocks below his rickety knees.
"They're a size 12," he laughed, showing me his Hobbit feet. "I'm five feet, seven inches tall and only weigh 135 pounds."
This, he explained to me, is why he has never skied. He even built cross country skis in Boulder for a company he's convinced was bought for a fortune many years later. But he's never skied. A New Orleans native, he used to always migrate to Arizona as soon as snow started flying in the high country. These days, he winters in Durango at the Days End Motel, where he can watch wildlife from his window, walk the River Trail when the weather is inclement and traipse around the snowy mesas during the rest of the season.
"I am always hiking," he swears.
Surprisingly pale for someone who spends so much time outside, Stew told me he hasn't been sick in 40 years, but he always has the snivels because he hangs out in chilly places, he surmises. Unsurprisingly, Stew is a vegan. He eats two meals a day of granola. In the morning, it's mixed with dried berries, and in the afternoon, with corn chips and nuts. He doesn't drink alcohol or caffeine, but relishes a cup of Bengal Spice Tea from Celestial Seasonings each morning.
"It's the only non-organic thing I consume, but it's all-natural, so...," he adds.
He doesn't even snack between meals, and dessert, he insists, is part of every meal because the "granola is naturally sweet." I laughed to myself, picturing all of the men in my life who are hopelessly devoted to sugar. There is just no way I would ever hear anyone say those words and be satisfied about it.
The most fascinating tidbit to me is that Stew doesn't look forward to a cold beer at the end of his wild wanderings, nor does he crave ice cream, or donuts, or burgers, or any of those other primal urges I thought were a given for all of humanity after we do something in the elements. So what does he crave?
"Going to Natural Grocers to restock for the next trip," he shrugs.
As we're chatting, I keep expecting a wave of unwashed male to fill the car, but the smell never came. This character from the woods was literally a breath of fresh air. It was like he'd been dipped in mountain streams, brushed with morning dew and kissed by alpine breezes. He might as well be on the label for washing detergent with the snuggly bear.
Over the 25-mile drive, Stew patiently answered my peppering of questions. Does he take a book or journal? Nope. His luxury is a handheld radio tuned into NPR, while his most giggly pleasure is the Thistle and Shamrock Celtic music program on Sunday evenings.
He really, really likes Celtic music and was pleasantly surprised that, if he ever finds himself in his tent on a Saturday afternoon, which sometimes happens this time of year due to storms, he's able to pickup the Celtic program transmitted from Farmington. I ask if he's ever been to the Celtic Festival in Durango.
"I've never been to a music festival," he says matter-of-factly. "I do not like crowds."
I should've guessed that. Stew doesn't own a phone, or a car, or a house. His brothers and sisters are scattered around the country, from his roots in Louisiana to the Pacific Northwest and the red rocks of Sedona. They write letters to him. His address is a Durango outdoor shop called Backcountry Experience, where he purchases most of his gear because "they specialize in the lightweight stuff."
They used to like backpacking, but not so much anymore. His parents passed away about 16 years ago and left each child with a comfortable sum of money, so Stew is able to live solely off his inheritance. His expenses are about as paired down as it gets, especially because he gets the "good customer" discount at the Days End. It's about $20 more than the "cheap-oh's" down the street but quieter and with way better views. He said a night costs $79.
Stew's routine is seasonal, consistent and spontaneous all at once. His summer schedule starts in mid-March when a taxi cab meets him at the Days End in Durango at 5:30 a.m. and drops him off at the Andrews Lake Trailhead. From there, he has no plan and simply marches off into the Weminuche for two weeks, exploring the piney slopes, wildlife-bedecked meadows and craggy peaks.
After two weeks, he marches back to the same trailhead and hitches a ride to Durango, where he spends exactly 1.5 days to restock his supplies at Natural Grocers before getting scooped up by the taxi to start again on the same old brand-new adventure. At Natural Grocers, he buys granola and berries in bulk and a bag of Garden of Eatin' yellow corn chips. He empties his concoction into former Garden of Eatin' chip bags because, unlike with Ziploc bags, the food scent is trapped in the packaging. With this little trick, Stew has never had to hang his food in the wilderness and instead sleeps with his backpack and food in the tent with him.
"I've never had an unwanted visitor," he smiles.
Apart from seeing day hikers on his entry and exit point at Andrews Lake, Stew aims to not see a soul when he's out in the wild. It's not that he doesn't like people; it's just that he prefers being alone.
"But I'm not alone, you know?" he looks at me.
I get it. He tells me he had a couple of girlfriends in high school but then after his first backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail, he knew backpacking was the life for him.
So instead of conversing with a mate, Stew meditates and does yoga. Anytime he sprains an ankle, twists a knee or cuts a finger, he conjures up a self-prescribed yoga treatment and swears he heals. He's never been to a medical facility or seen a doctor in his entire adult life.
"I'm very careful, but can be kind of stupid sometimes," he says, sharing a couple of snippets about falling on scree slopes and breaking his glasses, or getting stabbed with a stick from a bushwhacking fiasco.
I ask him about his meditation. Does he have a mantra? He does, and it depends on what's on his heart. This last journey, he was repeating words like brotherhood, love, harmony in an effort to send positive vibes to his brothers and sisters in the path of Hurricane Harvey. He's been able to get updates, thanks to the radio, and is very pleased with NPR's coverage of the record-breaking rainfall and flooding.
When we got to Durango's town limits, I asked him where he'd like to be dropped off. Of course the Days End, so we drove past my usual turn for home, which I pointed out, and he said he remembered. I added that we have quite the wildlife parade coming through our backyard, which he said he remembered, and then I said a bear had been getting in our hot tub, and he said he remembered that, too. So I called him on malarkey because this is a new development, and there's no way he knew that.
"Well, maybe I dreamed it," he shrugged. "Turn here."
So I pulled into the hotel parking lot and parked. I took his pack from the back of the car and was surprised - or not - to feel its incredible lightness. Maybe 15-pounds? Remarkable. I handed it to him with his hiking sticks. He put both down and extended two skinny arms. He embraced me around the neck, almost childlike, and I hugged hard back. I gave him my business card and asked him to reach out if he ever needed a ride, and then I asked if I could write a story on him.
"Oh no, I don't do stories," he said seriously. "I like my privacy."
I feel comfortable sharing this story here because this isn't Stew's story; this is my story about an interaction with a spirited soul. You, on the other hand, can't tell anyone Stew's story because it's his to share. You should instead bottle his words up like I did and walk away feeling a little lighter and widely blessed knowing that you just might have the chance to pickup Stew someday on the side of Highway 550. If you do, tell him I said hello.
There's little use of a runny nose except that it gives you an excuse to pause, consider your good health when you have it, and pocket a handkerchief.
I'm learning a lot about chinks in the armor this year. Instead of bemoaning my weaknesses, I'm determined to flip the negative on its head and look at it from the other angle. It's easy to point out the bad. News channels thrive on it, in fact. But not me. I think that's why I got this midsummer head cold: it's one more opportunity to build some character, swim upstream, and, by golly, be Pollyanna because why not?
So here's a good story to break up the universal doldrums.
Last week, Nick and I drove a thousand miles to see Shakey Graves play a 45-minute set at the Traveler's Rest Festival in Missoula, Montana. We hardly listen to his music through speakers, but if he's within reach, we'll go hell or high water. He's just that spectacular live. Why?
Shakey Graves, or Alejandro Rose-Garcia (his real name), has a gift. A staggering gift of music. There's no hesitation to share this gift with the world, or anyone who will listen. I've never seen anyone put forth the effort he does into one set. It's impossible to not walk away impressed, inspired, slack-jawed, scratching your head. What was that? What was that thing, that je ne sais quoi thing, he left up there for anyone to pick up and walk away with?
My sister friend, Krissy, and I used to call it the hand thing. That thing that words can't capture so you just throw a hand out, open, giving, receiving, expressing all at once.
Obviously it was passion. It's hard to tear your eyes away from someone doing something wholeheartedly. I want more of that, want to be more of that, want to surround myself with people who leave it all out there, too. When we share our gifts with one another, the bad stuff gets muted for even 45-minutes. It's a blessing.
So, go forth despite your head colds, money woes and family dramas. Shake the grave off, cast your worries aside, roll the bones. Your life depends on it.