(this piece is printed in Volume 11, “Choss, Solos, and Reflection” Get your copy, or subscribe HERE)
Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I would like to see you in better living conditions.
I’ve always been a sucker for men with incredible strength-to-weight ratios. My husband, a wiry 5´11˝, coming in at 139 pounds on a good day, has the most gorgeous, well-defined arms I’ve ever laid eyes on. They’re not huge, but they’re capable of amazing feats. One of my favorite things in the world is watching him climb or build stuff, those biceps fully engaged, forearms pumped. It’s like he becomes this force of nature, one with whatever he’s doing, master of his universe. It’s beauty in motion.
When we first started hanging out seven years ago, I was into “soft” adventures, like hiking and world travel. He, on the other hand, was way more hardcore in outdoor endeavors, an avid climber, mountain biker, skier. I ached for his arms to learn these things too and was grateful he wanted me to join.
On our initial outings, scrambling through slot canyons or across chossy ridgelines, I often found myself in the uber-attractive beached-whale position, struggling mightily to not look like a total amateur. But I pressed on, laughing at myself as I maneuvered the learning curves, because I knew the reward was always worth the awkward effort. Thankfully, even though you can barely see them, my muscles grew to fit my ambition, and my maladroit moments are now fewer and farther between.
Those early days weren’t all conquering summits and recapping perfect sun-soaked days. Rather (more than I care to admit) I would get super frustrated with my weaknesses, embarrassed that I couldn’t do this or that, fearful he wouldn’t like me when I failed. In these psycho-hosebeast moods, I would bring up girls stronger, faster, better than me. I called the collective her “Gnar Chick.”
“Wouldn’t you rather be with Gnar Chick?” I’d prod my strong-armed man.
At first, he’d lovingly explain that it was me he wanted, not a more adept skier, climber, biker. But I couldn’t let it go. Finally, his typical cool, calm demeanor snapped, and a deserved tirade unleashed about how I had to stop pushing him toward this fictitious character and just embrace wherever I was on my athletic journey. So I dropped Gnar Chick talk, and our adventures got way more fun.
Thank goodness I got (mostly) over this comparison syndrome before Instagram. Now I can just be inspired by Gnar Chick, grateful for coming into my own version of the collective her. These days, I even have a few Gnar Chick crushes, like Taylor Freesolo Rees and this other badass I’m about to introduce you to.
Last year, I was flipping through Instagram when I saw that Alex Honnold, one of my strength-to-weight crushes (I have a lot of crushes), had a girlfriend. I’d read that Alex was a little shy and socially awkward. He’s darn likeable for these reasons, so I was really excited that he had found someone to share the good times with. Social media’s weird like that, like, how you can be genuinely happy for a complete stranger.
I thought, damn, Alex’s girlfriend must be a Gnar Chick, but when I checked her photos, I quickly saw that she was, in fact, NOT the typical Gnar Chick. In lieu of BASE jumping and sponsorships was the sweetest creature ever. Though there were climbing photos and majestic mountain scenes scattered throughout her feed, Sanni McCandless was really this all American girl next door adorned with a soul-melting smile and dimples. She looked so fun and carefree.
There was a link to her blog, Thirty Fives Degrees West. Turns out she’s a great writer too. Her heart-on-sleeve prose and self-deprecating sense of humor reveal a girl who wrestles with improving both her skill and attitude in the great outdoors—just like me—while trying to live her biggest, boldest life. Her blog introduction captures her essence well:
“When I was a sophomore in high school, I was sitting in Spanish class, mindlessly tapping my pencil in front of me, when it suddenly slipped from my fingers and flew up and over the front of my tiny wooden desk. Without a second thought, I hurled myself forward, swinging onto the front legs of my chair as I attempted to catch it in mid-air. I missed by a long shot, flailing my arms and teetering precariously for a brief second before crashing face-first into the ground. Still in the seated position, I hung over the front of my desk with my face on the floor and my ass in the air, looking at my pencil, questioning my life choices up to this point. It was at this moment that I realized life is not clean or pretty or perfect, but actually a string of sometimes wonderful and sometimes mortifying events that give you a weird, but overall engaging sense of character. It is, in fact, hilarious.”
Sanni exposes bits of her “engaging sense of character” through welcoming narratives following this intro, so I pieced together her story, filling in the blanks after a recent phone conversation we shared.
Born in Seattle and raised in North Carolina, Cassandra “Sanni” McCandless is known for being eternally nice and bright beyond her years. When she was twenty-two, her older sister taught her how to climb, encouraging her to just try her best. It was a gentle start for the noncompetitive, self-proclaimed “half athletic dabbler.”
After earning a psychology degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Sanni moved back to the Pacific Northwest. She was thriving in independence and a vibrant community—even her tomato plants were sprouting. Her climbing and friend group was mostly composed of strong, supportive, wildly entertaining women. One night in November 2015, she and one of these gals went to hear Alex Honnold on his book tour for Alone on the Wall.
Sanni perked up at his honest answers to audience questions. Single and weary of the complexities of online dating, she’d imposed a new life rule on herself to give her number to any men she thought were cute. Alex, she thought, was cute, so, when she and her girlfriend walked up to the table to have him sign their co-copy of his book, Sanni gave him her number, then bolted for the door.
As they were leaving, a guy in line ran after her and said that Alex was all geeked that a cute girl gave him her number. Flattered and giggling, Sanni and her girlfriend departed to Seattle’s lamplit streets. Three weeks later, when Alex returned to Seattle for the final night of his book tour, he texted Sanni for a dinner date. She picked him up from the climbing gym, and Cedar Wright climbed in the back seat.
“It seems fitting that Cedar was on our first date,” Sanni says, laughing.
So the trio had pizza before Alex’s talk, and then everyone met at Sanni’s house afterward for a bonfire. It occurred to Sanni later that inviting Alex to meet all of her amazing, beautiful, single girlfriends might have been a bad idea, but they didn’t seem to matter to the guy who couldn’t wipe the grin off his face. Six months later, Sanni had packed up her life in Seattle to join Alex for a climbing trip in Switzerland.
It was in the Alps that the former “half athletic dabbler” developed a curiosity of her own abilities. Sanni says Alex stirred her interest to try harder, set objectives, cultivate tenacity and a willingness to scrabble her way up holds. She discovered that small fingers were her greatest strength. But as her muscles strengthened, so did her fear.
“I was afraid to lead, afraid of getting my foot caught behind the rope, afraid to fall,” she says. “It became clear that getting better meant facing my fear of falling, learning to transform fearful energy into focused and controlled energy.”
Alex was instrumental in pushing Sanni to not let her fear get the best of her on the wall. Acknowledge the anxious thoughts, and then move through them intentionally, he’d say.
“Often my fear on the wall occurs when I project anxiety into the future, even if everything is fine in the moment,” writes Sanni. “Yes, I can grab this hold, but what if I can’t grab the next one? What if it gets too hard? In my personal life, my plans are currently as flexible and moldable as my creativity allows, and I find myself engaged and inspired by the emptiness. What if I took this approach in my climbing? Instead of being afraid that I won’t be able to handle the move in front of me, I’m instead excited by the opportunity to figure it out—maybe on the first try, or maybe 450 attempts later.”
As Sanni’s climbing prowess escalated, so did her relationship with Alex. They traveled near and far, scaling walls, working on projects together and separately. Inspiring and not-so-inspiring climbing days came and went, and Sanni’s techniques for navigating stress triggers in the outdoors seemed to translate seamlessly into dealing with life’s inevitable trials.
“When I first started dating Alex, people would ask me about death,” she writes on her blog. “They wanted to know how I felt about his profession and the risk involved in soloing. But I wasn’t wondering if he would die; I was wondering if we even liked each other. Instead of deep contemplations on risk and consequence, I felt an intense curiosity to learn more about relationships in his world. I was drawn to partnerships that mimicked our own situation, half professional climber, half athletic dabbler.”
Nicole and Ueli Steck were one of these couples who Sanni saw as an example “of a possible future yet to come.” So when Ueli died earlier this year during a climbing accident on Everest, Sanni was forced to face the reality that people she loves live their lives “dangerously close to the edge.”
“Now, I suddenly feel the need to establish a new stance on death, not just because of Alex, but because I’m clearly growing up,” she writes. “It’s funny how even writing this, I feel like it’s inappropriate and morbid. I’m somehow breaking an unwritten code that death should be discussed quietly and privately. But I hate the unspoken. For my whole life I’ve said what I feel when I feel it. I don’t hold grudges or hang on to past offenses, instead I (sometimes awkwardly) bring up issues moments after they occur. I want death to be no different. No longer taboo, no longer off-limits.
“Because no matter how much we like to avoid thinking about it, death is as much a part of living as life itself,” she continues. “In modern society, dying is something to be feared. Something to run away from at all costs. And while I would fight for my life to the very end, I also want to know that if I die, the people around me will look back on our time together fondly, not tinged with tragedy and devastation, but thankful for the time we had together. I would never want my death to take the joy of living from someone else.
“It’s natural and healthy to grieve, but maybe it’s also ok when the time is up. Not because we won’t miss the shit out of people we love, but because death is coming for us all. Out of respect, we should live life fully while we’re here, thankful that our loved ones did the same.”
With resolve to honor this awareness, Sanni kept pushing through plateaus, becoming more comfortable climbing 5.12s. Meanwhile, Alex focused on training for the holy grail of his climbing career: free soloing El Capitan, that three-thousand-foot granite face looming over Yosemite Valley.
In early June, the weather window appeared, so Alex picked a day. The couple agreed it’d be easiest if Sanni left Yosemite for the main event. She played it tough until after she kissed him good-bye and headed out of The Valley.
“When I drove away, I just let my brain go there,” she recalls. “It’s like when you’re home alone and you think of all of the worst case scenarios, like, I’m going to pull open the shower curtain, and there’s going to be a man there. You’re clearly not doing yourself any good to indulge the fear.”
The morning he chalked up and put rubber sole to rock, Sanni’s girlfriends distracted her with pancakes in a kitchen far away in Las Vegas. They put a broom in her hand and made her sweep—anything to keep the nerves at bay. As peace settled and laughter brought her out of reverie, Sanni realized that the day didn’t have to be the worst ever; it could end up being the best. Her hope proved true when she got the call that he’d successfully topped out in less than four hours. Proud, ecstatic relief flooded her soul.
In the beginning days of their relationship, Sanni often wondered why Alex didn’t want to date a more able climber, someone “way cooler and more poised and hilarious”—someone like Gnar Chick. He would just roll his eyes and smile, like good dudes do, reminding her that she was who he wanted to be with and that, above all, stoke for life makes up for any lack of gnar.
“You could be a 5.10 climber for the rest of your life,” he says. “It’s your attitude at the crag, your attitude every day, that counts.”
“The parallels between creating a fulfilling life and pushing myself in the outdoors continue to appear,” writes Sanni. “I’m always better off when I move toward the things I don’t understand because they give me the opportunity to learn more. I’m always stronger when I push myself to confront fear because I learn to trust and rely on my own body and mind. I’m a more open and receptive human when I don’t resist what the universe has put in front of me, but instead move gracefully toward it.”
The last year has roused Sanni to move gracefully toward launching a coaching platform so she can help others take control of their own stoke, their own happiness, and live courageous, intentional lives. Why?
“Because feeling powerless will never serve you,” writes Sanni. “And the longer you wallow, the harder it becomes to take action. When you live intentionally, you become a force of nature. You begin to create instead of react. Your energy shifts. Suddenly, there’s not only momentum in your life, but it’s moving in the direction you wanted to go. That doesn’t just serve you; it serves everyone around you. When you create a fulfilling life for yourself, you raise the bar on what success should look like—you demonstrate that it’s not just about functioning; it’s about thriving.”
As a transition coach for folks in the outdoor industry, Sanni encourages people of varied backgrounds, goals, and abilities to stop making fear-based decisions. She’s not a personal trainer, counselor, mentor, or therapist, she says. Her goal isn’t to advocate for everyone to avoid commitment and embrace van life but, instead, to find a lifestyle that works best for them, one that is fulfilling and passion driven.
“Life coaching has the propensity to come across as really douchey,” she says, laughing. “I’m not here to tell you how it’s done. I’m here to help you through a process because only you know what’s best for you. The goal is to feel fulfillment and balance, not to turn your back on everything that’s important.”
From making time to pursue a goal—outdoors, artistic, or otherwise—to learning how to find balance in relationships rooted in the outdoors, life’s too short for fear to steer. Because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you’re Gnar Chick or Totally Rad Dude; you’re alive in this moment, breathing, reading Sanni’s words:
“The more I reflect on my experiences, the more apparent it is that I have a lot of anxiety about losing people in my life. And as a climber, I’m beginning to see just how closely to the line we all play. But, I want to open myself up to other ways of thinking about our mortality. I want to be honest with myself about the realities of life and death—they are both unavoidable, both natural, and both reasons to celebrate our brief time on this planet.”
For more info on Sanni’s life work or to schedule a complimentary session, check out sannimccandless.com. Her blog is thirtyfivedegreeswest.wordpress.com.
Somewhere on the road between Colorado and Montana, Garrison Keillor's blustery, oak-barrel voice came on the radio. It was the September 8, 2008, installment of his show, The Writer's Almanac. He shared a short poem called "Black Umbrellas" by Rick Agran. It goes like this:
On a rainy day in Seattle stumble into any coffee shop
and look wounded by the rain.
Say Last time I was in I left my black umbrella here.
A waitress in a blue beret will pull a black umbrella
from behind the counter and surrender it to you
like a sword at your knighting.
Unlike New Englanders, she'll never ask you
to describe it, never ask you what day you came in,
she's intimate with rain and its appointments.
Look positively reunited with this black umbrella
and proceed to Belltown and Pike Place.
Sip cappuccino at the Cowgirl Luncheonette on First Ave.
Visit Buster selling tin salmon silhouettes
undulant in the wind, nosing ever into the oncoming,
meandering watery worlds, like you and the black umbrella,
the one you will lose on purpose at the day's end
so you can go the way you came
into the world, wet looking.
The poem ended, and Garrison signed off the daily five-minute show he's hosted since 1993 with his classic signature, "Be well, do good work, and keep in touch."
Hands on the wheel, eyes looking through the Wyoming plains, I snapped back to driving. In a few lines, I'd been swept on a soaking adventure through rainy Seattle. I met a barista in a blue beret. I had a newfound appreciation for black umbrellas.
Garrison wasn't new to me, but this is the moment I first remember fully appreciating the gift he brings to the world. For Garrison, born Gary Edward Keillor in 1942, storytelling isn't optional; it's indispensable. Literature isn't his first love; it's a life source. He's wholeheartedly devoted to perfecting his craft as a writer, observational humorist and storyteller, reminding the American people that listening to one another relay the mundane details of a day is what keeps us grounded.
"There's a lot of power in listening to one person...sitting and talking to you...you're pulled in, in ways that technology and art and all cannot," he said in a 2014 interview with PBS.
When he was 13-years-old in his hometown of Anoka, Minnesota, a doctor told Gary he couldn't play football due to a heart issue. He "took it as a cue to do something else that was brave" and approached his local paper. He knew they didn't have a sports writer, so he asked if he could do it.
"Instead of sitting on the bench, I sat at the top of the stands in the press box with men from the local radio station who were broadcasting the game," he recalled in that same PBS interview.
He gave himself the penname "Garrison" and went on to attend the University of Minnesota, where he earned a degree in English in 1966. After a stint in New York, he returned to Minnesota for a job at Minnesota Public Radio in 1969.
Five years later, Garrison launched a radio variety show called A Prairie Home Companion. Forty-three years later on Saturday afternoons, four million listeners tune in to over 700 NPR stations across the country to hear live musical performances, storytelling rife with man-made sound effects, spiritual lessons, sensual vignettes, surprising truths and not-so-true stories in a format that’s somehow survived the steel heart of the digital age.
Garrison wrote and hosted every episode nearly uninterrupted until his retirement from the show in 2016. One of his most beloved additions to the show was the “news” from a fictional Midwestern town called Lake Wobegon, "where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average."
Los Angeles Times writer Robert Lloyd wrote that it would be wrong to categorize Lake Wobegon simply as nostalgia:
"It's...an ordinarily eccentric small town big enough to contain all life's joys and sorrows and, despite its sheen of Protestant, passive-aggressive politeness, a multitude of sins."
Exposing the eccentric side of ordinary is what Garrison does best. To honor this talent, he received the 2007 John Steinbeck Award given to artists who capture "the spirit of Steinbeck's empathy, commitment to democratic values, and belief in the dignity of the common man."
"Nothing human is beneath a writer's attention," he shared in a 2001 article.
Beyond writing, Garrison also sings and does voice-overs, winning a Grammy in 1988. He was given a Medal for Spoken Language from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and, in 1994, was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame.
I was raised in Mississippi, where public radio is considered "too liberal." We didn't grow up gathered round listening to it, much less driving around with it on. Rather, we listened to Rush Limbaugh preach. Simply put, I was the kid sporting Bush/Quayle '92 pins, handing them out to other second graders at Jackson Academy because my mom told me to. It’s not a shock to learn that, as an adult, I classify myself as apolitical.
Since that day driving across the West with images of slick Seattle streets in mind, I've always had in the back of my mind that meeting Garrison Keillor would be the absolute berries. I've never tried to contact him before this week, when I found out he'd be in Durango for his "Just Passing Through" tour.
But I didn't want to just send him some questions he could answer in an email. I wanted to share coffee with him, maybe bake him some of my butterscotch cookies.
You can imagine how slightly crushed I was when I heard that "getting an actual face to face with him doesn't stand a fart's chance in church." Perhaps it's because-—despite being a gifted speaker and towering presence at six-foot-three-inches tall boldly sporting suits with red sneakers-—Garrison is actually quite shy.
Besides, I've heard it's wise to never meet your heroes anyway, so instead I bought nosebleed-section tickets for the 7:30 p.m. show on Tuesday, October 10, at Fort Lewis College's Whalen Gymnasium.
To compensate for not interviewing Garrison Keillor, I reached out to another hero of mine who actually didn't disappoint me when we first met. As a fellow Minnesotan, I figured Missy Votel, editor of the Durango Telegraph, would be well-suited to answer some of the questions I planned to ask Garrison. Her response when I reached out to her via email?
"OMG! Since I once went to a rager next door to Garrison's house on Summit Avenue in Saint Paul, I feel uniquely qualified to answer these."
Question: I've read before that musicians, artists and writers do much better in dreary climates, like those of the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. Colorado, according to some, has too much sunshine to be creative. How does weather affect storytelling and humor?
Missy: "Gray is my favorite color. And what's wrong with a little dark humor? Where would the world be without the Coen Brothers?"
Question: How do Minnesotans (like the Coen Brothers and Bob Dylan) stay optimistic?
Missy: "Most Minnesotans wouldn't hurt a fly (mosquito, yes) but when times get tough, they need to draw deep from those "Minnesota Nice" passive aggressive reservoirs that are handed down through the generations. It's a wonder what a little negative reinforcement can do. And when the going gets really tough, the tough go water skiing or play some broom ball and then hit up the nearest booyah. Booyah!"
Question: How can a small town like Durango nurture its storytellers?
Missy: "Lock yourself in a cabin in the north woods with a can of Folger’s, a bottle of Canadian Mist and some tuna casserole, and let the creative juices flow. Just make sure you know the difference between there, their and they're and it's and its. Grammar penance with Sister Judith always helps."
She added a couple of things the public might not know about her, like that she hates ham salad (don't tell her parents) and is taking up pickleball in advance of her forced relocation to Arizona, which "eventually happens to all good Minnesotans." And, no matter what the future brings, she's fully confident that her Minnesota accent will never change, youbetcha.
Of course I can't close out an article on Garrison Keillor without his thoughts on the greatest lesson he’s learned, according to that super-useful 2014 PBS interview:
"Hurry up. Hurry up and do it. Get it done. You've got work to do. Don't put this off. And don't take the long view, here. You know? Life is today and tomorrow and if you're lucky, next week."
I think he'd probably still stand behind this wise sentiment. Perhaps I'll get to ask him someday at a coffee shop in Seattle while the rain pours outside and we have a passive-aggressive fight over who gets the black umbrella.
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.