What Cancer Taught Me About Experiencing the Outdoors

Near my home in Durango, Colorado, just a few blocks from Animas Mountain, I have hiked and ran that trail hundreds of times. However, one afternoon walking under a slanting beam of sunlight, it felt different. It was mud and ice caked on the switchbacks. It was a mellow day in the foothills of the Rockies, with the sage and juniper’s colors muted, and the air slightly crisp from being surrounded by winter. A more mundane outing could not have been imagined. There are no trees, shrubs, rocks, or cacti I don’t know the contours of. The fact that I was there was itself an euphoric experience. It wasn’t the trail that was different, but it was me. A strange blessing has emerged from undergoing a draconian breast cancer treatment last year. My eyes are easily opened to the world’s beauty by just looking at it.

Having completed surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and 12 months of targeted drug therapy, and having a clean bill of health-at least for now-people ask me what I’ve learned. They’re writing tautly in their faces the expectancy they are feeling. They even impatiently wait for me sometimes. The processes of genuine healing cannot be summarized in a sound bite, because they are so complex. Their stalling and leaping span decades and years. The treatment process was a great leap in healing that began at the cellular level more than 15 years ago.

In my fledgling adult years, I was incredibly wound up. One of my superiors told me after I moved to Santa Fe to work for this magazine that I was so intense about doing a good job that it unnerved him. As a result of my upbringing and intensive education, I was fettered by a sort of maniacal perfectionism. The part of me that wanted to be free from that was unable to do so. In familiar suffering, there can be a certain sense of safety.

It was no accident that I landed in Santa Fe. During its vast deserts and under giant western skies, this process of loosening up began. I was amazed at how much more spacious it felt out there, free from the humidity of eastern cities. My first road bike ride was on the cliffs outside of town, and I learned to climb. My boyfriend and I would spend after-work hours exploring the city. We would go bouldering after work to soaring alpine peaks for city-lights views after sunset.ghts. Sometimes, I paused long enough to observe more about my surroundings when we moved fast or hard. As the desert before dawn’s orchestral stillness, as if everything were waiting to begin, was especially beautiful to me.

Being outside on a regular basis was a privilege and a blessing to me. My nervous system was slowly unwinding as a result of this practice. As I internalized cultural standards surrounding productivity and egotism, I also prioritized activities that emphasized speed, strength, and skill over those that emphasized slowness, attunement, and contemplation. Running was more important to me than meandering and long backcountry ski days, as if everything should be spectacular and impressive. My extracurricular activities were incorporated into my internal resumes since high school.

In addition, I noticed how this point of view seemed to be encouraged among my outdoor culture peers, or at least not contested. Essentially, it was a patriarchal view that emphasized achievement over nourishment and being over sensing, receiving, and communing. As part of my job, I occasionally glanced through this magazine and noticed a lot of men doing bold, dangerous things. It’s great that you said that. Men are my favorite. Then there is adventure. However, I internalized both the activities I chose and the trappings of a so-called outdoor lifestyle, causing an imbalance of sorts.

While I was happy to receive free technical wear, I had also adopted a certain belief system that held that everyone outdoors had to dress a certain way. (Perhaps he wasn’t fond of my frumpy sweats and cotton T-shirts.) I had a difficult time distinguishing between external pressure and internal expectations because they seemed to mesh seamlessly.

Slowly but surely, and despite myself, I have gravitated towards a less rigid and more intuitive way of being over the years. A big part of this is growing old. It’s my 40th birthday. I naturally need less positive self-reinforcement as my body is slowing down. My slow-dying habits finally caught up with me when I was forced to not only slow down, but also stop: I got cancer.

While my tumor was small, the type of cancer was aggressive and had already spread, so I needed industrial-strength chemotherapy. Sometimes it took me days to leave the house after an infusion. It was like a landmine exploded inside of me. It was uncomfortable, I was scours and raw in the stomach, my head slowed and viscous, and my sight was hazy as if I were staring through agitated water. Occasionally, all I could do was go outside and look at the trees when I didn’t feel like skiing or hiking. The feeling of unmooring and adrift was overwhelming. Being cut off from my perpetual motion, which I thought oriented me to my identity on some level, I felt like I had lost my identity.

During a winter afternoon, while sitting on the sofa, I watched the overcast sky through the skylight and listened to a small flock of geese overhead squawking. A rectangle of bright haze was flying above me when they happened to flap by. Momentarily, I had a glimpse of the world I had left behind, and it suddenly became clear that it was not so far away as I had thought it would be.

In the past months, I have become more aware of the nature right around me, such as the ducks and herons that inhabit my neighborhood and how plants unhurriedly transform over time. The textured rocks I had never really noticed before, and the way shallow water changes color with every movement, became apparent to me. A deer tiptoed precariously across a river one morning as I took full advantage of the early morning light.

In spite of the trauma of treatment, it offered a new perspective on the former complexity of life through the simplicity it lacked. As my knowledge of the natural world began to grow, I began to realize how much is lost when moving at a predetermined speed with a single purpose. Suddenly, it seems absurd, since the earth encompasses who and what we are; it’s what we’re made of, our home, and our future. Any limitation on our relationship with it or understanding of it is tragic.

In the past, I realized that even though I cherished my time outdoors, sometimes I viewed it as something to be checked off a mental to-do list en route to something else. I had not been aware of a subtle spirit of acquisition, a self-centered neediness and haste that had spoiled my deepest sense of presence. By looking at nature through only my own needs, I may have cultivated an extractive mindset.

It is now possible for me to be outside fully in different ways, ways I used to find sleepy. In a meadow between two cliffs, a friend and I sat down and painted with watercolors. Occasionally I just stand still and watch birds, which I once would have thought was laughably boring (although I am terrible at it). I sit, close my eyes, and listen sometimes in a thicket. (It becomes more interesting when you are patient enough not to move too much.)

In fact, long-term unlearning is about much more than slowing down and ditching tech gear. The outdoors is my favorite activity, especially racing up mountains, hiking, and skiing. A challenge is essential to our well-being. As well as appreciating a piece of well-made equipment. (I have collected an embarrassing amount of it.) This process is rather about being able to choose how to relate to nature in any given moment and not be so limited by your own feelings and expectations. That freedom promotes a deeper, more sincere, sustainable, and nourishing connection with one’s surroundings, and with oneself. There’s a possibility that they aren’t so far apart after all.

The other week, I was in Sedona, Arizona, visiting my mom. During one of her naps, I slipped up into a canyon quickly. In jeans and a T-shirt, I went out in my sneakers, assuming that I wouldn’t be gone long. I was so entranced by the steep canyon walls, red spires, and rocky knobs, as well as the spring-like greenery, that I continued going. In spite of the pandemic, I felt buoyant, as if something was just in the air.

Ebullient, I began trotting on the way back. It was just a feeling. Despite not wearing a sports bra, it didn’t seem to matter. Every few hundred yards, I would break into a sprint and careen through the ponderosas and terra-cotta monoliths. Simple and free, it was like that. There was no rush for me. I wasn’t thinking about achieving a certain speed or mileage. An organism moving through space was just a pure, senseless experience.

Something else seems to be naturally happening as my perfectionism transforms and expresses itself more subtly. There is a reclamation of my humanity beyond words and culture, a turning toward reverence on a level beyond words. The disease let me down in all its misery, destroying what I expected of myself and what the world owed me. Being in nature is the only way I’m able to respond to those entitlements now, which is wonder.

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