Four personal tales of how the outdoors has provided healing power to a sick or broken body and boosted gratitude for life
It’s said that we should be grateful for the hard times for it is they that truly make us who we are. A year ago, if you said that to me, you probably would have gotten a special kind of dirty look. I’ve been on my own since I was 16. I’ve fought and clawed—and studied—for everything I’ve ever had. I thought I knew all about hard times and kicking and scratching my way through them. Until I woke up one morning last year and couldn’t feel my legs.
Darn the Luck
When I came to Colorado as a wayward kid and discovered climbing, mountain biking, snowboarding and every other way you can go nuts under blue skies, with a big Southern “Yeehaw!” I plunged in and the earth became my giant bouncy castle—without the bounce. After years of falling off this and that, my spine was a collection of misaligned vertebrae that were now straining under overtightened muscles resulting from recently triggered PTSD symptoms. Basically, my body was trying to pull itself into some kind of protective turtle shell, with the slight problem that I’m not a turtle and have no shell. Darn the evolutionary luck.
This all happened a little over a year ago and has been one of the most painful, terrifying and transformative experiences of my life.
Earth Medicine: The Science
As I started to heal, my initial forays back into the wild consisted of lying on a patch of warm grass in my front yard under the glistening needles of a favorite pine. I was surprised at just how good that felt; how much it felt like medicine. Only half joking, I started calling those sunning sessions my “earth medicine.” I didn’t know what I was feeling, only that it somehow felt crucial to my recovery.
I know how hippie-dippie that sounds. I know how hippie-dippie I would think it was if you said this to me a year and a half ago. But part of my exciting adventure has included learning about the science and legitimacy of some of these supposed hippie-dippies. For one, me having the urge to go lie on my back flush against the ground in the sunshine? It’s called grounding. It’s a real thing.
In 2015, renowned biophysicist and researcher James Oschman published an article in The Journal of Inflammation Research, titled “The Effects of Grounding (Earthing) on Inflammation, The Immune Response, Wound Healing, and Prevention and Treatment of Chronic Inflammatory and Autoimmune diseases.” Dr. Oschman and his team of researchers found significant scientific validity for the healing effects of this previously suspect prescription, and there’s a host of legit research backing him up (read the study here.) Walking across the earth barefoot? Turns out this PachaMama’s little helper’s effects are better than keto, spinning or living off kale.
When I was able to return to my rock climbing and bushwhacking, I held tight to “sometimes just chilling in the sun” and “watching birds flit about the bushes.” It just felt right. Well guess what? That’s earth medicine, too.
There’s a slew of studies documenting the physical and mental health benefits of Mother Nature beyond exercising in it, especially if done mindfully. It’s called “ecotherapy.” The findings are showing that we need nature almost as much as we need food, water and air. A 2017 Business Insider article reviewed the literature on the benefits of connecting with nature and found that a majority of the research reported a minimum of one association between outdoor activities and positive, healthy outcomes – and not one reported a single negative. They weren’t just looking at playing or exercising outdoors, either. Some of these studies just looked at the impacts of having a “view” outdoors. The positive impacts were especially noticeable on mental health, showing dramatic improvements across the spectrum.
We know in our fiber it’s true. How many times have you found bliss or respite in nature? For some of us, it’s the bosom we run to in our deepest trials.
Cheryl Powers: Cave Therapy
When my friend, Cheryl Powers, of Parsippany, New Jersey, was diagnosed with a tumor behind her eye and another growing inside her spinal cord, she loaded her 115-pound German shepherd, Lexi, into her truck and made a frantic drive for Buttermilk Falls in northern New Jersey to a secret cave. As a child, she found sanctuary in the cave and now, more than ever, she needed sanctuary. She made a fire in the cave while Lexi, who had recently recovered from being hit by a car, attacked a fallen tree across the creek as if it was the villain behind all of their problems.
“She tore at that pine tree ‘til it broke in half and fell into the stream,” said Cheryl, “Then she came up and laid down beside me, and we were both just like, that’s the end of that. The end of the fear.”
The tumor behind her eye was removed and found to be benign. The one in her spine shrank and disappeared. That was 15 years ago, and Cheryl maintains a special connection to that cave, a place where she received a boost of gratitude, a feeling that somehow just being there had helped her replenish her courage and restore her health.
“You could feel it was a place of power,” says Cheryl.
She’s not wrong. Studies have found that spending time in nature can lower inflammation, decrease anxiety and depression, reducing cortisol and other stress hormones, and lower heart rates. Pachamama takes care of her own.
Ri Ganey: What Illness?
Ri Ganey has read a lot of those studies. In high school she used them to convince her parents to significantly reduce or eliminate her medications. A junior at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Ri struggles with a number of health challenges including hashimotos thyroiditis, celiac, Raynaud Syndrome, Sjogren’s Syndrome, asthma, eczema, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, endometriosis, sciatica, mild scoliosis and is currently being monitored for Lupus. Some days she just feels like dog poop. Despite this list of challenges, Ri is majoring in adventure education and is an active participant in Keeping Women Wild, an outdoor adventure club.
When Ganey first moved to Durango as a broke student, she got really sick living on a steady diet of Ramen noodles and peanut butter. But she had good friends who encouraged her to get out and make better choices. With their support, she went on backpacking trips that all but exhausted her physically. However, when she returned she didn’t decide to give up backpacking; instead, she pushed herself even more.
Ri said, “It was really a battle to get out the door, but I realized that when I was out there it was the only time I remembered feeling fully happy and whole.”
So she forced herself to go on more adventures. That was six years ago. Today she still has rough days, but she has more good days than bad. Prior to entering a lifestyle that took her outdoors, she was barely able to manage nine credit hours a semester. Now she easily manages a full-time class schedule, an internship at Durango Nature Studies and a job as a snowboard instructor at Purgatory Resort. She even rallies to volunteer at Hesperus Ski Area as an Outdoor Emergency Care (OEC) instructor for other patrollers, is the logistics coordinator for Keeping Women Wild and serves as regional secretary for the Association of Experiential Education for the Rocky Mountain region. That’s a lot for someone without her health challenges!
Brimming with good nature and enthusiasm, Ganey throws her head back and laughs when I asked for her biggest challenge. In answering, she turns serious. She wants me to know that she means what she’s about to say. “The biggest challenge is separating my illness from my goals,” she says. “People learn about my issues and think it means I can’t do this or that, but other people don’t get to decide what’s above my limits. That’s up to me. They’re just going to have to trust me to make those choices.”
Ri credits the outdoors with playing a crucial role in her evolving strength. “The outdoors have helped me understand what it is to truly be alive,” she said, tossing a stick for her dog, Bridger. “It’s easy to cave in to an illness, but you can’t do that when you’re in nature. It teaches me to be present.”
Thad Ferrell: Sight Restored
This is all well and good when nature treats you right, when it teaches you, saves or soothes you, but what if betrays you? Or worse, almost kills you? Could you imagine referring to it then as a life blessing? In September of 2017, Thad Ferrell took a 100-foot fall just after summiting a climb called Holy Grail outside of Durango. Miraculously, he landed on the dirt between two sharp boulders and lived. But still, 100 feet is a long way to fall and he didn’t walk away from it. He was carried out by emergency rescue personnel and has had a long road to recovery. He’s undergone multiple surgeries for broken ankles, pelvis and jaw, yet he maintains the kind, positive spirit that made him so many friends throughout his life.
“I’ve got metal in my feet, my pelvis is welded together and my entire bottom jaw is made from my left leg’s fibula,” said Ferrell. “But I still have to punch myself because I’ve got it so good.” Since the accident, he has started his own fly fishing guide service, Kingfisher Fly Guides. This is one of the blessings. He said he would never have started this business before the accident because his life had been all about getting the next hit of endorphins.
“One of the human dilemmas is finding your place in the world, and I had been focusing all of my attention on climbing or trail running,” Thad said. “I’ll always be a climber but it’s not my identity. I used to not be able to do anything else until after I climbed or ran a long way on a hard trail. Now I can bring my daughter out to boulder, but if she’d rather just run around and play, then that’s what we do and it’s awesome. There’s more to life than the next adrenaline rush. What’s most important now is to make sure I’m a better son, a better husband and a better father.”
Thad still heads for the wild whenever he can but the relationship is different. It’s grown into a deeper experience. “Before the accident I was frustrated because I was hitting a plateau,” said Thad. “I was losing the ability to see all that beauty out there. Now I can see again. The autumn light, the gold on aspens…that’s the blessing when something like this happens, you get to see all the beauty. It’s always been there, you just couldn’t see it.” Chalking up his hands before we warm up on a boulder in Sailing Hawks bouldering field, he added, “You think the world has changed, but you’re the one who’s changed.”
Dave Williams: One Peak at a Time
Dave Williams was facing a personal crisis when he heard the mountains call. The Head of the Outdoor Education Department at New Zealand’s Botany Downs Secondary College, Williams had recently lost both a former student and a close friend to suicide. He was still processing their deaths when a friend asked him to join him on a sea-to-summit climb of Mount Taranaki, New Zealand’s dormant volcano. A sea to summit is an adventure that involves summiting a peak by foot from the nearest seaboard. It was on this trek that Williams came up with a way to honor his fallen friends and bring awareness to mental health issues, particularly male mental health challenges.
“For New Zealand men, it’s taboo to talk about vulnerability,” Williams says. “It’s seen as weak, so we hold it all inside. I want to promote the idea that it’s not weak, but strong to show when we’re vulnerable.”
To that end, Williams founded his organization, sea2summit7, whose mission is to climb the highest peaks on all seven continents, starting from the nearest coastline.
“I started off not really understanding how big this issue was for men in New Zealand. I believed in it, but didn’t really understand it,” Williams said. His experiences on the summits for his cause have taught him considerably more, he explained — as any of us who’ve attempted hard summits can attest. “When you put yourself into these harsh environments, you get a next level understanding of vulnerability and it’s helped me understand the cause so much more.”
These summits aren’t his first outdoor adventures. Williams is a lifelong outdoor enthusiast who teaches this art and passion to college students. He actually has a degree in Outdoor Recreation. Given what he’s witnessed in his classes, an outdoor-oriented campaign is a perfect fit for a mental health cause.
Why? It’s summed up in Dave’s favorite quote, one most often attributed to Edmund Hilary: “It is not the mountain that we conquer, but ourselves.”
“As an educator, from day one I was taking youth into the outdoors, watching how it changes them and the kind of impact it has on their lives,” he said. “I can’t even count the number of students I have that have been going through issues in their lives and the outdoors has become their medicine.”
So far, Dave has completed four of the seven summits: Mount Kosciusko in Australia, Mount Aconcagua in Argentina, Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and Mount Elbrus in Russia. Still to come, Vinson Massif in Antarctica, Mount Denali in Alaska, and Mount Everest on the border of China and Nepal.
Next May, Williams heads for Denali.
As we remember our blessings this season, it’s also good to remember our incredible planet. Earth is a miracle in our galaxy, possibly in all galaxies, a place where Mother Nature not only feeds us physically, but spiritually.
Donna Stewart is a freelance writer and author of the book, Yoga Mama’s Buddha Sandals: Mayans, Zapatistas and Silly Little White Girls. You can see more of her work at www.donnastewartwrites.com.
The original post was corrected to state that Ri Ganey is a senior, not a junior, at Fort Lewis College.