Standing on a crowded metro in Paris with my book in hand, I have journeyed alongside three stubborn camels through the dry and burning orange desert of Western Australia. Sitting in the middle seat on a nine-hour flight back to my home city of Vancouver, Canada, I have traversed through the towering Douglas firs and the rocky rivers of the pacific Northwest with Cheryl Strayed.
There are countless narratives—by men and women alike—of individuals departing on a journey by foot. Since early times, the act of walking has been recognized as therapeutic, for some even spiritual. Both religious and secular pilgrimages have long been associated with conquering or being liberated from mental and physical obstacles. And stories about these journeys have existed for centuries, serving as inspiration for others.
Fifty days of this summer, I walked. Not consecutively or intentionally but if anything, accidentally. My summer—book-ended by two different degrees—afforded me time to myself. With a modest sum in my bank account, I decided to spend the summer journeying through places both familiar and foreign; through mountains that I’ve always known as well as those that I’ve wanted to get to know.
I didn’t set out to hike this summer. Though back in the winter I briefly contemplated embarking on a month long trek somewhere obscure, I quickly decided against it. I have a brain injury. In 2012 while practicing my regular skating routine, I missed the edge of my blade, slipped out, and smashed my skull on the ice. In the months following, I struggled to read and suffered from intense chronic pain. And ever since, I have been prone to set impossible goals that physically my body cannot endure. At the one-year anniversary of my injury, I set out to perform a full length ice-skating routine at my end of year show. I had completed my medications and treatments; my cognitive abilities had returned which I took as a sign that I had recovered. But within one mere lap around the ice, I had a sharp pain stabbing through my head, I was dizzy and eventually forced to take refuge on the bench. I performed a forty second routine at the show that year—a fraction of the program I had envisioned. This moment—which was supposed to be a symbol to myself and to others that I had recovered and reconquered the same ice that had defeated me—became a mark of how far I still had to go. On the second-year anniversary of my injury, I was fainting from over-exerting myself hiking through the Grand Canyon. By the time I reached the top, I had blood in my mouth. And the trend has continued every year since.
Recovery is unpredictable. And setting challenging goals is often not productive, but devastating when unattainable
Anyone who has a permanent injury knows how anti-climactic recovery can be. It’s a turbulent journey littered with false hopes, setbacks, and moments of deep desperation. It’s as much a physical injury as an emotional and mental one. I remember moments of depression; I’d be sitting in a wet towel, anxiously counting the hairs wrapped around the drain, convinced that my hair, teeth, and life were falling apart. One day I’d be happily out with friends, and the next bed ridden, on the verge of screaming with a strap for pressure wrapped around my head, only to be back at school the next day writing exams as if nothing was wrong.
Recovery is unpredictable. And setting challenging goals is often not productive, but devastating when unattainable. And for this reason, I didn’t set out on a summer long trek. Instead, I chose to be patient with my body and mind, taking each day one step at a time.
I grew up on the mountains right outside of Vancouver. And while as a young child, I went on camping trips with school and leisurely strolls through the forest on the weekends, I’ve spent the past four summers truly exploring British Columbia’s many mountain ranges.
By any mountaineering standards, the hikes I have embarked on have been mild. I have not scaled the face of massive rock surfaces but I have hiked the trails behind them. The overnight trips I have done have been easy; most of the time, I am not in the outback long enough to worry about purifying my water or finding a stream to wash my clothes in.
But hiking, in many ways, is my perfect sport for recovery. I move slowly from bottom to top, leaving behind only footprints and banana peels.
My summer of walking began with the visit of four friends to my home in British Columbia. Anxious to have them see the glacier lakes and the winding rivers, I took them on daily regional hikes. On some days, I woke up feeling strong, passing even the most avid hikers on the trails and yet on others, I sluggishly dragged myself up the mountain. When they left, I took to solo hiking. With no one else to keep up with, I tapped into the rhythm of my own body learning what pace would help bring oxygen to my brain and which would bring pain. In the mornings, I would eat all the energy I could find—nuts, yogurt, whole wheat bread, fruits—while choosing the trail I would embark on that day. Before I knew it, I had spent 40 days on various local trails.
My hiking continued this summer when I travelled to the Indian region of Ladakh in the Himalayas. I decided to embark on a five-day trail along the Markha Valley. The trek, rated moderate-difficult, seemed to be a good compromise between the hike I envisioned myself doing and one I was actually capable of completing without pain. Upon landing in the city of Leh, 3400 meters above the sea, my head pain came on strong, the altitude worsening my usual daily ache. On our first evening, I woke in the middle of the night in excruciating pain. At five in the morning, I sat on the floor of my shower crying, hoping the hot water would relax my tensing muscles until my medicine kicked in. Needless to say, I worried about my capacity to reach the trek summit at 5200 meters. But if my forty days hiking in British Columbia taught me anything, it was that I could hike any mountain if I listened to my body.
The first day of the trek was fairly mild. We walked below apricot trees on flat surfaces, taking regular water breaks. But I wanted to move faster. I wanted to walk without encountering other trekkers, without being reminded of our bodies’ need to rest. I wanted to jaunt alongside the hikers with bulging leg muscles just to prove to myself that I could. But instead I stopped when my guide took off her backpack and sat cross-legged below shaded trees. Falling asleep that night, I could feel an ache growing from the top of my spine into my head, engulfing along its way the parts of my brain that were previously at ease. And suddenly I was thankful for the many apricot stops and river-side pauses we had had that day.
But this time, I decided my recovery would not be measured by the speed at which I ascended a mountain
The urge to push beyond my limits was not silenced that first day. But that impulse to work against my body—to push in spite of its pain—has been present since the day I hit my head. I’ve measured my recovery by the grades I’ve gotten at school, by my capacity—when squished between friends in a crowded bar— to put on a smile when in pain. But this time, I decided my recovery would not be measured by the speed at which I ascended a mountain. In fact, my recovery would not be measured at all. I would simply put one foot in front of another until such time my body told me it was time to rest.
Hiking this summer did not heal me. It did not eliminate my pain nor did it prove I have recovered. But it was never supposed to.
Initially, I thought my journey this summer would be of no interest to anyone else. Unlike Robyn Davidson or Cheryl Strayed, my story is not dramatic or climactic. It does not have an arc or a place in history books; it is unlikely it would make for an interesting film. But not all journeys must be remarkable testaments of physical strength. The journey can simply be the process of learning to listen to your own body, knowing when it needs to be pushed and when it needs rest. So alas, here I am, sharing my journey that will perhaps be valuable to someone sitting in pain on a crowded metro or a stuffy plane—a journey of learning to walk without expectation.