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Healing Outdoors

Exercise has been a critical companion throughout my life, and recreating in the outdoors is chief among my joys. In my 52 years, it’s been what I rely on best to turn my life around from heartbreak, tragedy and challenges. It’s something I want to encourage others to embrace as well.

My name is Andra, and I live and work in the middle of the Navajo Nation here in the great southwest. During the week, I’m a physical therapist and the director of physical rehabilitation at a hospital on the Reservation. My weekends are spent with my spouse in Santa Fe, New Mexico, or exploring across the Four Corners region.

You might not guess it now if you knew me, but I wasn’t really an active or outdoorsy kid growing up in New York, aside from the games I played with other kids, going through and hiding in neighbors’ yards, playing stickball in a corner lot and so on. I didn’t have any sport activities or family trips that involved the outdoors, never visiting national parks or state wildlife areas, for example.

I didn’t find my ‘active self’ until college when I joined the rowing team, picking up running and weight lifting to support crew. At the time, I was also introduced to the world of triathlons by a college friend. Running, by far, became my staple.

The majority of the athletic pursuits I took on in my early 20s were more about being fit and training for races than anything else, since the majority were in cities/suburbs. I did so much running and road biking, and I fell in love with feeling healthy and strong.

Then, a friend introduced me to hiking in the White and Green Mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont, and opened the door to windsurfing as well. Hiking and windsurfing introduced me to outdoor fun where the focus wasn’t really competitive, and not just about fitness—they were just fun and adventurous.

It was a revelation that helped change my relationship with the outdoors.

Moving West

After attending grad school to become a physical therapist, I was commissioned as an officer in the US Public Health Service in 1997 and moved to the southwest to work on the Navajo Nation. It’s been almost 25 years now. Exploring the Four Corners, I’ve discovered what makes me happiest: simply moving through beautiful outdoor spaces by my own effort and power. Add dogs to the mix, and you’ve got pure bliss—they’re always so excited to go anywhere, anytime.

I spent my late 20s-30s avidly hiking on the weekends, mostly into the canyons of Arizona or the Colorado high country, training for competitive trail runs along the way. I found that I felt most at home with myself, my thoughts, in the ponderosa pines and aspen trees.

Since my first introduction to hiking and windsurfing, my repertoire has expanded to include camping, backpacking, biking, climbing, kayaking, snowboarding and snowshoeing. There is so much to see and do out here, year-round.

I built a habit for starting the day with an hour of exercise before work, most often outside. It’s something I still do. It sets an energetic tone for the day and feels great to have accomplished something before work. When I miss getting my morning exercise, it affects my mood.

Even in the winter I’d motivate myself to go running in the dark with a headlamp, accompanied by my dogs with headlamps around their necks too so I could spot them in the dark if they left me to chase a rabbit. This was my groove for many years, though I admit it waned during my 10-year relationship with a not-so-active partner.

When that relationship ended in late 2011, I found myself in an emotional rough patch for a few years. Outdoor exercise was the only thing that kept me grounded as I struggled with the sadness. I knew I needed something in my life to help ground me through it, so I talked to a friend and coworker of mine.

He fly-fished and, until then, I’d never understood how he could spend the entirety of a day, for days in a row, just standing in a river. He explained that he could let go of anything bothering him when he was on the river. It was peaceful. Zen-like.

Intrigued, I asked him if he’d be willing to give me a lesson. All told, it took just one day on the water, with not even a fish to catch, and I knew that fly fishing was going to be great for my mental health.

After that first lesson, I bought my own gear and went out by myself a few weeks later. I wasn’t very good at it, but it always put me in a better headspace no matter what was bothering me. It was the reprieve I needed, supporting me in a very different way than my other outdoor adventures.

Today, I still don’t think about anything else while watching my fly line on the water, all while trying to avoid trees snags and tangled line. I lose myself to the sounds of the river and birds in the background.

Never motivated to land ‘the big one’, I’m happy catching and releasing the smallest fish, or catching nothing at all. It’s about the experience of being on the river. I don’t get to go of often as I’d like nowadays, but maybe that means I’m doing okay.

During those same rough years, I also dove back into my athletic pursuits with the intensity I used to know. I managed to hike Mount Kilimanjaro in 2012 and to the base camp of Mount Everest the next year. Spring 2015 brought a solo Machu Picchu trek.

These were all trips of a lifetime, with challenging routes going up to 15,000 to 19,500 feet of elevation. By 2015, I felt fantastic—the most active and fit I’ve ever been—and I was also in a new amazing relationship. Everything felt like the height of my life.

That was the summer I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a complete shock. No family history, no genetic mutations with known links to breast cancer, no lifestyle risks. I kept wondering, “How could this happen to me?”

The year or so that ensued was rough, to say the least. Thankfully, my partner (now spouse) Lenny was incredibly supportive through it all.

Recovery in the Outdoors

Bilateral mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation could not be done at the hospital I worked at, so that meant travel. A lot of travel. I ended up going 300 miles each way from the Navajo Nation to Santa Fe for all of my treatment. I was already doing that drive regularly to visit Lenny there, but my medical care required that I make the trek even more often.

Getting outside for exercise every day during treatment was what I looked forward to most. I could always count on it being the best I would feel all day, for weeks and months—and now years—at a time. Sure, I still cried almost every day during chemo, but that was a necessary part of the process and provided some stress release.

The treatment overall took a huge toll on my body and brain, despite being so healthy going into it, and over time I had to dial back some of my activity. I can’t imagine how much harder it would have been if I wasn’t so fit going into it.

The five years of hormone treatment that followed my year of primary treatment were awful and frustrating for exercise. It caused long-term joint and muscle pain, and more brain fog. I chose to decrease the dosage to preserve my quality of life, a decision I had to weigh against the odds of cancer coming back.

Moving Forward

My performance certainly wasn’t as great as I wanted, or was used to, during that time, but having a strong fitness base, love of the outdoors and supportive partner helped me through the worst of it. I pushed myself every day and simply did the best I could with what I had to work with.

I still do that now.

There is always something residual or new that seems to affect my ability. Over the past five-plus years, running or hiking hills and mountains hasn’t been great for my knee patellar problem or other orthopedic issues. Some of it is from cancer treatment, some of it simply because I’m an aging athlete. Running was still my staple, but even that had to be scaled back in terrain and number of miles. My Imogene Pass Run days are well in the past.

But I’m still adapting.

I’ve found myself biking more and more, initially road and then mountain. I think I’m a bit clumsy on a mountain bike, so this has been met by many falls, cuts and bruises. I am my own competition and hardest on myself when I don’t perform as well as I want to, or at the level I think others expect me to. That’s true for all sports, but I think it’s hardest with biking because others make it look so easy. I’ve stuck with it though, always encouraged by my spouse, and my skills and confidence have finally improved.

Cancer changed me and my outlook, as well as my physical performance, forever, but I’m still here and living a great life. I feel incredibly fortunate. Physical and mental health are fragile, but at the same time resilient. I also feel more in-tune with the trials of others, more compassionate and empathetic, and by far with more gratitude than I ever had before.

I’m working on self-talk to be kinder to myself, instead of critical, when I’m struggling. No matter what my current problem or orthopedic ailment, nothing beats getting outside to do something—anything—for a mental boost in the right direction and feeling my best.

Over 50 Outside

Last summer, my spouse sent me a link for the Over 50 Outside challenge. I was intrigued by it, but wasn’t sure if I was the type of woman they were looking for. Were they looking for people who needed more motivation to get outside? That’s not me, I love being outside. Would I have to go back to big-mountain hiking? I wasn’t sure my knee would hold up for that.

I didn’t imagine I’d be selected, but I decided to apply anyway.

I was looking for a way to commit to one activity that I’d have to slow down for—one where I would actually get to take in my surroundings. I’ve done plenty of sports where the scenery blurs by while I try to not to trip trail running, crash my bike or hit a tree snowboarding.

Hiking is about headspace and having time to reflect and put things in perspective.

I also wanted to embrace the challenge as a way to connect with others, since there isn’t much chatting with faster paced sports or activities. As I’m going through the hiking year for the 52-hike challenge, I’ve had the perfect mix of solo and group hikes. I’ve also loved meeting so many incredible women online, seeing that I am not alone in my pursuits and my challenges. Their stories inspire me!

This coming year, I am simply looking forward to being in a more balanced outdoor groove. Hopefully I can get some travel in as well—there’s a lot of world to see and I’m desperately trying to find my way back to Nepal in 2023.

Andra Battocchio is a sponsored member of Over 50 Outside, a group of 150 women over 50 selected to participate in the 52 Hike Challenge which encourages people to discover the benefits of hiking once a week for an entire year.