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The Only Way Out is Through

I feel the annual end-of-year pressure to set myself up for another year of stoke outside. It’s the internet culture, I tell myself. It comes with the territory of pursuing outdoor athletics, of having big ambitions and keeping up with my Difficult Pursuits. I lead myself to believe it’s a part of me I can’t live without. Who am I without this desire to strive for more outdoors?

Of course, the goal setting cannot happen without a cursory review of what was accomplished in 2022. This throwback helps me identify what experiences are worth pursuing further, where I’ve been strapped for time, and gives me clues on how to balance life in order to move forward with my outdoor goals.

A woman backpacker standing and looking on to a field of golden aspens

This exercise was way easier the past few years. Heck, even 2020, when the world seemed to have collectively caught on fire, swallowed society up whole and spit it back in shambles, I felt better about where I was at this point in the year. Slowly but surely, with a lot of grit and sacrifice, I’d been making strides in advancing my ultimate goal of breaking into the space of mountaineering and getting some more significant trail running/long-distance single day hiking under my belt. I was controlling what I could and adapting well to what I couldn’t. Even last-minute changes to plans seemed manageable. Most importantly, I was proud of my work, my contributions to society even in the face of uncertainty, and how I carried myself through it all.

But 2022— what started as a promising year quickly turned itself around to surprise me with blow after emotional blow. I spent most of 2022 navigating a looming depression that ruined my sense of self-confidence in the face of conflict, and in the midst of that I had a mountain biking accident that led to an unfortunate ulnar collateral ligament tear that required surgery, sidelining me from exercise and outdoor recreation at a time my mental and emotional health were at their weakest. By early July, all the wins I had banked in the first few months of the year — including getting coveted Core Enchantments Zone permits for peak larch fall foliage season with a dear friend, getting some work published in She Explores(Se abre en una ventana nueva), running my first 50K, becoming an Osprey ambassador(Se abre en una ventana nueva) — seemed irrelevant to the version of the life’s story I’d continue to live until today.

A few days after I started post-op physical therapy and was cleared for minor exercise and outdoor activities, I jumped into a regularly scheduled 1:1 call with my management and was surprised with a notification of employment termination. All summer, it seemed like any small cause for celebration would be overshadowed by a large-scale emergency in a few days’ time. Every time I made an effort to recover, reconvene, restructure, and try again, I was brought to my knees; hence, what was the point of joy?

A woman standing at the edge of a lake looking off into the distance, a mountain range in the background.

Serendipitously, I won a unique opportunity to attend the inaugural Dreamland Safari Creators’ Retreat(Se abre en una ventana nueva) in October on the day I shipped back my work computer, and for once sat with the emptiness of unemployment in real time. Living in Knoxville, TN, I suddenly saw an opportunity to make my trip out to Washington and this new trip to Utah, and spend a collective four weeks out West. Doing what? Other than the planned backpacking trip in the Enchantments and the scheduled time in White Pocket with Dreamland Safari, I opened myself to new experiences, letting opportunities flow unplanned. After the emotional heartache and missed opportunities throughout the year, this trip was meant to mend and reconnect with those parts of me that had shuddered throughout the year. Three weeks after I was let go of my job and during an aggressive job search, I hit full stop on all those activities to… wander?

A woman wearing backpacking gear trekking through a forest of yellow trees

Spending four weeks mostly disconnected from the circumstantial grind of unemployment was the best decision I made for my health. I flew out to Colorado to catch up with my backpacking partner before our joint trip to Washington, and per my request, we drove from the airport straight to the mountains, where I was greeted to the Front Range blanketed in gold and yellow, a sight I’d only seen in pictures before. On 4 hours of sleep and a monumental elevation change, I hiked up to Helms Lake and dipped my feet in the ice-cold waters. The start of a month-long cleanse.

A landscape view of a small pond with a mountain range in the background

Over the next few weeks, I’d continue to embrace the magic of emotional rest and healing. Ill-prepared but undeterred, I got on a mountain bike for the first time since my accident and felt the thrill of a dirt trail on two wheels ignite my desire for fast and fun adventures. I backpacked in one of the most other-worldly places I’ve been privileged to set foot in. I slept cold and hard under a canvas of stars and planets and universes I hope to visit in another life. I woke up to dawn rising and coyotes howling. I set aside my usual “go hard, go fast, go long” mentality on trails and instead, watercolor painted the stunning scenery I got to call home for a few days. My run-down body and mind needed complete immersion in the experience of renewal, and I did everything I could to give it just that. Sometimes, the only way out is through.

A woman standing on slick rock wearing a running hydration pack and looking into the distance

By accepting and inviting happenstance, a few crucial things came out from this trip. For one, I worked through the rage, discontent, anxiety, and shame brought upon by the professional work experience I lived through. In the middle of my trip, a job offer with a 13% salary increase came my way, and I turned it down because I felt a deep conviction that it wasn’t the right opportunity. I received positive affirmations on the validity and importance of the passion projects I’d been silently working on for years. Priorities shifted and became clearer. Boundaries became obvious. I became a more objective observer of my own story - past, present, and future. I continue to reap these benefits months later.

A woman wearing a yellow shirt and blue shorts sitting atop a rocky mountain overlook, with a soft cast on her left arm

For once in a few defining years, the output of my year’s story isn’t based on physical achievements, but of survival, grit, emotional balance, honor and valor in the face of wrongdoing, and of purpose and values. While I’ve started setting opportunistic physical challenges and defining projects for 2023, I don’t ever want to forget that in 2022, being outside gave me more than an outlet for my adventure-seeking wiring. I tended to my wounds by bathing in alpine lakes and dancing under the moonlight to no music, on my own. The hurt and the struggle and the feelings of rejection were all more bearable on a trail, in between red hoodoos, and underneath a dwindling canopy of yellow leaves.

So more than anything, I’m excited for a 2023 spent outdoors, be it setting new FKT routes in Puerto Rico or journaling on top of a mountain. By being vague, I hope to invite the type of serendipity that helped me turn this year back around, and gave me hope for what’s to express itself on the other side of this madness. I’m embracing not knowing. The only way out is through.