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(Michelle Mildenberg)

How Cancer Helped Transform My Relationship to the Outdoors

After a terrible diagnosis forced me to slow down, I learned how to relate differently to the wild—and myself. 

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I have hiked and run the trail that leads up Animas Mountain, just a few blocks from my home in Durango, Colorado, many hundreds of times. But one afternoon this past winter, ambling under clear, slanting sunlight, it felt different. The switchbacks were caked with week-old ice and mud. The colors of the sage and juniper were muted, and the air had the lazy bite of winter in the foothills of the Rockies. The outing couldn’t have been more mundane. I know the contours of every tree, shrub, rock, and cactus. And yet I felt a sense of euphoria just to be there. The trail wasn’t different, but I was. This is one of the strange blessings that has emerged after undergoing a draconian treatment for breast cancer last year. It takes very little to open me up to the beauty of the world.

Now that I am fully through surgery, chemo, radiation, and 12 months of targeted drug therapy, and have a clean bill of health—at least for the moment—people ask me what I have learned. I see the expectancy written tautly in the muscles of their faces. Sometimes I even feel their impatience. I can’t produce a pithy sound bite, because the processes of genuine healing don’t lend themselves to easy summary. They sprawl over years and decades, leaping and stalling. Going through treatment was a leap in healing of the sort that only begins with the body, and it started more than 15 years ago.

To say that I was tightly wound as a fledgling adult would be an understatement. Shortly after moving to Santa Fe to work for this magazine, one of my superiors shared that I was so intense about doing a good job that it unnerved him. I was straightjacketed by a sort of maniacal perfectionism that, in hindsight, my upbringing and intensive education veritably required. Some part of me wanted to be free of that, but I didn’t know how. There can be a certain safety in familiar suffering.

It was no mistake that I landed in Santa Fe. The process of loosening up began in its uncluttered deserts, under giant western skies. Even the air, unburdened by humidity, felt more spacious out there in comparison to the big eastern cities where I grew up. I learned to climb on the empty cliffs outside town and ride a road bike for the first time. After work my boyfriend and I would set off on excursions, from simple after-work bouldering to scaling alpine peaks after sunset for views of the city lights. Mostly, we moved fast or hard, or both, but sometimes I paused long enough to notice more about my surroundings. I especially loved the orchestral stillness of the desert before dawn, as if everything was waiting to begin the song.

The ability to be outside regularly was a privilege and a blessing that I cherished. It was key to the slow, healthy unwinding of my nervous system. But at the same time, perhaps subconsciously internalizing cultural standards around productivity and egotism, I prioritized activities that involved speed, strength, and skill over those that centered on slowness, attunement, and contemplation. I valued running over meandering and long backcountry ski days over mellow cross-country ski tours, as if everything needed to be big and noteworthy. Since high school, I had been trained to put even my extracurricular activities on some kind of internal résumé.

I noticed that the outdoor culture around me also seemed to encourage this perspective, or at least not dispute it. It was a patriarchal view that embraced challenge over nourishment and doing over being—on getting somewhere and becoming someone over sensing, receiving, and communing. Even perusing the pages of this magazine as part of my job, I noticed there were generally a lot of men doing bold, dangerous things. That’s great. I like men. And adventures. But it was an imbalance that I internalized, not only in terms of the activities I chose but also the trappings of the so-called outdoor lifestyle.

I remember my boyfriend, who was a gear reviewer, passing along trendy outdoor clothes to me. (Perhaps he wasn’t enamored with my frumpy sweats and cotton T-shirts.) I was happy to have free technical wear, but I was also unconsciously adopting a certain belief system that held that anyone outside had to look a certain way. That external pressure seemed to dovetail seamlessly with my internal expectations, so I couldn’t always tell one from the other.

Over the years, haphazardly, and despite myself, I have gravitated very slowly into a less rigid and more intuitive way of being. Part of this is the blessing of getting older. I’m now 40. Naturally, my body is slowing a bit and my need for constant positive self-reinforcement is lower. But it wasn’t until I was forced not only to slow down but actually stop that I realized the residual internal grip of these slow-dying habits: I got cancer.

Even though my tumor was small, the type of cancer was aggressive and had already spread, which meant I needed industrial-strength chemotherapy. After an infusion, I sometimes didn’t leave the house for days. It was as if a land mine had detonated within my body. I would lie on the couch, actually trying not to be present because I was so uncomfortable, my stomach scoured and raw, my mind slow and viscous, my vision blurred as if I were seeing through agitated water. Of course I wasn’t skiing or hiking; sometimes it was all I could do to simply go outside and look at the trees. I felt unmoored and adrift. Cut off from the perpetual motion that on some level oriented me to who I think I am, I felt like I had misplaced my identity.

One winter afternoon while on the sofa, I stared up at a slice of overcast sky through a skylight, listening to the squawks of a small flock of geese overhead. They happened to flap right across the rectangle of bright haze above me. That momentary glimpse felt like a gift, a reminder that the world I had left behind, which seemed so distant, was not as far away as I thought.

I began paying more attention to the nature right around me, to the ducks and herons in my neighborhood and the unhurried transformation of plants over weeks and months. I tuned in to the humble beauty of things I hadn’t really noticed before—the textures of rocks, the way shallow water shifts into shards of color with the slightest movement. I took full-body joy in seeing a deer precariously tiptoe through the river early one morning.

As terrible as the experience of treatment was, the relative simplicity of life opened up insight into its former complexity in new ways. I began to see more clearly and profoundly what is lost when I always move at speed or with some predetermined purpose—and when I only relate to the natural world in one way, through movement. It now seems absurdthe earth is the totality of who and what we are; it’s what we are made of, where we come from, and where we will go. To limit our understanding of and relationship to it in any way is tragic.

And yet I realized that even still, in the recent past, I sometimes conceived of my time outdoors—as cherished as it was—as checking the “exercise and well-being” box off a mental to-do list en route to something else. There was almost a subtle spirit of acquisition, a self-oriented neediness and haste that I hadn’t been aware of but had precluded the deepest sense of presence. I wonder if, on some level, looking at nature only through the lens of my own needs created a mindset that was subtly extractive.

These days I feel free to be outside in different ways—ways I would have once considered sleepy. Recently, a friend and I sat in an expansive meadow, sandwiched between two cliffs, and played around with watercolors for hours. (I’m terrible, but who cares.) Sometimes I just stop, stand still, and watch birds, which I once would have judged as laughably boring. (It becomes more interesting when you have the patience to not move around so much.) On occasion I sit down in a thicket, close my eyes, and listen.

But this long unlearning isn’t only about slowing down or eschewing technical apparel. I love racing up mountains, taking backpacking trips, and skiing deep into the wilderness. We humans need some element of challenge. And I undoubtedly appreciate a well-made piece of gear. (I have collected an embarrassing amount of it.) This process is rather about having the balance of mind to be able to choose how to relate to the outdoors in any given moment and not be so beholden to internal or external pressures. Ultimately, that freedom supports a deeper, more real, sustainable and nourishing relationship with the natural world, as well as oneself. Maybe they’re not so separate, actually.

Recently, I met my mom in Sedona, Arizona, for a week. While she was resting one day, I decided to quickly steal up into a canyon. I didn’t think I would be gone for long, so I tossed on my sneakers and headed out in jeans and a T-shirt. I was so entranced by the steep canyon walls, red spires, rocky knobs, and vibrant spring greenery that I kept going. The pandemic was beginning to ease, and I felt a sense of buoyancy that was maybe just in the air.

On the way back, feeling ebullient, I started to trot. I just felt like it. It didn’t seem to matter that I didn’t have a sports bra on. Every few hundred yards I’d break into a sprint and careen through the ponderosas and the terra-cotta monoliths looming overhead. There was something so simple and freeing about it. I wasn’t trying to get anywhere. Achieving a certain pace or mileage couldn’t have been further from my mind. It was just the pure, senseless joy of a human body moving through space.

As my perfectionism continues to transform and express itself more subtly, something else seems to be happening naturally. It’s a reclamation of my own humanity on a level beyond words and culture, a reorientation toward reverence. Cancer, in all its misery, obliterated my expectations for myself and for what the world owes me. In the wake of those entitlements, it seems the only appropriate response to being in nature—in whatever way I am able—is wonder.

Lead Photo: Michelle Mildenberg
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