Chronic Illness

How Disability Made Hiking Better For Me

In what I used to view as the marathon of life, permission to ramble has been one of the greatest gifts disability has given me.

When my children were young, we would go for hikes that felt painstakingly slow. Every few moments they would stop to investigate slime a slug had left behind, a leaf which had a spiderweb pulled taught across it, or a little ladybug that landed on a piece of grass in front of them.

As my children crouched with their noses pressed close to nature, I’d internally grumble about we’d never get to the end of the hike, or see the vantage point on the river we’d set out to see. My children, however, had other ideas. For them, hiking wasn’t about making good time, or pushing their bodies to reach a destination. It was about exploring, investigating, and just enjoying their time out in the world.

Chronic pain and disability soon taught me to see hiking the way they saw it.

After my diagnosis I found myself missing the feeling of being in the middle of the forest, surrounded by nothing but the smell of dirt and the rustling of leaves. I told myself I would find a way to hike again. The first time I did, it was modest: a short, three-minute-walk from the cabin where I was staying with my family, down the hill to sit on a log. But that walk totally exhilarated me. I was mesmerized by the sight of the bugs crawling all around me, the cosmos of plants and fungi that surrounded me on all sides.

Three years later, I was finally able to make my first proper ‘hike’ since illness struck. I put ‘hike’ in quotes because in my previous able-bodied life, I probably wouldn’t have considered it one: it was a short, paved walk at Saint Mount Helens. Yet as my youngest child ran ahead of me, tears of gratitude streamed down my face that I was once again able to experience the joys of walking outside in nature.

Since my illness, hiking has evolved into something new for me… Maybe rambling is a better word for it.

Since my illness, hiking has evolved into something new for me. Instead of focusing on my destination and pushing my body as far as possible, I just try to enjoy my time out in the world. Maybe rambling is a better word for it.

Whatever you want to call it, though, this shift in perspective has been such a blessing. I now experience these outings with the joy and wonder that my children did all those years ago. 

I watch spiders spin intricate webs, take pictures of new flowers I encounter to later look up in a field guide, stop to rest and laugh at the little orange salamander who scampers in front of me. As I pause on the trail to rest my body, other hikers stop and chat. Being present in this way has allowed me to notice more things, and get more out of my walks than I ever did before.

Nor is this new presence and mindfulness limited to my experiences in nature. Rather, it’s true to the entirety of my experiences as a disabled person. Previously, so much of my life was about rushing from one challenge to the next. I saw my worth as linked with my productivity. With my disability, though, I simply can’t do as much, or do it as quickly as I could before. I’ve had to look for meaning in life beyond just how far I can push myself, and to appreciate the details I used to ignore.

In what I used to view as the marathon of life, permission to ramble has been one of the greatest gifts disability has given me.