How the Wilderness Saved Me While Living with Chronic Pain

Living with chronic back pain and going through major surgery took a toll on my adventurous lifestyle. However, it led me to find new experiences in the wilderness through photography and finding peace with just being in nature.

By: Brynn Schmidt + Save to a List

“Sometimes I need only to stand wherever I am to be blessed.” - Mary Oliver

Two and a half amazing weeks in the countries of Gabon and Kenya several years ago changed my life in more ways than one. While the experiences I had there were incredible and filled with many once-in-a-lifetime experiences, I also injured my lower back through traveling on rough roads in cities and across terrain with no roads at all while on safari. I could barely sit by the time I traveled back from Nairobi and assumed that once I returned home, I would recover. Instead of recovering, my back worsened over the years and led to major surgery fusing my lower back at L4/L5 and L5/SI. I am slowly getting back into more activities again as I have improved, but the surgery didn't fix me. I still live with a lot of pain but can at least hike further now and even backpack. What I have realized during these years though is that we can still totally enjoy nature. It is really a choice of making the best of things or giving up (and honestly, I definitely had a year or so of giving up before pulling it together). Continuing to spend time in the wilderness and especially all the national parks that I love so much kept me from getting depressed about my situation and allowed me to find other things that I now love and wouldn't trade for some of the activities I could be doing. 

My husband was into wildlife photography and some landscape as well and had accumulated some great gear. This obviously made it a lot easier for me to decide to pick up a camera and explore photography. However, for a couple years, I found just as much joy in using my iPhone to capture scenes while I was out. You don't have to have all the gear, but over time it definitely helps. My guys would head out to climb and I would have too much pain sometimes to do the approach and sit on rocks, often on steep hills. I started declining on some of the hiking/climbing outings with them and chose to go somewhere else and spend time alone with a camera. I developed an incredible love of photography. 

While hiking distances was very hard for me, I could sit and watch a moose, elk or mountain goat for a couple hours without adding to my pain. I always hurt more by the time I got home, but it was so much easier than a hard hike. I love wildlife and this captured my interest as much or more than landscape even. I also realized how much I enjoy being alone in the wilderness. I live in Boulder, CO so I have a lot of opportunities right in my backyard like Rocky Mountain National Park and the Indian Peaks Wilderness. In summer, I will often decide last minute to head out at 5 for for a couple of hours in nature and sunset in the Rockies. This has kept my mental state in a much better place and I highly recommend it if you are struggling with health issues. There is honestly not a single time that I felt worse overall after getting out. Maybe a little worse physically sometimes, but emotionally and mentally, always so much better! Sometimes I would leave my camera in the car and just take a short hike or sit at a quiet lake. 

While I learned to spend time being still during this hardship, I still do it and have found that it is the most healing activity for me from whatever stresses are currently in my life. You don't always have to be climbing, backpacking, skiing, etc. You can thrive just taking in the wilderness either through a camera or just listening and seeing all the beauty that surrounds you. I know I am fortunate to have the Rockies in my backyard, but this can also be done in any place that provides some nature. As I was finishing this piece, I actually came across an article on The Wilderness Society's Facebook page that somewhat summed up the peace and healing that I have found during this hard time. We all know it is good for you, but it can actually be healing, too. "Time outdoors increases concentration, decreases stress, lowers blood-pressure and provides many more positive effects. Call it nature connection, forest bathing or whatever else you like, the long and short of it is that going outside is good for you." You can read the rest of the article here by Jaymi Heimbuch if you are interested.  

I know how discouraging and lonely chronic pain can be as you are left out of so many activities that you love the most and make you who you are. However, I have learned that there is more to find in nature and it is often just as rewarding if not more sometimes. 

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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