It wasn’t long into my stay at Legacy before I experienced my first breakthrough. It was maybe my 10th or 11th day when I noticed, during a simple day hike, that I felt happy. Not only that, I felt excited to see what lay around every next turn in the red rock canyon I was walking down. This experience planted the seed that started to change everything for me. Not only was the long-standing belief that I could not experience happiness without drugs challenged in this moment, a hope was sparked as well. What else might change if I continued to engage in this process? Later that night, something else was sparked too: I created my first primitive fire. With the help of my guides and team members, I used a bow drill set (essentially rubbing two sticks together) to create a coal; which was then placed into a nest of juniper bark and stoked into the flame we eventually used to cook dinner that night. Nearly two weeks prior, when I first saw a senior member of my team create our nightly fire in this manner, I thought to myself, “wow, I hope I never have to do that BS”. But on that day of my first fire, I was proud.
Today, I am on a bus driving from Lima to Huaraz, Peru. Today I feel very moved by the scenes that pass by as I look out the window onto rural Peru. While leaving Lima, we drove past endless tin and brick shacks stacked on top of each other and at times, to my horror, stacked on top of piles of scree and gravel so loose I would curse if it was part of the approach to one of the mountain routes we will be climbing here. Interspersed throughout my observations of what appears to be pretty difficult living are vibrant examples of human joy and spirit. I am reminded that the harshness and joy of life are inextricably linked when I see the colorful uniforms of a marching band celebrating in the dirt streets on one of these precarious hillsides. Joy always seems to find a way to express itself. Joy was the first checkpoint I reached on my journey to recovery, and it catalyzed the whole process.
Oftentimes my guides at Legacy were men in recovery themselves. During that same week, one of these guides was brave enough to share with the group how being the victim of childhood abuse was part of his story. I was inspired by this; I never knew someone could share that information and not instantly be defined by it for the rest of their life. In my eyes though, this guide was so much more than just a victim. He became the 4th person in my life I would share about being abused, and the 1st person outside of my parents or a significant other. I was finally starting to take a look at the stories of my life up to that point. It would be another two weeks before I started to understand my agency in their narration.
First, I would need to suffer more. Anyone who’s been through it can tell you recovery is painful. 6 years of numbing adverse emotions and chasing good feelings had left me void of emotions entirely. That first week, I cried every day. I cried for the way I had treated my loved ones in addiction, I cried for the friends I’d already lost to addiction, and I cried for myself that I had to be so far away from comfort and familiarity to try and stop myself from self-destructing. I was familiar with this suffering, but I was about to be introduced to a new kind of suffering. Today, I refer to this second kind as “type 2 fun,” and it is a huge component of what we will be doing in the Andes after we are acclimatized in 2 short weeks. During my third week at Legacy, we summited Mt Ellen. It was February. At times the snow was waist-deep, and we had to take turns creating a trench through it. My pack that week was the heaviest thing I had ever put on my back. We summited after a 2-day effort, and I felt the bliss that comes with accomplishing something your entire body has fought for with all its will. Later that week, back at the Legacy treatment center during our debrief, a senior member said something to me that has stuck with me ever since. He reminded me of a certain moment, near the end of our first day’s effort when I was hunched over with my hands in my knees doubting my ability to go even a step further, (possibly crying). He said simply, “Nick, I know you feel your worst when you are at those moments, but when you choose to take another step, I think that is when you are at your best.” Those words have been wholly internalized and now ring out in my head time and time again when life asks of me to be strong. Daniel changed my life forever in that moment, simply by being there with me and being himself.
In an effort to not scare anyone away from the Legacy experience, I want to assure you that the moments of good ol’ type 1 fun were plentiful as well. The night before our first day on the mountain, our guide Andres offered one of my team members some ginger root he was preparing for his tea. Before Andres could even begin to describe how to prepare ginger root tea, my peer took a giant bite of the raw root and began chewing. Instantly, his face turned bright red in the glow of the fire, and literal rivers of tears streamed down his face as he frantically questioned why Andres had not warned him. I belly laughed for so long my stomach hurt. I couldn’t not remember a time within the past four years when I had felt such joy, and again, my belief in the possibility of sobriety was strengthened.
We get to assign meaning in our lives; we get to decide that we are more than just the sum of our thoughts and actions. We get to decide who we are and how we express ourselves. My partner Mike reminds me of this truth often. He approaches life with genuine optimism and positivity. Whereas, sometimes I feel like I focus on the pain in the world and what’s wrong with it, Mike reminds me of the choice I have before me every day: to be apathetic and see the world for what is wrong with it, or to try and support what I think is right and positive. Today I am filled with joy. It is our last day in town before heading up to attempt Nevado Chopicalqui as our first acclimatization peak. We are on a 2-hour drive north to Caraz from Huaraz, through the foothills of the Blanca, and it is gorgeous and stunning. This region of Peru (Ancash) seems to have more opportunities and more stable living conditions for people of all classes. I can’t speak with certainty, but it feels happier and lighter here. We have been met with nothing but smiles and hospitality since entering this region. Our friend Manuel Bernuy Ponte is a local who operates his own guiding company here in the Cordillera Blanca. It is called Peruvian Climbs. He is thirty, and I believe one of the youngest mountain guides in the region. Over the past year, he has shared so much of his intimate knowledge of these mountains with us, and we surely would not have been able to attempt this climb without his support. We finally got to meet him in person yesterday and have lunch with him. Meeting Manuel, and verifying the feasibility of our plans against his knowledge of the range has lit a fire in our stomachs.
Legacy gave me the tools to create a life of wellness no matter where I found myself in my journey. As my idea of who I am and what I want out of life changes and matures the one constant has always been the values set instilled in me through my time spent in the Utah wilderness. My experience at legacy continues to ground me to what’s important to this day. The LOA fund takes important steps each year to help ensure Wilderness/Adventure therapy treatment continually becomes a more accessible and equitable experience for all young adults and families in need. They do this by providing financial aid in the form of scholarships to those seeking outdoor behavioral healthcare treatment. I truly feel my experience at Legacy Outdoor Adventures saved my life. By donating to the LOA Fund you can help ensure that those who are in need of the type of experience I had at Legacy can have access to it. It would warm my heart if you, the reader, would take a moment after finishing this blog to consider donating to the scholarship fund here https://loafund.com/donate/ . You can also support by sharing the LOA Funds page and mission on your social media. Thank you for listening everybody!
I do not always understand mountain climbing myself. I do know that somewhere between the moment we set off from the valley floor and the moment we stand on the summit, there is something special happening. One of my peers at Legacy once asked, in a state of exasperation, “what’s the point?! We wake up every day and we walk up a hill then we walk down the hill.” As funny as my memory is of hearing that statement, I’ve come to believe it may be the essence of life. If that be the case, then surely it is all about how we show up in the world and not about what hill we choose to walk up. Lastly, I’d like to leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Lionel Terray. “With a few rare exceptions, the climber has no renown to hope for and no audience to encourage him, apart from his companion on the rope. Alone among the silence and solitude of the mountains, he fights for the JOY of overcoming his chosen obstacle by his own unaided powers.”