The culture of a mountain town often mirrors the scenery. Just as the mountains are steep, ambitious, and exacting, so, too, are the denizens’ expectations for work and play. The standard for a productive day normally goes something like this: Work your butt off, get outside to do something epically rad, and finish the day with a beer in hand.
The culture runs strong in southwestern Colorado, where the ski runs are thigh-burning, the hiking trails shoot uphill, the festivals are bacchanals of drinking and music, and mountain biking tracks are high-consequence. Even the yoga classes, with names like “lava flow,” are hardcore.
Nothing here feels halfway or easy, the daily routines of locals included. It’s common to hear about friends skiing laps before sliding into their desks at work and rounding out the day with Crossfit, linking up a backcountry tour in the morning and a desert ride in the afternoon, or spending weekends bagging 14ers, doing horribly difficult bike rides, going on enormous trail runs.
Just writing about it makes me tired.
I was once happily conscripted to this culture. I moved to my first mountain town at the age of 24 to write for the local paper, and I was a geyser of energy. I spent the next nine years working like crazy and playing even harder. At the height of my work-hard-play-hard-sleep-when-you-die-bitches phase, I stuffed my days with early morning bike rides, deadline writing, snowboarding laps, copy-editing until my eyes were crossed, hot yoga classes, and the gamut of social events. I ate breakfast and lunch mindlessly at my desk and often spent the hours of 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. working on my laptop at home. Seven hours of sleep was about my max. I considered idleness an enormous waste. When my then-boyfriend tried to get me to sleep in on a Sunday, I would scoff. Too much to do!! Daylight’s a burning! Let’s go! I relished the bone-tired feeling at the end of a day that entailed an epic adventure and would map out to-do lists that today seem downright masochistic.
I accomplished all of this largely by ignoring my tired legs, zapped brain, and the faint voice telling me to stop for a second. I pushed through fatigue and rarely allowed myself to just sit on a bench in the sun, to sleep until I felt rested, or just relax. I rushed through conversations and whizzed around town on my cruiser bike. I burned and burned.
And then one day in March 2015, life imploded.
What began as a strange tingling on my side spread into a numbness that wrapped around my torso. My hands and feet went dead, and an electric buzzing began dancing up and down my limbs. Having tumbled hard on the ski mountain days earlier, I feared a spinal injury.
One emergency room visit, a spinal tap, and three MRIs later, I sat in a doctor’s lounge as a neurologist showed me several white smudges on MRI images of my spinal cord and brain. Lesions. “You have MS,” he told me. I was 33.
The diagnosis knocked me on my face. It wasn’t just the shock of an incurable neurological condition or the uncertainty that I could end up in a wheelchair. It was also the terrifying daily symptoms of the flare-up, which felt akin to a bad acid trip.
One of these episodes felt like a tremendous electric jolt had fried my system and all the messages were scrambled. My hands no longer recognized the soft fur of a cat, the smoothness of a marble counter, the heat of tap water. When I dropped my chin, a surge of buzzing would roar up my spine. And I couldn’t feel my mid-section. Soon my hands grew stiff and stopped working; it became painful to peel garlic, tie my shoes, or type (a terrible blow for a writer). I became sensitive to heat, social stimulation, and, it seemed, to everything.
But this isn’t about what happened during that flare-up. It’s about what happened after.
In the wake of the diagnosis, I was left bobbing in a sea of questions. Will I get better? Should I take scary drugs? Can I work as I did before? Will I be able to pay those medical bills? Will I ever be normal again?
At first, the answer to that final question seemed to lean toward no. Without functioning hands, riding bikes was out of the question. Nervous that the fall had somehow contributed to the flare-up, my snowboarding season was over. A tight constriction around my mid-section – known as the “MS hug” – made rigorous exercise feel uncomfortable. Because heat exacerbates symptoms, hot yoga was a no-go. And a busy day at work – the kind that used to be par for the course – left me utterly depleted.
Fate had me in a tricky spot: A type-A achiever forced to slow down. I had no other option, I simply couldn’t do like I used to.
So I started from zero. I began to take walks. A word that would have been used disparagingly in my former life. Walk? Boooring. Now though, walking was the best I could do. I walked along the river path or up the road to the abandoned mine at the terminus of the box canyon. One, two, three miles at a time. After that, I started going back to yoga, but only gentle classes that I would have considered a waste of time before. I started meditating and went to bed at the prudish hour of 9 p.m. I whittled my lists down to a few things I knew I could accomplish. I stopped working when I felt tired. And I settled on a new mantra: “Do less.”
Eventually, the symptoms diminished to the level of a low background hum. About two months after the tingling first appeared, I started to regain normalcy. Well, new normalcy that is. I still live with symptoms like dizziness and brain fog every day, and I don’t think I’ll ever get back to the busybody I once was.
I’ve had to slow down – and stay slow – in order manage this disease. Doing so was counter to all I knew, and it was really hard. But once I did, I realized I had been rushing through life wantonly, recklessly, missing so much. I had been too busy for mindful conversations, the songs of birds in the forest, spontaneous adventures with friends, the pleasure of sitting in the sun with nothing to do, the relaxation of reading a good book for hours.
I’ve changed my habits. Instead of zipping through the woods as fast as humanly possible, I spend more time now wandering slowly, stopping to sit under trees, lay by the side of a river, or watch the clouds pass overhead. Instead of flogging myself for not doing some six-hour epic ride on a sunny summer day, I am satisfied to have walked the dog on the local trail. I’ve swapped sweaty yoga for classes that leave me feeling peaceful. And the lists? Well, they still exist. But they’ve grown a lot shorter.
Modern people push themselves to extremes wherever they go, but there’s a special strain of this pressure in mountain towns, where value is tied to how hard you ski, how many peaks you bag, and how many miles you log on a bicycle. Here, the glorification of outdoor adventure is all around us, and I think that forces many to get out there, even when it’s not what we want to be doing.
I’m not trying to advocate laziness. But I was given a special opportunity to pull myself out of the rat race of the mountain town lifestyle – how big and rad and self-punishing can you get, bro? What I learned is that it’s not always good for us to push relentlessly, to blow past our limits, to wear ourselves down to nothing. To burn and burn.
These days, I live under a medical mandate to do less. But I’ve also given myself permission. And for the first time in my life, I’ve realized there’s a lot of wisdom in that adage. Less is more.
Photo by Kent Kanouse