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Early this year, I traveled to an ancient glacier deep in the wilderness. With crampons on my boots and a 40-pound pack on my back, I crunched across the ice in the windswept immensity of interior Alaska. I drank straight from streams of glacial meltwater, peered into blue-tinted holes, and carefully picked my way around icy zebra-striped slopes. No matter that I wasn’t actually there—I was traveling by the singular power of memory.

The truth was I was spending long days in an even more strange and unfamiliar place: the couch. For most of my adult life I have been in motion—skiing and backpacking, roving through mountains and canyons, exploring from Hawaii to Bhutan. As a travel writer, my restlessness has been a vocation. But at the age of 39, with no family history and no risk factors, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and as treatment unfolded, I found myself shipwrecked at home.

It helped me learn that…a sense of authentic awe of the natural world, even if I wasn’t so much in it, was still available at any time.

Chemotherapy was an adventure I didn’t sign up for and lives up to its murderous reputation. My stomach was a turbulent sea, my mind smoggy, my body stiff, and everything tasted oddly metallic. My hair started falling out in clumps that clogged the drain and covered my pillow in a tangled mess. Because chemo annihilated all of the fast-replicating cells in my body, the inside of my mouth was raw and I couldn’t eat anything sharp. I even managed to frostbite my feet during an experimental freezing therapy to prevent peripheral neuropathy, a common side effect of chemo. For about five days, I couldn’t walk.

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Then the pandemic hit.

For a while, I put down all of my work projects and didn’t write much. It was tempting to feel sorry for myself, especially on powder days when my husband sheepishly snuck out the door with his skis.

But nearing the end of each three-week chemo cycle, I started to resurface before the next dose of poison. On one of those days, I opened my laptop, feeling a bit like an archaeologist excavating a bygone life. I couldn’t concentrate on much but found myself, curiously, gravitating to a project I had set aside: a children’s book on adventures.

In a way, the book was everything my life was not. It was big, lush, colorful and full of both detail and delight. I chose one kid-friendly adventure for each state—a combination of trips I had done and loved and activities I wanted to do but hadn’t. I dove back into writing again. By comparison to my drab situation, writing what essentially amounts to a book-size bucket list for kids was an invitation into reconnecting with the joy and glee and wonder that exploring the natural world has instilled over the years. It was also a lifeline to a future filled with the possibility of new discoveries.

So right there in the wreckage of my life and the uncertainty of living through a pandemic, I allowed my mind to travel far and wide—to a glacier in Alaska, to the vast boreal forests of Minnesota, to the otherworldly reefs of Florida with their swaying soft corals and outlandish tropical fish. I daydreamed about sailing through North Dakota badlands on a mountain bike and squeezing through a cave filled with Mars-like rock formations in Missouri.

Kids often aren’t terribly concerned with the things adults notice about nature, like grand vistas. They’re discovering the small stuff—turning over rocks in streams to find the critters that live underneath, chasing after salamanders or clambering up rocks. To write a kids book, you have to in some way become a kid yourself—or at least connect to and channel your own kid-like qualities. And so I became obsessed with details, like the glittery-eyed jumping spiders you can see at night in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park and the endemic butterflies you can spot only in the loftiest aeries of New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

In the meantime, I wasn’t going off on big ski days or backpacking trips, but, on short walks through my own neighborhood, I tuned in more and more to the simple wonder of what was right around me, like the way frost sparkles with the colors of the rainbow when the sun slants just right or how a deer’s ears rotate with such beautiful precision when they are alert and wary.

I can’t say that going through cancer treatment during a pandemic was easy, and the experience of writing a kids’ book didn’t paper over the reality of that challenge. But it helped me to learn that, to my surprise, misery isn’t monolithic—and that in the midst of such devastation, both personally and collectively, a sense of authentic awe inspired by nature, even if I wasn’t so much in it, was still available at any time. It felt like some essential nourishment.

A couple of weeks ago, my book, 50 Adventures in the 50 States, was officially born into the world. Similar to parenting a human child, you never know how it will make its way once you let go. For me, it’s a physical reminder of the extravagant blessing of being alive and conscious on this wild, beautiful, troubled planet, even right here in the middle of the struggle.

Photo: Vonlanthen

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