“The way she looked at the mountains said everything. Her body positioned directly in front of their towering peaks as if whispering, “take all of me.” No other love would come close to the bond she had forged upon their snow covered ridges. Any man who wished to compete would surely face the unrelenting granite fortress which tenderly held the key to her heart. No, this was not a competition. This was a proving ground. For the fresh air of the wilderness cocooned her body with the purity of clear flowing water. If he wished to remain, he knew he must let her go. Falling in love with her meant that she would always yearn for the unpredictable nature of the outdoors to nurture her soul. She was born without ties to the suffocating man-made cities of despair. The very stands of her DNA were rooted deep in the soil like the tallest trees of the forest. She belonged to the land and in return it loved her dearly. When mother nature sweetly called her name, she answered with a resounding yes which echoed off the canyon walls with glee, bouncing with the joy of a child. She was forged with the same searing heat that formed the tallest peaks and the lowest valleys. Her passion for the Earth and it’s familiar untamed beauty sang ballads which the soaring birds tried to replicate. No, this was not a competition. All he could do was love her fiercely with the same enthusiasm that she bled for her mountains. And all the while, as he let her disappear among the dancing wildflowers, he knew she’d come back into his arms. And with her she brought a passion that was so raw and primal that he loved her all the more. For as much as she loved the land, she needed the strong grasp which could only be found in his embrace. And when she stared deep into his eyes they perfectly reflected the infinity of those billion star nights that she had been cradled in… and she knew she was home.” – Sara C Fry
To say that swimming around the perimeter of Lake Tahoe would be challenging is a major understatement. I knew that going in. Humor is often the best cure for anything. I would often joke about drowning, dying, and the general “hard as ****” aspect that swimming around the entire lake would entail. Being able to take the real challenges of an event and make light of them has always played a key role in my ability to undertake arduous challenges such as Tahoe.
I am beyond pleased with my training and physical abilities leading up to the swim. My support crew – Brian Ahlers and Annie Mac were nothing short of incredible. Their combined goofiness, laughter, warmth, and aid was more than I could have possibly wished for. I wouldn’t have been able to get as far as I did without these two angels. From the bottom of my heart – THANK YOU! Your presence and willingness to tackle this endeavor with me made it much more enjoyable.
Without further ado:
Day 1: With Brian on his kayak and Annie on her SUP we set off from Sand Harbor. It was a gorgeous day. The sky was clear and the water was a beautiful glassy blue. Around 11am, with my Chill Swim dry bag in tow, I set off on the first leg of my Tahoe 360 attempt. The first day swimming was great. I focused my breathing to every 3 stokes. Within moments of being in the open I was able to sync my momentum with the rhythm of the water. I watched my arms break the surface while little clear bubbles would delicately dance off my hands and up to the top of the water. The only constant sound was the exhale of my breath. Swimming parallel with the shore, I had tall green trees on my left and Brian on my right. If my goggles weren’t too fogged up I’d occasionally catch a smile. This would make me bust up laughing and inadvertently lead to stopping in an attempt to catch my breath from giggle fits. Annie also played a key role in entertainment with her yoga.
My shoulders felt the effects of propelling myself and all my gear forward. By the end of day 1 my right shoulder was terribly painful. With each stoke, I’d feel my rotator cuff grinding. The initial stoke above/ in front of my body would create a very dull radiating pain in the front of my shoulder that lingered and spread through to my back. Although painful, this was easy to ignore.
The wind had picked up and with it came the waves. Forward progress became much slower. The 3 of us made it 9 miles before we stopped for the evening.
Day 2: Annie, Brian, and I hit the water around 10am. To say the water was cold was an understatement. My routine every time I’d immerse myself into the cold went as follows: Slide in feet. Douse myself with water all of my body. Jump in. Short rapid breathing and side swimming (recovery swim) until the shock wore off. When my breathing had returned to normal I’d put my face into the water and start swimming. My goggles would immediately fog up, but after being submerged for a few minuets they’d even out to create slightly more visibility.
The first break of day 2 was atop a beautiful warm rock. The first break took me longer to recover than any the previous day. I sat absorbing heat as I tried to pay attention to the conversation Annie and Brian were having. I was only able to focus in for 1 word before losing the ability to follow along. My concentration was definitely lacking as I remember staring blankly out onto the water without a single thought in my head. After a couple minutes I was able to participate better and I’d begin eating. Annie dubbed the period after I’d emerge from the water as my “Reptile Brain.”
Getting back into the water was always the most difficult. The initial push to get my body to interact with the cold lake was unlike anything I’d experienced before. Normally, in my endeavors, it’s always a mind over matter challenge. However, this was not the case. My mind was more than ready to hop in, but my body had begun to develop an aversion to getting into Lake Tahoe.
Once I hit the water, after the initial shock wore off, it was as if my swimming career had ceased to come to a complete halt… courtesy of my brain injury. In the water it felt as if no time had passed. My mind would clear and the only thoughts in my head would be of my stroke, breathing, and the wide open water in front of me. A clear head, a clear lake, and a clear path – Forward.
The water along the perimeter of the lake would intermittently change. The hues of the Tahoe would alter between a deep dark blue, a turquoise glimmer, and a soft golden sandy color. These changes were also accompanied by major temperature fluctuations. The deeper the color the colder the lake would become. Some sections were so unbearably frigid that I’d have to sprint through them to make sure not to lose any precious body heat. Many times I’d bring my head out of the water just long enough to curse some profanity at the absurdly uncomfortable temperature instability.
Day 2 I made it roughly 8 miles to our camp in Zephyr Cove. The last ~quarter mile to the cove was tiring and cumbersome. The wind had picked up ferociously and I battled through waves as my Chill Swim dry bag acted as an anchor behind me. With every wave I’d drop down into, my dry bag would act as a parachute, pulling me in the opposite direction into the backside of the wave. I quickly forgot of the cold which had encroached into the very core of my body. My uninterrupted focus took over. Pulling harder than I ever had in this particular lake, I finally made it to shore. I emerged from the water breathing hard. I sat down on Annie’s SUP while Brian towled me off.
Day 3: The cold began taking it’s toll with a vengeance. My breaks became longer and longer. Each time I’d come out of the water I would be past the annoying symptom of shivering. My “Reptile Brain” was in full swing. After a prolonged period of staring blankly my shivering would commence. A desperate desire to consume food would accompany my shaking body. After this initial process I would be able to join in conversation again. Smiling and laughing would return, and eventually I’d heat up before having to jump back into the water.
We took a break on some sandy cove near cave rock. I was absolutely freezing by the time I got out. I was overjoyed to lay down in the burning hot sand in an attempt to steal the warmth radiating from the ground. I was pretty tired at this point but not from physical exhaustion. The tiredness I’d been experiencing was unlike any I’d encountered before. It would came on with a deliberate strong-hold. Many times while swimming I’d “come to” and my first thought would be “did I just fall asleep?” However, I knew that was impossible since I would “come to” and still be swimming flawlessly without any interruption in my breathing or stroke. It was one of the most interesting feelings. To be quite honest, I liked it. It was the ultimate tune-out and I was still making forward progress without actually being there.
After a nap and regaining precious body heat I stood at the waters edge as Annie and Brian waited for me. I buckled my dry bag around my waist with weary fingers. I’d been thinking the past 3 days about ditching the bag. This swim was already taking much longer to make miles on account of needing to take such long breaks to heat-up. I told Annie and Brian about ditching the bag and having Brian carry it on his Kayak. They were both on board. I’d be much faster without the drag from towing my gear. Feeling lighter and much happier I entered the water. Our next stop was South Lake to meet up with my buddy Trooper (whom I’d hiked the Pacific Crest Trail with in 2012). He had obtained pizzas and was waiting for our arrival. With renewed lightness and the wonderful thought of warm delicious food on the horizon I began the next stretch.
The water wasn’t very deep and the waves had rejoined the three of us in an attempt to drown me, slow down Brian, and flip Annie. The turbulence of the water had kicked up so much sand that I was unable to see my hand in front of my face. Many times I would stop swimming and stand… the water was below my knee. Although we were far from shore, the shallow lake floor was wearing on me. With each stroke my hands began to hit the bottom. Since my body had been in the water for so long my skin lost its normal durability to withstand seemingly small abrasions and the tips of my fingers began to obtain minor cuts from coming in contact with the shallow lake floor.
The three of us made it to the beach and Trooper appeared with 2 pizzas in hand. His presence, as well as the delicious food he brought, made me feel incredibly loved. With me shivering uncontrollably, the 4 of us took a wonderful break before Brian and I headed back into the water for my next stretch. The waves had become too strong for Annie on her SUP so she went into town to look for a fin for her board as well as a wetsuit rental for me.
In reality, the next stretch was most likely the warmest in terms of actual water temperature, but it was by far the coldest stretch I’d undergone yet. I would often tell Annie or Brian that I needed a break. This was not because of physical exhaustion, but because I had gotten way too cold to continue. Generally, but the time I exited the water I would be past the point of shivering and Reptile Brain would be in full effect.
With Brian alongside in his kayak we tackled the strongest waves yet. The next stretch my brain began doing the most interesting things. I could feel the blood in my arms retreating and going to my core. My arms became dense and the task of continually pulling water to propel myself forward only got more toilsome. I stopped momentarily to inspect my arms because they felt so strange. My fingers had changed from a white/yellow hue to an almost purple color. I could literally feel the blood sluggishly retreating inside my veins. None of these feelings were uncomfortable. I was borderline amazed with these new sensations.
Within seconds my breathing became labored as I tried to retain my 3 stoke breath rate. This was impossible and I tried my hardest to gasp for air. I could feel my rib cage heaving rapidly in and out. My skin suddenly felt fiery as if it was searing with heat. I looked up and Brian as if I needed to go in. I shook my head “no” and momentarily continued. So many things were happening in my body it was an exciting awareness. At one point I rolled over on my back in an attempt to slow down my heart rate. Instantly, I knew this was a bad idea. All my precious body heat I’d worked up was quickly dispersing into the cold waves. I looked up at Brain and shook my head “yes.” Alarms to exit the water were slowly going off, yet I still was in awe of these newfound perceptions I was able to observe.
Brian angled the kayak towards the shore and I began side swimming to the sandy beach of South Lake Tahoe. I felt the strangest urge to stop breathing and I plunged my face into the water. I watched with wonder as the light from the sun danced along the bed of the lake creating the most intriguing surges of light. There were no thoughts in my head. I was lost in the experience of this unfamiliar escapade. Underneath the surface, the water was calm. There was no howling wind, sea-spray, or constant rocking from the waves. It was possessively peaceful. All at once, like a shot of epinephrine, my conscious mind began shouting at me to surface and seek air. Reluctantly, I obliged.
It took awhile for me to make it into the shore. Brian grabbed his kayak and began dragging it to the sand. I attempted to help by hoisting up the back end, but failed miserably. Semi-laughing, I told him I could help if he just slowed down. I also told him it would be really good for me cause it would generate heat which I was desperately craving. I’m not sure if I ended up helping or not. However, I do remember crawling into the kayak and laying down in the sun as Brian went to get Annie who he’d contacted prior to tell her our location.
The 3 of us went to Trooper’s residence where I promptly got into a warm shower. Sitting underneath the shower nozzle I reveled in the heat pouring over my cold body. My skin was frozen to the touch where the water was unable to land. After what felt like forever, I turned off the water and joined everyone outside. Trooper had made an incredible meal of fresh fish, couscous, and green beans. That man is a gem! Feeling human again, the 3 of us resupplied then promptly drifted off to sleep.
Day 4: Annie had tracked down a wetsuit rental in Tahoe Keys. I was 100% on board with having heat and staying warm in the water. We got into the water. The restrictive wetsuit was meddlesome of my stroke, but was a welcomed friend as the cold tried to wrap its arms around me. Yet, even with the wetsuit, I was unable to remain warm. I made it roughly 6.5 miles, to the mouth of Emerald Bay, before another long break. My brain began tuning out even more. I’d frequently “come to” and wonder if I had been asleep or awake. It’s the most unusual feeling knowing that you’re not asleep, yet you’re unable to recall where “you” had just been. Cold water is fascinating. The experiences I underwent in the chilly temperatures are more than intriguing. Despite the uncomfortable nature of the cold seeping into the very core of my being, it was enthralling.
The waves were nothing short of the worst we’d encountered yet. White caps danced along the top of the lake warning of the waters instability. The undertow of the current coming out of the bay was going to be tedious. Given my current state, in addition to that of the merciless water, I knew that I would be unable to go into Emerald Bay. I opted to skip it and finish that chunk when we came back to pick up Annie’s car in South Lake.
Brian joking asked if I wanted him to swim the next section and I eagerly jumped at the opportunity to see him in the water. “YES!” I exclaimed. I don’t think he thought I was serious until he was putting on my watermelon swim cap. The following 40 mins was perhaps the hardest I’ve laughed this year. I wasn’t expecting Brian to get very far… maybe 5 minutes with 20 minutes being the absolute maximum. From the second Brian entered the water he was an on his A game in terms of humor. Between the heavy panting and talking as if it was going out of style I was in stitches. I’m still convinced my laughter could be heard from Incline Village (the opposite side of the lake).
Brian may have been the most talkative I’ve ever seen him. He was narrating everything with an animated and unbridled charisma. “Why am I talking? If I’d stop talking I’d actually be able to swim!” … “I feel so alive!”… “Why am I moving backwards?” … “This current is so strong!” … “I’ve resorted to the scissor kick I learned when I was 5.”
Between the waves, the current, and his constant rambling Brian began drifting further and further backwards in the opposite direction. It was hilarious. Finally, after about 20 minutes he made it to the other side of the mouth of Emerald Bay. He hopped into the Kayak. I was more than proud of him. He went much further than I’d projected and the hilarity of his post-swim streak was still going strong. We called it a day shortly after that.
Day 5: The 3 of us where in the water before 8. It was FREEZING. Even with the wetsuit I was surprised at how poorly my body was doing to retain heat. I swam ~2 miles then took a break. Annie made me a warm drink and I reveled in the radiating warmth as I intimately felt the heat traveling down my throat and seeping into my body. Shortly after getting back into the water we came across “Rooster Rock.” A very popular rock jump. Annie and Brian were eager to test it out. I warmed on a rock as they joyfully climbed to the top then threw themselves over the edge into the deep blue water. It looked like great fun and I wanted to jump as well, but the desire to “do nothing” was much stronger and securely bolted me in place.
We continued on. My brain started slowly drifting further and further away. The thoughts that would pop into my head were so elongated it felt as if I was in my own MAJOR slow motion picture. A normal thought enters your consciousness in less than a second, yet the thoughts I began having seemed as if it took 5 minutes for them to completely formulate. I felt my skin turn from a crisp white to red and back to white. Feeling the colors changing was interestingly trippy. I knew that I needed to get out immediately, yet I somehow seemingly enjoyed the oddities I was experiencing first-hand. I swam 4.5 miles before coming into shore with the thought of “I’m done.”
When I got out of the water I immediately fell asleep. I woke up ~45 mins later. Cold water is captivating. Never, at any point, did I need to take a break because of physical exhaustion. I was tired plenty of times! However, it was the cold which always prompted me to retreat to land. After eating, talking, and semi-regaining my mind I told Annie and Brian that I thought I was going to call it. My body was over being freezing. I text my sister and told her my plan and she was wonderfully supportive. Thank you Lyz! It was taking me longer and longer to re-heat. I had started before 8 and in the past 5 hours I’d only completed 4 miles. I asked Annie and Brian their thoughts and they said they were with me with what ever choice I had.
I agreed to go ~2 more miles to the supposedly “best white sand beach in Tahoe” – Meeks Bay. There was a possibility of renting a kayak and finishing the rest of the 360 adventure without swimming. I felt bad since Annie and Brian came out to SUP and kayak and wanted to complete the entire lake as well.
The shock was less than it had been any other time upon re-entering the lake. My brain almost immediately slowed down to a snail’s pace. I remember trying to focus on my pull. I became transfixed with the peaceful nature of my bodies interation with the surface. Little drops of water gently raced atop the lake and soothingly molded back into the large body of water. My body got ridiculous hot as I continued to swim onwards. With the current in my favor I could feel my body gliding in an effortless fashion through the water. I remember my brain turning back to normal for a few moments. My left leg refused to kick and my right leg started kicking double time. I consciously told my body “left leg kick! Kick goddammit! No… not the right… Left. Kick. Come on.” My left leg never regained its ability to kick. And shortly after my right leg stopped kicking as well. I felt as if I was trapped inside myself with a working mind and a body which was intent on keeping me prisoner. Yet, none of this was uncomfortable. The feelings of everything happening remained pleasant… despite the way it sounds.
I watched as my right arm slowed down to a “freestyle drill” stroke. Again I tried to persuade my body, “Come on arm. Pull. Together. One fluid movement. Not staggered. It’s okay. You can do it. Come on.” It was at this point I stopped and rolled over onto my back to rest. I tried to adjust my goggles but was only able to get my hands in the vicinity of my face before they’d drop. Semi-frustrated I turned over and began swimming again. I was very close to the shore and could see my landing point. Then my ability to swim a straight line started to waiver. I knew exactly the direction I needed to go, yet my body was the one which was incapable of propelling me in that direction. Annie and Brian situated themselves directly on either side of me and guided me the rest of the way in.
I slowly felt the need to breath growing weaker. It was fascinating and intriguing altogether. I no longer felt as if I was working hard, nor that I needed air. I sporadically changed my breathing pattern… 9 breathless stokes, 7, 11, 1, 1, 1, 8, 9, 2. I knew I had to get out immediately, yet the urgency from my brain to actually retreat was almost non-existant. I made it into the shore under my own strength (or lack thereof) I remember looking down at the rocky bottom and worrying about my feet. I knew that they’d be torn and bleeding if I walked on top of the jagged rocks. I sat down and foggily watched Brian put on his vibrant green shoes. I remember feeling characteristically uncomfortable at the sight of him coming to help me… which pains me tremendously to say because I know how stupid it sounds and I’m incredibly grateful for his loving support. The man deserves a gold medal.
I think I got up as he approached me and I tried to walk into the shore on my own accord, but I’m not sure that happened. I’d like to say that I made it… but realistically the two angels Annie and Brian most likely helped me exit the water completely.
The next thing I remember is sitting on the shore watching a duck swim in the water. Then I remember Brian violently stripping off my wetsuit (although I’m sure it wasn’t violent at all). I remember having jackets and down pants put on me. I remember being HOT. The hottest I’ve ever been in my life. On FIRE HOT! As if every cell in my body was bursting from flames and the furnace from within was only growing with heat. I remember wanting to sleep. I couldn’t keep my eyes open. This was not being tired… this was the inability to stay awake. I remember having hands on my body to refrain me from moving. Knowing me, I was most likely trying to get up and do things on my own accord. I sometimes think I have way more strength than I really do and it’s the most frustrating thing for me feeling helpless as if I can’t “live” on my own. This is a deep seeded feeling which stems from being 100% reliant on another individual because of my Traumatic Brain Injury. So feeling helpless is THE WORST feeling I could possibly imagine… EVER.
I was tired. Beyond tired. Exhausted. As if both my body and brain were fried. I was unable to focus on anything being said. I heard noises, which I’m positive were words… but I could only make out one every so often. I remember being frustrated because all I wanted was sleep. I needed sleep. Yet the amazing Annie and Brian weren’t letting that happen. I remember trying my hardest to put on a sock. I kept forgetting what I was supposed to be doing with it. I’d see my hands near my foot and a sock around my toes… but then I’d forget again. I swear it took an eternity to put on my sock. Brian could have easily put it on too. I’m not entirely sure. The only thing I knew for certain: I WAS HOT. I WAS NUMBINGLY FATIGUED. I NEEDED SLEEP.
I remember hoisting myself over a concrete pony wall to walk to Annie’s car. I remember Brian’s hand over my eyes as the light penetrated through creating a horrendous strobing effect which made me want to seize. I remember staring terrified at the germ-infested bed spread cover of the hotel. I remember wanting to cry so I’d start laughing to help ease the pain. I remember being dreadfully uncomfortable. And I remember Brian and Annie being there. I remember feeling the most love imaginable from the warmth of my hand in Brian’s. I remember feeling safe. I remember feeling uncomfortably hot and then ridiculously freezing. I fiercely remember not wanting to go back into water.
My Tahoe 360 attempt was over.
Despite how terrible it sounds… experiencing the severity of my hypothermic nature in such an intimate manner was nothing short of stunning. The way my brain interacted with my body was gripping. I’ve always approached challenges with a “mind over matter” mentality and my 360 attempt put much more emphasis on the physicality of my being. My body has always been my weakest companion. It’s notorious for shutting down. But there has always been a complex interaction between the mental aspect and the physical aspect of such events. The mental “toughness or fight” which normal accompanies an endurance activity was seemingly nonexistent as my brain would “check out” and my body would continue in auto-pilot…. until the very end when a surge of adrenaline ignited my neurons and kept them firing strong while my body withered into an almost catatonic state.
I know how strange it sounds when I say it was fascinating and intriguing… but that’s the truth. It was the most interesting experience I’ve ever felt. Despite the cold which was freezing its way into my core, the mental aspect was phenomenally intoxicating.
3 days ago I had zero desire to jump into cold water… that’s slowly shifting. I chose Lake Tahoe because of its demanding and challenging nature. I tend to push myself to the absolute brink. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be being true to myself. I want to experience as much as I can in this crazy life. I like to live on the edge. That’s where I feel alive most alive.
As I stood on the shore of Meeks Bay before I departed I knew this wasn’t goodbye. I knew I’d be back… donned with a wetsuit from the very beginning.
Until we meet again Tahoe…
I owe a huge thank you to Annie and Brian. You guys are champions for enduring that with me. I wouldn’t have been able to get as far as I did without your support and love. You guys are rockstars. THANK YOU!
June 25th 2006. Nine years ago, I sustainable a life-altering deliberate elbow to the temple while playing in a water-polo tournament. I was 15. Little did I know how much that single event would change the course of my entire life. I wound up in a coma. I had to attend intensive rehab for cognitive, occupational, speech, and physical therapies. Among MANY things I lost my ability to read, memorize, and my cognitive functions tumbled drastically downhill. Those would become the least of my worries. Since this day 9 years ago I’ve been in pain 24/7. There has not been a single moment where I’ve been pain-free since the blow to my head. I’ve been to every specialist in the US and I’ve tried every drug to try and alleviate my symptoms from my Traumatic Brain Injury all to no avail. After about 3 years immediately following the injury I was tired of merely existing. I had 1 of 2 choices. I could commit suicide in hopes of getting away from pain, or I could battle every day to “fake it till you make it.” With unsuccessful attempts at my first option I began reclaiming my life in hopes of actually LIVING. It’s been the absolute hardest thing I’ve ever had to face. Every day is a struggle but the fight is more than worth it. Living with Traumatic Brain Injury is incredibly difficult. The invisibility of this injury makes it unique in the respect that its “survivors” appear normal on the outside. It’s both a blessing and a curse to look “normal.” Sometimes it would be 110% easier if my outsides reflected the battle that’s constantly raging internally. My injury forced me from a very early age to constantly adapt. Living moment by moment I live the life I am currently blessed with. The gift of planning is something most TBI-ers learn to live without. Our bodies dictate our current abilities and those change drastically day by day and hour by hour. I taught myself, with the tools given to me by UCLA’s Chronic Pediatric Pain Clinic, to appreciate the little things in life. To focus on the small beauties of this world because sometimes that’s all we have. Over the past 9 years I’ve gotten tremendously good at hiding my ailments in hopes of simulating a semi-normal life. Sometimes I cannot hide my symptoms and others look at me with the utmost concern. I spent the first 3 years after my injury 100% reliant on another individual. I needed help eating, bathing, walking, etc. When I first embraced the mentality of “fake it till you make it” I vowed to myself that as long as I was able, I would be self-reliant. Losing your independence is perhaps the worst thing to endure as a teenager. Once I was able to function independently I took it and ran. Many of my friends will speak of my absurd stubbornness, but there’s a reason for it. As much as I hate to admit, my entire life is ruled by my TBI. From seizures and double vision, vertigo and headaches that make you want to shoot yourself, from sharp stabbing pains throughout your body and getting sick at the drop of a hat I’ve learned to fully LIVE my life while I have the ability to. I never thought my life would be the beautiful adventure it is today, but I wouldn’t change a single thing. I’ve met some of the most incredible individuals and I truly value this precious gift we’ve been given. I try my absolute hardest to fully LIVE and be present in the moment. I appreciate the little gifts nature so freely spreads. I hope with all my heart to show others that they can accomplish their wildest dreams despite their disabilities or hiccups. The only constant is change and if these past 9 years have taught me anything it’s that love is the most important gift we all possess. Within ourselves lies the ability to change and focus on positivity. Sometimes it’s easier to see than others but hope and faith will carry you through the hardest of times. Live the life of your dreams, for nothing is ever guaranteed. The happiness of your life is directly related to the quality of your thoughts. Live with purpose and meaning… and don’t ever let ANYTHING hold you back from your dreams. I owe so much to the people in my life that have stayed by my side and help to make this crazy journey better than I ever could have imagined. I’ve accomplished more than I (or anyone else for that matter) ever thought was possible… and that’s a trend I’m going to uphold until the very end. Traumatic Brain Injury is a life-long battle. Raising awareness is key to helping others successfully maneuver their way through their new world. Stay positive and cherish every moment as if it were your last… and above all else don’t ever let others tell YOU what YOU ARE capable of. Defy the odds kids… it’s much more fun
The first day of the CDT! We (Nugio, iPod, and myself) got picked up at the KOA in Lordsburg, NM at 7am. Despite being incredibly tired from the Pacific Crest Trail Kick-Off, my spirits were high and my energy levels were topping out. I couldn’t help but beam with excitement as we walked towards our CDTC shuttle, a dusty Volvo. Pounce, a fellow hiker, took our picture as we piled into the little car on our way to Hachita, NM.
The road into Hachita, where we would switch to a sturdier car, was as straight as could be. Only one long meandering left “turn” stood between us and our exit. We each paid the CDTC 70 dollars to drive us out to the Crazy Cook border, as well as cache water for the first 85 miles. It was a beautiful and welcome deal!
When we got into Hachita we switched to an incredibly dirty old blue truck. We piled our backpacks into the trunk and climbed into the cabin. I immediately noticed the heaping mound of fresh dirt that had accumulated on the floor board. As Nug eagerly jumped into the front seat he slapped the dingy old cloth and the inside of our vehicle was instantly engulfed in a thick cloud of golden dirt. I coughed as we waited for the engine to turn over.
Our driver was great! He gave us a local history lesson as we drove closer to our destination – Crazy Cook.
He taught us about the local copper mines and the saw mill industry that used to be in the area. I was shocked that this place used to be covered in trees. Looking out onto the barren landscape, I knew shortly I would be longing for the welcome shade of the once plentiful green leafed foliage.
We drove on dirt roads for almost 2 hours. It was brutal on the vehicle. Everywhere we looked we saw car parts. Everything from oil pans to fenders littered the graveyard like path. The closer we got to the border the worse the road became. I bounced up and down hitting my head on the roof several times. With each bump and notch we overcame more dirt happily danced into the cabin. I wasn’t sure if the air was getting thicker or I was just ingesting a massive amount of dust particles. Boogers immediately filed my nose making it impossible to breath in through my nostrils. Every time I opened my mouth the dirt infused air made its way into my body and settled on my teeth creating a nice gritty layer now calling my teeth home.
The wind was blowing vigorously and only increased the closer we got. Soon our visibility was only a few hundred feet in front of us.
After hours of jostling around inside our shuttle we made it to the Southern Terminus- Crazy Cook. For the last 20 or so miles we had been following tire tracks from an illegal immigrant. As we approached the flimsy barbed wire gate that separated New Mexico and Mexico the tracks disappeared onto the other side for what looked like a successful illegal crossing.
As we got out of the truck we opened the latch to discover our packs looked like they’d been rolling around in the dirt. Once bright and clean, they like us, now had a brown sheen to them… so much for that shower I had just taken.
Our driver dropped us off and took a few pictures of us before departing back to Hachita.
While we were soaking it all in the three of us were greeted by 4 border patrol agents. 1 in a truck and 3 on quads. They said they had been following the tracks as well. I tried getting a picture with them, but they objected. After a final picture, Nugio, iPod, and I took our first steps on the Continental Divide Trail at 10:40am April 30th, 2014.
The three of us at Crazy Cook
Our route on the monument.
The walking was easy, flat, and along washes for roughly the first 14 miles. Within the first mile I stepped on an Ocotillo and the thorns pierced through the bottom of my shoe sticking my foot. Despite the pain, I was still thrilled to finally be starting the journey North to Canada.
Ocotillo aka prickly sons a bi….cats.
We made it to the first water cache and ate dinner (cold instant mashed potatoes). We then hiked another ~2 miles before laying out our sleeping bags and falling asleep under the vast blanket of stars…. it feels great to be home.
For the wonderful Michael McWilliams!
Sunset aka where we plopped down to get some shut eye.
I’m speechless. A couple days ago I made the front page of my local newspaper. I’m incredibly honored and blessed. The reporter, Angel Moreno, did a fabulous job. Thank you, Fresno Bee, for printing the story. If you want to read the article on their site go to:
I hope my story inspires you to take hold of your life and live with meaning.
Front page… speechless… enjoy.
Sara Fry sees nothing as impossible, certainly not a 3,100-mile south-to-north trek across the country, especially after dealing with cancer and a traumatic brain injury.
Soreness and fatigue from the hike? She’ll happily deal with that as she travels the Continental Divide Trail from New Mexico to Canada, a journey she began Wednesday.
She has learned to live with pain far worse, the kind that at age 15 made her lock herself in her room and sleep for up to 23 hours, to attempt suicide four times.
A straight-A student and promising water polo player at Clovis High before the brain injury, Fry finally found an adequate treatment and returned to graduate, only to then be diagnosed with melanoma.
And so now she hikes, often alone, a welcome release from the residual pain of her original injury and the specter of what cancerous cells might remain despite 11 surgeries.
“It’s peace. It’s joy. It’s everything,” Fry says. “When you’re on the trail, it’s just you and Mother Nature. You don’t have people constantly worrying about how you’re feeling or if you’re OK. I’m able to be just another person.”
The fallen star
Her parents recall a young girl interested in sports at an early age, eventually gravitating toward water polo.
In the first grade, Fry told her mother that she’d get a college scholarship in athletics. And it was shaping up that way when as a Clovis High freshman Fry lettered on the girls’ varsity.
Then came summer 2005.
Playing in a club water polo tournament in Los Angeles, Fry took an elbow to the temple and was knocked unconscious.
Trainers and doctors diagnosed a mild concussion and prescribed rest.
But mom Michelle, a nurse at Kaiser Permanente, knew it was something more.
“I know my daughter. They didn’t see the symptoms.”
Fry, 15 at the time of the injury, would lock herself in her room nearly all day. She had trouble sleeping. She would lie there, trying her hardest to escape the pain.
A girl used to being active and outside now dreaded sunlight and any kind of physical activity.
“She was used to being physical and to lie there in pain, days on end, was horrendous,” Michelle Fry recalls. “You could watch the pain in her face and hear her moaning from her room upstairs.”
Sara tried to take her own life multiple times — seemingly the only way to escape the pain.
“That was the only reason,” she says. “When you are laying there and it feels like somebody is jabbing an ice pick into your skull 24/7 and there’s nothing the doctors can do about it and you’ve been to all the best TBI specialists in the state and there’s still nothing they can do, that’s why.
“The pain is all I can think about, and it was debilitating. I didn’t want to be in physical pain anymore.”
One afternoon, Fry emptied a bottle of sleeping pills into the palm of her hand and tossed them into her mouth.
Moments later, Toast, a Jack Russell terrier her mom had gotten her a month earlier as a 16th birthday present, bolted up the stairs and started licking Fry’s face.
“I was sitting on the ground crying and this puppy runs up, licking my face and is so happy to see me. I can’t leave this innocent dog here alone; I just got her.
“Right then I went to the bathroom and threw up everything. Toast saved my life.”
Getting a grip
The family went back on the medical circuit, looking for a solution. Following an acupressure session in early 2007, Fry was referred to the Centre for Neuro Skills in Bakersfield.
She underwent a range of therapies — cognitive, physical, speech and visual.
There were days when Fry wanted to go back to bed and say forget it, says Dr. Ellen Katomski, Fry’s case manager at the Bakersfield center. But together they stimulated and challenged Fry’s brain once a week for the next two months, trying to help her relearn and reconnect what was lost because of the injury.
As medical experts explain it, the injury has left her brain vulnerable to being overloaded by her senses. In a “normal” brain, the important stuff is processed and the rest — from people moving about on the street to birds chirping in the trees and strangers’ conversations in public settings — is filtered out to varying extents.
But that isn’t the case for Fry. Her brain doesn’t push anything aside. Everything is passed through.
And there is no cure. Not fully, anyway.
“It’s a lifelong change,” Katomski says, “and Sara’s trying to make the most of it.”
School no longer came easy and Fry fell behind as she struggled with her focus.
Algebra, which she once conquered with no trouble, was like a foreign language.
With the help of Elaine DeSilva, her home hospital teacher, and Rita Nitschke, her high school counselor, Fry tackled subjects one by one over the next three years.
She returned to campus for what was her senior year, taking classes there in addition to continuing her home schooling. She graduated with her Clovis High class of 2009.
“I was so far behind, but I knew I could do it. I wanted to go back to school and graduate with my friends. I was determined to not take no for an answer.”
After graduation, Fry drove to San Diego to stay with older sister Andrea for a few weeks.
It turned into months, as San Diego suited Fry. She enrolled in community college and life was returning to near normalcy, despite dealing with the daily residual effects of her brain injury.
“They’re all just a part of my regular life. There comes a point where you can’t let this hinder you.”
But in August 2009, Andrea was diagnosed with melanoma. Her doctor suspected it may be genetic, prompting the entire family to be tested. Among her mom, another sister and a brother, Fry was the only positive.
She had 11 surgeries over the next 13 months to remove cancerous cells.
“When Sara came down with that it was tough at first, but she did it her way. It’s heart-wrenching to see your beautiful daughter turn into a patch quilt from the cutting and cutting,” says her father, Michael.
Her brain injury made it all the worse. Fry didn’t numb for any of her surgeries, feeling each prick and prod.
Finally, she decided she’d had enough — the 11th surgery would be her last, regardless of how the cancer was responding.
“I’ve never been afraid of death. I had already thought I was going to die because of the TBI. I was just extremely unhappy with it, so I decided that I would be done.”
With that, Fry opened a new chapter on her life.
At the start of 2012, sparked by an interest in backpacking and the outdoors, Fry announced to her family that she would hike the Pacific Crest Trail — alone.
She started in April at the California-Mexico border and finished the 2,660-mile trek to Canada in October.
“When you do something like that, it’s a personal deal,” Michael Fry says. “It’s about how far you can go and what you can do. Did I expect her to go all the way? Probably not, but she did.”
Fry masked her pain, using her trademark goofiness and smile to keep hikers she came across from noticing.
“The pain is still there. Sometimes it hits me hard on the trail, but being outside and enjoying life when I once couldn’t is what drives me.”
Fry kept hiking, first around San Diego and then in the summer of 2013 in Alaska. Back home for visits, she jumped on trails around Millerton Lake, eventually taking on the San Joaquin River Trail.
In November, Fry and friend John McKinney, whom she met while hiking the Pacific Crest, became the first to thru-hike the entire SJRT.
Michael Fry says his daughter’s love of outdoors feeds her soul.
“Life deals you hands like that and only God knows why. The human soul is pretty resourceful to keep going and going like that. With all Sara’s been through, this is just another challenge and another day.”
Her next adventure
Symptoms from the brain injury remain constant. Even today, they are sometimes so painful she is forced to stay home.
Nausea and light-headedness are daily companions.
Her eyes go “completely bonkers.”
“The entire world shakes and moves, no matter how much I rub my eyes. This isn’t spinning; this is everything shaking and my eyes hurt really bad when this happens,” Fry says.
She lives with a constant headache, putting it at a 6 on a scale of 1 to 10.
Sharp, stabbing pains make her ears feel like they’re about to explode, the agony often forcing her to the ground. She at times suffers from “underwater” or muffled hearing, sometimes lasting all day. Her chest will tighten, making even breathing painful to the point where she has to take really short, quick breaths.
Her joints and muscles always hurt and extreme fatigue often overtakes her. Her immune system is weaker than average. She’ll easily catch a bug and take longer than most individuals to heal.
Fry’s body still doesn’t numb. She feels everything, from a slight touch to a cut.
She still has regular checkups for melanoma.
But on Wednesday, off Fry went, embarking on her next adventure.
Annually, only about two dozen hikers complete the entire Continental Divide Trail.
Fry will traverse four states, starting at the Crazy Cook Monument in New Mexico, about 150 yards from the U.S.-Mexico border. From there, the hike will carry her through Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, all the way to the Canadian border.
She plans to cover 20 to 30 miles per day, taking a day to rest every five or six days. Twenty wilderness areas and three national parks — Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone and Glacier — are along the way.
The route moves up and down in elevation, zig-zagging rugged mountains with summits ranging from 4,600 to 14,600 feet. Such heights and the cold temperatures could interfere with some of her medications.
Fry self-injects neurosteroids into her thigh or abdomen every day as a result of the brain injury. Resupply boxes will be shipped to her at 30 stops along the trail, each carrying medication, food and other necessities.
It’s all part of the new life she has made for herself.
“On the trail, I love every day of it and I wouldn’t change a thing. … As painful and crazy as my life has been since the TBI, it all really has been a blessing in disguise.”
The reporter can be reached at email@example.com or @anhelllll on twitter
After all the planning, researching, mapping, prep-work, resupply nightmares, and social media outreach I’ve been engulfed in for the past few months, I’m about to finally start making my way towards the Continental Divide Trail. I couldn’t be more thrilled. The planning aspect of this thru-hike is tedious and often times a chore, but once my feet hit the ground at Crazy Cook in New Mexico I know everything will fade away like the setting sun.
This past week has been hectic to say the least. All the last minuet tasks start jumping out of the wood work. There were 3 days where I only got 4.5 hours of sleep. It’s brutal, but I wouldn’t change a thing. This is all part of the experience and I’m incredibly lucky to be following my passion.
This past Easter Weekend my family threw a “CDT Send Off” party for me. It was incredible having so many of my loved ones and friends there to support me on yet another crazy adventure. You all mean so much to me and I’m truly blessed to be surrounded by such encouragment. Keep it coming! I’m going to need it while I’m out there walking 3,100 miles.
Mom and I … “And I will walk 500 miles…”
Grandpa and Me with my Aunt Suzi and Igor
Mom and myself (again)
I would like to thank everyone who has been there for me thus far. My experience wouldn’t be the same without you. A huge shout out to my buddy Michael McWilliams, co-founder of Digs Apparel, for helping set up and manage the visual aspect of my hike. He’s created an Instagram Account: @Sarabloodbank to tell a visual story of my adventure on the CDT. (More platforms are in the works in addition to IG so be on the look out). Mike is an awesome friend to have along on the journey and it just so happens that we both whole heartedly support Traumatic Brain Injury Survivors and raising awareness of this invisible injury. His campaign ‘”#amelonaday”is a movement dedicated to generating cause awareness for Traumatic Brain Injury by way of melons, people, and art.’ This lighthearted take on TBI is right up my alley with spreading positivity. If you follow along on Instagram/etc you’ll be seeing his handy work so be sure to spread the gratitude. Thank you Maz! You continue to impress me.
Photo on: @digsapparel – Some of his creative genius campaign “Hel-mutt” #amelonaday
I leave tomorrow (4/24) to head down to the Pacific Crest Trail Kick-Off and from there I’m driving over to Lordsburg, NM with my PCT hiking buddies Ipod and Nugio. I’ll update as I get closer to jumping on trail. There’s still so MANY people I need thank!
For tonight I leave you with….
Dancing with my pack. So thrilled to be sharing this experience with YOU!
In 22 days I’ll take my first steps on one of the most ruggedly beautiful and enticing backcountry trails in the United States: The Continental Divide Trail – a 3,100 mile backpacking trek. I’ve spent the past 2 years exploring and expanding my backcountry resume. In less than 24 months, I’ve logged over 3,500 miles exclusively on our nation’s extensive network of trails. Needless to say, I’m helplessly in love with nature and all things outdoors.
Many people think that to be able to backpack you must be young, strong, and healthy. This may be true, but not in the sense of the definitions you’ve been taught. A backpacker must possess these qualities, but on a different platform.
The ideal backpacker should be young… at heart. They should know how to let loose and gaze at nature with the wide-eyed wonder of a child. They should welcome the unknown and recapture the freedom that they once felt in their youth.
The ideal backpacker should be strong… with determination. They should know that self-encouragment and positivity are quintessential friends to have along on any journey. They must believe in themselves and have the strength to continue achieving progress.
The ideal backpacker should be healthy… mentally healthy. They should recognize the power that not only their words hold, but also their thoughts. Over 90% of hiking is entirely mental. The other 10% is physical. The mind is a beautiful thing; we have the power to achieve anything we set our sights on. Perhaps J.R.R. Tolkien said it best, “It is not the strength of the body that counts, but the strength of the spirit.”
I found my passion for backpacking after I had gotten diagnosed with cancer at the young age of 19. During that time, I had been through 11 surgeries in 13 months. It was sheer torture – in all sense of the word.
But my health issues go back further. Five years prior to my cancer diagnosis, I sustained a Traumatic Brain Injury. I was in a coma, I had to re-learn how to properly read, I was bedridden for years and was unable to attend my Sophomore, Junior, and Senior years of high school. To this day I have a grocery list of persistent symptoms long enough to make even a personal assistant do a double take. My physical health has never been my “strong suit.”
At 20 years of age, I was tired of having my life being dictated around what I should and shouldn’t do. I was tired of family constantly checking in on me. I was tired of being perpetually sick. I was tired of listening to doctors tell me how to live. This was, after all, MY life.
I decided to set out on my own path. For years I had wanted to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail. So I strapped on my backpack and tramped down the winding trail of exploration, imagination, and overall sheer happiness… and I haven’t looked back since.
Because of my ever prominent health symptoms, hiking does not come easy for me. On any given day I could have one or all of the following: blurry vision, vertigo, extreme fatigue, complete loss of hearing, numb mouth, and severe muscle spasms… just to name a few. But I’ve made a conscious decision not to let any of these things hold me back from doing what I truly love.
Backpacking is my passion. I refuse to fall back on the many legitimate reasons as to why some people say I “can’t.” I refuse to be defined by the suffocating constraints that people so readily want to place on me. I was given life so that I could LIVE – genuinely and wholeheartedly. Stephen Covey said, “Live life out of your imagination, not your history.” And as long as I’m living I intend to indefatigably follow his wisdom.
To me, nature is more than a wild, opulent wonderland. It is more than the dazzling alpine lakes and the rigidly enchanting peaks. To me, nature is my home. It’s a place where I can be myself without hiding my ailments. It’s a place where I can test my strength and endurance. It’s a place where despite the war sometimes raging inside me, I’m able to stand amidst such grand majesty and everything else simply fades away into the wind.
To me, nature isn’t strictly a place or location, but it exists inside each and everyone of us. Everybody possess the three backpacking traits: youth, strength, and health. But it is up to the individual to cultivate these valuable qualities.
I challenge you to dream big, despite what others may say. I encourage you to follow your passion, it’ll take you further than you’ve imagined. I urge you stop making excuses. We have the ability to not only overcome, but also thrive in our environment when we put our mind to it.
When situations seem daunting and you begin doubting yourself, remember the girl who’s walking across the length of the United States despite everything she’s been told she “can’t” do. Remember the girl who looks for the positive things in life, when often times it’s the harder route to take. But most importantly, remember that YOU are capable of anything you set your mind to… because just like hiking, life is also 90% mental and 10% physical. Now take my hand and we’ll roam with a freedom rarely seen.
Click “Follow” to join me on my journey of Continental Divide Trail… starting in 22 days.