I was 300 miles from civilization in the outback country of Western Australia in the Kimberly’s in 95° heat carrying an 80 lb. backpack with holes in the back of my heels the size of quarters bleeding profusely in my hiking boots climbing a mountain with no way to turn back. All I wanted to do is stop hiking, but I was on the side of the mountain with jagged rocks and several other hiking comrades trying desperately to make it to the top while my feet could barely carry me a step further.
I know I couldn’t complain because we were a team trying to hike our way to the next water source by the end of the day with nothing but a compass and a topographical map. If we didn’t make it to the next water source by sunset we would have be stranded in the wilderness surrounded by King cobra snakes, chilling temperatures, exposed to the elements, and disoriented by the darkness of night.
Despite the agonizing torture of pain as I put 1 foot in front of the other – when we finally turned that corner or climbed over that mountain to find an oasis like waterfall in the middle of a desert like climate everything suddenly made sense. I kicked off my boots, stripped off my clothes, and dove into the crystal clear pool of water to swim under the beating waterfall, which made that day of seemingly insurmountable challenges simply melt away. It was paradise, but it was not without its perils to arrive at such a place.
This is just one memory of dozens I recall from my numerous wilderness survival trips I willingly participated in during my young teens to my mid 20’s prior to my spinal cord injury, which, I didn’t know at the time, was preparing me for the hardest journey of my life – living life as a quadriplegic with paralysis from the chest down.
I’m not sure what prompted my desire in my teen years to partake in voluntary wilderness adventures with Outward Bound and NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) in Australia, New Zealand, and Egypt; but I knew I just had to do it. Looking back a few decades later I believe it was the fact that city life had begun to take its toll on me and I have always felt the need to push myself further and farther than most. There’s something about putting yourself through hell to test your mental and physical limits to see what you are really made of as a person. I always seemed to come out the other side stronger, kinder, a better leader with a sense of appreciation for the simplicities of life, and above all, better prepared for all manners of adversity.
When I was 17 years old I headed over to New Zealand for an eight week wilderness survival trip. I had no idea what I was in for. We were stationed at a base camp and would take week long excursions involving hiking, kayaking, sailing, etc. We would start off by waking up at 5 AM in the morning, running several miles followed by a swim in an ice chilling lake where you could barely fill your feet by the end of it. This was followed by 30 minutes of push-ups and rigorous exercise under an icy cold shower only to realize it was just7.30 in the morning, and the day had not even really started yet as we would prepare for the week’s excursion.
Before most people wake up in the morning my teammates and I had already tested our physical and mental limits of our body while preparing to spend the next week hiking in the middle of nowhere to the top of a mountain where we would have to rely, not only on our own personal limits, but on each other to work together as a team to make it to the top. Wilderness survival trips are not just about yourself, but working with a group of strangers 24/7 figuring out how to survive, cheer each other on, comfort the weakest link, and arrive at our destination in one piece.
If we were lucky enough to survive that week’s excursion our reward was running a ½ marathon in the wilderness and making sure that we all crossed the finish line together despite crippling shin splints that made walking feel like the earth was shattering underneath your feet.
Before I dive into how all this relates to my life’s preparation for the most intense journey I have ever taken I will reminisce on 2 more notable memories who made me who I am today.
A Tale of a Wrong Turn
On a wilderness survival trip in Australia where 6 of us were accompanied by an instructor for the first several weeks of a backpacking trip in northern Australia, we were taught how to navigate terrain only using a compass and a map, how to kill our own food if our supplies ran out, and how to apply first aid to our companions if a serious accident should occur. Several weeks into our trip our instructors informed us that we would split up into groups of three and venture out by ourselves without the aid of an instructor. We were told to meet at a specific location in a week. That’s it. We had a map, a compass, and one another.
Every day each one of us would play navigator and have to trust and rely on each other to make sure we reached our destination each night. On one particular day when I was the navigator I really screwed things up royally because I took a wrong turn. Naturally my teammates were annoyed, but I had employ my leadership skills to instill confidence in them that I would figure it out.
We all went tumbling down a mudslide on a mountain and were covered from head to toe in mud, which could have ended in a disastrous medical emergency, but we all came out the other side laughing. As we were covered in mud with the sun beating down on us and packs half of our weight on our back we turned a corner,we quite simply stumbled onto the most beautiful waterfall with incredible rock formations, and undiscovered ancient aborigine artwork on the stones all around us.
Our wrong turn turned into, not only a historical discovery, but a paradise solely because I had made a mistake. Again, we stripped off all of our gear down to our underwear and jumped from the majestic and undiscovered rocks into the waterfall below. Even wrong turns in life and in the wilderness can lead to the most surprisingly positive turn of events.
Our day started off strong and took a turn for the worst, but by working together, staying positive, and relying on our sense of adventure we turned a potentially terrifying experience into one of laughter, relief, and pride.
We did continue to take many wrong turns along the way, but finally ended up at our destination to meet up with our fellow teammates and instructor with tales to tell for a lifetime.
After surviving another outdoor wilderness survival trip to New Zealand with Outward Bound, the last week of the trip ended in complete surprise for each of my teammates and me. Our instructor informed us that we would be taking a solo journey. At first we were excited at the prospect of navigating by ourselves, but this is not what they had in mind.
We spent several days hiking up the side of the mountain and our instructor left each one of us on the side of the mountain alone. They informed us this part of ourjourney would be the most mentally challenging aspect of the trip, but assured us it was necessary for our personal growth. As we hiked up the mountain each one of us were dropped off at a different location and told we were not allowed to leave our designated small area in the wilderness for several days on end. We were given a sleeping mat, a tarp, three carrots, two oat cakes, water, a journal, a pen, and the basic necessities for clothing – and that was it.
We were supposed to sit there and reflect upon what we wanted to change in our lives, dig deep into our inner souls, and be alone with our thoughts. This was the most frightening prospect as I was always a girl on the go and being alone on the side of the mountain with myself was more terrifying than the meager supplies we were provided.
Within two hours of being alone on the steep side of the mountain I dropped all of my food, which I watched quickly roll down into oblivion. While my tummy grumbled I made a makeshift shelter for the night and I could feel the possums nibbling my toes. Naturally I freaked out, grabbed a stick and tried to swat off these ferocious rodents. The next day I make quick work of building traps around my minicamp to protect my toes the following night only to trip over my own feet and violently roll down the side of the mountain for what seemed like an eternity. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was quite near the shoreline on the side of this mountain and slammed my head into a rock. I was bleeding, but not profusely. I was crying, but not hysterically. What was I going to do? Call for help?
I had to figure it out. As I was about to climb back up the mountain to rediscover where my little camp was stationed I noticed at the corner of my eye all of these little sea mussels growing on the side of a rock in the water. I was terribly hungry as I had lost all my food. I thought to myself – improvise Ali! I pried these little suckers off the rocks, opened them up with a stick, and ate the raw mussels to give me strength to climb back up the mountain.
When I finally made it back up to my camp I sat there for the next several days ferociously journaling about my fears, hopes, and dreams at 17 years old. It was an experience of a lifetime, an adventure, and one that forced me to search deep into my soul to figure out how I wanted to live the rest of my life.
Spinal Cord Injury Preparation
People often comment on how gracefully I handle my spinal cord injury in the face of severe adversity, nine surgeries, endless caregivers, personal challenges, and my relentless ability to keep going no matter what.
In addition to the support of my family, I can honestly attribute this to the many wilderness survival adventures I had endured prior to my injury. I had become accustomed to pushing my body, both mentally and physically, to the absolute limit of survival.
Living with serious cervical paralysis is no cakewalk and looking back I’m not sure what was harder, my wilderness survival trips or spinal cord injury. Probably spinal cord injury, but the preparation I had put myself through over the previous decade prior to my injury I strongly believe prepared me for who I have become today.
There are many aspects of my personal and medical life at the moment that are wearing me down to my core, which I don’t always share because people always tell me how resilient, and strong I am. However, I am being pushed my limits as I write this, but every morning when I wake up I remind myself of how my life before this injury prepared me for each battle I face each day whether that be a caregiver’s walking out on me, challenges in personal relationships, pressure sores, or excruciating nerve pain burning my body 24/7.
I have every reason to give up just as I did on the side of the mountain with blood in my boots in Australia, but I don’t. I don’t know why I don’t, but perhaps it’s because of the mental practice I had so many years to push through and realize that there will be that gorgeous waterfall around the corner if I just keep pushing harder. Of course there is balance in life, but sometimes when living with a disability we have to rise above and push harder than the average able-bodied person because we simply don’t have a choice. We not only have to survive, but we have to find a way to thrive in the face of incredible adversity each and every single day.
Of course it’s not always easy, but what’s the alternative? Well, there is one, death. Of course it’s your choice, but there are many incredible things to live for even when you can’t see them right from your face sometimes. I have to believe things happen for a reason otherwise I simply wouldn’t make it sometimes from day-to-day. Even when something horrible happens and the reason may not seem immediately obvious, life has this peculiar way of giving you just what you need when all hope may seem lost in that moment.
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