When You Fall Down, Keep on Walking

Believe it or not, my story begins with taking out the trash!

It was fall 2009. I was a mid-thirty something, globetrotting professional, married, homeowner, and active adventure seeker with a tight circle of friends and family. I thought I had it all! Then on a seemingly normal Sunday afternoon, I carried a garbage bag and an empty pizza box out to the dumpster, and without warning a tree limb struck me, breaking my neck, instantly forcing my life to pause, causing a lengthy recovery in New York’s Hudson River Valley, far far away from where my home, career, and life was at the time, Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Through my multiple-month recovery, limited to a full back, torso, and neck brace, I lost my job as well as uncovered that my husband had been unfaithful. How do you like them apples?

With no showers, no driving, and other medical restrictions, my only allowed physical therapy and solace was walking. On my daily journeys, I saw my surroundings at a different speed, almost slow motion, allowing me to witness the unique colors, sounds, and smells as if for the first time with a different perspective and appreciation. The wind whistling down the Hudson River on the Walkway Over the Hudson and leaves crushing under my boots were invigorating. I found these walks to be my salvation. Although pictures can do the natural beauty justice, the below excerpt from When All Balls Drop explains just how therapeutic walking was for me.

With no showers, no driving, and other medical restrictions, my only allowed physical therapy and solace was walking.

With the changing of the leaves’ colors, I looked forward to these walks and taking in the bouquets of reds, burnt oranges, and brilliant yellows at the mansion (Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site). Being sedentary in an apartment isn’t good for anyone’s mental health. Thus, walking became my meditation, my only dose of freedom.

HeidiSiefkasWalkwayOvertheHudsonFall2009

With the turn of the New Year, six CT scans, and a total of one hundred and fourteen days away from home, I finally received the green light from my neurosurgeon to return to Florida.  Upon my homecoming, I dedicated myself to intense rehabilitation: physical therapy sessions, chiropractor adjustments, acupuncture treatments, medications, electrode stimulation, and massages. To better cope with the trauma and pain, I met with a therapist for my mental recovery. I enlisted a full team of professionals to help me regain my strength. Regardless of my various treatments and clan of supporters, walking remained my best medicine.

After gradually getting my wits about me, I made some of the most important decisions in my life: get a divorce, build a new career, and restart my life.

After gradually getting my wits about me, I made some of the most important decisions in my life: get a divorce, build a new career, and restart my life. And, you betcha, all was conceived on my daily walks.

In the summer of that year, after months of rehab, a friend, Patsy, inspired my next healing walk while she shared her personal travel stories over a couple glasses of wine in her eclectically decorated condo with furniture, artwork, and images from Korea, Australia, and the South Pacific. I reflect on that visit in the excerpt below.

I knew from that night I wanted to take a walkabout to see the world with my new eyes. Patsy’s humorous travel tales and beautiful adventures reinforced my need to become as vivacious as I was before, if not more so.

I needed to see the world. Perhaps in doing so, I would stumble upon love again—this time with a partner I could trust.

Little did Patsy know that she sparked in me the need to take my first walkabout. I had to prove to myself that I was healthy enough to travel independently. My walkabout was going to be a full, all-in challenge for my mind and body. I thought of going to Australia like the pictures of Ayer’s Rock in my friend’s condo, but there was something that was calling me to South America, in particular to Patagonia.

The thought of hiking, seeing glaciers, tasting wine, and immersing myself in the Spanish language again like I did living in Spain for years, was exciting. I had to do it. One year after my homecoming to Florida, I booked a ticket from Miami to Punta Arenas, Chile to hike Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia with continuing plans across the Andes into Argentina, departing out of Buenos Aires.

With my mischievous hat, journal, and hiking boots, I was ready for my rite of passage, a South American walkabout.

Dusting off my old backpack from past travels, within a short yet intense forty-eight hours, I lined up bus transfers and reserved four accommodations – one in Punta Arenas, walking distance from the Straight of Magellan, another in Torres del Paine National Park, a third in Mendoza’s wine country, and the finale, a stay in Buenos Aires. With a way to get to and from each of my destinations and a place to sleep, I would leave all the rest to serendipity. With my mischievous hat, journal, and hiking boots, I was ready for my rite of passage, a South American walkabout.

PatagoniaTorresdelPaineNationalParkbyHeidiSiefkas2011

The sensory explosion that ensued while hiking the W Circuit, a four-day hike, in Torres del Paine, strolling the streets of Buenos Aires with the porteños and their many dogs, and riding horses with gauchos in the Andes, was tremendously rewarding; however, it wasn’t without many travel mishaps.

The first was truly my own naïve fault. I brought my el cheapo poncho to Patagonia instead of full-blown rain gear. Because of the combination of Patagonia’s weather, rain, sunshine, sleet, heat, and wind of various strengths all in one day, and my lack of appropriate gear, I came down with a horrible phlegmy cough, which led to my first pharmacy visit on my walkabout, leaving with expectorant, lozenges, and a make you drowsy like a ruffy cold medicine.

After crossing the Andes on an overnight bus trying not to wake the others with my coughing fits, I entered warmer and drier Mendoza for plenty of wine tasting to only be stung by a wasp while on a hike. Within the hour, the sting caused my arm and hand to swell, looking like giant German sausages, only red, hot, and throbbing. As quickly as I could get into town, I was off to another pharmacy for steroids. However, I wasn’t going to let a couple hiccups get in the way.

Through taking myself outside of where most would have felt comfortable, I rekindled my free-spirited curiosity and passion for traveling while setting an ambitious goal–to write my story.

On my walkabout, I indulged in my freedom to linger as long as I pleased, take as many pictures as I needed for the perfect Facebook update, or have another glass of Malbec. I lavished in trying Argentinean beef to see if it was really that good (it was); I didn’t write home about it. I called. And I didn’t stop my explorations with just the food and wine. I was eager to dive into every Chilean and Argentinean adventure from white water rafting, to horseback riding, to catamaran rides, to learning tango, and more.

Through exploring, I solidified that I was back, bolder, and better than before, not only physically able to conquer hikes and long bus rides traversing mountain ranges, but that I was mentally capable of balancing a budget in other currencies, changing time zones, and making my logistically challenging, three week, multi-leg journey work. Through taking myself outside of where most would have felt comfortable, a safe, suburban neighborhood with family, friends, and peers close by, I rekindled my free-spirited curiosity and passion for traveling while setting an ambitious goal–to write my story.

WineTastingMendozaHeidiSiefkas2011

Nearly five years have passed since that chilly afternoon that I took out the trash. It has taken me many walks to heal from my accident, whether in the Hudson River Valley or Patagonia. In fact, even this year I returned to walking in my new home, Kauai. In writing my story, I found myself reliving the pain. I needed to walk again.

In order to reframe my thoughts and feelings, I took to the red dirt trails of one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world, the NaPali Coast, and its Kalalau Trail. Armed with an upgraded backpack, food, iodine pills for drinking water, medical supplies, tent, and my journal, I set out for a spiritual hike along the North Shore of Kauai. Greeted by other adventure seekers wanting to conquer one of the top ten most dangerous hikes, I was happy to be alive and free while honoring the pain that putting my story into words had resurfaced. With my loyal companion, Brian, at my side, who like Patsy also encouraged my South American walkabout, I was once again healed by walking amongst nature, allowing for my thoughts to be cleared, fears to be washed away, and testing my body’s endurance through physically tough terrain.

It was through the basic, repetitive steps in remote quietness that allowed me to recover and become that much stronger, physically, mentally, and emotionally.

In 2009, I fell down, hard. It took many years of walking to heal. It was through the basic, repetitive steps in remote quietness that allowed me to recover and become that much stronger, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Just like Michael Patrick King‘s wise words, “When real people fall down in life, they get right back up and keep walking.” I did. I kept walking.

I certainly wasn’t the first person, nor would I be the last who walked as a rite of passage and survival technique. I was just joining the ranks of the many nomads across cultures who had done so wisely before me. Likewise, I encourage all to face problems, stress, or fears by walking. It may sound too simplistic, but do it, go take a walk.

If one dose isn’t enough, go on an extended walkabout like me. Remember, a walkabout isn’t just for the aborigines anymore. Nor do you have to meet Mick Dundee with his knife in the Walkabout Creek Pub to get direction. Go on, take out your own trash and self-heal. I’ll meet you out on the trails.

Heidi Siefkas is an author and adventurer from small-town Wisconsin. With a down to earth style and just enough sass, she debuts her inspirational memoir, When All Balls Drop. Heidi lives in Kauai, but also calls the Midwest and South Florida home. She is currently writing a sequel to her memoir as well as documenting her many travels, given her severe case of wanderlust. Connect with Heidi at www.heidisiefkas.com, Facebook, and Twitter.

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