by Chrys Lyn Furrer
I wonder if I am “disabled enough” to write a disability hiking story, while also wondering if I am strong enough, able enough, to hike my favorite trails post-surgery. My body occupies a space of liminality that sometimes feels like I don’t belong fully to either community, disabled or non-disabled. I don’t always appear disabled, though in the sociocultural context of ableism, I often have to wonder if I am able enough to participate in the activities I enjoyed before my surgery. I wonder if my leg, forever altered by illness and recovery, is able enough to carry me up the ridge. I wonder if my voice, forever altered by reconstructive jaw surgery, could carry if I needed to call for help. But I wander anyway.
I find myself at Black Swan Preserve, in a remote part of a rural mountain county. I find myself, preserved.
The land is bathed in the greenness of spring, restoration, return. The shimmering water of the reservoir is already receding from the lack of rain. It’s only March. It has only been six months since my mandibulectomy and fibula free flap reconstructive surgery to treat a massive tumor on my jaw. Half a year since the health care system sought to cure me by removing most of my lower jaw, harvesting soft and hard tissue from my leg, and rebuilding my jaw from fibula bone.
Now I walk with my cane and my service dog, remnants of mobility aids that I cling to after re-learning how to walk. I walk with my pain. It is quickly becoming an old friend, even as my body feels new to me – an altered landscape, unfamiliar terrain.
My body is not unlike the physical place it moves through. We – me and this land – have been forever changed by kissing death; remade by the hands of a necrophiliac industrial machine. For me, it was the medical industrial complex that re-made me. For this place, it was the mining industry. We both bear the scars of our encounters. I wear a scar at the crease where my neck and jaw meet, nearly ear to ear. I wear a scar at the site of my tracheostomy, where a plastic tube was placed to help me breathe. I wear a scar from my ankle to my knee, where bone and flesh were harvested to re-make my face. It looks a lot like a sprouting seed. The land wears a scar of exposed cliffs and unnatural waterways, where winter rains accumulate and erode ever deeper into the landscape. It wears trails like desire lines through its dense oak woodland – I wonder if these are also tender like the scars that mark me.
Before my illness, I had always hiked solo - without worry, but not without caution. Solo hiking now terrified me. At least in part because my experience with illness made me entirely, utterly reliant on others for my survival, for a time, and I now wished to fully extinguish the myth of rugged individualism. So why was I trying to prove my independence now, hiking alone? What if I got hurt? And couldn’t reach help? What if the pain was too great? What if the fear overwhelmed me, pushed me into panic and anxiety so thick I couldn’t breathe?
As I step onto the trail, awareness floods into me. I am re-membered by this place. I suddenly know I’m not alone, and that there is no such thing as hiking solo. My service dog, who has been with me through it all, is still with me, faithfully by my side. The serpentine soils and granite outcroppings are with me. The oak trees, crooked and still mighty, are with me. The scrub jays, the nearby grazing cows, the bees. The yarrow, mugwort, sage, and sticky monkey flower. The meandering streams. The endless blue of sky. All of us merging.
Surgery cut me open and made a wound that cannot heal; that I would not heal. It dissolved a boundary, made me porous, and eroded misguided beliefs about separateness between self and nature, life and death, beauty and pain – all of these co-existing within my body and the land. Surgery cut away, but it also made space for me to forgive systems of healing that also harm. It remade the ecology of my body, and in doing so, allowed me to re-entangle myself into a web of life so much larger than my self. This ability is a gift granted to me by my so-called disability. Despite all I have endured, or rather, because of it, I feel a greater sense of belonging, reverence, and reciprocity with the natural world. My illness was a sprouting seed – rooting me deep in this place - and I wouldn’t change a thing. I continue to wonder and wander, but never alone.
Chrys Lyn Furrer (they/them) is a white, disabled, genderfluid femme, and an artist, naturalist, and poet in love with the world. Their work explores themes of grief, kinship, and belonging. Their hope is that their work prompts questions within their readers, like: what does it mean to be alive at the end of the [modern] world? What is our responsibility in attending to personal, political, and planet-scale tragedies, ever unfolding within and around us? What role can storytelling play in restoring (“re-storying”) right relationship between people and place?
This story features the so-called “Black Swan Preserve” in Nevada County, the unceded and ancestral homeland of the Nisenan people. Many Nisenan people were forcibly and violently removed from this land in order to develop the gold mining industry in this area – an industry that has done, and continues to do, untold damage to this land and its Indigenous relatives. The Nisenan people are alive and still gathering today, continuing their fight for federal recognition of their tribe. To learn more about their work, please visit California Heritage: Indigenous Research Project (CHIRP) at https://chirpca.org/. If you live, study, or conduct business on ancestral Nisenan land, please consider making a monetary donation to the Ancestral Homelands Reciprocity Program: https://chirpca.org/ancestral-homelands.