What do you do when you suffer the loss of someone you love? Everyone has a unique way of coping — or not coping — and everyone has their own personal healing process. For some of us, that process can only happen through a literal journey.
Two years after the death of her long-time boyfriend Daniel, Krista Schlyer was still basically just surviving but certainly not healing. So she, her best friend, Bill, and her dog, Maggie, piled into a car with everything they owned and set off for a year-long road trip visiting state and national parks.
We all know — from some still-intact-but-unidentifiable part of our prehistoric brain — that nature heals us. We know we just feel better when we get outside, whether that's to enjoy some time on a bench in the park or to enjoy a few weeks backpacking a rugged trail across a mountain range. We can simply feel the healing. And recently, more and more scientific research has shown that it's not just a gut sense that nature helps fix our woes. It's a fact that time in nature reduces stress, calms the nerves, promotes creativity, makes us quantifiably happier and even more charitable.
So it's no wonder that it was somewhere on the road, perhaps a little at a time at each campsite, that Schlyer began to put her life back together. By the time she returned home, she not only found a path back toward her center but also a new career. It was during this road trip and through the photography created in the national and state parks that Schlyer found her calling as a conservation photographer, a career she has pursued with success ever since.
In her beautifully written memoir "Almost Anywhere: Road Trip Ruminations on Love, Nature, National Parks, and Nonsense," Schlyer chronicles her journey with heartbreaking and humorous insight. Welcoming readers into her life with openness and honesty, Schlyer also makes sure to dish on those less-than-graceful moments that simply happen on a road trip. Balancing humor and beauty alongside tear-inducing insights about loss and being lost is a skill Schlyer masters in this work.
We talked with Schlyer about her new book and about what it means to seek out nature as a way to heal from loss.
MNN: You've mentioned that this book was 15 years in the making. How did you know it was the right time to write it?
Kristen Schlyer: I think a lot of it was probably that, for a long time, I just wasn't ready. I initially started writing it as a journal while we were traveling, and that was really just a catharsis for myself.
I probably had the first full version of the book done maybe a year after I got back from the trip, but it was really raw still. I think I wasn't ready to have those humorous moments or to be able to convey them. I was still so ... I guess kind of struggling with the difficult part of it, and as the years went on, I was able to pull in the bright and optimistic parts of that journey. I just wasn't ready to do that at first.
This is a very personal story of an emotional and internal journey of healing. What's it like to reveal everything that you were going through and these very personal parts of this process?
It's pretty scary. I'm kind of an inward person in general, so even people who know me pretty well don't know any of this. There's some anxiety about that. It's a story that's been mine and Bill's and Maggie's and the people who were part of the book, it's been their story for 15 years. But now it's going out into the world and it's a difficult thing. I'm nervous about it.
You kept a journal during your journey and that allowed you to go back 15 years later and create this book. Are there benefits to keeping a journal during times like this?
I don't know where I'd be if i hadn't kept the journal through everything that happened with Daniel. I started because I got the book " The Artist's Way," so I went through that whole process that the author set out. And one of the things is that every morning you get up and write for 10 minutes.
I started doing that before Daniel got sick and kept doing it as a way to stay semi-sane. It helped me so much. It's one thing that I can't emphasize enough if you're struggling and looking for one way you can try to help yourself sort through what's happening — just writing for 10 minutes a day and letting your mind go where it needs to go. Put it on paper. It's so helpful.
Not only was it helpful while I was on the trip, but then I could go back a year later, two years later, 15 years later and see how I had a different perspective.
Something that's become popular lately (or again) is to take to the road and travel, either for soul searching or for discovering one's creativity. And you guys did this trip because it was basically a last resort. If this didn't work to fix your broken places, what would? What are your thoughts about why that escape into wilderness seems so powerful and how that might be part of the process for more people?
Yeah, I really think it is just in the last few years that science, philosophy and psychology about people, nature and our personal restoration and recovery from grief, and how these things are linked, have started coming out. And it's really exciting to see that because it's been a part of my thinking ever since this trip. I think it's a really important moment for the conservation movement for people to recognize this essential connection we have to nature.
I talk a little bit about it in the book, about how I have this sense that I gained from that time going to national parks and forests that we're really lost as a species. We've created this artificial disconnect between ourselves and the natural world, and the only way we're going to become found is if we reforge that connection.
I think people are starting to feel that, and now even studies are showing there's a link between brain chemistry and time spent in nature. I think it's an important time, an important moment in our evolution as a species that we're coming to understand that need.
Definitely, definitely. I live in Washington, D.C., close to the river, and even now sometimes if I'm struggling and I go out for a walk on the river, go out looking for birds, or for a paddle, there's this instant change in the way that I feel.
People can do that wherever they are, watching birds in their neighborhood or going to a national park. And they'll find some surprise that changes their perspective.