I did most of my outdoor play as a child in barn boots, jellies, and cheap sneakers. I didn’t think twice about it—I was resilient and unscathed by the wear and tear of injuries. I didn’t have many shoes to choose from, nor did I need the variety. As a teenager, I went barefoot on the river but eventually upgraded to duct-taping cheap flip-flops to my feet. After graduating college, I purchased my first quality river sandals and hiking boots. Those were big splurges, but necessary as my outdoor endeavors became more demanding.
I’m 39 years old and grew up ripping through the woods. I don’t intend to stop anytime soon, despite battling a debilitating low-back injury. Fourteen years ago, I dislocated my left sacroiliac joint, which attaches the pelvis to the lower spine and provides support, stability, and helps absorb impact when walking and lifting objects.
At the time, I was working as a raft guide on the Chattooga River in southeast Georgia and South Carolina. I was living in a bungalow, surrounded by friends, and had a flip phone I barely used. While loading rafts after a trip on a hot day in July 2008, I accidentally caught a 90-pound raft against my chest from the top of a school bus and was crushed to the ground. I heard and felt a pop and could hardly stand back up. Although I only took a few weeks off from work, sacroiliac joint dysfunction came in like a wrecking ball to my carefree twenties.
I clung to the river scene for as long as I could, but the more I avoided acceptance the worse the pain and dysfunction got. I finally had to give up paddling to heal. In 2010, I ended my work as a raft guide, and I didn’t start paddling regularly again until 2018. During that time, I lost far more than my sport. I became disconnected from the community and Mother Nature. My mental health dwindled, forcing me to figure out how to heal my physical health.
Because I spent so much time ignoring my injury, it took so much longer to figure it out and fix it. My entire back became a rigid muscle spasm of severe pain and immobility. Although my chronic injury put me on a jarring roller coaster of emotion, I was determined to paddle and longed for river days with my friends and family. Over time, I put in the work to recover and build strength, and most importantly, I found the right toys and gear.
I’ve given up the things that hurt me (rafts, hardtail bikes, hot yoga, and cheap beer) and found the things my body can tolerate (an inflatable kayak, a full-suspension bike, easy yoga, and sparkling water). It wasn’t easy letting go of the things I once loved, but it was a necessary transition so I could keep adventuring outside. I don’t rip so much these days as precariously flow, and I rest and recover a lot. Now, I have shoes from a dozen categories: hikers, walkers, bike shoes, river shoes, seasonal shoes, Chacos (seven pairs), dress-up shoes, house shoes, work shoes, and yard shoes. They all serve a specific purpose, despite my husband’s confusion.
Once I had a decent handle on my haunting back injury, I started mountain biking. Even though I learned on a hardtail, I’ll never go back. Sure, a hardtail is more affordable, requires less maintenance, and some will argue that it teaches you to be a better rider, but what’s it worth if you’re fighting your bike or hurting after every ride? I saw a drastic improvement in my riding when I upgraded to a plush and joint-saving full-suspension mountain bike.
Whether it’s your knees, wrists, back, or anything in between, the suspension will always soften the impact on your body. My bike came with a hefty price tag, but it’s the only way I can keep riding the rocky trails I love so dearly. I don’t ride an e-bike yet, but I sure will when I can no longer pedal without assistance. I think of my toys as investments in my health. That’s worth saving for, especially because I’m going for longevity, not toughness.
The same goes for my choice of whitewater craft. When I worked as a raft guide, my preferred craft to paddle with friends was a raft. Now I paddle a U-Thrillseeker, also known as a ducky. The “U” stands for the special lightweight polyurethane material that allows the boat to weigh a svelte 20 pounds. This amazing craft is handmade by Attila Szilagyi, owner of Custom Inflatables in Reedsville, West Virginia.
The ducky is easy to inflate, carry, and flip back over when I swim. It punches holes, rides waves, surfs, and makes technical moves beautifully on the rocky rivers the tri-state area is known for. Best of all, I can stretch my legs out, sit cross-legged, or jump in the water. Cramming myself into a hard boat certainly isn’t an option anymore. Bonus—Attila uses an orange glitter coating to protect the bottom of the boat. It’s everything a girl could ask for!
Most importantly, my ducky allows me to be on the water. Paddling was my first outdoor love, and it broke my heart to lose it. Every time I’m on the water, I get a bit emotional with gratitude. It was a long battle to get back to it and, even though I don’t have the stamina to paddle more challenging rivers, I’ve come to terms with it. Nowadays, I happily paddle class III rivers—mainly the Lower Youghiogheny, Cassleman, and Cheat Narrows.
I’ve tried many outdoor sports over the years—running, cross-country skiing, snowboarding—hoping my chronic injury wouldn’t hold me back from enjoying every season in these hills just to find they wreck my body. So I’ve settled on hiking, biking, and paddling—my favorite activities to begin with.
My husband even custom-built a van to make camping more accessible for his work and my play. It’s quite the upgrade from tent camping, something that had become nearly impossible with my injury. He built a big bed with the best mattress on the market and made sure there was plenty of floor space for my recovery sessions. Sometimes I bring everything but the kitchen sink (which is already in the van) and my entire home gym with me just so I can function.
Not all bodies are created equal, or minds, for that matter. Some of us can go harder or longer, but some of us need gentler options to keep going at all. Technology and design have come a long way in the toys and gear we use for outdoor play, allowing us to stay in the game for longer and get started more easily. Comfort is critical now that I’m, dare I say, middle-aged. Plus who cares what you’re paddling or riding as long as you’re safe and having fun?
If you’re still comfortable wearing jellies and sleeping in a tent, that’s great. Over time, you may have to upgrade or modify to keep doing what you love. There may come a day that I’m in a diaper and bubble wrap in a cart, my husband still on a single-speed bike pulling me along; but at least I’ll still be in my element of the great outdoors. We only have one life, and I hope we can all find ways to keep doing what we love—diapers or not.
Tara Morris is the product of the hippies and hillbillies of the Pennsyltucky mountains, has planted roots in West by God, and plays outside every chance she gets.