Commentary: The Great Outdoors Can Leave Its Mark Both Physically and Mentally

Originally published April 24, 2015

Host: Being in the outdoors can be thrilling and terrifying.  Last summer, commentator Charlotte Gibson learned that camping can leave a lasting mark.

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My boyfriend Shon and I have been dating for almost two years.  We’re kind of opposites.  He’s a professional whitewater kayaker.  I’m not.  But, when he invited me on his family’s annual rafting trip on the Klamath River in California, just weeks before I was going to graduate school in New York City, I was game.

A few days into the trip – I hadn’t drowned or made a spectacle of myself.  In my mind, I was Queen of the River.  I paddled down roaring rapids – check.  Jumped off cliffs with the guys – check.  Slept in a tent every night – check.

And then the third day rolled around.

We hiked up this creek to a waterfall. The  sunshine, the natural beauty, the peacefulness.  I felt like I finally started to get this whole camping thing.

My eyes wandered all around, gazing at the beauty of the great outdoors.  And then, out of nowhere, I hit my head on a sharp rock jutting out from the side of the cliff. Blood was everywhere.  Shon ran to help me.

I couldn’t stop crying and hyperventilating.

I was scared, but more than that, I was embarrassed.

Once I was cleaned up a bit, we debated leaving or just bandaging my cuts at the river.  I downplayed how hurt – and worried – I really was.  Two days later, back at home, I finally had a chance to be alone to examine my wounds.

There I was, standing in front of the mirror, looking at this three inch gash above my eyebrow and a jagged, two inch gash below my left eye.  I started to cry.  I hated the idea that my face was forever damaged from the trip.

And then, it got worse.

A week later, I started to feel really sick.  I was vomiting every day.  But I didn’t think it was related my injury.

When my mom finally dragged me to a concussion specialist, he made me do things like stand on one leg with eyes closed for 30 seconds.  Couldn’t do it.  Stand on both legs with my eyes closed.  Nope.  Say the months backwards – I started with November.

The doctor diagnosed a severe concussion.  The only remedy was “brain rest,” pretty much do nothing until I healed.  But, I was going to graduate school in New York City in three weeks.  How was I supposed to survive if I couldn’t even say the months in the right order?

At the beginning of the summer of 2014, my biggest fear was if I was going to survive five days camping on the river.  By the end of the summer, my biggest fear was if I was going to survive all of graduate school at an Ivy League.

For the next six months, I had migraines and short-term memory loss.  I worried my brain would never work the same way again.

I have survived.  And thrived.  But that moment on the river is never far from my mind.

Each morning, when I look in the mirror, I see two scars from the accident.  They tell a story.  A story of triumph and a story of trauma.  They represent my first and possibly last camping trip.  And, hopefully my first and only head injury.

Outcue: Charlotte Gibson was invited on her boyfriend’s family rafting trip again this summer.  She’s hoping that this time she won’t run into any rocks.

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