During an incredibly challenging time this past year, when I spent nine months in a walking boot cast—out of the field and the gym, off the guide circuit, and away from my beloved mountains and rivers—I developed the determination and courage to begin sharing my story of overcoming a learning disability and physical limitations to pursue my dreams.
Last February, in the midst of an intense training regime to prepare for an epic river adventure and awareness campaign I had planned, a chronic and recurring injury reared its ugly head, forcing me to adapt and adjust in ways I never imagined. I had gone through this three other times over the past decade, after being diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis, so right off the bat I mentally prepared myself for another four-month stint in a walking boot cast. I knew I’d be relegating my need for adventure and exercise to the indoor swimming pool in Bozeman that I had nicknamed “the dungeon.” But this time my battle with enthesopathy (inflammation of the tendons attaching to bone—a condition associated with my arthritic condition) raged on and on—well beyond the four months I’d anticipated—creating my own personal “perfect storm” that would challenge my identity and sense of self in a way it hadn’t since I was first diagnosed as a nineteen year-old chasing the dream of a college basketball career. This physically and emotionally daunting period finally forced me to embrace a condition I’ve tried my best to ignore since my diagnosis.
Months earlier, I had been asked to speak at Hellgate High School’s Diversity Week. So shortly after re-injuring my Achilles, I found myself on one good leg, in a walking boot cast, with Velcro that would barely adhere and a bottom worn down from two previous stints, limping my way on stage for a keynote at Hellgate High. I had always felt a sense of shame, a need to hide my condition, fearing that in the athletic/adventure community in which I lived and the machismo guide culture in which I worked, I would somehow be seen as “less than.” But this day I decided to share my struggles with a group of sleepy students from Missoula, Montana. It was, after all, diversity week—a celebration of all forms of diversity. What was scheduled as a speech about the diversity of Yellowstone and my work as a nonprofit founder and director working on the ground to inspire a connection to our wild places, turned into a revealing tell-all about my struggles with Ankylosing Spondylitis and a learning disability. The response I received told me I’d made the right decision. A month later, on a three-day speaking tour to Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia, I found myself sharing the same story, this time with receptive college students. I resolved to keep sharing this blend of Yellowstone inspiration and my own travails, which had become inextricably interwoven in my own life.
During the flight from Virginia back to my beloved Yellowstone Country, I wrote an email to Joyce Bender, a nationally known, transformational leader whose own struggle with epilepsy inspired her tireless fight on behalf of people with disabilities. I had gotten to know Joyce over the previous years from guiding her in Yellowstone. Having had the chance to learn about her crusade to level the playing field for people with disabilities and, in particular, young people subjected to bullying, I wrote a lengthy email expressing my desire to join forces. Joyce had encouraged me to tell my story, in hopes it would inspire other young people living with physical limitations and disabilities, and I told her I was ready to do so.
I’ve shared many memorable days with Joyce and the inspiring Bender crew over the last three years as their fly fishing guide and Yellowstone guru, but one day in particular will forever be etched in my memory bank. It was our last day of their annual weeklong foray to the hallowed waters of Yellowstone Country, and I had decided that this day would be all about Joyce. The previous day on the Soda Butte, she had hooked into and fought a feisty Yellowstone cutthroat trout in the shallow riffles of the quietly meandering stream, but before I could net the fish, with one final thrash of his head, the barbless hook released and the muscular specimen that sent vibrations and serious mana (power) pulsating through Joyce’s right arm and into her soul, disappeared back into the water.
Now it was our last day, and knowing how transformational such an experience in the sacred waters of a Yellowstone trout stream can be, I desperately wanted Joyce to cradle an elusive cutty in the palm of her hands. So we ventured to the Lamar. The winds were blustery, typical of the Lamar Valley. The sun shone bright. It seemed to have the makings of an epic day of hopper fishing, but one of the many lessons of fly fishing that relate to our daily existence is that it’s always a gamble, and as a guide, often humbling. Some days we just don’t have much say in the matter—Mother Nature can blow out a river with one powerful thunderstorm, leaving it unfishable for days. Other times it’s up to us to decide whether we want to revisit a honey hole, fully knowing the likelihood of a bountiful catch, or gamble on the less predictable river that may offer less quantity, but the opportunity at that one fish that can make a trip.
The Lamar can be electric on some days and seemingly fishless on others. With a proliferation of anglers, our options were limited, but we decided to roll the dice and test Joyce’s stamina by walking her on her ailing knee across the valley, in hopes that the spirits of Yellowstone would reward us for our efforts. It was a memorable day, sharing time with her family—anyone who knows Joyce’s staff knows that their relationships transcend friendship and represent the essence of what it means to be ohana.
Though the fishing proved challenging, as she always does, Yellowstone shared her magic in the form of an ambling black bear, diving ospreys, soaring eagles, and grazing bison. The fishing didn’t matter. Joyce is one of those transcendent people who inspire confidence, even in the guide who was failing to get her into a fish. My basketball coaching instincts always come into play in the final minutes of a guide trip as I begin watching the clock more than the water, with an anxious but hopeful eye. Never one to put someone else out, and always thinking respectfully of my time with my family, as well as my own aches and pains, Joyce uttered the dreaded words, “Well Rev, it’s about time to call it a day. It’s been glorious, but I’m getting tired. It’s time to start the trek back to the truck.” Though I’m not a religious man, I am deeply spiritual. To this Norman Mclean disciple who is haunted by waters, Yellowstone is my Mecca, and the Lamar my Vatican. I took off my hat, and quietly said a prayer to the creator. “Aho Creator. I thank you for all that you’ve blessed us with, for allowing us to be here in the sacred waters of the Lamar. And while I’ve rarely asked for things as trivial in nature as a win, or a fish caught, I’m going to right now Creator. I ask this not to boost my ego and confidence as a guide, but because this spirited woman, so full of love and so full of life gives so much to so many people, Creator, and I know the power of connecting with something as wild as a trout and the energy that this can provide to fuel her noble and inspiring efforts. Aho Creator. Aho.”
Five minutes later, Joyce—with the attention of a sage practitioner honing her craft, and a stroke and line management that had dramatically improved during these trips—continued to cast fruitlessly. I knew our time had run out, but like the hopeful mystic I am, I nodded at the woman who I believe came into my life for a very profound reason and said, “Two more casts, Joyce.”
With the same focus of her first cast of the day, Joyce gently laid her Pink Morrish hopper into the riffle of a side channel. Nothing. I reminded myself that I hadn’t failed her, that some things just are what they are. I comforted myself with the words, “Everything happens for a reason” —as Joyce delicately presented her fly one last time before venturing back to the grind of her advocacy work in Pittsburgh.
I don’t pretend to understand the brain or reasoning of a trout, but I do have a respect, or shall I say reverence, for their uncanny ability to inspire the spiritual. Joyce is far from an expert fly angler, but she had presented enough drag free drifts over the course of the day that simply made me shake my head in disbelief, a familiar emotion for any fly fishing guide. So when the shadow of a hefty trout rose from the bottom of our shallow run, I held my breath and prayed Joyce would find the patience to let the fish eat her fly. With just the right pop, she set the hook. “Fish on,” I shouted, and for the next three minutes, I gleefully watched Joyce Bender fight the fish she had so steadfastly pursued all day long.
I won’t ever forget that moment I gently cradled the brilliantly colored 17-inch Yellowstone cutthroat for my friend and client to see. Just like many for whom she battles each day, Joyce had refused to let the hardship of a long walk on an aching knee and the knowledge that an epileptic attack could occur at any moment deter her. That is Joyce Bender. That is why it was so important to me that this woman who is a testament to the power of the human spirit experience the ultimate spiritual moment of fly fishing in Yellowstone.
Before we began our trek back to the truck, we hugged and vowed that the moment we had just shared would just be the beginning of our joining forces to inspire young people living with the challenges of disability to believe in their ability to change the world.
I tell this story not just because I love fish stories. I tell it so that you will understand why it was such an honor for me to be on Joyce’s edgy and inspiring radio show.
I am stoked to team up with the powerful Joyce Bender to take the BA message to people living and thriving with disabilities—people who represent the definition of what it means to be audacious.
Expanding the reach, spreading the message, making it matter…Be Audacious!
With Nothin’ But Love,
Listen to the podcast of my interview from earlier this month on the national radio show “Disability Matters” with Joyce Bender http://www.benderconsult.com/disability-matters/michael-leach/437).