Story & Photos by Stephanie Gravalese
My day started at 4am in the morning, and by 6pm, I was in the back of an off-road jeep. I felt every bump as we slowly climbed in altitude. As a person managing chronic back pain, my sense of adventure is usually quite tapered, so off-roading and long hikes had never been my go-to—until I got to Madeira, an autonomous island of Portugal.
Our small group tour started our day by taking in the sunrise, followed by an off-road trek to the island's western side. After off-roading through the thick Laurisilva Forest and several microclimates—rainforest to rocky terrain—we stopped to see the levadas, a 16th century aqueduct system and its pathways.
The trail section of Levada da Serra dos Faial that we would be hiking only ran a mile. Still, the beauty of the forest could be matched only by the reveal of the Balcões lookout point—that is, if I could make it through this section to meet our guide at the bottom of the hill. He had shared that it was a flat path, and when I warned him I was a slow walker, he told me to take my time.
“As I found myself alone with the soft sound of rain between trees lining either side of this trail, I felt the connection to nature that I once had.”
This reluctance wasn’t always the case—or having to navigate ongoing pain and uncertainty about my body’s ability. I grew up tromping around the woods in rural Massachusetts. That is, until five years ago, when I started to experience chronic nerve pain in my leg. I had multiple rounds of physical therapy, but I still avoided walking long distances or wooded trails for fear of muscle spasms or pain.
So I had been nervous about this part of our day, but I felt ready for it. Slowly, I made my way down the path, avoiding roots and rocks and focusing on the vistas. The trail seemed to twist and turn with the hills. A concrete channel ran alongside it, carrying water from the rainforest to the lower parts of the island.
“It was simply moving and giving myself space to exist as a person who lives with pain and has a connection to nature.”
If I took my time, I knew it would be fine. After all, it was flat, and I was in the rainforest! And I was prepared for whatever might come:
- My backpack was stocked with a snack and water.
- My phone was fully charged in case of an issue.
- Our guide assured me it would be flat terrain.
Once I started walking, though? It felt like nothing could go wrong. I slowed down when needed and saw what was around me. The air smelled like fresh rainwater. I heard birds and crickets chirping. Everything was lush and green.
When I reached Balcões belvedere, I came face to face with the highest peaks: Pico Ruivo, Pico do Areeiro, Pico do Gato, and Pico das Torres, standing stoically in a row. I was taken aback by the Valley of the Ribeira da Metade—the perfect reward for getting outside my comfort zone, at my own pace.
What I wasn't prepared for? The solitude. As I found myself alone with the soft sound of rain between trees lining either side of this trail, I felt the connection to nature that I once had.
This helped me realize there are ways to spend time outdoors as a person with chronic pain. Before this trip, I would have been too nervous about taking nature hikes on anything besides a paved path. I also realized how important it is to be open about my condition and capacity with friends and community so they can support me or manage expectations. Muscling through something can only result in injury and frustration.
“As a person managing chronic back pain, my sense of adventure is usually quite tapered…”
I pondered what has the power to change a moment or a person. My body didn’t have to hold me back from doing this sort of thing. And that has helped my confidence in how I travel and my trust in what my body can do.
It's important to keep taking control of your life by doing things that bring joy, even though they may seem impossible at first glance (like a walk in the rainforest!). And don’t compare yourself to others—people have different levels of mobility. It's a privilege to explore my limits.
The more I utilize my energy and focus on what my body can do (instead of what it can't), the more empowered I become. As a result, I can walk further than I thought possible—and not just in the forest.
“While my pace is slow, it's also liberating to know that movement isn't so much about being perfect as it is about being honest with ourselves.”
So what does have the power to change me? It was simply moving and giving myself space to exist as a person who lives with pain and has a connection to nature. While my pace is slow, it's also liberating to know that movement isn't so much about being perfect as it is about being honest with ourselves. And honesty is always more beautiful than perfection because it cuts deeper than perfection ever can.
Stephanie Gravalese is a writer based in upstate New York and western Massachusetts. She writes about food, farming, and foraging. She has been an avid forager and gardener interested in preservation and food sovereignty. In addition, she researches the history of foraging and food independence through the lens of her Afro-Dominican and Italian heritage. You can find her work at whenvisiting.com