LOOKING FOR SOME inspiration, positive energy and respite from today’s pandemic-weary world?
Dana Lawson is a one-legged horse rider, who, despite living with a painful tumor under what she calls her “sit bone,” has a “can do” attitude and a contagious sense of humor. The latter two are what helped her endure a grueling 8-mile trip up the rocky, slippery and oftentimes steep trail to Olympic National Park’s Deer Lake and the bone-jarring journey back down.
Once completed, she cracked jokes about what it’s like to watch a one-legged person ride a horse over 8 miles of steep, rocky terrain with multiple river and bridge crossings.
Sense of humor
She jested that her beloved horse, Fivey, is really a mule — but don’t tell him that — and quipped about the joys of seeing her hop back in the saddle using nothing but the earth as her step-ladder after a lunch break.
After the ride, she felt a bit rummy, saying she “kinda felt like I did coming back from a long boat ride in rough seas; the kind where you just want to get off the boat and kiss the ground when you’ve finished.”
Along with that feeling comes a “great sense of accomplishment and pride … and that’s how I felt when it was over,” she said. “Done! Checked it off the bucket list and never need to do it again. Still, it was such an amazing experience.”
And she’s filled with gratitude for the friends who helped her get there: business partner Lindsay Leiendecker and especially Sherry and Larry Baysinger — and their “mule” Fivey — for giving her their time, energy and horses to help her.
Sherry was drawn to get to know Dana better more than a year ago when she and Larry packed in food and supplies for a Washington Trails Association work party on the Bogachiel River Trail.
“There she was, this one-legged volunteer who was walking down the steepest part of the trail with her walking sticks, soaking wet. And when (she) came up against a big log, she just crawled right across it,” Sherry said.
When Sherry asked what happened to her leg, Dana told her that she’d had it amputated 16 years ago.
“So then I asked her why doesn’t she wear a prosthesis, and she said it’s because she has a tumor in her pelvic region in the bone. And when she tried a prosthesis, it caused her so much pain she couldn’t tolerate it. But she does just fine using her special walking sticks. She’s amazing how well she can walk with them.”
Sherry offered to take her horseriding on a trail, so “she could just sit and relax while enjoying a trail,” and Dana jumped at the chance.
By the time they rode to Deer Lake, Dana said she had her sea legs, so to speak.
“I used to have a captain’s license and drive boats,” Dana said. “And it reminded me of driving big boats in the water in rough sea conditions when you just got to be one with the boat and just kinda roll with it and use your core to guide you. So I used that to figure out how to ride more comfortably.
“I do a lot of Pilates, which has helped me build up my core strength and definitely helped me learn to ride.”
Dana said she’s grateful to be around strong, caring women like Sherry. Her mom passed away from pancreatic cancer when she when 59, and her dad died in his early 70s from multiple myeloma.
“So I’ve been on my own, as far as parents go, for quite some time,” she said. “Which is why I appreciate being around such kind and down-to-earth people like Sherry and Larry.”
She was diagnosed with her own cancer in 1999 when she was 26. Now 47, she said living with cancer has come with its challenges, but along with that has come wisdom and gratitude for the gift of life.
When she faced having her leg amputated in 2007, she started looking for ways to keep doing what she loved without having to work for a corporation.
She’s a marine biologist who was living in Florida when she was diagnosed. There, she once owned a scuba shop and held a 50-ton captain’s license from the U.S. Coast Guard.
“I did all sorts of business to try to earn a living as a marine biologist,” she said. “I just knew that my medical journey was going to be hard, and it was going to be difficult to work a 9-to-5 job, Monday through Friday, so I got this crazy idea to start a nonprofit.”
The nonprofit would host day and overnight trips mostly at the beach as well as water-related activities designed to get students out of the classroom and teach science outdoors.
“We always did community service where we collected trash on the beach and did coastal cleanups and taught the kids how to be good humans and land stewards,” she said.
Her business was put on hold with the pandemic, and now she and Lindsay are transitioning to Washington state, where they plan to offer educational programs.
“As part of our change, we’re looking at developing trauma recovery programs, specifically with domestic abuse victims,” she said. “With COVID, there’s been a huge spike in domestic violence. Social services are overwhelmed. What we did with Nature’s Academy was to work as a complement or a supplement to existing social services, so that’s what we see ourselves doing here.”
For example, Healthy Families of Clallam County and other organizations are the first step for domestic abuse victims, helping them out of their situation and into shelters and getting them the support they need to break free.
“We would like to come next to begin the therapeutic portion,” Dana said.
She wants her program, called Unbounded Horizons, to help them unlearn the feeling of helplessness and aide them in regaining their self-empowerment.
“That’s always been what nature has been for me,” she said.
Whatever the case may be — veterans, domestic abuse, loss of a child or COVID-19 — trauma is something that’s quite ambiguous, and there isn’t a great nature or wilderness recovery program out there, Dana said.
“So that’s a niche we’re trying to fill,” she said.
“Dana so inspirational to me, and she just does not let all the trauma she’s dealt with — her cancer, living with that tumor and having her leg amputated — stop her from living her life,” Sherry said.
When Dana posted on Facebook in October that she’d just completed her 60th round of chemotherapy, Sherry suggested they celebrate with another trail ride, which Dana readily accepted.
She applauds — as do I — Dana and Lindsey putting together therapeutic wilderness and nature programs for trauma survivors.
“I’m convinced Larry’s work with horses and mules is the one thing that’s helped him keep his sanity after coming back from Vietnam,” Sherry said. “He feels like he has a mission in life, and that’s what Dana recognizes, too — that she needs to have a mission in life, that her life has meaning and purpose, that her identity in life is not going to be that she is an amputee.”
I think we all thrive when we feel our lives have purpose, a meaning and, above all, hope. Three important qualities that can be snatched away through ongoing domestic violence, trauma and abuse.
Karen Griffiths’ column, Peninsula Horseplay, appears the second and fourth Sunday of each month.
If you have a horse event, clinic or seminar you would like listed, please email Griffiths at [email protected] at least two weeks in advance. You can also call her at 360-460-6299.