“People who have what I have” is as close as Brendan Leonard brushes in the trailer for his latest book, Sixty Meters to Anywhere, to saying out loud the words that sent him scrambling for a way to rebuild his life. But as the images tick by and the narration continues, it becomes clear that people who have what he had have a problem with substance abuse.
That road often isn't scenic, and the stories written about traveling it frequently focus on its spiraling descents. Leonard doesn't. He chooses, instead, to lay a little groundwork before quickly moving into the other half of the story. He writes about the slow ascent as he learns to define himself not by what he doesn't do, which is drink, but by what he does, which is climb and hike.
The book begins on a snowy night in Iowa, when Leonard gets stopped for his second DUI. What unfolds from there is a crisply written and boldly honest retelling of the sharply edged and often lonely moments of recovery and reinvention. As part of abandoning a life of hours spent on the bar stool, he moves to Montana to enroll in a graduate program in journalism. A creative nonfiction professor first said his experiences in jail and rehab were ones worth writing about—a kind of permission granted, he says, to produce some of the essays that now appear in his book, more than a decade later.
But Montana, of course, is surrounded by mountains, and those begin to consume more and more of his time.
"At the time, I didn't really know what I was feeling, or why it was so important," he tells SFR. "It was like, this is where I feel really good, here in these places where I feel small and where I'm in incredibly beautiful terrain. I think everybody feels that same way in some respects. Whether or not you communicate it, that's one of the things you like about being outside."
Among the realizations materializing is that in the West, no one would call these undertakings outdoors "hobbies"; they're far more essential.
"It becomes this lifestyle, which is a really great thing for somebody like me who didn't really have an identity, to be able to understand you could just make this the big thing in your life," he says. "Yeah, you've got to go to work and earn money, but after that, you can plunge into the outdoors and all these different methods of travel—hiking, backpacking, peak bagging, mountain biking, ice climbing, rock climbing."
The way he writes it in Sixty Meters to Anywhere, a reference to a standard length for a climbing rope, is, "I wanted to climb, to get out there and see it all—snow-covered peaks, rivers that cut canyons, the moonscape of the American desert—to bring it into myself and see what it made me."
For Leonard, it's actually now become the way he makes a living, as the founder of semi-rad.com, a website about outdoor sports and the people who surrender their lives (and paychecks) to them, and an outdoor sports writer whose work has appeared in Climbing, Adventure Journal, Alpinist, Backpacker, and National Geographic Adventure. His job has now taken him down canyons in rafts and to the tops of peaks on several continents.
He says the greatest compliment he's received on the book so far, which was released earlier this summer, was from a friend who said it compelled him to think honestly about his own life. That's the goal, Leonard says.
"I want this out there, and hopefully someone who needs it will find it, and it will change somebody's life in a small way and allow them to live a better life," he says. "That's the point of all storytelling, to me, whether it's just funny or they really identify with it or they realize they have a substance abuse problem or they have no interest in a substance abuse problem but realize they're in control of their own life in some other regard and can make that choice."
The decision to stop drinking may have been one of his toughest, its effects rippling through his family and his friendships. But we all face choices to change, or not. Fourteen years sober, he now jokes about too much coffee, too little meditation and the fellow runners in the park near his house in Denver who refused to shift their route with a trail redesign. Instead, they jump a nearly 2-foot-tall curb and wear down their former path through the grass. Change comes hard, no matter how it arrives.
"You've got to realize you're just telling yourself one story," he says. "There are things that you can do if you just admit to yourself that you can do them. There aren't these magic people who are entrepreneurs or who change their life midstream. Everybody can do it. It's just a matter of having the courage to do it. But we have all sorts of lies we tell ourselves, like 'Oh I was raised differently,' or 'I didn't grow up doing that,' or 'I grew up doing this, so this is the way I do things.' You have a choice. You don't have to have high cholesterol just because everyone in your family has high cholesterol. You can change that. That's not this code that's written that you can't rewrite in this life."