Book Review: Tough Broad by Caroline Paul

 Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how a change in circumstance can affect every aspect of our lives. My mental illness, which started in 2013, led to a severing of my ties with my workplace and subsequently my career and community. I thought that was the extent of it, but I realized two years ago that my illness also led to troubles with anxiety and decision-making while in the outdoors—specifically while hiking. My challenge has been whether to just accept these changes and move on, or to try and push back to return to some semblance of what things were like before.

This applies not just to mental illness, but to anything that changes our ability to do something that we love. I just finished reading The Longest Climb, by Paul Pritchard, in which he details his traumatic brain injury from being hit in the head by falling rock while climbing, and his recovery from that injury. This change in circumstance required a year of intense therapy just to function again, and left him in a similar situation to someone who’d had a stroke: paralysis on one side and difficulty walking, as well as epileptic seizures. He had to decide how much of his outdoor life he wanted to recapture; what he could realistically recapture. How far he was willing to push himself in his altered condition. Well he was willing to push himself pretty hard, and he ends up doing a lot of tough things that even a temporarily able person (his term, as he notes that at some point we’ll all be dis-abled in some way, whether that be from age or circumstance) wouldn’t do.

Another major change in circumstance is aging, which affects people differently. As I mentioned above about the challenge in dealing with change, some people are resigned to the fact that aging means they won’t be able to do things they might have wished or used to do, while others see age as no barrier to continuing to do the things they love, and even take up new activities.

In Tough Broad: From Boogie Boarding to Wing Walking—How Outdoor Adventure Improves Our Lives as We Age, Caroline Paul, herself an almost 60-year-old woman who rides an electric skateboard, used to paraglide, and flies a gyrocopter, talks to women from all walks of life about their challenges and successes in staying outdoors and active as they age. The book is divided into four sections: Spirit, Body, Brain, and Heart, with three to six chapters in each. She visits one woman in each chapter and tries out their sport, be it scuba-diving, orienteering, bird-watching, or BMX biking.

She writes that many women feel that as they age they should no longer be involved in serious outdoor pursuits. Although men stay active well into their 70s and 80s, women feel more constrained by societal expectations that they ‘slow down’ with age. But the women Paul meets and shares the outdoors with are all making the most of their later years, with the health and vibrancy to prove its benefit.

Paul doesn’t focus only on adrenaline-fueled sports, noting that it’s not just about getting your heart pumping, it’s about your mental health as well. “Exhilaration,” she says, “doesn’t need adrenaline. It can be triggered by [the] simple act of paying attention.” This is demonstrated by her day with a birding group, which includes both walking people and people in wheelchairs. They spend the day traversing 6 miles of trails in several different parks, listening to and watching birds.

The day she spends orienteering with a 72-year-old champion provides dual messages about navigation: not only an orienteering course but the challenges of aging. Paul quotes MR O’Connor, “At the heart of successful navigation is a capacity to record the past, attend to the present and imagine the future—a goal or place we’d like to reach.” This is applicable not only to wayfinding and navigation, but to the direction of our lives. What goals do we want to reach? How are we going to do it? What is there to stop us? As this book shares, age is certainly no barrier.

One of the challenges Paul addresses that can be mitigated by being outdoors is loss—in this case, the loss of a partner. After one woman’s partner dies, she has to find a way in the world without him. She turns to kayaking to calm her soul, and learns how to look after their RV so she can take it out on her own. She hikes all day and goes to art galleries near her camping spots, and is making a new life for herself that is surprisingly joyful.

Paul realizes that it’s awe that can increase the impact of an adventure. She quotes Annie Murphy Paul (no relation), who saws that awe “makes us feel tiny, even as it opens wide our sense of the possible.” It’s also good for us, making us “more curious and openminded. And we become more willing to update…the templates we use to understand ourselves and the world.” This is something that can be especially beneficial, as our ways of thinking may have stagnated and need to be refreshed. Learning new things and being more active as we age has follow-on effects, as Paul notes when she meets with two women who learned to swim in their 60s. One of them explains how swimming has made her more confident because she looks stronger and has better posture.

What struck me is that many of the women profiled in this book have built a community through the activities they enjoy. The boogie boarders who meet twice a week at the same beach, the scuba diver who volunteers for various citizen science projects, the BASE jumper who has a group of people with whom she jumps, the BMX racer who always wins her age class. It’s not just about the activity itself, but about the relationships you build while doing it.

Paul is a lovely writer, with beautiful turns of phrase but also a welcoming and easy way of writing. For example, “…incoming waves lurch out of the fog in slow, lethargic succession. Maneuvering to meet each one, I watch my hands cup the ocean; the sudden bracing cold on my skin and the thin lace of water I flick into the air reminding me that I do indeed exist.” The book is a pleasure to read, braiding in-person experiences with results of research studies and profiles of “tough broads” who are out there just doing what they love.

This book made me rethink my mental health challenges and see them not as something to be overcome but something to adapt to and work with/around. As Paul writes, “whatever loss we may be facing…it is not to be resolved; instead one must search for ways to live with it. It is a winding journey to bear loss rather than overcome it…”. I completely agree: I have to learn how to bear my loss rather than overcome it, because it isn’t something that can be overcome. It’s the ‘new normal,’ and has been for years despite my wishing it otherwise. It’s something I have a hard time accepting, but doing so will probably make things easier for me in the long run.

My current project involves getting back into hiking so I can quell my anxieties on the trail. I won’t be able to stop them, but I can manage them and learn to co-exist with them. So far it seems to be working, as I’m not only physically active but my mind is challenged by difficult terrain, I feel awe at the temperate rainforest beauty, and there’s always the possibility of an adrenaline spike from meeting a bear or a cougar (fingers crossed I meet neither).

Caroline Paul’s book is not just for older women, but for any woman wondering what mid- and late-life can bring. Turns out it can be just as fun as your twenties, thirties, and forties, but in different ways. It’s also a call to make the most of life no matter your life stage, to keep finding awe and exhilaration, to deal with loss of any kind, and to build a community of like-minded adventurers.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: Tough Broad by Caroline Paul”

  1. Thanks for the book recommendation. I’m looking forward to reading it. I also like the perspective of bearing vs. overcoming loss. Something to think about.

    • Yes it’s a challenge to bear loss vs. overcoming it. Sometimes it just can’t be overcome and you have to live with it.


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