In 2016 I dropped out of college. I moved to Atlanta, Georgia to pursue photography and filmmaking full-time.
In June of that already hectic year, I was diagnosed for the second time with cancer. I was immediately admitted to the hospital and had an emergency surgery less than 24 hours after my diagnosis, for the second time. Post-surgery, we discovered I had a rare, vascular-lymphatic invasion. Basically, this means that cancer cells attached to my former tumor and were released into my bloodstream, residing in lymph nodes. They had potential at any moment to activate inside of my peritoneum, my lungs, and my brain.
Around this time, a friend of mine told me she was traveling to the Matobo Hills of Zimbabwe, to visit some older friends of hers who ran a ranch there. Chris and Norma, the folks who run the ranch are an older, wildly selfless couple who use their profits to benefit the impoverished communities around them.
For example, while we were there, they delivered hundreds of bicycles to students who travel about 10 miles to get to school to mitigate many dangers that the daily journey poses, like rape and kidnapping.
My friends told me that this place was like some kind of rest-haven.
“Just come with us and you’ll see. It’ll be the rest you’ve needed for a while now. Then come back, and tackle chemotherapy, refreshed and renewed."
My first day of chemotherapy would begin during what would have been the first week in Zimbabwe.
I decided two days before my departure that I’d go to Zimbabwe. My doctors and my family were pretty upset with the decision. I transferred the last $1,500 from my savings account for the plane ticket. I would come home with nothing. But I KNEW in my heart that I needed this. I needed the rest. I knew that I was about to go down yet another heinous road of Ativan nightmares, weeks of vomiting, and total anxious delirium. I needed this rest. I needed this preparation.
I discovered two of the guys that I was traveling with, whom I had never met, happened to be experienced climbers. The first afternoon we spent on the ranch in the Matobo Hills, they asked me if I wanted to go climb with them. Towards the end of high school and college, I fell in love with kayaking, hiking, and camping. Climbing was kind of this thing I had always wanted to do and always wanted to photograph. I didn't know any climbers and I guess I always thought you had to live in the Western United States to be one. I was elated at the chance to finally climb as I held on to the back of a little red work truck as we bounced along the Savannah road to a giant slab of gorgeous grey granite.
The first route they put me on was a 5.11 chimney on a top rope. Damn, was I terrified just 20 ft. off the ground on a taut rope. I was so scared of falling, I stemmed the chimney behind me with the back of my head until it bled as I screamed expletives before taking the rope for the first time in my life. I came down, and they lured me to another route, something super easy.
I'll never forget the excitement that they showed me as I battled my way up what was probably a 5.7/5.8, screaming, "Yeah, Kenny! Come on!" with loud, pure, honest encouragement.
The next evening we took the truck back out to another part of the park to a truly unique sport route that followed a ravine. It was on this route that one of my new friends, Landon, set me up direct to anchors to photograph down on the climber for the first time in my life. I noticed the sound of quick-draws on granite, rope sliding through them and sunset over the horizon. Up here, there was no room for work-stress. There was no room for questioning my decisions or my future as an artist. There was no room for cancer - only total presence. For the first time in so long my head was in only one place. I was present. I was scared, so excited I was laughing to myself, and totally made breathless by the beauty of the sun setting over the greens and browns of the hills that glowed in that last light.
Riding back on the back of the truck, I remember holding onto the rack above as we drove through a smoother part of the road. The landscape was wide open in every direction. I will never forget the feeling of leaning back, closing my eyes, and feeling the perfect temperature of wind and air on my face. The hum of the little diesel truck, a spare tire bouncing around in the bed, people laughing in the cab.
I knew I was in the right place. My soul was full, present. I whispered in my mind, as a prayer, "Thank You."
I noticed that one of the climbers, Thomas, always had a classic green Stanley Vacuum Bottle sitting in front of him on the ranch. He'd open it, pour steaming coffee into the lid, and he'd just sit and wait for the next conversation to just happen. Something struck me deeply about that. He was really, really good at being present. He would listen like I had never noticed anyone listen to other people. He wasn't thinking about what he was going to say next while another person was speaking to him. And when they finished, he would think, like really think about what he was going to say. And when he didn't know, he would tell you he didn't know. He carried a peace about him that I hadn't ever seen in another person. For some reason, I noticed that Stanley Vacuum Bottle everywhere for those 12 days. In my head, it became an emblem for being present in a current moment.
Every night we would all have dinner together and talk around a fire. One of those nights around that fire, Thomas asked me to share with everyone what I was going through, that I was sick. There was a distinct silence and quiet tears. Afterward, everyone stood around me. People spoke kind words to me, and some prayed. Chris, the owner of the ranch, who is in his 70's, belted out a Welsh hymn into the sky. My eyes were closed, my skin chilled and something shifted in the air.
I came home, and I felt compelled to email Stanley and tell them some of the story. I told them that I had incredible experiences outside in my life and that I wanted to be a part of a team that got people as psyched as I was. A few weeks later they brought me on as a Brand Ambassador.
We returned home on a Friday, and my chemotherapy was to begin on the following Monday. I told the doctor I felt that something had changed and wanted another scan before we began. I postponed treatment for a week, against their advice and had new scans taken. During an editing session at my co-working space in Atlanta, my doctor called me. I stepped outside to take his call, trembling with nerves. My tumor markers plummeted. The cancer vanished. I fell to my knees on the sidewalk in the Old Fourth Ward of Atlanta.
That year, Thomas became my mentor on and off the wall and climbing took over a massive part of my life. Its taken me all over the world, (and even all around the Southeast. Turns out there's tons of climbing and a phenomenal community of climbers down here!). Thomas taught me that although having a life so engulfed in being outside has potential to be incredibly self-serving, that it didn't have to be. He taught me that by having shared experiences of joy outside, that you can serve other people, and serve the greater good of preserving these places that mean so much to us.
Keep up with Kenny’s adventures by following him on Instagram.