Originally published in the October 11, 2018, print edition of The Mountain-Ear
Sarah Haas, Nederland. Fanny Toorenburg loves maps. As a French speaking kid growing up in Montreal she would gear up for a bike adventure, grab a map and look for all the places she’d never been. I like to imagine her routine- pulling the map from the back pocket of her jeans, torn and muddied from her adventures, and unfolding it on the ground.
She’d close her eyes, stretch out an adventurous finger, and let it fall on her next, seemingly random, seemingly fated destination.
Fanny’s always been an explorer but back then it was all city and asphalt covered streets, which couldn’t have been farther from the destinations in her mind’s eye: the tops of far-away mountains, the middle of distant lakes. These remote places were like the green parts on a map, their limits known, but their details undefined, and it’s hard to say if she saw the streets as she rode them, or if she overplayed them with her imagination of the great world beyond. As a kid, Fanny was known to bury her head in travel books at the library, studying the fjords of Norway and Sweden and New Zealand.
For an adult, these places might remain there, in the pages of borrowed books, but a child’s mind is a fantastical place where reality mixes with dreams and where far away mountain tops are often indistinguishable from the summit of a city hill.
Fanny knew that someday she’d step out her front door and be on a mountain trail. Until then she would prepare her body to climb those all but inevitable hills; and biking and running and swimming was the best way, the only way, she knew to turn the two-dimensional landscapes she’d found in books into the three-dimensional ones she longed for.
It wasn’t long before Fanny was an international triathlete, touring the world for training and competitions. By the time she was 20, she’d been to almost every continent and had seen and touched and smelled the far-away places she’d always dreamed of. Somewhere along the way, she’d fallen in love, not just with the placers she saw, but with her body that’d taken her all around the world. It’s as if her love of maps inverted and it was now time to learn how to read bodies like she’d once read the world. And so, she enrolled at Canada’s best medical school, McGill, where she would study human bodies, so she could care for them, train them and help people explore the world like she did. Human anatomy was the map of her next frontier.
However, life is anything but as we expect it. Always hard working and confident in her ability to achieve what she set her mind to, Fanny was unwilling to make the compromises she saw her peers succumb to. Faced with impossible workloads, her fellow students had turned to drugs and cheating to increase their efficiency and grades. Fanny refused, and when her grades fell from B’s to B minuses, and when the dean said she needed to choose between sports and school, she didn’t hesitate to do what was right, which was to listen to her heart, to stick her laurels, and to drop out of school.
Once again her life was a big green area on a map, an emerald colored tabla rasa that might intimidate the rest of us, but not Fanny Toorenburg. She packed her bags and said her goodbyes to family and friends and flew to New Zealand where one can “surf and climb and kayak and see friends all in one day.” It was there that she turned her adventuring spirit into a master’s degree in environmental science and her love of maps into a career in GIS technology, layering map upon map upon map so that they could be used to protect the environment and guide us, not just as its users, but as its stewards. In her 20 years a Kiwi, stewardship had come to be a whole lot more than just an ethic one abides, it was a lifestyle.
In New Zealand, Fanny had built a life of genuine relationship to people and place. She’d married, had three kids and created a self-sufficient home on a parcel of land. With her kids in tow, she fed and clothed her family with her own two hands, growing vegetables and sewing up-cycled merino fabric into a wardrobe for a family of five. Meanwhile her husband was building a local GIS business into an international, publicly traded company, one that would eventually relocate to Broomfield, Colorado, aka the center of the modern-day cartography industry. One day, 20 some odd years later, Fanny woke up in Nederland, Colorado, opened her back door and had a mountain trail of her very own.
“Picture your ideal life, who you want to be surrounded with, what you would want to be doing, what you want your life to be. It always feels like a dream,” Fanny says. “You can’t force it to become that way, you have to let it go and see what happens. Eventually if that vision is strong enough, you’ll get there, even, if you don’t know how. You just have to have faith.”
“Faith?” I say, perhaps naively, perhaps cynically. “What do you mean?”
“Faith is following your heart,” she says. “It’s being really, really present because you can’t follow your heart if you can’t hear it. If you pay too much attention to the chatter around you, you won’t hear what it’s saying. And sometimes, listening to your heart sucks, but it’s what you gotta do.”
Which is to say that Fanny never thought her mountain trail would come to her the way it has. She had to work for it, sometimes in surprising ways, and she does still. Here, she works like the rest of us, as operation’s manager at Salto, as the one-woman business Hill Road Merino, her line of up-cycled wool hoodies (for sale at Tin Shed), as a mom of three, and as an athlete. In all of that is the good and the bad, the details of the big green areas on the map.