‘One step after another’
Florida lawyer hikes for a good cause
Two neurosurgeons huddled for 10 hours triply fusing the cervical spine of Tampa lawyer Nancy Hutcheson Harris, in one of the worst cases they’d handled.
That was 11 years ago. Harris wasn’t willing to be grounded by her back spasms and pain, probably stemming from competitive swimming as a girl.
So she asked Dr. Gene Balis if she could work out to strengthen her back without hurting herself, and he answered, yes, if you do it right by walking, strengthening your legs and your core.
Harris took that “yes” and ran with it — or, rather, walked in the most extreme ways possible — to the summit of Kilimanjaro, to the Base Camp of Mount Everest, hiking coast to coast in the United Kingdom, and scrambling on craggy rocks of Corsica, off the coast of France.
Along the way, with every step, 61-year-old Harris has thrust herself out of her comfort zone, proved her mettle, helped disadvantaged school children with $52,973 in donations, and honed her craft as a compassionate divorce lawyer.
“I’d rather be exhausted than disappointed” is Harris’s hiking motto that has taken her to the mountain top, and then some.
“I get away to take that aerial view of my life. And, essentially, I come back so much more grateful for everything around me. I come back with a better practice of law. I have a better balance between the personal and professional and things we can do for our firm,” said Harris, of Harris & Hunt, who is a member of The Florida Bar’s Family Law Section and serves on the Family Law Rules Committee.
She first got the idea to take exercise to an extreme from her friend Lucas Fleming, a St. Petersburg lawyer who started Lawyers for Literacy. He’d summited Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest mountain, and told Harris what a wonderful experience it was. So Harris decided to sign up to climb Kilimanjaro, too.
These days, Harris can be seen hiking with 25 pounds of rocks in her backpack around Bayshore, Davis Island, and over bridges in the Tampa Bay area, training with her girlfriends for their newest adventure slated for November 2017: a grueling trek through the mountainous Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan.
So far, Harris has climbed 17,999 feet to Mount Everest’s Ice Falls in 2014, raising $18,758 for Tampa’s Academy Prep school; hiked the Coast to Coast, north-south length of England in 2015, raising another $25,265; scrambled up and down more than 60,000 feet of craggy terrain on the island nation of Corsica, off the coast of France this year, raising another $8,950 for the nonprofit school that bills itself as creating equal opportunities for middle-school students who attend the academy 11 hours a day, six days a week.
“It only seemed right that if I was going to set an outrageous goal for myself, I should do it also to help others,” Harris said.
She chose Academy Prep, because she had served on its board of directors for six years and knew about the school’s successful mission. Once off the board, she didn’t want to stop raising money for them, and she learned from European friends about typically younger people doing adventure trips to raise money for causes.
She travels with a group of female friends.
“We asked our husbands and they didn’t want to go. Then we realized we have more fun without them,” Harris said with a laugh. “We have wonderful conversations and solve the problems of the world. It is exactly what the doctor ordered. It makes me conscious of how exercise is not discretionary. A healthy body and a healthy mind; those two are interrelated. And every time we set the bar a little higher.”
Hiking for a cause has not always been sunshine and awe-inspiring vistas.
The worst was hiking four days into the Mount Everest adventure only to be struck with intestinal flu. Just the smell of food made Harris nauseous. But she had to put one foot in front of the other and keep going.
“I kept thinking about the kids at Academy Prep, some of them taking two buses in the rain to get to school, and going home to a mom who could be a prostitute. One step after another; that’s our mantra.”
A breathtaking experience — both figuratively and literally — was staying at the Base Camp at Mount Everest in Nepal, where there is 50 percent oxygen at nearly 18,000 feet. She has learned that with 50 percent oxygen, “everything you do must be efficient and purposeful.”
Sometimes, she will say to a client in a divorce case: “I know what it feels like to have the breath taken from your lungs. We must be efficient in our efforts. We are not going to go out of the way to hurt the other side. That is an expenditure of money and energy that is useless.”
This Florida divorce lawyer has learned: “Exceeding your comfort zone is where it happens. You realize what you’re made of. I will pick myself right back up after I fall.”