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Episode 105: Using Adventure To Navigate Life with Natasha Buffo of Dirt and Tears

"The decision to sit down and write a full book... it really came from a craving, a need to purge this story."

This week we're joined by former Silicon Valley analyst-turned-storyteller Natasha Buffo. Natasha covers a wide range of topics including finding spirituality in nature, listening to your intuition, slowing down in her outdoor pursuits, how to use nature to navigate grief, and why sex should be treated as any other adventure. Oh, did we mention she's also writing a book? This is a jam-packed episode you won't want to miss.

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Episode Transcript

Iris: Hello, outdoor industry friends. Welcome to another episode of Outside by Design. I'm Iris and I am so excited today to introduce our guest. Her name is Natasha Buffo. She is a former Silicon Valley business analyst turned world traveler, writer, storyteller, and she is also working on her first book right now.

And today she joins us on the show to talk about how the outdoors has become a healing space for her, for her mental health, as well as how nature has become sort of a place for spirituality. She talks about how she was in the middle of traveling when she learned her mom got sick and had to transition to a caregiver role and how nature is still stayed with her in that role.

And she talks a lot about intuition and trusting your gut, trying not to second guess yourself and being open to realizing when situations aren't right for you anymore. This episode is a lot about personal change and growth and how the outdoors plays a role in that. This is a perfect conversation for level one, leveling up yourself.

And I'm so excited for you to hear it. Let's do this.

Lisa: Natasha. Thank you so much for being on our podcast today.

Natasha: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

Lisa: The first question we ask everyone is to describe where they are and what they're looking at.

Natasha: Great question. So I am at home in the studio condo that I rent in Kirkwood, California, which is just outside of Lake Tahoe.

And I - since I live in a studio - I'm looking at everything that is my four walls, but I always like to face out the windows when I'm trying to do anything creative. And so I'm looking out onto Kirkwood Meadows Drive, which is the main way to get in and out of Kirkwood mountain resort.

Lisa: Oh, nice.

Natasha: Yeah.

Lisa: That seems like a great spot.

Natasha: Yeah. Yeah. I'm in the mountains at 7,800 feet. And I can't see the peaks exactly where I'm sitting, but if I walk out onto my deck, I can see the top of chair 6 and the top of chair 10 and our highest peak and our ridge line. And it's pretty special.

Lisa: Oh, that's awesome.

Natasha: Yeah.

Lisa: So here's a really big question for you. We haven't met. We've never spoken before. So for our listeners and mostly for me, what's your story?

Natasha: [laughs] It's a great question. And it's probably why I ended up writing a book about it. I've had quite the adventure. I used to be a business analyst in online advertising and actually spent three years of my career at Google Inc.

And I realized that wasn't the right life for me. And so I decided to resign, but did not know what direction I wanted to go in. So I just decided to travel. And so I traveled, I went on my first solo road trip, camped alone for the first time. And then eventually went to New Zealand with a friend and fell head over heels in love with New Zealand - and anyone who has been there would understand why - and had plans to stay there for at least a year. And then maybe hop over to Australia, go to Italy, kind of that travel the world idea. And two months into my trip there, my mom was diagnosed with lung cancer.

So I made the decision to go home because she's one of my best friends and I just couldn't enjoy where I was when she was going through that experience. So I went home to California coast and started a new adventure as a caregiver. And unfortunately the cancer won that battle and my mom passed away about four months later.

And then I was in this new world of, okay. I didn't have a job. I didn't have a home. I was traveling. I don't know what to do. I lost my mom. I was grieving and depressed. It was, it was a hard time. I really didn't know where to go. But after some time with my brother, who really took great care of me, I had the invitation to go back to New Zealand.

And it was actually a girl who had invited me, who I had met on my previous trip. And the moment she invited me back, I knew I needed kind of a hand to hold to go back to traveling after all I'd been through. And I wanted to go back and continue that adventure I started. So I went back and while I was in New Zealand I actually made the decision to move to Tahoe.

And it was really inspired by my newfound realization of how much I loved the mountains and alpine lakes, which was paired with the fact that I actually had hiked the John Muir trail two months after my mom passed away. So I'd really surrounded myself with both tall mountains, alpine lakes, lots of nature, lots of backpacking. And I still wanted to be close to home. So Lake Tahoe area was really the best option for me for that. And we had our first good snow year after a three-year drought. So I figured, “Hey, I'll go, I'll move to Tahoe. I'll be a ski bum for a couple months, and then we'll see what's next.”

And I moved to Tahoe. I didn't know anyone. I didn't have a job. I found a room to rent. And within a week, I got a job at Kirkwood Mountain Resort. I met the man who's been my partner for over four years now, and I just fell in love with the community, the industry, with this person. And it's my home now.

Lisa: Nice. I have so many questions. First of all, thanks for such an honest answer. Yeah. Sounds like you have been through a lot and you're also really good at following your intuition.

Natasha: Yeah, I try. I'd say that I'm also really good at second guessing. [laughs] And over analyzing. I don't know if it's partly my analyst experience, but I've definitely been able to kind of roll with the punches, given the experience I had with my mom getting sick. And when I was in New Zealand and I was leaving, I really thought that adventure had been over and my new life was over because it got sidetracked so quickly. But what I found from that - and what I really relate to this, this period during this pandemic where, you know, we're all facing things out of our control - is that these, those types of situations, it doesn't mean it's over. It just means it's on pause. And what's really powerful, and of course you don't want your loved ones to pass away and you want to be able to have them with you, but in the worst case situations where you do lose somebody you love, or you have an illness or injury or other big things outside of your control. You may be surprised at once that adventure, that part of your life is restarted, it might look really different than you imagined, and even more powerful than you had originally imagined as well. And I've actually been back to New Zealand three times now, since that first trip and all very different adventures and way more amazing and adventurous that I ever had imagined on that first trip.

Lisa: Wow. Cool. Like, how did you know… like, how did you realize, or like, what was it that truly told you that Silicon Valley and being an analyst and working at Google, how did you know that that wasn't the right life for you, as you said?

Natasha: I'm sitting here nodding my head because that's, that's a great question. I actually run into a lot of people at the resort that say that it's their dream, that I'm living their dream. And it's a lot easier to get a job at a ski resort that at Google, just heads up to anybody else feeling similarly. It was... it was a couple of things. And will you all preface with, you know, I had a lot of wonderful experiences, a lot of great traveling, a lot of wonderful work experience. And the big things where I knew it wasn't the right life for me…. my closest work relationship was with my laptop. And I'm much more of a connection, community-oriented person. There was a lot of conversation around money because it's really challenging to live in the Bay area as many of us know and, and really any big cities. And so there's just so much focus on making sure to make money. And that was really the center of a lot of conversations. And then what really happened was that I had all these little signs that piled on one another, that pointed me in a different direction.

And one of them was, I went on a trip to Uganda and it was a service trip training locals on a trauma counseling program so that they can implement it themselves throughout the years. And I got a lot of compliments on my ability to train these people and to counsel them and to connect with the local Ugandans. And people asked me, you know, how, like, where was trained to get these skills. And it was just kind of a variety of interests and also just... I think just kind of ingrained in me, maybe, partly from my growing up and it pointed me in this direction of, “Oh, you have skills that aren't necessarily related to math.” [laughs]

And also Uganda is where my writing career began because that was the place that I discovered that some of our most powerful experiences can't always be captured by photos and video. And we need the power of words to really get across those experiences, whether they're the high highs, the low lows. So a lot came from, from that trip.

And when I came back home from that, the next months I actually fell into my first state of depression. Didn't know I was depressed until actually I started at Kirkwood and took a course called mental health first aid and read a list of the symptoms of depression, and then looked back at that period and was like, “Oh, that's what that experience was. That's why I called in sick to work and cried at work and turned down invitations from friends and…” So there was a period of that, the most powerful thing that I really liked to tell people, and, you know, you had mentioned I'm good at following my intuition, and I think I've become better over the years, but what was really neat and also overwhelming was that I had a very visceral physical sign. One day when I was walking to work to where I actually felt nauseated walking into the office. That the idea of going in there again was... my body rejected it. And that was the day that I called my mom and my brother and talked to them about this idea of resigning. And that was a hard thing to do because I really wanted to make my family proud and having a job at Google is definitely a way to do that. And walking away from that was tough.

Lisa: Are you glad that you did it?

Natasha: Oh yeah. Yeah. Like I said, great experience. Wouldn't change my time there for anything. Even that trip to Uganda, Google really supported me, financially, with my time, with matching donations, they really do a lot of great things. It just, it just wasn't the life for me. And I have a lot of friends and coworkers that still work there. And I love that. And I know a lot of people that have gone off and done other things. And so I think the important thing is for all of us, just to figure out what works best for you.

And another thing I didn't mention, a big reason moving to Tahoe, is being closer to nature. And I found that that is really important to my wellbeing. Especially now. I mean, before my mom passed away, it was important. But after that and the caregiving experience... I mean, I can literally crawl over my balcony right now and walk up a mountain and I can hop on my bike and I can grab my kayak and drive five miles and go paddle. It's, it's never ending, easy access to outdoors. And that to me is very crucial.

Lisa: Nice. What, like, what kind of connection do you get out of nature? Like what, I guess, why is living in nature and so close to nature so valuable to you?

Natasha: It's a really good question. To me... I mean, there's definitely the adventure aspect. I'm a huge backpacker. I've become an expert snowboarder living here. I just got into bike packing and did my first tour this weekend actually. Kayaking is a big mental health tool for me. And I do think that a lot of it comes back to mental health and in a way it sounds kind of cheesy, but I think we all have a different version of spirituality, whatever that looks like. And I grew up going to churches. I was actually an intern youth pastor. And churches, like the actual physical building of a church, doesn't make sense for me these days. And I really do find my connection to, to the world, to nature, to other people, and to my mom and also my dad, my dad passed away when I was 14. I really do find that going out into nature creates this bridge and this connection to that side of my spirituality that's important. And I think there's a blurred line between that spiritual connection and my mental health that I don't really know where each begins and ends, but being out there really kind of calms me down and opens my eyes to what I'm grateful for and allows me to slow down.

You know, I really took a change from before my mom was sick to after where I used to run marathons. And I used to think I had to like, you know, hike for 10 hours in order to feel that I achieved enough physically in that day. And I took a much stronger focus on meditation and yoga and slowing down and hiking and camping afterwards. And I don't know if I necessarily answered your question with that, I feel like there's… I feel like I'd have to go into each sport.

Like, kayaking for me has been a mental health tool because it is scientifically shown that being in, on, or around water does help your mental health. And I actually got my kayak after a really bad concussion where I was on the couch for two months. And I was really afraid to do my usual sports and adventures because of second impact syndrome, which if you hit your head a second time and damage your brain when you're still healing, it could have instantaneous death. Which is very frightening after you've already been through a traumatic experience.

So kayaking was... and it was still water, you know, lake kayaking. That was a way for me to be outdoors and be physical, but also feel really safe and kind of slow down. And there's something about being on the water. I actually grew up swimming in a river every day. I love water and you know, I've lived on the coast most of my life until I moved to the mountains. And there's something about the movement of water and being on a kayak and being one with the water. And it's something that I haven't been able to put into words, but it's powerful. And I think it really does maybe center me and ground me and kind of take away the clutter of everything else potentially.

And then you can think about, you know, when you're in the middle of a snow storm, the snow actually quiets everything. When you're in a, like, big, those big fluffy snowflakes, everything gets really quiet and it feels really magical and it's almost like it, it puts the world on pause and you're in this little bubble, like you're in an actual, real life, snow globe.

And then you hop on your snowboard and you go on the mountain and you're riding through powder and you get into that flow state of this perfect juxtaposition of challenge and knowledge. And you're riding these powder waves. There's so many different things that I feel that nature can do.

Lisa: Absolutely. Is that what your book is about or, I guess, if you don't mind me asking, what's your book about?

Natasha: That's a great question. My book actually centers on my time caregiving for my mom. So a lot of books that I think are our favorites these days, they really center around a story of adventure. And you know, when somebody is finally taking this leap for adventure and the impact that that adventure has had on their life to take this big risk. And there might be kind of a smaller side story that has to do with a challenge like cancer, or losing a loved one, divorce.

My book really kind of turns that upside down and it starts with most of those books end. It starts when I was already in New Zealand and already found this wonderful life. But when I found out my mom was sick. And it focuses more on my experience caregiving and the experience of grief, but uses the thread of adventure throughout to help us navigate that experience.

And what's really cool in the process of writing the book is I've had different kind of metaphors and reflections on that juxtaposition between adventure and caregiving. And the big piece is I thought that caregiving was interrupting my adventure. And I, you know, I mentioned that it put that adventure on pause, but what's really cool is when... I don't like using the word cool when talking about this in my life, because it was a huge challenge. But when you're talking about the reflection of the story and your experience, I've just recently come to find that... I was a backpacker before my mom got sick. And that was a huge part of my identity. And I have my trusty backpack Petunia, and she's been around the world with me. And I thought that when I surprisingly became a caregiver for my mom and completely inexperienced, I thought that part of me was over. And I didn't find that part of me again until I completed the John Muir trail two months after she passed away.

What I realized is that backpacking actually stayed with me through the entirety of that experience. It's just, the trail looked different. The skills that I developed as a backpacker were the skills that I used to be the best caregiver I could be. And the journey of caring for a loved one, absolutely was the hardest thing I've ever done. So in reality, backpacking prepared me to be a caregiver. And then afterwards caregiving prepared me to be a more strong backpacker because now there's nothing that is more challenging than that experience that I had.

Lisa: Yeah. That sounds... it sounds like that backpack is a good container for like everything you were feeling and, kind of like this container or way to hold your experience and like almost hold space for yourself.

Natasha: Absolutely. Yeah.

Lisa: That's super beautiful.

Natasha: Thank you.

Lisa: How, how did you decide to write a book? Did you just start? It's different than your commercial work.

Natasha: Yeah. So, so, the book is where... I mean, the writing career really started when I was in Uganda and I started doing just kind of an online blog and wrote emails home, and it was very casual and for fun. And I did take a writing class. But the decision to sit down and write a full book... it really came from a craving, a need to purge this story. And it feels very similar to when I decided to resign. It wasn't necessarily like, okay, I'm going to write a book. This isn’t something I'm thinking intellectually. It was much more of a physical decision where I had to get it out of my body or I could not move on in life. And that is 100% what it felt like.

And I've actually read some interviews with other authors who have written similar stories. And that is quite a comparable experience for many authors.

And so I was, my first step was, I need to write it. I'm going to write it for me. I'm going to get it out of my system. I'm going to purge the words from my body and that's it. And it was… I kind of broke it down similar to how I've broken down marathon training. I had not been a runner and I decided when I was 26, when I turned 26, that I would run 26 miles that year, which is really intimidating to somebody who doesn't run. But I told myself, okay, well, let's start with a 5k. If you like the 5k, then you can try 10k. So with the book, I was like, all right. I think I started writing it when I was, was it 32 I had just turned? I think it might've been 32 or 33. And I said, all right, I'm going to write 32 chapters this year. And that was it. Just one chapter at a time. Purge it from my body. No goals outside of getting it out. And writing it on its own was such an experience. And that's, you know, maybe a whole nother topic about writing about challenging stories, about traumatic events. And yeah, I purged the story and the most... there's a lot of experiences from it. And anyone who's attempted to write a book, kudos, because it is not easy. But the experience when I achieve that goal of just purging it, again, very overwhelmingly physical experience where my body just released and it was tears. It was rolling around. It was, it was relief. It was so overwhelming. It's unlike any other experience I've ever had.

But then after I finished that I... I don't know if there was a particular time or if it built on one another, but I began to realize that I wanted to take it to the next step. And the more I talk about this, which is, you know, a big reason why I like talking to you about it even, and hopefully some of your listeners will appreciate this, is the more that I talk about it, the more I realized the story needs to get out there because I have not found this story. I haven't found it written in the same way with the same vulnerability, with the same... the same entrance of adventure. I feel like using adventure as this common thread, as pretty much a map to help us navigate the difficult topic of cancer and caregiving, it makes it more comfortable and accessible to people that are maybe a little afraid to talk about the hard stuff. Whether it's something they've been through or something their friend's been through, I'm trying to make it just more accessible. And there's lots of comedy in it. It's very raw, which can be sad. It can also be hilarious. And so, yeah, I've just been really focusing on trying to get it out into the world and sending it to literary agents. And I recently sent a book proposal to a publisher not too long ago. And all of the articles that I've been getting published by different online and print magazines and going on podcasts... all of it really is with the goal of getting my book out there. Cause that is the number one most important project.

But what's been really cool is in that process of building this writing resume to show… to get people's attention and show them what I can produce, I've had a lot of really cool projects come out of it that I didn't necessarily expect to be part of my writing career.

Lisa: Yeah. Didn't you just write something about having sex in the outdoors for Sisu Magazine? I’m pretty sure you did, right?

Natasha: Yes, I did. And that is probably the most surprising one. I know people will be like, “Oh, weren't we just talking about cancer? And now we're talking about sex.” But, tangent, I actually in college - besides mathematical sciences that I majored in, which brought me to my first career as a business analyst - I also majored in sociology with a strong focus in human sexuality and gender, which are both such important topics.

And the human sexuality has just been kind of a passion topic of mine for, you know, we're going over decades at this point. And I just have... I've written speeches. I've done a humorous speech for Toastmasters International, which was really fun. I've done like trivia questions around it. I honestly didn't think it was gonna be part of my writing career, but what's really interesting, once I pitched this article to Sisu, I realized that I had written about sex. And that was actually the first things I wrote about because in the courses I took in college, I wrote for our university website, which actually connects with people around the world and I answered questions from people around the world and wrote articles that people read around the world back when I was probably 19, 20 years old.

And it's really cool to come back and revisit that passion of mine. And it was so fun to take, really, to have the same type of writing that I do in regards to using adventure to navigate through mental health, but using adventure to navigate through sex and relationships. And it just, it never occurred to me that that would be something I write about, but that was a really fun article to produce. And it's a really fun topic to continue talking about and incredibly relevant to everyone.

Lisa: Yeah. What, I guess for our listeners, they'll have to buy Sisu magazine, but kind of what was, what was the overarching, I guess, takeaway of that article?

Natasha: Yeah, absolutely. So the idea of sex as an adventure, is that we need to start treating sex more like we do every other adventure.

So typically... and even stronger than typically, I'd say always, we look at sex and we're afraid to talk about it. We are expected or put the pressure on ourselves to be pro athletes, basically be pros at sex without any education, without any help from experts. We keep what we like and what we don't like kind of to ourselves, and kind of locked in close.

And then, if you think about everything else in our life, everything else, we explore what we like and what we don't like, whether it's do we like backpacking or do we want to do car camping with a duvet? Or do we want to just cycle on our townie cruiser bike or do we want to bike pack? Or do we like hiking or do we like running? All these things that we explore in the outdoors, but we're not doing it in the bedroom. So we need to explore and we need to explore solo and with partners. And then we need to communicate what we found that we like and whether it's, you know, what I realized that I really want to try backpacking. And my partner is really experienced at backpacking, but I am not so much. You can apply that to different sexual acts like anal, anal is something that is pretty taboo, but some people are more experienced with it. And some people are curious and wanna try it. And some people aren't interested at all and that's okay. But if we don't talk about it, we don't explore it. You're never going to know.

And then we get into the big things. Like, if you want to try out backpacking for the first time. You don't just throw on whatever backpack you have laying around and whatever you have in your house and you walk out the door, right?

You do research, you read articles, you watch videos on how to pack. You do online classes. You ask your friends. You get advice, you get educated. And maybe you go out on the trail with an expert and you ask questions. And the same thing should be happening with our sexuality. We should be educating ourselves. And fortunately, I got a great education at my college, but the majority of the population does not get a great sex education. And so we need to start educating ourselves on our own time and find classes and find articles.

And the most important thing I want to bring home is that we need to take away the stigma around getting help. Because just like everything else, we face challenges or we're not perfect. And sometimes we just need a third party to help us navigate through our relationships, our own individual sexuality. And that's why we have counselors and therapists and we shouldn't be afraid to utilize them.

Lisa: Mhmm. I enjoy your take on this and relating it to outdoors.

Natasha: Yeah, I think it could make things more fun if we just loosen up about it and look at it in a different perspective.

Lisa: Yes. Yeah, I think that's cool. Or like all the Jeremy Jones movies, like Deeper, Further, Higher, really all about exploration.

Natasha: [laughs] Absolutely.

Lisa: Cool. I think that's, I think that's awesome. I wasn't expecting our conversation to go this way. I definitely thought as a writer, you and I would be talking more about the power of words or, you know, more creative conversations around writing, but I think it is all kind of interconnected for you because to be a great writer, you have to be a great thinker.

Natasha: Yeah, absolutely. And I'm happy to talk more about the writing experience and the day to day and that kind of stuff too, if we, if we do have any time left.

Lisa: Yeah. What, I guess, what is something that I haven't asked you about? That's career-related or human life-related. What's something I haven't asked you about that you think our listeners would be interested in hearing?

Natasha: I would say... just like the writing process itself, I think a lot of people put these... kind of put things in a box. And I found this through trial and error. I did this to myself like, “Oh, I need a perfect desk that is under a window facing outside. And that's my writing space. And that's how I'm going to complete this book.” And what happened was, I actually went to New Zealand for my third trip and I wrote my book while I was volunteering at a ski field for three months. And I didn't even have a computer. I had a tablet that didn't work any longer and a Bluetooth keyboard. And so I actually wrote some of my book on a phone with a Bluetooth keyboard and then bought an iPad while in Australia. And I wrote most of my book in a bed that I shared in the room with my partner and a house with seven people who were strangers very recently. And I put a giant New Zealand Atlas on my lap and I put my tablet and my Bluetooth keyboard on top of that. And that was my desk.

And I learned a lot from that to not use the excuse of having a perfect space as why you're not writing. You don't need a perfect space. And, you know, you could say, even right now during our pandemic period is, “Oh, I'm not able to go into my coworking space or go to the coffee shop.”

You know, these are real challenges, but I seriously someday sit in like six different seats in my studio just to switch things up and trying not to let the constrictions of, “I must be at a desk with my computer and my ergonomic keyboard,” where in reality, I can sit on my bed with my tablet on my lap and bust out a thousand words. Because the most important thing is to write and just to get the words out. So I think that's, that's one really huge thing that I've found.

And another really fun thing. I know a lot of people have heard about NaNoWriMo, which is a writing challenge that happens in November typically. And I would say for anyone out there who likes things like this, that maybe works better with deadlines or challenges or competition, is to kind of create your own challenges.

And if you need to involve your friends, your support group, anyone who wants to see you be successful, bring them in. And you might be surprised. I actually did a challenge with myself to write a thousand words a day for 50 days. And I invited my friends to make bets with me and they got to choose what I would give to them if I did not achieve the goal and what they would give to me if I did achieve it. And I had 10 bets. And it was really fun and it was a really great way to stay accountable. And I definitely had some important pieces come out of that work.

So, yeah, I think just getting creative and not letting restrictions or ideas of what you need to have to be a writer is important, but it is definitely a challenging journey.

Lisa: Mhmm. Well, thank you so much for sharing your journey with us, or 36 minutes of your journey, really. And where can people follow you online? Where's the best place for them to get ahold of you?

Natasha: So my preferred place would definitely be to check out my website, which is And you can find me really anywhere, Instagram, Facebook, also Dirt and Tears. So @dirtandtears, either on Instagram or Facebook and you can email me at So that's D I R T A N D T E A R S. Wherever of those places.

Lisa: Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Natasha. This was really fun.

Natasha: Yeah, absolutely.

Iris: Thank you so much Natasha for joining us on the show. This was such a wonderful episode filled with personal insights and you're such a brilliant person. I can't wait for your book to come out.

To all our listeners, please, if you haven't already leave us a review in your podcast app, that helps us reach more listeners. Or if you're not the review type, you can send our podcast to a friend that you think might like to listen to the show.

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And with that, see you next week. Thanks for being here.

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