My Sweet America

Hiking at Shenandoah National Park, Summer 2020. First national park hike after diagnosis.

I’d like to say Happy New Year and mean it.

I can’t, for a lot of different reasons, the least of which is that I have more cancer.

The least? Yes, really, that’s the way I feel. Like it’s low priority right now, maybe because I’ll be on a new medication soon that is probably going to work.

Yawn.

Huh?

Here’s what’s really bugging me: The state of our nation, the condition my sweet America is in right now. Yes, I’m taking this recent carnage in Washington, DC, personally. And the destruction caused by COVID19, too. Because me and America have a very intimate relationship, and now that I have a serious illness, there’s always that uncomfortable fact that my time is running out. I want to renew that love and I can’t, because of this devastating virus that so many aren’t taking seriously, and because, well, there’s some scary folks out there!

I am truly appalled at the latest news out of our nation’s capital. I was there years back after a nasty break up. One day, I did a ten mile loop that included many of the finest monuments. Another day, I took in the Capitol and the White House. The beautiful city held me in its noble arms as I sobbed and pined for long hoped-for love lost and took my mind off my many shortcomings. I want it there to go back to, for everyone to enjoy.

Our nation’s capitol, the way it should look

My love for America was not born out of flag waving and fist clenching, nor does it manifest itself as such. My relationship with her was nurtured by gripping her asphalt with four tires for thousands of miles, pounding her soil with hiking boots, and reveling in her natural mysteries that are slowly being dismantled. I’m very angry that narrow-minded, brainwashed individuals are carving messages in her sacred trees and believing that violence is the way to get what they want.

I’ve figured something out: these individuals will sacrifice treasured relationships to follow a man that could care less about them and will throw them under a moving bus the first chance he gets.

At Lassen Volcanic National Park, 2015

I’m not someone that seeks conflict. In fact, for the past four years I’ve stifled my opinion around certain friends and family to avoid just that. Four years? That’s a long time to keep quiet! Especially when these same friends and family are free as the proverbial bird to throw their views around whether anyone wants to hear them or not. But me? I have to bristle and keep my mouth shut so as not to incite them.

Well, guess what? I don’t care about that anymore. So here’s what I did.

Recently, I put three such relationships to the test by stating my opinion once. The data that follows from my experiment is not an exaggeration.

Relationship One: Ended in silence so deep that it lasted through my birthday, Christmas, New Years, and the bad news about my health, and is still going strong.

Relationship Two: Ended with “Have a nice life.” (Ironic, ya think?)

Relationship Three: Ended with a conspiracy theory and a claim that the deaths of 350,000 victims of COVID19 would have died of something else anyway.

To be fair, there was a fourth relationship involved that actually stood the test of my wrath. So there are some real human beings out there in nowhere land.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I just don’t know where we go from here. Unite under the new President? I wish we could. But the chance of that has been ruined by a bully that can’t lose or play fair. Some people have to screw things up for everyone if they don’t get their way. I have a lot more hope that I’ll keep winning against cancer than I do that My Sweet America will heal sometime soon.

Watkins Glen State park, New York

I came across a perfect quote today, courtesy of Isaac Asimov: “When stupidity is considered patriotism, it is unsafe to be intelligent.”

Nevertheless, I’m dreaming of those four wheels on the payment. My soles in the soil. No mask on my face. And cancer not getting the best of me. That’s enough to ask for already, without hoping that others wake up, pay attention to what they’re doing, and seek a voice of reason instead of the battle cry of a madman.

There’s no pride in destruction, in acting on a lie bigger than any we’ve ever known. The world is watching us fall apart. Some are laughing, some are grimacing. But everyone saw it coming. It was the only end to this monotonous tale of greed, falsehood, and insanity.

Look at what we have become in the past four years, and please, let’s get back to the way we used to be before this nightmare happened. We weren’t perfect but let’s face it, anything is better than THIS.

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

The Glory of Aging

I hereby promise that this is the last opinion piece I’ll be writing. One of my upcoming New Year’s resolutions is to focus my blog on hiking, traveling, and all the other activities that make me the New Face of Surviving Cancer. So, if you would be so kind to listen one more time, I’ll get on to that stuff soon enough.

Still, this kind of fits, in its own crazy way.

As I reach my fifty-fourth birthday this day, I’m reveling in the glory of aging, because, you see, I really wasn’t supposed to be granted a fifty-fourth birthday. No, at the end of 2019, months before COVID19, I was faced with the very real possibility that I would never see the end of 2020, maybe not even the end of 2019.

For reasons I’ve blathered heartily about (lung cancer…shhhh!) I’m supposed to be, well, um, dead. But here I am, still chipping away at my allotted number of lives (ever been on a burning DC-10? I have) which must be in the triple-digits, (how many times have I been around the world alone?) or I’m just living on borrowed time, as it sometimes seems now.

Man, I’ve had a good life. I have a good life. Even after cancer, and so much loss, and so much heartache, I can still say that. How?

I have nothing left to prove. Oh, I still want to travel the world, and experience true and lasting love, and hike the other thirty national parks that I haven’t done yet, and write a bestselling memoir. But I’ve stopped worrying about many of the things I used to cringe over.

Aging is a biggie. I have a whole new perspective. Getting old, my friends, is a privilege. I’ve always respected the elderly. Now, even more. I want the privilege of being one of them. And I’m going to enjoy every step of the journey until then with my fingers crossed and my upper body in a PET scanner.

You think I care about bikinis? The wisdom of Kylie Jenner? How much cash you have in your wallet? How much your car costs? To me, Coachella is the name of a nowhere town in my beloved Mojave, not a festival where the youthful and stupid compete for social media attention. I don’t envy the young, who will never know what it’s like to be able to trust people they’ve never met, or play in the woods with reckless abandon.

The other night a wonderful friend of mine came to deliver presents, and took a picture of us using a filter, to show me how it worked. I was horrified to see my face look so different. But to some, this is the norm, because it’s easier to look fake than look like you. I can’t even relate.

I love talking to people older than me. Walking in the local cemeteries, I always meet someone with interesting stories to tell. I’d much prefer to hear real life tales told by an authentic person than the overblown fiction of a “sophisticated” twentysomething. In fact, I have every intention of buying property in a 55+ community the second I’m old enough. You couldn’t talk me out of it if you tried. And hey, I’ll be the youngest one there! Beat that!

I don’t want to overstay my welcome. Give me eighty or eighty-five years and I’ll be happy. Very happy. That will give me plenty of time to finish up my earthly business. Anything more than that and I’ll start to be a burden. To some, I’m already a burden. Why be more of one than I already am, right? That should be our real goal: strive to live a full and fruitful life, but check out before we become a liability.

The elderly are often looked upon as just that. The jokes about the old couple driving around in the RV are tacky. They earned their retirement through working for forty years. And you? Wrinkles are looked down upon as if we aren’t all going to get them. Remember, some of those folks saw Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, or fought in Vietnam. How’s that for life experience? Some of them beat cancer in the days when the treatment options were even more archaic than they are today. They traveled and made love and got high and experienced sadness and fear and devastation. They lived through epidemics and pandemics. We didn’t invent that stuff. They had it down pat long before we came along.

As for me, I’ve bought me some time, such a priceless purchase, and hope to keep on buying it, an installment loan like no other. If I get my way, cancer will turn out to be something that touched my life “thirty years ago,” that I’ll look back on with a shake of my head, a lilting sigh, and a wry smile. That I made it through to bask in the privilege of old age. I’m a year into it already! Only twenty-nine to go!

Merry Christmas. See you in 2021!

**********

What A Teacher Knows

I don’t talk too much about my “real life” as a teacher, but this seems like an appropriate time to do so. I have important information to share, so listen up. As a sixteen year veteran of the classroom, I know a thing or two about what it means to be a bully. These behaviors don’t necessarily go away once the child leaves the playpen, the sandbox, or the classroom. In fact, they may never go away if serious action isn’t taken. Perhaps these behaviors will someday effect hundreds, or thousands, or even millions of people. Isn’t that frightening? And perhaps hundreds, or thousands, or even millions of people will think that this is an acceptable way to act. Even more frightening.

Bullies come in all shapes, sizes, and ages. Someone doesn’t have to be physically big or powerful to be a bully, but sometimes they are. They can have good clothes, or bad. Good hair, or horrid. Some are wealthy, some are poor. A line that comes to mind is from a Billy Joel song: “You can’t dress trash until you spend a lot of money.” Maybe someone said it before Billy. This is not the point of this paragraph. The point is that bullies aren’t always bedraggled; sometimes, they’re rich garbage.

Bullies aren’t always male, but for this post, if I may, I will refer to our bully as “he” for convenience and lack of a better term. Here is more of what a teacher knows about the typical bully:

He pretends to care about his underlings and supporters, but only truly cares about number one.

He ruins things for others, regardless of the cost.

He can’t take “no,” “leave me alone,” or “go away,” for an answer.

He is used to winning everything in life, by hook or by crook, and thus is a sore, sore loser.

He fabricates things in an attempt to get his own way. These fabrications can incite others to run to his side in fear of retaliation, because they know that the bully doesn’t really care how faithful people have been to him. He only likes them until they stop agreeing with him. Once that happens, watch out below. He attempts to ruin lives. Beware, and hope you can somehow survive his wrath.

When pressed for proof, a bully (and those that stick close) often chooses to change the subject. Or he just keeps lying and making people believe him, because he knows the power he has over his underlings.

Rather than admit defeat, a bully will charge ahead and make himself and those cheering him on look like buffoons in place of accepting the truth, thus displaying his many weaknesses.

A bully, most of all, picks on those he perceives as weaker than he. He will resort to name calling, and because he is such a supreme narcissist, he doesn’t know to draw the line if someone has lost a loved one to a devastating fate, or even if a person is sick and dying. The bully doesn’t have limits, because he is uncouth and hasn’t earned anything for himself without lying and cheating others.

Lo and behold, if the perceived “weaker” individual rises up to be the stronger one, a long, dark winter lies ahead.

Be careful not to fall under the spell of the bully. He’ll stop at nothing to get his way.

Ignore him if you can. Nothing hurts him more than that. The bully thrives on negative attention or really, any attention.

Sound familiar?

Thought so.

To Travel or Not to Travel? That is the Question

By the time this reaches the general public, I’ll be on an airplane going to see my niece in South Carolina. Yeah, all things considered, it’s a big decision to fly through the COVID19 storm with a “serious underlying illness,” better known to me as “lung cancer.” It’s also a choice that many people have to make as we kick off this holiday season.

To travel or not to travel? To see loved ones or not see them? Everyone’s answer is different for a variety of reasons.

As I write this I have three trips on the horizon of varying lengths, and I’ll make my choice to sink or swim a week before I go. I never seriously considered cancelling this particular trip, because I deem it a fairly low risk for me. The actual flying time each way is less than three hours. I’ll be in close contact with two other people and three dogs when I arrive. I’ll be there for three and a half days. And I’ll schedule a COVID test for the day after I get back, per the rules of reentering my state.

I’m a little nervous, as I’ve fought so hard to stay healthy. One jerk on an airplane that wants to whine about wearing a mask, and the whole “it’ll be alright” plan goes out the window. With cases skyrocketing, it sure would seem that these people would cease to play games. And yet it isn’t too hard to find still another story of someone who is just too good for a face covering. Someone who has to have some silly little moment of rebellion. Maybe the same guy or gal who is running through a red light or a stop sign to save thirty seconds of their life by putting someone else’s in danger? Please folks, don’t let it be you. In the words of the late, great James Dean (who died in a fiery car crash less than a year later) “The life you’re saving could be mine.”

Want to be a rebel? Jump out of an airplane. Don’t infect everyone in it before you dive.

So, here’s my plan: Stare straight ahead. Mouth and nose covered at all times. Wash hands often. Don’t accept any food or drink from the person walking down the aisle in the polyester uniform. And pray some yahoo doesn’t come along and start a fight like the ones all over YouTube. Don’t hate me if I’m not friendly or if you, midflight, decide that the plane isn’t going to return to the station so you let your mouth hang out and I decide to be a Karen. All I want is to safely see my beloved Amanda and eat turkey and Chinese food and put up her Christmas tree. Let’s all play it cool, okay?

Things are going to get better soon than later. We’ve got this!

Happy Thanksgiving.

About Those Cancer Posts

My next post was supposed to be about a couple of cool hikes that I’ve recently done, but I saw something on Facebook that put me over the edge and I need to have my say about it.

Listen, I know that you’d rather me blog about hiking than cancer. And yeah, I’d rather be blogging about hiking than cancer. I’d rather be doing just about anything than talking about and worrying about and reading about cancer, but here I am, about to write yet another post about, you guessed it, CANCER.

Why? Well, let me explain.

Cancer sucks, if you don’t already know that. I hope you don’t. I hope it has never touched your life. If it hasn’t, you’re in the minority. So many people I know have lost mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, husbands, wives, and children to this beast that nearly took me a year ago. This monster took my sister five years ago. It’s horrible. I have first and second hand experience at cancer.

And guess what? I’m sick of it. I’m especially sick of people who don’t have cancer going on cancer sites and making comments about how “Big Pharma” is withholding a cure, and how CBD oil made their father’s cancer go away forever. Both are major myths, both are words that no one with cancer wants to hear. So stop saying them. I also love the ones about green vegetables and green tea being the answer to everything. Sure, good luck with that. (When your cancer disappears because of iceberg lettuce, let me know, okay?) But none of these examples are what really got under my skin a few days ago. Here’s what did me in: one of those “copy and paste, don’t share” posts that run rampant on Facebook. Now is when I would normally say, “Don’t get me started on that,” but it’s too late, the damage is already done.

First of all, who writes these things? I want that job, and I want to get paid well for it. Because I can write from experience and compose something better, more truthful, and more accurate than whomever is putting this shit out, particularly about the subject at hand. Furthermore, some of my friends that post these things write better than that, but they repost this crap anyway. Not only have I learned things about cancer that I never wanted to know from these stupid posts, but I’ve also been hit in the face about how I need to curb my jealousy when a twenty year old woman with a beautiful body walks by, because I once looked like that, so I need to get over my desire to wring her pretty neck. Only I don’t want to wring the neck of the pretty twenty year old woman because, cancer and all, I don’t want to be anyone but me. I honestly don’t want to be her. Facebook is mistaken, and so is the loser who wrote the viral nonsense.

But, I digress. The “copy and paste, don’t share” post that has me frantically punching the keys of my computer was all about cancer treatment and was meant to honor me as a “warrior,” in my “battle” against chemo and radiation. The offending words remind me that after chemo, I will never be the same again, may never even feel “alive” again. My immune system will be ruined, and so will most of my relationships, because of the damage done by treatment used to “fight the nastation.” (Ooooh, that little red line under “nastation” is telling me that some smarty pants is making up fancy words for Facebook! Don’t get me started on that!) In short, my life is going to suck royally because of cancer, “a very aggressive and destructive enemy of our bodies.” OUR bodies? Is the writer as well as the Facebook user that’s so busy copying and pasting trying to imply that they also have cancer? Because if that’s so, said person better get researching, because he/she/they/ whoever they are, are way off.

First of all, thanks for reminding me that I’m never going to be the same. As if I need anyone telling me that as I struggle to get “me” back after my life was turned upside down. Secondly, before you EVER post such hoo-ha, realize this: the combination of traditional chemo and radiation will eventually become a thing of the past, and in many cases, they already HAVE. Thousands of cancer patients have infusions of immunotherapy or take pills to kill the disease. I didn’t need chemo. And radiation for me was a CHOICE I made because it has made a cure more likely for me. I walked five miles a day daily while I had radiation, not because I was trying to show off or prove something, but because I COULD. I rocked radiation, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

I know these posts mean well, as do the individuals hitting the handy little “copy” button. But they’re also extremely negative and uninformed. There is enough misinformation out there about cancer. The real truth is that cancer is an individual journey, not a one size fits all. Some people aren’t going to do well, others are going to beat it. I’ve known many of the former. I’m one of the latter. And in response to everyone out there frantically spreading the nonsense and giving advice about green vegetables and CBD oil and lifting the middle finger to “Big Pharma,” I’m intentionally littering this post with photos of me loving life even as I give cancer the boot. Every single picture here was taken after my diagnosis.

Copy and paste THAT.

New England Kaleidoscope

Whoa! It’s been three weeks since my last post! Never fails that I get caught up in foliage season and abandon most other pursuits. Like life itself, foliage is fleeting. You have to get it while it’s hot. And let me tell you, it was smokin’ hot this year.

So you see, something has gone right in 2020. New England foliage! Take that, COVID19!

Well, let me eat a little crow. The leaves changed early this go-round, so it was a bit of a confusing leaf peeping season even for me, a pro tree gawker. I booked myself a room in the White Mountains of New Hampshire for October 10th, 11th, and 12th, thinking myself very smooth indeed, picturing the glorious hiking I would do, and what happens? The foliage “peaks” the weekend before! Not only that, but at home, the foliage was making my jaw hit the steering wheel as I was driving north out of it! I strongly considered weaseling out of my reservation in North Woodstock and hiking at home, but with a five-day cancellation policy, it would have cost me as much to sleep in my own bed as it would have to go. With a weather report going south quickly (as I’ve seen happen a few times in the White Mountains!), I sucked it up and made the drive, figuring that at the very worst I’d catch up on my writing and my sleep instead of hiking.

And guess what? I ended up having incredible weather all weekend other than a massive storm that rolled in on Saturday night and closed down the town after I was already tucked away for the night, the foliage was still fantastic, and I caught up on my sleep and my writing! Four points for me. Oh, should I mention that it rained at home for most of the weekend?

Hiking through foliage really does remind me of being in a kaleidoscope. I’m talking about those cheap cardboard ones where you stick one eye in a hole and turn the end of it and watch tiny fragments of color changing form in a pattern that delights the senses. Just one shake of the trees from a wayward breeze adds to the kaleidoscope effect. The real thing is better than anything Photoshop could produce. I still think that taking a great foliage picture is the toughest job in photography, at least for me.

Some of the best foliage I encountered was at little stops on the side of the road that most people were whizzing by to get to the tried and true “views.” Not complaining, because I was headed there, too! But why not check out stuff that others miss because they’re in such a hurry? The world offers some hidden gems, “good things for those who wait,” and foliage is no different.

Like most things worth seeing, foliage takes something we Americans don’t have a lot of: time. It takes time for the leaves to change. It takes time to seek out the best spots. But what a reward!

I run around like a chicken with my head cut off for about three weeks. This year, the chicken sewed her head back on earlier this week. There comes a point when I tell myself that it’s time to stop chasing and just enjoy the rest of the leaves, because what comes after is the death of New England for almost half a year, until renewal comes with the joy of spring. I rest my case and drink in the remainder of color before dull November takes control. The beauty is hanging on longer than usual this year. I hope I follow suit.

I end this post with a special shout out to Amanda, my beautiful and strong niece down in South Carolina: HAPPY BIRTHDAY! I LOVE YOU!

The Story of A Forgotten Boy

The singular grave of 7,500 that was left behind when the Quabbin Reservoir was created in Massachusetts.

If you look hard enough, you’ll find that the world is still a mysterious place, with lots of hidden gems that can be discovered with a little bit of perseverance. Back when my mom and me used to road trip together, in the days when people read newspapers and cut things out of them that were interesting, she would get her scissors out and I’d get the keys to my car ready. We would go looking for oddities that journalists would write about, sometimes driving for hundreds of miles, even on overnight trips. An Eskimo boy in the Great North Woods of New Hampshire, ghost towns in the American West, a celebration of Marilyn Monroe’s life at her gravesite in Westwood, California. Occasionally, after Mom passed in 2004, I’d still come across something interesting online and would seek it out, but it wasn’t quite the same without her.

About a month ago, I decided to go on a wild goose chase for the grave of a six year old boy named Wendell Farnsworth. Little is known about Wendell, but the story of how he was forgotten deep in the woods is better documented.

Quabbin Reservoir, the largest body of water in Massachusetts, is a man made wonder in the center of the state and with an incredible history. In the 1930s, four towns were destroyed to create the reservoir, which would satisfy the demands for water in Boston. Any map from the era will show the hamlets of Dana, Prescott, Enfield, and Greenwich. Contrary to popular belief, the “lost” towns are not all “underwater.” Quabbin is my second home, and with COVID19 changing the way we all had to do business, I spent more time than ever this summer exploring the old roads and cellar holes and mysteries of the disincorporated towns.

One mystery I never solved was the discovery of Wendell’s grave, though I’ve known about it for years. The story goes that when the towns were flooded, close to 7,500 graves had to be relocated to Quabbin Park Cemetery in Belchertown, Massachusetts. A lone grave was left behind, high on a ridge behind a farmhouse that is no longer a farmhouse. The forgotten grave was not discovered until several decades later, by a hiker who alerted local historians, most of whom didn’t believe the tale.

It isn’t easy to get information about Wendell. In fact, I had two different maps that told me he was in two different places, as well as three different GPS coordinates that were miles apart. Leave it to me to pick the wrong one to follow on my first serious foray into locating the legendary grave!

So there I was on Tampling Road, with a map and coordinates provided by a fellow hiker, who published a blog about finding Wendell. I’ve been to this area of Quabbin a million times and was titillated to find out that Tampling Road held something interesting, as I had hiked it before and had seen a whole lot of absolutely nothing! The hiker’s advice, which I was following closely, led me to a nondescript area of what used to be a town road in the defunct Dana, Massachusetts. Other descriptions I’d found said that the grave was two miles from the entrance gate. According to my map, I needed to go about a half mile from what used to be the center of Dana, on Tampling Road, and head into the woods before the only sharp turn of the road. The coordinates soon had me bushwhacking in thick blown down trees from the last major storm we had here, the tail end of hurricane Isaias. Dropping “pins” here, there, and everywhere, my phone battery was taking a hit, too. As I searched, I had the worst crash I’ve had in a while, my foot getting stuck between branches. Down I went, pitching forward, as I tried to navigate on my phone, which flew out of my hand as my skin tore! Really rather comical when you think about it (and visualize it!) but not so great when you have to walk around all bloody for a week and have people staring at you like you did yourself in on purpose!

After a couple hours more of frustrating searching, my interactive map told me that I was right in front of the grave. But I wasn’t right in front of it. In fact, the grave wasn’t anywhere to be seen, and I was convinced that maybe I needed to suspend my search until fall, when there was less vegetation to deal with. The biggest stumper was the “high ridge” the grave was supposed to be on. No high ridge was to be found on Tampling Road. I dragged back to my car after putting on nine miles, mostly walking in circles.

As someone who has spent her life finding things, I hate NOT finding things.

The following day I reviewed all the information available, looked at dates that the articles or blogs were posted. The most recent visit to the grave was made by the guy whose map of Tampling Road I had used. I saw on his blog that someone had just written to him about Wendell’s grave a few days before. Doubting that the man would get back to me, I left a message for him anyway, disappointment making my craw ache. It was really my only hope of finding what I was calling “the needle in the haystack.”

Sunday morning, the day after my “epic fail,” as I referred to it on social media. Visiting with my sisters and telling them the story of Wendell Farnsworth. I decided to check to see if the blogger answered my inquiry…And he did! With apologies for posting the wrong map and succinct directions to the grave. The fighting spirit rose inside of me. I had to get back there!

I couldn’t return that day, but I carved some time on Monday afternoon before it got dark. As I walked at a vigorous pace, knowing precisely what area I was going to, I envisioned how exciting it would be to find the needle in the haystack. Several friends on social media cheered me on, waiting patiently for a victory post. “After Dana Common, follow Dana Road to the ponds, and take the first right into the woods.” That was the easy part. The tough part was finding what the blogger described as an “area where there would have been a barn on the right and a house on the left.” He had given an approximate length of measurement to get there, but it turned out to be further. Frustration was setting in again, especially since it was already late afternoon and time was of the essence. My phone was fully charged this time, and I started dropping pins again. The coordinates showed that I was on to something.

Massachusetts probably doesn’t sound like a place you would go if you want to find yourself in the middle of nowhere, but I’ve been there many times in my home state. It’s not the same kind of “nowhere” as, say, the Mojave Desert, but close enough. And I was there now. Just me and a wayward porcupine. To my left I definitely saw some crude trails that basically went nowhere, and a hill that maybe could be called a “ridge.” But there was no way I could picture this place where the pins started to make sense as the former site of a house with a barn on the other side of the road.

Yet the pins were right on. So I started making circles again in thick ferns on those animal trails. They just ended in more ferns. I abandoned the trails and started climbing hills. I was getting further away. I went back to the road a couple of times. Back to the original plan. The taste of another defeat rose again in my throat as a lump. Soon I would have to go to get back to my car before dark. One more try.

Hit the animal trail. Wait, is that another one not noticed before, heading up the hill, between wilting ferns? Maybe. Up I went. Yes, it was a trail. It was taking me somewhere. Up to a clearing. Up to a ridge. Up to…

The curve of a narrow stone that my eyes had been keening to see for three weary days, that I had been wondering about for years…

I started to tear up, feeling like I knew this little fellow by now.

Wendell. On a ridge, the stone facing away from what used to be the home built by his parents, John and Sarah. I was incredulous to be there, though sad that I had so little time left to spend with Wendell on that lonely but peace-filled ridge. Like many graves I’ve found, Wendell’s resting place was respectfully honored with gifts from the few people who were tenacious enough to seek it. I sat and pondered my discovery as long as I could, pushing the boundaries of daylight. This was not where I wanted to be in the dark, alone!

As of today, I have not been back, but foliage time is nearly here, and now that I know where I’m going, I’ll soon return to spend more time with Wendell!

Meanwhile, I’m looking for my next challenge!

Get Your Road Trip On

You know what I think is kind of funny? That Americans are suddenly “rediscovering domestic travel.” Umm…What? Well, it really shouldn’t surprise me, with “influencers” (ugh, I strongly dislike that term) all over social media blasting the human race with professional selfies in front of picture-perfect settings eight thousand miles away and telling us, “You can be like meeeeee! Just read my blog and I’ll teach you how!” One has been traveling for seven years, waitressing in Thailand in order to spend several months there, another one is teaching English in Hong Kong so he can afford to live there. Now, they’re all home trying not to lose followers and stay relevant while we, the rest of the world, stick closer to our own backyards. What is it about some people that think the further away they are, the better?

I know, I know, I’m one to talk! Until cancer almost took my life and COVID19 followed, I was running around the globe every chance I got. But I never, ever pushed domestic travel aside. In fact, there’s still nothing better for me than a road trip in my beloved American West! I didn’t get there this summer because of the virus, but I still had me a nice drive to South Carolina. I have not been out of the country since last summer. Do I miss it? Yes. But what I yearn for most are my hiking trips to Southern Utah and several other closer to home destinations. The wonder of domestic destinations was never lost on me!

Here are three ways to enjoy America, still the greatest and most beautiful country in the world in my eyes!

The Full Road Trip

What the heck is a “full road trip?” Well, if you’ve spent years behind the wheel like me, the “full road trip” is when you drive your own vehicle from your own house and go a long, long way. You can probably guess that these are the gold standard. I’ve done several of them, and the fact that I live in Massachusetts makes for some major drives if I want to get to my favorite places in the west. How long do you need to do a bang up job of seeing America? If you’re really lucky you have all the time and money in the world and you don’t ever have to go home. If you’re like me and most of the rest of humanity, you’re on a budget and you might actually have a job you have to get back to. My advice is to take a minimum of four weeks to have a decent trip in. For me, the perfect time is five to six weeks, though my longest road trip to date was seven weeks. Understand that you aren’t going to see “everything,” so start making your wish list of most coveted sights and connect the dots if you can. The worst thing you could do is try to stuff too many sights into too little time. Better to see a few things well than many things hardly at all, though not everyone will agree with me. Add in some hiking, and your time in one place gets even longer. To me, driving too much in a day is also a major sin. It’s stressful and you don’t see anything. Don’t be one of those road trippers that rolls down the window to take a picture of the Grand Canyon then rolls it up and drives on. Please?

The Fly/Drive

I fully realize that when some people read “a minimum of four weeks” above, they started gasping for air. For those folks, I introduce “the Fly/Drive,” the type of domestic trip that I have taken too many times to count at this point. The Fly/Drive is just what is sounds like: You get on a plane and fly to a starting point, where you rent a car or RV. The trick is to start from a convenient location to what you want to see most. Las Vegas is a terrific place to start. I’ve also grown very attached to Albuquerque as “go.” I guess my love for the west continues to shine through! Then again, I’ve had fantastic Fly/Drives from Miami, El Paso, and Seattle. I suggest at least two weeks even if you’re road tripping this way, though I usually do three. Once again, it’s all about what and how much you want to see. I highly recommend checking air and car prices from different cities. A few years back I rerouted an entire trip because Salt Lake City offers were much better than Denver’s. The Fly/Drive allows you to skip over some parts of the country you might not be as interested in and get to your personal nitty-gritty!

City Slicking

I don’t usually include cities in my road trips, and if I do, it’s pretty quick. Maybe an overnight to break up a long drive, or a special museum or show. What I have done is jet to a city just to see the city. I can remember flying in and out of Chicago numerous times and thinking, Someday I’m going to fly into Chicago just to see Chicago. And I did, and was thrilled with what I found! Some cities are car friendlier, like Dallas, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. Others, like Chicago, Boston, Washington D.C., and New York, have excellent public transportation systems that will add some extra adventure to your trip. One of my more memorable city trips was to Dallas to do my own investigation into the JFK assassination. In these uncertain times we live in, you will obviously want to call ahead and be sure that you aren’t planning a trip around something that is closed. Even so, filling your day pack and pounding the city pavement can uncover some hidden gems that make lasting memories!

Hmm…I’m getting inspired to get back to writing that little book I started last year, “How to Road Trip.” I’m even more inspired to plan my next Southwestern Fly/Drive!

Season of Struggle

Well, here we are again. September. The last weeks of summer. Here in New England, a lot of locals are getting ready for what they hope will be a colorful and fabulous leaf peeping season full of apple cider and crisp breezes. But not this local.

This particular local has a dull ache in her stomach that she can’t get rid of as she watches the summer wane. Because this time of the year always reminds her of loss. This time around, even tougher.

In October of 2019 I nearly lost my life to cancer. I was on my way out, on a slow, painful boat motored by metastatic lung cancer, the deadliest bitch of all. But long before that, autumn was the season of the loss of my beloved mother, and that hurt has never quite gone away. Now, added to that is the fear, the trepidation of moving forward, lest I be forced to take several steps back again. I’ve lost a year of my life to the scoundrel nicknamed “the Big C.” Maybe there will be more? No please, no more.

Even before the loss of Mom, the loss of the season of the sun was a shock to the system of this self-proclaimed summer girl. Even as a teenager the question loomed, How many more of these days of sunshine do I have? It sucks sometimes to be human. I want a million more summers. And while we’re at it, why do I have to get old? Because summer was made for youth. Just ask Instagram.

I have a triple whammy on my hands now: cancer, mourning my dear mother, and the retreat of summer. Wait, make that a quadruple whammy, because this is the season I also have to return to the stress of teaching after a mostly carefree summer. That is, if a summer that includes the kind of radiation that happens in a cancer clinic, and not just the kind that takes place on a flat stretch of glorious white beach, can be called “carefree.” If the duration of nine lazy weeks includes long trips on airplanes to exotic locales on the other side of the world and isn’t cancelled by a pandemic. None of that and all of that happened for me this year. It was a good and productive summer, make no mistake, but it wasn’t what I planned. Add to that the fear that…Oh, never mind. You get it.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m doing well. Chances are excellent that I’ve beat cancer. I’m not terminal. Yes, there will likely be many more summers for me if my luck holds out. That is a big IF that I’ll live with…as long as I live. Such is the plight of the individual who survives a life-threatening illness. No one really understands, unless they’ve lived it…and almost died by it. You, whose life has not changed one iota in the last year/five years/ten years, don’t pretend you do. You’re forgiven for your ignorance, as long as you don’t try to pretend you know what it’s like. Someday, you may just have to walk a mile in my shoes. But I hope to hell not. It’s only for the strong.

If you’re me or someone like me, questions will be swirling in your mind as the sunshine cools and the earth dies: Why me? Why did I survive and others didn’t? Do I deserve this? Do I deserve cancer? If so, why? What did I do? If I didn’t, why did I get it? And what am I supposed to take away from it? Wow, I have some blogging to do.

Cancer may be over for you looking in, but it isn’t over for me. I’ve got all of October to think about that now.

Sometimes, as I recently shared with my most trusted family member, when the ugliness of life and humanity closes in, an even more painful question pushes through: Should I have died and escaped it all?

Escape never sounds interesting for very long, because I’m not a quitter and I don’t hide from adversity. I’m also not a liar or a genius or a perfect specimen. I allow myself my faults when others don’t. Come to think of it, I allow others their faults when they don’t allow me mine. Which brings up more demands: What is my worth? My worth in being here? Some would have me believe I have none: I’m worthless because I don’t agree with everything they say, because I don’t play by their rules. I must banish these thoughts. I’ll have all of November to quiet them.

That’s when the autumn sun splashes out from a floating cloud and I get my shit (and my hiking poles) together and remember that I fought this fight to win for a reason: I love life. That’s the rub. I fucking love life. This life. My life. The only one I have. The one that some have tried to sum up in three words or less even though they’ve never taken the time to find out who I really am. There ain’t no one out there that is allowed to bring this girl down for very long, not even Mother October, the worst month in the history of me.

Pass me my boots, please?

My life has come full circle, regardless of a season or a virus, or a disease. So, fuck cancer. Fuck COVID19. I’m going to New York, my sparkling Big Apple. And the White Mountains. And South Carolina. And California. And I’m getting Global Entry for when it’s really time to travel again. I’m living my life as I see fit. I’m making my feelings be known. It ain’t all about you and what you want. It’s about me, too. And baby, when you achieve the improbable, it isn’t so easy to forget. Who wants to forget,anyway? Not me, not until I’m good and ready. Until then, I’ll shout it from the mountain tops until I drive you mad. Cancer, cancer, cancer. I survived fucking cancer. I survived the death of my best friend, my traveling companion, my mother. I held my sister’s hand while she died of the same disease one mind numbing January. I saw my father breathing his last breaths one raw February when I was ten. And I’m still standing. And smiling.

And even better, spring is one day closer.

A Different Kind of Summer

Hey, how was your summer? Okay, I know, it’s not over yet! But if you’re a teacher like me…Well, yeah, it kind of is over. Believe me, I can’t wait to retire so I can rethink summer and make it last until September 21st!

Kids and adults are returning to schools that look a lot different than usual. For me, I’ll be teaching over a computer until at least November. But COVID19 is hardly the first thing that rocked this teacher’s world and changed the way I had to look at it. Cancer did that first, then the virus extended the weirdness for me. In fact, I was set to put my traveling life completely back on track this summer after being blessed with an amazing medical team and treatment at a major cancer center. The corona virus stopped me in my tracks, like it did for so many others who had to give up hoped-for plans and stay put instead. I still had a very busy summer in which I accomplished three major things: I got back on the road, saw my beloved niece Amanda again, and with any luck, killed the rest of cancer. Though it was hardly my typical summer, it could ultimately turn out to be the most important one of my life.

The necessity to alter my schedule opened up some compelling opportunities for me, and gave me more time to remember how necessary it is to make time for simple pleasures like taking a ride with the top down on my Bug, hitting the trails with new and old friends, hanging out with animals wild and tame, and exploring my own backyard. Yet, I was still clinging to the possibility of road tripping through the Mojave Desert, Northern California, and Oregon. I was not able to confirm any major plans until after a scheduled scan. This time, it was my post-radiation PET scan in June, which would tell how effective the treatment to the primary tumor in my lung was. It wouldn’t be so wrong to say that my life depended on the outcome. Miraculously, the CT was nearly clear. Just one more small area of cancer, but it would require three more weeks of radiation. Which decided the course of my time off: I would spend two weeks on the road, with most of it in South Carolina with Amanda, then return home to spend three weeks in Boston eradicating cancer. Never have I ever booked hotels two days before heading out on the road! But that’s how tight things were between my scan and the beginning of my plans further from home.

Anyone who knows me or follows me on social media knows that one of my major fun goals is to hike all the national parks in the United States. That dream really got derailed by cancer, but I got the idea to take a couple of days to finish a park that narrowly missed getting taken off the list because of car problems a few years back: Shenandoah, in Virginia. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, always a favorite Eastern Seaboard stop when my mom and I used to road trip, also appeared on my schedule. Now I was more excited than ever! Get back to national park hiking, see an old favorite again, and spend a week with my niece. Sign me up! I also promised myself that I’d make the most of my time in Boston while I was there for radiation.

Well, check them all off the list! I left on June 29th for a 400 miler to Gettysburg, where I spent a few evening hours exploring a fascinating historic town I don’t remember at all but was happy to see again. What I was really looking forward to came the next morning: Gettysburg National Military Park, a must-see of lifelike statues that tell the story of the winners as well as the losers of the Civil War. I found it very important to see the park again, with all that is going on in our country and the questioning of our history.

The weather got more humid as I headed south, but that didn’t stop me from walking several miles in the park. After a morning of exploring, I drove to Virginia for the evening. The following day, July 1st, I arrived in a tiny town in South Carolina to get a whole lot of niece love and dog love, and to have Thanksgiving dinner in July! I was supposed to be there last turkey day, but cancer had other plans for me. It was well worth the wait!

Amanda ran her crabby old aunt all over the area of South Carolina that falls between “the Greens,” Greenville and Greenwood. Our new tradition is bowling, our old one is Chinese food, but we can’t ever get away without going to Walmart! I’ve never stayed for a full week, so I got a better taste of her life and met more of her friends, too! A favorite memory is the full attention I got from Miss Shelby, Jax, and Chevelle, her three fur babies!

As always, leaving them and her behind was tough, but radiation in Boston was looming, and I still had a national park to finish!

After missing out on so much of my life for the past year because of cancer and COVID19, this view at Shenandoah was nothing short of SURREAL! I never thought that I would hike a national park again, much less do it so soon after a devastating diagnosis that was supposed to have a much different outcome. And yes, my emotions got the best of me as I looked out at the gentle, comforting sway of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Moment of silence.

Back home, I had a quick turnaround before I left for Boston. I pulled in the yard at five in the afternoon on a Sunday, and headed to Beantown at ten the next morning for an early afternoon inaugural radiation session. First, I had to haul all my clothes and food into my room at Homewood Suites! I did this three Mondays in a row after driving home every weekend. Really tried to make my stay like a vacation. If it wasn’t for that damn radiation I may have been content! Oh wait…that’s the only reason I was there!

Boston is a lovely city, and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute is in the Longwood section of Brookline, where stunning Victorian homes line the leafy back streets, making for pleasurable city walking. I took the MBTA into town a couple of times too, and enjoyed old and new favorites, but Boston will always mean something different to me now that I’ve been there so many times for cancer.

I was so thankful to get home after my last treatment, with my radiation mask in tow! Muffin, who was an orphaned bunny being taken care of by his fairy godmother (my sister Marie!) was truly the only living thing I wanted to see after being away from home for five weeks.

I still had almost four weeks to get my life back on track after the big interruption of radiation, and was soon back on my five mile a day walking schedule, taking extra precautions to protect my post-radiation skin from the sun.

Deep breath.

My summer was still full of fun and adventure. Because there’s more than one kind of adventure!

Maybe next summer we can all get back to normal. What do you think? I’m skeptical, but hopeful too.

Please do your part, wear your mask and remember to social distance so that we can all return to doing what we love doing best as soon and as safely as possible.