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

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!

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.