I've always gone to the woods to calm or rejuvenate a spirit too easily rubbed raw by modern life. It shouldn't have surprised me that this continued into chemotherapy. Cockeyed from surgery and early treatments for ovarian cancer, I thought I was too tired or too sick to feel alive in the woods, but found that even on my worst days it helps more than a whole array of blue and yellow pills.
A cancer diagnosis slices your life thin, puts death right in your face, while the systemic poison and illness over months of treatment goes against all sense. Butted against this, I walk along a piney trail near a crackling creek.
My dog gallops up and back, but always with one eye on me. He keeps closer than he used to. I try to stay under four miles total, or I'll have to lie down for a day or two. Sometimes, when I walk, there's a hint of sweat on my upper lip; sometimes there isn't.
These walks correspond directly to where I am in the three-week cycle of chemotherapy treatments, ranging from a short meditative stroll to genuine, breathless hikes. Despite the cumulative hangover, baldness, hot and cold flashes, numb feet, and the metallic flavor of my tongue, my doctors are stunned by my persistent health. Even so, a trace of chemo rises with each step, like a tendril of smoke from the ashes of my life.
Yesterday, I drove 15 slow miles up a rocky road to a campground bordered by a mile of torrential waterfalls. Today, I hike toward Blue Lake, high in the Crazy Mountains, north of Big Timber, Mont. I muse about the origin of "crazy" place names here and elsewhere in the West, how almost every one projects the legend of an early woman settler who went mad from abduction or isolation and loss, and yet was held in a certain reverence by both Indians and whites. Perhaps hundreds of women made that heartfelt leap into craziness, or perhaps only one. It doesn't matter if it's even true anymore, the myth has a life of its own.
I'll hike seven miles this day into the Crazy Mountains, with long rests in the sun, sitting on thick moss and smooth rock and guzzling purified water and ginger ale. My dog hugs my heels and I know I will pay later, but the beauty and exertion of today is a calculated choice and well worth it for me. Snowdrifts hug the shade as I traverse switchbacks of loose rocks, remembering my running days when I learned I could finish any distance just by putting one foot in front of the other. It doesn't matter how fast I go, or how slowly.
At last I crest the granite ridge, and there is a moment, a step, when my eyes are level with an unnamed alpine pond that rises over the edge of the trail. I stop and stare. Humped round with surface tension, the water quivers at eye-level, holding its shape like a drop of honey or mercury. But I know that it resembles a specific liquid I've seen. Then it comes to me: It looks like the gelatinous swirl of dissolved polyethylene glycol, a stool softener.
Suddenly I see with different eyes. Splintered pines become rows of enormous needles and a jumble of smooth boulders are newly bald heads. Despite red paintbrush and yellow daisies erupting from sheer rock walls, the deep, long crack that bisects the ridge becomes an endless cool hallway. My steps echo hollow as everything in my being rejects going forward, toward chemo session number three, four, five. And yet I have to choose life – my life.
The crack ends and the trail drops into a wide gorge, but I don't follow it. Not yet, anyway. Surrounded by perpendicular granite I step into a spot of cool sun and a high view of blue mountain layers. Across the gorge, white water spouts then avalanches into thick pine trees far below, leaving behind only a distant roar, me and the crazies.
Joanne Wilke is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is the author of the new book, Eight Women, Two Model Ts, and the American West; she lives in Bozeman, Montana.