In 2016 the biggest issue I had to deal with off the trail was finding the right treatment for prostate cancer. According to doctors it had gone into my lymph nodes. Another doctor said it was also in my bones. He recommended chemotherapy. At first I thought it was a death sentence. I didn’t mind the idea of dying, but I had seen someone go out on a morphine drip and I didn’t want to die that way. I always admired what I heard about elephants. If left alone they go off in the woods away from the other elephants and die.
The doctors were confusing to me. They all said something different, and it seemed to me they were competing for my business. My main doctor referred me to a urologist who did a biopsy of my prostrate gland. The result was that twelve out of twelve tissue samples were cancerous. That doctor put me on a “hormone” treatment which involved my getting one $5000 Luprin shot in my rear-end every six months.
A friend of Jenny’s in the bookstore where she worked said I should get a second opinion. The friend’s husband was a doctor and he referred us to a well established cancer doctor downtown. He got all my test results and based on that he said the entire cancer should be surgically removed. He’d been doing that for years and that is what he recommended doing. He said the cancer was classified as an aggressive cancer. He wore an expensive brushed leather sports jacket, a neck tie, and he answered his cell phone in front of us. It was the end of the day and he was ready to go home. We thanked him for his time. He never sent us a bill.
At that point I didn’t know what to do so I went back to the doctor in the suburbs who a year earlier identified the “chronic lymphocytic leukemia” (CLL) in me. At that time he asked me if I was in Viet Nam. I thought he was trying to change the subject. He thanked me for my service to my country, and confirmed I had CLL. He said people die with it, not from it. I didn’t tell him I was a bartender in Vietnam and if exposed to “agent orange” it had settled on the tops of beer cans. Honestly, our base camp in Cu Chi was near the Cambodian border where our government sprayed agent orange to defoliate trees where the Ho Chi Min trail came into Viet Nam. I saw that doctor on referral from my PCP doctor (a PCP doctor is kinda like a home room teacher). The doctors at Geisinger Hospital in Pennsylvania a year earlier put a stint in the left aorta of my heart and said, by the way, I had a high white blood cell count consistent with CLL, and that I should see a blood doctor when I get back home. This doctor was the blood doctor. The words “CANCER INSTUTE” were over the entrance of the building where he worked.
Now I had full blown cancer and was confused about what to do with it. This doctor might have the answer as he had a great Italian name, and he was the one who suggested I file a claim with the Veterans Administration for disability. The requirement for CLL disability was four things: 1) heart attack in the last year, 2}cancer, 3) in Vietnam between 1965 and 1975, 4) and a high white blood cell count. I qualified across the board. He got me disabled veteran status which means I receive unearned money every month and my widow does after me.
I was hoping he could sort things out this time. He came in and I told him my sad story. Eventually, he put me in touch with a young radiation doctor downstairs in his building who he worked with daily. That doctor went on about how they had a 5.2 million dollar radiation machine and was very excited about the whole thing. The Italian named doctor was in charge of the radiation treatment. He scheduled me to go back to the first urology doctor and get gold markers in my prostrate gland so the radiation machine could pick up exactly where the cancer was.
When I went back another urologist in the same group did the operation. I was awake, and after he was done he asked me who was my doctor. I said I liked to think it was his associate who gave me the Luprin shot. He asked why then was I getting radiation from another doctor. I was lying there on the table with my bare bottom hanging out. I could barely see him out of the corner of my eye. I said the other doctor said his radiation machine cost 5.2 million dollars, and I asked him how much his radiation machine cost. He said in all seriousness looking at the floor that it cost 6 million dollars. The nurse chuckled but the doctor didn’t.
The Italian named doctor ordered a bone scan. Then on a scheduled day I showed up for the first of 40 radiation treatments that would take place over an eight week period. When I reported to the front desk the person there asked, “didn’t they call you?. The machine is broken.” She said to wait, and she went in the back. After a moment the radiation doctor came out and said the radiation machine was down, but he wanted to talk to me. We walked down the hall to one of the patient rooms. He said the bone scan indicated the cancer was in my lower spine. I told him I had a ruptured L5 back bone that had been treated many times over the years with spinal injections of a steroid that was designed to relieve tissue swelling causing back pain. He didn’t say much, but said the doctor upstairs (there was an elevator) wanted to see me.
We went back another day and saw again the doctor in the cancer institute building. He said based on the bone scan findings there was cancer in my lower spine. He said it had spread. My wife was wiping her eyes. She believed him. I deliberately was unemotional about the whole thing like a time I got fired from a job. Then he said the fix was chemotherapy. He detailed what that involved and said after that I would be fine. It was to horrible to be true. I told him we would think about it and call him on Monday. When we talked about CLL a year before he gave me his cell phone number, but this time he gave me a card with a nurse telephone number on it. Maybe he really did like veterans. In the elevator I told my wife I’d rather die than go through chemotherapy. It sounded like blood letting. For that matter so did radiation.
I was on the downstairs toilet and Jenny was in the doorway. She always said I looked so intelligent on the toilet. We were talking and I was carrying on about my dying sooner than expected and how she could handle things. She was laughing with me and very abruptly her face changed to one of tears and pain, but there was no time for tears. She said, “stop it” and left. It made me think I should not be so casual about this, but it is my life. Is that selfish?
I decided to be like a loyal king in bible times who when faced with certain doom trusted in Jehovah, but he did what he could. I decided to do what I could with the medical community, but mostly trust in Jehovah who may or may not see me through this one more jam. Also, I decided to go hike another section of the Appalachian Trail. Jenny said she wanted to go with me this time. That was a first. Always before she said she didn’t like long distance hiking where a person went days without a shower and carried their own food. From Springer Mountain in Georgia I had gone all the way to Gorham, New Hampshire in five years. What remained was a 300 mile section in Maine. The Appalachian Trail in Southwestern Maine is considered the most difficult part of the entire 2200 mile trail and now Jenny wanted to go.
I wanted to make it fun for her. It would be two sections, the last one next summer. She had a twenty pound pack containing her clothes, cold cream, other amenities, and our sleeping bags. I had everything else. My pack weighed 46 pounds with food and water which was heavier than ever before. The first town where we could rest was Andover, Maine, forty miles to the North, and the “hardest mile” of the entire trail was in that distance. I said we could laugh about it and take our sweet time.
When the day finally came for us to set out we were dropped of on Route 2 near Gorham, New Hampshire. That’s where I left off the year before and where the Appalachian Trail goes into the woods. It was all uphill to the top of Mt. Hayes where we decided to camp for the night. That night it rained harder than ever before in my five years of hiking. The flat clear area where we pitched the tent was a large rock covered with moss and other loose plant matter three inches thick. We had a new tent, a larger one, that had a rain cover. I didn’t think it mattered that the rear rain fly stakes were loose. When it rained and rained that night they came out. Luckily the tent was on a slight grade, and the water stayed in the back of the tent. The sleeping bags got wet where our feet were. I read that some people can make a wet sleeping bag seem funny, but I wasn’t one of them. Once a goose down sleeping bag gets wet there is no way to get it dry while hiking.
Jenny’s first night camping on the trail was not a huge success but she did not complain. That morning it was a brilliantly beautiful day that made us cheerful even though everything seemed wet. We had coffee and oatmeal for breakfast, packed up our gear, and took the Mahoosuc Trail back to town to dry things out.
In town we decided the Appalachian Trail (AT) was a rough way to go and it would be more fun for us to hike elsewhere. We went up the Austin Brook Trail from the North Road to the AT, camped there, went south on the AT to Dream Lake, camped there, and in the morning hiked down the Peabody Brook Trail back to North Road. Then got a ride back to town. That hike was a perfect time for both of us. The weather was perfect. Everything was perfect. Jenny was quite the expert at at setting up, and taking down the tent. I was the expert at getting food ready.
The brief time we traveled on the AT was rewarding in ways no other trail could be. First of all when we got up there from the Austin Brook Trail we camped beside Gentian Pond in an area covered with pine needles. A woman arrived from Grafton Notch in Maine. She was elated that now her 22-year section hike of the entire AT was complete. She said that spot marked the end of it, and tomorrow morning she was going to hike down to where her husband was waiting for her.
We met him when we started out. He came around the corner of this huge mobile living unit parked beside the road and as he walked toward us he made an apology for the little dog with him that was barking at us. Jenny said we have three dogs and not to worry about it. He said he was waiting for his wife, and told us details. He said every year she does another section of the AT. When I said, “You follow her around in that thing?” He replied strongly, “I got a life too.” Then in a different tone he said, “I can’t hike. She likes hiking, and I like doing this.” We talked a little more then we started on our way up the trail. It was a spacious and beautiful trail until the last part near the AT. There it got very steep and narrow. Jenny is physically a naturally good hiker. She knows where to put her feet and she has strong legs. As children her sisters called her “momma machine legs.” But, mentally the last part was difficult for her. Most of long distance hiking, which this wasn’t, is mental.
The next morning the woman meeting her husband left at the crack of dawn. When all packed she had some coffee with us and left. An hour or so later we were ready to move, got water from the pond, and went South along a ridge on the AT. Several miles away was the side trail, and at the intersection of the side trail and the AT is Dream Lake. We planned to camp there and go down to the road in the morning.
A few northbound thru hikers who started in Georgia that Spring passed us on their way to Maine. Others were simply in the mountains.
Two people passed us in a hurry. Neither of us talked, but after they went by Jenny called to me, “Do you think they were father and son?” The boy or young man had several large pieces of gold jewelry on his ears and nose, no poles or pack, no hiker clothes, but new hiking shoes. Not far behind him came a man old enough to be the first hikers father. He had poles, pack, and seemed like he knew what he was doing. I called back to her, “Either that, or he is a mentor trying to straighten out a druggie.”
Not far from there a thru hiker on his way to Maine stopped on a hill to let me pass. I stopped also. It was a rocky narrow part of the trail with only one well worn route. He took the opportunity to have a dink of water, and I took the opportunity to find out he was from Athens, Georgia attending the university there. I said to him in a friendly way in 2000 miles of hiking the Appalachian Trail he was the second black person I’d seen on the AT, and the first thru hiker. Then I asked him if he ever got strange feelings from people on the trail. He smiled back and said, “Most people see another hiker, but some people see my color.” The South was his home and he liked it there. He said, “I’ve seen more confederate flags in the North.” I went past and when he got to Jenny they talked. Later I asked her what about and she said, “about rain in the mountains.”
By mid afternoon we got to Dream Lake, and looked a long time for a nice place to camp. Eventually we found one, but not as nice as the one at Gentian Pond. The next day we hiked back to the road. The last three days were as perfect as it gets, and that was a good feeling. Our hike was over.