Cancer, some trees and a musical

“Into the Woods you have to grope, but that’s the way you learn to cope. Into the Woods to find there’s hope of getting through the journey.” –Stephen Sondheim ​Hiking alone is both comforting and terrifying.

Like any REI lovin’, fleece wearin’, t-shirt sweat wickin’ gearhead I am drawn to the romance the woods promises. The promise of escape and the promise of solitude hang like mossy streamers from the Big Leaf Maples of the Hoh Rainforest. I have faith that when I drive deep within the Olympic National Park to its lush and dense natural cathedral, I will be healed. Sounds like a tall order for a bunch of trees, I know. ​Heal me Woods. Also, please don’t let me get eaten by a bear. ​It’s not as if I am a hiking neophyte. For years I led backpack and canoe trips with teenagers for a week at a time into the Lake Ozette area of the Olympic National Park. Today I have my Gore-Tex jacket, my first-aid kit and my single blade Spyderco knife. I even brought a canister of Counter-Assault Bear Spray in its black nylon holster buried in my backpack. I am aware that hiding it behind a zipper and beneath Cliff Bars and a fleece hat makes it useless should a bear actually appear. ​I’ve also packed the unresolved mourning of the grief-stricken.

Only a week ago I had plans to see an old YMCA teen of mine—she’s now 26—for dinner. Normally I would be excited to see her. Instead, I was jumpy and tongue-tied, fumbling for words and questions to talk with her. Her physical transformation last week since spring—when chemo stole her hair—was shocking. Six months later, gaunt and quiet with dark circles under her eyes, she sat next to me in the backseat of Alex’s 15-year-old silver Nissan Stanza, struggling to generate enough energy to answer questions but falling silent after responding. ​

The Hannah I knew was missing. The Hannah I knew wore leopard print and threw masquerade-themed birthday parties. The Hannah I knew was a giggler, someone who wasn’t above bursting into laughter at a thought that crossed her mind. The Hannah I knew is a hugger. This Hannah leaned over to hug me in the car. I was relieved because she looked so uncomfortable and fragile I wasn’t sure if it was ok to hug her. She had been replaced by someone who seemed distant, but wasn’t. She’s dying. Pancreatic Cancer. ​

Sadness takes up more space in a daypack than you might think. Unlike snacks, it can’t be trimmed back or left behind in the car for when the hike is over. Instead—like drinking water at 2.25 lbs. per liter—heartache makes its presence felt along each mile and each foot of elevation change. There were pockets of regret—did I do enough? Say enough? Be present enough?—they weighed down the pack as I hiked. This was followed by Is that the last time I’ll see Hannah? Should I go try to go to Tacoma one more time? Despite my earnest questions, the Sitka Spruce mostly just listened.

​It was appropriate that it was raining. It would be difficult to settle into this mood with blue skies. Damp and heavy orange and brown leaves tiled the forest floor. Until now I’d only visited in the summer with The Masses, their white leather tennis shoes straight off the tour bus looking for the .8 mile Hall of Mosses Trail. Today I’ve only seen the truly committed—hikers decked out in rain gear—no matter what Mother Nature sends.

Veering off the main Hoh River Trail, I walk to the edge of the river, the bank four feet up and a wide flat Hoh before me. The Hoh’s color is a foggy blue-grey. This happens when the Blue Glacier on Mount Olympus grinds rocks into glacial flour. Beneath the surface hide chinook and coho salmon and coastal cutthroat trout. Cement colored smooth rocks varying in size from ping-pong balls to lumpy gym bags pave the shoreline. The Hoh is a blue-collar river if you ask me. It’s not there to look pretty—although it is—it is there to get the job done.Hands dirty after a hard day’s work kind of river. A river that is not afraid of any baggage I haul to its cloudy edges.

​I am here to talk to Hannah. I am here to have the conversation we could not have. ​Cancer’s a sneaky little bastard. The odds of a sick person being able, willing and ready to talk about the inevitable at the same moment the loved one is able, willing and ready are slim. This is amplified when the sick person is in her 20’s. No one wants anything to do with the inevitable. They run screaming in the opposite direction of the inevitable. There are no sweeping statements of Well she’s lived a good life. It is too soon for that. ​

So into the woods I go. My shorts damp from where the endless ferns have soaked my thighs as I make my way along the trail. Trailing my fingers behind me, they trip along the edges of the fern’s fingers and I hold them briefly. My old camp counselor Cheri taught me this—hand-holding ferns—when I was 19. Cheri used to say, “Hold this, it will keep you company till we get back.” We would look up above to the protective canopy of Doug firs and western hemlock late at night, the stars framed by the olive border. Cheri died of breast cancer. Holding the hand of a fern brings her back a little.

​Before turning back, I cross a worn and mossy bridge with a steady stream beneath it and turn left up the hillside. I can see the woven threads of the waterfall in the distance. Bushwacking my way through the overgrown path and stepping over fallen branches, I cinch my backpack straps down tighter. As the waterfall comes closer, it is now too noisy for my thoughts. Soon I climb over rocks on the edge of the now rushing stream and have to balance on a slippery log that threatens to disappear beneath my boots. A hop and a step to the side, I wobble and reach for a nearby branch and catch it in time to regain my balance. I am on the other side and the waterfall is directly in front of me, stretching 25 feet up with spray and mist beneath it. I close my eyes.

​Kuhhhssssshhhhhhhhhhhh. The sound is constant. ​“Thank you.” I whisper. ​