"I didn't feel the lump."
So wrote Patti McCarthy on January 1, 2013.
"I was called back for a second mammogram. I like to look at a tech’s face to see if I need to worry. But cancer never entered my head as something that would happen to me. This girl, however, was suddenly being super, super nice. I knew I was in trouble.
"I am hiking the PCT and I have never felt healthier or happier in my life. But, in October, suddenly, a big bus called cancer hit me."
Despite the debilitating pain and crushing side effects of chemotherapy, Patti and her husband Lynn Shapiro decided to continue their dream of section-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in between her treatments.
"In no small way I am beginning to relate my course of treatment of my breast cancer to the act of hiking the PCT."
The Pacific Crest Trail passes right through our back yard as it meanders 2650 miles from Mexico to Canada. Through desert to snow, meadows to steep paths, icy streams and dense evergreen forests, hikers visit Drakesbad, Lassen Volcanic National Park, Old Station, Lake Britton, Castle Crags, the Marble Mountain Wilderness, and Seiad Valley. Most people walk only a mile or two, but every year a few thousand through-hike or long-distance permits are issued to serious hikers planning to travel 500 miles or more in a single gulp. No one knows how many actually achieve their goals.
PCT through- and section-hikers share the camaraderie of a very small, very select group who know they're doing something most people can't - or won't - ever do. They know the potential dangers. They've done the legwork (so to speak) on packing efficiently, what to expect, what to do in case of an emergency, and answered a lot of questions from well-meaning family and friends that yes, they will be walking the whole way, and yes, they are sure they want to do this.
In return for the blisters, knee injuries, sunburn, scorpion stings, and exhaustion, they get to see and experience wilderness in its many forms and at its most pristine. They meet people from all over the world (in 2016, permits were issued to hikers from 41 countries). They earn their trail names. They survive through the trail magic left by trail angels. And they've got each others' backs.
By May 2013 Patti was struggling with exhaustion and chemo-induced anemia; just shouldering her pack was sometimes more than she could handle without help.
"I had a meltdown. My pulse was fast. I was dizzy. I honestly thought, 'Why am I so stubborn? Why did I think this was a good idea to do during treatment?' I told Lynn I didn’t think I could go on. He took some of the heavier items from my pack and put them in his. For the last mile he took my pack altogether."
Then Patti and Lynn met a hiker called UBSeRiOuS. By then Lynn was known as 3-Guy (he's got a thing about 3's); Patti told UBSeRiOuS she'd had so much radiation that she was known as Glow in the Dark. They briefly shared their stories and reasons for hiking the PCT. A few days later, their new friend wrote about their encounter on his hiking blog (now deleted). As word spread through the PCT hiking community, Patti and Lynn began to experience an outpouring of love and support.
A few days later, UBSeRiOuS gathered together some 25 hikers at Hikertown, just south of Tehachapi, in support of Glow in the Dark. Illuminated with Glow Sticks, they set out on a night hike along the California Aqueduct through the desert.
On May 27, Patti and Lynn wrote," Words just cannot adequately describe how much this has affected us, all in a good way. Never did we dream the encounter we had would lead to an inspired night hike. In Patti’s fight against cancer, she has used the trail as her focus to live life, not cancer. We have been together over 25 years and I have not seen so much Irish stubbornness as I have witnessed in this fight. We have a long road yet, finishing treatment in mid-October. She continues to push herself to the limits, and jokes that her eyes are too big when she plans these hikes. In-between surgery, recovery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments, we have done six hikes totaling 100 miles, out of 214 miles done in total of the PCT so far. There certainly will be more hikes to come."
My nephew Joey was one of those 25 hikers that night. He's back out on the PCT again this year (trail name Sultry Bear). One of the hikers he's been walking with is a woman named Alexa. When I emailed Patti to ask for permission to use this video and tell her story as part of One Good Thing, she said this:
I would be honored to have that video be part of your project! The real heroes to me are the hikers that did that hike. I cannot express how much their kind act touched my soul, my heart at a time when I really needed some uplifting. I still get teary ( in a good way) when I see or think of that video.
Did Joey tell you about meeting me? I couldn't stop hugging him ;). It's a wild story of connections and how truly small this world can be. My daughter is hiking the PCT too and they had been hiking together, unaware of the connection they had between them.
Patti and Lynn's PCT hiking blog is at https://mcshappctjournal.wordpress.com/2017/06/
They have also written a book about Patti's cancer battle, Hiking Cancer: 400 Days of Cancer and How I Hiked Through It.
Follow Joey's PCT hike on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/joey_hikes/
for more information on the Pacific Crest Trail, visit https://www.pcta.org/