August 25, 2022. Late morning.
Blacktail Deer Creek Trail, Yellowstone National Park.
All right, let’s stop here. Water break,” our lead guide, Angie, calls out down the trail. Our boots shuffle to a stop single file on the dirt path behind her, huddling closer as we pull water bottles out of our packs or open hydration nozzles. The 10 of us have been walking quietly for a while, saving our energy in the day’s heat and absorbing the 360-degree views of sagebrush, Douglas fir and tall grasses. The pure blue sky has just an occasional wispy cloud. We haven’t encountered any other humans for several days.
As I unscrew the top of my water bottle, I look ahead at the ridge we’re about to climb. It’s the penultimate day of our weeklong trek through the northern backcountry of Yellowstone National Park, and this is the most dramatic incline we’ll face. We’ve spent the week sinking into the joy of complete nature immersion. We’ve learned the rituals of backcountry life. We’ve gotten comfortable with being uncomfortable, both physically and mentally. We’re ready for this climb. After a few moments catching my breath and hydrating, it’s time to continue the journey.
Each day as we hike, I become less focused on our speed and the distance to the next site. I tune into my senses—the herbal scent of the sagebrush as I walk past, the sound of tiny rocks bouncing along as my boot touches down on the trail. I’m on the path. I’m in motion, one foot in front of the other. I’m not where I was before, but I haven’t quite arrived anywhere, either. I’m existing in the process, rather than fixating on the destination. I’m releasing the importance of speed, of taking the most direct route from point A to point B. There’s so much space here, in the unknown. I’m opening myself up to it.
This practice of opening to the unknown, and of practicing patience, is not one I came to willingly. Until my breast cancer diagnosis in 2018, I was deeply attached to a sense of control, of perfectionism. Suddenly, it was abundantly clear that life wasn’t going to go as I had planned. I’d have to release these tightly held ideas of who I was and what my life was going to look like.
Nothing about cancer—the diagnosis, treatment or recovery—has been easy. However, it’s this process of opening up that brought me to this moment: standing in Yellowstone National Park with a group of strangers-turned-trailmates, looking up at the climb we’re about to tackle together.
My heart rate rises as I take my initial steps. I can feel a powerful new energy charging through our group. We know this section will be tough, but we’re pulling through together. We’ll soon be sharing a celebration of this accomplishment we took on as a team.
January 2, 2019. 9:15am
Interstate 43, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
I’m headed to the hospital for the first of 16 rounds of chemotherapy to treat stage 3 triple-negative breast cancer. I’m 32 years old. The eight months ahead will be spent in various states of exhaustion, pain, anger and grief—mostly from an infusion chair or my bed. I’m not supposed to be stuck in here, I think, hooked up to an IV bag, watching the world go by. Give me back the life out there. I should be flying down the trail on my bike, or sprinting around the Ultimate field.
Starting cancer treatment, I’m terrified to face the many unknowns on the path ahead. Will chemotherapy successfully wipe out my aggressive cancer? Will my body be forever damaged from surgeries? I find myself with deep regrets. Even as someone who’d spent years enjoying the outdoors—playing Ultimate, biking, camping and hiking—I’m now grieving. The promise of future adventures feels lost. I wish I’d done more when I’d had the chance. I don’t know what lies ahead beyond my treatment plan. My future is uncertain.
January 14, 2022.
Home office, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Cancer took so much. It stripped me of my plans, choices, physical abilities, my body. Now I’m a few years out from treatment—chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, radiation and reconstruction surgery—but the healing process has been anything but linear. After completing this grueling regimen, I’m not exactly sure what I’m supposed to do next. All I know is that I desperately want to get out and live again.
On an otherwise normal Friday, my inbox pings with a message from a fellow cancer-survivor friend. She had forwarded me an email from an organization called True North Treks, encouraging me to check out their upcoming programs.
True North Treks is a nonprofit organization founded in 2009. Its mission is to help cancer survivors and caregivers connect with themselves, with nature, and with others who can relate to the unique sets of trials and tribulations that come with a cancer diagnosis. The organization runs treks and experiences in beautiful and remote locations including Wyoming, Montana, Utah and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Without many details, and having never gone backpacking, I apply for a summer Yellowstone expedition. The program flyer explains that we’d spend a week trekking through the backcountry: the “we” being a small group of under-40 cancer survivors and our guides. No previous experience required—just follow the packing list and bring an open mind, the flyer says.
In addition to learning Leave No Trace principles and soaking up the vast beauty of this incredible national park, our expedition would include daily mindfulness and yoga practices. It would help us find our path forward in cancer survivorship—no matter what that path looks like for each individual.
Yes, I think. This is it.
I don’t know my exact path ahead, and at this point I’ve let go of many perceived milestones for my future. What I do know is that Yellowstone is going to be part of it. All I have to do is show up.
August 23, 2022. Sometime around 3am
Backcountry site 2H7, Hellroaring Creek Trail, Yellowstone National Park.
I open my eyes to complete darkness. It’s like they aren’t open at all—nothing is registering. I’ve been sleeping soundly, and I’m not immediately sure where I am. A few slow moments pass as my brain begins to catch up to my reality, piece by piece.
Diagnosis. Treatment. My friend’s email. The True North Treks flyer. The decision to open my mind and live again …
A few days ago, I flew from Milwaukee to Bozeman, Montana, to meet Vanessa, our True North Treks guide; Angie and Sara, our guides from Breakwater Expeditions; and six other True North trekkers—all cancer survivors.
I start to recognize textures, shapes, sounds. My body is enveloped in a soft cocoon. The sleeping bag rustles lightly against the pad beneath it as I sit up. I can just barely make out the edges of the tent panels, identify the door zipper to my left. A faint, sleepy breath coming from my right reminds me that I have a tentmate—someone I’d met in the Bozeman airport just a couple days ago.
I’m in the Yellowstone backcountry, and it’s the middle of the night. The rest of my group is asleep, inside a cluster of domes huddled in the darkness. Unzipping the tent door, I feel the brisk air brush my face. I hear Hellroaring Creek, a powerful yet peaceful rush of water just beyond our tents. It’s otherwise quiet, the silence holding a presence of its own in the nocturnal landscape.
The door and fly halfway open, I push my head out into the open air. I drink it in, letting the chill enter my body and further awaken my senses. Without another thought, my head tilts and my eyes are drawn upward. Yes, there they are.
The stars. Everywhere, from one edge of my view to the other, stars.
The contrast is incredible—thousands of tiny bright spots in a dark sea, stretching out in all directions. I’m not just looking at the stars. I’m immersed; I feel the entire sky wrapping around me. I’m now fully awake and giddy with awe. I’m here, in the now, feeling truly alive. I can’t stop the laughter from overtaking me. It rolls through me, a full-body shake of joy. There’s no holding back from letting myself fully experience this moment.
I duck my head back into the tent and nudge my tentmate awake. It’s only our second night sharing the space, but all formalities among our group were quickly abandoned after the first few moments on trail. I know she’d want me to wake her up too. “Psst! Wake up. Stars! Look at these stars!”
After a few moments of groggy coming-to, she silently sits up, unzips the tent on her right and pokes her head out into the night. The laughter comes instantly. She feels it too—the pure joy, the recognition of this gift.
The gratitude to be here, in the darkness, two heads sticking out of a tent. Looking up into the sky, laughing, alive.
August 26, 2022. 6:45am
Backcountry site 1A2, Rescue Creek Trail, Yellowstone National Park.
A light mist drapes over our final morning in Yellowstone. As we learned the previous evening, this morning will be spent in silent mindfulness practice. We wake shortly after sunrise and start emerging from our tents.
After some stretching and seated meditation, we silently go about our morning routine: eating breakfast, breaking down camp, fitting all our gear into our packs, filling water bottles, applying sunscreen. One by one, we set out on the trail to finish the last few miles of our route.
Over the last week, we’ve put in the hours and miles—along with sweat, scrapes, and tears of both determination and joy. We’ve shared our struggles and carried loads for each other, both literally and figuratively. We’ve learned about ourselves and pushed through challenges.
Walking in single-file silence with my new trail family, I allow my senses to take in these final moments. As has become habit, I rub my thumb and forefinger on a sagebrush shrub to release its calming scent. I feel the weight of my pack but I carry it with confidence, aware of my strength. After climbing up the gentle slope from our final campsite, I look down through the grasses. I give silent thanks to the path we’ve traversed. A pair of sandhill cranes call in the distance, bidding us farewell as we proceed toward the frontcountry.
I still carry my cancer experience with me. I also know there is a life and a world beyond it. There’s room in my pack for both.
I still don’t know all the details of the path ahead. When the complications and worries of life off trail catch up to me, I think back to the stars in Yellowstone. The stars are always there, waiting for me to look up.
True North Treks has been empowering young adults and caregivers affected by cancer since 2009, and aims to help survivors and their loved ones “find direction through connection.” By leading groups on canoeing and backpacking trips, True North Treks encourages participants to connect with their peers, connect with the natural world around them and reconnect with themselves through mindful awareness practices.
David Victorson, one of True North Treks’ principal co-founders and executive director, has been an REI Co-op Member since 1995.