Beginning Backpacking Post Breast Cancer

Backpacking Gear in the Car

When one is facing an unexpected health crisis, the mind’s descent into some worst case scenario is but a few steps. During breast cancer treatment, I envisioned a number of sobering possibilities for my future, one of which was focused on backpacking. 

To back up a bit, preparations for my last backpacking trip b4 breast cancer inspired me to write an ode to ultralight gear (Bringing Down the Weight). During the spring of 2015, I probably dropped over $1000 as I collected the sort of equipment that would allow an older woman to backpack in, well… more comfort. That summer I spent a fabulous week on the John Muir Trail backpacking with friends. It wasn’t long before I had another trip in the works, this one focused on the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. Unbeknown to me, however, a tumor was growing in my left breast. 

Breast cancer treatment threw my life into a tailspin. During those moments when my body felt the weakest, I wondered if I’d ever use any of that expensive gear again. This thought really got to me. It niggled at me. It made me wonder, “Why me?” “What a waste!”

Ringing the "I'm done!" bell in the radiation oncology unit at UCSD Medical.

Fortunately, most of my strength returned after I rang that final bell in the radiation oncology unit. Over time, I began working out again, hiking even. I got in a couple of car camping trips. Then last summer I committed to backpacking for the first time since treatment, a three-night trek along the Lost Coast in California. Yet when the trip fell through because we were all too busy, I actually felt relieved. I also felt guilty over not unpacking that wonderful equipment. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure where all this gear was. I hadn’t touched it in touched in four years.

Entrance to Mission Creek Preserve

Not long after I bailed on the Lost Coast trip, my friend, Pam Kersey, badgered me into taking a class she co-teaches with Robin Balch through the Desert Institute at Joshua Tree National Park: Beginning Backpacking for Women in Mission Creek Preserve. Though I’m not really a beginner, I said yes, thinking I could have some quality time with Pam and some other interesting women. I did spend quality time with these said women, but I also discovered a few things.

First of all, enrollment in this class forced me to track down all the essentials. I found myself hauling my backpack to REI, so they could remind me how it all fit together. I fingered my Big Agnes tent, wondering if I would remember how to set it up. Did my Jetboil stove still work? Did I need a bear canister? (Bear warnings came with the informational literature supplied by the Desert Institute.) Finally, though I had my SteriPen handy, we weren’t guaranteed a water supply out there. When it came time to hit the trail, I saddled up with more than four liters of water in my backpack, pondering one final question: how would I do carrying 41 pounds?

The trip proved to be gentle in some respects. The actual backpacking portion was only an overnight, though we did camp the night before. This gave us a chance to go over our gear, try things out, and discuss what should actually go with us–what should be left behind. Once we started walking, packs and all, we had a tentative goal of covering five miles. Tentative was the word. Robin insisted from the get-go, we would do what made sense for the group. 

The day proved to be pretty warm, yet I felt capable. As I hiked, emotions spiked more than once. I wasn’t wasting my gear any longer. Maybe backpacking would become a regular activity for me. I mulled over that earlier Lost Coast possibility. “Maybe next summer.”

Scenery in the desert

Sometime later, a few people began overheating, so we decided to stop at three miles and set up camp. When our cheerful tents finally dotted the dry landscape alongside an arroyo bed – ten of them – we moved into some additional hiking sans backpack through some striking territory.

I’m proud to say I probably could have completed the original five miles with my pack. Still, I felt pretty rusty with the nitty-gritty things. For example, I had to bond with my Jetboil all over again–I’d forgotten the easiest way to light it. My expensive ultralight pillow developed a fatal leak. I worried about making some terrible error having to do with a snake or a bear. In the thick of things, it occurred to me the beginner’s label was “just right.” 

Feeling strong

That said, I was thrilled when Pam came up to me toward the end of the trip to say, “It’s great to see you looking so strong.” I forgot to mention, Pam is a former oncology nurse. She saw me through my darkest hours on my breast cancer slog, so she had a benchmark. Now I can proudly note I’m a beginning backpacker. This isn’t to say I’m not planning something that will take a few more nights, a few more miles.

 

Poem in Broad Street

My poem, “Animation,” was recently published in Broad Street.

Breast Cancer is a finalist in the 2019 Eric Hoffer Book Awards

I’m pleased to note Breast Cancer: A Poem in Five Acts has been listed as a finalist in the chapbook category of the 2019 Eric Hoffer Book Awards.

 

Short Story in Calliope

My story, “Mini Escape,” has been published in Calliope: A Writer’s Workshop by Mail.

Moving Along the Causeway

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I’ve been crossing the Yolo Causeway to get to work. It’s a familiar ride—from Davis to Sacramento. I can remember being a kid in the backseat of the family car as one of my parents zoomed over this long viaduct above what is now called the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area. The original causeway opened in 1916—the current incarnation was built in 1962. I was born that year. I once walked with my late father on a Davis levee as he explained how the man-made structure was protecting the region from flooding. During the rainy season I came to expect the waters that drained down the Sierras and inched up the side of the levee. Whenever this happened, drives on the causeway turned dramatic with glinting ripples on either side of the car.

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As an adult, I visited Davis during dryer years, only to ruminate on how all that water seemed to be a distance memory. People were happily claiming Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area for hiking and bird watching. One time I went hiking along a well-established trail down there wondering if the water would ever again be as high as it was during the sixties. Well, it’s relatively high right now. I’ve been enjoying a sense of déjà vu on my commutes to Sacramento City College, where I’ve just begun working as an adjunct librarian.

It’s interesting to work as a librarian in my homeland after being away almost 43 years. Recently, I poked around a Sacramento Bee database to discover a cryptic ad my great-grandfather placed in the Bee back in 1909. This was under “Ready Reference Guide of Leading Superior California Firms.”

“Sherritt House, Leading commercial, reasonable. O. B. Wergeland”

I knew my great-grandparents had run a boarding house in Truckee. Was this the one?

I dug deeper to discover the Sherritt House burned down in 1913.

“$75,000 Fire in Heart of Truckee: Sherritt and Ashton Rooming Houses, Each Three Stories in Hight [sic], Razed, and Two Saloons, Bakery and Barber Shop Damaged This Morning” (September 18, 1913).

“The Sherritt House was a landmark. It was erected more than forty years ago, and at one time was the leading hostelry here.” (September 18, 1913)

More family members showed up to greet me in the Bee. For example, I’m wondering if my grandfather, Irving Wergeland, was out and about in April of 1927.

“H. L. Beabes and I. W. Wergeland surveyed the road from Summit to the head of Donner Lake on skis Sunday and found snow from three to seventeen feet deep, the greatest depth being in the cut west of Donner bridge for a distance of 200 feet.”

My grandfather was definitely a skier and his name Irving, but death records reveal Norman as his middle name.

My grandmother, who went to her grave with the name Merle Hooper, was a contestant in a 1932 beauty contest.

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“If Merle Wergeland, above, should be selected queen in the Winter Sports Carnival, to be held in the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium, January 7th, her friends say she will be well qualified for the honors. She is the entrant of the Auburn Ski Club, and in addition to beauty she is a skier of ability.”

A follow-up article announced my grandmother placed third. Meanwhile, Grandfather Irving was also active in the Auburn Ski Club.

“The Auburn Ski Club this week unanimously elected Wendell Robie Of Auburn president of the club for the 1933-34 season. Irving Wergeland of Auburn is the new vice president of the club, and Lane Calder, a past president of the association, is treasurer.”

I read about how my great-grandfather died.

“O. B. Wergeland, 71, a prominent citizen of Truckee, died suddenly from a heart attack in the woodshed of his home.

Wergeland yesterday afternoon was engaged in piling wood in the shed. When Mrs. Wergeland chanced to visit the shed she found her husband’s body sprawled on the floor.

She summoned a physician, who pronounced the man dead.” (August 26, 1938)

Turns out he and my great-grandmother, Anna Wergeland, were residents of Truckee for forty years before he died (I knew they’d lived there, but I did not know how long).

There was more to uncover.

“Summer season students at the University of California at Davis will stage two plays by French Playwright Alfred Jarry July 18, 19, 20 and 21 in the UCD Main Theater.

Alan A. Stambusky will direct “King Ubu” and “Ubu Unchained.

The first play, which follows Ubu’s adventures in Poland, will star Paul Ford in the title role, while Jean Wergeland will play his ‘equally disgusting wife,’ Stambusky said.” (July 7, 1968)

Jean Wergeland is my mother. I remember seeing one of those plays when I was six years old.

And my late father appeared in the Sacramento Bee to answer a few questions.

“The University of California in Davis old book sale to buy new books will be held Sunday starting noon in the tree-shaded courtyard of the Shields Library at UCD. Wayne Wergeland, general chairman, and his committee have 9,000 books, something for everyone who reads. There will be an informal auction of about 40 rare and unusual volumes beginning at 1:30 p.m. ‘All books will be moderately and even cheaply priced, encouraging all who attend to buy at least one book,‘ Wergeland discloses.” (May 16, 1975)

Last weekend a friend and I took the California Zephyr across trestles running parallel to the Yolo Causeway over the water-filled Yolo Basin—and then on to Truckee. We enjoyed some fine views as the train wound its way into the Sierra Nevada foothills, shooting past Auburn, birthplace of my father. Before long the scenery out the window turned white, and we looked over the snowpack that had been there a while, though fresh snow adorned green conifers. As we lunched in the dining car, our ride in this new dimension remained enchanting. We stepped off the train into snow flurries, marveling at the snowbanks along the tracks. Truckee streets had clearly been tended by snowplows all winter, so it wasn’t difficult to get around on foot.

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Fortunately, we didn’t have to walk far to get to the historic Truckee Hotel (formerly the New Whitney House, which barely survived the fire that took out the Sherritt House. I’ve come to discover the Sherritt House was once situated across the street from the New Whitney. A former Bank of America takes up that corner now. It has morphed into a saloon fondly known as Bar of America.

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We checked into our second-floor room with plenty of old world charm and views of the town (the bathroom is down the hall, thank you very much!). I could imagine what Ole and Anna Wergeland’s world must have been like. Truckee exists at 5,817 feet, not far from Donner Pass, where the famed Mormon pioneers underwent their terrible ordeal. I’ve heard my great-grandfather helped build snow sheds covering the train tracks in those parts. Perhaps he turned to this line of work after the Sherritt House was destroyed. Now Truckee is an enjoyable getaway with a number of worthy eating establishments. Most had waiting lists the night we went in search of food.

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For my students working on research papers—here’s my Works Cited list:

Arden, Tom. “Tom Arden’s Town.” Sacramento Bee, NY Stocks Final ed., 16 May 1975, p. 32. NewsBank, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=image/v2:144FDEA786229ACC@EANX-NB-15D61E8A36BCDD3F@2442549-15D607B511F674BF@31-15D607B511F674BF@. Accessed 29 Mar. 2019.

“Auburn Beauty.” Sacramento Bee, One Star ed., 26 Dec. 1932, p. 7. NewsBank, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=image/v2:144FDEA786229ACC@EANX-NB-15319E9795C77513@2427068-15319D0F5E8345FA@6-15319D0F5E8345FA@. Accessed 29 Mar. 2019.

“Davis Students Will Stage Alfred Jerry’s UBU Plays.” Sacramento Bee, Home ed., 7 July 1968, p. 115. NewsBank, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=image/v2:144FDEA786229ACC@EANX-NB-16F1EC96F5591436@2440045-16F1E6B7EDB4F8B6@114-16F1E6B7EDB4F8B6@. Accessed 29 Mar. 2019.

“O. B. Wergeland Dies Suddenly in Truckee.” Sacramento Bee, 26 Aug. 1938, p. 8. NewsBank, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=image/v2:144FDEA786229ACC@EANX-NB-16474658B575138C@2429137-16473C7CC4B0801C@7-16473C7CC4B0801C@. Accessed 29 Mar. 2019.

“Pioneer Truckee Hotel Razed by Fire.” Sacramento Bee, 18 Sept. 1913, p. 8. NewsBank, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=image/v2:144FDEA786229ACC@EANX-NB-14F2556E689C754E@2420029-14EF343BF58DC23B@7. Accessed 29 Mar. 2019.

“Ready Reference Guide of Leading Superior California Firms.” Sacramento Bee, Two Star ed., 8 May 1909, p. 15. NewsBank, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=image/v2:144FDEA786229ACC@EANX-NB-14EFADF16600576F@2418435-14EFA8E85A041C07@14-14EFA8E85A041C07@. Accessed 29 Mar. 2019.

“Robie is Again Ski Club Head.” Sacramento Bee, One Star ed., 10 Nov. 1933, p. 8. NewsBank, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=image/v2:144FDEA786229ACC@EANX-NB-1536E9558310FE00@2427387-1536835EF99091DA@7-1536835EF99091DA@. Accessed 29 Mar. 2019.

“$75,000 Fire in Heart of Truckee.” Sacramento Bee, 18 Sept. 1913, p. 1. NewsBank, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=image/v2:144FDEA786229ACC@EANX-NB-14F2556E689C754E@2420029-14EF343B8B3BAEF6@0. Accessed 29 Mar. 2019.

“Snow 3 to 17 Feet Deep on Road Near Summit.” Sacramento Bee, 27 Apr. 1927, p. 24. NewsBank, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=image/v2:144FDEA786229ACC@EANX-NB-14FD542766BD4319@2424998-14F39F6BA84ED2F8@23-14F39F6BA84ED2F8@. Accessed 29 Mar. 2019.

 

 

 

 

Shaping the Longer Prose Manuscript

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Finding good critique for a book-length manuscript can be a challenge. Peruse the classifieds in any issue of Poets & Writers, and you will discover editors willing to do the job for a fee. If cost is an issue, you can always swap manuscripts with a literary friend. But what if you want to be an active participant? Most prose workshops – fiction, creative non-fiction, or memoir – offer a workshopping environment for a roomful of writers armed with roughly 30 pages each. While critique of an individual chapter might provide the writer suggestions on how to polish their prose or set up a chunk of time meant to be inserted into a longer narrative, this doesn’t address overall structural issues. Nor does it touch on narrative drive. The writer can’t know if their longer manuscript is even working.

Writers David Ulin and Amy Wallen have put their heads together over this conundrum to come up with the Big Picture Workshop, focused on manuscripts up to 200 pages in length. This two-day class is hosted by Wallen and takes place in her San Diego living room. She usually whips up one of her signature savory pies for the event. Ulin, former book editor of the Los Angeles Times, serves as lead critic, though everyone contributes to the discussion. All participants are expected to arrive prepared to comment on work on the table. Yes, this does mean there is a lot of preparatory reading, though it’s worth the effort. I’ve pushed three manuscripts to the next level after taking them through this process.

More recently, I stumbled upon the hospitality of Kate Moses, a writer and editor who got her start with North Point Press in Berkeley during the 1980s, right after she graduated from University of the Pacific. She’s the author of Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath and Cakewalk: A Memoir, among other things. When I first spotted her ad for a writing intensive through Birds & Muses: Kate Moses Literary Services, I had a collection of short stories underway, one that had already received a fair amount of critique.

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I’d workshopped the manuscript with David Ulin during his Big Picture workshop. Ulin always passes written notes to the writer in the hot seat, once the verbal critique is over. He encourages other writers in the class to do the same. So when I returned home, I sorted through these sets of comments before embarking on a another rigorous rewrite. As I proceeded to break the manuscript down, I removed one story Ulin thought should be lengthened into a novella (it’s currently being submitted as such). I wrote a number of new stories—and I reorganized the whole collection. I also linked these stories (a suggestion from Amy Wallen). I handed this new construction to novelist, Patricia Santana, and she inked it up some more (in turn, I worked over one of hers).

I wasn’t really looking for another workshop, but when I noticed how Kate Moses was offering time to write, plus a full manuscript reading and consultation, I decided to bite. By this time, my work-in-progress had swelled from 200 to 260 pages. Since I’d linked my stories—moving characters in and out of thirteen different plots—the manuscript had morphed into something between a novel and a set of stories. Some of these pieces were pretty autobiographical—others completely made up. I didn’t know if my design worked, so I was eager to have the collection assessed as a whole by a genuine editor. Indeed, in my application I noted I wanted to prepare the manuscript for publication, give it a final polish.

Kate Moses read my entire manuscript, scrawled notes all over it, and discussed it with me throughout the week-long intensive. This added up to hours of one-on-one guidance. She assisted four other writers during the retreat, yet she never set up a workshop environment, as Ulin does. Each writer worked with Moses separately. Days were structured so we could get in plenty of writing time, while evenings were reserved for social interaction. The six of us enjoyed dinner together (more on that later). And after our bellies were full, Moses usually led a discussion based on a writing-related issue.

While Moses didn’t exactly line edit my work-in-progress, she did talk me through her detailed notes, allowing me to absorb them on the spot and make some decisions of my own. She’s a fine editor. As I interacted with her, I jotted comments all over a separate copy of my manuscript. At the end of the week, she handed me half of her copy to take home. We plan to go over the rest – one way or another – when she has time. Yet even if she ends up mailing the last six stories with written comments, she’s already given me more than enough to prepare for a good scrubbing. I even managed to write the draft of a new story while I was with her—one to round out the manuscript.

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As for logistics, the intensive was held in the historic Kenney House near Elk, California. The place offers inspiring ocean views and ample room for retreatants. It’s situated on a working ranch boasting a trail that winds past a herd of highland cattle into an adjoining forest. BTW, Kate did all the cooking for the six of us. I’m pretty sure she could have changed things up on the spot and switched our week to a cooking intensive, should we have asked. She’s an outstanding chef—truly creative in that regard. We did not go away hungry.

In My Hometown—Davis, California

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It’s been eerie to move back to my hometown after being away for over forty-two years. I haven’t been here long, and it has taken virtually no effort to slide back into a familiar groove, a visceral knowing of this place. And yet, I am well aware I’ve missed entire novels describing the time between 1976 and today. Most people I once knew remain frozen in their teen visages. I probably won’t recognize many, even if I walk past them in the grocery store. When I do bump into a Davisite from my youth, their childhood photo tends to pop up. This doesn’t happen with other people I went to school with—the people I watched grow into adulthood. Their adolescent faces faded long ago.

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The novel that is my own life moved into the Pacific Northwest. After spending some twenty-five fulfilling years up there, I returned to California to work as a librarian for Cuyamaca College in San Diego County. During that pivotal year it actually felt like I’d moved to a brand new state. I’d relocated to Southern California, not the California that houses ghosts of my ancestors.

One line of my family has particularly strong roots in Northern California. My great-great-grandparents emigrated from Ireland. Their daughter, Katherine (my great-grandmother), was born in California in 1866. She actually spent time in Red Dog. For those not in the know, Red Dog is no longer a town. It’s a graveyard and a monument. I still haven’t figured out if my great-grandmother was actually born in that gold mining camp, though I have evidence she once lived there. Three more of my great-grandparents settled in Northern California. Two emigrated from Norway, and one moved out west from Rhode Island. This is a heritage that refuses to be ignored—it doesn’t care that I moved on to other regions. Yet I do feel completely chopped up by place—Oregon, Washington, Southern California. I guess you could say, I’m a veritable West Coast mutt.

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Still, I was born Davis. Well, I was born in Woodland. There wasn’t a hospital in Davis back in 1962. I was born in Woodland, but my parents took me home to Davis. I lived in Davis from birth to fourteen, enough time to absorb what this city was. Davis has continued to be my core, even as aspects have faded from memory. For me, a new story began at the age of fourteen—in Southern Oregon. Other stories followed. And now I’m beginning yet another one that will play out in a town where certain buildings, certain trees, continue to trigger flashbacks. I’m not sure how long I will stay. I’ve moved back to Davis to tie up loose ends, keep an eye on an aging parent, as I also take advantage of my free time the way I once did when I was kid. Yes, I have returned to my hometown a card-carrying member of the AARP, though I recently decided to call myself a tweener.

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After retiring from Cuyamaca College in 2017, I got a taste of full retirement. While those months were good for my health, it wasn’t long before I began feeling too young to be hanging out at home 24/7 (though I did get a lot of writing done). I found myself missing my profession. I was conflicted, because slowing down felt right for my recent breast cancer survivor status. The solution: I’ve just been hired to work as an adjunct librarian for Sacramento City College. This should afford me time to work on my writing and my health, while also giving me the opportunity to continue contributing to my profession. I should add, it’s great to be back at work—wonderful to embark on a new adventure in a familiar land.