As I See It

Doug and Stacey at Acadia National Park in Main

During the 15 years after my

wife, soulmate, and best friend Stacey was first diagnosed with cancer, we never asked about the prognosis. We focused only on the diagnosis, our treatment options, and additional steps to improve overall health. As a result, when we had the rare chance to move where we wished four years after Stacey’s breast cancer had first spread to her liver and lungs, (Stage four) we had no idea that based on the numbers, her survival at that moment was already unlikely. Bound by the averages, we may have never seized the opportunity to find a simpler and more active life.

It started innocently enough, with the Google search: “Where should I move?” followed by an anonymous survey that narrowed the choice to 25 towns. We already knew the region where we hoped to settle and after visiting about a half-dozen towns on the list found only one of interest. That town was Abingdon, Virginia. While this was happening, Stacey had two people from entirely different social circles recommend the book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. I don’t think she had ever received even one book recommendation from anyone, let alone two in one week for the same book. She read it and then excitedly told me to read it too. In short, the book describes the simpler life we sought, and at the very end the author thanks everyone at the Abingdon Farmers Market. We were never strong believers in faith or fate but as far as we were concerned, all roads led to Abingdon.

We had enjoyed hiking together for many years, particularly in the national parks out west, but our home in central New Jersey was two hours from the A.T. so we didn’t go there very often. That all changed immediately upon our arrival in Virginia. We didn’t plan it in advance, but our move coincided with the 2011 ATC Biennial Conference held at Emory & Henry College, just a few minutes from our new home, so, for about a week, we enjoyed the conference during the day and unpacked boxes in the evening. It’s there that we got our first introduction to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), heard about the A.T. clubs, and learned more about the area trails, trail heads, and general lay of the land than we could possibly have done otherwise.

Within about a year, we became members of the Mount Rogers A.T. Club, soon found ourselves going out with the maintenance group every Wednesday, and quickly became involved in nearly all aspects of the club. In just a few years, Stacey volunteered over 800 hours as a Trail maintainer, section monitor, boundary monitor, remover of invasive plants, rare plant monitor, and even served on the club board.

The cliché is that someone “battles” cancer. Stacey pinned it to the ground by the ears and denied nearly every symptom of the disease or treatment the least satisfaction. Every health professional we met during our time in Virginia did a double take when we described Stacey’s medical history. During each visit to the oncologist, a nurse takes vital signs and asks a series of question to assess fatigue, pain, and other symptoms. Stacey invariably rated every symptom a zero, but once said her fatigue level was about a two…“but we did hike about nine miles yesterday, does that count?” The reply was that it didn’t and her fatigue would be reported as a zero.

On one occasion a friend, seeing Stacey wearing a bandanna around her head, asked her if she was sick again. Stacey quickly replied, “I’m not sick, I just have cancer.” That was vintage Stacey. Her personality was bubbly, she had an infectious laugh and a smile that spread to all around her.

Until the last year or so, we continued going out on club work trips together and monitoring our own section in addition to hiking, kayaking, tending to a large garden, traveling, and volunteering with several local organizations. Stacey passed away on June 19th of this year, just two days before our 25th anniversary. A memorial for her will be established at the new Trail Center to be built in Damascus, Virginia in 2018.

It’s never been more clear to me that our move and active lifestyle, much of it involving the Trail and the club, our diet, and Stacey’s unfailingly optimistic attitude all played a major role in extending our time together for many years beyond what was thought possible — and in time I may find more solace in this. With her close to my heart and in honor of her memory, I will remain active in life and with the club, and will continue to monitor our section from Elk Garden to Thomas Knob shelter. While thinking about Stacey, one of our good friends was reminded of a quote that I think says it best: “The Devil whispered ‘You can’t withstand the storm.’ The warrior replied, “I am the storm.” Stacey was the warrior.

Doug Levin

lives in Abingdon, Virginia.

“As I See It” is a column from guest contributors representing the full range of ATC partners, members, and volunteers. To submit a column (700 words or under) for consideration:

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