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For Years, I Put Off Backpacking With My Dad. Then He Got Cancer.

Jobs, trips, moves: Every time I tried to hit the trail with my dad, life got in the way. Then something happened that made me realize just how much time I had wasted.

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Hiking isn’t just a hobby—it’s a lifestyle. Maggie Slepian tackles the hiking life—and all of the joys, problems, arguments, and weird quirks that go along with it—in her column.

On our first night in Yosemite, my dad unfolded his map on the rickety table in our tent cabin, pointing out big climbs and campsites along the route we’d hike over the next five days. He had mapped a truly incredible trip, ending with a summit of Half Dome that he’d worked hard to procure a permit for.

Afterward, just as we finished packing our food, my dad cleared his throat. 

“Hey Maggie, I have something to tell you,” he said. His tone told me this was something that I wouldn’t want to hear.

It was 2017, and after years of trying, my dad and I had finally gotten into the backcountry together. We’d been trying to plan a trip for years, but something had always come up on my end: my summer jobs, a move across the country, an AT thru-hike. “Next year for sure!” I’d text from across the country. 

My dad was my original hiking partner. In high school, my dad, youngest brother, and I spent weekends bagging peaks in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Hiking was his passion, but for decades, a demanding work schedule and commute relegated him to weekend outings. 

After college, I moved out west to chase my outdoor passion. My dad would send photos from his weekend hikes; at first they included my brother, but as Aaron got his driver’s license and started playing high school sports, he drifted away as well. My dad would still send photos from his latest peaks, but they were always selfies, and he was always alone. 

It wasn’t until my dad finally retired that I set aside the two weeks to meet him in California, a chance to finally see the place that first ignited his love of the backcountry. We told each other this would be the first of many trips—an annual tradition of exploring a new national park each summer. But even as we planned, my dad was carrying a heavy secret.

Back in the tent, dad unburdened himself. He calmly informed me that the year before, he had had concerning lab results. My parents had been assured there was nothing to worry about for a few years, but he had been going in for monitoring each month. Then, shortly before our trip, he had been officially diagnosed with leukemia. 

I stared at the canvas wall in the darkness, my breathing shallow. My voice was barely a whisper: “That’s not fair,” I finally said. No other words seemed to make sense. “You just retired.” 

My dad acknowledged that it wasn’t fair. But he didn’t feel sorry for himself. The medical team had caught it early, and the prognosis was good. 

I promised him his diagnosis wouldn’t ruin our trip, but secretly, it consumed my thoughts. How could it not? In the morning, we boarded the shuttle to start our trip, and I didn’t bring it up. We’d been waiting to take this trip for years, and I knew it was best if I stayed level. 

Over the next five days, we climbed and descended thousands of feet. We swam in icy lakes and made a game out of rating our freeze-dried meals. One day we missed a turn and doubled our daily mileage. On another, I completely lost my wits on the Half Dome cables. But despite the grandeur all around us, the diagnosis was always on my mind. It cast a shadow over the cliffs and rivers of the Yosemite high country.

I started outlining our next trips as soon as I got home. We would visit Rocky Mountain National Park the next summer, then the Mighty Five in Utah. I penciled in Olympic National Park and “something epic” in Denali. I had a lot of lost time to make up for, and I felt like I couldn’t afford to waste any more.

My father’s health was stable enough for the next six months that we felt confident solidifying plans for Rocky Mountain National Park. I reserved campsites and wrote up a detailed itinerary with mileages, shuttles, and tick-list peaks. But two months later, my parents called me and said that things had taken a turn for the worse. My dad was scheduled to start chemotherapy and was now on the list for a bone marrow transplant. 

The cancer finally felt real, and I couldn’t ignore the insidious feeling that I’d waited too long to start our big national park adventures. In my darker moments, I wondered how much time my dad and I had left.

I still had to go to Colorado for work that summer. On my last day in Denver, a notification popped up on my phone: Pick up dad @ airport. I had forgotten to remove the calendar reminder for our trip, and that last scrap of our plan hit me like a wave. 

I drove to Rocky Mountain National Park the next day. I had a half-baked plan to complete part of our backpacking trip and send my dad photos along the way, but I felt too deflated. I ended up driving back to Montana four days early, spending the 10 hours in the car filled with regret. 

Over the next two years, my dad would go into remission, relapse, undergo another transplant, then go into remission again.  But, slowly, things got better, and four years later, he’s going strong: He has an avid group of hiking friends—hardcore outdoorspeople pursuing every obscure New England hiking list there is. They send me photos from wind-swept summits, and I know they’ll kick my butt when I finally get back to the east coast. Soon, I hope I’ll find out. I’ve got an open summer and a Covid vaccine, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a New Hampshire trip. It may not be Denali, but I won’t dilly-dally anymore.

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