In the spring of 2011, I walked out of the Denver airport and into an unmarked white van full of strangers. It was a beautiful day. The skies were clear, and I could see mountains – real mountains – in the distance. They looked even better than they do on Coors Light cans. The driver of the van introduced himself as ‘Patch.’ He had that exuberant, wild-yet-salt-of-the-Earth look to him – the kind that guys get when they spend their lives outdoors. Nothing like I’d seen in my past four years in college at a preppy East Coast school.
He leaned over to me. “Are you nervous?”
“Don’t worry, getting on the plane to come here was the hardest part.”
I’d like to see your hardest pa—oh, shut up, brain.
We drove for maybe an hour. We stopped once at a gas station. We probably listened to music. Then, we arrived at an excessively wood-paneled lodge on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, and my life changed.
I wasn’t even technically supposed to be there. I’d heard of First Descents at a recent visit to a post-cancer clinic. They offered rock climbing and whitewater kayaking camps for young adult survivors – those diagnosed between ages 15 and 39. My diagnosis came a few months before my sixth birthday. Still, I couldn’t stop looking at the FD flyer after the nurse handed it to me. A phone call, a recommendation from my clinic, and a last semester of college later, I was on my way to Colorado.
I figured it was worth a try. I might not exactly fit in at camp, but I was used to that. Cancer put my life into pretty harsh perspective at a young age. Normal social constructs always seemed a bit pointless and I wasn’t good at adhering to them anyways. I never saw any reason to limit myself to a normal human serving size of waffles. I used to sit in the Art Institute because I liked looking at people while they looked at art. I thought the musical episode of Buffy was an incredible hour of television. I synchronized swam competitively. I was always a little weird.
I didn’t even fit into the cancer world. I’d never associated myself with the term ‘survivor.’ Cancer was a blemish, an imperfection. It was the first thing that made me weird. But the older I got, the harder it was to ignore. The seemingly endless side effects, the follow-up appointments, and the scars were inescapable. I felt trapped; frozen. And not in a heartwarming Disney princess kind of way. I dealt with the resulting anxiety, depression, and anger in the healthiest way possible – I buried it all deep down inside and insisted I was fine all the time.
First Descents was my new beginning. At camp, no one goes by his or her real name. That gets left behind, along with full-size toiletries and shame about peeing outdoors. At camp, we were Nugget, Raebird, Dori, Roots, Aims, Notorious, Y-Y, Raver, E Peso, Blades, and Freud. We were whoever the hell we wanted to be.
We spent our days climbing. Every time I approached the rocks, fear punched me in the gut. I got so nervous, it felt like the all strength had drained out of my muscles. I was on the verge of giving up constantly. I was halfway up the face of a cliff when the worst bout of this ridiculous fear hit. I looked for holds in the rock above, but everything seemed to be just out of reach. Clouds covered the sun. It started to rain. My silly little neuropathy-ridden hands went completely numb. I hadn’t moved in what felt like forever. I was frozen again. I started to panic.
Before I could spiral too far into self-doubt, one of our guides climbed her way over to me. “Do you want to come down?”
I imagined going back down. It wasn’t what I wanted. “I just don’t want to not get to the top.”
“Okay, then just climb.”
She grabbed my foot, shoved it up about eight inches, and suddenly I was climbing again. And I was slipping and clawing my way up. And it was not pretty, but that part didn’t matter. My fellow campers cheered me on. And then, I was at the top.
We spent our nights sharing stories. We’d bundle up in pajamas and blankets, and snuggle into chairs around the campfire. We laughed about the events of the day. We sang along to songs strummed on a guitar. One by one, we all poured our hearts out.
When I first met Raebird, she was talking about the ruggedly handsome Greenpeace volunteer she had just met. After one conversation, she had accepted his invitation to road trip across the country together after camp. She was this insane mixture of boldness and compassion. She told me that if any gentlemen ever gave me a hard time, I should take a pair of garden shears to their balls. At the campfire, she talked about recently finding out her cancer had spread further. Everyone cried.
Dori was this kind of ethereal, Australian mermaid-person. Yes, her nickname was a Finding Nemo reference. She had an accent and we were Americans – it was inevitable. Her bed was next to mine in the lodge, and we would stay up late whispering about nonsense. At the campfire, she told us how much she had lost to cancer. She was late-stage and still battling, yet somehow she just glowed. She could have been so bitter. No one would have faulted her. But she wasn’t. I sobbed all through my low-pressure shower that night.
By the end of the week we were all so disgustingly bonded that it was hard to imagine leaving each other. We stayed up talking until 3am that last night. At the airport the next morning, we found a secluded spot to sit and be together for just a little while longer. My flight was the latest. One by one, my fellow campers peeled off towards security. We hugged each other tightly and promised to post our pictures on Facebook as soon as we got home. Dori was the last to go. The two of us waxed on about me visiting her in Australia. We would lie on the beach and whisper about nonsense.
And then, I was on my own. I had greasy hair, my skin was spattered with scrapes and bruises, my muscles were sore, my mind was exhausted, and I was the second happiest I’d ever been.
I didn’t come away from camp with any prophetic revelations about what to do with my life. I won’t offer you any dime-store philosophy about living each day like it’s your last. The truth is, there isn’t some cosmic secret to bliss that they only tell cancer survivors. We all really already know the right things to do – be kind, help others, don’t give away Game of Thrones spoilers. First Descents didn’t make me a new person. It taught me to accept the person I already was, nerves and warts and all.
I still get nervous. I’m going after this whole comedy thing in Chicago now. Last year, on the eve of the eighteenth anniversary of my diagnosis, I stood on a stage at Second City to audition for the final leg of their conservatory program. The auditor called my name, and that ridiculous fear gripped me once again. I imagined pushing the guy next to me over to create a diversion and escaping through the dark aisle. But escaping wasn’t what I really wanted. So, I took a deep breath and that first step forward, and I went for it. For twenty minutes, I was my weird self on stage. And then it was over. I went to the bar across the street and drank cheap beer under the sun with some friends. And a few days later, they told me I was in, but that part didn’t matter.
After camp, Roots moved to Colorado and embraced the climber lifestyle. Notorious rode his motorcycle around the country. Aims studied her way through pharmacy school. E Peso got married. Great things happened. Awful things happened. Raebird and Dori both passed away.
On the last day of camp, we split into groups and made our way up a 350-foot tall, ancient chunk of stone called Castle Rock. We left our personal demons in the dust. By the time we got to the top, we were grinning like idiots, drunk on confidence. (You know, how Matthew McConaughey is all the time.) The sunlight was streaming down from a cloudless sky. The views were breathtaking. I looked around at all my friends. They were cheering on Freud, who was peeing outdoors for the very first time. I was the happiest I’d ever been.