Monument Days With Astro

It was the end of September 2012. I was still trying to adjust to being back at home. One thing was for certain and that was I was delighted to be back with Jayne and playing music again. My saxophone felt like a distant stranger in my hands. I sounded dreadful when I first picked it up, hoping that I’d actually remember how to play the thing. The phone rings it’s my friend Dave. Dave is a ski buddy of mine that I had met eight years previously when I got first turned on to backcountry skiing. Dave is ten years older than I am and has twenty five more years of skiing, climbing experience, and outdoor experience than I do, so I am always quizzing him on ways to improve my adventuring. Dave was originally planning on joining me on the PCT and leaving earlier than the thru-hikers so we could ski tour the PCT through the Sierra. Sadly his wife Karen was battling cancer, and Dave understandably could not commit to the expedition. I had skied with Karen maybe a half a dozen times in recent years. We weren’t close at the time, but I always enjoyed her company and her passion for adventure. I answered the phone “Hey Dave, how’s it going?” “Pretty good. Got a question for you.” “Sure. Shoot.” “Have you ever heard of a hiker named Astro?” “Well, I sure have! The hell, I named Astro, Astro! That’s my homie broheem! The real question is how do you know Astro?” Dave proceeds to explain that Astro met Karen’s close friend Dion who was a roommate of Karen’s from college days twenty years earlier. Dion is a rep for Seattle Genetics which is a biotechnology company that develops antibody-based therapies for cancer treatment. Astro had cancer. The words washed over me as I stood on the phone in complete shock. Just a few weeks earlier while Astro was hiking near White Pass which is close proximity to Mt. Rainier, he was having problems with his balance. He kept falling down. He had a tumor on his leg that was giving him so much discomfort that he had to get medical attention. There was some uncertainty if he could finish the trail at all. He checked into Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital and was given a new experimental drug called Brentuximab Vedotin which was developed by Seattle Genetics. Apparently Astro’s story was big news in Yakima, Washington as there was quite a welcoming party to meet him including camera crew for the local television and the Yakima Herald ran a very nice article which later got reprinted by the Seattle Times. Astro’s tumors in his leg vanished in 24hrs after taking the drug. There was some talk of Astro finishing the trail on horseback. He wanted none of it. He was set on walking. His condition improved dramatically and in less than two days he was back on trail. The mystery of the vanishing tumors on his leg amazed doctors and it was quite a windfall considering his thru-hike was nearly over. Seattle Genetics sent their rep Dion to meet Astro at Stevens Pass. Dion was thrilled to meet Astro. She had talked to his mom. Apparently Astro was several hours overdue to arrive at Stevens Pass, and his folks were plenty worried about him. As Astro finally made it to the road, Dion jumps out of her new shiny black Audi. “Are you Astro?” Astro amazed that a stranger knows who he is says “yes.” “Dion hands Astro her cell phone. “Talk to your mother.” Astro assured his mom that he was doing just fine.

As Dave’s spoke to me on the phone, I felt detached from my body. I replayed several events in my mind at one time while trying to concentrate on his phone call. I had no idea that my friend was indeed battling hodgkin’s lymphoma cancer the entire trail. That explained all the cryptic text messages and the unanswered questions regarding Astro’s health and why he had taken so much time off the trail. The funny thing is that Astro had a blog that he (and his mom mostly) kept up during his hike, but thru-hikers don’t read each others blogs. We are out there together sharing the promise of discovery that is hiking everyday for five months. I was shocked and had to ask Dave to explain to me again his connection with Dion. Dave told me that he had been in contact with Astro’s mom and stepdad. Dave and Karen were going to host them in Seattle. Dave continues “So I was wondering. What if we hiked the last section from Harts Pass to the monument with Astro and his step-dad Michael?  The thought of getting back on the PCT to finish again sounded delightful. I replied “How can we not do this?” Dave roared laughing repeating my words “How can we not do this.” It was settled. I was so thrilled I could hardly contain myself. I immediately rushed to my closet and grabbed my backpack and started stuffing gear into it as if I was leaving in an hour. We actually had several days to prepare. The plan was to cross the Canadian border and meet Astro’s mom, grandfather, sister, and Astro’s best friend from childhood. Also joining the party would be Dave’s wife Karen and her friend Dion from Seattle Genetics. Our destination was a resort called Manning Park which is just eight miles passed the northern terminus monument. There was a problem and that was permits to get into Canada. I didn’t have one. When I finished the trail a month earlier, I simply turned around and hiked thirty miles southbound to Harts Pass and Jayne picked me up. That is Jayne showed up as if perfectly synchronized at the precise moment I stepped off the trail. This time I’d need a permit. I called the Canadian consolet. I explained to them my story. Usually it takes months for the Canadians to issue permits if you want to cross the border on foot. I dropped the cancer card and they did a rush job on the paperwork. I wanted to make sure I was playing by the rules. I love visiting Canada and I intend to go back. Then I thought well maybe if there was a problem with entry into the country and they wanted to keep me, then great! I’d ask them for a good number for a dentist.

Hiking with Astro from Harts Pass was a dream come true. Almost exactly one month after I finished hiking the PCT, I was right back on trail. It was great to see Astro again. All things considered, he looked pretty good, but the trail had taken its toll on him. It’s hard enough hiking 2660 miles feeling great. Hiking it with cancer, all bets are off. I hadn’t seen Astro since the desert and we had some catching up to do. The first few miles north of Harts Pass were beautiful miles. In fact the first twenty miles or so north of harts pass is one of my very favorite sections of the PCT. It has some incredible sweeping views of the North Cascades and the Picket Range while hiking on ridge tops where nothing seems to separate you from the heavens. There was already a bit of snow on the ground which had collected neatly in the trail. I changed my ultralight gear out for heavier mountaineering gear as the temperature got very cold at night. It was the end of October after all. Dave had good foresight to pack a lightweight tarp that we could cook under in case it rained which for this time of year was almost a given. We set up our tents in the big trees at campsite at mile 2646 of the PCT. The campsite overlooks a beautiful open meadow just above 5,000 ft. It started raining of course because that’s what happens here in Washington in October, and we scrambled to put up the tarp. Dave saved us with that lightweight tarp. We were able to cook under it and still enjoy good company. I forever called that the “magic tarp.”  Dave made me feel like I had an unfair advantage not only being comfortable in rain and snow, but enjoying the time in the elements as much as any other. I cooked some hot soup and shared with everyone in the party. Dave looked at Astro and Michael’s tent. It was set up in a slight depression on the ground, which is a perfect place for rain to collect and pool up. He dug small trenches around the tent to deflect the water. We watched it closely as it continued to pour. It worked beautifully. Lesson learned! The next morning we were wet but happy to continue our journey to the northern terminus. The monument itself sits in a kind of non descript spot. It’s location is not particularly beautiful for views but it sure holds a lot of meaning for many people. For most people the monument is an ending point, a goal, or a trail trophy of sorts. For a select few other thru-hikers that hike the trail southbound, the monument is a beginning. Some hikers hike all the way to Canada only to be alone at the monument and instead of a celebration the feeling can be quiet, and hollow. You may have expected streamers, balloons, and drinks all around, or a crowd of fans chanting your name. No. It’s still the woods. I decided that monument was a metaphor for our lives. Sometimes the end is really the beginning. At the northern terminus there is a three foot monument that has the number 78 on it. Behind it is a 20 foot swath cut out of the trees that runs 5,500 miles separating the US from Canada. The 20 feet of empty space is called “The No Touching Zone.” The next day it was early evening and amongst my playful whooping and hollering cheers of encouragement I watched Astro take his final steps toward his goal. It was evening now and raining hard. We took photos of Astro kissing the monument as the rain slipped down his face. I watched as he signed the trail register. I looked at Astro’s step dad Michael. He looked so proud watching Astro sign the book. We decided to walk just ten minutes further north into Canada. There was very nice campsite where we could make a fire. We are walking along. I say to Astro “Hey bro, I forgot to tell you. I talked to the Canadian consulate and they gave us a special permit to enter Canada.” “That’s great Gourmet, did you get me on there?” “Huh? No. I just got permits for Dave, your step-dad, and me. You don’t have a permit?” “No. I forgot to get one.” “I am sorry. I incorrectly assumed you had one already since going to Canada was always the plan.” “Nope.” “I guess we’ll see what happens. We both laughed. “Well Astro, whatever happens, I am sure it will make a good story. We laughed again. At the campsite Dave set up the magic tarp. The rest of us hunted down logs to make a fire. After many tries we finally got the fire going. All the wood was wet making it a tough go to get the fire started. Finally we had a blazing fire. We enjoyed some drinks and talked about what an amazing day we had. In the morning we woke up to three inches of snow on the ground. The world transformed into a frigid white fairyland. The forest was shockingly quiet.  We were taking our time enjoying a morning fire and filling our bellies with hot drinks. All we had to do was walk an easy eight miles to Manning Park to rendezvous with Astro’s family and Dion and Dave’s wife Karen. I convinced Astro that it would be worth it to walk ten minutes back to the monument to take photos again since the snow transformed the landscape so dramatically. He didn’t need much convincing. It was almost nine 9am. All of a sudden the silence of the forest breaks with Astro shouting “Wolverine! Wolverine!” I think wow. A wolverine? Where? I want to see! I turn around and see Astro hugging his friend and fellow thru-hiker named Wolverine. I walk up to him. I introduce myself. He starts talking about his camp last night. His speech was a bit mumbly. “Are you ok?” He said “Yes, I am so glad to see you guys though.” He wasn’t really ok. Dave took one look at him and thought he was slightly hypothermic. His face and hands were red and he was shaking a bit standing still in front of me. I gave him my huge down winter jacket and my mountaineering gloves. Put this on. Dave was already starting up the stove again for hot water. After a hot drink Wolverine looked much better and was speaking more clearly. It was nice to finally meet him. Wolverine had hiked many days with Astro and helped him a great deal. We packed up and left our bags at the campsite and walked back to the monument to take photos in the snow. Wolverine was happy to be amongst friends. He said “I got to the monument and I had nobody to celebrate with so I just signed the register and walked on. I was thrilled for him that we could share a fun time. We walked back and celebrated all over again. I took photos of Astro with his arms extended in triumph in front of the monument with the snow everywhere. After hugs, songs, and congratulations all around we made our final short push to Manning Park. I lent Astro the liners to my mountaineering gloves. They were big red down filled liners that made Astro look more like a boxer than a hiker. Just three miles from Manning we ran into three Chinese/American ladies from Seattle. They were following Astro’s blog. They had driven from Seattle that morning to hopefully celebrate with him at the monument. We had no idea who they were. They greeted us and asked which one of us was Astro? Astro chimes in. “I am Astro.” The ladies treated him like he was a total rock star! I exclaim “Bro, you have fans!” Indeed he did, and they wanted to talk with him. I blurted out “No, you got it wrong. Actually I am Astro!” They all laughed and offered more congratulations to Astro commanding his attention. He was so sweet to them and I could tell even though Astro was a soft spoken and humble young man, he liked the attention. I walked with Dave for the last few miles. We giggled on how that was so random. Seriously, three Chinese/American ladies from Seattle? Here? Astro had a posse. We finally made it to the road. The ladies had their car parked there. They opened up the trunk of their car. It was filled with cookies, cakes, fresh fruit, juice, and a bottle of champagne. Hey, “Let’s open that champagne.” Astro twisted the cork. It took a few seconds to get pop the cork. The anticipation was wonderful. Pow! The cork sailed into the air and landed twenty feet away. Cheers! Here here! We sipped the bubbly and I couldn’t get over how random our welcoming crew was. I could not imagine a more grand alternate ending to my thru-hike. I decided that you know your thru-hike is over when you can feel your beard flying in the wind. A new experience for me. Later on in Manning Park we met up with Astro’s mom, grandfather, sister Alex, best friend Spencer, Dion, and Dave’s wife Karen.

The next morning several folks in our party went to do yoga with Astro’s mom Betsy. I stayed with Karen. It was a good chance for us to bond a bit. We talked about her cancer. She told me she was in a lot of pain. The cancer had essentially broken her spine. She was also concerned with the cancer spots on her brain.

Later that morning the Seattle crew Dave, Karen, Dion, and I packed up and and said our goodbyes to Astro and his family. A few days later Astro and family joined us for a huge salmon dinner, with roasted potatoes, and red wine, here at our house. My piano player friend Christopher stopped by and we played all kinds of music including Astor Piazzolla, Mozart, and songs from Beck’s new Song Reader. I was happy to show Astro my house and it felt good to nourish a ravenous thru-hiker. After dinner I walked with Astro to his car. I gave him a bear hug then watched their car speed up the street. That was the last time I ever saw him. Andy was a great person, and the best friend that you could hope for. I feel that losing Andy is a far greater loss than anyone can imagine. The fact is is that Andy was highly intelligent, and was on track to be a healer of some kind. He was very interested in Eastern medicine. Perhaps he would have been a doctor? A scientist? Both? Sadly we will never know. But, he really wanted to help people, and I have no doubt he would have made a huge contribution. We celebrated his spirit as we hiked as “Team Astro” PNT 2015. Andy would have been proud of our team. We drew energy from his spirit and called his name to the hills.

Love, Gourmet ¼ of Team Astro

Pacific Crest Trail Class of 2012
Pacific Northwest Trail Class of 2015