Ten months after triumphantly crossing into Canada having walked there from Mexico, Andrew Lyon, 24, passed away on the morning of Aug. 30, 2013 cradled in the arms of his mother and sister.
Lyon took his final breath at Ananda, a spiritual community in northern California where he had spent many months throughout the five and half years he spent living with cancer. He was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2008, when he was 19 and a freshman at UC Berkley studying astro-physics on a scholarship.
Before college, Lyon had an illustrious academic career in each of the Laguna Beach schools he attended from Top of the World to Thurston to Laguna Beach High School.
Linda Barker, his fifth grade teacher, recalled the 10-year-old Lyon as “one of my most intelligent fifth grade students with a love of math and reading.” While one of her most gifted students, Barker said Lyon never bragged about his abilities and instead helped students who struggled. Barker remembered Lyon’s stellar performance as the jester – who brought love and laughter back to the community – in a play written by David Saltman, who ironically lost his life to Hodgkin’s disease at 23. And she recalled that Lyon “was a good big brother” to his sister, Alexandra. “He always watched over her when he was at school and would wait for his little sister to join him.”
Lyon continued to impress his teachers at Thurston Middle School. “There are some students you just never forget,” said Patricia Twitty, Lyon’s eighth-grade science teacher. “He was the boy who walked in everyday with a smile on his face that lit up the room. He was always very present. The world is such a better place because Andy Lyon was here.”
The theme of kindness and caring for others continued to play out throughout Lyon’s life.
When he was 16 Lyon travelled with a group of students, all girls, to Costa Rica to paint and spackle a church in a poor community. Ann Quilter, the adult leader of the group, will never forget his “willingness to share, believe, to be brave and have fun while doing it,” even while surrounded by girls determined to pluck his “magnificent unibrow.” Quilter recalled seeing the emergence of Lyon’s “already magnificent sense of adventure,” which only grew despite the adversity he was to face.
Following his cancer diagnosis, Lyon took a year off from school, underwent chemotherapy and radiation, learned to play the piano, got a dog and returned to Berkeley, sailing through his sophomore year. As he was to begin his junior year, the cancer returned. His doctors prescribed even stronger chemotherapy and a grueling stem cell transplant treatment that required Lyon to be in isolation for three weeks. One hundred days after his release from the hospital, just a few months after his 21st birthday, Lyon learned that the cancer was back. After a 10-day silent meditation retreat, during which Lyon said that he “allowed the power of the universe to flow through me a bit more,” he decided to literally walk away from his oncologists’ prescriptions and instead immerse himself in nature, which he dearly loved, by attempting to walk the 2,660-mile Pacific Crest Trail.
“Carrying a big bundle of worries everywhere can be exhausting,” he said. So instead of shouldering the weight of the world, he packed his camping supplies, put on his running shoes and walked away from it all.
On the trail he became known as “Astro Andy.” And while his family was initially skeptical, they became his ardent support team. His mother, Betsy Gosselin, cooked, dehydrated and shipped an unending river of food packages and his stepfather, Michael Gosselin, often surprised Lyon on the trail and hiked with him for days.
Just 300 miles shy of the Canadian border, Lyon began to falter. The pain that he had learned to live with became intolerable and he started falling on the trail. Dr. Albert Brady, an oncologist at Yakima Memorial Hospital in Washington, told him the bad – and the good – news. His cancer had returned but the physician had just received a newly approved drug designed for people with reoccurring Hodgkin’s lymphoma. After receiving the treatment, Lyon got back on the trail the next day, and after walking through days of rain and snow, crossed the Canadian border on Oct. 19, six and a half months after he started,
“We’re a small town and he was quite a celebrity for us,” Brady said. “It’s an enormous undertaking for anyone to walk the entire length of the PCT in a single season and to do it with cancer made people just want to jump in and help him whatever way they could. People so admired someone with a terminal illness who accepted it with such courage and equanimity. He was a most remarkable young man.”
While on the trail Lyon and his mother started a blog: “Andy’s Big Adventure” which provided updates on his progress and served as an inspiration to friends and strangers alike. When it became clear that the “miracle” drug he received in Washington was not working and that he was dying, Lyon asked that his mother continue the blog to let people share his last earthly journey. A friend from Ananda commented that Lyon had “embarked on another type of PCT: A Purposefully Conscious Transition.” With courage and an open heart, Lyon laid down sign posts to help others on a trip that all will make but few speak about.
Lyon and his family talked openly about how and where to celebrate his life and where he would like his ashes to be placed. One of his last dreams was to have his family and friends take him to one of his favorite passes in the Sierra to camp, have fun, share stories and revel in nature that he dearly loved.
Lyon is survived by his mother Betsy Gosselin, his stepfather, Michael Gosselin, his sister, Alexandra, and his grandparents.
A memorial service will be held at the Laguna Beach Neighborhood Congregational Church on Sept. 29. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in Lyon’s honor to Ananda Village, 14618 Tyler Foote Rd., Nevada City, CA 95959 or to The Pacific Crest Trail Association: https://www.pcta.org/donate/#why-give.