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Walking Away From It All On the PCT

One man’s attempt to find healing by hiking the 2,660 mile Pacific Crest Trail

By Dashel Pierson Plesa, Special to the Independent

To his mother’s disbelief, Andy Lyon, called to “check-in” from the summit of 14,500-foot Mt. Whitney. Lyon had been there before, but this time he had walked to the central California peak from the Mexican border while in the midst of a battle against cancer. And bagging the summit was just a side trip on his epic quest to conquer the disease by walking the Pacific Crest Trail—all 2,660 miles of it.

Four years earlier, when he was 19 and a freshman at UC Berkley studying astro-physics on a scholarship, Lyon had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He took a year off, underwent chemotherapy and radiation and returned to school, sailing through his sophomore year. Just when he was about to begin his junior year, the cancer returned. This time his doctors prescribed an even stronger chemotherapy along with 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.

Lyon knew he needed a new game plan. While he was at UC Berkley, he had become interested in Eastern philosophy and religion, and yoga. Since traditional Western medicine was not working for him, Lyon began researching ancient and more natural healing methods. He sought the advice of an Ayurvedic practitioner versed in the ancient, Hindu system of medicine. Changing his diet and embarking upon a serious yoga and meditation practice, Lyon embraced a new path.

Stressed, both physically and mentally, Lyon attended a 10-day, silent meditation retreat near Yosemite.  By quieting his mind, breathing deeply, he allowed “the power of the universe to flow through me a bit more,” he said. “In an instant, this image of the Pacific Crest Trail came into my head. By going within, Lyon had discovered his next step in his healing process—hiking from the Mexican to the Canadian border on the Pacific Crest Trail. “It was going to save him or it was going to kill him,” said Michael Gosselin, Lyon’s stepdad.

Following his stem cell transplant, Lyon’s oncologist told him that he might only survive for two more years. That two-year window had elapsed by the time Lyon stood on the summit of Whitney. Lyon knows that his time on the planet may be short and he is not afraid for himself. Talking with his mother about his possible death before his journey, he said, “I’m afraid to hurt all those people that love me. They’d be sad if I died and I don’t want to make them sad.”

Before starting his journey, Lyon checked in with a holistic doctor who analyzed his blood. Without informing the doctor of his condition, Lyon wasn’t surprised when he told him that his blood was some of the worst he had seen in someone of Lyon’s age. However, Lyon was surprised with the doctor’s reaction to the idea of the PCT hike. “He told me that what I really needed was to get my circulation going and to take deep rhythmic breaths,” said Lyon. “He said that [the PCT] would be perfect.” To prepare for the gargantuan journey, Lyon sought the best and the lightest equipment and began a few trial runs to get a feel for life in nature. Even though he didn’t feel in great shape physically or mentally, Lyon believed that hiking the trail would put his body in the top physical shape necessary to battle his cancer. The physical aspect wasn’t his only reason for wanting to spend six months, mostly alone, in nature.

“There was a lot on my mind earlier this year, and there still is,” said Lyon. For Lyon, extended immersion in nature was “the only thing that I hadn’t tried that really could heal me, body, mind and soul.” On long hikes in the Sierras with his stepfather the summer before, Lyon had already experienced the healing power of nature. Maybe on the PCT he could once again find that feeling of peace, well-being and vitality. “Carrying a big bundle of worries everywhere can be exhausting,” said Lyon. 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.

Hiking the entire PCT in one season, called thru-hiking, is a daunting task even for the most physically fit athlete. Starting on day one, Lyon’s resolve was tested by a freak, late season snowstorm. When his parents returned home from dropping him off at Mt. Laguna, they soon received a call from their snow soaked voyager. After four initial miles into the adventure, Lyon was forced to turn around due to the raging snowstorm with winds that threatened to blow him off his feet. He had decided to spend the night in an inn to sleep off the storm and start refreshed the next morning in better conditions.

The rough start was hardly the only difficulty Lyon experienced along the way. A man’s feet can really take a beating from walking an average of 20 miles a day up and down mountains—in fact, they also freakishly grow a size to a size-and-a-half. There are also pesky blisters to deal with. Having a consistent supply of food and water are also vital to survival on the trail. Lyon would have to lug these crucial resources daily. But it was worse when the supplies ran low, especially water. While clutching a glass of cold tap water at home, Lyon noted, “If I wanted this glass of water tonight, I would have been carrying it all day.” These burdens piled on top of the fact that Lyon was still fighting cancer and the pain that came with it.

His family’s support, Lyon said, was “essential” to his success. Lyon’s mother was constantly on the clock making sure there was food waiting for her son at the next checkpoint. Every week she would shop and make food that would be easy for Lyon to consume and lug through the wilderness. This mainly consisted of a large supply of energy and protein bars—lightweight and nutritious. Finding food that worked wasn’t always easy. Gosselin recalled her son telling her: “Don’t ever send me any more peanuts.” Gosselin even provided her son with some home cooking, a delicacy on the trail.  “We even have a food dehydrator and she would dehydrate her homemade tomato sauce sometimes,” said Lyon. Often mom’s cooking would be just the lift he needed to keep pushing towards the Canadian border.

“Most people were living off of Doritos, tortillas and Snickers bars,” said Lyon’s stepdad, Michael. “Everyone always talked about how good Andy’s food was.” Along with Betsy’s exceptional cooking, Michael also played an integral role in keeping Lyon happy on the trail. Every three or four weeks, someone would meet Lyon to hike with him; this person was mainly Michael. “I had some other visitors,” said Lyon, “but Michael was my main trail cheerleader. I would get a dose of family love, which I found out on the trail was an essential component to me being successful.”

Along with his family, a special breed of supporters called trail angels propelled Lyon. These angels are devoted to hikers of the PCT and provide them with a little trail magic along their way. Trail angels help in various ways ranging from leaving food and supplies at stops along the trail to inviting hikers into their homes for a hot shower or a bed for the night. All the trail angels want in return is to know that they’ve helped a hiker in the special experience and to get a kick out of the stories the trudging troopers may have.

On the PCT, trail names are a tradition. Since Lyon was studying astro-physics, he became Astro Andy. Although Lyon has the noteworthy ability to name the constellations spattered across the night sky, the universe to him entails far more than what can be seen. Lyon has put a large amount of faith in the universe to heal his ailments, believing that “ultimately the greatest healing lies in new things, opening yourself up to the power of spirit, the power of the universe, the power of nature.”

On the trail, Lyon experienced many moments where he would lose that faith. Outside of Yosemite, Lyon opted for a break from the trail after his abdomen began to swell. He returned home to the comfort of his home and family. “I was surrounded by love, good food, and couches,” said Lyon, which returned him to the trail refreshed and revitalized. “You lose your faith everyday and you just have to push through those experiences,” he said. Ultimately Lyon learned to take the massive journey day by day and to just keep walking.

When Lyon was about 300 miles shy of his goal, one experience tested his faith more than any other. It looked like a tragic end to his pilgrimage when he began to experience numbness in his leg; he had a hunch it had something to do with his tenacious disease.

Just outside of Seattle, Lyon began wondering whether he would reach his goal or not. “Struggling just to walk down a steep rocky hillside with a leg that was sort of paralyzed was challenging, scary, and dangerous,” said Lyon. “I began to fall down. It became obvious that I needed to get it checked out.” He hitched a ride from a PCT buddy into the small town of Yakima for professional help. At first, he thought he would just see a chiropractor. Luckily, it was late on a Saturday and the office was closed until Monday. Lyon instead opted for the ER, which led to a fortuitous turn of events.

The tests showed that another tumor had developed on Lyon’s spine, causing the numbness. News of Lyon’s story surfaced and the small town of Yakima grew intrigued by the scraggily bearded hero. Doctors don’t hear that their patients had walked into their office from Mexico every day. Soon after Lyon’s mother arrived to support her son, the calls flooded in. Before even seeing a doctor, Lyon and Gosselin were approached by local newspapers, a TV station, and even a representative from the Dream Foundation who wanted to outfit Lyon with a company of horses to help him finish the journey. Lyon’s story was out, and those who heard it, wanted any part in helping him finish the damn thing.

As luck would have it, a newly approved drug designed specifically for treating people with reoccurring Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and available only in a few places, was amazingly in tiny Yakima. Vedotin had hit the market exactly when and where Lyon needed it. “Yakima was the first hospital where the drug was administered,” said Lyon. “In fact, it was probably just 1 of 10 or less hospitals in the country that was even familiar with the drug. I was lucky.” With the universe on his side, a reduced tumor, and an elated spirit, Lyon was miraculously able to get back on the trail the next day, with no need for the horses.

Due to the media coverage, the manufacturer of Vedotin heard about and sought out Lyon. They had been inspired by his journey and they were extremely gratified to hear that their product was effective. A representative from the company became Lyon’s own personal trail angel, making sure he was well fed and even inviting him to come visit the lab where the drug was researched and produced. First, however, Lyon was committed to getting to Canada.

On the last leg of the journey, Lyon trudged along plagued by deteriorating weather conditions reminiscent of the beginning; this time it was rain instead of snow. Completely worn out, Lyon spent a few nights of his last week drenched in his tent and nearing hypothermia. To warm his stepson’s spirits, Michael flew from balmy Laguna to the drenched Pacific Northwest to accompany Lyon to the end. “When he joined me those last 38 miles, I knew I would make it,” Lyon said. “Even if he had to carry me, I would make it.”

And Lyon triumphantly did. Greeted by his family, his best friend, trail angels he had met along the way, and even the representative of his miracle drug, Lyon crossed the Canadian border on Oct. 19. The colossal journey had lasted six and a half months.

After some much needed relaxation, tears of joy, and hotel Jacuzzi sessions, Lyon visited the facility in Seattle where Vedotin was manufactured. Here, he met the chemist and the scientist, along with the board of directors, who had helped make his dream a reality. To them, he is living success of their product, but they are just as happy knowing they helped get him to the end of the trail after he had just about lost hope. “I have all their phone numbers and I can call them with questions about like whether this is a side effect I’m supposed to experience or not,” said Lyon with a grin.

“I have six months to figure out what I want to do next,” said Lyon. He is on a regimen of one dose of Vedotin every three weeks for a cycle of six months. “In the meantime I get to relax, hangout and not feel guilty about it.”

Lyon hopes that his story will inspire people to realize their true capabilities and to not be hindered by life’s obstacles. “My story does have the potential to inspire people,” said Lyon. “Even if you’re old, sick, or depressed, you really have the power to accomplish whatever you want to accomplish regardless of your limitations. In reality, those only exist in your mind.”

Originally, Lyon’s journey was a quest for his own personal healing. While he isn’t cancer-free yet, conquering the PCT has brought an abundance of confidence and a positive outlook on any future snags that may come his way. “Some people live their whole lives not really doing what they love,” said Lyon. “They just go through life with a job, just getting by.” Because of the cards he has been dealt, Lyon is intimately aware of the fragility of life.

And his story is still unfolding. Though still fighting cancer, Lyon’s also seeking his next adventure. Whether it is opening a restaurant, moving to India, or studying Ayurvedic medicine, Lyon will pursue his next calling with confidence. Anything has to be easier than walking the entire Pacific Coast with cancer.

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