Editor’s note: Due to the production schedule for Pacific NW magazine, this story was written before the state’s “shelter in place” orders, intended to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, were enacted.
UTAH, CIRCA 1955: From out of a cloud of dust, a rusty truck’s wheels come to a halt. The driver’s door opens, and a well-worn boot steps onto the dirt road.
Verl Alldredge moves cautiously to greet two men in uniform. Government men. Words are exchanged as a formality while one of the men makes his way back to the truck’s load: fruit and vegetables headed from Arizona into St. George, Utah.
When he flicks on a Geiger counter, its meter needle jumps vigorously, and a series of rapid clicks fills the space in that vast desert. The counter is quickly silenced, and the officer sighs heavily. Verl asks, “Should I dump it? What should I do with it?” Their eyes lock, Verl already knowing the response. The officer shrugs. “No, go ahead. It will be fine.”
Verl drives on down that dusty road, bound for St. George.
“Verl took it into town and passed it throughout the grocery stores, and sold it to the community,” says his grandson, Travis Alldredge.
“THERE IS ALWAYS something to be thankful for,” reads a motivational quote on the wall of Josie Alldredge’s Snohomish bedroom, where a purple pillowcase matches a purple handmade quilt and a purple stuffed dragon. Soon-to-be-18-year-old Josie is the daughter of Travis, granddaughter of Cindy Alldredge (who made the dragon) and great-granddaughter of Verl.
Josie, a senior at Monroe High School, was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma at the age of 15, on Nov. 9, 2016 — the day after Donald Trump was elected. Her story of transformation — from cancer victim to confident, grateful leader — encompasses the atomic bomb, an innovative outdoor-adventure program that led her on a soul-challenging nine-day trek into the Oregon wilderness … and a magical, multicolored Unicorn Poop Cake.
Far from Josie’s bedroom, but only 130 miles west of Verl’s Utah home, in the northernmost Mojave Desert, lay the infamous Nevada Test Site, whose primary purpose was to test nuclear weapons. A prolonged, dangerous and unintended experiment — on Americans living downwind — took place there between 1951 and 1962, when the Atomic Energy Commission carried out some 100 aboveground atmospheric tests at the site, later renamed the Nevada National Security Site. Before the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 ended open-air testing, mesmerizing billowing clouds dazzled the residents of the small city of St. George, where the Alldredge family lived.
“My parents would see mushroom clouds fly over the town, and big flashes at night over the mountains,” recalls Travis, who was born after the testing ended, but who remembers the stories of family members who witnessed the awe-inspiring spectacle of nuclear-weapons testing.
The clouds and resulting fallout, in the form of radioactive ash, dirt and debris, often landed on St. George. No warnings about the dangers of exposure to radiation were issued by the federal government and its oversight agency, the Atomic Energy Commission. In fact, those living nearby were assured they had nothing to worry about.
But the reality was quite different. The produce in Verl’s truck set off a Geiger counter because it had been contaminated by a fine white ash that coated everything from vegetable gardens to sandboxes and lawn furniture. Verl and the people of St. George who bought and ate this produce and drank the milk from cows grazing on contaminated pastureland were among the thousands of Downwinders from Utah, Nevada and adjacent states exposed to fallout and radiation released by atmospheric bomb blasts.
What ensued in the years that followed was a veritable epidemic of cancers among the residents of St. George. First-generation Downwinders in the Alldredge family, those directly exposed to fallout from atomic blasts, were hit hard. Verl’s wife, Ada Nelson Alldredge, died of lung cancer. Their son, Travis’ father, Michael Alldredge, now 71, has chronic myeloid leukemia, for which he takes daily chemotherapy pills. Two of Michael’s sisters, also Downwinders who grew up in St. George, were diagnosed with cancer.
Travis, a third-generation Downwinder, was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma at age 25; Josie had an even more aggressive form of the same cancer.
As a fourth-generation Downwinder, Josie is the inheritor of the historical and biological burden imposed by her family’s toxic nuclear legacy — passed along in stories and very likely in her DNA. Lifting that burden from her young shoulders would be no small task: She would need the help of an entire team of dedicated caregivers and pathfinders. Together, they would embark on a demanding but also transformative, quasi-magical journey through the wilderness, helping Josie discover the curative powers of nature.
IN JEANS, T-SHIRT and chunky hiking boots, five days shy of turning 18, Josie sits a little awkwardly on her bed with a nervous smile, and describes how her illness began: “I had just turned 15, and a couple of months later, I was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkin lymphoma. I went through treatments and everything. You know, pretty sick, like you get. I lost weight, and with my chemotherapy, my hair started falling out, bit by bit. I just got so incredibly fed up with it that I shaved my head. Shaving your head during the winter months … not fun.”
Josie’s lymph nodes, her extended family and far too many residents from the small city of St. George were ravaged with cancer. Two weeks earlier, Josie’s grandmother had become the most recent family member diagnosed with the disease. In September 2019, only four weeks after this sunny August afternoon, Cindy Alldredge, age 67, died of cancer.
“I grew up on a ranch down there, eating that dirt, playing in that dirt,” Travis says. “Josie never did, but her cancer was so much worse than mine. And she relapsed six months after treatment and went through a stem-cell transplant, and had a full year of chemo after that, too.”
He pauses to compose himself. “Watching your 15-year-old high school sophomore starting to have some real issues and not figuring what it was. Then when we did figure … it was devastating.”
“PEPSI OR COKE?” comes a voice from the back of a van filled with eight teenagers: Peter, Cora, Kira, Evan, Clarke, Jake, Lizzie and Josie, plus at least as many backpacks, stuffed plastic bins and scattered snacks. Day 1 finds them cruising south from Portland toward the Three Sisters Wilderness area, the van initially holding an awkward silence. Then this game gains momentum, eliciting preferences and common ground: milk chocolate or dark? Netflix or Hulu? Snapchat or Instagram? A picture emerges of the teens’ differences; similarities; pets; allergies; and, perhaps most of all, hunger for connection.
The last thing these teenagers want is to be defined by their cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, fewer than 1% of cancers in the United States occurs in children and teenagers. Yet, like an atomic bomb, it creates an enormous crater in a critical developmental stage of life.
Young adults diagnosed with cancer are particularly susceptible to feelings of isolation, depression and despair. One study by psychiatrists at the Yale University School of Medicine found that teens battling cancer suffered from “a more than fourfold increase in the likelihood of a suicide attempt.”
“She’s still struggling,” Travis says of Josie. “When you are going through treatment, you live a really structured life. It can be really hard. You put everything on hold and build walls around your emotions. Josie has lost a lot of her identity. She was a sophomore and is a senior now, but was rarely at school in the last two-and-one-half years.”
Back in the van, Josie is one of the quieter ones. When her father heard about this adventure opportunity for teens undergoing treatment, he leapt at it. “Pulling them out of their comfort zone is a great way to help them see who they are and how to move forward,” Travis says. “Anything to help Josie get moving on with her life again. She’s awesome. She doesn’t realize it. She doesn’t realize how cool she is.”
THE FOUNDER OF See You at the Summit (SYATS), Heather Rose Otto, is a slight yet athletic-looking 40-year-old, carrying a backpack twice her size. Registered nurse and therapeutic wilderness facilitator, she is both scrappy entrepreneur and softhearted caregiver, equipped with the tools to fulfill either role. She has prepared for this inaugural adventure for 16 years, consuming 200-plus research papers in developing the program’s goals and curriculum.
SYATS is the first organization of its kind in the United States, designed to empower teens in treatment for cancer. Through the therapeutic powers of adventure, immersion in nature, and the resulting physical accomplishment and self-reliance, the intent is to treat the submerged trauma that the medical world cannot reach, fostering gratitude and autonomy in its participants.
There are extraordinary logistical challenges, legal safeguards and privacy requirements involved in providing this vulnerable group with much-needed risk and a break from the protective bubble of adult and medical caution and fear. The SYATS medical and safety team has created an emergency action plan with input from the local sheriff, search and rescue, and an emergency department, and also established possible helicopter evacuation sites and procedures.
A little west of Bend, Oregon, in the shadow of Mount Bachelor, the vans are emptied, and base camp is a hum of activity. With gear largely sorted, tents up and sleeping bags down, the first evening ends with yoga. The teenagers seem far from their phones, computers, televisions, heart monitors, MRIs, CT scans — every noise, stress and distraction that has defined their experience the past few years.
There is a sense, as stars emerge in the quiet and darkening firmament, of an opportunity to start anew.
LEAVING THE ROAD and civilization behind, Josie and her new friends begin their ascent into the Three Sisters Wilderness at a crawl. The day included 1,384 feet of elevation gain in 2.6 miles. The teens carry the weight of a sleeping bag, pad, liner, water bladder, bottle, head lamp, toilet kit, acute lymphocytic leukemia, toothpaste and toothbrush, hand sanitizer, lip balm, squamous cell cancer of the parotid cheek gland, sunscreen, facial paralysis, bug repellent, chronic kidney damage, boots, gaiters, mature B-cell lymphoma, Crocs, socks, Hodgkin lymphoma, ovarian cancer, underwear, gonadal mixed germ cell tumor, bras, pants, chemotherapy, surgery, down jacket, radiation, transplants, compression sacks, snacks, spinal tap, brain ganglioglioma, bandanna, whistle, migraines, scans, infections, blood tests, pack towel, sunglasses, more chemo and more. Immeasurably more. Spork, cup, stress, family stress, a compass, trekking poles, folding bowls, tension, fear of dying, a poem, more fear of dying, sometimes tents, meals too, depression, financial strain, sleepless nights, days in bed, loss of friends, loss and so many tears. A merciless number of tears.
The trail winds up a ravine deep amid the firs, pines and hemlocks. Much of the stunning fauna and flora goes unappreciated, with minds fixed on managing one more step. Complaints vary from burning lungs to blocked noses, heads pounding, backs aching, muscles screaming, joints creaking. Recently tethered to machines and deeply dependent on physicians and their families, these young people are now expected to survive, even thrive, using only their own two feet and the contents of their packs.
Josie, head down, draws way inside herself, like most of the teenagers. She wallows in an all-too-familiar feeling of struggling along a ledge above a dark abyss. (Later, within the camp confines, she reflected with shortened breath: “It was a very, very, very long day. We hiked some really steep inclines, and I just kept getting weaker and weaker. I almost fell off the side of the mountain a couple of times, but I didn’t … so that’s the fun part.”)
With a watchful eye behind the group that afternoon, founder Heather Rose whispers to herself, “Trust the process.” That “process” is in fact an intricate therapeutic jigsaw puzzle of pieces she’s cut with scalpel precision. She wants Josie and her peers to step to the edge of their known ability. Teeter. Seek help or not. Find support. Move on. Repeat.
Finally, the trail levels out, and the bright blue-green of Moraine Lake flashes to life in Josie’s weary eyes. Her face lifts, and a sense of relief spreads throughout the group.
Heather Rose repeats under her breath, “Trust the process.”
ON THE THIRD day of the trip, and the first day of her adult life, partway up a mountain, newly 18-year-old Josie wakes in her thermal underwear, cocooned in a puffy down sleeping bag.
Heather Rose helps lead the group in stretching; a gratitude circle; team-building challenges; meditation; journaling; and a bold conversation about shared cancer experiences, perceptions, grievances and lessons learned.
As this rest day proceeds, Josie vacillates between being a teenager and something more.
She joins friends submerged in the cool waters of Moraine Lake. They stand in a loose, tentative group, talking quietly and shivering, reluctant to abandon this newfound opportunity for an intimacy they’ve all lacked for so long. The water is cold, but the ice is starting to melt.
After dinner, the group huddles closer as the temperature drops, circling for the evening’s gratitude.
In celebration of Josie on her birthday, each person shares an appreciative reflection on her. She sits still, listening attentively, wearing her modest smile and acknowledging the kind words with gentle eyes. Then it’s her turn to show gratitude to herself. She resists at first, is pressed and finally almost whispers, “I’m grateful that I haven’t been as awkward as I usually am.”
A chorus of “Happy Birthday” breaks out around Josie, who is rosy-cheeked and beaming. A huge round Unicorn Poop Cake with a single burning candle miraculously appears beside her. A member of the Oregon Air National Guard’s 125th Special Tactics Squadron had volunteered to carry up the cake in a milk crate strapped to his backpack. Josie tries to blow out the trick candle over and over before finally throwing back her head in laughter. Even the candle isn’t going to be easy.
For anyone paying attention, the change in Josie already is palpable and exciting. Heather Rose feels it and speaks to the teens before they retreat to their tents: “I’m not one to wear my emotions on my sleeve, but I started this vision 16 years ago in order to have this very moment … ” She stops herself, pauses, searching for a feeling, then adds, “There are no words to describe what it’s like.”
EACH DAY IS hot and bright; each night, clear and frigid. The fifth day in Oregon’s wilderness begins with a logistically and emotionally tough team-building exercise involving a metal tent pole; frustration; and, eventually, openness and apologies.
Josie and Evan, the two oldest, are the scheduled trail leaders for the day. Seventeen and in good physical shape, Evan stands out as confident and independent. Chatting in their downtime, he and Josie have started to bond, sharing small gestures of understanding: nods, smiles and private chuckles.
Equipped with a map, compass and radios, the two prepare to lead the group, leaving Green Lakes and heading east to Todd Lake. Josie’s nose suddenly becomes a torrent of blood. Yet another outpouring. The blood persists, and only the team medic packing her nostril keeps it at bay. Her confidence is knocked again, and she sits head in hands on a fallen tree, defeated and vulnerable.
It’s now after 2 p.m., hours after the scheduled departure, with 6 miles at least ahead of them. Evan is already far ahead with half of the group. The outlook is not good, but Josie suddenly rises and gestures for the others to follow. The determination that the 18-year-old leader now sets off with is contagious, and the small group finds a solid stride.
Dust streams behind the backpackers as they snake their way across the terrain. Eventually, Josie and Evan join up and lead a triumphant descent into the Todd Lake campground to high-fives and cheers from waiting volunteers.
Sitting fireside that evening, singing freely and laughing heartily, Josie is a different young woman from the demure girl sitting in her bedroom one week and 300 miles ago.
Evan reaches out and touches Josie’s arm as he makes a point. Josie covers her mouth and laughs, looks away and looks back furtively. They are flirting. It’s subtle, but it’s flirting. Heather Rose sighs deeply, contentedly, from the shadows.
THE SIXTH DAY is the presummit day. A day of rest. Already, these teenagers have tapped into complex relationships with one another and invisible networks of therapeutic interconnections with the natural world around them. Their wilderness immersion feeds them wisdom and emotional nutrients.
All of this is beginning to emerge in Josie’s words, spoken and written; in her body language; her gestures; her footfalls; her touches — to others, and to the Earth, leaves and roots.
While a sterilized hospital room was the environment for her medical treatment, the wilderness is the environment in which she rediscovers a broader, new and thriving definition of self: becoming one with her peers and one with nature.
Around the final sparks of the campfire that evening, in the excitement of preparations for the next morning, Heather Rose makes an announcement: “Tomorrow, our summit will be as far as all of us can go together, whatever the highest point that is. Our summit will be however we can support each other and however far we can go as a group. As one unit. As one team.”
BY 5.30 A.M., all the teenagers are up, and camp is coming down. At 7 a.m., after yoga and breakfast, Todd Lake is behind them. Broken Top’s summit is 8 miles and 2,400 feet of elevation gain ahead.
By late morning, the trees thin, replaced by hardened lava flows and volcanic debris. Midday passes, hiking in meditative silence, every crunch under a boot, the rasp of every breath, pack straps pressing into soft sloped shoulders. Everyone together, walking over the mountains, as far as they can go.
In journaling the day before, each teenager had to identify what he or she would like to leave behind during this apex of metamorphosis. During a late lunch stop at a creek, Josie sets out to find just the right small rock.
Later, in the shadow of the summit, silently and methodically, one by one, the teenagers gently toss their rocks into the flowing creek. Josie’s precise movements are a diamond-tipped sample of her new self, a mindful balance of vulnerability, acceptance and newfound strength.
The call of the final pitch to the summit beckons. This is the most dangerous stretch of the trail. The teens must follow a narrow path traversing a steep, loose scree slope above the spectacular but deadly cold No Name Lake.
Josie safely edges past the lake and up the saddle of Broken Top’s peak. She stops, partway, catches her breath on the exposed ridge, scrambles over a boulder and continues. Every step is one she thought she couldn’t take a week ago. And then, in a seismic clap, a split atomic second, Josie is there.
A sudden gust of wind takes her by surprise and send’s another team member’s hat away and over the edge, a sacrifice never seen again. Behind Josie lies the conquered trail and the terrible darkness of the past few years. Ahead of her lies a landscape of infinite possibility.