• Joe Cooke

44 Months

When I was just a few years out of high school I had a Yamaha 650 motorcycle that I rode back and forth to Centralia Community College which was about 15 miles one way. I was just starting to study business even though I really wanted to be a writer. My parents said I could never support myself much less a family as a writer. Anyway, I had this crazy dream that I would buy a horse and ride across the country, living off the land, down to Four Corners, where Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico intersect. I bought a cowboy hat and spurs but that’s as close as I came. Years have gone by now. I did eventually get my business degree, raised a family, held a few jobs, and now I teach business. Full circle.

I was diagnosed with stage II bone marrow cancer in February 2018. At that time, the most recent studies indicated that the average survival rate for stage II is about 44 months. That actually means that at 44 months from the time treatment began, half of the people in the study were still alive. The range is so wide, though, that it’s essentially meaningless. Two of my friends who were diagnosed about the same time I started treatment died within a year of the start of our journeys. Other people have lived much longer. Mike Katz died in 2015 of complications due to his ongoing battle with multiple myeloma and the side effects of treatment, but that was after almost 25 years (he was diagnosed in 1990 when the life expectancy was 2 - 3 years). He spent a lot of that time traveling the world seeking out the best treatments and was an advocate for myeloma research right up until his death.

Still. On September 6, 2021 I’ll have 27 years of sobriety. On October 16, I’ll be 61 years old. And somewhere in there, I’ll pass that 44-month mark.

Five months of chemo in early 2018 culminated with a stem-cell transplant in September. Recovery from that was brutal, but we were on the slopes, skiing, by December 23rd. The next year is a blur. My dad got sick and I went to visit him. I caught pneumonia, probably from the hospital, and was too sick to travel back for his memorial service and funeral. Katie and I were both ready for a change, so we sold our home, packed up everything we wanted to keep, and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico on a whim.

I’ve always loved the mountains and the desert. My heart has been drawn here since the day I first saw them from the back of my dad’s Mercury station wagon when I was just a kid and my sisters and I spent the summer trips rolling around loose in the back as we drove through Yellowstone on the way to Lamar, Colorado, where Uncle Earl and Aunt Ginny owned a trucking company. They were actually great uncle and great aunt, and had rescued mom from an abusive childhood in the dustbowl.

So, my new wife and I moved to Santa Fe in late June of 2019 and that December I caught what in retrospect we believe to be an early case of COVID and suffered from debilitating exhaustion for most of 2020, but I also worked full-time and did a ton of side work writing. I’m only just now feeling like a person again, but I still have lots of days where the exhaustion just floors me.

All of this is back-story.

So, I have this idea: to ride over to Four Corners on my Harley. Complete the dream. It’s highly symbolic for me. In fact, I didn’t even remember that I once intended to do that until I saw a social media post on Four Corners and the pieces clicked into place and then I was telling my brother about this idea and he said, “Hey, I thought you were going to do that on a horse.”

The Road King is my horse; an iron horse that eats up the open road like a dragon, shaking the ground as it goes by, settling into a low, smooth roar at 80 but hugging the curves of the back roads like a baby in a blanket. I can make the drive in one or two days (it’s less than 300 miles, but I don’t want to push it) and then I plan to head north for a bit, circle back down to Pagosa Springs to meet up with Katie for a few days of R&R, and then come home. This is the WAY scaled back version of the month-long trip I planned in my head all winter that would have taken me up through Jackson Hole to Glacier National Park and then over to the coast, maybe hitting Lake Tahoe and the Grand Canyon on the way back.

Even though the pandemic still rages, there will never be a perfect time, and my clock is ticking. None of us knows when we will be called home, but it’s different when you have been tagged with a “terminal” disease, and even if people tell you that you are healthy and you will be the exception to the rule, you know that it hit you suddenly, from nowhere, and that’s how life goes.

Everything can change in a single moment. This may or may not be my last ski season. This may or may not be my last summer. I don’t know. No one knows.

My blood counts are stable. Not great, but stable, and there is no indication that the cancer is back. I rode to the Albuquerque biopark and back last Friday, two hours each way, and we walked around the park for a couple of hours, so I think I can do a hundred miles or more each day. That’ll get me to Chama the first night via Taos and a scenic drive through the Carson National Forest on Highway 64. Day two will put me into Farmington and then 4 Corners by noon. After that, I don't know.

For now, I will plan as if this is the first of many trips and the last one I ever take. I am both afraid and excited, anxious and at peace. I have the machine, I have the opportunity. I will miss my home, and when I come back home, I will appreciate it all the more. In fact, I already do. Laying in bed this morning, holding my wife in my arms, our skin pressed together, the golden light of the New Mexico morning shining on her face, I was extraordinarily, inexpressibly, deeply grateful.

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