Spirit Trips: Woody

We’ve all taken those kinds of trips that aren’t anywhere in the vicinity of relaxing poolside under swaying palms, or long meetings in elevator-filled hotels where the donuts are never fresh. Yet there’s another kind of trip, one usually sudden regardless of what’s in the bank account or already on the credit card, guided by a simple yearning to be with someone we love to say hello, goodbye, or I’m here for you with our presence. These trips glow with their own energy and make their own luck, and like these trips, the person we were going to see in Colorado – our cousin Woody – also glows with life, humor and heart.

Having just driven with my husband, sister-in-law and youngest son about 1,400 miles give or take a bathroom break, in 3.5 days, I realize I’ve experienced such a trip. Why else dodge an ice storm on one end and snow storm on another while balancing the slowly-dying embers of a virus to drive relentlessly onward so engrossed in the autobiography of Steve Martin on tape that we run out of gas in Western Kansas? Yet because it was a spirit trip, we found ourselves on roads hours after they were cleared, and meeting an Oklahoma angel who just happened to travel with a canister of gas when we needed it.

Besides being related to us, Woody, whose real name is Forrest, is a forest ranger in Fort Collins, CO. with decades of service, daring and making others bend with laughter. A man so full of life, and wildly-entertaining verbal gymnastics, it was little surprise to find him sitting in his office in a huge red and gold stuffed crown (of the “It’s not butter, it’s Parkay” variety), telling everyone, “This is because I’m a royal pain in the ass.”

The crown as well as our trip was motivated by Woody’s latest turns on the trail of living with lung cancer that has now set out for the hinterlands of other organs in his body. His cancer, an atypical carcinoid, is the rarest of the rare, not unlike Woody himself (who is not, in any way, cancerous but certainly rare). His emails to his many friends and family address us as “noidistas” and report such headlines as, “Once again I look like a poorly maintained cue ball,” and “We are now launched into the next orbital level of the As-The-World-Turns inner space trip.” We’ve also heard of Captain Atypical, how “mets” aren’t just a baseball team in New York, and what it means to undergo bouts of chaos theory.

Just regrowing his hair after a particularly nasty chaos-theory-through-chemo regiment that almost put Woody beyond the chaos of our everyday lives, not to mention his own life, he was thrilled to see us. Our short time together was punctuated by long stories of energy politics, camping trips gone awry, mind-blowing pesto pizza, and especially the company of Woody and his wife Janet’s four schipperkees.

The dogs – Rainbo, Teddy, Frostbite, and the ever-mysterious Guy Noir – look like a mix between refrigerator magnet black dogs and miniature Tasmanian devils. They probably have the intelligence of dolphins on their good days, and the speed of low-to-the-ground cougars as they race (“here comes the Indy 500”) through the house, pausing to do tricks (like patty-cake), sit on our laps (at least one of them), or pace-race around the kitchen table with a toy in their mouths. My kids tend to think of the dogs, who they’ve visited for years, as relatives. “Cousins?” I asked my son. “Not really,” he said, “more like second cousins.”

These dogs, Woody’s wacky and enduring ways of bringing all of us more light and laughter, his wife’s wondrous caregiving (Woody once wrote of her that she was due for a second halo upgrade), and the parade of hats that keep coming, are carrying him through. Like most cancers, and especially unusual and later-stage cancers, the time ahead is mostly unpredictable. And so are spirit trips: journeys you don’t plan to take, but in the taking, you find your spirit has opened just enough more to perceive the life that’s always been here.

While Woody might be rarity in the cancer world, he’s old hat at spirit trips: He’s the one who managed to show up – seemingly out of nowhere – to surprise us at weddings, funerals, family reunions even if it meant long and wildly-spun travels from remote forest stations near 14,000-foot mountains. He’s been making spirit trips his whole life, and with our little roadtrip, we got to accompany him on his for a few days.