On my 50th birthday, a doctor informed me I had cancer. I was in “Stage 4b” of Hodgkin’s disease, a form of lymphoma. “4b” is the stage just before they put your name in the paper and people gather around to say what a swell guy you had been. At that time, I decided I wasn’t quite ready to sing baritone with the heavenly choir.
I had no doubt that I would beat the disease. While I was undergoing chemo, I went to the gym three days a week and worked out for up to two hours at each session. I believed that if I was able do that then I wasn’t really sick. The horror stories I had heard about chemotherapy never happened to me. I lost weight. I lost my hair and my lungs were working at less than half capacity. But mostly it was just tedious.
Every two weeks, I went for a treatment. I was poked with needles as nurses tried to find a vein that hadn’t collapsed as a result of the treatment. Then I sat for two to three hours feeling the burn as my body absorbed the toxic chemicals.
To help maintain my spirits I made plans for when I was healthy again. I decided to celebrate being alive by doing something no one else had ever done..
I grew up in South Philadelphia, just a few blocks from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell in what is called America’s most historic square mile.
You couldn’t find a cemetery that didn’t have a signer of the Declaration of Independence planted there.
It was impossible not to grow up patriotic.
I was immersed in American history. While other kids my age venerated Mantle, Musial, Mays and the Babe, my boyhood heroes were Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin.
It was the start of a life-long love affair with the American idea and ideal.
As I grew older, I became enamored with the Mountain Men: Jim Bridger, Hugh Glass, Jeremiah Johnson, Jedediah Smith and all the rest. I always wondered if I could head off into the wilderness as they did and manage to survive. Now was the time to test my mettle.
I decided to circumnavigate the contiguous 48 states by canoe. This trip would give me the opportunity to both explore America and find out if I had the right stuff to be a Mountain Man.
As I began to research the possibility of such an adventure, the route emerged. From Texas to the Florida Keys I would travel along the Gulf shore, then up the East Coast, across Canada, touching on Alaska and down the West Coast to the Panama Canal. I would then head north and finish where I had started in Texas. A 24,000 mile trip…by canoe.
My plan was to dedicate the trip to American workers, a much-maligned group that not only built this great country but also defended it when called to do so. In their honor, I would take only American-made equipment.
My original estimate was for about $18,000 worth of gear to start the trip. Because this was more money than I was likely to see at anytime in the near future, I shelved the dream for a while.
However, I still chose in some way to satisfy my passion for the work-in-progress that is America. Although I had been a truck driver and traveled through many states, I still had never seen more than a small portion of this incredible land.
So, I set out in 2000 on a six-month camping trip with a $30 tent and a $20 sleeping bag that took me through each of the lower 48 states.
During this journey I learned some things. First, I not only renewed my love for the American idea and ideal, but I fell in love with the land itself and the people who live on it.
America is a wonderful nation and we are a wonderful people. It is unfortunate that most Americans do not appreciate just how great we are.
I also realized I could do the canoe trip for a hell of a lot less money than I first thought. I took my dream from the shelf, dusted it off and decided to make it happen.
The tragedy of September 11th nearly changed all my plans. I tried to re-enlist in the army, but when I walked into the recruiting office they told me to try the Social Security Office down the hall.
I was not going to let that stop me. If I was too old to go to the war, then maybe I could bring a little bit of the war to me.
The purpose of terrorism, obviously, is to cause fear. Every time we give in by changing our lifestyle, the terrorists win a victory. Every time we go to a ball game or a concert or get on an airplane we give them a little poke in the eye.
Therefore, I call my trip the “Poke ’em in the Eye” Tour and named my canoe The American Victory. I thought if I could leave myself exposed to the terrorists and dare those loony-tunes to do something about it, then maybe other people would be inspired to get on with their own lives.
I also hoped my trip might provide a bit of diversion from all the depressing news of the day. I set out on the cold, windy morning of February 2, 2002, to begin a 24,000-mile odyssey dedicated to America’s heroes, past and present.
God bless America and give ’em a little poke in the eye.