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We needed a break from cancer. So we drove an RV across the country and learned some unexpected things.

Lornet Turnbull and her husband, Steve Haile, at Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, during their cross-country adventure. (Courtesy of Steve Haile)
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The chemotherapy treating the cancer in my lungs and liver had stopped working after a year. I needed a new course. But first, I needed a break.

My husband, Steve, meanwhile, had a successful surgery to remove prostate cancer discovered eight months after my diagnosis, as if we’d signed up for the couple’s package.

A cross-country road trip in the 25-foot Winnebago that Steve’s brother and his wife lent us seemed like an invitation to flip cancer the proverbial bird.

We wanted to visit national parks and friends and family along the way — Seattle to Maine and back. Before taking off, we joined an online RV group for advice: Should we reserve campsites or just wing it? What are your best phone apps? We were unprepared for some of the responses: Get a gun.

We opted for bear spray and a baseball bat — and needed neither, not even when a black bear rose to greet us as we cycled by him in Yosemite National Park.

In fact, over 43 days and through almost 30 states and 10 national and some state parks, our most enduring takeaway wasn’t so much the overwhelming beauty we saw, and the fall colors that grew more spectacular as we journeyed east, but the unexpected ways we learned about this country and its people.

People like Sam and Vicki Quick, whom we met while cycling in Montana’s Glacier National Park, our first park. We discovered our mutual love for e-bikes, which Steve and I had gotten just before our trip. They wanted us to stop in their small town of Red Lodge on our way out of Yellowstone and join them for a beer at a new brewery. Days later, when we were leaving but they were still out adventuring, they invited us to hook up to the water and power at their home.

And Jennifer Lund, who manages the campground in Glacier where we stayed. She called and asked us to come back to her office after we checked out and left. After hearing our story, she wanted to give us one of her beautifully handcrafted, wood-covered journals, which I later noticed retails for $70. By the end of our trip, we had filled every page with details of our trip.

From Yellowstone to Acadia national parks, Shenandoah and the Great Smoky Mountains to Yosemite, we encountered kindness at nearly every turn on what would be the adventure of a lifetime.

As a single mother, I lost my job before Christmas. I don’t believe in miracles, but here’s what happened.

I still find it hard to say “I have cancer.” It feels like something that doesn’t apply to me. I was first diagnosed in the summer of 2020; before that, I seldom got sick. Doctors believed it originated in my colon, though I have none there and had gotten regular colonoscopies. The chemo fighting it has robbed me of so much; fatigue has been an unrelenting visitor. But the loss of taste has been one of the most confounding side effects, leaving my favorite foods tasting like some combination of Styrofoam and metal.

But I don’t dwell on my illness; I don’t give it space. Instead, I cope by remaining active, despite the fatigue, by engaging in things we enjoy. We still hike, but we’ve traded big scrambles to the summits of mountains around Washington state for trails with less elevation. And we bike a lot more, too. I live my life in the moment. Both of us do.

This epic trip was to be a continuation of that, a recharge after a year of bad news. My oncologist begrudgingly allowed me six weeks before starting a new course of treatment. I’d made the case that I needed to take this trip to get a break from the fatigue and hopefully, as my taste returned, enjoy regional dishes from across the country: lobster in Maine, seafood in Maryland, soul food in Atlanta, barbecue in Missouri.

We planned to be gone from late September through October, just as fall colors were reaching their peak and long after we believed children were back in school and crowds at the parks would have thinned out.

Turns out the parks were still quite crowded long into October — people were taking a break from lockdown, working and learning remotely. We spent long stretches talking to strangers on park benches, in parking lots, in gift shops, at rest stops, at RV pump-outs and, of course, in the campsite next to ours. People were eager to share their stories with us, maybe because we were so open to sharing our own.

We met many who, like us, were facing cancer. Like the couple biking the trails of Mount Washington in New Hampshire that we chatted with for a long time. Both had cancer — he was in remission, she still fighting. They were active and engaged, exploring New England from their small town; they offered us tips about the best shops and restaurants on the way to Acadia.

Our bikes took us to places the RV couldn’t and became a natural conversation starter; many people either had them or were considering it.

In Wyoming, we cycled past elk and moose in Yellowstone and, in the Tetons, past a prairie fox that looked like he’d just walked out of a fairy tale. We rode alongside buffalo in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, one of the least visited parks. It hadn’t even been on our list, but we ended up learning so much about Roosevelt’s influence on our national park system. That night, we watched a herd of buffalo graze in an open field across from where we had posted up in the RV.

We cycled for miles in tiny Northville, N.Y., a picturesque village along the Great Sacandaga Lake in the Adirondack Mountains, a summer playground for folks up from the city and where Steve spent his teenage years. We cycled a lot, but we took in hikes, too, doing two miles on a section of the Appalachian Trail that runs through the Smoky Mountains.

We enjoyed sunshine and unseasonably warm weather the entire trip. Our days folded into one another: Was today Tuesday or Friday? In the small space of the RV, we debated and argued — on occasion loudly — but never stayed mad for long. We listened to podcasts that we’d always wanted to hear and to music, singing along like teenagers on a joyride.

With my taste slowly returning, I feasted on lobster in Bar Harbor, Maine. And for two glorious days, we cycled every trail on the carriage road in Acadia, unencumbered by traffic and crowds and surrounded by unbridled fall beauty.

On one of those trails, we met a Christian couple from Michigan who were driving across the northern United States. They used a website to find homes where they could stay for free, offered by hosts who wanted nothing more in exchange than camaraderie.

In Portsmouth, N.H., we had our first sit-down, home-cooked meal with our friend Jeff Levin, whom I’d met only once and Steve knew only through Facebook. But there, around their dinner table listening as he and his wife, Kay, talked about their work as lawyers representing indigent people, it felt a little like home.

We had great Moroccan food at a sweet little restaurant in downtown Cranford, N.J., with Steve’s cousin Wendy and her hilarious husband, Alex. They regaled us with stories, chatting up people who passed by our outdoor table, because as chiropractors in town, and parents of kids in sports, they knew practically everyone.

A UPS driver left a kind message for a family. They put it on Instagram, and strangers showered the driver’s baby with gifts.

In Maryland, my niece, nephew and his family treated us to a seafood boil, my first. Who knew putting a glove-clad hand in a bag of food could be such fun? In Atlanta, my sister and her family hosted a fish fry, inviting neighbors, family and friends — a spirited affair that gave us a down-home Southern experience.

As we drove through their Cascade neighborhood, Gary, who grew up in Atlanta, described some of the history of this traditionally Black neighborhood, including being the site of the Battle of Utoy Creek during the Civil War. We visited the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park and the King Center and later Stone Mountain Park, which King called out by name in his “I Have a Dream” speech.

As an interracial couple, we weren’t sure what to expect as we drove through the Bible Belt on our way home. But at campgrounds where we stayed, in restaurants where we ate and at rest stops and gas stations, people were, at worst, indifferent.

We noted our crossing of the Mighty Mississippi, snapped pictures of places where old Route 66 merged with Interstate 40, and bought handcrafted gifts in the Navajo Nation. Even though it delayed our trip, we couldn’t resist driving through Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. It felt like a detour to Mars.

The whole adventure felt like a detour, in fact. For those six weeks, we could focus on the expanse ahead of us, and new and old friendships — and leave behind the doctors, treatments, and uncertainty of my health. Now that we’re home, I can close my eyes and travel back there in my mind, reabsorbing all that kindness and humanity we encountered on the road.

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