On the Rails of Cancer: My Favorite Walking Trail Made Me Feel Like ‘The Little Engine That Could’

Walking on the American Tobacco Trail has become church-like to me, as I ponder life with cancer.

There is a greenway that runs through the heart of Durham, North Carolina known as the American Tobacco Trail. About 50 years ago, it was a railway for tobacco farmers from the eastern part of the state to send the tobacco harvest to the auction warehouses that Durham was known for at the time.

My grandfather’s property was right along the edge of the railway at the time. It was across a large corn field and through a rugged tractor trail into the woods to reach the railway. I would hear a train whistle a couple of times a day as a kid. One of my favorite books as a child was "The Little Engine That Could” by Watty Piper. My grandmother would read it to me many times before nap times. I would ask my grandfather if we could go for a tractor ride through the woods to see the 4:00 train pass the property.

I can’t exactly remember when I stopped hearing that train whistle or when the trains stopped using that rail, but over time it slowly stopped service.

About 20 years later, the rails from the track were removed and it was transformed into the greenway it is today. My wife and I walked on that very greenway and talked about our future together. We would eventually build a house of our own on my grandfather’s property. Many times, we brought our kids out to ride their bikes and go for family walks with our dogs on this very trail.

Five years ago, I was walking on this very trail to gain perspective about my cancer diagnosis and the unquestionable road ahead. That was one of my longest walks I have ever had on this trail. I think I walked for hours in disbelief at the time that I could have been diagnosed with cancer. I have had a couple of scares with cancer in my life, but never believed I would be diagnosed.

A few days before this walk, I was officially diagnosed with stage 3b colorectal cancer after a routine colonoscopy at age 50. Shortly after I started treatments for my cancer, I would try to keep up my walks on the trail. There were many days I felt like “The Little Engine That Could” after trying to walk days after chemotherapy treatments. Some days I could barely walk a quarter of a mile, and other days I walked four.

Sometimes I think of this place as my church —it’s where I feel close to the earth and the universe around me. The trees hang over the trail like I am entering a gothic cathedral. I have found comfort in its surroundings and peace in a world that, at moments, there just isn’t any.

I have felt worried, angry and have cried about my cancer many times during the many walks over these past four years. I have come to this place to mourn the loss of my friends who have fallen to this disease as I have walked on this trail.

I have tried to seek hope that in the future, I will be able to watch my children grow up and to hold my wife's hand for years to come. I have searched for guidance to be a better man, husband, father and friend in the face of cancer as I have strolled along this very trail. 

The trail has become a part of me, and I can hear it’s calling on a regular basis just like that train whistle I heard as a kid. I hope to one day bring my own grandchild to walk along this greenway if given that opportunity.

I feel truly blessed to have a place like this to find communion and friendship in the face of cancer. Especially with friends like my buddy and fellow cancer survivor Brian Brave who walks with me regularly. As we walk and talk about not only our cancer but our lives ahead and the people we love.

There was even a period when we thought Brian might have a recurrence of his cancer. I was glad we had this space to talk about it and gather much-needed support for him.

It’s not often you get to have a place like this that becomes such a part of your daily life. I know that not even cancer can take that away from me. I will continue to listen to its calling and imagine the train whistle of my youth.

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