Mary Beth Writes

“A powerful, rollicking adventure that takes us across America and deep into one person’s life-and-death experience.”

Carl Zimmer, one of America’s foremost science writers

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Outpedaling ‘The Big C’: My Healing Cycle Across America

One day in the mid-1990s, I noticed a woman who looked somewhat familiar futzing with the photocopier at the library in Racine. Though we both worked at the daily newspaper there, we hadn’t officially met because I was a staff reporter in the newsroom and she was a columnist who worked from home. But I recognized her as Mary Beth Danielson from the photo that accompanied her “Lost in Racine” musings.

So, I stuck out my hand (back when we could still boldly do so!), introduced myself and told her I appreciated her thoughtful writing. She smiled. Then, she kindly relayed how a feature story I had written about the wonders of Horicon Marsh had inspired her family to drive for several hours to explore its treasures firsthand. They weren’t disappointed.

A close friendship sprang from that fortuitous encounter. We shared meals, laughed about our “lucrative and high-powered writing careers,” launched a newsletter together and bonded over the common ground of our fathers dying when they were young and we were teenagers.

Roughly five years later, I became fodder for a Mary Beth newspaper column in September 2000 that explained to readers that at that moment I was pedaling my bicycle through Colorado on a solo ride I had christened “Heals on Wheels.” It was my way to celebrate after Dr. Paul LeMarbre, my oncologist at Waukesha Memorial Hospital Regional Cancer Center, delivered the sweet news that I was finally five years cancer-free.

“Being Elizabeth, she didn’t celebrate with a manicure and a new pair of shoes,” Mary Beth wrote back then. “She went home and started putting together plans to fulfill another lifelong dream. This time the wild plum she sought was a bicycle trip across America.”

I organized my 4,250-mile adventure as a fundraiser for cancer research via the hospital’s foundation (now called the ProHealth Care Foundation). I covered expenses myself because I wanted any money I collected to go toward research.

After my spouse, Don Looney, and I drove to Astoria, Oregon, in that summer of 2000, I had dipped the tires of my $279 hybrid bike in the Pacific Ocean on August 16 and headed east on the country’s blue highways. My panniers were laden with camping gear because this was a low-budget endeavor, and brochures and cents-off coupons for sunscreen, because cancer outreach was top of list.

Almost everybody I engaged in restaurants, churches, hospitals, and small towns on my route had a cancer story and I collected a trove of them. I wanted to show people that cancer survivors didn’t have to be cancer victims, and that we could choose to accomplish daunting physical feats.

Mary Beth knew my cancer story because she had told me years before about her sister dying of the disease at age 43. During one of our lengthy, cathartic conversations, I revealed that I had been diagnosed with melanoma at age 24. The oft-deadly cancer first appeared as a lesion on my upper back and then spread to my lymph system, lungs, liver, and spleen. I endured more than a decade of harsh chemotherapy, surgeries and other treatments before Dr. LeMarbre declared me melanoma-free.

My father wasn’t as fortunate. The melanoma initially diagnosed when he was in his early 20s eventually consumed him in 1976. He was 44 and I was 15.

During “Heals on Wheels,” I kept an online journal. Foundation staffers posted my entries and added photos that I mailed in from the road. My bike was a blue dot that moved eastward on the map as I did.

In that September 2000 column, Mary Beth told her loyal readers that I was a “seasoned, humorous, perceptive, top-banana writer.” She also explained that the writing was sometimes challenging because I had to rely on libraries, colleges, and friendly homeowners for computer access. In Wyoming, for instance, after I told a Yellowstone National Park about my adventure, the ranger gave me hours of computer access so I could translate my notebook scribbles into what I hoped were engaging prose.

Mary Beth grasped those efforts when she noted, “She writes so well that as you read the stories of her trials, escapades and observations, you fall into the moment with her.”

My goodness, who could ask for a more rousing endorsement?

Today, those long-ago journal entries form the spine of a book I have—finally!—written about my adventure. Outpedaling ‘The Big C’: My Healing Cycle Across America will be released on Sept. 6 by Bancroft Press in Baltimore. It’s a story about grit, fear, recovery, and discovery.

People sometimes ask why it took so long for a professional writer to pour my words in book form. My response? Reporters are used to asking other people hard questions, not themselves. We aren’t supposed to be the story.

Also, “Heals on Wheels” was a tribute to the unfinished life of my father, Ronald Stuart McGowan. When I reached Virginia in November 2000 and dipped my tires in the Atlantic Ocean, I realized that “Heals on Wheels” had finally allowed for me to fully grieve for him as I pedaled through Yellowstone and other places our family had visited on childhood vacations. Those links with him—illness and place—triggered memories of my father, a complex man with whom I shared a special bond.

To write the book I needed to write, I needed to go beyond travelogue, geography, history and my daily encounters with the cast of characters who enriched my trip and deepened my love for this stunning, albeit fractured, country we all call home. Pushing over mountain passes, racing along waterways and battling headwinds not only linked me intimately with this nation’s wondrous vastness, but also prompted the adult me to be more understanding of the complicated mix of anger, humor and fear I had witnessed in my father when I was a child.

Delving into his life during and after my trip allowed me to dig through buried emotions and finally grasp who he was and how he wrestled with his own cancer demons. After all, if I didn’t know who he was, how could I possibly ever truly know myself?  

 Onward.

* Learn more/order the book here: https://www.renewalnews.org/book/

* Elizabeth H. McGowan is a longtime reporter who started her career at daily newspapers and has covered energy and environmental issues since moving to Washington, D.C. in 2001. She won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 2013 for her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of.” She now reports for the Energy News Network (https://energynews.us/author/emcgowan/ ).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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