How I Coped With Cancer

Five years ago, a few months before my 65th birthday, I was diagnosed with early-stage prostate cancer. Welcome to your golden years, Howard. I consoled myself with the mitigating news that, this time around, my disease was treatable.

Down I drove, from my home in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, to the renowned Dartmouth Hitchcock Clinic in Hanover, New Hampshire. In fact, I made the trek to the clinic every day for the next month and a half.

"You're going to feel very tired for several weeks after your radiation treatments," everyone on my oncology team warned me. "That's to be expected. You need to rest. Don't coffee up and drive yourself harder. Your body needs time to recover."

Okay. My last treatment coincided with my birthday. On the following morning, I began my recovery regimen by lighting out in my 1987 Chevy Celebrity, the "Loser Cruiser," with 280,000 miles on the odometer, on a 20,000-mile, 100-city book tour - the subject of my just-published memoir, The Great Northern Express [Crown, $25.00].

So, why? It really does beg the question, doesn't it? On the face of the matter, my decision to barnstorm the independent bookstores of America from border to border and coast to coast when I was supposed to be resting up from debilitating radiation treatments doesn't make a particle of sense.

Oh, sure, I told myself that I wanted to celebrate with a road trip, the precious gift of time that my treatment had given me. More darkly, I'm certain that on some level I was still in denial about contracting cancer in the first place, and trying to outrun the illness. Or at least prove to myself that it wasn't going to slow me down.

Then, too, any brush with mortality is apt to give us pause, to nudge us toward reflection. In my case, I hoped for a fresh perspective on my life as a writer and "what I loved enough to live for" in however much time remained. Heaven knows I'm no Henry David Thoreau, but like the author of Walden, I wanted to examine where I'd lived and what I'd lived for.

Only lately have I begun to realize that I had another reason for launching out on my lunatic odyssey in a state of near-exhaustion and at an age when many of my contemporaries were considering retirement or already had. In the glacially slow way that ideas and insights occur to authors, it gradually dawned on me that, while I didn't understand this at the time, perhaps an underlying reason for taking the Great American Book Tour was to prolong my writing life by gathering new material.

Why else, on the first day of my trip, when the Loser Cruiser broke down on I-95, just north of Boston, did I hitchhike to my book event instead of calling a cab like a sensible human being? (A commercial bread truck picked me up, and I did get a story out of the adventure.)

Other than that I wanted to write about the experience, I can't imagine why I cancelled the reservation a literary club in Florida made for me, at a five-star oceanside resort, in order to stay at a rundown motel for homeless transients. Or interviewed dozens of indie booksellers keeping the book, as we know it, alive in towns from Blytheville, Arkansas, to Bellingham, Washington.

Every road warrior needs a Sancho Panza to talk to. I can think of only one explanation for inventing half a dozen imaginary sidekicks to ride shotgun with me, including Mark Twain, Harry Potter, and Jesus: I wanted to write about them, too.

Three hilarious, inspiring, and caffeine-besotted months later, I drove back into the Green Mountains of Vermont thoroughly exhausted but, yes, with a book to write. Now that I think of it, I'm pretty sure that's the main reason Thoreau went to live at Walden Pond. Why else, really, in either instance, would anybody in his right mind do such a thing to himself?