Look out of any window

The Window, Chisos Basin, Big Bend National Park
Last week we spent several days at the Chisos Mountains Lodge, in Big Bend National Park, with our friends Bruce and Margaret Bennett and Peter and Kay Willcox. (Longtime readers may recall that Bruce was my hiking buddy on coast-to-coast treks across northern England in 2009 and 2011.)

The Chisos Basin, the bowl in which the lodge sits, is more than a mile above sea level. The only break in the surrounding ring of volcanic mountains is the Window, a triangular notch through which one can see the Chihuahuan desert thousands of feet below, and, on clear nights, the lights of Study Butte and Terlingua, some fifteen miles away. (That’s it in the photo above.) It’s no accident that the dining room at the lodge, and many of the guest rooms, look out over the Window; it is mesmerizing.

We spent the cool, sunny mornings hiking the Lost Mine and Laguna Meadows trails, which begin in the basin. On Friday afternoon we drove down to the Hot Springs Historic District and Rio Grande Village, and on Saturday afternoon we drove down to Terlingua and then on to Lajitas. We saw various flycatchers, Western and summer tanagers, Mexican jays, canyon towhees, a Say’s phoebe, a blue grosbeak, a Western kingbird, a black-footed ferret, and several rabbits, in addition to a disgruntled-looking coyote padding along the road in Rio Grande Village; we saw centuries-old pictographs and petroglyphs at Hot Springs. We ate dinner at the truly surreal Lajitas Golf Resort and Spa, at which an episode of the reality TV show Ammo and Attitude was being filmed. (No, we’d never heard of it either.)

All of this felt like pure gift to Heather and me, given the events of the last six months, which as most of you know have been hard ones for us. At the beginning of December Heather learned that the source of the pain in her left hip that had been bothering her for a couple of months was in fact a stage 4 cancer that had already metastasized to the bones in her pelvis and spine. Then her father, whose own health had been declining since the death of her mother two years ago, died a week before Christmas.

Heather’s cancer is still officially of unknown origin, though molecular analysis indicated a 90 percent probability that it was breast cancer—despite the fact that years of mammograms and, more recently, a battery of tests and scans had found no tumor.

In January, she began a regimen of four chemotherapy infusions, one every three weeks, combined with monthly infusions of Zometa, a bone strengthener developed to treat osteoporosis. At times we wondered if the treatments were worse than the disease; the chemo affected her palate to such an extent that few if any foods tasted good, and the Zometa brought on agonizing flu-like symptoms: aches, joint pain, fatigue.

Heather lost about twenty-five pounds, much of it muscle; she had always been an athlete, and the ensuing weakness, which affected her posture and her gait, was in some ways much harder to take than the loss of her beautiful hair, much as she hated that obvious and public signifier of illness. (After her hair had started to fall out, she had me shave her head, which I must say was not a duty I had ever imagined performing on my wife; after I finished the job, we joked that if she just got a few tattoos and piercings, she’d be indistinguishable from much of the rest of the population of Austin.)

Perhaps the most tiresome thing about Heather’s illness—aside from the physical effects, of course—was how boring it was. We found ourselves utterly unable to focus on anything except her illness. Events in the world outside us passed virtually unnoticed; we found ourselves unable to concentrate on anything—writing, reading, you name it—beyond the reality of illness and treatment. We were locked in the dark house of her cancer, and we couldn’t even imagine the world outside.

After her fourth chemo infusion in March, she got a break of five weeks before returning to the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston for testing and evaluation. At Anderson she had a PET scan which failed to find even a single lesion; she was, unbelievably, completely cancer free.

It was as if all the doors and windows of the house in which we’d been shut suddenly flew open, and we could see the sky and trees and streets and people outside. Our trip to Big Bend marked our first tentative steps back into the beautiful, messed-up, complicated world.

The Window is mesmerizing. Like any gap in any wall, any break in any symmetrical pattern, it naturally drew our eyes; we always want to see beyond our immediate surroundings, to see behind the curtain. For us, emerging from the claustrophobia of Heather’s illness, the view from the Window was a symbol of the vastness, the wholeness, that we had been unable to imagine during these last six months. But of course it was there all along, waiting patiently for us to lift our heads and look.

What we’re reading
Yann Martel, Beatrice and Virgil
Martin: Charles Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

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14 Responses to Look out of any window

  1. Ginny says:

    It’s just so nice to get the Madrono Ranch blog again, and all that that implies!

  2. Joybells says:

    Ahhh, dear friends how I have missed reading you here. Thank you for simultaneously opening the Window inward into your past six months, and outward to such extraordinary vistas, trails, birds, horizons. It is a pleasure and a privilege to travel this “beautiful, messed-up, complicated world” with you, your visions, and your words.

  3. Shawn Harrington says:

    Good to have you guys back in the inbox. And welcome back to happiness.

  4. Janis says:

    Wonderful to see your blog in my mailbox this morning! Now things are right with the world. Here is to more beautiful long-range vistas. Love to you both.

  5. Jim Magnuson says:

    How moving all this is! You two… you’re the best. Jim

  6. Sarah Bird says:

    Dear Martin and Heather, this post is magnificent. As is the news of your release from the house of cancer and re-entry into the world. I’m honored to share these big-hearted, big-brained insights. Love and Hallelujah, sarah

  7. Tom Mason says:

    Reading this post made my insides glow. Thanks for letting us peer through your window.

  8. Lanie Tankard says:

    Glad you both found peace in such a gorgeous spot. Perfect photo and perfect song to accompany your return. Buena suerte!

  9. Jane says:

    Darling Heather and Martin, this news is the best we have heard in forever. Actually Isa just wrote to say that Heather has beaten the cancer, then along came Martin’s eloquent and beautiful blog. What a marvelously accurate image of those doors to the dark house of illness being thrown open. Such exuberance we all are made to feel–joy and infinite relief. Go hiking you two dear and talented people. Go look at the long vistas of the West. How we wish we could hike along side. Instead we send our love to all five of you,

    Jane and Bob Geniesse

  10. Susan Farrimond says:

    Dear Ones,
    The sun shines brighter and the wind whistles past my ears bringing tidings of great joy from Austin town. How fitting that you chose to return to mother earth for your first adventure after those months of turmoil and blinding fear. Stay in the sunshine, listen to the birds, hug your children and your husband, eat some chocolate and enjoy life (I always feel that chocolate does wonders for anything that ails you, even the big “C”). You have won your place in the sun in a hard fought battle.

  11. Frances Schenkkan says:

    Heather and Martin, when Pete and I saw you with your happy family at Texas French Bread, I did not know your happy news. Now that I do I will dance around the room and not just once. Frances

  12. Jack Brannon says:

    Hallelujah and amen! I’ve missed you guys. I’ve stood in that Chisos window just gollee-in’. I hope it’s the gateway to a wide world of healthy new adventures for you and yours – and for us together.

    for Brian too

  13. Ed Bastian says:

    I was so happy to read your post this morning about Heather’s health. It seems that all our prayers have been answered!

  14. Betsy Dudley says:

    My heart is filled with gratitude on reading this great news of the light that has filled the darkness and of the darkness which has faded away for Heather and you, Martin. What a wonderful beginning and reawakening Big Bend must have been for you both. You continue to be on my heart and in my daily prayers.
    Hugs, Betsy
    PS we love Juanis!!! and understand she is still in the process of closure and grief.

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