Hiking carries couple through wifes cancer

Posted: Friday, April 18, 2003

MISSOULA (AP) On a June day in 1988, Katie Gibson and Scott Bischke got married in a chapel in Big Sky.

Outside the big glass window with a view of Lone Mountain, an eagle hovered in the air through most of the ceremony. It completed the day of grand thunderstorms and rays of sunlight coming through dark clouds, reminding the couple how much the natural world and wild places mean to them.

Gibson had a big raspberry scrape on her arm, compliments of a fall from her bike. Typical, Bischke said.

He promised to love, cherish, honor and stand with her in sickness and in health.

We were ecstatic,'' Bischke remembers. I cried.''

In 1992, a doctor told Bischke and Gibson that she had a cancer that could kill her. She was just 30. In 1994, it came back. After a surgery, the doctor told Bischke he should prepare to lose Katie by summer, only eight months away.

He nearly fainted.

But she lived through that summer. And another, and another. In the summer of 1998, Scott and Katie hiked the Continental Divide Trail across Montana, more than 900 miles.

And the next year, Bischke, an engineer-turned-writer, began a book about both the cancer and the hike, Crossing Divides.''

The part about Katie possibly dying was the most emotional one to write, he said in an interview from the couple's Bozeman home. In one two-page section, Bischke writes about his thoughts during a run: What will I say at her memorial service? Every time I look at the constellation of stars called Orion's belt, I will think of her. Even if I am with someone else, I could never love someone as completely as I love Kate, he writes.

That particular section was a knock-down, drag-out,'' Bischke said. I sat down, and I wrote it, I cried the whole time and I didn't change a word.''

Crossing Divides: A Couple's Story of Cancer, Hope, and Hiking Montana's Continental Divide,'' written by Bischke with a foreword by Gibson, was published last fall by the American Cancer Society. Since then, the couple has given more than 40 talks, about half of them in Montana but also in Salt Lake City, Denver, Seattle and on the East Coast.

I tell people I'm reading this because I want to show this is a horrible thing, it's a sad thing, but I want to show you what Kate did after that,'' he said. When somebody tells you you're going to die, you can choose how to react. You can just roll over and say, 'OK, the doctor says I'm going to die, I'll just die.' But that's not part of her makeup.''

Gibson went through five surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatments for the cervical cancer during two and a half years. Her legs still swell, and she has trouble with digestion. But wilderness and being out in it was what sustained her before the cancer, she said, and afterward it was even more important.

After it seemed like it might be taken away from me,'' she said, and I got back outside and hiking, it was much more emotional.''

During that summer of hiking, only three years after her last treatments, the couple covered Montana from the Canadian border to Yellowstone National Park. During the hike, Gibson read The Climb of My Life,'' in which Laura Evans talks about her own return to the natural world and conquering a mountain after breast cancer.

Gibson was inspired, and she and Bischke started talking about their own story as they hiked.

I would have never thought about it,'' she said. I was just thinking about putting it all behind us.''

But, she said, I just couldn't put the book down, I was so tied to the story. I thought my story might do the same thing for other people.''

Up until the last minute, Bischke said, Gibson had veto power over anything he wrote.

It was kind of hard to read it the first one or two times,'' she said, just to remember all that.''

Now enough people have approached her at readings and talks and told her how much they've been helped that she knows they did the right thing, however personal.

Gibson and Bischke have traveled the world on outdoor adventures, including a year of biking through New Zealand before Gibson got sick. Since they hiked across Montana, they have backpacked the Continental Divide Trail through Wyoming and Colorado.

Their experience with cancer has underlined for them what's important. They gave up their Hewlett-Packard engineering jobs to move back in 1999 to Bozeman, where Bischke earned his undergraduate degree.

We just simplified,'' Gibson said, and realized how important it was to get outside and do what we want to do.''

The cancer just reinforced for us how being in wild country rejuvenates you,'' Bischke said.

One of the things we do now is we try to work on the things that are dear to us. The things that we really care about are hope beyond the cancer experience and about wild places.''

The couple this month will fill in the final length of the Continental Divide Trail in New Mexico. They'll be gone for two months. Gibson will take a leave from her job as a computer programmer in Bozeman, and Bischke will put his projects on hold.

We're on information overload in our world,'' Gibson said. When we're backpacking, we're in information underload. Your health feels so good because you're sleeping enough, you're walking a lot. I'm looking forward to just looking around and being out there.''

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