Mt. Rushmore, a beautiful sight
Photo by Dorock

I just love the national parks. When I was a high schooler in Houston, Texas, my parents tried to get me to think about being a dentist when I grew up. All I seemed to hear before leaving for college was “Think about it. A dentist.” This was a routine plea from Mom and Dad. But every time I heard the word dentist, all I could picture in my mind’s eye was a ranger giving a tour at Yellowstone, or another ranger explaining the hiking perils at the Grand Canyon. I didn’t want to be a dentist; I wanted to be a ranger.

I never took my parents’ advice, and I never became a ranger either. But I never gave up a love for the park system.

On our Western Swing, Patti and I left northern Colorado, headed through Wyoming to South Dakota to visit Mt. Rushmore. As a reminder, one summer when I was 19, I worked for my father in Wyoming. On one weekend, Dad and I went to Mt. Rushmore and I loved it, so since we were somewhat in the vicinity, I thought Patti might enjoy Mt. Rushmore, too.

After we left Cheyenne, we headed north to Newcastle, Wyoming on a two-lane road that was about 250 uneventful miles to our hotel. And, yes, it was truly miles and miles of nothin’ but miles and miles. In fact, as we saw our gas tank get closer to empty, we went through 2-3 towns that did not have any gas stations nor any restaurants.

There were antelope everywhere. Actually, about as many antelope as there were cattle. And, on this particular road, Patti and I would top a hill and see about 20-30 miles of the road up ahead. At any given moment, each of us expected to see Tom Hanks dressed up in running shorts and shoes, filming a scene from “Forrest Gump” — with “Running on Empty” by Jackson Brown playing on the XM.

Roads and miles in the West just don’t seem to be the same as anywhere else in the U.S. For example, if I have a routine 30-mile trip along the interstate here in Texas, it’d probably take me 20 minutes, 30 minutes tops. Now, if I have a routine 30-mile trip to make in Colorado, it could be 45-minutes to an hour. Twists and turns, ups and downs in elevation are factors we rarely have to figure into our planning in lower elevations.

When we made it to Newcastle, we found our motel — the Pines Motel. Actually, it looked a bit more like the Bates Motel, and no Tony Perkins in sight, thank goodness. A hotel with 12 rooms all in a row, with your parking spot directly in front of your door. Ah yes, the good ole-fashioned western motel. Patti checked us in and we took the room. The lady who checked Patti in asked her if we wanted coffee in the morning and poured some coffee into a filter for us to use in the coffeemaker in our room. Very quaint and very small. It was the pride and joy of a mother and her daughter. The next morning when we were getting ready, I noticed one thing that I had never noticed in any other hotel. There were two thick, fluffy bath towels and two very thin bath towels. I never noticed this in Ritz Carltons or Four Seasons, but having two different styles of towels was nirvana to me. I like the thin towels and Patti likes the thicker ones. We both got our wish in this very small, charming, out-of-the-way hotel in Newcastle, Wyoming. I will never forget that.

On the road into South Dakota and Mt. Rushmore, we could see the impact of the tree beetle on the forests of the Plains. There were acres and acres of dead trees on both sides of the road. In many cases, residents hate storms because they worry that a lightning strike will start a fire that will spread like an infectious disease. But almost as dangerous were the tree beetles that would go through trees as if they were the mightiest saws. Again, acres and acres of blighted trees lost for a generation.

Crazy Horse memorial is showing progress
Photo by Dorock

On the way to Mt. Rushmore, we passed by a similar massive sculpture of Crazy Horse, key figure in the Plains Indians who figured prominently in the demise of Custer and his troops at the Little Big Horn battle. This sculpture is almost three times larger than Mt. Rushmore and celebrates the Plains Indians that occupied the Black Hills. At the Crazy Horse memorial, there is an impressive array of Indian artwork — very impressive.

Mt. Rushmore is one of my favorite places. When Patti and I arrived, we were both very impressed that the park was crowded. It is a very remote monument, built in the Black Hills near Rapid City, South Dakota, but it still is not really near anything. So, we were very pleasantly surprised to see quite a few people all around the site.

We both wanted to find the place where Cary Grant and Eve Marie Saint shared a meal during “North by Northwest.” But the Visitor Center and Avenue of the Flags have undergone recent restorations. The columns with the flags that make up the walkway to the best vantage point to view the sculptures represent all 50 states.

It’s just beautiful
Photo by Dorock

We also wanted to see if we could hike up behind the heads (answer: no way, Jose).But, with the renovations, there is a Presidential Trail that goes right up to the rock slag field that lay below the sculptured heads (don’t you dare try to steal a rock from the slag field). There are all sorts of very imaginative and creative things to enjoy at the park, including an audio tour, junior ranger programs, a museum and theater and daily ranger-led programs. We didn’t have the time to stay till evening, but the evening lighting ceremony is quite moving, from what others told us.

In the theater, the movie that shows the history of building of the monument is very impressive.

Here are a few facts about the monument:

  • Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor, and his workers started working on the site in 1927 and it was finished in 1941
  • Each face is 60 feet tall
  • Each eye is 11 feet wide
  • Washington’s nose is 21 feet long — all other noses are 20 feet long
  • Washington’s mouth is 18 feet wide
  • Originally, Jefferson’s face was to the left of Washington’s on the mountain
  • 400 workers built the site
  • Washington was chosen because he was the first president; Jefferson because of expansion (Louisiana Purchase); Roosevelt because of development (Panama Canal and national parks); Lincoln for saving the Union.

And there is even space still up there for Patti
Photo by Dorock

If you are thinking of visiting, don’t forget the bookstore. Some of the photo books showing the construction of the monument are awe-inspiring, and the process that Borglum used to transfer the measurements from the plaster casts to the granite mountains is so dadgum impressive.

If you want more information about Mt. Rushmore, go to

One summer, when I was 19, I worked for my father in Gillette, Wyoming. Our home was in Houston at the time, but Dad was working on assignment as chief engineer for  an oil plant under construction just south of Gillette. At the time, the town was experiencing a real oil boom and it still is to this day. On our recent Western Swing, Patti and I  went through Gillette. I had hoped to find the house I shared with Dad when we were working there, but Gillette has grown so much, I couldn’t find it.

Heck, I didn’t even know where to start to look. However, I did find the steakhouse where one of Dad’s friends introduced me to White and Black Russians. And, I sure don’t mean Dostoevsky or Solzhenitsyn.

Shows how imposing the tower is to surrounding countryside
Photo by Dorock

While we were in the area, I wanted to take Patti to a truly outstanding geological site — Devils Tower. Dad and I visited the site the summer I worked for him. It was a hit for me then, and it certainly hasn’t changed over the years. It is just a few miles northeast of Gillette, but it is so daunting and imposing as you approach the tower from nearby roads. At this site in northeast Wyoming you can see every phase in the process of establishing a forest — from dramatic displays of bare rocks to thriving casts of pines.

The geological story is that about 50 million years ago, molten magma was forced into sedimentary rocks resting above the magma and the magma cooled. As the magma cooled, it contracted and fractured into columns. Over millions of years, erosion of the sedimentary rocks exposed the tower. The tower rises 867 feet from its base and stands 1,267 feet above the nearby river, and 5, 112 feet above sea level. The area at the top of the tower is 1.2 acres and the diameter at the base of the tower is 1,000 feet.

Columns are climbers’ challenges
Photo by Dorock

On the day Patti and I were there, three buffed looking guys arrived toward the end of the day with the intent of climbing the site. It is a regular attraction on the list of talented climbers because of the strength of the rock … and the challenge the straight columns of rock pose to the climber. Roughly 5,000 climbers scale the tower every year.

And, several Indian nations of the Great Plains share legends of how this monolithic butte came to be. The Kiowa people believe the following:

“Eight children were there playing, seven sisters and their brother. Suddenly, the boy was struck dumb; he trembled and began to run upon his hands and feet. His fingers became claws, and his body was covered with fur. Directly, there was a bear where the boy had been. The sisters were terrified; they ran, and the bear after them. They came to the stump of a great tree, and the tree spoke to them. It bade them to climb upon it, and as they did so, it began to rise into the air. The bear came to kill them, but they were just beyond reach. It reared against the tree and scored the bark all around with its claws. The seven sisters were borne into the sky, and they became the stars of the Big Dipper.”

To this day, it continues to be a religious site for several Indian nations in the area. Hikers are cautioned not to remove any religious artifacts that are left by Indians along the hiking trails around the base of the butte.

In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed Devils Tower the first national monument under the new Antiquities Act.

Many years later, Steven Spielberg used this ominous and imposing site in his movie about aliens called Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It figured prominently in the climax of the movie.

One beautiful landmark
Photo by Dorock

Patti and I did not have enough time to hike the trails around the park. There is a close route that takes you around the base of the mountain, and further routes around the butte but are further away from the mountain. There are numerous places to stop and take picturesque photos of the mountain from either of the main trails.

The other thing about Devils Tower I remember from my first visit is that on one side of the base there is one of the country’s largest homes of prairie dogs. These little critters crawl in/out of holes and wander endlessly throughout the massive village that surrounds a large portion of the park.

If you want more information about Devils Tower, go to

One of the tower’s local inhabitants — prairie dog
Photo by Dorock

Patti likes the big buttes
Photo by Dorock

That’s one big butte
Photo by Patti

For the past three and a half weeks, Patti and I have been traveling. We put the trip meter on 0 when we pulled out of the driveway and after conclusion of the trip, we noticed the same trip meter read 4646.2 miles. For this trip, I believe there was a memory for every mile. Let me tell you how this started.

Early in our marriage, Patti and I had the “vacation” talk. Together, we discussed and resolved answers to the following questions: How do you like to spend your time on vacation? Where do you like to go? Are you a “go-see-things-and-keep-going” person or a person who likes to go land somewhere and relax?

After our discussion we realized that the two families we came from had different answers to these questions. Patti and her family were pretty much go to the beach, crash, relax, refresh and return. And, since her dad was a teacher, sometime her vacations were two months or longer at the beach. My family was pretty much the opposite: Dad would have, at the most, two weeks off. We’d go see things and keep going. We’d get back home the Sunday before Dad would have to be back at work on Monday.

But, over the years of our marriage, Patti and I refined our answers to these same questions a bit more. Patti is a water/beach person; I’m a mountain person.

So, for this travel trip, Patti graciously agreed to do a mountain trip with me. Besides, we wanted to be in Missoula, Montana on the appropriate date to see our niece, Ciara, graduate from high school. We wanted to drive and not fly.

Along the way, we had Sirius/XM radio to keep us company and informed. We enjoyed the highway travel, and, I must admit, when I was driving, I spent very little time looking at the road because I was “goshing” and “geeing” about the high peaks, snow fields, vast plains, the endless beautiful vistas, the babbling brooks and creeks next to the roads. These creeks flow quickly toward the Mississippi on the east side of the continental divide and toward the Pacific on the west side of the divide.

We were tourists all the way. While we enjoyed seeing the massive wind farms in West Texas, the ominous presence of the long-dormant volcano, Capulin Mountain in northern New Mexico, was a reminder of what the land was like long before it was civilized.

We visited Pike’s Peak near Manitou Springs, Colorado; Rocky Mountain National Park in Estes Park, Colorado; the wide-open plains of Wyoming; Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota; Devil’s Tower in Wyoming; Little Big Horn River and Custer’s last stand in Montana; very, very windy plains in Idaho; Brigham Young’s beautiful and enticing Salt Lake City; the site of Butch Cassidy’s first bank robbery, Telluride, Colorado; the inspiring glacier and wind-sculpted Shiprock in New Mexico; the adobe pueblos of Santa Fe; the very, very small towns of eastern New Mexico and West Texas.

Devil’s Tower

That was quite a bit of driving, but we enjoyed every minute of it. While we drove, I kept thinking of Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, and Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways. Passing through the canyon lands of Utah, I kept looking for John Wayne on horseback looking for Natalie Wood, dressed as an Indian squaw. We tried not to speed and just soak up the ambiance of the landscapes. As such, we had plenty of time to talk and laugh and be distracted by an endless supply of beautiful sights.

But since every day is a new opportunity for a learning experience, we did learn a few things along the way. Here are just a few:

  • The vastness of the mountain views, the endless rolling plains left Patti and me with a feeling that every step we took and every mile we drove, we were surrounded by God’s imagination
  • The damage a simple tree beetle can do to a forest is just astronomical and very disappointing
  • The higher up you go in the mountains the less obesity you see or notice
  • In talking with various people along the way, the longer people lived in the shadow of gorgeous mountains, the less they noticed them
  • Along the two-lane roads in Wyoming, just because a road sign says its 42 miles to the next town doesn’t mean there will be a gas station or cafe there
  • Even though Devil’s Tower is famous for the alien encounter scene in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kindit is also a religious site for numerous North American Indian tribes, and houses one of the largest groundhog communities in North America
  • It was very refreshing to see Mt. Rushmore very crowded with visitors, even though it is in a remote part of South Dakota
  • in 2012, because of the influence of Wal-Marts, Best Buys and other retailers, Montrose, Colorado looks just like Dothan, Alabama, and that’s a real shame
  • If you walk down the sidewalks of Telluride, Colorado and you see a couple walking a Lab, a Golden Retriever and a lamb wearing a diaper, you are not seeing things
  • I have first-hand evidence that it is very much not true that when you hit a golf ball at 10,000 foot elevation it will go farther than if you hit the ball at sea level
  • Touring the entire breadth of the Little Big Horn Battlefield, one can’t help but feel that Gen. Custer was so stupid, so vain and so arrogant, and 210 American soldiers were sacrificed because of his flaws
  • There is absolutely no feeling I have ever experienced like standing before a church congregation and thanking them for their prayers to God for my health and well-being.

And because of these learnings, 4646.2 has become an important number to Patti and me.

I’ll share details with you over the next few weeks. God bless you all.


Routinely, after I have an appointment with my oncologist, I send out a routine message to family members. It is usually short, sweet and to the point. Something like this:

“Just had a meeting with the oncologist after a CT scan and blood work. Still no pain; no discomfort; no symptoms. Oncologist says keep doing what you’re doing.”

So, for family and friends who read this, they will reach out to either me or Patti and ask: “So, what is he doing? How come he’s still so healthy after more than a year since the stage 4 pancreatic cancer diagnosis?”

"Who are those guys?"

Every time Patti tells me a friend or family member has asked her these questions, it makes me think of one thing: the scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where Butch and Sundance have blown up the safe in the train and are being chased by the railroad detectives. Butch and Sundance keep running over hill and canyon, prairie and forest, and still the detectives keep coming after them. At one point up on a mesa, Butch looks out and sees the posse still coming after them full force. He looks at Sundance and says, “Who are those guys?”

In my case, I know who “those guys” are — little “bad juju cells” as Johnny Weissmuller would say in his role as Jungle Jim.

Outside of the praise I give to the Almighty for his constant protection, I think there are some basics that I have learned over the past year.

1) Keep your immune system strong. When I was first diagnosed, I started a routine of building up my immune system. This included laser light treatments, detoxification of the immune system, and strengthening the immune system through appropriate holistic nutrients and supplements. I think that helped me tremendously. The Center for Holistic Healing here in Dallas helped.

2) Know what to eat and what to skip. Among the most dramatic things that I did was to change my diet. Well, let’s say I’m TRYING to change my diet. At times, it’s hit and miss. What I mean by changing my diet is that I used to eat quite a bit of red meat. And, as anyone who has worked with me at my various places of employment will attest, I am a 1000% sucker for sugar. Chocolate, really. I used to spend afternoons at the office walking around, grazing for sugar. And, when Patti and I were researching pancreatic cancer, we discovered there were certain foods that PROMOTE growth of the cancerous cells. BAD JUJU. These include red meat and sugar and some processed foods with ingredients you can’t pronounce. I try to stay away from these with various levels of success … and failure.

And, as you may imagine, there are foods you can eat that will retard or slow the growth of these bad juju cells. Those foods include beau coups of veggies, such as broccoli, cabbage, turnips, Brussel sprouts. It’s a good thing that I love all these guys.

The ideal diet for me will have loads of these veggies, and no meat or sugar. We’ve given up soft drinks for tea and water and some coffee. But, I occasionally still have a glass of wine. Don’t drink much beer any more, and I used to have my fair share. I realize that with the wine comes sugar, so I keep that in mind when I DO choose to have a glass.

By the way, please don’t infer I am “preaching” about this. I’m certainly not one to tell others what to do, but since people have asked what I do, this pretty much sums it up. I still have those cravings for a scintillating Fuddrucker’s burger, but I now ask for a vegan version. And, I am trying to dramatically reduce my intake of chicken and fish.

Powerful content

Recently, my sister-in-law, Nina, showed Patti and me a video titled “Forks over Knives.” It was truly amazing and a life changer. The video explains the value of adopting a plant-based diet. Much like other diet and nutrition vehicles, this doesn’t attempt to “sell” you anything but a healthy lifestyle. The businesslike making of points in this video really appealed to me. I don’t like preaching, and this did not come off that way to me at all.

I am not trying to sell anything here at all, but if you want to know more, check out:

3) Exercise some. Yeah, I know this just makes sense. But, for me, it’s easier said than done. I love to sit in front of my computer and write. Things like this fightingdamien blog, or the novel I’m crafting. But that is very sedentary. Do I like treadmills? No, but I know exercise is important. I know there are benefits from hitting the gym, I’m just plain lazy, most of the time. So, do I do well at exercise? No, but I’m trying to do better.

4) Get rid of stress. Ironically, I think this has had a tremendous amount to do with my emotional and physical states. Before cancer, I was a consultant. Lots of travel, loads of pressing deadlines, quick turnarounds, long hours, unruly schedules. At times, that work environment was very rewarding. I like being busy. I like being part of success. I went from work weeks that were routinely 60+ hours with loads of travel, to 0+ hours of work and no travel. It was a very dramatic drop in stress — from bunches to none. Health is my primary concern now, so I do what it takes to stay healthy. Like Martha says, “That’s a good thing.”

I no longer work, except take out the trash, routine chores and mow the lawn. And, occasionally when there is something I know I need to do, but don’t want to do, I pull out the “cancer cough.”  Right in front of Patti, I will show my sad eyes, put my hand near my mouth and cough a very faint, weak, barely audible or even noticeable cough that is designed to elicit her sympathy. It doesn’t work, but it does generate a laugh or two between the two of us and we have heard that laughing causes cancer cells to die. Don’t know if it’s true, but it sounds like it COULD BE true.

I know that getting rid of stress is easier said than done. But there are ways (see number 3 above) to rise above the stress. Making sure you take time for yourself during the day is important. There are loads of stats about the importance of taking time for “you” during your busy day. Sometimes, it’s just a few moments, but having the feeling that you are in control of your day rather than an employer, is a tremendously gratifying and rewarding feeling. Whether it is just going outside for a walk around the block at work or at home, for just a few moments, that helps to ease the stress and help you feel in control.

Contentment: a lab in his pool

Frankly, I think this item has had more impact on my health than just about all of the above combined. A friend told me the other day that he thought I looked very content. I’ve thought about that a lot since then. I am content, very content. I don’t worry like I used to — about everything. Years ago, when I was putting in those long weeks at work, and fitting family around work, I never felt like I knew how the world worked, or how I fit into it. It was a huge foreboding feeling.

Today, I am thankful for this cancer. Yep, I sure am. This past year has helped me become content. I am very content. For the first time in my life, I DO feel like I know how the world works, and I feel like I know how I fit in it. Content feels really, really good! And that, my friends, is worth all the gold in Fort Knox. God bless you all!