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Joe enjoys the flower filled view a top the Lookout Mountain Lookout trail. Photo by Joe Hendricks.

Hiking Through Grief

After losing his wife to cancer, Joe Hendricks used hiking as a way to overcome his grief | by Jessi Loerch

Joe and Heidi Hendricks were diagnosed with cancer within three months of each other in 2008.

Each diagnosis, Joe says, was like getting kicked in the gut by a mule.

“You can’t breathe; you can’t move; you just can’t believe it,” he said.

Joe and Heidi met while they were both working at the intensive care unit at the University of Washington where they were both registered nurses. Their profound love of nature was one of the things that attracted them to each other. They married in 1991.

So, when they were diagnosed with cancer, they were determined to hike while they battled their respective cancers.

Joe and Heidi at Granite Mountain. Photo courtesy Joe Hendricks.
Joe and Heidi Hendricks rest at the top of Granite Mountain. It was a wonderful hike, despite Heidi dealing with the side effects from chemo. Photo courtesy Joe Hendricks.

“We had both gotten overweight and out of shape during the preceding years,” Joe said. “Seeing research showing the value of being physically fit in fighting cancer, over the next two years Heidi lost 40 pounds and I lost 100 pounds by limiting calories and exercising daily. Amid the surgeries, scans, labs and chemo, we slowly started adding hiking back into our lives. We eventually became a sort of poster couple at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, often leaving directly for a hike from the chemo rooms with the staff cheering us on.”

“We often took breaks during a hike for me to empty a surgical drain or for Heidi to relieve her chemo nausea— but we kept going and loved each hike. Plus, we danced up there! Heidi taught me to waltz on top of Mount Zion and how to swing dance on a Slab Creek Trail bridge.”

"Our hope and courage got recharged on every hike"

The hiking was powerful emotionally, spiritually and physically.

“I believe God coaxed us out on the trails,” Joe said. “We both had strong but simple Christian faiths and prayed together often. Neither of us were pushy at all about our faith and have many family and friends of other faiths or no faith at all. But out there, despite the cancer, we felt God’s love even more than at church or at home. It’s hard to explain, but our hope and courage got recharged on every hike. In the last year of our battle, I began to notice that although Heidi’s chemo side effects were much worse on most days, within the first mile of a hike she’d rate each side effect as significantly improved.”

Heidi at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. Photo courtesy Joe Hendricks.
Heidi receives treatment at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. Photo courtesy Joe Hendricks.

“The doctors gave Heidi a year to live, and she made it four years and hiked her final (steep!) trail (Little Quilcene River Trail to Mount Townsend) six weeks before she died at home, holding my hand.”

After Heidi’s death, Joe had to find a new way forward without his beloved wife and favorite hiking companion.

“After Heidi’s death, I almost stopped hiking altogether,” Joe said. “A week after she died I tried the Upper Dungeness River Trail and turned back in despair. Then I tried the Lower South Fork Skokomish River Trail a few weeks later but turned back halfway, too sad to go on. I think the third hike was the Gray Wolf River Trail, and I completed it. The hikes got easier over time, but I still notice tears when hiking one of her favorite trails today. … Even now, over five years later, I have to say it is tougher to go out my front door alone to hike than it was with Heidi. It’s just something I have to plow through.”

Joe has found new ways to get out on trail. Since Heidi’s death five years ago, he’s gone on more than 260 hikes. His own cancers are both in remission.

"The hikes got easier over time, but I still notice tears when hiking one of her favorite trails today."

Something new that Joe began after Heidi’s death is making videos of his hikes. Many of his friends in the cancer community had long enjoyed his photos from his and Heidi’s trips. The videos were a way to give his friends a more immersive experience. Filming and editing them gave him something to look forward to. He shares the videos on YouTube and in his trip reports.

“I also began doing trail crew work the year after she died and that brought a new appreciation for switchbacks, boardwalks, bridges, etc.,” Joe said. “And I love the crew chiefs and other volunteers I meet on trail crews!”

He’s also created new traditions that help him cope with his grief. Heidi and Joe used to love hosting holiday feasts. But he found that, after her death, he couldn’t handle it.

Joe and Heidi dancing. Photo courtesy Joe Hendricks
Heidi teaches Joe to Waltz on Mount Zion, three months before her death. Photo courtesy Joe Hendricks.

“So on the second Thanksgiving after Heidi died, I hauled a chair and table up Cedar Butte, where I made a full turkey dinner from scratch with my JetBoil stove—leaving no trace, of course,” Joe said. “When other hikers reached the summit, you should have seen their faces when I stepped out of the trees, offering them a gourmet cheese tray! That Christmas I made a ham dinner along Copper Creek next to a waterfall.”

It’s been a fun tradition for Joe ever since. Last year, he made turkey legs at Indian Island County Park for Thanksgiving. Then, for Christmas, he cooked a gourmet seafood dinner at the Anderson Landing Nature Preserve, overlooking the water.

Over time, Joe has made new connections on trails. He’s met many crew leaders and volunteers on work parties. He even gets frequently recognized on trail.

“I’d say on about every third or fourth hike, someone comes up to me on the trail to thank me for the videos, which is a chance for me to meet great folks out hiking. My orange World Vision cap makes me recognizable from the videos, I guess.”

Joe is well known by fellow trip reporters for the incredible holiday meals he prepares on trail. 

Joe encourages others who are dealing with illness or grief to find time to get outside. Joe and Heidi used the hike descriptions on to help them find trails they could handle, even through chemo and surgeries.

“There is a lot of research in recent years showing the powerful impact of both nature and a positive attitude on many diseases, including cancer and depression,” Joe said. “Out there you get both, at least in my experience.”

Joe, who celebrated his 65th birthday earlier this year, is not slowing down at all—and he has a clear plan to keep moving.

“I have a very specific long-term goal,” he said. “To still be hiking and doing trip reports, trail crew days and hike videos on my 100th birthday! And in order to reach that goal I will continue the weightlifting and high-intensity interval aerobics at home on nonhiking days.”

This article originally appeared in the Mar+Apr 2018 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.