Driving Through Grief: She Crossed the Country in an RV to Heal After Cancer and Losing Her Husband

Janet’s Roadtrek (Janet Arnold)

On June 30, 2013, Janet Arnold, typed her first blog entry. It read: “This summer, I am going on a journey, literally, in my RV. I am traveling for an undefined amount of time. I am on a journey of thankfulness and healing and gratitude.”

The three years that preceded that entry and her trip can only be described as a harrowing.

In February 2010, at the age of 59, Janet was diagnosed with breast cancer. After two lumpectomies and a series of radiation treatments, it looked like she was in the clear. To celebrate, Janet, who is from San Diego, enrolled in a watercolor painting class in Jackson, Wyoming. On her last day in Jackson, she went on a hike in Death Canyon, stepped on a rock and broke her ankle.

For five and a half weeks, she hobbled around on a boot while her ankle healed. Just as the boot was removed, doctors discovered that the cancer had returned in the same breast.

Five days later, while road biking with her husband Jim, one of her tires got stuck in a railroad track, flinging her over the front of the cycle to the ground. The accident left her with a fractured left eye orbit, 12 sutures down her face, and injuries to her wrist and fingers. “By this time, my friends wanted to put me into bubble wrap,” she says.

But her biggest challenge was yet to come.

Janet and Jim (Janet Arnold)

In May, Jim was diagnosed with salivary gland cancer. It came as a shock — neither Jim nor Janet were smokers, in fact they were avid athletes. That entire summer he endured chemo and radiation treatments. But nine months later, the cancer metastasized in his left hip. On October 17, he died.

“He was the love of my life,” Janet says wistfully. “We met in our late 30’s and it was a first relationship for me. I had chosen to be single my whole life. It was the first marriage for both of us. We had no children but we had the most amazing relationship. There was so much respect and love between us. It wasn’t perfect but it was pretty darn close.”

After 23 years with Jim, Janet faced an uncertain future. She leaned on her older sister, Ginny Lepore, for support. “I remember her asking me, ‘What am I going to do now?” recalls Ginny. “‘What’s next for me?’”

Soon, Janet had an answer.

One day, while driving home from checkup with her doctor, Janet passed a dealership with cute Winnebago Era parked out front. “Jim and I had talked about getting a van, so I U-turned it and went in and checked it out.”

While she didn’t buy the Winnebago, it got her wheels churning. “I have no children and if it wasn’t for the support of my friends over the last three years – I would have been desperate,” she says. “I decided I wanted to go around the country and thank every person who supported me. I wanted to look them in the eyes, give them a hug and thank them personally.”

Related: 10,000 Miles of Therapy: My Family Went on a Road Trip After We Lost Our Father to Cancer

At the end of May, Janet traded in Jim’s BMW Z-3 and purchased a Roadtrek SS Agile RV. On July 13, she pulled out of her driveway in San Diego and hit the road — solo — to begin her trip of thankfulness, healing, and gratitude.

Janet and Chris (Janet Arnold)

Along the way, she camped alone and visited friends and family. One friend she reunited with was Chris Eustace. The two women had met in the early 70s when they were both nurses. “When I first heard about the trip, I thought she was nuts,” says Chris. “But then I started to understand it. Sometimes staying in a familiar place can be overwhelming in a time of grief. To be able to take off on a road trip, alone, took tremendous courage and a sense of adventure. It’s not a journey everybody could take.”

While Chris stayed in touch via phone, it had been years since the old friends had seen each other in person. The two arranged to meet in Lambertville, N.J. — at a halfway point between Janet’s route and Chris’ house. “She thanked me for always listening and having empathy,” says Chris. “It was nice to have physical presence finally where I could give her a hug. Actually, we had a couple of good hugs.”

Janet had many meetings like this – even with some new friends who followed her journey on social media.

Janet and Pauline (Janet Arnold)

“We met initially through the Roadtrek Facebook page,” says Pauline Guilmette of Rochester, N.Y., a fellow Roadtrek owner. “Then, I started reading her blog and I was blown away by her story.” Pauline was so moved she emailed Janet. “I told her if her she was ever up in our neck of the woods, by our summer campgrounds in Pulaski, she should come and visit.” And Janet took her up on the offer. “It was so exciting. We really hit it off,” says Pauline. “I was so impressed by her. She takes the risk, when most of us wouldn’t. She drives through the fear.”

Janet also set little goals for herself along the way. While visiting her longtime friends Diane and Tom Ritland and in Queechee, Vermont, Janet decided she wanted to drive her Roadtrek through as many covered bridges as possible. At Cornish-Windsor Bridge – one of the longest covered bridges between Vermont and New Hampshire that spans more than 449 feet – Diane got out to help guide Janet maneuvering the 10-foot RV onto the bridge which had less than 13 feet of clearance. “When I looked in my rear view mirror there was a long line of cars behind me. It was rush hour. People were not happy but Diane and I laugh about that to this day.”

Even without friends in her passenger seat, Janet seemed to drive head-on into humorous situations. Like the day she pulled into the small town of Cashton, Wisconsin – and right into a local parade with floats, high school bands, the mayor — the works. “I grandly drove down Main Street waving at all the people. I did not honk my horn because the Roadtrek has the wimpiest horn ever but it is a good memory of a fun moment in time.”

While every day allowed Janet to reflect on life, it was her meeting with Zoe Stephens that brought the trip full-circle for her. During her second scare with breast cancer, Janet met Zoe on a breast cancer support site. Zoe, a survivor, and Janet quickly became fast friends. “Zoe can make me chase my fear away and look at reason in even the most unreasonable situation,” says Janet. “Her wisdom and knowledge helped me with choices regarding my health care and her humor kept me sane.”

Related: What My Father’s Suicide Taught Me About Traveling Fearlessly

After Jim got sick, Zoe became Janet’s rock. “When he died, she was one of the first people I called.” It was Zoe who encouraged Janet to see the world, experience life and find happiness again. During her road trip, Janet spent a week with Zoe in North Carolina.

After more than two months on the road, Janet had driven from California to Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, North Carolina, New York, Vermont, Maine, Chicago, Utah, Idaho, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Wyoming. At the tail end of September, Janet pulled into her driveway back home.

What resonated with Janet weren’t the miles she covered but that she learned to enjoy life again along the way. “I don’t need people to feel sorry for me,” she says. “Yes, it’s been a hard road. But what I need are people who are up to the challenge of helping me have fun and explore the adventure.

“I didn’t want to run from my grief. I wanted to face it head-on so I could get on with my life,” Janet, now 62, says. “Being able to thank and meet all these people was really enriching. It was the most healing thing I could have done.”

To read more about Janet Arnold’s life and travels, check out her blog: www.journeysofthankfulness.com.

Related: My Midlife Crisis: I Bought a Teeny Weeny Trailer to Travel the U.S.

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