It’s now been five years since they sold the house in Tennessee, bought one in Maggie Valley, and began exploring all the mountains had to offer. The couple had always been active, running and biking long distances and — increasingly, after moving to Western North Carolina — conquering area hiking trails. Hill did Mount LeConte twice, and remembers well the 9-mile hike she did to Hemphill Bald. It was the first time she saw an elk.
“That was pretty amazing,” she said.
Their dream for retirement together was working out perfectly, until the day in February 2016 that Hill was diagnosed with brain cancer. She’d been having symptoms for about six weeks beforehand, many of them dismissible things like turning on the blinkers instead of the engine when getting in the car. But she knew she was in trouble when she got out the scissors and just couldn’t figure out how to fit her fingers into the holes.
“All of a sudden, this hit us like a ton of bricks,” she said. “In a day you don’t know how much your life changes.”
Four days later, Hill was starting the first of her 10 rounds of chemotherapy and a new routine began to take shape. She’d be in the hospital six to eight days for chemo, go home for two weeks, and then return for six to eight days more. She felt weak and tired a lot, but she never gave up on being active.
“I’m a regular exerciser, so sitting on my butt in the hospital wasn’t my idea of a good time,” she explained.
The walking path around Lake Junaluska became Hill’s anchor of sanity. Two or three times a week, she was there — maybe walking slowly, or taking numerous breaks, and possibly even wearing a mask to protect her weakened immune system against mold spores floating through the air — but she never let her cancer keep her from getting outside. And Ron never stopped supporting her determination to stay active.
“I’d walk, I’d get tired, and Ron — poor Ron — he had the patience,” Hill said. “He didn’t want me out here by myself. My balance was off, so he’d have to walk with me. I’m so glad I kept doing it.”
Hill became something of an expert on the lake and its inhabitants — human and other — during her regular walks around its perimeter. She’d see the same people show up time after time, and some of them became her friends. She’d be encouraged by the fact that it wasn’t only healthy people who took advantage of the walking path. She met a couple other people who were in chemo too, some men in wheelchairs and a guy who had had a stroke.
Then there were the birds. She now knows which species make their homes on the lake, and where along the path she’s most likely to spot them. She’s heard a rumor that one of the swans has a nest with eggs already laid, and she can’t wait to see the soon-to-come cygnets start gliding across the lake.
Hill had to be away from the lake for a while, though, during a two-and-a-half-month stay in Durham for a stem cell transplant at Duke University. She rented a furnished apartment, with her husband staying with her during the week and various family members coming in for weekends. The clinic and the apartment — which was professionally cleaned regularly to get rid of germs — were the only two places she was allowed to be.
“It was awful,” she said. “It was like being in prison.”
She’d get up every morning and walk around the apartment complex, which had two pools that doctors wouldn’t allow her to swim in, but it wasn’t the same as her strolls around Lake Junaluska.
Hill finished her last chemo treatment in October and spent the next couple months working to get her strength back. She’s in remission but has to travel to Duke once every three months for a brain MRI, to check whether the cancer is returning.
As Easter approaches, Hill is preparing to run in the Friends of the Lake 5K that will traverse the lake’s trails on Saturday, April 15. Proceeds from the event go into Friends of the Lake’s work to maintain the grounds, a painstaking effort that costs more than $250,000 each year.
Hill won’t be running alone. Ron, who can more often be found finishing marathons than starting 5Ks, will be going with her. Her friend Melanie will be joining in, too, and Hill’s working to convince a couple she’s become fast friends with during her regular lakeside walks to participate as well.
“Lake Junaluska is such a great resource to our community,” she said, “and we all need to do our part to keep this place perfect.”