A Door County Love Letter: How this Cancer Survivor got Her Life Back at Death’s Door

It’s taken me a long time to write this piece. Not because of the writing; that didn’t take long. But processing, and understanding, my emotions? I’m still not done with that.

It was the summer of 2021 when an invitation to Door County floated into my inbox on silver-limned wings. I had to complete an application. Despite celebrating my twentieth year of The Local Tourist, I was nervous I’d be rejected. When the pandemic appeared, my business disappeared.

Then I had the added joy of a cancer diagnosis in August 2020.

After a year of surgeries, chemo, and radiation, combined with lockdowns, I wondered: would they understand? Would they let me in?

By that time, travel was resuming, albeit tentatively. For much of the four-day, three-night itinerary, we’d be outdoors. Hiking, kayaking, biking, boating, etc. My body’s strength was quickly rebounding and I knew I’d be challenged, but I was up for it. I needed it.

Door County had been on my radar for years. As a lifelong Midwestern resident, and a Chicago-area resident for two decades, I’d often heard about this idyllic retreat, this wonderful getaway. Finally, I’d be able to see it for myself. 

Because they said yes. 

Door County, I discovered, is a place of unparalleled beauty. There are many destinations that can claim that distinction, because each beautiful place is unique, but Door County is the only one with three hundred miles of coastline, five state parks, two national wildlife refuges, and nineteen county parks. 

It’s a peninsula of the unique. Outside of Sturgeon Bay, which is often called the Gateway to Door County, there isn’t a single Starbucks, McDonald’s, or Walmart. One town squashed construction of a Dollar General. A village passed an ordinance prohibiting any restaurants with more than three locations.

Door County is the very definition of small-town America. Its restaurants and boutiques are owned by neighbors, many going back multiple generations. Hotels, motels, resorts, and bed and breakfasts are all singular locations, and each one is different from the next.

The peninsula, technically an island after the construction of the Sturgeon Bay canal in 1881, is buffeted by Lake Michigan on one side and Green Bay on the other. Where the two meet is a dangerous confluence, so dangerous the French called it porte des morts, or Death’s Door.

As Europeans settled the thumb of what would become Wisconsin, they shortened it to a more welcoming name: Door County.

Despite the number of shipwrecks caused by the inhospitable waters – more than 275 rest at the bottom – there were few fatalities, so it seems removing “Death” from the sobriquet was appropriate.

Due to its fairly remote location, today’s Door County is sparsely populated, with fewer than 30,000 permanent residents. But hospitality and an abundance of natural beauty draw millions of tourists each year. 

Door County is often called the Cape Cod of the Midwest, but it needs no comparison. Its unique charms stand on their own.

And it helped me stand on my own.

Disclaimer: my visit was hosted by Destination Door County (website), but all opinions are most definitely my own and only slightly influenced by getting my ever-loving mojo back.

Picture of clear water with rocks in the bottom and grasses with trees in the background

My Door County visit wasn’t my first post-treatment press trip. I’d completed two by the time I arrived at Renard’s Cheese to meet my colleagues. My first press trip had been a visit with my husband to Elgin, Illinois, a place I’ve previously lived. That was my shallow pond, a place I knew. 

On my way to the peninsula, I took a day to drive up the coast of Wisconsin, stopping at lighthouses along the way. I stayed overnight in Port Washington and went to a brewery. A woman approached me. “Are you a survivor?” she asked. I nodded. “I recognize the hair.”

My hair, previously strawberry blonde curls that draped down my back, was now white and gray, an inch long. Her growth had been similar, she said, and seeing her full lush head of hair gave me comfort, as did connecting with someone who could understand better than anyone else what I’d been through, and what I was going through.

She wasn’t the only survivor I met on that trip.

The next morning, after a stroll around the marina and a delicious breakfast, I dove headfirst into my second press trip.

For forty-eight hours, I saw as much of Sheboygan as one person can see. I ate and drank and learned its history. I learned to sail.

View from sailing with SEAS First Sail cruise

I felt alive, invigorated. I was back! I could do this! I’d already connected with strangers, and after almost a year and a half of lockdowns and the additional isolation of treatment, I was ready. Nervous, but ready.

After a lunch that included cheese and cherries, I checked into the Square Rigger Lodge. This was an old-school motel. Its best feature: its location, right on Lake Michigan. I put my bags down, opened the sliding glass door, and walked straight for the water. Grass gave way to sparse vegetation, and I followed a narrow path of sand and soon my toes were in the lake. I closed my eyes and listened to the waves.

Beach at Square Rigger Lodge on Lake Michigan with red and blue chairs on the sand and grasses in the foreground

I had a short time before I’d be picked up for dinner. They’d split our small group of travel writers among several of the independently owned accommodations. Some were in a condo-style resort. Another was in a former schoolhouse. I had a lakefront motel. It meant we’d experience the different unique places to stay in Door County.

My lakeside location meant that for me (with the exception of no coffee maker in the room), my motel was perfect.

Dinner provided an opportunity for us to get to know each other. Over blackened whitefish I met the other writers and finally met Alicia Underlee Nelson, one of my co-authors of Midwest Road Trip Adventures.

I discovered I was the only one who didn’t freelance, who only wrote for herself. Imposter syndrome threatened. “Are you a blogger?” I bristled. There’s nothing wrong with blogging. Technically, I am a blogger. But there’s a connotation behind the word, especially among trained journalists.

I am a trained journalist. And an Emmy-winner. I had been invited. Besides, I don’t want to freelance. Never have. 

The insecurity was unlike me. Unlike me, pre-cancer, anyway. I shook it off, reminding myself of who I was and who I am and that I belonged there as much as any of them.

We finished the night at Newport State Park, one of five state parks in Door County and Wisconsin’s only International Dark Sky Park. As we drove through the woods towards the tip of the peninsula, we told a ghost story, each sentence getting more elaborate and more sinister than the last.

The story ended when we piled out of the van and took in the sunshine-bright moon reflecting in the black water. We couldn’t see the stars, which is part of the wonder of a dark sky park, but it was still heavenly.

Moon over Death's Door in Newport State Park. Moonlight reflecting on the water in Door County

At 5:20 the next morning the sky began to lighten. Pastel blue, a band of dusty periwinkle, hints of mauve. Even though I’d opened the door, I couldn’t hear the lake. I wrote in my journal, dismissing my insecurities from the day before. I walked towards the shore, barefoot, the cold sand a substitute for my morning coffee.

Sunrise over Lake Michigan from the beach of Square Rigger Lodge in Door County Wisconsin

We began our first full day with pastries at Grandma’s Swedish Bakery inside Rowleys Bay Resort. The bakery has been a fixture for over fifty years. Behind the resort is a zip line.

A zip line!

There’s nothing like flying through the woods to make you feel alive. I laughed my fool head off, feeling like a kid (or middle-aged adult) who gets off the roller coaster and runs back to the beginning to do it all over again.

Soaring from one tree to another ripped away the fear, insecurities, and hesitation.

And I reminded myself that I’d learned to sail two days before.

I was alive, damnit. I was alive.

A woman on a zipline with the platform in the foreground

We strolled around Sister Bay. I ate more whitefish. We saw gigantic hibiscus in front of the post office and goats on a grass roof.

We boarded a boat built by the Navy and traversed Death’s Door to Pilot Island. Part of the Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge, it’s a desolate island covered with dead trees, killed by the feces of birds that swarmed like locusts. The smell choked us, and we wove another story, this one a tale of horror.

We left the cormorants and seagulls, floating over shipwrecks to Plum Island, also part of the Refuge. Both islands still have lighthouses that serve as navigational aids. 

We disembarked and walked past a decrepit boat house and boarded-up crew quarters to the short wetland trail. Unlike its tiny neighbor to the southeast, this island was lush. As a protected space, it should stay that way.

Goats on top of Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant in Sister Bay Wisconsin
Birds swarming dead trees on Pilot Island in Death's Door
Shipwreck visible under Lake Michigan near Plum Island off of Door County Wisconsin

After returning to Gill’s Rock, we drove to Ellison Bluff State Natural Area. As we walked towards the overlook above Green Bay, I learned that one of my companions, a young woman I pegged at about thirty, was also a breast cancer survivor. She’d found hers four years before.

We hugged. Cried. Bonded. Connected by a punch in the gut and a will to not just survive, but to live.

Ellison Bluff State Natural Area Overlook

Our next stop was all-things-cherries at Seaquist Orchards, a cornucopia of Door County’s ubiquitous fruit. Then we toured Anderson’s Dock. The exterior of the building in Ephraim’s port is covered with names, dates, hearts, and proposals. Inside, The Hardy Gallery displays proof that this area inspires artistry. How could it not, with its beauty, danger, and lore?

We entered a building under red and white striped awnings for a dinner of cheese curds, root beer, burgers, and the biggest small sundaes you’ll ever see. We walked it off past white houses and a white church and up stairs for a view of the town begun by Moravians.

A crowd gathered near a gazebo, and we heard the strains of Spanish guitars. A father and son sipped wine, relaxing in lawn chairs with a side table in between, next to their tricked-out VW van. We wanted to join them, but found a picnic table with a view of the bay instead. A lone kayaker paddled by as the sun set.

Salmon colored sun rising over Lake Michigan and a kayaker sails by. Beach in foreground

Two months to the day after my last radiation treatment, I watched a salmon-colored sun come up over the horizon. An older woman with short gray hair, kind of like mine, kayaked through the beam of light. I’d ended the day before and begun this one with kayakers. Fitting, since I’d be in one myself in a few short hours.

This was one thing I was still nervous about. I’d kayaked the Lower Salt River in Arizona in 2019, but that was the only time I’d participated in the sport. That river was calm and narrow. 

This morning, I’d be kayaking in Lake Michigan. Not calm or narrow. Near a confluence called Death’s Door.

We rode electric bikes to the boat launch. I’d always pooh-poohed electric bikes. Not any more. I was able to ride for miles, something I certainly would not have been able to do without some motorized assistance.

Fortunately, the lake was calm that day. We paired up with others based on our experience. Since I didn’t really have to steer on my first and only trip, I sat in front and was the primary rower.

This experience nearly broke me. We zigged and zagged and I felt like we rowed twice as far as everyone else, who all seemed to go in a straight line. The rhythmic rowing pulled on skin damaged from chemotherapy and radiation that was far more fragile than I realized. 

“Excuse me,” I said, hoping I was loud enough that our guide could hear me.

“Yes?” She paddled towards us.

“Do you have any bandaids? My skin seems to, um.” 

She butted against our kayak and passed over a handful of bandages. I quickly applied them, tucked the wrappers into the top of my bathing suit, and resumed rowing.

At Cave Point, our guide invited us to pull our kayaks onto a rocky outcropping, climb up the bluff, and jump into the lake. I wanted to. Oh, how I wanted to as I watched the others scramble up, then soar into the water with a splash and a laugh. 

But I knew I couldn’t do this thing. I could dock; I could climb; I could jump. But I knew I couldn’t swim around the point and get back to the boat. I knew I wouldn’t have the strength.

I didn’t cry. I took pictures of the others. I marveled when we resumed our tour and floated into one of the caves, the water a neon green.

We made our way back. It took ages. I replaced the bandaids. When I finally saw the boat launch, I wanted to cry.

I didn’t.

Watching the other kayakers jump into the lake and climb back up and do it again at Cave Point in Door County Wisconsin

We got back on our electric bikes. I tried to, at least. I forgot to make sure it was turned off and the bike jumped, ramming a pedal into my shin. “SH*T,” I screamed in pain, then turned around in horror as I realized a young girl and her dad stood nearby. “I am so sorry.” I didn’t see his reaction. I simply got on the bike.

And cried.

Lunch at Scaturo's - pasta salad and burger with bacon and cheese

Lunch at Scaturo’s Baking Co was another burger. A nice big burger topped with bacon and cheese and a pasta salad on the side. And a beer. I’d earned it.

After lunch we browsed boutiques in Fish Creek, and there I found courage.

I had courage, of course, I knew that. Look at what I’d already done. But in a store called Sister Golden I found an artist’s creation that still props me up when I flag.

She takes found objects – leaves, twigs, etc.  – and creates art. She then photographs her art and makes prints and cards.

One is of a woman with long flowing hair, kind of like mine used to be. A hummingbird clasps a necklace that says “courage.”

That was me. That was how I wanted to see myself. With my torn skin and a radiation rash and my hedgehog hair, I saw myself hiking and biking and kayaking and writing it all and living. Living with joy and without fear and with courage.

In Peninsula State Park, we walked to the top of Eagle Tower. The overlook, the third in that spot since 1914, opened May 2021. It’s got steps, like all towers do, but this one also has a ramp, making the stellar view accessible to everyone. The 850-foot canopy walk winds through the trees with benches along the way.

I took a selfie at the top. I took pictures of the view, of course, but this one photo, the one that captures a grin that fills my eyes, is my favorite.

Theresa grinning ear to ear at the top of Eagle Tower in Peninsula State Park in Door County Wisconsin

The park is across a bay from Egg Harbor, and that’s where we headed next. Established in 1861, a bunch of fur traders got in a food fight, lobbing eggs at each other from their boats, and the name Egg Harbor stuck. We admired sculptures and the harbor before meeting up at One Barrel Brewing Co. for pizza and beer. 

We spent our last night in Door County relaxed, tired, and very, very full.

This trip was a turning point for me. Everything tasted richer. More decadent. The blackened whitefish. The pastries. The ice cream. Oh, the ice cream. Life in technicolor. It’s a cliché. Oh well. Then I’m a cliché. 

Except, a cliché is a trope that’s so overused it becomes meaningless. Quaint village, snow-capped mountain, etc.

Surviving cancer and then reveling in the richness of life is most certainly not meaningless. It is meaningful, every moment, every breath, every taste, every new experience. It feels like everything is new, whether it’s riding an electric bike for the first time or watching the sunrise for the hundredth. 

Nothing is taken for granted.

I realized that after chemo and radiation, I was literally a new person on a molecular level. For months, I took treatments that killed cells. I grew new ones. I killed my hair. All my hair. It grew back.

What never left, but simply grew exponentially, was my zest for life and my desire to tell wonderful, entertaining, compelling stories that truly capture a place, and not just the physical location, but the feeling, the experience of being there.

It’s taken me a long time to write this because Door County, by way of Elgin and Sheboygan, was my reintroduction to the world. It was my reintroduction to myself. During my treatments I looked inside and knew I was a writer. I knew that before cancer, but a life-threatening disease will sure make you double down. 

Those intense few days in Wisconsin tested me and confirmed what I already knew. I couldn’t write that then. Even though I was public about my disease and my treatment, I wasn’t ready to bare all this. Instead, I turned my experience into fiction, writing my first novel. If you’ve read Peril on the Peninsula and met Alex Paige, I’m sure you recognized a lot of this.

Today is the two year anniversary of my first chemo. It’s been long enough. Time to let you in.