The Long Way Home
Musician and cancer survivor Dan Snyder reclaims his Adirondack roots
by Joe Connelly
It started on a sunny morning on August 30, 2016, at the southernmost point of the Northville–Placid Trail. Dan Snyder had just completed a grueling four months of chemotherapy and two months of radiation treatment for stage three prostate cancer, and he wanted to celebrate with a 133-mile walk in the woods. He’d been told by his doctor when he began his treatment that there was an avalanche of side effects that went with it, both daunting and debilitating, and in the Hope Lodge in Boston where he was staying, he’d seen some of his fellow patients waylaid, barely able to get out of bed. Yet Dan suffered few of the effects. He could plan a hike of 20-mile days because he’d been going similar distances all through his treatment, part of a rigorous training regimen encouraged by his radiologist, Paul Nguyen, to help stem the side effects. Dan had raised $10,000 for his Hike for Hope, all the money going directly to Dr. Nguyen’s planned study on the benefits of exercise in cancer treatment.
“When you have cancer,” Dan said, “you are suddenly, completely alone. Friends stop calling or stopping by. Even those closest to you, who want to help the most, just don’t understand what you’re going through.” The isolation that comes with the diagnosis only increases with the treatment. You are laid on a table and cut open with a scalpel, or loaded into machines and blasted with radiation. IVs are started by a rotation of faces, poisons titrated to kill the cancer without quite killing you. It’s easy to feel lost in this war of attrition, to allow yourself to become a statistic, a name on the chart, a diagnosis. To survive cancer, then, you have to first survive the cure, a humbling test of endurance and faith, and, ultimately, a test of who you are.
To tell the story of Dan Snyder, cancer survivor, it’s important to take the trail from the beginning, to a unique place in Adirondack history—Camp Eagle Cove, on Fourth Lake. Dan’s father, Joseph “Bello” Snyder, owned and operated the children’s summer camp, one of the most popular in the park. The kids called him Uncle Bello, and over 43 years, he raised thousands of them.
“My father was a great man,” Dan said. “He came from a tough neighborhood, the Baden Street Settlement in Rochester, one of 12 kids, but he got his ticket out by playing sports. He became a professional basketball player. This was during the Depression. By around 1939, he was able to buy the camp.”
Eagle Cove was an idyllic world, rich with swimming and water-skiing, campfire songs and stories of Indian lore. The campers, most of them Jewish, were grouped into “tribes”: Cayugas, Mohawks, Tuscaroras. They lived and played there for eight weeks straight, returning year after year. Uncle Bello knew them all by name, and off-season would write letters, visit them when they were sick. But his own son, Dan, he couldn’t understand.
“The last thing my father wanted was a black sheep like me,” Dan said. “All the kids wore uniforms. I hated uniforms. I’d rather hang out with the people working in the kitchen. I liked talking to them. I wanted to be with Hal Dietzel, a Mohawk/Mohegan. He was the head of Indian lore, and he took me under his wing, and he showed me the spiritual side.”
When Dan was 15, he arrived that July with long hair and Beatle boots. It was 1965, the British had just invaded, and his father took charge of defending Eagle Cove. He took Dan and another camper to the barber in town and ordered crew cuts for two. Dan ran out the door the moment his father left. He kept running.
By 17 he’d dropped out of school and joined a band. He lived on the streets, or with whomever would take him in, working in restaurants, playing music. He almost went to Vietnam, and instead, he found a teacher who would help him get his diploma. He wrote the papers, took the tests, and got into the University of Rochester. All this while the band kept getting better, opening for acts like Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells.
He kept running, moved into a commune with his girlfriend, who was part Oglala Lakota, and they had two girls, Prairie and Shoshona. The band he was in, North, won a national contest. They thought they’d be playing New York City, CBGBs, but instead their new manager, the drummer’s father, got them a month-long gig at the Playboy Club in Jersey. Overnight they had to rent suits and learn how to play Frankie Valli.
He moved to New York City, and started his own moving company, which quickly turned into another business, turning mover’s pads into silk quilts, with accounts at Bergdorf and Bloomingdales. He moved the business back to Rochester, with his girlfriend and two daughters, but didn’t stay still for long. In 1980 he left his family and his job, one more time trying to make it big in New York City. He formed a band called Danny and the Bleeders, finally got to play CBGBs. He lost a drummer and added horns, called the band Range War, playing only originals. He signed a contract with Provogue Records, a Dutch label, and toured Europe.
He fell in love with Kristina Landberg, a Swedish photographer, and gradually he slowed down. He turned to photography, working for magazines, and then for movies, as a producer and location scout. They rented a second home in Keene, a getaway from the city, then bought a place in North Hudson, an old farmhouse surrounded by wilderness. The same park he spent summer camps in, only now he’d come to the other side, a place of solitude and meditation. He’d finally stopped running, and that’s when the diagnosis hit.
The story of cancer is most often told of doctors searching for the miracle answer, the great cure. But in the last 20 years, science’s greatest successes have come not in finding one cure for all, but in learning how to treat each cancer separately, understanding its individuality, as private and unique as the person it’s trying to kill. Because the real story of cancer is about those who are living and dying with it, the people lying awake at night, alone with their fears and uncertainties, before they get up in the morning and start that run, the run for their lives.
In 2013 there were 176,450 men diagnosed with prostate cancer, 27,681 of them died. Prostate cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death among men. “I knew if I didn’t get treatment,” Dan said, “the disease was going to kill me. I did the research. I found the best doctors. And I changed my life.”
One of the unique treatments for prostate cancer is called androgen deprivation therapy, designed to lower the body’s testosterone. Without that hormone, the prostate shrinks, the cells stop multiplying. There are other changes too, of course, and some of those side effects, like breast tenderness and impotence, are probably why so few men want to talk about it. Dan Snyder started a blog about his experiences, called Reckless Son Travels, where he praises the value of intimacy and the love of his wife, Kristina.
“I don’t like to use the word fight,” he says. “I’m not fighting cancer; I embrace it. I’m just making my body and mind as healthy as I can, ready for what’s going to happen next.”
During the weeks of treatment in Boston, he worked out at the gym, on the Navy SEAL machine, but every Friday they’d go home to North Hudson, and first thing Saturday morning he’d make the 15-mile hike to the Boreas Ponds and back. “There’s oxygen in the trees,” he said, “and a spirit in the woods.” In those long hours in the deep forest, he’d think about the circle he’d made, from Fourth Lake to the Boreas. He’s always thinking about his father, who died in 1998, but whose spirit still pushes him. “What finally brought us back together,” Dan said, “was my music, when he saw how hard I worked at the craft. He understood that, because he worked hard all his life. I keep moving forward. When you stop, you die. My father taught me that.”
Learn more about Adirondack Hike for Hope at www.adkhikeforhope.org; visit Dan Snyder’s blog, RecklessSonTravels, on Tumblr; and hear Snyder playing with Range War at New York City’s CBGBs here and in the studio during the recording of his album Truce here.