After over 30 years as a DJ, David Kelso has become a familiar voice to many Oklahomans.
On KOMA, a classic hits station in Oklahoma City, he exudes an aura of ease and coolness that draws listeners in, and makes them stick around with his refreshing banter and stories.
But this isn’t just an on-air persona, it’s also how he is in person. Even when discussing more serious topics like being diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer, in December of 2019 after he had a seizure and then surgery to remove the tumor.
About two weeks after beginning chemo and radiation, Kelso and a small group of friends hiked in the Mount Scott area near Lawton to de-stress and think about how they’d beat cancer. This became Hike to Heal, a biweekly hiking trip at various locations in Oklahoma.
But Kelso isn’t the only one who’s healing. Many of the other hikers are too, whether it’s from injury, substance abuse, domestic violence or pain and stress brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’ve been able to turn my attention away from my disease and try and offer people a seat in the Church of the Tall Trees,” Kelso said. “So I’ve been able to focus my attention less on my own suffering and more on other people’s suffering, which has heightened my compassion, which has brought me a little closer to the peace that I’m looking for.”
Steve Jenkins, a friend of Kelso, was part of the first Hike to Heal.
“He was a little wobbly,” Jenkins said. “It was a little scary sometimes with the cliffs, you know. But now he blazes by me. I can’t keep up.”
In the span of 13 hikes, Kelso finished his treatment and is now a cancer survivor. He says cancer brought him closer to his family, friends and God.
“I’m gonna keep walking till I die,” Kelso said.
One Sunday morning in late August, I embarked with Kelso in the Church of the Tall Trees for Hike to Heal number 14 at Stinchcomb Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma City.
“When you start walking and you’re in the trees and you get fresh air and you hear the bugs and you hear the birds and the flowers and the extra oxygen that’s around and you start walking the steps - one, two, three, four, five, six - over and over and over again, it clears out the mind,” Kelso said. “And when the mind is clear and when the mind is still, that’s when the wisdom that you’re looking for - the “Oh my God, what do I do now?” - the answer to that question will come to you when your mind is finally still.”
This hike had about 30 participants, the largest group yet, ranging from parents and their children to pairs of friends. Kelso was wearing a Pink Floyd cut off t-shirt and Kool Aid-Man themed socks.
“Life’s too short to wear boring socks,” Kelso said.
Several of the hikers said Kelso has a way of rallying people with his enthusiastic energy and his inspirational words. I quickly caught on to what they meant.
Early in our five mile hike, we got lost and ran into other hikers from the group who also went the wrong way. Kelso lightened the mood by saying, “We call that trail magic.” Everyone laughed.
At one point, someone called him the “star of the show,” but he of course denied it.
While many of the hikers are close friends with Kelso and participate in Hike to Heal to support him in his cancer journey, every person I asked had a different reason for hiking.
Vanessa Llach, one of Kelso’s neighbors, said Hike to Heal has been a way for her and her family to connect with others in a safe and responsible way during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I know when I feel the walls closing in - again, with our current state of affairs - getting outside is huge,” Llach said. “It’s been very helpful to my mental health.”
Hike to Heal has been an opportunity for Misty Jobe, a friend of Kelso’s from highschool, to heal from her experiences in the military, engage in physical activity and meet people with similar backgrounds and interests.
“I thought ‘If a brain cancer survivor can do it then I can get out here and walk,’” Jobe said.
Kelso says a few people from across the county have expressed interest in starting their own Hike to Heal.
“Go outside. Go breathe fresh air. Go hope for something,” Kelso said. “Go turn on your own light because I’ve discovered in my cancer fight that when you find yourself at the bottom of a deep, dark hole, first light you got to turn on is your own. So that’s what I want. If people are doing this in other parts of the country, please, I hope they do.
Because after all, the first step to healing is to put one foot in front of the other.
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