Carson’s Trip of A Lifetime

as told by Michael Ziman in the book 40 Stories

Joy in the Park
Carson Higgins, USA

Every so often, if you’re fortunate enough, a person will come into your life who will give you a new perspective and remind you what’s truly important. Recognize these special people and do everything in your power to lift them up – because you’ll learn more from them than any on-the-job training could ever provide.

Carson Higgins was always surrounded by angels. They first came to visit him when he was just three years old and doing puzzles with his mom, Debbie, at the family home in Akron, Ohio. Carson’s eyes were fixated skyward as he described in great detail what his angel looked like. Debbie chalked it up to a preschooler’s imagination, but when Carson described the exact same features a week later she had no choice but to believe her son had guardians looking out for him.

His angels were with him less than a year later when he began treatment for stage 4 neuroblastoma, a rare form of childhood cancer. Carson was the very last of 20 kids chosen for an experimental protocol at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, and for 13 months he fought the disease with his mom – and his angels – right beside him.

Carson made a miraculous recovery and was released in 2008 with no evidence of cancer in his body. As he grew into his own and gained confidence, his unique interests began to take shape. He was a voracious reader, working his way through three books a week and soaking up as much information as he could on his favorite topics, including nature and engineering. He joined the Boy Scouts and loved to be outdoors as much as possible, and he talked all the time about his dream of visiting America’s national parks to see unrivaled natural beauty up close.

The Higgins family was planning on turning that dream into a reality in the summer of 2016. Carson, his dad John, Debbie and the four other Higgins boys had their sights set on an epic family road trip out west that would bring them to the Badlands, Yosemite, Glacier, Redwoods and the Grand Canyon, among others.

It was to be the trip of a lifetime, but during Thanksgiving week of 2015 fate cruelly intervened. Carson unexpectedly relapsed and had to be Mediflighted from Akron back to St. Jude to begin another round of treatment. The following June, the Higgins’ were face to face with a family’s worst nightmare – the cancer was terminal.

If John, Debbie and the boys were ever at a loss for how to proceed, or what to think, they looked no further than the strongest 12-year-old they knew for inspiration. Carson never once complained during either hospital stint – “Come on, mom, it’s not that bad!” he famously said to Debbie when she told a reporter how hard radiation had been for him – and he never asked Why me? Instead, he spun it into the motto Why not me? and the whole family followed suit.

Within a day of his son’s grim diagnosis, John bought an RV and drove down to Memphis with Carson’s four brothers in tow. They picked up Carson and Debbie and headed straight for South Dakota with no reservations and no idea what to expect. The national park trip was back on. Why not, right?

When they arrived at the Badlands, they were welcomed by two of Carson’s newest angels. Except this time, the angels were wearing dress Stetson hats and shirts adorned with badges. Chief Park Ranger Casey Osback greeted Carson and brought the family into the park, where they were escorted to their campsite by General Manager and Forever Resorts staff member Scott West.

As Carson would soon find out, the bar for this road trip was about to be set extremely high – literally. The Higgins clan had barely settled in before they were whisked away to a helipad where Carson was given a falcon’s-eye view of the entire park with his dad and youngest brother Derek sharing a helicopter ride with him. When they landed, Carson was quick with his review: “That was the best life experience ever!”

The rangers and the staff at Badlands reminded Carson of the Scouts and they had a special bond from the get-go. Two of Carson’s favorite mementos from the trip were picked up there – a walking stick he found so he could do more hiking, and Casey’s Stetson itself. From the campsite to the family meals at the Cedar Pass Lodge, Scott and his team spared no expense in making Carson feel like a million bucks.

Carson loved his time at the Badlands so much that the park’s hospitality almost became a running joke: how is the next place ever going to top this? In the spirit of paying it forward – one of Carson’s favorite ways to give back – Scott and Casey called ahead to the road trip’s next stop, Mt. Rushmore, to let the staff there know who was about to swing through so the red carpet could continue rolling out. This wasn’t an official wish trip but it was Carson’s wish, and a network of park employees worked on the fly to give everything they had to an inspirational boy and his family. 

Each subsequent park built on the momentum that started at the Badlands. At Mt. Rushmore Carson was given his first challenge coin, a tradition among many uniformed personnel whereby a coin is minted that represents a person in a unique way and is handed out to others for only the most special of reasons. Carson collected challenge coins along the trip and designed his own set that were sent out to each stop. Carson’s coins sit proudly today in Scott’s office and in the Badlands ranger conference room, among many other places.

As Carson’s coin collection grew, so did his flock of angels. Rangers from Yellowstone to the Grand Tetons to Redwoods gave Carson one experience of a lifetime after another. He even got a California Highway Patrol escort down the 101 to a private lighthouse for the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge. As the Higgins RV flew down the highway flanked by flashing lights, Carson turned to his brothers and proclaimed, “You can call me Emperor Carson now!” 

If a story like Carson’s has to end, its final chapter couldn’t have been written any more beautifully. For five amazing weeks, mom, dad and four grateful brothers got to spend the best possible family time with the boy they loved, doing something he loved. They were by Carson’s side in Las Vegas when he passed away the night of August 11, and flew home with him days later in a spectacular send-off 12,000 feet above the entire length of the Grand Canyon in a private jet.

Carson touched countless lives with his kindness and dignity in the face of adversity. From Ohio to Memphis to a resort in the Badlands, thousands of people share unforgettable memories of Carson’s love and life lessons.

They also share an angel. 

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