The Wishing Tree on Glenwood’s Doc Holliday Trail
The Doc Holliday trail in Glenwood Springs ranks high on lists of local must-do activities: the popular ascent affords hikers a magnificent view of downtown before leading on to the Linwood Pioneer Cemetery, and it has long been recognized for its historical significance and natural beauty. For the past few years, however, it has also been known for another mysterious sight: The Wishing Tree.
A gnarled and knotty old piñon pine stands at the edge of the trail, about halfway up. Adorned with hundreds of ribbons in vibrant hues of green, pink, yellow and blue, the tree beckons to every hiker. Since 2012, when the ribbons began appearing, locals and tourists alike have been perplexed by its significance.
“That’s my tree,” says Annie Zancanella. “I’ve always loved it.”
Nearly four years ago, while she was fighting for her life as a second-time cancer patient, Zancanella began quietly placing ribbons on the tree. “I’ve been visiting that tree for as long as I can remember,” she says. “When I was going through a very traumatic time a few years ago, I started writing my wishes on ribbons and tying them to the branches. It was kind of like letting go of my hopes, and putting them into the wind. The tree just became a sort of therapy for me.”
Zancanella grew up on the 1200 block of Blake Avenue just steps from the trailhead, and her memories of the pine stretch back for decades. With sturdy limbs and roots that seem to have been made specially for a child to climb, the tree was a natural jungle gym where Zancanella could swing and play or just sit and watch the sunset beyond Red Mountain. “Since we lived so close by when I was a kid, my mom would let me play on the trail,” Zancanella recalls. “I would go up there all the time, and I always wanted to climb on that tree. It was my favorite.”
Over the years the tree became a friend to her, a thing of comfort and familiarity that she returned to time and again.
A true local, Zancanella is a Roaring Fork Valley native with deep roots. Her father’s forebears were pioneers who immigrated from Italy in the 1800s and worked in the old Sunlight mining camp before settling downtown. For generations, the family has been part of the community—one of those families who know about everything and everyone in town.
During her struggle with cancer, Zancanella’s father Lawrence—or “Buzz” as he was known—was one of her most steadfast supporters. Noting that her father passed away last year, she says, “My dad and I were very close. While I was battling cancer and was out of town receiving treatments, he would even go up to the tree to pray for me, and he encouraged me to create what the tree is today.”
Zancanella first battled a rare form of non-HPV cervical cancer in 2001, at the age of 20.
Eight years later, doctors again found the disease in her body; this time it had spread to her bladder and lymphatic system. Left with few options, Zancanella’s choice of treatment the second time around was decidedly nontraditional. “I started looking around for alternative treatment options and ended up finding an amazing doctor who does cancer research with Northwestern University in Chicago,” Zancanella says. “The hospital there specializes in clinical trials, and they share their findings with other universities. I was one of about 30 women in my study.” Devastated by the prospect of having to battle cancer for a second time in her young life, Zancanella chose to dedicate herself to the research entirely. “I just…felt I didn’t have anything left,” she remembers. “So I kind of gave myself to the program.”
The decision saved her life.
For a few years, Zancanella traveled around the U.S. to cancer centers and universities as a study participant. She underwent experimental treatments and spoke to halls full of medical students about her experiences. By 2012, she reached a turning point. “I’m normally a happy, bubbly person, and I tried hard to keep that up,” she remembers. “But deep down inside, I still had all of these things I wanted to do with my life, places I wanted to go, people I wanted to meet. That’s when I had the idea for a wishing tree.”
Inspired by similar trees created as art installations by Yoko Ono in locations around the world, Zancanella had the idea to create her very own—and she knew just the right tree for the job.
“It of course had to be my special tree, up there on the Doc Holliday trail,” she says.
Zancanella first added her own wish ribbons, followed by others collected from dozens of young cancer patients she met around the country during her clinical trials. “My doctor in Chicago saw a lot of kids,” she recalls. “It made me so happy to spend time with them while we were all hanging out in the waiting room. It started brightening my day. I would get on the floor and play with them, and we would talk about all the fun things they were interested in. I loved it.”
As a creative way to help young patients cope with the confusion and fear surrounding their illness, Zancanella began bringing ribbons to the children. “I would give each kid a ribbon to write a wish on, and I’d take them all back home to tie on the tree,” she says. “It was a fun thing for them to do, but it was great for me, too. It gave me a new kind of hope; I was really inspired by how resilient those kids were.”
One day, as she went to visit the tree, Zancanella noticed something different. Ribbons she had never seen before—new ones, not tied by her own hands—had been placed on its branches.
“I started seeing ribbons and messages that other people with completely different struggles had placed on the tree,” she notes. “I hadn’t told anyone else what the tree was all about. They just started anonymously adding things. It was beautiful.”
The Wishing Tree suddenly transformed into a symbol of hope for others, too. Zancanella watched as it blossomed from her own personal expression of perseverance into something that resonated with a much larger community.
“I am amazed,” she says, “just amazed by the whole thing.”
Today The Wishing Tree is ablaze with color, but also alive with dreams. Clinging proudly to its small plot of earth, roots exposed, the little pine seems to be exactly what Zancanella is: a survivor.
This month, Annie Zancanella will celebrate two full years since being declared cancer-free.