We parked alongside a quieter portion of the Roaring River in Kings Canyon, near the end of the careening road through the stone walls. I wanted to make my hippie ancestors proud and wash myself in the cold mountain water, so I changed into my swimsuit and grabbed a towel and our biodegradable camp soap. “I won’t be able to feel the water, anyway,” I assured myself, fearing this river water would be similar to the freezing water we’d waded in at Lake Tahoe but knowing that my spinal cord injury would prevent me from feeling anything up to my waist.
But I was very, very wrong. Even though I couldn’t feel the ice water that I’m sure was going to freeze over any minute, my legs still spasmsed violently in protest. Quickly I squirted the soap all over my head and over my body, caring less by the second how clean I was actually getting. Ethel looked worriedly over the top of my head, balancing on the rock I was leaning against to check on me but not caring so much that she would have to get in the water too. Dusty just clutched his stomach laughing at me, having camped and trained in the woods enough times to know no amount of clean was worth getting this cold. “Qqq-uuiiet you”, I scowled at him with my teeth chattering and braced myself for another dunk to rinse.
Dusty helped lift me from the water and sit me down on the rock behind me to dry off in the sun. The dry air and high elevation thankfully made quick work of my sopping wet hair and soon my breathing returned to normal. “Julia, look,” Dusty said suddenly and grabbed the back of Ethel’s harness. I turned to reprimand him, I don’t like anyone grabbing at Ethel other than myself and her former trainers, but he pointed to thirty feet away on the other side of the river. “A black bear!”
And sure enough, there was a black bear. Not quite a mature adult, the smaller bear was walking along the far bank of the river looking for what seemed to be a good place to enter the water. He (or she, I’m not going to pretend to know how to tell the difference between male and female black bears) was moving in the way bears do in what only can be described as a gallumphing fashion (gal-LUMPH gal-LUMPH) with the paws on each side moving in asynchronous order. Hardly hearing myself, I alternatively commanded Dusty to “take a picture! Take a picture! Hold onto Ethel! Ethel, don’t move! Did you take a picture?!”. The large paws gripped the slippery rocks as he bent towards the water and then smoothly glided into the stream. It was majestic watching him swim, barely making a disruption in the fast moving water. “Ok, we gotta go,” Dusty said suddenly. “Why?” I wanted to watch this beautiful beast catch a fish like in the Pixar movie Brave. “Because it’s coming to this side of the river. Let’s move!”
Forgetting that I, you know, can’t walk, I tried getting to my feet in a sprint to get back to the RV. All I got was wet as my feet slid back into the water and Dusty turned so I could climb onto his back. Ethel had seen the bear too and while interested in the big dog across the way, Ethel wouldn’t go near water to meet any friend or person. But the bear either hadn’t seen Ethel or wasn’t interested and I was not in a hurry to find out. Dusty jogged back to the RV, too much in a hurry to try to secure me with his arms and left me dangling from his neck getting jostled with each step. On our way we called out to the four caravan family that had just parked behind us, telling them of the bear that could be headed this way. They didn’t seem that eager to photograph a bear sighting on their family vacation, because I distinctly heard car doors slam as Dusty set me down safely inside the RV.
It wasn’t until later, after we’d left the river, did I remember from the educational signs all over the park that I was supposed to make a lot of noise if a bear was nearby. So, for good measure, I screamed loudly when we had pulled into a gas station to fill up. Even though I explained I was trying to save all of our lives, Dusty was still mad.
And thus concluded my first bear sighting. You could say that while we ended up safely ensconced in our RV afterwards, we really only bear-ly escaped.
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Leaving Salt Lake City, we weathered the blinding heat and barren roads driving due west towards some California bliss. Our route would take us from Utah to Nevada and finally to northern California.
Before touching the borders of Nevada, however, we found ourselves in a surreal white wasteland in Utah. The ground on either side of the two-lane highway was as white as snow and reflecting the intense light of the glaring sun. The highway formed a sort of bridge cutting through the white lake, displaying messages people had written on the salt using dark, handful-sized rocks. The words “Feel the Bern” and “Weed Rocks” shouted up at us from the whiteness and we pulled over at the only turn-off for miles.
When I opened the door, the heat hit me like someone had smacked a pillow into my face. Ethel panted in the doorway to the RV and looked up at me accusingly for exposing her to this heat. But when you see a giant white wasteland of an ancient sea dried up, you just have to go roll around in it. So I doused her in water and held on as she ran onto the ancient white shores.
We were unexpectedly met with large salt rocks sitting in white mush strewn for miles. I didn’t know the Salt Flats would be so wet, the salt sucking all the moisture from the air and pooling it on the ground. Salt sprayed on either side of my wheels as I urged Ethel on and soon her grumpiness evaporated as she began to frolic. She kicked up the white spray behind her, which landed on me, and I sprayed it out behind me through my wheels. It was boiling hot and glare from the sun on the mushy salt was nearly blinding, but the joy of running wild was insurmountable.
Later, Dusty the Amazing took apart my wheelchair at the water spigot provided by the Salt Flats State Park. It was necessary, the surface of every tire and bar on my chair was covered in clumpy salt and would absolutely become corrosive to the metal if left on. I doused Ethel again in the water while she gulped from her portable bowl happily.
We arrived a day later at Lake Tahoe after leaving the Salt Flats. During this drive, we became very familiar with the inner temperament of our generator due to the absolute need for air conditioning. One of the effects of a spinal cord injury is the inability for the person to sweat. Having an incomplete spinal cord injury, I can still sweat in some places but not in others. Therefore, it’s imperative I keep myself cool and hydrating in the heat or risk heat stroke more easily than an able-bodied person. The generator in the RV is what powers the air conditioning when we’re parked and when it began to kick off randomly, Dusty and I tried everything to keep it running. He’d run outside and tinker with it while I did my part by superstitiously throwing salt over my shoulder and rocking my wheels in a sort of rain dance thinking that air conditioning and rain served a similar enough purpose to count. But it was probably Dusty’s tinkering, and not my rain dance, that fixed it in the end.
Ethel, being a dog, can’t sweat either and I watch her tongue to see how hot she is. If her mouth is open slightly and she’s panting, she’s fine. If her entire face is split open to allow for more air to pass and her tongue is hanging out one side, I know she needs to cool fast. She’s a very, very smart girl, however, and airs on the side of dramatic at times. At out last duty station in Missouri, during the summers when I’d grab her leash she’d begin to pant before I ever opened the door. She hates the heat and looks up at me with betrayl every time I take her out in the summer. I’ve come to learn that she won’t hate me for too long when I take her out in the heat, but either way I want to yell out “Mayday! Mayday! Got an overheated dog! Code RED, RED I SAID!” every time I see her begin to pant.
Lake Tahoe was no different for her and her eyes shifted up at me to make sure I knew she was unhappy until we got to the shores of the lake. To me, Lake Tahoe is very reminiscent of Lago Garda is northern Italy. Beautiful mountains tower over the bright blue water on all sides, forming the lake into a cauldron bowl of sorts with alpine lined sides. The sun’s reflection on the water glistens every day and the rocky, pebbly beaches curtail the normal amount of crows seen on flat beaches. The towns surrounding the lake, however small, were fairly populating with summer visitors and residents and housed all the necessary groceries, libraries, adventure outfitters and gasoline. Little cafes on both Lago Garda and Lake Tahoe line the shores and while the coffee may taste different between the two countries, the small shore town feel does not.
We boondocked in two locations we had found on the western and southern shores of the Lake. The first day we drove the entire perimeter, in search of a beach that would be hidden from the crowds but accessible to reach by wheelchair. That turned out to be an impossible task; the only beaches of Lake Tahoe are man made, everything other shore is instead outcroppings of rocks and boulders or just a straight cliff. But luckily, there are fantastic areas of Lake Tahoe that are wheelchair accessible and included long paved bike trails that line the southern shore. We spent the next three days on beaches near these paved trails, wading in the freezing water and laughing at the antics of Ethel as she raced back and forth along the shore splashing the water in puppy bliss.
Dusty and I have both had to adapt to a different way of going to the beach than how we did before my accident. While I’ve heard of a handful successful strategies for pushing in the sand, it’s just a fact that wheelchairs don’t roll well or at all on the beach. There are beach wheelchairs and amphibian chairs, with huge tires and handles for someone to push the person in the chair, but they are not always available. We could’ve called ahead and found out if any of the ranger stations or fire stations had a beach wheelchair available, these being the two places that would house such a chair for guests of the town, but the less complicated strategy is to push the wheelchair as far as it can go and then have Dusty carry me the rest of the way. We’ll hunker down in the sand close to the “parked” wheelchair and Dusty will again pick me up and carry me out to the water. Since I have the ability to stand with support, he carried me knee-high into Lake Tahoe and helped me stand in the freezing water. I couldn’t feel the cold, but my feet spasmsed enough for me to know it was pretty cold water. Ethel, having decided that I wasn’t going to drown and wouldn’t require her to jump in, laid down in the sand to dry off next to my wheelchair.
“Why is the lake gold?” Dusty asked, looking down at the water around us. He was right, instead of just the blue water around us, we seemed to be standing in a what looked like the shimmering golden eye shadow I wore when I was twelve. Dusty reached his hand down and tried unsuccessfully to cup the golden flakes. “This can’t be pollution or something spilled into the lake,” I reasoned, although I know next to nothing about what water looks like after it’s been contaminated.
“Let’s drink it,” Dusty said suddenly. From the back pocket of his shorts he pulled out a water bladder with an attached filter and empty bag. He bent over and filled the bladder and then moved my hands up to brace on his shoulders so he could let go of me. He then squeezed the bladder to push the water through the filter and into the empty bag. When he finished, he pulled off the filter and showed it to me. It was covered in layers of gold flakes, resembling even more my old compact of eye shadow. We drank the water, blissfully cold, and wondered aloud if we could sell the filter to one of those cash-for-gold stores.
We found out later from a friend that it was deposits of Pyrite or Fool’s Gold that floated in the river. Just like our Gold Rush ancestors before us, we had been duped into believing we had drank golden water. Oh well. There’s always the Fountain of Youth or Bigfoot to find next.
An accessibility footnote:
Nothing about our adventures is advertised as accessible. There are wonderful companies and resorts that do cater to the disabled community and provide the adaptive equipment and routes on which to have accessible fun, but we have yet to use them. There’s nothing wrong with the adaptive adventure, I’m just too impatient of a soul and too cheap a person to pay the higher prices that they cost. Instead, our adventures rely on our creativity, Dusty’s strength and young back, and our persistent faith in humanity. I learned early on how to put my pride in my pocket and ask for help. While the realm of accessible vacations is growing, there are far too many other places in the United States and world that do not offer this yet we want to see. So we trek out on our own and make do with the struggles we face. I don’t recommend this to everyone but the young and dumb. Which we happily will say we are.
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“There’s another pit bull!” I cried out to Dusty as we arrived at the platform to catch the train. It was our Five Year Anniversary and we were headed to celebrate in the city of excitement, nightlife and love, Barcelona. So far, every time we’d taken the train in and out of the city to our campground on the coast there had been at least one pit bull whose owner would reluctantly tolerate me cooing and petting their widdle wuv muffin on the twenty minute train ride. The stigma that these sweet creatures carry in the United States left me happily stunned at their acceptance in Cataluña. But there were so many differences like that, unique pieces of Barcelona lifestyle and history that make it such an inimitable city separate from mainland Spain. That fact has left Catalonians protesting their independence from the Spanish government for centuries, their history they declare is so isolated from Spanish history that they deserve their own unattached countryhood. Even the language spoken in Catalonia, Catalan, proves the distinction from the Spanish spoken in mainland Spain. Knowing conversational Spanish, I attempted on the first day to speak the Spanish I knew to the people we met and was laughingly told that I’d be better off trying English. Message received.
We arrived in Barcelona and got a shuttle bus service outside the city limits to our campground along the teal blue Mediterranean. Like many European campgrounds we’d visited, we had a café, pool, clean bathrooms, store and bar at our disposal on site. It wasn’t so much camping as it was “glamping” but we did pitch out tent in the dusty ground under low trees and got sufficiently dirty. “Grab everything valuable,” Dusty warned and stuffed his wallet and phone in the bag we carried. I rolled my eyes; Dusty is a chronic worrier of thieves and, as such, never left anything in our tent whenever we left for the day. He was absolutely right to do so, anyone can rob a campsite and our fellow campgrounders all seemed to be under the age of twenty, but I am more of the “whatever happens, happens” mindset. Once Dusty felt like our tent (which he locked the door zipper to the tent and took the key with him) was secure and our bag (which had a carabineer attached to its zipper too, connecting it with a loop on the strap so it would be very hard for a pickpocketer to open) was secure, we took the train to the beach for the day.
It’s a cliché to say, but I discovered my favorite parts of anywhere in Europe is anything close to the Mediterranean. The aqua waves tipped with white like vanilla frosting allured me, reaching with their fingers crawling on the shore to tickle my feet and draw me in. When we arrived at the train platform overlooking one of the beaches of Barcelona, the entire coast stretched out to us. The golden sand was sprinkled with a rainbow of beach umbrellas, towels and the rosy brown tones of nude flesh. We took to the sidewalks leading down to a wooden hut on the beach, in between volley ball courts and brightly painted metal sculptures that served as children’s playgrounds. The hut was owned by the campground as well and served an assortment of food and drinks to the guests lounging on four poster, wooden beds scattered on the sand. “This is heaven, right?” I asked Dusty, looking around at the tranquil scene of pure beach enjoyment. He laughed and gave a satisfied sigh as he dropped our bag and flopped down on one of the beds.
We laid together and ordered tapas and drinks while we watched families try to unsuccessfully corral their naked, brown children in one direction or another and teenagers kissing passionately on their shared beach towel under an umbrella. True to custom, there was not a bikini top in sight but instead the rosy color of bare flesh absent of embarrassment or insecurity. A topless woman would be shamed beyond belief for her indecent exposure in much of the United States, but it was my bikini top that was shaming me on this Barcelona beach and I quickly shed the stringy piece in relief. When we wanted to dip in the chilled teal water, Dusty carried me down to the edge on one of the many wooden boardwalks set up in the city to allow anything with wheels to easily access the water’s edge. Such a convenience was a novelty to us and I was delighted with Barcelona’s consideration and welcoming gesture.
Later in the day, we dried off and took the train to the center of downtown Barcelona. We made our way to La Rambla, the main strip in Barcelona, and strolled for a good while, enjoying the street performers under the suspended shadows of the street lights. By day the buildings of Barcelona are loud walls of bright reds, yellows and teals, with beautiful stone carvings along the edges telling a different story from wall to wall. At night, these buildings take a back seat to the performances and festivities on the street. men with carts on either side demonstrating their wares for the crowd, which tonight was a plastic spinning toy that light up and shrieked when it was flown. Bustles of colorful flower arrangements were on display at other carts, selling bouquets of sweet smelling drooping purple petals I’d never seen. People milled around us, the musical Catalan language wove through the crowd and the bursts of French or English or Italian danced on the melody like notes on a sheet of music. Teenagers leaned against light poles kissing and kids banged on the tables of outdoor cafés waiting for their parents to finish their wine. Many of the girls wore cutoff shorts riding up high on their hips and cropped suggestive shirts hung loosely and unabashed. Smoke rose through the crowd from the innumerable cigarettes dangling in the corner of mouths or pinched between the two fingers of old, wrinkly men selling flowers and too young boys riding skateboards down the street. Barcelona seemed more alive in the shadows of night with glowing streetlights illuminating a scene of entertainment, taste and excitement. As the hour grew later, the fervor of La Rambla amplified into a megaphone of merriment and wine that reverberated like a pulse throughout the city.
We made our way down La Rambla towards a small dinner theatre restaurant that people from Dusty’s unit had told me has the greatest display of Flamenco dancing in an intimidate setting in Barcelona. Later, I reflected that any notions I had about passion in dancing were redefined for me in Barcelona. The Flamenco is a dance that captures the soul of the dancer and speaks in the proud swish of the dress or the stomp of heels on wood. We were seated by escorts in tuxedos in a cramped, multilevel dining room of tables with silk tablecloths and bright red roses on the table. We hadn’t come in time for the dinner, but our empty hands were soon filled with glasses of sangria. The lights in the room suddenly darkened and a single light blinked on to illuminate the wooden stage in the front of the room. The musicians of the show walked out to line the stage, dressed in the signature Flamenco black pants and loose white shirts bleeding accents of red. The Spanish guitar began slowly as the musicians took their places, a sad melody of love and complication that escalated as a singer stepped forward. I didn’t need to translate the words of the singer to feel his passion, gesticulating with outstretched arms and his rich, high throaty voice rose alongside the guitar. And then the dancers emerged.
One solo at a time, a dancer would move forward into the spotlight and stomp, swish, twirl and sway to the singer and guitars. There were two female dancers and two male dancers, each with their own personality of Flamenco dance. Their dresses and costume were dark, with stark white tops or a bright rainbow of threading. Dark hair was oiled to shine in the light whether pulled tight into a bun or loosely bouncing in curls. A dark-haired woman wore a dark blue, richly red detailed Flamenco dress that stopped close to her neck and had thick white layers that she would lift and swish with every fast turn. A blond dancer with large, bouncing curls danced to slower, romantic songs of intricate guitar melodies and layers of skirts lifted high. Her red and black dress dipped at her bare shoulders and gave the effect of her dress melting off her in a syrup of carnal energy. Both dancers would suddenly smack their heels and fiercely tap their boots on the wooden stage while they spun and twirled. The Flamenco showed itself to be a dance of love and passion, shown by both the fierce beauty of the steps and the enticing, expressive splendor of the costumes and dancers.
The song would change after the crescendo of the coda and a new singer would begin soloing a high, throaty verse of the next song. When one of the male dancers came to the center stage, dark and seductively dressed with an open chest peeking through his shirt, his entrance would be aloud series of complicated taps and stopes that were met with cheering from the other dancers. The show was as social of an activity for the dancers as it was for the audience. The men danced as aggressively as the female dancers, their arms outstretched or risen above their heads and their legs stomping the stage in a fervor of heat and sound. Their complicated foot work and dizzying spins were accompanied by colorful accents of scarves and dark hats and, for some song, decorated by short waist vests.
A few times in between songs, we were graced with the presence of the matriarch of the dance. This older woman had her long, dark hair pulled so tightly into a long pony-tail braid that it pulled on her eyes, which were heavily painted like the other female dancers against bright red cheeks and dark lips. She would come to the front of the stage, arms spread, singing the loudest of the troupe and dancing as complicated of steps with the same passion as her younger dance cohorts. She gestured to either side as she sang and the dancers swayed and clapped to her song. And then, as suddenly as she would appear, she would stomp her heels and spin offstage. The dance and guitar and song came to a dazzling crescendo when the dancers reappeared together in brightly colored, bedazzled dressed, vest and hats, twirling each other and dipping and stomping to the harmonizing singers. The guitarist, sitting on a bench off to the side of the stage, suddenly came into view as the dancers stepped aside to showcase his talent. This musicians’ fingers became a blur as he whipped up and down the neck of the guitar to bring the dance to it’s passionate, complicated end.
We had never before heard a guitar sing so complicated a song or a dance that could stomp, sway and spin so many different sides of passion. The Cataluña Flamenco redefined the way I see the art of dancing; I know now how many sides of a soul can be shown just through sparkling cloth, mesmerizing rhythm and steps so passionate the leave the wooden stage forever dented with its steps. I was breathless as the this dancer’s song came to an end. My heart pounded loudly in my chest, feeling the music melt into my veins and course through my body. It was as if the dancers moving on stage were speaking the language of love to their partners and to all of us in the audience.
I learned in elementary school that bees communicate through dance, giving directions to each other where the good nectar is located by zigzagging patterns, turns and steps. They dance to connect with each other, their bodies creating the language. These dancers, with their beautiful dresses and vests of bright red, blue, yellow and green thread, were telling us about love in the passion of their steps. And it wasn’t the shy, slow affectionate love they expressed but the love of such enormity that its weight is painful. They were speaking of that moment when you angrily surrender to the fact that you love this person so much that life is nothing could never be anything but painful without them. They stomped the hunger for that other person, the ache for their arms and their fever that captures you completely. I knew that love, that anger that someone could imprison my heart so strongly and so completely yet I still ache for their attention. I never knew a dance of such beauty could so capture a depth of understanding of that love and commitment.
We left that night for our tent and sleeping bags carrying the message of the dance with us, sensitive to how gratifying it was to be holding each other hands, to kiss, to simply be married for five years. The modest gestures in a relationship, taking the bag, rubbing a back, were amplified by the passion of the flamenco and we slept that night unable to untangle from each other’s arms.
The next morning we left on a treasure hunt to find the sights of Barcelona and sample as many tapas as we could. There’s a famous architect of Barcelona that has shaped the atmosphere of the entire city with his inspired, colorful art. Antoni Gaudi’s houses are an attraction that cause many to walk the city just to see his work. The houses are astounding and truly look like recreations of the settings of many of my favorite childhood movies; it’s as if Willy Wonka came to Barcelona to make homes for his Oompa Loompas (but in normal sizes). It was the night of our anniversary and all I was told was that we were going to dinner. I pulled on my dress over my unshowered, still wet from an early morning dip in the Mediterranean hair and we got on the bus-to-train into the city.
When we arrived at a prominent Gaudi house, there was a crowd of onlookers taking selfies with the beautiful art behind them. There was a red velvet carpet, a gate and a giant bouncer who more resembled a tuxedoed Palm Tree at the entrance, daring the tourists to take a step closer into his domain. Dusty, in a very suave move, pulled out tickets hidden in his jacket and handed them to the bouncer whose demeanor changed to welcoming as he unlocked the gate to let us in.
We were escorted to a back elevator by the Palm Tree’s also giant friend, Mr. Cork Oak Tree .
“Mademoiselle, dis is a very especial way to, ah, see da art of Gaudi”, Cork Oak informed me when we got in a glass elevator. “You see, Gaudi wanted people to, ah, see da house as if dey are, how you say, going underwater,” he said as he pushed the button to the top floor. “Da higher you go in dis house, the deeper underwater you see”
I didn’t quite understand what he was trying to tell me until the elevator starting moving. The walls of Gaudi houses are not straight, but curved in ripples and scenes are painted on the curved and moving walls. The first floor was alive with yellow colors and smoother walls, but as the elevator began to ascend I saw the walls begin to ripple like water. The colors changed to from yellow to lighter turquoise to a deep ink blue. The glass strategically placed over different areas of the wall made it look like you were viewing the entire scene underwater. It was incredible.
When the doors opened to the penthouse, tuxedoed waiters ushered me inside and escorted me to where Dusty, who had taken the stairs, was waiting. The top floor of the apartment opened up to a large dining room bared to the street with large floor-to-ceiling windows and a kitchen turned into a bar for the night. The cream walls and dark wood floors were made amber by low lights, creating an ambience of mystery and glamour. They soon filled my empty glass with champagne to match Dusty and we were escorted out to the large balcony looking out over the back of the street behind the apartment. We could see over the tops of other buildings, the red tiled roofs lit in the moonlight turning to a dark maroon sea of Barcelona nightlife. The balcony seated two or three dozen people in white wicker chairs surrounded by tall, dark leafy plants and trestles woven with vines. A small stage had been set up at the front and a band in black suits played rumba catalana melodies on guitar and piano accompanied by a shiny brass saxophone and trumpet. A beautiful African woman swayed in the center of the stage and sang in a Cataluña accent while smiling at the crowd with bright red lips and a gap tooth that made her seem even more appealing.
I took Dusty’s hand as we sat near the back, listening to the sweet sounds of Cataluña and marveling that five years earlier we were just starting this life together. How far we’d come in such a little time, figuratively and as we sat thousands of miles away in Spain actually literally far. I looked over at my husband, his eyes closed listening to the music and his arm around my shoulders. How far we’ve come, how far we’ve come, indeed.
There’s an argument runners will have over the fierceness of their love for the sport. Can you call yourself a runner after the first personal record at a race or when you want to get your long run in so bad that you weather rain, snow or heat? Every step of freedom, the feeling of conquering, the rush from achieving, makes the sport move quickly from a love to an addiction. I drank deeply the Gatorade of loving to run after watching my sister compete in high school cross country. I tried out for the middle school team soon after and a year later, we raced together (and against each other) for our high school. Every sweat soaked, vomit inducing mile of our 30+ mile weeks half the year made me happier than I knew high school could be.
I’m still close friends with a few of my teammates today. There’s nothing more bonding for a group of athletic girls than to lose yourself to your sport time and time again and be pulled forward by the teammates by your side. Every summer we had a week of intense cross country training in the northern Indiana Dunes on the beaches of Lake Michigan, called “Dunes Camp” by both the girls and boys team. We’d bring tents and bug spray and spent a week running up and down the sand dunes and boogie boarding in the water, only to stay up talking all night in our shared tents. I was never more sand crusted and mud splattered, but I was also never more sure of my love for running than during those weeks at camp.
To my coach’s frustration, I wasn’t competitive and I was told often that I had the potential to be good if I just applied myself. I didn’t care; I wanted more the memories of team dinner nights followed by the team cheering at the Friday night football game together than I wanted trophies.
When high school started, I was in a big hurry to graduate. I tolerated all the drama, all the gossip and all the mood swings, but I didn’t for a second buy into the small-town-Midwest creed that high school is the best time of your life. “Yikes, I hope not,” I’d think whenever someone mentioned they needed a certain dress for prom because these are the best days we’ll ever know. I was also part of a group of friends that already knew life was shorter than our invincible spirits told us they were.
The majority of our middle school began attempts at being an adult much too young. I learned the smell and effects of marijuana before turning 13, which was considerably older than most of the people I knew. The acrid smell of vodka and vomit would seep from the bathrooms of middle school dances. I learned how to sneak out of houses during sleepovers to meet up with boys and swagger down streets like we had outsmarted the world. We drank our newfound independence deeply but hadn’t grown the tolerance needed to stomach it.
One of our own died of an overdose before middle school ended. The cement under highway passes were strewn with graffiti tribute to our friend and tender skin of both girls and boys in the school were cut with his initials. We moved like zombies through school, the viewing, the wake, not fully understanding the implications in own life. The overwhelming fact that one of our own was gone was all we could handle. There was no sobering realization of our own fragility, but in fact the opposite. We took to the summer and then to high school this fierce dedication to avenge the death of our friend by exploring deeper, partying harder and stretching our limits to find any semblance of meaning.
Of course, the ending of that story is heartbreakingly predictable and equally horrible. And so horribly predictable. But that’s a story for another time.
As a teenager, I split my time between being who everyone wanted to me. That summer before high school I learned how to be a social chameleon, fitting in with any crowd but belonging to none. I was who I needed to be in order to gain the acceptance every high school student craves. I spent the week and weeknights running my hardest at cross country practice, thinking of and executing girls team pranks on the boys and learning how to take a washcloth sink bath so you don’t stink.
But on the weekends that summer and for all weekends later, I stayed out for late nights in a gray haze of smoke and cruising through town with the windows rolled down. The basses of our cars vibrated our headrests and knives made quick work of soda cans to produce a bong. We laughed at the world and scoffed at the adults who tried to contain our wildness. The summer night air was scented with the intoxicating rebellion of youth, but we all denied the stereotypes of teenagers. There’s nothing that will make an adolescent angrier than dismissing their behavior as teenage angst. We thought we were mature for our age, advanced for our generation and given the duty to live as hard and as freely as we possibly could.
But in the stale, cramped locker room of cross country, I was surrounded by girls who understood instead that being the best meant working the hardest and listening to the advice of our coach. We could roll our eyes at her determination to convince us that winners were never the ones to drink on the weekends, but in our hearts we knew she was right. And it only took one race where we came out in front of the person we’d been chasing for two mile, finished 15 seconds faster than our previous personal record or even beat the time of the last person on varsity, ensuring your place in the top seven and a letter for the next race to convince us that no rush from a party could beat the high of winning. There’s no greater example of hard work and dedication paying off than having a crowd cheering you on as you come in for a sweat soaked, blood pumping victory.
I confessed to Dusty one night during my first year as a paraplegic that I felt like something was missing. At the beginning, during the crashing waves of realization and grief that the rest of live will be in a wheelchair, almost every part of daily life felt like it was suddenly gone. Knowing how to talk on the phone while simultaneously putting on pants was suddenly gone from my skills set. Being able to into a pot on the stove to check if the water’s boiling was simply not going to happen. But during that first year, pieces of familiarity began to return and joined together to form a new picture of daily life. New methods of changing clothes were developed so I could once again multitask because I overslept like usual. Changes in cooking were made and my abysmal culinary skills were restored to a “possibly-edible” state. But still, something in my heart was missing.
It was running. I missed running, the freedom that a single pair of sneakers can bring and not much more. The frenzied excitement of a road race and the community of fellow crazies were simply gone from my life. After I confessed this loss to Dusty at our dining room table, I looked out the window to the street of our subdivision. We were living in upstate New York at the time, on the Army base, and snow was piled high on either side on the sidewalk. It was early but starting to get dark outside, one of the signature conditions of living in the north. It seemed perfect for a crisp, long run. I remembered what it felt like to start jogging with goosebumps running up and down my legs because of the cold, seeing my white breath from underneath my hat and (burka). But by the end of the run, sprinting back home, my back would be sweatsoaked and my cheeks burning with heat. But no more, I thought.
Dusty wasn’t having any of my wallowing. He allowed me 15 seconds of self-pity before he had me watch clip upon clips of paraplegics racing in hand cycles and racing wheelchairs, speeding through off road trails and whizzing past runners in road races. I knew about accessible sports and had been introduced to both hand cycles and racing wheelchairs at Shepherd Hospital in Atlanta. But I had held back from jumping into an adaptive sport because I wanted to still believe that one day I wouldn’t need the adaptations. Denial is a poisonous drink that only gets tastier the more you sip. It was time to try something new.
Before we left New York for Germany, Dusty and I both spent hours researching where and how to buy a hand cycle. We learned how popular hand cycles are in Europe, how widely used and accepted the cyclists are in road races and how many hundreds of yearly races have hand cycle divisions. I was hooked and within one month of moving to Germany, I purchased my first hand cycle used from a professional cyclist in Munich. Watch out, world.. I’m back.
Or so I thought. Until I actually took my bike out for a test drive with Dusty the first time. It was absolutely terrifying; the ride is so low that the headlights of oncoming traffic are actually taller. How was I going to steer this super long, super heavy bike away from any car if that car can’t even see me in the first place? Dusty rode in front of me or to the side, patiently trying to teach me how to change the gears and watching out for traffic. (**Note: A hand cycle is the adaptive equivalent to a road bike. It’s got anywhere from 10 to 30 gears, front disk brakes and three wheels with the main wheel in front. A racing wheelchair is a simpler chair and is closer associated to running. Which, at the time, I didn’t know and didn’t have access to one.) It was a difficult skill to learn how to steer, change gears and stay alert at the same time, but the more harder challenge was how dispirited I became. This wasn’t as free and simple as simply putting on sneakers and heading out the door for a run. Was I ever going to feel that free again?
A mixture of cobblestones and gravel crunched under my tires and vibrated my small headrest as I bounced along the trail. My eye line was halfway up Dusty’s back tire in front of me and I tilted my head to try to see around him. Suddenly, a very loud pop sounded from the front of my bike and I felt the front tire jump from my handles. “Ahh!” I yelled, true to my very tense and easily startled nature. I downshifted and eased my bike off the path, feeling the ground crunch even harder under my front tire and hearing the metal rim scratch against the gravel rocks with every turn. I transferred out of the seat to the ground so I could examine the front tire. I couldn’t see a break, the tube inside was fully deflated. I didn’t have a tire kit with me; I reached for my phone to call Dusty.
“First popped tire, huh?” Dusty jumped out of the front seat of the car that pulled up. I didn’t recognize the driver, Dusty introduced him as another soldier in the unit who had been driving by and offered to help out. “That’s all that was?” I asked incredulously, having been sure we’d just run over an uncovered WWII land mine or something. It’s apparent now that, having never been a cyclist prior to my accident, I knew absolutely nothing in the way of bicycles. “Yeah, see, here’s the break. Ok, well, I’ll teach you how to do this because you’ll need to know when you’re out for a run by yourself.” By myself? Running didn’t have popped tires as a part of the sport. There will be popped tires to think about whenever I go for a run from now on?
I watched Dusty change the flat, demoralized. I missed running. I missed pulling on a pair of sneakers and heading out the door. I missed being able to climb hills of beaten trails and jump across streams. The tires, the helmet and gloves, the extra inner tube kit.. These were the chains keeping me on the ground instead of dancing through the air in a runner’s high.
The first time I took Ethel to the track with me, wagging her tail and wearing her purple Service Dog vest, I was nervous and a little apprehensive. So far, whenever I’d go for a ride, Ethel would be content in a “down, stay” position on her bed with a Kong full of peanut butter. But recently I’d gotten the opportunity to train for races in St. Louis on a track and Ethel would be accompanying me, so she needed to learn how to stay in a down position and watch me zoom around the track. Dusty helped me transfer into my hand cycle and Ethel stood by me, ready to work. I held the end of her rope leash and pushed the arms of the hand cycle to inch forward, telling Ethel to take a step. She did. I kept moving forward and together we began to walk to the track.
Dusty sat with Ethel by the side of the track after I’d gotten her in a “down,stay” and had begun to ride. She was corrected by Dusty a few times, wanting to stand to watch me go around the curve and into the straightaway on the other side. When I came around the bend towards her, she started to bark. I kept going past her and I heard the bark turn into a whine. I felt my heart breaking under my shirt, I couldn’t bear to hear that sound. But her trainer Kati had told me to ignore behavior like this, that she had to learn to sit and watch me. So I kept going and biked my workout.
I returned to Ethel, who gave a short bark and wagged tail. I took off her lease and asked her to “walk on” with me to the track and we began to walk around. The corners of Ethel’s mouth were pushed into a smile and I began to roll a little faster. Her tail wagged harder. I started to ride faster, a pace I’d begin a ride at, and she transitioned from trotting next to me to doing what I can only describe as a happy gallop.
A video posted by Julia Rodes (@rodesjulia) on Jul 7, 2015 at 12:48pm PDT
Buh-dong, Buh-dong, Buh-dong, she galloped beside me with her tongue flopped out the side of her mouth. The realization of her happiness with being able to freely run made my eyes widen in surprise. This was the freedom I was missing. Ethel’s pure joy in feeling the wind push back her ears was the same bliss I had loved so dearly in running. We weren’t moving very fast, yet Ethel was elated to feel the track under her paws and keep up with me. I watched her purple Service Dog vest bounce along with her stride and the straps pressing around her middle. She was burdened with gear, like me, but she didn’t seem to notice it at all. Her joy in just getting the chance to run was stronger than any attention to the vest and straps she wore. Maybe that freedom I missed from being able to run wasn’t out of reach after all. The chance to speed down a hill, to feel the wind and sweat from the sun, is all I should need to feel that freedom once again. I watched Ethel slow down her gallop to happily trot beside me as we ended our run. She was free. She was happy. Maybe I could be too.
Moving to Missouri, I was introduced to an organization dedicated to providing athletic challenges to people with disabilities called Disabled Athletes Sports Association (DASA) in St. Louis. The team is made of people so motivated and positive, making me feel immediately empowered in our first interaction. I joined the triathlon team and swam the first portion of my very first triathlon for my team this past weekend in New Town, Missouri. The intensely muscled and brightly suited community of triathloners around me laughed, yelled, breathed deep and sweated their love for the sport, for the challenge and for the freedom. And hearing the humming buzz of freedom in my ears for the first time, I jumped in the lake for the start of the race and joined them.
As a paraplegic, the Christian poem “Footprints” no longer has the real connection with me that it once did. I remember how sand felt on the bottom of my feet and crunching my toes into the pebbly surf, but trying to materialize the sensation now has a painful twinge of reality that I won’t do that again that I don’t favor recollecting. My days of making footprints in the sand are no longer and I have peace with that. But I don’t want to try to pretend that I’m making metaphorical footprints anymore. Why can’t I make metaphorical rolling wheel prints with God instead?
The end of the poem (!Spoiler Alert!) is the beautiful realization that the footprints in the sand are instead God’s footprints and not your own, for He is carrying you in your struggles. This does still strike a chord with me, but not the same chord that it did before. For me to feel the sea, I usually require being carried. Some wonderful beaches, like in Barcelona, have wooden boardwalks on the beach that lead straight into the water or you can rent an amphibian chair that rolls over sand and floats in water. But otherwise, I’m being carried. To visualize being carried by God through my struggles now only resonates my own insecurities about my weaknesses, not giving me the feeling of security and relief that visualizing God carrying me once did. I feel weak when I read the poem, not from thankfulness of God’s love, but from reminders that it isn’t going to possible for me to be anything but carried.
I was praying in Starbucks, waiting for my phone to charge off the mooched wall outlet, when I remembered when I had felt the same resonating thankfulness for God’s glory as I once had when reading “Footprints”. I had traveled alone to Crete from Germany to meet my brother for a week of sibling connection. Crete was one of the hardest, most inaccessible places I had been in Europe and it was a rough week. The Greek people were apologetic for the lack of any accessibility on their island, but it was no fault of theirs. I left behind my expectation for a wheelchair-friendly world behind in the first summer of my accident and I have learned (painfully) to enjoy the world despite its’ inaccessibility.
In Crete I was carried down steep steps to the beach and my brother, a champ, made every effort to allow me to participate in any fun I wanted. Alongside the beach was a surf shack, operated by a Grecian-French young hippie with a beautiful spirit and an Abercrombie and Fitch smile.
This Scuba Steve passed by me while I sat on my chair lounger being far too preoccupied with taking too many Instagram shots.
“I love it! The water’s so clear, I’ve been able to see all these little fish.” I answered enthusiastically.
“Oh yes, da fishes are very nice. I have friend wif no legs,” he said, getting right to the point. ” He does da scuba wif me very nice. He does not need da legs to do da scuba. You can do da scuba too. You know, da scuba is very nice for da body.”
I didn’t need any more convincing. If it’s not already obvious from other posts, I tend to be a risk taker. Not on purpose, I just have a tendency to follow my heart over my head and it serves to give my poor husband heart palpitations from saving me from danger time and time again.
But this wasn’t so dangerous. He was , in fact, a licensed scuba instructor and had indeed “done da scuba” with amputees before. While spinal cord injuries are VERY VERY DIFFERENT from an amputation, there is a similar method for scuba diving.
My brother helped me pull on a wetsuit (with legs for paraplegics can get VERY cold in the water VERY fast. Eating before also helps to keep the body warm longer) and when we waded into the shallows, I was harnessed into my oxygen and mask. My tank sat snugly on my back and we practiced all the hand signals while getting used to the breathing apparatus. The plan of action was simple; while the group dove and swam, Scuba Steve would hold onto my vest to pull me and I would pull and kick to help propel me forward. With just holding onto me, he would still need me to do as much as I could swimming for us to move.
(Note: there are other methods for adaptive scuba diving. This is a very primitive method, but without fans or motors, this was the only possible maneuver)
We dove and I fell into another world. A silent, mesmerizing world where all anyone can do is observe, wonder, simply pass on by. We are simply guests in the underwater universe, watching communities, families, predator and prey interact and live undisturbed by the worries that plague the world above them. Underwater Crete doesn’t have the color of the Great Barrier Reef or the danger of piranhas, but still the word “beautiful” doesn’t encapsulate the scene like the word “tall” doesn’t describe the Matterhorn mountain of the Alps. How fortunate are we to be living in a world that contains another dimension of reality just beneath the water’s surface, free for us to roam and wonder.
If I hadn’t been so paranoid about forcibly inhaling and exhaling into my mask, the scene would’ve taken my breath away. I gave my little brother a thumbs up sign and then quickly waved my hands “no” since thumbs up means “go up” and replaced it with the “ok” sign. The only other diver in our group was experienced and started to drift further away from us, which was fine with Scuba Steve. He floated above me, one hand pulling me from the collar of my suit and the other doing lazy strokes to move us forward. He pointed out different fish and crustaceans to both of us, scratching his finger along the rock to disturb the sand in order to draw in the fish closer. I learned about myself that I like to touch everything I can and Scuba Steve learned that if he didn’t jerk me back every few minutes, my wandering hand was going to find the Fire Worms and crab claws.
The water’s tint changed from aquamarine to cobalt blue as we swam towards deeper water. It began to get colder and I could feel my energy starting to drain. There were too many fish to see how far we’d traveled clearly, but even if the view had been clear it’s often too difficult to gauge distance underwater accurately. Scuba Steve started to feel me begin to drag, I couldn’t keep up with my brother and Steve himself was having trouble pulling my quickly growing weight. He motioned to me that we were going to stop. The water of the Mediterranean is so clear that it made the bottom look 2 meters away when it fact it was closer to 7. We floated there, suspended in the water while my brother and the other diver swam further and further away. I couldn’t see the shore and I didn’t’ know how much further I could go. Then Scuba Steve untied a cord I hadn’t noticed that he had harnessed around his middle. He pulled me close and looped the cord around my waist, securing the belay hooks in front. He left a meter in between us and then secured the remaining cord around his own waist and tested the strength with a few yanks. Motioning to me that we were going to keep going, he put both hands on my shoulders and pushed me down below him. He took my hands and gently moved them through the water to my sides and rubbed his hands up and down my arms to warm me. And then moving the cord around my waist so that he could float above, he began to swim. The cord connecting us yanked on my waist and with my hands still by my side, I began to move forward without needing to help at all.
Scuba Steve towed me along for the rest of the cove, giving me the chance to see barracudas (my favorite), schools of fish so thick you couldn’t see through and my brother run away from an eel that turned out to be a very scared dogfish. I was able to keep diving because I was being carried through the water, allowing me to save what little energy I had left. Just when I thought I couldn’t go any further, Scuba Steve began to carry me the rest of the way.
This may not be the exact scenario of “Footprints”, but I like to think I know how it would feel if I ever got to go scuba diving with God himself.