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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The journey down the Oregon coast became our first attempt at some serious boondocking exploration. Boondocking, or the fancy French way of saying “I don’t want to pay for a campsite so I’m going to pull over here on the side of the road”, is similar to tent camping in that you don’t have a water, sewage or electricity hookup and must rely on your stores in your RV. This type of camping, however, is illegal on private land, city parks or any public area that says “No Overnight Parking”. The big chains of Walmart and Cracker Barrel do allow overnight parking, however, and we have used them liberally when we’re just trying to get from point A to B.
As a state rule, Oregon allows for day and overnight parking in its state parks as long as you do not park at any one spot longer than 12 consecutive hours. We set out down Route 101 from Seattle with plans to spend our daylight hours in one area and then park in another free spot for the night, understanding that we’d leave again in the morning. This may seem tiring, but we’re young, dumb and ambitious so the constant movement only served to fuel our wanderlust. Our RV is smaller, but has adequate clean, gray and black water storage to last us for quite a few days (not showering, but, eh, we love each other anyway) without needing to resupply. This was how we explored the beautiful Oregon secret of the People’s Coast, a section of the Oregon coastline that follows Route 101 along the Pacific Ocean and is home of the infamous 804 hiking trail.
Route 101 wove serenely along the coastline, leading up and around bluffs that leaned away from the ocean as if trying to pull away from the rhythmic, pounding waves. We watched as the thin trees gave way to rocky walls sheltering sandy beaches clearly strewn with large boulders and rock formations. By the time we parked in a small picnic overlook, we felt the pulse of the Pacific below us in the driftwood railing that lead down to the beach. Even later, as we stopped at one of the many coffee huts for an espresso while we waited for our laundry to finish at a coin laundry shop, we heard the drumming of the heart of Oregon, the pull of the Pacific, in the people of the small town Yachats and Waldport. While of the residents we met had the slower pace of retirement in their step, even the young families and adolescents we spoke with met us with acceptance and had the attitude of live and let live. Possibly even rarer than the beauty of the Oregon coast itself was the contentment we saw in the residents of the coastline towns, a contentment that is hard pressed to be found in much of the western culture.
Where to Boondock along the
People’s Coast of Oregon
In between Waldport and further south to Yachats, there is the Governor Patterson Memorial State Reservoir, Beachside State Park, Smelt Sands Park Recreation Site, the residential area of Wakonda Beach and San Marine, and then the Yachats Ocean Road State Natural Site just south of Yachats. These areas are wonderful day use parks and beaches, with picnic tables, bathrooms (or outhouses), and shade. Along Route 101, or the Oregon Coast Highway, there are overlooks with parking lots and beach access for day use as well. All of these areas are clearly marked that overnight camping is not allowed and we only parked here for the 12 hour daylight hour times.
For overnight parking, however, we made our way to Cook’s Chasm south of Yachats where the rock formations Thor’s Well and Spouting Horn are located. This smaller parking area is one of the few that are not marked for “Day Use” only and does allow overnight parking. We’d arrive here around 9 or 10pm each night and there were parking spots still available.
Laundry and gas, two necessities of the boondocking adventure, were taken care of in Waldport. There is gas available in Yachats as well, but the only open laundry facility we found was in Waldport. There is also a Post Office available in Waldport.
For groceries, we kept to the single, but thankfully open late, market in Yachats.
There is free water and RV dumpingat Carl G. Washburn Memorial State Park located just south of Yachats on Route 101. This is also has great beach access for day use.
An Accessibility Footnote
Sadly, none of the Oregon coast was particularly accessible. The beaches did not have boardwalks, for most of the shoreline protected by sand bluffs and boulders. To access each beach we found, there was a flight of stairs and then usually several rocky areas to cover. Dusty simply carried me down to the water and once I plopped down to the sand, he went back for my wheelchair. The only “accessible” path along the shore was the 804 Trail found at Smelt Sands State Park Recreation Site. This trail is a dirt path, not particularly level, and can be steep in some sections but it does follow along above the water and is home to some spectacular views. With the help of my mobility service dog, Little Miss Ethel, I was able to ride the trail without Dusty but I would not recommend this trail for a power wheelchair.
There were two other sights near the coast of Oregon that were accessible (hilly, but level dirt trails with little difficulty): Catherine Creek and Lost Lake
“Are you sure you have anything? Do you have any cash?”
I roughly pulled my classic backpacking-through-Europe knapsack on my back, the various bulges and attachments left it looking awkward on me. We were on the platform at the Hauptanhof train station near our apartment downtown. I grabbed my small travel wallet I kept inside my jacket and looked. No cash, just a credit card and ID.
“Here,” Dusty pulled a few 20 Euro notes from his wallet and handed them to me before rechecking the ties on my knapsack for the umpteenth time. “I feel like I should go with you, are you sure you’ll be okay on your own?” His eyebrows came together on his face as he looked at me.
“I promise I’ll be okay. George is meeting me there day after tomorrow and it’ll be great. Have fun at Dave’s wedding and please don’t worry about me.” I rubbed his arm up and down and pulled him in for a kiss. The train turned a corner on the distant track and we watched it approach the platform. I gave him one last long hug, trying to linger in his arms but not wanting to give away my hesitation about my confidence in traveling to Rome alone. The air hissed as the train slowed and the mechanical whirr announced the doors opening. I climbed aboard and as the train began building speed, I watched him shrink as the platform disappeared from view.
I’m just being dramatic, I thought to myself. There was nothing to be afraid of traveling by myself to Rome from our home in Stuttgart, Germany. No, I didn’t know Italian but I was pretty conversation in Spanish. And, well, no I didn’t know anything about the transportation in Rome or how to get around from site to site but I could figure it out, right? My younger brother was meeting me in Rome two days after I’d arrive for a weekend of brother-sister bonding in one of the most important sites of the development of Western civilization. Both of us history buffs, we were sure this would be a great weekend. Right?
I should point out here that I’m a paraplegic. A new one too, I’ve only been injured for a few years and I’m absolutely terrible at all things wheelchair. I fall out of my chair constantly, usually because I hit bumps or ran into something that could have been avoided if I had been paying attention. I would eat whatever I wanted and drank a minimal amount of water, both of which did nightmares to my already partially paralyzed digestion track. I tried hard to keep my chronically cold legs and feet warm and covered, but ended up with skin issues on both anyway. I was trying to be a good paraplegic and take care of myself, but for the most part I caused a lot of problems for myself simply out of ignorance.
I got to the airport and was lifted and pushed onto my flight. Disembarking from my flight, I was helped by two large Italian men who oozed a sweet perfume of their aftershave and flirted unashamedly with me like I had been warned Italian men will do. “Si, si,” I’d laugh back with them, “Grazie!”. They blew me kisses as I loaded into a cab and took off for my hostel.
We drove through streets with crumbling, beautiful stone buildings lit up in the black night with modern lights. I could hear the people on the squares we passed yelling and laughing, not caring how loud they were this late into the night. As we drove on past city streets and squares lit golden by the street lights, streams of fast Italian and loud laughter flew through the taxi. I was in a bubble of travel bliss.
Until we arrived at the hostel. Or more appropriately, the crammed apartment in an old, stone building on a street with no streetlights that someone turned into a hostel. I came inside and was greeted by the musty smell of old socks and disinfectant, although by the look of the peeling paint on the tiny entryway hallway I couldn’t believe disinfectant was frequently used. “buonasera,” a tired twenty something behind the counter of the entryway hallway welcomed me. He rattled off in Italian until I apologized and asked “In inglese per favore”. “May I, ah, help you withah anythinah?” He said again in English. He showed me to my “room”, which I had requested be a private. It wasn’t. Turning the corner from the cramped entry hallway, I saw the bathroom sized kitchen to the left and two doorways to the right. My private room had already been occupied, when I showed up to my reservation an hour later than I said I’d be there they had given it away. Instead, he opened the door to a dark bedroom of 3 bunk beds pushed up against the wall and a mess of luggage in the middle, hitting me with the source of the dirty sock smell I noticed earlier. “Dis is youra key,” he pressed a key into my palm. I looked at the beds on the bottom of the three bunk beds. They were all occupied. “I can’t get to the top bunk,” I whispered to him, but he just shrugged and gestered to the sleeping forms of the occupants. “Dere is nothin I, ah, can do” He shrugged again and left the room. I dropped my knapsack and determinely pulled out my toiletry kit, resolute to make myself at least a little more comfortable washing off the dirt of a long, traveling day. The connected cramped bathroom had mold stains crawling up from the tile and the communal toilet brush was stained yellow. I gagged a little trying to get ready for bed but I was determined to emulate the laid-back, adaptable traveler in my favorite books and movies. What’s a little dirt to me? I can do this.
I got back to the bedroom and threw my knapsack on my bunk, trying not to teeter too badly on all the sandals and shoes of the other occupants covering the floors. I knew enough to know that in a crowded hostel, it’s better to sleep with your belongings like a pillow than trust the lockers, no matter how strong your lock. Luckily the bunk bed had railings on the side and if I reached up just high enough, I could grab the ledge of the railing with one hand. I had pulled out an old bike lock that Dusty insisted I bring and, saying a quick prayer of thanks for my insightful husband, I locked my expensive and invaluable wheelchair to the corner leg of the bunk bed. Then I swung my hands up and pulled myself over the railing into bed.
I had set my alarms for early the next morning so I could get a head start of seeing some of the sights of Rome, but I awoke to a loud, rapid Chinese conversation. Two of my dorm occupants were sitting on the bed and floor and comparing pictures on their phones but laughing and yelling five decibels louder than necessary. I felt something itch me on my arm and I looked down as I reached to scratch it.
There was a line of three dark bugs crawling up my arm.
For anyone who hates all things insects as much as I do, don’t be ashamed to involuntarily shiver with disgust like I did. I’m not a prude in the sense that I need five star cleanliness from a public facility, but having bugs crawl on you as you sleep does cross on of my lines.
One half hour and a heated argument with the twenty something clerk about a refund later, I was back on the streets in my chair with my knapsack awkwardly hanging off my back. I had no other plans of where to stay, having made that reservation for the entirety of the trip, no idea where I could find Wifi and no way to contact either George or Dusty. I had my phone but didn’t have an Italian SIM. That meant that I could use my German SIM card and call who I needed to call on my German phone and access the Internet, but it would be expensive eat up my prepay reserve very quickly. I needed to find a Vodafone refill station and quickly or else I wouldn’t have anywhere to stay tonight and George wasn’t arriving until tomorrow.
I wandered the streets of the northern downtown neighborhood of modern Rome, trying to keep my knapsack from falling off and pushing myself up over countless cobblestones, curbs and other nightmare terrain for anyone on four wheels. But I needed to get online to find another hostel, so I tried café after café to see if anyone had WiFi. No one did, but I downed enough expresso to keep me going. Every time I passed a hotel, I tried entering to see if they had a room. I say “try” because most buildings would have entryways higher than the street and sidewalk, so there was always a step to enter. This is common throughout Europe and a huge pain in the ass when you’re in a wheelchair, alone, with a heavy backpack. Every time I did a wheelie to propel myself up or down a step, I was sure the weight of my knapsack would toss me over. “Avete camere?(Do you have any rooms?)”, I’d ask the clerks at each counter, becoming more and more desperate for a room as the day wore on. By lunchtime, I sat in a café exhausted and ready to accept whatever I’d have to pay to use my phone. I wanted so badly to hear Dusty tell me that this was just part of the adventure of traveling, but he’d left the same day I did to be in a wedding for a friend back in the United States. He didn’t have a phone that would work in the states and there wasn’t a way for him to help, anyway. I’d just worry him and the last thing I wanted was for this misadventure to escalate any more than it already had.
I quickly hunted for another hostel available in the city that George and I could stay for the next four nights and jotted down the address of my top choice. I pulled up a map of Rome from a quick google search and saved the picture to my phone, giving me access to subway stations and road names just as a picture even if I ran out of service. And sure enough, as soon as I ended the call with the owners of the bed & breakfast I’d found, a chipper voice alerted me that I had no money left over to make another call.
I took a quick glance at the map and found my way to the nearest subway stop. There are only a few lines in the subway system of Rome and it seemed straight forward enough to find my way. I stopped at the steps leading down to the subway stop below and looked all around the intersection to find an elevator. No luck.
“Is there a lift?” I asked a passerby before they descended the stairs. He shook his head no and rapidly gestured below before hurrying down the steps. Alright, then. I’ll try the next station.
A few blocks away was the next stop on the subway map. Again, only steps with no lift. My phone was able to do a GPS walking guide for me to follow to the B&B but it tried to lead me to subway stops the entire way, with none of them providing lifts for me to be able to take the subway. An hour of rolling later, I was pushing the buzzer on the doorway of the unassuming B&B and praying that the lack of a sign on the door was not an indication of its’ credibility. A small, round Italian man with a booming voice and gut-jiggling laugh opened the door for me and helped me to the ancient, open wire elevator to their apartment on the second floor. Looking back, what I’ve just described is the plot for any serial killer, mystery novel but at the time I was too exhausted to panic. Thankfully, he was a nice man with a wonderful wife and clean B&B and I’m still alive today.
I met George the next morning through a series of waiting around for his train, him walking right past me and us exchanging frantic “WHERE ARE YOU” emails whenever we found WiFi. But once together, we began running around Rome emulating the exact tourist behaviors that we despise on principle. But who can’t do a 360 degree turn around the Colosseum and wonder about the gladiators and lions locked away below? Who can’t take a selfie at the Pantheon or try a melodramatic filter of the theatric Roman Forum or Palatine Hill?
By the end of the second day, I was thoroughly overwhelmed by the magnitude of historical significance around each corner of Rome. My entire Western education, nuances and culture is indebted to the people who walked on these same roads where I’m rolling. The significance of this relationship drove me to take every picture of every turn that I could, wanting to capture every second to immortalize that feeling.
As expected, these same ancient Roman roads were a complete headache and source of endless frustration. I had not acquired the durable wheelchair attachment FreeWheel yet and was left trying to wheelie myself over every lopsided cobblestone and up every step to enter buildings. George pushed and pulled me through each attraction, but I had to bounce and jolt on every sidewalk. When we approached the Colosseum, we could see the line rounding from the site all the way down the street. It was a hot day, sunny in the bright way that only Italian sun brings and it wasn’t going to be pleasant waiting in a line for hours. I hadn’t bought us a ticket in advance, allowing us to skip the line, but we bypassed the line and approached the front desk anyway. I’d learned at other attraction in Europe and the US that sometimes there’s a special handicapped entrance if the main entrance has steps. When we approached the desk to ask if this was the case for the Colosseum, a guard at the gate at the front of the line motioned to us and lifted the cord on the entrance.
“We don’t have tickets yet,” I apologized to him as we approached. He shook his head, went to the desk and spoke with the attendant and returned with two white passes in his hand. “For you,” he gestured to my wheelchair, “and you (motioning to George)nessuna carica (no charge) “. Score!
We entered the Colosseo and as we went around the circular perimeter above the remains of the ancient spectator seating, I rubbed my hands against the rough yellow stone columns. I looked down at the remains of the amphitheater stage below, the cells for the animals and gladiators under the floor of the pit now visible. I thought about the gladiators emerging from one of the crumbling entrances and was dumbfounded that something so raw and violent was such popular entertainment. I learned spectators in the lowest seating could get splattered with hot blood and I responded by taking a selfie. Like any tourist would do.
We ran around the rest of Rome, eating delicious Italian at the little local restaurants recommended by our fantastic B&B owner. I was careful to watch how many expressos I drank as there was little access to bathrooms of any sort, let alone accessible ones. Early in our move to Europe two months prior, I had given up trying to ever find a bathroom large enough for me and my wheelchair and instead got accustomed to pivot transfers from my chair into the bathroom stall. Such was the situation throughout Rome.
When Sunday came, I woke and put on the special earrings I had brought for the occasion. The reason my brother and I had chosen this specific weekend to go to Rome was not happenstance. There was to be an induction of a statue of the Virgin Mary from Portugal into the possession of the Vatican. This statue of Our Lady of Fatima would be presented and celebrated during the weekly Sunday Mass, which would be given by Pope Francis himself.
My mother died a Catholic woman, having completed confirmation just a few years prior to her death. Her passion in her faith was celebrating the Virgin Mary, leading my mom to pray continuously for the Holy Mother to watch over all of us. As a mother and as a Labor & Delivery nurse, my mother had an immensely strong kinship with Mary that I’ll never forget. She had always wanted to go to Mass at the Vatican; I wanted to go in her place, on the same weekend that her Mary would be there.
We arrived at the gates of the Holy City early Sunday morning and a crowd was already surrounding the perimeter. The Vatican is walled city that closes to the public before Mass on Sunday to quell the thousands of people who attend. We joined the fray, George pushing as I tried to squeeze us to the front. When we stopped, there were a dozen nuns in grey habits around us talking to themselves in Spanish. George and I are both proficient in Spanish and we tried talking to one nun, a woman with bright eyes who looked about our age. “() (When do we enter?”, I asked her. “() (At seven),” she answered, giving us a funny look. “Wait, do you speak English?” she asked. “Yes! We’re Americans,” I answered. “Me too! I’m from California,” she laughed. “Where is your convent?” I asked, gesturing to the other nuns dressed similarly around her, although her headpiece was different than the rest. “In Spain,” she answered. “God led me to join after I visited the convent studying abroad in college”.
We talked for a few minutes and she got the attention of her sisters to help us get to the front, a pair of Italian grandmothers on our right offering to help as well by pushing on my wheels. She told us there was a special section for people with disabilities, but she didn’t know how I could get to it so she helped us get to the guards at the gate. The guards of Vatican City are the elite Pontifical Swiss Guard, males from Switzerland who have trained for years, had to pass a multitude of aptitude and skill evaluations, have to remain unmarried, be under the age of 30 and at least 5ft 8.5in tall.*
Upon approaching the gate, Italian grandmothers in the crowd helping George and our nun friend push me through the throng, one of the guards spotted me and opened the entrance for George and I to pass. We waved goodbye to our friends and followed our brightly colored red, orange and blue uniform escort through the Piazza di San Pietro to the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica.
A row of two chairs had been arranged facing the podium and altar arranged on the top steps of Basilica di San Pietro. Rows of chairs sat perpendicular to us on the top steps as well, facing the podium from the site. I turned to see the sun begin to rise above the walls surrounding the city and a ray shone on the red granite obelisk behind us. People began milling through the entrances to the city and pushed to the front of the barricades I saw had been arranged to create pathways through the crowd. The Pontifical guards herded the people to the right barricade and I saw there were kneeling benches forming countless rows to the back of St. Peter’s Square. George and I nodded and greeted the other people sitting with us at the front, which consisted of persons with Down Syndrome and their families, amputees and a developmental young man with his brother. George and I watched the nearly empty Piazza behind us become a moving mass of bodies. The seats on the stage of the steps in front of us were filled as monks in white, black, red and other colors of robes filed in. Finally one monk with robes of ceremonial finery approached the podium and announced the start of Sunday Mass.
I’m not Catholic and although I attended a few Masses with my mom, I didn’t remember any of the formalities, customs or ceremony of a traditional mass. A melodic song of Latin hummed through the crowd and when the brother declared each verse, the sound pulsed in our chests. The crowd behind us fell on their knees in unison as the pitch rose and fell in song and chant from the altar. The sun was high over the Piazza now and the heat blanketed us in a sticky film with our shirts starting to glue to our backs. The smell of thousands of people sweating started to waft. The guards, however, did not seem to be bothered by the heat or the crowd but continued to pace the walkways between the barricades in their long sleeve, long pants uniform.
Suddenly, there was a break in the Latin and everyone was looking at something at the far end of the Piazza. I couldn’t make out what was moving towards us, but as it came closer I saw that it was the statue of the Virgin Mary that was getting inducted today. “There she is!” I whispered to George and gripped his hand. He nodded and we watched the parade of four monks carrying a life-size golden statue of the Holy Mother adorned in colorful flowers for the ceremony. Her face was visible for the few seconds she was near us before they began to climb the steps of the Basilica towards the Pope. Her face radiated of something that could only be what true harmony looks like. She was dressed in a simple peace, the kind where you know for certain what you were put on life to do and the utter fulfillment of doing it. I was speechless for a second; the Virgin Mary had never meant anything more than one lasting connection I had with my mom after she died. But, as they walked her to Pope Francis, her peaceful face gave me the gift of knowing exactly how serenity looks.
The Pope blessed the statue and then began his homily, thankfully repeating his words in English as well.
“It is the astonishment of realizing that God, to become man, had chosen her, a simple maid of Nazareth. Not someone who lived in a palace amid power and riches, or one who had done extraordinary things, but simply someone who was open to God and put her trust in him, even without understanding everything,” Pope Francis continued in his soft, strong voice. This is why my Mom loved the Holy Mother; she was the example of an idea Mom drilled into my head time and time again. I could hear her voice saying “who you have been does not indicate who you can be. You can be anything you want and God has something He wants you to be more than anything”.
My hands clasped under my chin as I bowed my head and listened. My heart was slowly sinking down to my stomach and I could feel it’s weight pull my chest down. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to come here. This hurt, a lot, to hear about Mary, a woman I knew so intimately as part of my mom. In a way, it was my mom that was getting welcomed into the Vatican today. Where she had always wanted to see, always wanted to belong, was where she would be from now on. I was confusingly angry at Pope Francis, a man I admire so much, so talking about Mary as if he had a relationship with her as strong as my own. I rocked back and forth and continued listening.
“May she help us to be open to God’s surprises, to be faithful to him each and every day, and to praise and thank him, for he is our strength. Amen.”
But then I couldn’t let his words sink in any more, for Mass soon ended and Pope Francis was leaving his ceremonial seat for a white vehicle parked by the side of the steps. The PopeMobile! I had seen pictures of this car and had heard that Pope Francis had asked for the bulletproof glass that protected the Pope as he rode to be removed. As the car began to slowly make its way on the walkways through the barricades, I saw why the bulletproof glass had previously been installed. The Pope rode through the thousands,, touching hands and kissing the foreheads of babies that the Swiss guards or CIA-like men in black suits lifted to him. His hand reached out to pat heads and he wove around the crowd to reach every block of people waiting to see him. It was nearly 45 minutes before he reached the front and began to come through the handicapped section.
He seemed taller standing in his white vehicle than he looked projected on the big TV’s they have situated all around the Piazza. Men with cameras and men with black suits strode in front and around the PopeMobile while the Swiss guards marched in two pairs of two at the head and bringing up the rear. His robe was the same stark white as the car and he smiled modestly, as if he didn’t understand everyone’s excitement to see him. The PopeMobile suddenly stopped and a black suited man helped Pope Francis down to the street.
A young boy a few people down from me in our section was crookedly lying in his wheelchair, a family of several generations of women surrounding him. The boy’s body was twisted and he wasn’t able to turn his head fully forward to see the Pope striding towards him. I couldn’t hear his prayer, but Pope Francis laid both hands on the boy and lowered his head praying. He then reached down to pull the boy forward from his wheelchair into a hug. The women were crying and fussed mercilessly over the boy when Pope Francis broke their hug. He then stood to face all of us and made the sign of the cross before lifting his hands and blessing every handicapped person in our section. He returned to his PopeMobile and continued on, leaving behind a breathless group of people who had just been fed an enormous amount of hope.
But once he was gone, a new realization hit me. “Shoot, George, I gotta pee,” I whispered to my brother sitting beside me. He looked around for a bathroom and we spotted the long, winding line in the distance. He stood and bent over to push me towards the line, trying not to block anyone’s view. When we arrived at the bathroom, which seemed like a cave into the walls with two private bathrooms inside, the line was indeed long and followed along the inside perimeter of the stone walls of the city. But one of the guards spotted us at the door of the bathroom and gestured to follow him. He went into a small cave and then gestured to us to follow, where he then led us to a private, accessible bathroom. Thank you, God.
Now I have a brief caveat to add here; I can’t poop like an able bodied person anymore. Parts of my digestive track are paralyzed now so I don’t have the ability to tell my body “hey, it’s time to poop” the same way I can’t tell my body “wiggle those toes already, darn it!”. So sometimes accidents happen and I’ve learned to stop crying, clean up and move on already from it. It’s not that big of a deal. Unless you had an accident when you were getting blessed by the Pope. I wanted to laugh and I wanted to sob and I wanted to give up and I wanted purge myself of the flood of emotions that had engulfed me over the past hour. I cleaned up (thanks to a handy emergency kit I keep on me) and joined George outside.
Mass had ended and the thousands were now all trying to exit the city through it’s numerous, but narrow gates. We squeezed into the crowd and I gripped George’s hand to keep us together, although I did lose sight of him from the in between the mass of bodies a few time. Now that I’m roughly eyelevel with a person’s belly button, I have a hard time in crowds and getting pushed by dozens of hands connected to too many moving bodies. We finally came out onto the street and I took a few deep breaths, but the dam of emotion in me had risen too high. I missed her, more than anything, I missed my mom and I wanted to call her, send her a text with a picture of her son and daughter at her Vatican. Tell her about the Virgin Mary parading through today. Ask her what Latin hymns meant. Hug her on the steps of St. Peter’s.
I choked on sobs as I stopped in the middle of a pedestrian street, giving up on trying to roll over the persevering cobblestones. I cried hard, trying to fill each tear with as much grief and pain as I could so it would leave my body. George leaned over from behind me and wrapped his arm across my shoulders to push me to the seclusion of a little café. But then we just stopped there, his grip tight on me and giving me his silent acceptance of my breakdown. Melodic Italian flowed around us as people yelled out greetings to each other, laughed at the mundane and flirted. But for me, in that moment, I was back in Indiana and watching her disappear from my life all over again.