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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This story has no ending, no moral resolution or lessons learned. There’s no way to tie up this story with a neat little bow at the end and leave with a satisfied sigh. It’s unfortunate and for this, I apologize. If a resolution is to be found, I hope a reader could find it and let me know. I would love to an ending.
Being the overzealous twenty-somethings that we are, Dusty and I have yet to learn how to “ease into things” or “take it easy” or even “slow the eff down”. We throw caution to the wind and follow the pace of our beating hearts; fast and with a fury. We decided upon leaving Salt Lake City that we’d next try the infamous Yellowstone National Park, a monument to the West often making the news for some form of wildlife or another approaching stray tourists. Challenge accepted, we dared fate. From Yellowstone we then chose Seattle, home of the famous Pike’s Place Market and newest dwelling on Whidbey Island to another recipient and family of the Service Dog Project, Renee Le Verrier and Sir Thomas. Renee’s Tommy is also Ethel’s uncle, his brother having sired Ethel’s litter. It had been over a year since the two dogs had seen each other.
Our first clue that we might be in over our heads occurred just south of the entrance to the park, as a traffic jam rivaling the staus of Stuttgart, Germany welcomed us. Throngs of cars, RVs, bikers and tourist buses honked and waited for the slow crawl to advance. Any hints of trepidation I’d felt began to mount. Thus far, Ethel and I had not encountered crowds together. There was an infamous day at Lamberts Café (a notoriously packed Missouri restaurant made famous by the waiters and waitresses actual throwing the rolls at the patronage), where Ethel tried her hardest to stay down amidst the piles of stray rolls and other food fallen on the floor. We had only been together a few weeks at that point and it was a rougher day for both of us.
But I still hadn’t been prepared for those two days. It had been over a year since I was been made to feel like such a spectacle, a show to satisfy someone else’s curiosity and provide entertainment. It began shortly after we parked the RV and I took her for a run, holding onto her harness and letting her gallop as I rolled with her. “I think that’s cheating!” a potbellied middle aged man in a trucker hat yelled across the parking lot and then proceeded to guffaw at his own joke. That was followed by an entire family yelling at each other to “Come, look!” and each held up a camera to their faces and shot away as I urged Ethel to “Giddy up” and get us out of there.
The next day we set out again on our morning run and I tried avoiding any crowds leaving the lodges. No such luck. “Hey, I’ll getcha a saddle!” I heard someone yell behind me and I steered Ethel off into some deserted parking lots.
But suddenly Ethel stopped without warning, her nose high in the air. “What’s up, girlie?” I asked her and looked around. Not twenty feet ahead of us was an enormous, bushy bison.
“Ok,” I said, trying speak softly, slowly and not as hysterically as I felt, “Just back up, that’s right, we’ll walk backwards for just a little bit… do not show fear, Ethel, that’s the key, don’t show fear”. We crept backwards until we were a safe enough distance away and then, with impressive speed, pulled out my phone and snapped a picture. Because, I mean, photo opportunity of a lifetime. Then at my command, Ethel took off galloping us to safety.
But the day went downhill from there. It started to pour and didn’t let up until that evening. To keep dry, the three of us huddled down in one of the lodges and drank hot coffee. But not in peace; we were interrupted every 1o minutes by someone, or a group of someones, wanting Ethel’s picture or wanting to tell us about their dog or the worst, just reaching down to pet Ethel and get their hand slapped away by me. It was exhausting. “No, she’s not a Dalmatian, she’s a Great Dane from the Service Dog Project. Here’s their poker chip”, “No, you cannot pet her, she’s a Service Dog and she’s working”, “No, you cannot take her picture, you’re interrupting us and she’s working”, ” I’m sorry you lost your dog, but you absolutely cannot touch her” and “Ma’am, please tell your children to stop bothering my Service Dog. They’re distracting her and that’s endangering me”. I put in headphones trying to deter their attention, but that left Dusty getting bombarded instead.
We left Yellowstone for the safety of our RV and made a team decision to lick our wounds and take refuge in the welcoming Service Dog Project that awaited us in Seattle. For two days we relished in the rich love of the Le Verrier family, laughing over the antics of our Great Danes frolicking and Ethel stealing any bone or bed that her uncle Tommy had. They sympathized with our experience at Yellowstone and shared similar stories. Capturing the fantastic and resolving curiosity seemed to be of greater priority than respecting personal boundaries or privacy to many of the people we had encountered.
Still wanted to experience Seattle, we borrowed the Le Verrier car they graciously offered and headed to the city. Ethel wore a borrowed blue vest and collar from her uncle Tommy for me to see how I liked the design, with the words SERVICE DOG printed much more boldly than on Ethel’s normal vest. After finding parking, we meandered to Pike’s Place Market in downtown Seattle. The wind coming off the ocean masked the roar of the throngs of tourists occluding the market and spilling out into the surrounding streets. People yelled for family members, high pitched shrieks of children echoed off the walls and sellers laughed loudly at the inside jokes they shared with one another. The Market, being a true maze in itself, was too packed to wander deeply in and Dusty went on ahead to find a stall that sold something to have for lunch. Almost immediately as the people swallowed Dusty into the crowd in front of where I stood with Ethel, off to the site of a part of the entrance, a finger tapped my shoulder. A woman motioned to her camera, which was pushed so close to my face I had to jerk back to avoid head-butting the invasive object. I pointed to the “SERVICE DOG” clearly written on Ethel’s side and shook my head no. Before she could respond, a man squatted in front of Ethel and began to baby talk “what a pretty girl she was”. I asked Ethel to back up and told the man to “Please stop interacting with my service dog, she’s working” to which he said “Geez, sorry” and walked away. I spoke with Ethel, explained to her what had just happened but was then poked again. “Oh, she is just a doll,” a woman with a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt cooed. “So what do you have? Cerebral Palsy? MS? I’m a nurse practitioner,” she explained, as if that gave her permission to ask about my private medical history. Before I could answer this baffling invasion of my privacy in such a public setting, I noticed that two separate people behind her were filming me with their phones. “Stop. Leave us alone”, I told the group with what I hoped was a voice that hid the exasperation I was feeling. Suddenly there was a high-pitched wailing coming from a child being held by her overwhelmed mother already holding the hand of an older brother. “She gets to have her dog in here, why can’t I have Maxy” she cried, her red face glaring at Ethel and me. “Why don’t we ask her if we can pet the dog?” the mom said, trying to placate her crying child. “No, I’m sorry, she can’t. This is a service dog,” I answered, fearing the child’s reaction. The girl’s entire face seemed to split open as the loudest shrieking cry heard yet emanated from the gaping mouth. Ethel and I quickly turned around and fled the market.
Wearily, our trio returned to the warm embrace of the Le Verrier as the sun set over the splashing waves of the sound. We retold our nightmare of the market to their indignant faces, outraged and disappointed that our Seattle experience had matched Yellowstone. They fixed us dinner, gave us beer and seltzer water to soothe our souls and regaled us with stories of their new Washington life. Their happiness and contentment in their new surroundings was evident, even in the quiet face of their 14 year old son who failed to have the surly demeanor 14 year old boys are usually prone to having.
We set off from then to the refuge of Oregon, desiring the trees and ocean to be our only companions and the seals and seagulls our only interactions. I do not know the lesson of our Nightmare at Pike’s Place, only that I lack the thick skin and steely demeanor of someone who knows how to survive in an overpopulated area just like the seemingly cold personalities of so many people I’ve met in New England cities who’ve adopted that attitude out of necessity. If I must, I’m sure Ethel and I can adapt to this lifestyle. In the meantime, I have lunch with a seagull awaiting me and I really can’t miss it.
An old friend, now an international Occupational Therapist, perfectly surmised this experience and gave me her insight. As someone who is an advocate for disabilities and has the unique perspective of having watched me transition from able-bodied to disabled, she identified the true need in both these nightmares: education.
“ Moral of this story: a complete lack of education provided to our society. Lack of education regarding people that appear “different” than us. Lack of education regarding resources for individuals, such as yourself, that utilize various forms of assistance throughout their daily lives. And lack of education for the respect and dignity of people of all cultures, races, ethnicities, and varying degrees of abilities! You should honestly start carrying a brochure around with you. Every time someone tries to touch sweet Ethel when she is working you can emphatically hand them the brochure with a large and friendly 😉 stop sign on the front and then details on the inside about Ethel’s role. Unfortunately, our society, while better than many out there, doesn’t adequately educate the public on abilities and disabilities, and therefore our American people go on living as if they are entitled to handle your service dog!” – Hayley C., Pediatric Occupational Therapist