Dusty and I were a little unprepared for the yawning abyss of problems an RV can. To be fair, we frugally researched and bought an older RV who’d had previous owners and already been driven not a small number of miles. And now we’re learning everything there is to know about how an RV works, how to keep an RV working and what to do when the RV doesn’t work. I don’t know if I ever thought I’d be consciously grateful to say today I’m fairly confident we live in a waterproof home or the toilet is flushing just fine again. Between resealing our windows and fixing our generator, Dusty has become a mechanic of all trades. There will never be too many times I’ll say “Thank God Dusty is an engineer” or “Wow, Dusty, you’re looking sexy in that tool belt”.
But there’s always a steep learning curve when embarking on an adventure with a new piece of machinery, whether that be a bike, boat or RV. The first few weeks are all about grease covered hands and frantically googling stores that carry the right parts. We call our RV “La Tortuga” because, like turtles, we carry our home with us wherever we go. And while she’s older and a little rickety on the highway, she’s ours and we love her.
We saw family in Salt Lake City and tried some local beers with a cousin whose smile warms the room, but we were anxious to get back on the road and head north.
Before leaving the Great Salt Lake area, we drove to Antelope Island. This state park is a large island north of the city on the Great Salt Lake and connected to the mainland by bridge. Suddenly out of the metropolis, we found ourselves weaving through long grass and scrub brush with towering giants of green and brown hills watching us from above. The road wove along the coast of the Great Salt Lake, which had receded enough to leave a muddy bank covered in white salt. We could see the mountains of the Wasatch Range on the eastern side of Salt Lake City off in the distance. Further along in the island was a ranch positioned on higher elevation, where we could park and walk along paths to see the bison roaming on the grass fields below. Ethel’s nose lifted high into the air as she caught whiffs of the grazing beasts below and I explained to her that these were not friends to meet but a “leave it” to remember. As far as accessibility goes, there was a paved path from the parking lot out a ways to the viewing area but then the path became a dirt road only fairly level. We didn’t see the campsites, but I’m told they are on gravel sites.
Dusty headed out with his trail shoes on to go run to the peaks of the green hills and Ethel and I began our run along the deserted road. With the hills to our left and the white bank of the Great Salt Lake to our right, Ethel galloped along the road with a tongue out. I looked out to the sun over the glistening white salt mud of the lake and had a thought. How cool of a picture would it be on the barren salt desert of the lake below? There was a steep embankment leading down to the lake, but up ahead was what looked like a mowed four-wheeler trail. “Surely,” I thought to myself, “that’ll be flat enough ground to get down to the lake. I have FreeWheel on, I can do this.” Ethel was more than happy to start heading towards the grass and all its’ new animal smells and we started rolling down the hill. Then careening, then bouncing and then falling down the hill. The mowed grass had looked deceptively flat, but underneath the green were mounds of dried bison dung, cut stumps and mud puddles. I’m sure a four-wheeler could navigate this terrain and once again I cursed myself for thinking my wheelchair was also an all-terrain vehicle.
With one hand on Ethel’s harness and the other on my wheel with a white knuckle grip, I tried directing her to pull me away from the bison patties and tree stumps. An impossible task, there were simply too many, and soon my hand was slimy with still-warm bison poop that had smeared the hand grips on my wheel. I squished the warm poop in between my fingers as I clutched my wheelchair going through the last few meters until the lake. “I know that was crazy,” I told Ethel, “but you did a good job. Stay close, now”. I looked around in vain for anything to wipe my hands with and settled on the tall straw brush on the side of the trail. It wasn’t effective.
But the view was worth the poop. The salt flats of the Great Salt Lake bank are spellbinding and Ethel happily galloped across the white desert. The scene didn’t make sense; the white ground looked like snow, but the day was warm and the bank should be mud, but the ground wasn’t brown. Ethel and I rode around on the white mud from one side of the bank to the other, daring to move closer and closer to the actual water in the Great Salt Lake until I started to sink in the wet salt. A plethora of selfies with Ethel later and we began to head back to the road.
With the daunting trail ahead, I held on to Ethel to begin the treacherous ascent. Stubby, brown grass spikes pricked my hand pushing my wheel and I hopelessly tried to dodge what seemed like a field of leftovers from diuretic bison. “Walk on, Ethel,” I commanded, but she was biting away at the swarm of black flies who’d picked us as targets. Coming down to the water, we were falling too fast to fall prey to the black flies but now we were slowly, painfully crawling our way back up.
Twenty minutes later, we’d moved three meters.
Ten minutes after that, I began crying and Ethel wasn’t sure if were stopping or going.
One of Ethel’s services to me is to pull me along in stores, on sidewalks, up hills, down hills, wherever. We move slowly with the “Walk on” command and she starts running with the “Giddy up” command. But when I’m pulling on her with my full weight and am stuck in the ground, she gets confused. Her other service to me is to stand still and brace so that I can climb up over her and get back to my chair. So if we’re walking and I get stuck, instinctively she stops and braces so I can pull myself out. On terrain like we found ourselves, I needed to continually switch from “I’m stuck, brace” to “ok we can move now, walk on”. But an emotional handler, especially with the trademarked Julia overly dramatic sobbing, will confuse the service out of the service dog. Ethel didn’t understand what was going on or what she was supposed to do.
I felt my wheels squish into an especially juicy dung pile and I gave up. I called Dusty, who was just finishing his run, and he got the RV and drove to my rescue. I was frustrated, embarressed and angry that I hadn’t been able to finish what seemed like a simple, off-road trail hike. Dusty just laughed that of course, once again, I had found myself in a situation like this.
While Ethel was slurping water, I vigorously washed my hands in the RV bathroom. When sufficiently clean, although I was considering the possibility of dousing myself with bleach, I showed Dusty the pictures we’d taken. A beautiful place plus a big dog makes for some fun pictures and glancing through them made me realize a hard truth.
I was never supposed to do that trek alone. As hard as it is to admit, I know there are places in the world where I just can’t go. The top of the Eiffel Tower, for example, doesn’t have accommodations for wheelchairs. But I’ve climbed, scratched, hauled and lifted myself into “not for disabilities” sites around the world. The key, though, is that I always had help. Dusty would be by my side, hauling my wheelchair while I low-crawled up stairs or carrying me into over fences and into towers. When Dusty’s help wasn’t enough or when he was absent, there was always someone. In college, I had wonderful friends and I hunted down the nervous freshman who wouldn’t say no to a push. In Europe, there were the good people who restored my faith in humanity time and time again. We’d communicate through hand gestures when I’d explain the elevator had broken, but wheelchair problems and smiles are universal.
Now that I have Ethel, I’ve got an invincibility complex. With my four-pawed SuperGirl, I feel like I’m The Wheeling Rider, a famed superhero known for the flames that follow her wheels when she takes off. Together we can face the cobblestones, gravel, hills and curbs of the world with ease, fighting crime and saving babies along the way. And some of that is true. But there’s always room for help and I forgot how to ask.
I’m not invincible, I learned today day crawling through bison dung back to the road of Antelope Island. But that doesn’t mean Ethel isn’t my SuperGirl and I’m not Wheeling Rider. Because even superheroes ask for help sometimes.