Wheelchair in the Wilderness: Skill or Bravery
Patricia retrieves me from the Cape Split Provincial Park parking lot. I am covered in mud. She brings out a thermos and a towel. The water inside is warm and soothing on my wrists.
My jeans and seat cushioned are caked in mud. I have knit socks that may never come clean. On the way back, I knew the exit was so close that I was less invested in circumnavigating mud pits, I just wiped my wheels off with my long sleeved shirt.
“So.. it wasn’t a good experience?” Patricia asks as I massage my forearms with the warm cloth.
“It was amazing!” I say, wetting the cloth again and wiping the mud from my wheels.
"People were really friendly, mostly just saying hi and how are you."
"Taking you at face value." she added.
"Yeah, a few people called me brave, but I wonder if it's because I look ridiculous with garbage bags on my feet.. like, maybe I don't know what I'm doing? You know, because it doesn't take bravery to do something ...hard." I took a second to find that last word. I meant that, while the hike was physically difficult, I wasn't scared. I wasn't out of my element.
"I think it does." Patricia responded, reminding me that people are differently provoked into states of minds.
I do possess a quality of bravery, but I tend to think of it in terms of dealing with the unknown. Go somewhere I have never been, where I don't know anyone, and figure it out. Then I feel brave. But when the tasks feels familiar, like hauling my chair through wilderness, it is still hard, but I don't feel brave. I think of that as a quality of skill.
Maybe 'skilled' is a state of mind for me. It’s the part of these adventures I am most motivated by - the immersion in skill. And those moments when water glitters across stones, and birds are singing and I am alone with it. Or, more than the alone part, that I am with nature in that way after a meaningful effort. It feels more …personal.
"One guy muttered it under his breath as he passed --you're brave-- and facetiously, I muttered back, 'let's hope not stupid.' and he just shrugged as if to say, you said it!" I laughed.
I was filthy and exhausted. but like completely exhausted. Elevation, rocky steep bits, mud and tree roots is just what it takes for me to actually use up all of my energy. It's such an incredible feeling. But life and escapades do look different from spent-Erin’s point of view. In retrospect, it feels brave in a way it didn’t in the moment. I was alone, in the rugged woods, hauling my chair through mud, exerting myself entirely. I crave the exertion when I’m full of energy. When I have spent my energy, I crave all the easy and secure and comforting things that would keep me from going anywhere near a root-strewn, mud-sickened path.
While I waited for Patricia, eating the peanut butter stuffed pretzels and salami from my pack, the guy who had called me brave passed and asked how far I got. He seemed surprised I had made it as far as the first lookout. "You don't have the right chair for it, right?" He said trying to explain why I “failed.”
"No, the chair is fine, I just needed more time." He looked surprised again. This time I shrugged at him.
I assumed it would take me twice as long as an inexperienced hiker. They estimate an hour and half to do the 6-7km to get out there. I planned to take 2.5/3 hours. I gave myself roughly six hours to do the whole thing.
“Would it have been easier if someone was with you?” Patricia asked.
“I don’t think so. There was nothing for them to do, and I couldn’t have gone any faster.”
In the end, it took me three hours to make it half way. I rested for half an hour and then, feeling how tired my wrist was, and how unknown the rest of the path was, I headed back. it took a mere hour to make it all the way back those 3, hard-earned kms. If I had left earlier, I could have kept going without worrying about running out of time on the way back down. I could have rested still at the halfway lookout. Rested again at the split. made it down in the same average time as the other hikers. I also learned that the path I didn't chose is wider, there are less tree roots, it's newer, and therefore more deliberately cultivated. The path I was on is packed from the sheer volume of foot traffic, but little to no maintenance of the trail is involved.
It was an easy hike for two feet. But for wheels, it was highly technical. At the lookout point --the halfway for others, the point of return for me --a man who had been walking the trails since the 70s told me how he’s watched the forest change, said he loves to mountain bike the trail, "it's very technical," he says and I nod. I don't get to see the view, but I get to be in a skilled state of mind. I can barely lift my focus to chat with hikers as they pass. When I pause, I can hear my heartbeat, it sounds like soft foot thuds coming up behind me. I few times I look, then remember, my heart.
Early in my hike, I had a motorcycle clamp thing attached to my chair to hold my phone.
One of the first challenges was a squelchy mud pit, and as I was putting on my adventure garbage bags to keep my feet dry and thinking through my options, two people stopped to ask if they could help. Help is tricky in a situation like this because it can give me a sense of false confidence that can be dangerous later on. I have to know what my body is being asked to do so I can calculate whether I have enough energy left to do it. But this was so close to the entrance that I knew on the way back, the worst that would happen was that I’d walk through the center of the mud pit if I had to. So I figured I’d let them help me take the dryer route. It was off the path entirely, which meant it was up and around a standing of young trees, narrow passage between them, and no real stepping spots.
The end of the video cuts off as one of them is saying “tell us what to do.”
I had one person help me lift up the chair while I found my footing and then hoist it around tree branches until I was on the other side. Then they went off up the mountain and left me to my journey.
On the way back down, I took the path I describe as my first option. Across the logs. Which meant one wheel was heartily in the mud. Which would have sucked early on the way up, but meant nothing to me on the way out.
I roll up the ramp into the van. trading the woods for accessibility. The sun peaks through a cover of plain clouds, spotlights the ocean, is a spectacular view. I giggle. All that work and the best view was from the backseat of the van.