‘Til We Meet Again

Hello all! Thank you for all your comments, views, thoughts and sharing of your heart over this past year. I’ve truly enjoyed writing about our travels, my giant baby Little Miss Ethel and what it really means to live disabled in an able bodied world. I’m going to take a break from writing for a bit so that I can pursue a lifelong goal and something I never stopped working towards; I’m applying to medical school! After my accident, I finished my undergraduate degree in Biological Sciences and completed a Neuroscience thesis to earn an Honors degree. I have not and will not give up on this goal and I’m taking some time to allow for focus. I may post photos of our adventures from time to time, but I won’t be writing. Thank you for all your encouragement towards my book (talking to publishers now!) and I can’t wait to talk again soon. Thank you.

See You Soon

 

'Til We Meet Again

Hello all! Thank you for all your comments, views, thoughts and sharing of your heart over this past year. I’ve truly enjoyed writing about our travels, my giant baby Little Miss Ethel and what it really means to live disabled in an able bodied world. I’m going to take a break from writing for a bit so that I can pursue a lifelong goal and something I never stopped working towards; I’m applying to medical school! After my accident, I finished my undergraduate degree in Biological Sciences and completed a Neuroscience thesis to earn an Honors degree. I have not and will not give up on this goal and I’m taking some time to allow for focus. I may post photos of our adventures from time to time, but I won’t be writing. Thank you for all your encouragement towards my book (talking to publishers now!) and I can’t wait to talk again soon. Thank you.

See You Soon

 

Euro-RODES-trip: Camping across Western Europe in Photos

butmaybeshewheel.com

Over December and January 2015, Dusty and I embarked on an epic road trip across Western Europe. While we didn’t hit every spot on the list above, we adventures our way from Germany to hit Spain, Portugal, Morocco and France.

But Maybe She Wheel: Bilbao, Spain

But Maybe She Wheel: Bilbao, Spain

But Maybe She Wheel: Bilbao, Spain

But Maybe She Wheel: Bilbao, Spain

But Maybe She Wheel: Bilbao, Spain

But Maybe She Wheel: Sintra, Portugal

Sintra, Portugal

Sintra, Portugal

But Maybe She Wheel: Sintra, Portugal

But Maybe She Wheel: Sintra, Portugal

But Maybe She Wheel: Lisbon, Portugal

But Maybe She Wheel: Lisbon, Portugal

But Maybe She Wheel: Lisbon, Portugal

But Maybe She Wheel: Lisbon, Portugal

But Maybe She Wheel: Lisbon, Portugal

But Maybe She Wheel: Algarve, Portugal

But Maybe She Wheel: Algarve, Portugal

But Maybe She Wheel: Algarve, Portugal

But Maybe She Wheel: Algarve, Portugal

But Maybe She Wheel: Algarve, Portugal

But Maybe She Wheel: Seville, Spain

But Maybe She Wheel: Seville, Spain

But Maybe She Wheel: Seville, Spain

But Maybe She Wheel: Seville, Spain

But Maybe She Wheel: Seville, Spain

But Maybe She Wheel: Seville, Spain

But Maybe She Wheel: Seville, Spain

But Maybe She Wheel: Seville, Spain

But Maybe She Wheel: Tangier, Morocco

But Maybe She Wheel: Tangier, Morocco

But Maybe She Wheel: Tangier, Morocco

But Maybe She Wheel: Tangier, Morocco

But Maybe She Wheel: Tangier, Morocco

But Maybe She Wheel: Mijas, Spain

But Maybe She Wheel: Mijas, Spain

But Maybe She Wheel: Mijas, Spain

But Maybe She Wheel: Mijas, Spain

t Maybe She Wheel: Granada, Spain

t Maybe She Wheel: Granada, Spain

t Maybe She Wheel: Granada, Spain

Click here for more!

Euro-RODES-trip//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

The Dance of Barcelona

IMG_6063“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.

 

Barcelona

Barcelona

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.

 

Barcelona

Barcelona

Barcelona

Barcelona

Barcelona

Barcelona

Barcelona

Barcelona

IMG_6017_

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.

 

Cathedral of Antonio Gaudi, Barcelona

Cathedral of Antonio Gaudi, Barcelona

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.

 

Barcelona

Barcelona

 

Barcelona

Barcelona

Barcelona

Barcelona

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.

 

Barcelona

Barcelona

Barcelona

Barcelona

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.

 

Antonio Gaudi, Barcelona

Antonio Gaudi, Barcelona

Antonio Gaudi, Barcelona

Antonio Gaudi, Barcelona

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.

Antonio Gaudi, Barcelona

Antonio Gaudi, Barcelona

Antonio Gaudi, Barcelona

Antonio Gaudi, Barcelona

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.

Barcelona

Barcelona

Rome, Italy and Vatican City

WP_20131010_063

“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?

 

Colosseo, Rome

Colosseo, Rome

Colosseo, Rome

Colosseo, Rome

Colosseo, Rome

Colosseo, Rome

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.

 

Rome

Rome

Rome

Rome

Rome

Rome

Rome

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”.

 

Vatican City

Vatican City

Vatican City

Vatican City

Swiss guards, Vatican City

Swiss guards, Vatican City

Vatican City, Sunday morning mass

Vatican City, Sunday morning mass

Vatican City

Vatican City

Pope Francis, Vatican City

Pope Francis, Vatican City

Pope Francis, Vatican City

Pope Francis, Vatican City

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.

Finding Ethel: Part 3, Sweaty Freedom

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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.

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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 few months and the end of winter later, I was beginning to feel comfortable going on a ride by myself. Just a few blocks from our apartment was a connection to an old gravel road named “Tank Trail” from its’ previous purpose of being the path tanks would drive 15k between US Army bases in this part of Germany. No cars drove on Tank Trail and it was a safe, wooded trail for me to find my independence and hopefully freedom with my bike.

 

 

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.

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.wpid-img_20150712_110950.jpg wpid-img_20150712_111438.jpg wpid-img_20150712_110950.jpg wpid-img_20150712_111259.jpg wpid-img_20150712_123119.jpg wpid-img_20150712_105309.jpg

La Palma, Canary Islands

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Dusty tore down the mountain chasing the tires of the mountain bikers in front of him. It was the second day of their group ride and he felt like an amateur against the hardened skills of his fellow bikers. This island, La Palma, is not only the most mountainous island of the Spanish Canary Islands, but also one of the most mountainous islands in the world. It’s a mountain biker heaven, with shops and hostels spotted throughout the island to provide refuge for the thousands that trek here year round. Yet, despite its popularity in the extreme sports world, the island remains mostly uninhabited and undisturbed with several villages and only one main city. At one time this remote Canary Island was patronized by a famous pirate known in the west as “Peg Leg” or more accurately, Jean-Paul de Billiancourt who raided the frequently plundered shipbuilding island of La Palma in 1553.

 

The “mountains” that Dusty twisted and turned his way down are actually the steep sides of still active volcanoes. The entire island is a product of two main volcanoes, with contributions from others throughout its’ history. As a result, the beaches are the black, glittering sand of aged lava and the ground crumbles with broken pieces of the last eruption.

 

He stood with his feet on either side of his bike, having made the ascent to the top of the mountain they’d be biking down soon, and took in the scene as he caught his breath. The green, rocky mountain below him seemed to melt down in the ocean, bubbling at the edges with white sea form. Clouds hazed at the furthest point of the sea, making it nearly indistinguishable to tell which was the water and which was its’ mirror.

 

“Ok, this first section is steep. You’ll need to keep your distance and do a front pivot turn to get through the bends.” The group leader addressed the group of 10, all young guys except one Italian female lawyer. Everyone’s experience ranged, but Dusty felt that he had the most to learn from the group than the others with only a few months experience under his belt. The group leader was German but had moved to La Palm and bought a bike shop/ B&B. He offered to take groups on the trails all over the island, providing transportation when needed and guidance before each section of a trail. “Keep an eye out for each other. If someone goes down, it’s up to the next person behind them to yell it through the line until it gets to me at the end. Ok? Super. Vamos!”

 

Dusty pulled down his helmet over his face and kicked forward on his bike, getting to the edge of the cliff with the others and waiting as the person in front of him disappeared down the trail. He leaned forward to tilt his bike and breathed steadily as the trees and greenery whizzed past in the peripherals of his eyes. He focused on the trail, reading the curves, bumps and roots of endless trees. Finding the motion of the mountain was his goal for this ride, learning the fluidity of the curves and mounds like one learns a dance by feeling the revolutions of their partner’s body. His tires pressed into the flesh of the mountain and he caught his breath as he performed the recommended pivot turn through the bend in the trail. He rode fluidly, rising and falling with each mound, and reared back on his handlebars as the bike fell through the air in a jump. Roots and rocks dotted the ground in between the trees like freckles on a body and he worked his bike back and forth to miss them. The tension in his shoulders became the energy of his hands controlling his speed with the front back and then the back brake. This job, this unit, this German assignment asked more from him than he had been prepared to give. His daily negotiations with corporate alliances here in Europe and back in the United States left him wishing for a community not dependent on money or status. His email had become the chain that kept him to his desk and served as his morning Grim Reaper. But this ride, this island, undressed the uniform of stress and responsibility from his body and warmed his bare, liberated skin.

 

La Palma, Canary Islands

La Palma, Canary Islands

Into the crater, La Palma

Into the crater, La Palma

All too soon, dust rose in the open track of the brief respite in the trail where they’d agreed to stop and Dusty rolled his hand over the bars to clutch his bike. He stepped to the side with the others and awaited the arrival of the last few members of the group. He took out his phone and smiling with freedom, began capturing the views around them.

 

La Palma, Canary Islands

La Palma, Canary Islands

 

While Dusty rode his hours on the island, I sipped café con leche leche (a drink that we had learned was a local favorite) by the pool of our lodging and watched the waves of the dark aqua ocean. The patatas and salsa verde I’d ordered were too delicious to even wait too cool and my burnt tongue groaned with the warmth of my coffee. I was in a paradise of black, blue, green and white swirling colors but I couldn’t shake the cloud that seem to hang only over me like a cartoon. Lately I had been hit with so many hints from life that confirmed my insecurities about being a real, capable adult. During the past weeks, I felt like I could hear life cackling at me whenever I forgot to make that phone call at work for my boss or ended a conversation with “but you know, you can, like, do whatever”. I felt incompetent and powerless to be able to change. But mostly, I was so insecure with myself that I didn’t even want to be around me.

 

But maybe, I thought, as I looked at the game of beach volleyball playing down on the black beach, I could find something I liked about myself here. I inhaled that resolution and smiled at the startling sweet smell of the air, a side effect of the copious banana farms throughout the island.

 

Banana farms, La Palma

Banana farms, La Palma

On the days we explored together, we trekked down to the hiking trail Ruta de los Volcanes along the Cumbre Viega mountain ridge on the southernmost part of the island. While the majority of the island is covered in tropical greenery, we spotted in the southern tip of the island small spines interspersed between large red rocks and yellow crumbling earth. We moved slowly, party for the crumbly, rough terrain of the path and also because we simply could not stop admiring what we saw. First there was the sparse shrub covered Volcan Martin (which can be seen the road and erupted in 1646) and down further was Montana de los Charcos (its 1712 eruption is responsible for flattening much of the southern part of the island). Dusty climbed the ridges of the steeper parts of the path ahead of me and stood on the edge to take pictures of Crater del Duraznero (caused by the San Antonio volcano in 1949) and Crater del Hoyo Negro (formed from the 1949 San Juan volcano which is responsible for flattening the southern part of the island). We descended from the volcanos to the Punta Fuencaliente, the southernmost point of the island complete with an old lighthouse to watch the sea.

 

Fuencaliente, La Palma

Fuencaliente, La Palma

The volcanoes themselves reach a height that, on a clear day, you can see the top of the mountain on Tenerife, the next island over. These heights, paired with the remoteness of the island, give a chance to see more stars at night than ever known before. NASA and the Spanish government joined forces to study the clear, unspoiled vantage point to the heavens and now the Gran Telescopio Canaries and Los Muchachos Observatory on one volcano of the Parque Nacional de la Caldera de Taburiente. This national park is a massive crater formed by successive volcanic eruptions and now is one of the highest spots on La Palma.

 

La Palma, Canary Islands

La Palma, Canary Islands

That morning, we drove northeast from our little town of Los Llanos and couldn’t resist stopping at a little café that seemed to dangle precariously from the cliff edge. But upon entering the small outdoor tables, we could see why the location had been chosen. From the deck of El Mirador de Time, we could see in almost every direction up and down the coast of the island. The expansive banana farms rolled up and down the rises of the island and their sweet smell made the air thick and syrupy. We stayed to order omelets with salsa verde and cafés before continuing on our day.

 

Mirador El Time, La Palma

Mirador El Time, La Palma

Mirador El Time, La Palma

Mirador El Time, La Palma

Our destination was the top of one volcano, where the top had formed a crater called  la Caldera de Taburiente.  To reach the crater, we drove past La Cumbrecita, a vantage point to see the island, and parked at the beginning of the Rogue de los Muchachos trail. The ground was all rock this high up, a sandy red and brown that steamed from the sun and dusted our shoes. We walked along the edge of the steep ridge climbing to the top when suddenly it the entire Atlantic Ocean and the edges of the tiny island opened up. The warm sun greeted our faces as we gazed down at horizontal banana farms, growing up the sides of the volcanoes, their large green hats covering fat yellow fruits. The brightly painted orange and yellow houses and buildings spotted along the edges of this island, so small I could reach out with both arms and wrap the edges in a hug. We could see the small towns nestled into the slivers of air between two volcanic cliff edges leaning in to kiss. Small clouds below us hid parts of the black beaches along the island edge, as if trying to shield our eyes from the nudity our fellow European travelers felt comfortable enough to express. We continued to walk along the highest peaks of the crater on thin, amber paths that fell off down into the crater on one side and down the volcanic side on the other. We gulped thin air that was no longer sweet from the wafting bananas below but had a faint sour of sulphur emitting from the volcano. Dusty couldn’t be happier; this were he found his source of contentment and solace from life, when he is wrapped in the warm embrace of Mother Nature and chasing the freedom of Father Sky. We spent the day charging ourselves in the power of the view that volcano offered us until hunger brought us back to our car and down the road below the clouds.

 

NASA observatory, La Palma

NASA observatory, La Palma

La Palma, Canary Islands

La Palma, Canary Islands

Top of the crater, La Palma

Top of the crater, La Palma

La Palma, Canary Islands

La Palma, Canary Islands

View from the top, La Palma, Canary Islands

View from the top, La Palma, Canary Islands

But I didn’t find my bliss until a few days later, when we discovered the true infinity pools of the island that so many hotels across the world try to recreate. The ocean waves pounding against the dark lava cliffs form inlets into the cliffs over the centuries but uneven ones that twist around to form a mouth. The result is a natural pool in the cliffs with water that rocks with the current, but will sit in the sun all day and warm to a pleasurable temperature. In high tide, the waves crash against the opening of the pool and the cold eater will splash the swimmers soaking in the sun warmed bath. Dusty and I drove the winding roads around the perimeter of the island, there being only one road that cuts through the center of the island from east to west, to the northeast corner of the island to Barlovento. We parked along the cliff edge overlooking the ocean and climbed down the stone staircase to las Piscinas de Fajana, a group of several infinity pools with seats carved into the lava rock and home to colorful, tiny fish who enjoy their visitors. Waves with white foam crashed on the sides of the stone pool, the sound like the heartbeat of the Atlantic. And she was welcoming us in with the sun warming the stones where I sat on the edge of one of the pools, my legs dangling in the water waiting for Dusty to finish undressing. The waves were loud enough to dull the sounds of us talking, completing the ambiance to the sunlit circle of warmth. I floated in the water, tilting my head back to soak my hair and yelped when Dusty pulled my legs to him and wrapped them around his waist. We took our GoPro camera and filmed the tiny, darting fish swimming around us and taking ticklish nibbles of our toes. Dusty stepped out of the pool and stood on the stone edges of the pool to capture the waves splashing into the pools at high tide.

 

Las Piscinas, La Palma

Las Piscinas, La Palma

Las Piscinas, La Palma

Las Piscinas, La Palma

Las Piscinas, La Palma

Las Piscinas, La Palma

Las Piscinas, La Palma

Las Piscinas, La Palma

As I watched him taking pictures, I understood something about my insecurities. I may be a little awkward of a person, probably unprofessional and a little uncouth, but what was more important for me to realize was that I am lucky. An incredibly, jealously-provoking, want-to-hate-you-but-can’t lucky person. I’d grown up thinking the Canary Islands were one of those places that only either the really rich or the really lucky get to see. And here I sat, letting the rippling aquamarine arms rock me in the sun and watching tiny red and yellow fish dart in between my toes while my love smiles and walks back towards me. I am one ridiculously lucky girl and in that moment, I felt humbled by the island’s gift of understanding and felt her smile in the warmth of the sun.

La Palma, Canary Islands

La Palma, Canary Islands

Boarding a Train in Europe

There’s nothing easy about trying to make mass public transportation accessible in older European countries. There’s no American Disability Act that ensures all vehicles of public transport be made accessible, which leaves a wheelchair-using tourist like myself feeling a little lost. That split-second feeling of entitlement (“What do you mean you didn’t make this train car specifically for someone like me?”) that comes from only ever knowing the accessibility laws of the United States was soon to be hushed from one encounter after another of inaccessible transportation (I’m looking at you, Italy). But what was so surprising and so reassuring was how the people of every country, every public transportation worker in each city, went to extreme lengths for me and my party so we could get to our destination. Old lifts were dug out of hidden corners of train stations, strangers carried my wheelchair up flights of stairs while Dusty carried me and workers continually took time to escort us through alternate routes when an aufzug (German word for elevator) was broken. Thank you, people throughout Europe, for affirming a belief in humanity that people will help.

Here is a short example video of how to exit an older train in Germany:

Finding Ethel: Part 3, What I Didn't Know

Untitled4It seems like most of my adult life has been a series of learning that I know.. well, really absolutely nothing. What? You mean insurance won’t take my word that I wasn’t truly speeding? I didn’t know that. You have to actually pay the tuition not covered by a loan? I didn’t know that. Sometimes you’ll owe taxes at the end of the year and you won’t get a refund check? I wish I didn’t know that.

 

When I became a paraplegic, suddenly the whole world was a minefield of hidden I-don’t-know situations. Is pain right there okay? I don’t know. Is there a way for me to go rock climbing? I don’t know. (Spoiler- there most definitely is and it’s awesome). Is there an easier way for me to carry all these medical supplies every day? I don’t know. Is it always going to be this hard? I just don’t know.

 

When we tooled around Europe, the list of what we didn’t know became much, much longer. No one believes in 24 hour gas stations? I didn’t know. Landlords don’t have copies of your key when you lock yourself out? I didn’t know that. You’ll get fined for running the lawn mower on a holiday? Well, now I know that. Our last group dinner we had with our friends in Germany, we compiled a list of these things that we didn’t know and quickly, painfully learned about living in Europe.

  • Real men drink red wine. Unless you’re in Scotland, where wine means whiskey.
  • Toilets only have 1/3 of the water in their bowl than the toilets in the states, so every public toilet has a shared toilet bowl scrubber. Peeing suddenly becomes pretty intimate.
  • To flush these toilets, you play a game of “Where’s My Handle?” to find the button, lever or automatic sensor whose location changes depending on country. German toilets do not have handles, but some in Portugal do. France loves the automatic sensors and Denmark hides the button in remarkable locations. Always humorous, there must be a European engineer somewhere making sport of Americans sweating over a toilet trying to find a way to flush.
  • In some countries, people are passionate about everything from love to coffee and will tell you with loud voices and (passionate) hand gestures. In others, it’s customary to be stoic and reserved even when Germany wins the World Cup. People of Europe are as varied as Americans; a Southern gentleman is a different breed than rugged Jersey boy and as such a Frenchman is not a Scandinavian.
  • No meal is complete without conversation. Breakfast, lunch and dinner require conversing as much as they require the meal.
  • Being good-looking and young can either get you into a lot of cool places or really get you into a lot of trouble.
  • The universal response to “Yes, I’m an American” will be “Oh ya, I love New York!”
  • Most men of the southern countries have body odor. We don’t know why. It’s still great.
  • Credit card and debit cards are useless pieces of plastic unless they have a microchip.
  • In the states we say “really? ” as an affirmation, meaning “wow, what you’re saying is really interesting to me”. That positive intent is lost in translation in many countries of Europe, for “really?” is taken as “I don’t believe you. You must be lying so give me three more examples until I believe you”
  • No one really knows there are states in between New York, California, Texas and Florida
  • Most US appliances and lightbulbs will not work here and vice versa.
  • There does exist European versions of rednecks, hicks, suburban moms, city kids, punk, hippies and every other stereotype. People are still people everywhere you go.
  • No one is here to cater to your needs.
  • Western pop hits play on every radio and Justin Beiber is just as hated in Europe as he is in America.
  • You have to eat slowly. It’s embarrassing to be the last ones to sit down and the first ones to go because you don’t know how to enjoy a meal. But the food is so delicious it’s. so. Hard. To. Eat. One. Bite. At a. time.
  • The further south you go, the better the food and the smaller the coffee cups.
  • The no such thing as personal space. You simply make friends wherever you go. No matter what they smell like.
  • Water is NOT free. You pay for a glass and you specify if you want it “with or without gas” (carbonated). Free water is a thing of the past.
  • “EG” in an elevator means first floor. The first floor in Europe is our second floor in America. Ground floor is the first floor.
  • Public bathrooms are NOT free. Most stores will not have a public bathroom and for many malls and public transportation, you pay a Euro or two to enter and use their toilets.
  • People value healthy lifestyles in ways I wish we could adopt in the states. Sundays are days for walking trails in the woods, biking, or simply being outside with family or friends. Smaller portions of food are served and GMO’s are outlawed in most countries. Binge drinking is not a common practice, even for the enthusiastic drinkers of the UK, so teenagers grow up learning how to drink responsibly from watching their parents.
  • To fit in you need a pair of skinny jeans. And girls should wear them too.
Nyhaven, Copenhagen

Nyhaven, Copenhagen

Overall though, it has been our attitudes and Dusty’s mechanical mind that have carried us from researching every medical need to having a really clutch wheelchair decked out with military hooks and doodads to carry everything I need. I’ve scuba-dived off the Greek coast, rock climbed Canadian cliffs, hiked Spanish volcanos and kayaked with Atlantic dolphins thanks to having the “we’ll figure it out attitude”. We intend on carrying on that attitude permanently but this newest addition to our lives of me having a service dog is proving to be different in the best sort of sense. There’s nothing for me to “figure out” or push myself against, no roadblock or challenge. Unlike every other change Dusty and I have had in our life together, Ethel only helps. She gives, more than I knew a dog could. The I-don’t-know’s of having a service Dane don’t require the same resiliency or strength of will that every previous situation has called. The things I don’t know this time around are usually goofy things about Great Danes or perks that come with having a service dog. This time, these I-don’t-knows are easy.

There are, however, quite a few of these things about Great Danes that I just didn’t know. The most prominent one being their, um, distinct smell. Ethel is beautiful, patient, regal…. and gassy like no one’s business. Both her trainers Kati and Megan warned me of this little trait early on and I assured them I’ve been living with and around Army boys for a good while now, nothing would surprise me. And while she really can stink up a car like I’ve never seen (or smelled), it’s absolutely the most adorable thing. We’ll hear a loud ripping and look over at her, laughing, while she looks around startled at whatever made that noise. I’ll be in the study working and I’ll hear an unmistakable “pffffttt” from her bed,

“Ethel! Ewwph, that’s smelly!”

“Arrumm phumppphh,” she’ll say back to me. Then her nose will perk up, sniffing, and she’ll grumble away as she gets out of her bed to lay on the other side of the room to get away from the terrible smell. That she caused.

“Try some Gas-X”, Megan once suggested as we once covered our noses in the guest house at the farm where I trained. But I can’t. I actually don’t mind, it’s another endearing part of what makes my girl so, well, Ethel.IMG_20150526_183426

 

Ethel was accompanying me on a speech therapy appointment last week and was sprawled out in boredom on her mat in the office where I was doing exercises. I was sitting across from a speech therapist and concentrating on the exercises she was asking for my brain injury rehabilitation.

“Give me three definitions of the word court in sixty seconds”

“Court. To court someone is similar to dating someone but with intention of marrying. Then there’s the judicial court where sentences on lawbreakers are passed..”

“ffffrrrrpppttttttt”

My face turned red. “Andthelastisthekindofcourtyouplaysportson” I finished quickly. I looked down at Ethel, still sprawled out, and wanted to laugh but I had never met this therapist before and she had already proven to be a very strict, no nonsense type of person. She acted like she hadn’t heard anything in response to Ethel’s contribution to my answer.

But before she could ask me the next question, I started to smell it wafting up from below the table. Ethel’s unmistakable mark. I had to bite the inside of my cheek to keep myself from cracking up.

“Ahem. Now tell me everything you can think of that is blue in sixty seconds.”

“Blue. Um, blueberries. The sky. Bodies of water…” I saw my therapist give her nose the slightest of wrinkles and I knew the smell had hit her too. “.. Donald Duck’s shirt. Sometimes Christmas lights….” She got up from her seat and moved to the doorway where she, without a word, opened the closed door to give the cramped office some ventilation.

I finished that exercise and soon I was released, where in the hallway I buried my face in Ethel’s neck to bust out laughing. Later that day I was finishing up at the Rehab Institute where I get all my medical treatment and had just been handed a copy of my appointments for the following week. I knew I was going to be scheduled for speech therapy again but I started laughing when I saw I was not going to be seeing that therapist again. Maybe she didn’t find my girl’s uniqueness as adorable as I most certainly do.Snapchat--7909754257345803981