The parks have always been my very own playgrounds. Growing up in British Columbia, I escaped childhood to the provincial parks, playing in Garibaldi, working in Manning. My parents exposed me to many of them, and they made sure I knew they were special. But from the age of 13, I had certain knowledge that Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park was going to be my life and my truth, my spiritual home. To this day, it’s the only certain knowledge I’ve ever experienced.
By the time I had dropped out of college to go there I was qualified for jobs as a ski instructor and mountain guide, and a life of hyperactive indulgence ensued. I lived, loved, worked and played there and the parks became my identity and my authenticity. They absorbed my energy totally, and restored it totally. From them all schooling flowed–Grand Teton my major field of study, Yellowstone and Yosemite my minors. The people who administered and played in the parks were my extended family, and they nurtured me well. The Tetons became a base camp for expeditions to Denali, where we spent three weeks and saw no one; to Everest, then also an empty park; to Antarctica, now still Earth’s park of parks.
I became one of Grand Teton’s resident custodians, spreading my mountain love and lore like Johnny Appleseed to the people who came to be guided and taught. I climbed the Grand Teton with my father, then 67 years old, and it was his first climb since the Matterhorn back in 1921. I found like-minded climbers and friends at Jenny Lake, drank Teton Tea and belonged, all of us growing up sane. There were climbs, rescues, recognition–peaks, perks and parks. The parks gave me a taste of power and a taste of arrogance. Those were the salad years.
In 1968, a helicopter crash. A broken back, a wheelchair, some realigned hopes and fears. A loss of physicality.
It took more than a year to go back, and it was a stupid ugly awful journey. The Tetons were the definition of inaccessibility. After a year of discovering the barriers society mounts against wheelers, here was the ultimate barrier and society was not at fault. My friends sensed my isolation, and knew that the truth was something none of us was prepared to face. Roadbound, I watched the range from picnic grounds and scenic overlooks, looking through the wrong end of my life’s telescope. I felt like a damned tourist. The temple wasn’t desecrated, but it sure wasn’t the same.
It was time to start acting like a tourist. Caught up in the magnitude of the change, I hit the highways for the parks to earn my bona fides.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park: “We really don’t advise people in wheelchairs to go beyond this point,” said the ranger. Deep underground, he’d stopped me on the standard loop trail. I explained that I was with capable and willing friends, and would like to proceed. “Sir, we sure don’t advise people in wheelchairs to go beyond this point.” My resistance was minimal–wheelers have to look out for those who come after. You can’t create a scene, can’t be not-nice, so you concede the battles before they’re fully joined. That’s what I thought then.
Yellowstone National Park: We swam in the Gibbon River at an empty turn-out. Soon there were dozens of cars, their drivers sure that we’d found something more than the river, better than nature. They wanted to know what we were looking at. When I crawled out of the river like a giant lungfish and levitated to my wheelchair, some seemed impressed, others dismayed. Should they allow that in a National Park?
Arches National Park: I had a sense of utter helplessness watching my teen-aged son climb a distant rock spire as a rain squall rapidly approached. How could I guide him now? There was a sense of having no recourse, no resources. It so unnerved me that we picked up and left our campsite, driving through the night.
Canyonlands National Park: A different son soared and dove and did barrel rolls in the wind at the edge of the world. “So much air, Dad!” he exulted, and returned to his redtail nature. The trouble with most canyons is getting to the bottom of them.
Mesa Verde National Park: Precisely–they’re cliff dwellings. The Anasazi wanted to be inaccessible, and they succeeded admirably.
Everglades National Park: Wheelchairs aren’t a restraint here. The self-guided trails around the park’s borders are terrific, for anyone, and only a handful of canoeists see the heartland. Everglades is the proof that unseen wilderness has a value of its own.
Haleakala National Park: It’s Maui’s magic mountain. My fellow travelers were all people who had started at dawn for a glimpse of the crater before the morning clouds rolled in, or cyclists attracted to the 37 miles of nonstop downhill offered by the road from the summit. For a wheeler, there’s even a ramp to the summit, not to mention that endless ramp leading back to the ocean, 10,000 feet below.
Rocky Mountain National Park: Loosely speaking, the alpine trail was wheelchair accessible, but very steep and narrow. I could make sporadic progress, stopping frequently to rest. When I wheeled, the crowds of people walked ever so slowly behind me, as if at a funeral, apparently unwilling to pass me by. When I stopped, they poured by in a renewed burst of mobility and energy. My mountains had been taken over by affable turkeys.
It was crazy. The places I wanted to go were unsuited to wheelchairs, yet I couldn’t change what I wanted to do. So I continued to flog myself with old memories and associations, wondering where the parks of my youth and dreams had gone. A big part of the problem was accepting my new role as a watcher, not a doer. Listen:
Grand Canyon National Park: Before my injury I walked to its bottom, studied its paleontology. It’s a thread running through my life. Perched on the South Rim is El Tovar, a hotel I had long wanted to visit. It wasn’t quite accessible then, but the door on the north wing had only two stairs. We took a room, and some assistance getting in.
Nearly dawn. My roomie still slept. Obeying the call of nostalgia, I rose early to watch the sunrise from the canyon’s rim. I had first done this 20 years earlier and found it an experience of solitary elegance. This time, under cover of darkness, I wheeled from the room and bounced down the two steps at the entrance, then across to a promontory on the edge. Perhaps 50 people were here. The sun rose and a flag was raised. It was a pretty nice sunrise, but people didn’t seem impressed. Sun didn’t care. Stupid sleepy insensitive tourists. I was embarrassed for them.
We returned to the hotel, converging on the steps as a group. I should have asked for help, but I wasn’t ready to expose such vulnerability. Instead, surrounded by people, I transferred across to the deck at the top of the steps, pulled my wheelchair up behind me, and remounted with thrashing determination. Nobody looked at me. I looked at nobody. Nobody offered help, and it would have been savagely refused if offered. I didn’t want to be seen, so people didn’t see me.
Stupid sleepy insensitive cripple. Now we were all embarrassed.
It was all too vicarious. I wanted to enjoy the parks from their hearts and from mine, not from roadside overlooks. I was a passenger wherever I went, a banished elitist stuck with unwashed tourists. During those early years after I was hurt, the parks became a metaphor for everything I couldn’t do. They embodied and dramatized my losses.
There was an opportunity to float the Grand Canyon in small rafts. I committed myself to three weeks of camping out on unwheelable terrain, and my friends committed themselves to helping me. My father was now 77, and came along for the trip. I had to get past the fact that I was a passenger being guided–old guides don’t like to be guided–but it was still much better than tolerable. The canyon was powerful and the sense of traveling through country was rekindled. And one exceptional thing happened: in Lava Falls, the infamous Lava Falls, our raft flipped end for end and Dad and I swam the rapid. It was an honest-to-god adventure, untainted by the presence of our guide swimming right along with us.
Another good thing happened. I discovered the capabilities of the kayak, and that changed my life. It allowed me to transport myself instead of being transported, to go where I dared. It penetrated the smallest recesses, spanned the greatest distances. The kayak was my Golden Access Passport for real.
For years I followed a litany of rivers: the San Juan, the Smith and the Chama; the Green, the Yampa and the Niobrara. I left my wheelchair behind for weeks at a time and with absolutely no regrets. The Colorado, the Salmon and the Dolores; the Rio Grande, the Platte and the Arkansas. For me it was like riding a conveyor belt-the mountains and canyons of the West paraded though my life. The Snake, the Hoback and the Gros Ventre; the lakes of Jackson Hole. Back to Grand Teton, back to Yellowstone, back to Dinosaur; back to Arches, Canyonlands and Big Bend. I had my key to wilderness.
Legitimacy restored. I was a physical being again, at play in the fields of the wild. I could teach kayaking to my kids, guide others through rapids. On my 44th birthday, I pulled a capsized kayaker to shore from Lunch Counter rapid in the Snake River Canyon. He thanked me and had no idea he’d been rescued by someone who couldn’t walk a step. I take perverse pleasure in such things. Who was that masked kayaker?
A second disability arrived and my arms and shoulders began to fail me. Kayaking became impractical, and facing the loss of yet more of my physical self was more threatening than the original injury. It took years before I fully realized how much of my psyche was anchored by the illusion of being strong and active, being a jock, being physically competent.
I still go to the parks, but no longer for those long, lovely journeys into never-never land. I go as a voyeur, and I confess that I’m learning to enjoy it. I’ve been married to the parks twice now, both times happily, so why predict anything less for our next engagement? My elitism has no utility these days (did it ever?) so it’s been abandoned. People with disabilities don’t need additional ways to separate themselves from others, and I’m getting old enough that people just think I’m one of them, only I got tired earlier in the game.
I appreciate the ramps and parking spaces and accessible lodging now. It’s good not to be excluded. Recently a friend and I drove over Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain. For three or four perfect miles it wanders along a ridge crest above timberline, and I had felt a stab of anxiety every time I’d driven it since my accident. This time, I understood the anxiety for the first time. I felt that the terrain above timberline represented my old life–my mountain life, my real life–and was thus sacrosanct. I felt that by driving there, I was violating the sanctum, the memories. I thought I didn’t belong. Then I thought what rubbish that was.
The parks give indiscriminately. They don’t care who or what you are or were, and they don’t care how you travel. They’re a self-existing playground, for mind as well as body. They’re more than symbols; they’re the blatant, often lurid reality of something man can’t touch. Their value doesn’t depend on being accessible. I think I’ll grow to like looking at them from the roads.
I went back to Yosemite this year, the first time since my climbing days. Dad, now 89, and I, now 51, walked and wheeled to the base of Yosemite Falls, where we were anointed by the mists along with everyone else. Later, from the road, we watched the hundreds of camera-laden pilgrims hiking to the falls. Half of them had commented that I sure was good with that thing, and the other half had said I should get a motor. Dad lingered and looked back, drinking in the waterfall. He only said that it was a beautiful sight, but anyone could tell he was moved. Anyone could tell that it was giving us both life.