Among travel lovers, one school of thought holds that “the journey is the destination” — that the true mind-broadening joy of travel lies not in arriving somewhere as planned, but in experiencing all the unplanned things that happen while you’re getting there. Through these chance encounters and random events — be they delightful, aggravating or even dangerous — we break free of our ultra-organized lives and learn to embrace spontaneity and chaos.
But is it even possible to experience that from a wheelchair? The options for accessible travel may be greater today than ever before, but that sort of travel leaves almost nothing to chance. We have to ask too many questions ahead of time: How high is the toilet seat in my “accessible” hotel room? Can the transit system accommodate me? What if I get a flat tire in the middle of nowhere? By the time you’re done planning, your trip’s already had half the wanderlust sucked out of it. Don’t you wish you could just pack a bag and go?
Andrew Shelley wished it. And not only did he go, he made a movie about it. With a film crew documenting almost every move, Shelley grabbed his passport, flew halfway around the world, and finally reached an idyllic place … Beyond the Chair.
A Restless Spirit
The feature-length documentary, now in post-production, follows Shelley and his modified Frontier X5 all-terrain power chair through five countries over a two-month period, from November 2007 to January 2008. Along the way, we see all of his adventures, both joyful and hair-raising. He encounters shady characters while searching for lodging after midnight in New Zealand, visits the Taj Mahal, sails up the Mekong River, and nearly loses his wheelchair while trekking through Cambodia.
Why did he embark on this trip in the first place? Simply put, he was bored.
“I wanted more out of life than I was getting,” says Shelley, 27, who has Emery-Dreifuss muscular dystrophy. Part of a family of engineers, he followed in their footsteps and by 2007 had a comfortable, responsible job with Lockheed-Martin. But Shelley’s spirit was restless. “I was in a rut,” he says. “I’d get up, go to work, go home, go to sleep, repeat.” While his job gave him a lot of responsibility, it also made for a lonely life. “I wanted to meet more like-minded people and have more interesting experiences.”
Wandering the globe comes naturally to him. Growing up, he went wherever his parents’ jobs took them — from the Philippines, where he was born, to the San Francisco Bay Area for elementary school, to South Africa for his teenage years, and finally to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where he finished high school. Coming of age in so many different countries gave Shelley a sense of the larger world that stayed with him even after he settled in San Diego for college. In his 20s, as his MD worsened and he began using a power chair, he found himself wanting to travel again as a way of assuring himself that a wheelchair was no limitation. He wanted a challenge, “something that would make me a better person, just in proving to myself that I could do it.”
It was Shelley’s roommate, Dustin Duprel, then a film student at San Diego State University, who first gave him the idea of documenting the journey. “I thought, ‘This is a really good story, just because Drew is who he is,’” says Duprel, who co-produced and -directed Beyond the Chairwith another SDSU student, Rachel Pandza. When the possibility arose for them to make the film themselves, however, he and Pandza had to decide whether to postpone their studies in exchange for some grueling real-life experience. “Drew was going either way,” Duprel says. “For us it was either we make the film, or stay home and go to school. So we took that chance, made that leap and took the semester off.”
From Dream to Screen
Of course, “taking off” wasn’t quite that easy, for either Shelley or those setting out to film him. Planning the project — raising funds, securing proper permits for filming in the various countries, not to mention middle-of-the-night international phone calls to inquire about accessible lodgings and transportation — took 10 months. Shelley narrowed his itinerary down to four countries he’d always wanted to visit — New Zealand, Thailand, Cambodia and India — along with a final stop in Dubai, where he had spent much of his childhood. “At first we were going to leave in February, then July, then August … The date kept getting pushed back,” he says.
In addition to the logistical planning, Shelley also determined that he would have to use his engineering know-how to make his wheelchair more travel-friendly. “The chair doesn’t fold up, and it weighs 260 pounds, so it’s not easy to lift,” he says. “The first thing I did was design a quick-release system for the seat — you pull out two pins and the seat pops off. Then we put grab bars on the base, so you can easily lift it into a taxi or truck.” He and his father also fashioned a pair of lightweight aluminum ramps. “I looked on the Internet for portable ramps, and they were all big and bulky and heavy. These are really light, only 5 pounds each. I can lift them myself.”
Both of these engineering feats proved crucial during the trip.
“On the trains in India, the doors are only about 20 inches wide,” Shelley says. “To get on the train I had to take the seat off and turn the base on its side to fit it through the door. And the ramps were critical. Getting around Thailand we had a big minibus — you hire the driver by the week. We had the driver take out the middle row of seats, and then I could put the ramps up and wheel right in.”
On the other hand, having a chair that could be broken down into several parts could also be very risky. After sailing up the Mekong River to Siem Reap in Cambodia, Shelley faced challenges getting transportation into the city. “They use tuk-tuks [a type of motorcycle-drawn rickshaw], which aren’t big enough to carry my chair. We put the base of my chair in one tuk-tuk, the seat was in another, and I was in a taxi, freaking out. ‘They’re supposed to follow us. What if they get lost or we get separated? I’ll never see my chair again.’” Fortunately, though, Shelley and his chair all arrived safely at their hotel.
On the Road Again?
Returning to San Diego, Shelley and his film crew now had 360 hours of footage to condense into a 90-minute movie — a process that itself took the better part of two years. “You have to get over the fact that you can’t show everything,” Duprel says. “There was so much exciting stuff, we wanted to show all of it.” Now that the film is near completion, they have turned their attention to entering film festivals and securing distribution, as well as building buzz with moviegoers via MySpace, Facebook and Twitter. Duprel is optimistic. “I think getting a distributor will be easy. It’s a solid film.”
As for Shelley, the experience has reawakened his own wanderlust. “I want to do another trip, an overland expedition — build up my van, make it four-wheel drive and head down to Belize and Costa Rica, maybe down to South America,” he says. “That’s definitely in the works.
“Whether it will be another movie, I don’t know yet.”