Alone, Thanks to a Team

Abraham WeitzmanApril 6, 2020NatureFeatures

It is a big world with gentle breezes, crashing waves, steep rock faces, and fluffy snow banks. Exposure to the wonders of nature makes life rich.

Whether climbing Longs Peak or hiking the Grand Canyon in the summer, the outdoors offer challenges for the body and spirit. Identifying with the land or the water is part of many cultures. Time alone in the forest is restorative. But what if you cannot get there, because you use a wheelchair? It may seem impossible, but with the right accommodations, wheelchair users can go anywhere.

The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990) requires that new constructions be accessible to people with disabilities. The majority of natural places are not built environments. If wheelchair users want to climb a mountain or surf the waves, the ADA will only get you so far, literally. The base of the mountain may have wide, flat trails, but they only get you close enough to see the steep, winding trails that lead to the top. Wheelchair paths will get you to the ocean, but they stop at the high tide mark. From there you can watch the waves. To get closer to nature, people with disabilities need help.

Help comes from people and equipment. In each person's situation, the needs are different, and so is the assistance.

Horseback riding goes places wheels cannot go. Horse trails can be rocky, muddy, or even cross a river. With a horse, the backcountry is open to anyone who calls a saddle a seat. For some who need more support, there are saddles with backs and padding. All of this requires very special horses trained by very special people. The Cochetopa Horsemanship in Crested Butte gave me and my family a day of horsemanship lessons. We learned how to care for horses, feeding them, brushing their coats, and cleaning their hooves. We learned to ride and direct the horses so that, with their help, nature's expanse could be mine to experience. I could feel the wind, smell the trees, and hear nothing but horse hooves and rustling leaves.

It may be possible to be completely alone if you have the right technology for the environment. It starts with the right wheels for your chair and the right equipment for your van. On four good wheels, there are lots of places to go. I have an ATV with fat tires and a beach chair with huge tires. Six wheels or tracks, with a motor, can get even farther off the paved road. These chairs combine power with traction, like an excavator on a construction site. You also need a vehicle with a ramp and hand controls to get you to the trail head or the beach. The equipment is made by non-disabled people, providing help to unknown outdoors lovers.

The muscles required for the most challenging natural adventures usually include quads and hamstrings. If you want to ski and you typically get around with a wheelchair, you are going to need a sit-ski and some help getting on and off the lift. If your strength and coordination are diminished, you will need three strong skiers that are trained as adaptive ski coaches. With the right people and equipment, you can enjoy the snowy undulations. I ski in a bi-ski, a bucket seat with two skis on the bottom and two mini outrigger skis. The ski is tethered to the lead instructor to keep my speed under control. The instructors at the Adaptive Sports Foundation make it feel like I'm racing down the mountain on my own. I may not be alone, but I feel alone.

Surfing may seem impossible, but with Surf for All, people with disabilities aren't just onlookers. They have boards with seats and instructors who can hold you as you use a traditional board. I hated the water in my face while paddling out, but when the instructor stood me up, we rode the wave together. It was thrilling and deeply calming at the same time.

Nature is a sensory experience. It can be intense, like roaring waterfalls, or calm, like a field of wildflowers. No matter the environment, there is a main focus away from other people and toward solitude. This gives us a chance to slow down and reflect, even if you are flying down a mountain.

It is difficult for a person with severe disabilities to be truly alone, because we need so much help. Alone without company does not mean lonely to me. It means the solitude I crave. Making solitude possible relies on the right people and equipment. It is good to have family and friends who can be quiet. People who never stop talking do not leave space for silence. Chatting around the campfire is undoubtedly fun, but only in silence can we feel alone with nature. Then there is room for the auditory landscape of bullfrogs, coquis, and crickets.

In the woods, the senses are heightened by the quiet. Without the stimuli of vehicles, screens, and people, the mind has room to take in smaller stellar experiences. Smelling the spring rain or leaves decaying turns my attention during a hike. Hearing low puttering chipmunks makes me look for the place the seeds are stored for winter. Seeing the log rotting makes me wonder about the tiny bugs living in the crevices. Thinking about all of the life in the forest reminds me of how big nature is and that I am part of it. My disability is irrelevant. Staring at the stars in the sky, I am tiny, just like everyone else.

In everyone's life there are limits. Having a disability makes life more challenging, but challenges are not limits. Challenges are opportunities to try new things, to see perspectives of others, and to open yourself to experiences that were imagined. As any surfer, skier, or hiker will tell you, some conditions are more challenging than others, it is good to have a buddy, and the right equipment makes all the difference. Physical ability is only one part of enjoying nature. It is the ability to find connection and peace with the earth that I treasure.

Abraham Weitzman is a 13-year-old New Yorker who loves Mel Brooks, Edgar Allen Poe, and Sherlock Holmes. He enjoys traveling and staying home.