“You’re SO brave!”

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“You are SO brave!”
I hear this phrase a lot. Maybe not as much as I used to, but I do hear it, usually relating to the fact that I’m a blind person who works, has a thriving jewelry-making business, and/or gets out of bed in the morning. I don’t think of myself as particularly brave for doing any of these things, and yet many people bestow this attribute on me.
But there was a time in my life where I heard that phrase – “You’re SO Brave!” – a lot more frequently. I hated to hear it, because I thought it was inaccurate, but looking back, maybe not so much.
This morning, I got an email wishing me a happy 13 years of patronage at the Edmonton Public Library.
THIRTEEN YEARS!
It seems like so very long ago, when I packed up everything I owned, effectively transplanting enough furniture to fill an entire apartment, and sinking my entire life savings into rent for my apartment’s six-month lease. I did this, moving to a city where I knew a grand total of one person – not well – with no job, no work experience, and nothing but a hope and a prayer that I would get one in the near future.
Thirteen years ago – almost to the day – my friends and I stayed up until 2:00 in the morning, eating junk food and drinking pop (we were straight-laced kids) and playing endless rounds of card games. I remember thinking it was pointless to try and get any sleep, since I had a flight to catch at some horribly early hour. Thirteen years ago – almost to the day – I slept through the entire flight, and my mom had to wake me up so I could get off the plane. My furniture hadn’t arrived at my apartment yet, so Mom and I slept on the floor in sleeping bags and I tried hard not to kick the lamp we bought and set on the floor to provide a little light into my apartment’s dark corners. I had the power turned on, but before I contacted phone and Internet providers, Mom and I took the train to the downtown branch of the Edmonton Public Library. I’m such a bookworm that I had a library card before I had phone, Internet, food, and more clothes than those that fit into my wobbly rolling suitcase.
My furniture took over a week to arrive, so Mom left me alone in that apartment for five or six days, where I slept in the sleeping bag on my living room floor until she arrived again on the same day my furniture appeared.
None of this made me feel particularly brave, and yet, over and over and over again, I heard it. “You’re so brave!”
The one person I knew in Edmonton took me under their wing. I was welcomed into their home and community for holidays, gatherings and a Christmas production where everything went horribly wrong. When they would introduce me as their “friend from Vancouver,” who moved to Edmonton for job prospects, and was building a life here, I heard it.
“You’re so brave.”
Months went by where I lived on very little. My parents helped me out when they could, but I lived on a lot of noodles and the kindness of neighbors and newfound friends – some of whom would invite me over for dinner or bring me oranges from their grocery shopping trip. The first job I got was a part-time gig, but it enabled me to renew my apartment’s lease for a year, spring for the occasional pizza, and explore other opportunities (some of which fell flat on their face). Some months I barely made rent – one memorable month I supplemented my income by making balloon animals at a downtown Canada Day festivity. I paid my rent at 10:00 PM on July 1 and lived on heaven-knows-what until I got myself another job later in the month.
Many friends and family back home – and new acquaintances and friends in Edmonton – told me I was so brave for doing all this, but for me it was a matter of emotional survival. The more I heard it – “You’re SO brave!” – the more I wanted to scream. To me, it was about simple mathematics: cheap rent plus job opportunities equals hope. Living at home minus career opportunities equals despair. To me, at age twenty, bravery had nothing to do with anything; to me, I couldn’t just keep doing the same thing over and over and over again an expect different results, so I made a change.
A big change.
A brave change.
Over the last thirteen years, I’ve borrowed hundreds – no, thousands – of books in various formats from the library. I’ve worked an amazing amount of jobs and gone through stretches of unemployment. I’ve married, bought a home, built a life.
And you know what?
I was brave.
But I’m glad I didn’t see myself that way all those years ago. Because if I had, I might have talked myself out of it in the first place. Or held myself up as some inspirational figure. Or denied myself some opportunities because they were “beneath me.”
To me, all those years ago, I did what needed to be done, and in hindsight, I did something brave.
Even now, as I’ve explored new career paths, begun planning an amazing trip, I don’t see myself as brave. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe in the moment, we shouldn’t see our spontaneous or daring actions as “brave.” Maybe, the next time someone comes up to me and tells me I’m brave for getting out there and living my life with blindness, I’ll remember this time in my life, smile at them, and say thank you.
Because they would not be entirely wrong.

What about you? What has made you brave? What has stopped you from doing something possibly scary but that you know will make you grow? What will light that spark in you?

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Living in the Middle of the Road

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It’s funny, the patterns you see, when looking back. Almost exactly two years ago, I wrote a blog post about how not everything is a fight. Even though they were absolutely right on this count, the person who inspired that post had their own agenda, their own reasons to grind me down. In response to their comments – some that were accurate and some that were cruel – I tried to buckle down, to keep quiet, to not speak out about anything; in effect, I tried to become a quiet little mouse who never uttered a word as it came to perceptions of my blindness. I lost part of myself in the process. I believed most of what this person said – much of it to my detriment – and it took me years to realize that they could be right about one thing and yet still be very very wrong about everything else.

Somewhere along the way, I’ve met some amazing people who’ve helped me become a strong and forceful disabilities advocate. They are compelling and fearless and take no prisoners. I owe a great deal to them, for their willingness to stand up for people with a wide variety of disabilities – not just the unique challenges and triumphs their own disability(ies) present. They’ve made me feel welcome, and since then have encouraged me to share my perspective and kindly corrected me when I made mistakes that hurt them.
And yet, in between those two extremes, is the middle of the road. In many ways, I’ve found myself swerving from one extreme to the other, using bravado and force to overcompensate for the pain of passivity, of having my face shoved into the shoulder of the road.
Recently – and it’s not the first time – a loved one told me that I shouldn’t be upset when someone is surprised that I hold the job I do, and chooses to express this shock with sickly-sweet tones that one usually only hears directed at very young children. This was on top of a bunch of other little things that made the whole day just go sideways, even if nothing itself was earth-shakingly bad. To be honest, I’m still reeling from the comment itself, and the later understanding that I’ve been overloading a loved one with too-frequent complaints about how people respond to my blindness. They have the luxury to decide whether or not to hear about it; but it is such an integral and frequent part of my day that I don’t think twice about sharing it. In the moment of impact, it just didn’t feel fair.

But is it really unfair when I am expecting them to help carry my own burden for me when they’re not willing or able to do so on a regular basis? If I expect understanding from others, should I not offer it in return?

I chose to take that hurtful comment and seek out some self-reflection with the help of trusted friends. As of right now, however, I have no easy answers.
Have I been angry?

Yes.

Have I had cause to be angry?

Yes.

Do I expect others to be angry on my behalf?

If I’m honest, yes. Because I highly doubt they’d put up and shut up about being denied opportunities, infantilized, bodily manipulated, and underestimated on a very frequent basis.

Is that reasonable?

I don’t know.

Is it reasonable for friends and family to not want to hear about it all anymore?

I don’t know. I can’t choose to ignore it all, but I can choose when and with whom I open up these dialogues. It is my responsibility to be considerate and not over-burden loved ones with my own emotional baggage, no matter how reasonable and justified the baggage is. But it is also theirs to remember that no one likes their bruised feelings and interpretation of events dismissed out of hand, especially when they’re releasing some pent-up tension, as we all do.

Is it understandable for frustrations to boil over into a lack of empathy, cruelty and harsh words?

Yes, on both sides of the issue.

So what does this mean for me?

I don’t know.

 

My blog May look different in the coming weeks or months. Maybe I will take a break. Maybe I’ll do something radical and remove myself from disability spaces. Maybe I’ll do none of these things. Maybe I’ll do all of them.

I doubt I will ever be content sitting on the sidelines long-term, because allowing others to speak for me will limit my own opportunities, and those for the people who come behind me. But I can’t keep swerving between hostile aggression and docile compliance, because neither accomplishes anything. And I can’t keep coasting through, keeping my head down, allowing my presence alone to be an example, because where I am and what I do are only part of my story.

So I’m going back to the proverbial “driver’s manual”, to figure out the best advocacy “vehicle” for myself and my loved ones. Maybe I change what I say and how I say it. Maybe I choose my battles more carefully. Maybe I emotionally check in with my friends and family to see if they’re in a space to carry a particular burden with me. Maybe I take some time out to just exist, particularly on days where everything just goes sideways and I wouldn’t respond objectively anyway. Maybe I have all the tools I need, but I need to teach myself how best to use them. I’m not doing anything drastic, nor will I suddenly become a door mat.

But I am so very tired, on all fronts.

And maybe for now – on this leg of my journey – it’s time for someone else to take the wheel for me.

“Sorry, not Interested!”: How Disability advocacy Is a LOT like Telemarketing

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Not long ago, I spent several months as a business-to-business telemarketer. It was, by far, the most challenging – and in a way the most empowering – job I ever had. Sales doesn’t come naturally to me, but it was a skill I wanted to cultivate. But as with my ability to grow plants (I think about them and they die), my sales skills looked a little bit scraggly by the time another – more well-suited – opportunity came along.

But during those few months, I couldn’t help noticing how telemarketing is a lot like disability advocacy, and in some unexpected ways.

 

Read your Audience

 

When you make a sales call – any kind of sales call – it’s not enough to be friendly. In fact, if you’re too friendly, you can come across as sleazy or a pushover. Conversely, you can’t be too aggressive, because pushiness can be spotted a mile away. No one will buy your product or book an appointment with your service if you make them feel like you’re only in it for the sale. Even slight word changes can be the difference between making that sale and pushing a prospective buyer away.

Similarly, there are so many ways to do disability activism, some more successful than others. The “friendly educator” may get some individual positive results by remaining peaceful, while still feeding into the narrative of disability equating to docile compliance. But the chip-on-the-shoulder anger – over everything – can create equally damaging results, thrusting aside barriers while simultaneously alienating the very people to whom we are advocating.

Whether in sales or activism, it’s important to read an audience. Some people will respond to friendly coaxing; others do require a more forceful approach. In either arena, I have found that reading a situation will likely provide better results than a one-size-fits-all methodology.

And yet, no matter how one presents oneself, it’s important to be authentic; people can see a phony mask of sincerity or bravado a mile away, and few things shut them down more quickly.

 

It’s Hard, Dirty Work

 

When I was making sales calls, I felt a certain sense of shame surrounding the work I did to make a living. There’s a huge stigma around cold-calling unless it’s only one part of multi-faceted job duties. It’s not a warm-and-fuzzy industry, and it has been given a bad name by disreputable companies with pushy sales tactics and unethical practices (for the record, I worked for a company that strongly stressed ethical conduct). You make call after call after call, hoping to build enough trust and rapport with each contact to get that sale. If you are successful enough at it, your success can buoy you up when inevitable rejections drag you down. But your job – day after day after day – is to try and try and try again.

In a similar way, unless disability issues directly affect someone, few people seem to want to discuss activism. The main disability narrative – of recipients of charity, of helplessness, of pity – doesn’t leave much room for strong, vocal or visual opposition. And when this gets brought up, it frequently feels like we’re speaking into an echo chamber and hearing the sounds of crickets in response. Sometimes it feels very very thankless and exhausting, and many people seem to think that it’s our full-time job to educate the public on an on-call basis with no compensation – material or otherwise – for it.

 

You’re doing it Wrong!

 

There’s always a peanut gallery. It can be both a huge benefit – for encouragement and solidarity – and soul-destroying because of all the second-guessing. In sales, you’re either not pushing hard enough, not creating your own opportunities, not getting the job done. On the other hand, you’re wasting your time on prospects that are just too polite to tell you “no.” In disability spaces, I’ve seen so much finger-pointing. We’re “too pushy”, “too soft”, too understanding, or won’t just let it go, cut our losses and move on. And while I’m all for “best practices” (they’re important to provide some guidance) we all have our unique style of doing things that can still get the job done even if our colleague doesn’t do things exactly the same way. In fact, my successful sales style – and activism style – will differ from someone else’s. And I think they should; that doesn’t make any particular style wrong or bad, just different.

 

Some people Just Won’t “Buy it”

 

In sales, you can do everything right, and still your prospect isn’t interested. It’s not personal, not about you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Sometimes you make your “sales pitch” at inopportune moments, and sometimes – no matter how gentle you are – any pointing out of inequality or access concerns are just not ready to be received. This doesn’t mean we stop trying; it may mean we need to reflect on our strategy, ask some probing questions, or – in some situations – make an executive decision to cut our losses and move on.

 

But There are Those that Will

 

Acceptance can come from some truly unexpected places. I called one company just after they’d watched a Youtube video put together by the company I was fundraising for. They were so startled by the coincidence that they threw a huge commission my way; it was the biggest sale I ever made, and it came out of nowhere.

Sometimes, it’s easy for people with disabilities to constantly be in “fighting” mode (to maintain our right of equal access, personal autonomy, or basic human respect), and we can lose sight of the people in our lives who do “just get it”. Sometimes, they come from unexpected corners – from the teacher who asks great questions to the parent who both nurtures and empowers to the friend who knows how to do just the right things at just the right time to the stranger who asks how they can help and respects our reply. Sometimes, we write off opportunities so easily because we feel so discouraged by all the rejection and mental gymnastics just to get through the day. And yet, those moments of brilliance, of comeraderie, of success, spur us on to keep trying.

 

So What do we do from Here?

 

Even seasoned sales reps need to fine-tune their pitch to connect with prospective donors or buyers or customers. Just because something used to work doesn’t mean it will be effective next month or next year. Similarly, I do think disability activism may need a facelift as well, to allow each of us to self-advocate in the way we do best without pointing fingers at how wrong everyone else is. Sometimes aggression is necessary, and sometimes it gets in the way; sometimes we swat flies with a sledgehammer when luring them with honey would’ve been better, and sometimes we let things go that we probably shouldn’t. But the best salespeople – and the best disability activists – are always learning and questioning, fine-tuning their craft. Even though my days as a telemarketer are over, I’m still an advocate for myself if no one else. Everyone hears “no” sometimes, and, in my case, far too often it is because of my disability; but hopefully with more of those great people who do get it, we’ll soon live in a world where there will be more “yes”s than “No”s, and the “no”s are based on facts and bad timing, not negative perception.

Where I’m going and Where I’ve Been

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Two months ago today, I wrote a blog post just hours after returning from a road trip that changed me deeply. I came face to face with myself, and it wasn’t always a pretty picture. That trip made me grow up in ways I never thought I needed, and it created new dreams, presented once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, and strengthened relationships.
let’s look back a little bit, shall we?

The Bare Facts

Total trip distance: 5449 km (at minimum, detours make this hard to calculate)
Total Traveling Time: 64.5 hours
Tanks of gas: 16
Times we pitched our tent: 5
Times we changed our itinerary: 5 major trip changes
Places we missed out on: 2 (Mount St. Helen’s itself, Garnet)
Once-in-a-life-time experiences: Countless, but two stand out (Sleeping under the stars, and Old Faithful)
Number of inside jokes: Too many to count
Catch phrases: “A bucket of chili!”, “twenty Minutes to Bozeman”, and a bunch more
Regrets: For me, that the trip was so fast that we never got to settle in, and missed out on some cool experiences; others may have different feelings

 

Why did I Write about My Vacation?

 

I created the previous blog posts through a combination of memory, audio recordings I made at the time, facebook posts, text messages, photos, and, where applicable, speaking with the others involved. In particular, the exhausted monologues of day 1, Day 5, and day 7 provided great jumping off points for me to tell my story. All impressions are my own, or are impressions or thoughts that have been directly expressed to me by those who went through them. Many of you have thanked me for writing this blog series about our trip, warts and missteps and all, and for that you have my gratitude. It would’ve been very easy to sugar-coat things, to paint this amazing trip in the rosy glow of remembrance, to put all of us in the most positive light possible. But it wouldn’t have been raw and real and authentic, and it certainly wouldn’t have been this road trip. I took great pains to describe feelings and conflicts and impressions as accurately as I could, with greatest emphasis on my own reactions and feelings. Others’ words, actions or attitudes may have coloured my reactions or thoughts, but I am only responsible for how I respond to them.
As to why I wrote this? It’s a remembrance, to the person I was before and the person I’m becoming. I don’t want to lose sight of either incarnation of her.

 

What’s Happened Since

 

In the weeks following our journey, fire devastated huge swaths of area we had previously covered. Oregon’s I-84 was closed in portions we had traveled less than a week earlier due to the Eagle Creek Fire, which is still burning two months later. Over a million acres of Montana land have been scorched by multiple wildfires that have devastated land, property, and air quality; even now, some roads have just recently reopened. If we had taken the same trip even a week later – or if we take it in the future – it would look and feel and smell completely different than it did on our journey. I feel like we were given a gift, some of the last glimpses of this unspoiled land before it all burned away.

As for the four of us personally, we’ve all had to go back to “real life” (to our jobs and our homes and our countries), but flashes of the Epic Road trip of Awesome still linger and pop out and unbidden moments. The roof bag is still stuffed with camping gear, my toiletry bag is already stocked for my next adventure, and the T-shirts I bought in Montana are among my personal favourites. We temporarily misplaced the bag from the Montana Gift Corral containing the plaque and bracelet, and I frantically messaged them when we couldn’t find it to see if we’d left it behind somewhere and maybe someone had turned it in. When the answer was “no”, I considered re-purchasing the items, but shipping to Canada would’ve been prohibitively expensive. Sarah found it in her duffel bag a few weeks later, and you can now frequently find me wearing the bracelet she and Ben found for me. I was right about how it fit, though; I’ve started to dub it the “boomerang bracelet” because I’ve lost it so many times and always gotten it back. It, like so much of this trip, must have been meant to be.

 

So…. Now What?

 

If you follow me on social media, you’ll know this bit. That dream of traveling around Montana has started to form concrete dimmensions. I hadn’t even unpacked my backpack before I sat down and spent hours researching ways to get from Alberta to Montana by bus (hint: you can’t do it). I researched planes and trains and started looking into accommodations. The idea gripped me so fiercely that Ben and I agreed that we’d forego our original plans for next summer so I could take this trip in the fall (he’s planning a different excursion of his own). I’ve spent hours on travel sites, configuring itineraries, changing plans, mentally organizing it in my head on nights when I can’t sleep. When my current job went from a temporary contract to a permanent one a month ago, I felt safe enough to book my train ride into Montana, and extending the planned itinerary from two weeks to three. It’s getting real now, not this abstract “someday” concept anymore.

So, ladies and gentlemen, I’ll be back in Montana in September, 2018. Not only will I be touring Montana, but my trip will branch out into Washington State, Wyoming, and Colorado. I will be on my own, carrying nothing but a backpack on my back and a guide dog’s harness in my left hand. I’ll be looking straight into the future, doing things that – if I think too hard – I might talk myself out of because they’re new or unpracticed and a little scary.

Maybe I will rediscover my “brave.”

If you’ve ever supported the work of this blog, please consider buying me a coffee and help make this trip possible.

In Bozeman, I bought a black T-shirt that feels so very soft to the touch. On the front of it is a phrase that is apt, and I close with it now.

The mountains are calling.

I must go.

The Epic Road trip of Awesome Day 9: Going Home

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Sunday, September 3, 2017

I am pulled from my sleep by a combination of factors – my need to use the washroom, Ben’s snoring beside me, and Jenny’s whimpering beside the bed (indicating she has similar needs to my own). I try and be as quiet as possible when slipping through Sarah and Dwight’s room to the washroom. It’s not easy; any time you try and be quiet, you make so much noise you might as well not have bothered. I want to hang out in their room for a while, because it’s nice and cool, while ours is a veritable sauna.
I quickly feed Jenny while I’m making noise anyway and take her downstairs to answer nature’s call. Another hotel guest has a dog with her. This dog is either on a flexi-lead or is not leashed at all. Jenny just wants to get down to business, but three times this dog tries to interfere, and three times the dog’s owner tries to call her dog back to her. I’m too tired to chew her out for her dog’s horrible recall, since my dog’s not on duty at the moment anyway, and I go back upstairs to wait for the others to wake up.
It’s 9:00 before we clean up our garbage and load most of our unnecessary items into the trunk of the car. We make our way to the hotel restaurant, where I am asked (for the second time in three days) if Jenny is “my” service dog. I smile and say yes, and the four of us are seated, ordering our coffee and juice (thanks, Dwight, for being odd man out). We consult the menu, and I order Idaho trout with potatoes and toast.
As soon as we place our order, we talk about the trip home. The plan has been to make a stop in Radium Hot Springs, but I think all of us are tired and just want to take the shortest distance home. We’ll have to visit Radium another time.
Over our breakfast – including big cubes of potatoes – We reminisce over the past days and think about what we’ll do with our day off tomorrow. We drink more coffee and Dwight drinks more juice, and we mentally prepare ourselves to hit the road again.
Once our breakfast bill has been paid, we swing by the gift shop. I find another T-shirt (my fourth this trip, if anyone’s counting). It’s blue with a picture of the Montana state flag, and it says “Montana – My Happy Place” across the front. I can’t resist.
We leave the unopened alcohol in the room, with a note for the cleaning staff to help themselves when they’re not on-duty, do one more pass-through to make sure there’s no more garbage unaccounted for, and pick up our backpacks and trek downstairs to check out of the Izaak Walton Inn. We’re told that the highway through West Glacier National Park is closed due to wildfires in the area; this would have been the route we would have gone to get to Radium. We’re glad we didn’t have our hearts set on it today.
We load our backpacks into the trunk of the car and then find one of the refurbished train cars to take pictures of each of us wearing the communal jacket. We laugh at the absurdity of it all, this small leather jacket being worn by four people, and are grateful for one more memory to carry home with us.
We get back to the car and Ben runs inside again, bringing the two propane bottles we purchased earlier in the week – one full, one empty. We can’t take them with us across the border, so the hotel staff might as well get some use out of them.
Ben gets into the passenger seat, while Sarah takes the wheel. Jenny’s not limping anymore, so the frequent massaging seems to have made her more comfortable. There’s so much leg room now that there’s no food in the car that we can reconfigure the other bags so that all four of us can enjoy it.
Sarah starts the car, and we head north toward home.

Izaak Walton Inn – Edmonton, Alberta
Distance: 432 miles (695 km)
Travel time: 8 hours (including stops)

 

We plan on getting gas in St. mary, but the driver in front of us is driving unnecessarily aggressively. Ben marvels that this driver’s car has Alberta plates (proof that Alberta has the worst drivers), then he and Ben exchange words at the gas station. I have no idea what’s going on, but it’s times like this I am glad I don’t drive and don’t have to deal with it.

Our tank full of gasoline, we continue to drive north. I reflect on this week, and realize I’m not the same person I was when we loaded up the car nine days ago, and that’s a good thing. I ask Ben and Sarah about their experiences, how they feel, what they experienced. They also admit they’re not the same individuals either, and their relationship with each other (and with me) has strengthened and changed in unexpected ways. Dwight agrees and thanks us for inviting him along. We thank him for providing some much-needed perspective and levity; without him, we may have self-destructed as a group.

I ask the others about their favourite experiences (Little Bighorn and Yellowstone being most popular) and most memorable stop for food (The “zen Wendy’s” and KJ’s Truck Stop prove unforgetable). Who has the worst drivers? Alberta, hands down. Favorite wildlife sighting? The boldness of the wildlife in Idaho was incredible, but Wyoming has some amazing natural beauty.

We cross the border into Canada, and are instantly struck with the irony that we’ve spent the past several days with friendly people. The border officer is noticeably abrupt, and fellow travelers we encounter at the Canadian rest stop are likewise pushy – so much for Canadian friendliness!

We stop by the Nanton Candy Store to indulge our individual sweet tooth. We’ve been in the store for a couple of minutes when the store owner approaches me and takes me aside. I have a feeling of dread that he’s going to ask me to take Jenny outside, but he surprises me with his respect and discretion. he makes it abundantly clear that I am absolutely welcome in his store accompanied by my service dog, but he tells me he has an employee with severe allergies and asks me to be considerate of that. Our conversation is so discrete that even my traveling companions have no idea it ever took place. I used to often wonder what I would do in a situation like this – where a very real severe allergy is present – and now I know: treat this man and his shop with the respect he just showed me. I pick out a Jones soda and pay with some of our leftover American money, then walk outside to wait for the others.

We top up on gas in nanton as well, and this leg of our journey feels so very long. Home is within striking distance, REALLY, but we still have hours to drive.

Sarah puts on some of her music as a sound track, since Ben’s music is repeating the same songs over and over and over again. Dwight, Ben and I dose now and then, sometimes asking questions about the bands or vocalists we’re hearing.

Traffic crawls through Calgary, and it starts to rain as we top up the tank for the last time in Innisfail. We stop at Peter’s Drive Inn just outside of Red Deer and order big burgers and milkshakes. The sun peaks through the clouds as we hit the Edmonton city limits, and a sense of deep sadness fills the car. We’re home! But we don’t want this epic road trip of awesome to end. Ben toys with the idea of just driving around Edmonton for another couple of hours, holding the magic in this little Nissan for as long as we can. But this trip needs to end sometime…

We pull up in front of our house and divest Hoshi of all of her extra baggage. Everyone grabs their own backpack or duffel bag, and only Sarah removes her sleeping gear from the roof bag. Our kitties greet us noisily, and it’s like we’ve never been gone. We invite Sarah to stay for coffee, and she eagerly accepts. We put Pink Floyd on the record player and just soak in the music; too many words would devalue the experience. It’s hard to believe it’s all over.

But soon enough, Sarah picks up her duffel bag and takes off for home. Ben, Dwight and I are all exhausted, and turn in early.

But for me, it’s not over.

Not really.

The Epic Road trip of Awesome Day 8: “Will Run For…?”

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Saturday, September 2, 2017
We’ve got no particular plans for today, but we continue our habit of being up by 7:00 AM. Ben’s use of the larger air mattress has given him (and by extention us) a more restful sleep.
The campers in the site next to us have brought a young kitten with them. This cat has spent most of its time in the car, meowing its little head off. Sarah notices this, and it makes me sad.
The four of us make our way to the showers, where I notice that not only the showers but the washrooms have curtains rather than doors. I think I like it; it’s easy to keep clean and free of mold.
I’ve changed into a pair of shorts and the T-shirt I bought from Mark earlier in the week. The back of the shirt says “Will Run for Pie”, and I am on a mission to eat pie while wearing that shirt. I refuse to be denied!
I’m in the tent, rolling sleeping bags, when a woman comes by our camp site to see if anyone has lost a bracelet. Turns out, it was mine! I had placed the bracelet Dad gave me for my birthday beside my toiletry bag and promptly forgotten about it. I thank her profusely for returning it to me, and the four of us meet our campsite neighbors with the kitten. The kids don’t seem to care that I can’t see, as I snuggle the little ball of kitten fluff. I think of Wolfie, who’s still growing, and remember Dash, who’s the only kitty I’ve ever had be that small. I’m missing them more fiercely than ever, and as much fun as I’m having, I just want to go home.

We pack up the roof bag for the last time, putting all of our camping gear on the roof and cramming our backpacks in the trunk. Dwight wonders why we haven’t always done this, and I don’t have a good answer for him.

We hit the road back to Bozeman, and hoshi is still holding her own. we definitely need to visit a mechanic when we get back to Edmonton, but the immediate crisis is over.

With Jenny, it’s not going so well. We pull up in front of Cafe M, and she limps slightly as we walk to the door. Sarah notices, too, and makes a concerned comment. I wonder if it’s because her paws are tender from the heat of yesterday, or if it’s something else. Sarah has trained with horses for years and describes where she sees the origin of the limp. Thankfully it’s not her hips, but her hock. I worry about my guide, who wears her big open Labrador heart on her sleeve. For her to show this level of pain breaks my heart.

We enter the cafe, and I immediately smell something lemony. Could this be pie? might I have pie with my breakfast and complete my mission of getting a picture of my eating pie while wearing this awesome shirt?

It’s not pie.

We order breakfast – surprisingly large and savory portions – with our coffee, and chat about what we’d like to do in Bozeman today… and the party we’re going to throw in the hotel room tonight. At one point, I get up to take Jenny outside. her limp is more noticeable the longer we walk. I’m not gone for more than ten minutes, and when I come back inside, ben’s gone (for some reason he never shared with me) to go get more money out of the bank machine. Little matter that I have plenty of cash with me; he HAD to get more, and get charged through the nose by our bank for the privilege. I’m more annoyed than I should be. I’m having so much fun here, but I seriously just want to go home, and home has never felt so close – just within my grasp – and yet so far away. It all boils over into an emotional overreaction that makes me feel like crap.

We finish our coffees and walk down E Main St. We pop into brick buildings, new and old. Dwight buys a nice pair of pants – “with ALL the pockets!” he gushes. At every place we stop, I massage Jenny’s hind leg near her hip. She seems to feel better, and she walks a little smoother each time. Sarah notices, too,and thinks that she – like us – is stiff and sore from so many hours curled up in the car, but will otherwise be fine.

Then we pop into the Montana Gift Corral. We are greeted warmly and offered coffee, and I just know I could spend hours here. I browse around for T-shirts, and find one that’s the softest fabric. It’s black, with a saying I love on the front. I zip into the washroom to try it on, and it fits nicely. I come out to the front, triumphant, and Ben shows me what he’s found.

He’s found a small plaque with a picture of a black Lab that says “Never camp Alone”. My eyes well with tears as the poignancy of this whole week, camping with this beautiful guide, hits me full force.

I’m standing at the counter, paying for my T-shirt, when Ben tells me he’d like to give me a bracelet. It caught Sarah’s eye, and Ben agreed it looks gorgeous. I try it on. I like it a lot, but it fits a little big, and I worry about the clasp staying closed and the bracelet remaining on my wrist. The words don’t come out right; I don’t want Ben and Sarah to think I don’t appreciate it – because I do! – but it doesn’t quite suit me. At a loss, I say only that I worry about it staying on my hand because of its size and my wrist because of the clasp. The bracelet is purchased along with the plaque, and once again, I feel like crap.

We walk up and down East Main Street, as the day heats up and smoke lingers in the air from ever-present wildfires. Ben seems equally as edgy as I feel, because without warning he goes off to be alone for a few minutes and the three of us continue browsing Main Street. When ben meets up with us a few minutes later, we come across a small park, and sit down to wait a few minutes before making our way to a tattoo parlor that opens at noon. We get to that place only to find them closed. Sarah finds another one up the block, and she walks down there as we make our way back to the car. Less than 30 minutes later, we pick up a newly-tattooed Sarah and hit the road for our hotel.

 

Bozeman, MT – Izaak Walton Inn

Distance: 312 miles (502 km)

Travel Time: 6 hours (including stops)

We’re all weary and exhausted. Bozeman has been just as hot as Billings was yesterday. We just want to get to the hotel, let our hair down, and PARTY!

The miles go by as we fly down the interstates. When we reach Butte, I’m disappointed we have no time to stop. When helena is within spitting distance, I realize I can’t add to the list of state capitals I’ve visited. I muse dreamily about how it would be to travel Montana by bus, from city to city, and the spark of a dream was born.

We stop in a small town near Augusta, where we pay for fuel at a station that feels like it’s entirely made of wood. The floors creak, the washrooms are so small that they might as well be called closets, and the muggy air is blown around by a single fan near the cashier counter. It feels good to stand around and chat, but soon it’s time to hit the road again.

We make it to Browning right on schedule – 5:30. We stop at one grocery store, who doesn’t seem to have anything we’re looking for. We go back to the car and go to another store, where we buy a fried chicken meal from the deli, the best of the meagre chip selection that seems to be prevalent in the States,  and enough alcohol for a group twice our size. We come out paying less than $20 a person, and giddily drive the next hour to the Izaak Walton Inn.

We check in just after 6:30 and get our room keys. I ask if the restaurant has pie, and am told they don’t, but the bar downstairs should. I’m giddy; I might JUST get my picture!

It takes us two full trips to carry our backpacks, food, booze, and other supplies the three flights of stairs to our room. It’s huge! There’s a queen bed in each of the two rooms, along with a twin bed and a twin futon. We chill 4 drinks in the sink as we dig into the chicken. ben wants to go take pictures of trains, Dwight and Sarah want to go down to the bar, and I want my pie! The three of us go downstairs as Ben goes to take his pictures.

My hopes for pie are dashed… again.

There is no pie.

But there IS cobbler!

I’ll run for cobbler!

 

My T-shirt says “Will Run for Pie”, with “Cobbler” written on a napkin. You can also see the cobbler

 

I have already had one drink, plus the chicken, and I’m not feeling well. I think it’s the chicken, so I guzzle a ton of water while picking at my delicious cobbler. I make a comment that the piano in the bar is out of tune, and Dwight and I disagree about whether it sounds harmonious or not. Dwight says he’ll refrain from telling the bartender that I play, for which I thank him profusely.

Eventually, Dwight and Sarah go for a walk outside, leaving Ben and I alone for a few precious moments. We are now relaxed, more relaxed than we’ve been in a while, and we talk openly about this trip – what we wish had been different, our personal highlights, what changed in us. I tell him about my dream – of traveling Montana by bus – alone – and he’s surprised. I think in a way he’s a little hurt, too, or maybe confused is a better word. But the idea has gripped me so strongly that I know it’s something I need to do. The pieces haven’t fallen into place, but I’ve fallen in love with this state and its people, and I have a feeling I will learn even more about myself on this upcoming dream-trip than I have on this awesome adventure we’ve been on for the past week. It’s not logical, it doesn’t make sense even to me, but it’s something I know I just HAVE to do, and I’ll work out the details later.

Sarah and Dwight come back, giddy with alcohol and the night air, and we break into the chips and the drinks and a rousing game of Cards against Humanity. Over the past year, ben’s collected almost all the expantion packs, and the game is spread out over the bench seat. Dwight sits on Ben’s and by Bed, while Ben takes the couch and Sarah and I grab chairs. We keep drinks out of the way of hands and feet, laugh uproariously at the questions and answers, go on rabbit trails, talk more, drink more, eat more chips…

The clock strikes midnight, and we’re suddenly exhausted. Ben and I retired to our bed, while Sarah and Dwight stay up later, chatting. Their voices and laughter soothe me to sleep as our last night in Montana draws to a close.

The Epic Road trip Of Awesome Day 7: “I’ll have a Bucket of Chili and a Wad of potatoes, Please!”

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Friday, September 1, 2017
The crickets are now silent. Jenny has not left my side. I wake up with my legs squished between my dog and my husband, whose snoring has helped keep some of us awake. We’re going to try and reconfigure the sleeping arrangements tonight, to see if we can get a better sleep.
Smoke hangs heavy in the air from wildfires in the area. But it’s so cold outside that I wish I’d packed gloves. I’m glad I packed a pair of jeans and a heavier sweater; I’m going to need it today.
While I grab my toiletry bag from my backpack, Jenny goes outside with Sarah, and she’s fascinated by the kitty cat roaming around the camp site. She does a great job of sniffing the grass instead of investigating the cat. I’m reminded of our three sweet kitties at home and I miss them terribly.
Sarah and I make our way to the showers. They aren’t quite as nice as yesterday’s, but both of us want to stand under the water for longer than we really need to. I turn off my shower first, Sarah calls me a rude name, and we laugh about the absurdity of this. I change into my jeans and sweater and I’m suddenly not shivering as we make our way back to the camp site.
We bring the mattress bags out of the car and start unloading them and sorting clothes. I sort my clean laundry into outfits, roll them, and pack them into my bag. For a few minutes I think I have misplaced a sock, only to find that sock right where I tucked it in the back pocket of my jeans. While we’re packing our laundry into our backpacks, Jenny has figured out how to open the zipper on the tent…

jenny’s head is sticking out of the tent

 

Lori told us last night that we don’t have to worry about a checkout time. We leave the tent and sleeping bags at the camp site and head over to Lariat Country Kitchen. The chairs and tables are so close together that Jenny’s quite confused as to how she’s going to guide me through them. She does a stellar job and curls up beside my chair to the ooooohs and aahhhhhs of fellow diners.
We order our coffee (no pitcher today) and our breakfasts. I choose the chili skillet, of which everyone tries a sample. Sarah likes it so much that she wants to take that chili home in a bucket. I admit that I prefer these potatoes to the ones we had in Idaho; THOSE ones were just kinda clumped together – like a wad of potatoes. The joke around the table is that someone should order a bucket of chili and a wad of potatoes; no one dreamed that Sarrah would get part of her wish. When our waitress comes back to ask if we need anything, Sarah asks if they have buckets of that chili to order. “Well, not really a bucket, but a to-go cup,” comes the reply. She brings out the to-go cup, which is the size of…. a small bucket.
So… a bucket of chili it is!
We drive from Lariat Country Kitchen the 16 miles (26 km) to Little Bighorn National Monument. Ben and I travel around the paths, reading the plaques and eavesdropping on the cell phones of other visitors who downloaded the local app. Sarah and Dwight take another route because Dwight needs another bathroom break, prompting us all to joke about his inopportune timing. jenny guides me along the paved path, but I keep her Newtrix on her to keep her nose out of the grass (there are signs indicating there are rattlesnakes in the area).

It’s incredibly moving to see the headstones, marking the actual places where people died. The plaques all provide information about a battle I’ve barely even heard of, and I wish we could spend more time here, learning about the war and the people who fought it.

 

Custer's Headstone

 

 

We agreed to meet Sarah and Dwight back at the visitors centre. They aren’t done their tour yet, but Ben and I can explore. As soon as we walk in, we are told about the film they show (hourly?) and are offered the opportunity to watch it using descriptive video. If we didn’t have a long drive ahead of us tonight, I would’ve jumped at the chance to catch it. As it is, I thank them for not only knowing what descriptive video is, but for offering it to me with no questions asked.

We make our way to the gift shop, Where we meet Kay. She works for one of the tour companies, and she’s super friendly. She asks great quesitons about Jenny, including why she wears a “muzzle.” I show her how Jenny can open her mouth fully while wearing the Newtrix, and explain that it gives me a little more tactile feedback of her head movements. Kay thanks me, and then shows Ben and I some books she thinks he should check out. Ben buys two books, with complementary perspectives on the Battle of Little Bighorn – one written from the military point of view, the other in support of the native Americans. (As an aside, the use of the word “Indian” is seemingly acceptable to describe Native Americans, and I wonder if it’s how they refer to themselves; in Canada, the word “Indian” is considered an insult). We thank Kay for her suggestions, and she tells us to come on back and bring her some ketchup chips.

I find a badge for Jenny’s blanket and a keychain, and go wait for the others in the car. Ben meets up with Dwight and Sarah, and they tour around the graveyard for a while, while I’m sitting and waiting impatiently in the hot car and Jenny’s trying to eat the fruit flies that have taken over our $8 bag of grapes. My choice of jeans and a sweater now seems foolish; It’s warm and sunny outside, and I am BOILING.

We drive back to the camp site, throw out the grapes, and start packing up the tent. On our way out, we stop by the gift shop to check out. Lori tells us about the fire last December that damaged much of her merchandise, and the smoke – not unpleasantly – can still be sensed in the air. Lori’s thrilled that she was able to find an entire box of medium T-shirts, and I buy a red one with a couple of bears on it, while Dwight and Sarah browse around for mugs. She also has nightgowns, and I buy one with wolves painted on it. My discretionary money is dwindling rapidly, but I can’t go wrong with clothing.

We wave our goodbyes, and promise to return, and make our way to solo time in Billings.

 

Grandview Campground – Billings, MT
Distance: 47 miles (76 km)
Travel Time: 45 minutes

 

As soon as the car starts moving, I realize that I have a solution to my clothing dilemma. I duck below the window of the car and quickly change from my sweater to my new T-shirt. The relief is intense!

We’re all itching to go off and do our own thing today. Seven full days of pretty much 24/7 togetherness has proven to be almost too much. I hope we can all reset, regroup, and come back together and enjoy the last two days of our trip.

We pull up to Brockel’s Chocolates and agree to meet back there in two hours. Dwight wants a coffee, and I’m feeling adventurous, so I ask if he wants me to help locate a coffee shop. He agrees, and follows me and Jenny as we open the door to a hair salon. I crack a joke about needing a haircut, and they tell me they’re booked all day. But they tell me about the great coffee shop around the corner at the end of the block. Jenny guides us flawlessly to the door, and I wave goodbye to Dwight, as I duck out of the coffee shop in search of my own adventures.

Nearby Explorer comes to the rescue again, providing me location information as I walk up and down the city streets. I’m stunned by the audible signals that – unlike the ones that “chirp” and “coocoo” at home – actually have a human voice indicate which direction has the red or green light. I stop myself from standing at the corner and listening to it talk for several cycles.

I’m feeling like going into businesses and seeing what they sell or do. Up one block, I find a shop that sells “Indian” art (a term that makes me flinch), another that sells vintage clothing (that turns me off with its faux fur-trimmed jackets), and a couple of restaurant patios. I walk back the way Dwight and I came, and ask a couple of fellow pedestrians for recommendations for coffee shops. They point out the one Dwight’s currently sitting in, and I ask them for another recommendation. They laugh, telling me they just arrived yesterday from Texas, but they heard about this cool coffee shop around the corner…

I wind up at Mazevo Coffee, where I order a coffee and a sandwich. I chat with the guy behind the counter (whose name I can’t remember) and he talks about traveling through Montana and cool places to see. Other locals come in and are greeted warmly. I soak in the atmosphere of this tiny coffee shop and learn a few things about Billings. By the time I stand up to leave, an hour has passed and I know I’ll be back to Mazevo next time I get out this way.

I backtrack slightly, past the restaurant patios, then try and find another cool place to spend some time. I open the door to Magpie Jewelry Gallery, and I am asked if Jenny is my service dog. The use of the word “your” instead of “a” takes me aback slightly, but I decide I like it. I answer the question (“Yes”) and Sam introduces herself. We talk about her shop and the designers she supports, and I choose a crocheted wrap bracelet. As Sam and I chat, I almost buy an adorable mug with a black dog and an orange-and-white cat on it, but that would stretch my budget far too thin. I tell Sam I’m from Edmonton, and she asks if I’m traveling with anyone – no one comes from Edmonton, and a woman came in an hour ago from there. I’m surprised, and ask more questions, and it turns out that Sarah made her way here! As I ring up my purchases (the wrap bracelet and a cool magnet a friend back home will love), Sam tells me that she’s surprised at another coincidence – she supports more than 30 jewelry designers, and Sarah and I chose pieces by the same one. I laugh, wave goodbye, and get ready to head back to the car.

It’s twenty minutes before we’d agreed to meet up, but I’m feeling refreshed and happy and, frankly, tired of my own company. Jenny finds the car like she’s got doggie radar, and wiggles and waggles when she sees Ben waiting for her. He’s feeling refreshed and happy, too, and we make our way into Brockel’s Chocolates for ice cream.

Sarah makes her way to us as we are eating our ice cream bars. Dwight has gotten turned around but has made the acquaintance of someone who’s agreed to walk with him to meet us. As we stand on the hot pavement, we have an impromptu team meeting.

I’ve been looking forward to visiting Garnet, a real ghost town, since we planned this trip. It’s now 3:30, and Garnet’s no fewer than five hours away. I ask if we really want to take that drive to Garnet, or if we want to go back and see Bozeman. It’s no choice at all; we can get into Bozeman by suppertime, then drive for 5 hours to our hotel tomorrow. I’m surprisingly not disappointed by this change of plans.

We pile into the car and, as we hit the road, we compare our notes and impressions and marvel at the places we overlapped.

 

Billings, MT – Bear Canyon Campground
Distance: 136 miles (219 km)
Travel Time: 2.5 hours (including stops)

 

Somehow, Sarah’s bucket of chili has been knocked over and has now spilled into the plastic bag containing it. I’m disappointed by this; it’s our bucket of chili! We laugh about Sarah and I stumbling into the same jewelry shop; apparently Ben and Dwight wound up in the same coffee shop. Dwight people-watched at one of the restaurants I passed more than once. I’m refreshed and happy and I’m so excited we’re going to see Bozeman.

I pull up Nearby Explorer and find a campground near Bozeman. We’re a bit concerned we may not find one, because it’s the Friday of the Labour Day weekend. Phone calls to several campsites go unanswered, and we decide to just cross our fingers and hope for the best.

we pull into Bear Canyon Campground just after 6:00. A sign says there are no vacancies, but Ben goes in to see if there’s space for our tent. There is! We pull into our camp site, pitch the tent, and take off for supper.

There are a couple of things that concern us. Hoshi, our beloved Nissan, has started making rumbling sounds as Ben accelerates. Jenny’s limping slightly on her back legs. One or both of these things could be something minor… or something very serious. But there’s nothing we can do about it at this exact second. We need to eat sooner rather than later.

We end up at a Wendy’s that appears to be having an identity crisis. There’s more than 40 flavors of pop in the fountain machine, many varieties of which I’ve never seen before. Jenny backs away from the machine as it hisses and pops, but takes me to an empty table. We eat our dinner while checking for mechanic shops, surprised by the soothing music that would be more at home than a spa juxtaposed against the college football being shown on TV screens. I’ve been in spas that are less zen than this Wendy’s.

Ben and I brood some, about the car and Miss Jenn. In the middle of dinner, ben goes out to the car to check under the hood, and finds there is no motor oil at all. This buoys my spirits; hopefully we can add oil and all will be well.

And that’s what we do. We drive to the nearest gas station and buy motor oil. ben adds it, waits a moment, then starts the car. As we make our way back to Bear Canyon, our car is happily soaking up the oil and purring like a kitten.

It’s still early – barely 9:00 – but we’re all a little tired from the day. I change into the nightgown I bought at Grandview… and it’s the size of a tent. I laugh and show Ben; even HE might be able to fit in it. But it’s nice and comfortable, so I join the others in curling up in our individual sleeping bags. We close off the day with our respective books or Youtube videos, and each contentedly drift off to sleep.

Your Fear is Not my Reality

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I was recently given an opportunity to speak at a conference attended by (among others) social workers, HR professionals, mediators and educators. To share a platform with so many innovative thinkers (some of them well-known) was an incredible honour for me.
After I spoke, regarding (primarily) disability and employment, I took questions from the audience. One of the questions has stuck with me in the weeks since that conference.
Is part of the problem the fact that people with visible disabilities embody a very real fear of one’s own potential of acquiring a disability? When facing the embodiment of that fear, do we project our fears onto that person because their reality scares us?

I had to pause and think.

The reality is, we all – as human beings – have things that scare us. Some of us are afraid of heights, while others can jump out of airplanes. Some of us love traveling, while the idea of leaving the comforts of home is terrifying to others. There are gourmet chefs out there who know people who are afraid of burning the house down if they turn on the stove. Whether fear is rational or not, it’s there, and fear is human.

How it relates to disability?

It seems that fear of one’s OWN disability – because it could happen to anyone – IS projected onto the person living that life. You are not likely – at age twenty or forty – to suddenly wake up in the morning and learn you’re Caucasian rather than the African-American you always believed yourself to be. Nor will you wake up tomorrow and suddenly find yourself – at thirty or fifty – attracted only to men when you’ve been attracted to women your whole life. But you could, conceivably, find yourself either physically or mentally impaired or disabled due to any number of variable causes from medical misdiagnosis to vehicular accidents, assaults, or any number of other biological or physiological factors. It’s true that disability shows no particular favoritism; it IS the only group that anyone can join at any time.

To avoid the disability label, sometimes people go to extreme lengths. Vision can be viewed as sacred, even at the potential of costing a child’s life. Disabled people frequently hear that a person they are talking to would rather kill themselves than be disabled.

Is disability so hard, really?

Or are attitudinal barriers – piled on to the challenges of disability itself – really what’s hard about living with a disability?

These thoughts all jumped around in my head as I stood in front of all of those people. I said some of the following in response, and wish I had said more.

Fear of sudden disability onset IS terrifying. If I woke up tomorrow and I couldn’t move my legs, or if I couldn’t hear my husband speaking to me, I would be devastated. I would try and find out anything I could to make things different. If they couldn’t change, if my condition became permanent, I would be sad and angry and terrified. Any major life change IS difficult, and people who recieve a disability diagnosis will go through stages of grief and recovery and acceptance.

That is human.

What ISN’t reasonable or fair is to project your human fear of going blind tomorrow onto the reality of my existance. The resume on the table in front of you is just as present as I am sitting across from you; the two are not mutually exclusive. I’ve had years to learn and to grow, just as you have in your own way. Disability does not automatically stunt one’s emotional growth, though the prejudices and fears of others can stunt professional or academic growth for us.

Your fear of imminent disability is not the reality I live with every day. If I scare you that much, is that really about me?

And yet I take the fall for it. My disabled friends take the fall for it. We get passed over for job after job, for opportunity after opportunity, not because we don’t have the skills, but because of someone else’s own personal fear.

It’s time to put fear where it belongs, into perspective. Just as I doubt I will ever know what it’s like to be a Sumo wrestler, or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, you may nevver know what it’s like to be blind. And that’s okay. You can wonder what YOUR life would be like if you went blind tomorrow, just as I can ponder what I would do if I lost my hearing. But what I cannot do – and what you must not do – is to take those fears and questions and uncertainties and place them on the shoulders of those who embody that reality. Our shoulders are not meant to bear your fear, but our hands are capable of providing help and guidance and productivity to your organization, your school or your company. Maybe in ways you never would expect.

The Epic Road trip of Awesome Day 6: “YAY! EARTH!”

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Thursday, August 31, 2017
I don’t notice the time, but I can hear vehicles driving down the highway. A slight breeze ruffles my hair and I burrow deeper into my sleeping bag. For some reason I can’t quite explain, I am more content than I have been in a long time, and I drift off to sleep again.
The next thing I hear is someone’s alarm. It’s 6:30 (though my phone, stuck on Pacific Time, tells me differently). Ben says he woke up at about 2:00 and saw this full complement of stars above his head, and wishes he could’ve shared that moment with Sarah. Sarah, for her part, says SHE woke up at 2:00 AM and saw those stars. I think of those drowsy contented moments with the breeze playing with my hair, and think that maybe, just maybe, we all unknowingly experienced simultaneous magic.
I stretch and we start rolling up sleeping bags and deflating our mattresses. Jenny, annoyed at being cooped up in the car all night, bounds out of the back seat and starts sniffing the area vigorously. After a quick pee and breakfast, she’s further annoyed at being put back in the car so we can load up the roof bag and search for showers. We’ve stuffed our dirty laundry into the bags that normally contain our air mattresses. The glorious foot room from yesterday is no longer available, and I hope this changes soon.
We find washrooms… but no showers.
Ben has cell reception, and he confirms the campsite lists “showers” as an amenity. We drive around the campsite in case we miss something and…
No showers.
After the long drive yesterday, there is no way we are going without showers!
We pull up alongside a couple of women – campers? – and ask if they know where there are showers. They pause (“oh, gosh!”) and consider it, before recommending a nearby campground, or possibly a truck stop in Idaho Falls. Ben rolls up the window and thanks them.
Idaho Falls looks like our best bet.
After fifteen minutes or so of driving, we locate KJ’s Travel Center and pull in to the parking lot. Ben goes inside to see if there are showers. And hallelujah! THEY HAVE SHOWERS!

We pay $7.50 per shower and are handed keys, towels and face cloths. one of us needs to wait for the fourth shower to be cleaned, and Ben says he’ll wait.

I have what I can only describe as the most amazing shower of my life. I want to stay under the spray for hours, but everyone else will be annoyed, and I’m hungry, so I turn off the water and nearly slip in the puddles my feet leave on the floor. It’s only now that I notice a mat I could have used to avoid this…

Changing in to clean, dry clothes, I shove yesterday’s clothes into my toiletry bag, pick up the towel and washcloth and make sure I’m holding the key before I let the door close behind me.

To my astonishment, I am the first one out of the showers! As the others meet me in the hall, everyone agrees that those showers were incredible! Ben notices a little room off to the side, and we’re thrilled that it contains washers and dryers! We tromp back downstairs, move the car to a better location, and four humans and one dog haul all of our dirty clothes up the stairs. Sarah gets quarters for the washer and dryer and buys soap from the little store downstairs, and we load two washers with the dirty camping clothes of four people.

While the washers spin, we go back down the stairs to locate the diner. When Jenny and I enter, you’d have thought no one had ever seen a dog before! We are stared at, but otherwise left alone to pile into a booth and order our food.

The waitress comes by and asks us if we’d like coffee. We all say “yes!” so emphatically that she asks us if we’d like a pitcher.

A pitcher of coffee!?

Yes, please!

 

Sarah holds the magical coffee karaf

 

We drink our coffee, marvel at the showers and our night under the stars, and order our food. I’m itching to try Idaho potatoes, so I order a basic breakfast with eggs, potatoes, bacon and toast. The intermittent Wifi signal brings me a notification “written” by our cat, Annie (translated by our friend Keith), stating that she’s mourned our departure and thinks we’ll NEVER come back, but is glad for all the space on the bed and the new guy who seems to come regularly for kitty scritches. I chuckle and share it with Ben.

Just before our food arrives, Ben goes upstairs with a bunch of quarters to move all of our clothes from the washers to the dryer.

Our food arrives, and we tuck in. In my opinion, the food isn’t quite as good as the coffee. It’s greasy and heavy and hits the spot, but my potatoes are all clumped together and my bacon is only warm, not hot, and definitely flabby rather than the crispy bacon I prefer.

We finish our breakfast, and Ben and I pay the bill, leaving a generous tip. It’s now time to souvenir shop!

Jenny’s struggling with this building for some reason. Either she’s discombobulated by the open space that gives way to sudden tiny pathways or she’s mad at me for last night’s “abandonment” in the car. She keeps taking me to exit doors and is seemingly disinterested in guiding, though she’s calm and collected, so I work with what I have.

There are key chains in the gift shop. I’m thrilled to find a big heavy one with a spinning centre piece showing the Idaho state flag. There are no badges for jenny’s travel blanket, so I make a mental note to order one online. Ben and Sarah try on trucker hats, laughing uproariously before each choosing one.

We climb the stairs to the laundry room, where our clothes continue to tumble around in the dryer. After a few minutes, I go downstairs to use a washroom and get Jenny some water. I’m just about to pick up her water bowl and empty out the excess water when a woman pushes open the door, sees Jenny, and lets out a shriek. I say nothing, dump the bowl into the sink, wipe it dry, and put it in my purse. The woman apologizes for her reaction. I still say nothing and leave.

Jenny’s still not taking me to the base of the stairs. There’s something blocking easy access to them, and they’re incredibly narrow and steep to begin with. We ultimately make it upstairs, where I join the others lounging on the comfy couches. We all tease each other some, wrestle a bit, then sprawl out on the couches again and tune each other and the world out for a few blessed minutes.

The dryers are done and we pry them open…

And our clothes are still soaked!

We have a brief team meeting. Our options are limited. We can either run the dryer again and hope this dries our clothes or suck it up and hope we find a dryer on the road.

It’s a quick decision. It’s pushing close to 10:00 and we really want to get to Old Faithful sooner rather than later. We load our damp clothes into the mattress bags and stuff them in the trunk, fill the car with gas, and change our riding configuration for the trip to Wyoming.

 

KJ’s Travel Center (Idaho Falls, ID) – Old Faithful

Distance: 136 Miles (219 km)

Travel Time: 2.5 Hours

 

For the first ride of any distance, I’m in the front seat. Ben is driving, while Sarah has taken up a position with Jenny and Dwight in the back. Once we’re ready to go, it’s easy to marvel at the landscape we’re leaving behind. We see more wildlife as we cross through Idaho, which continues for at least another hour from Idaho Falls. There are more Mormon temples seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and a Holy Rosary (church?) likewise situated. Once we cross from Idaho into Montana, the speed limit increases from a quick 70 miles an hour to a blistering 80 on the Interstates. We call our hosts for tonight at Grandview Campground and play phone tag due to the spotty reception Ben’s getting. We finally connect with them and let them know we’re planning a late evening checkin, and are asked to call back when we have a more solid ETA.

The scenery is gorgeous as we travel through a small corner of Montana and into Wyoming. Sarah passes out GoPicnic lunches, but we snack on them sparingly; we’re still full from breakfast. We pay the entry fee to Yellowstone National Park on the Montana side of the park, and it doesn’t take long before we’re suddenly into Wyoming. In less than 90 minutes, we’ve crossed three state lines. We see tons of wildlife. A bison stands in the middle of a field close to the highway, just hanging out and minding its business, and Ben adds that to his tally of animals seen on our trip. There’s more beautiful senery, including other geisers, that Ben and Sarah definitely want to photograph on the way back down. No complaints from me; they’ve earned these pictures!

We reach Old Faithful just after 1:30. I expect us to have to take a small hike to get out there, but instead we pull into a parking lot and travel along sidewalks to small cafes, shops, and the visitors center. We stop in a souvenir shop where I find two awesome tactile keychains (one for me and one for a friend back home) and a badge for Jenn’s blanket. I’m paying for my purchases when Sarah tells us she’s heard that Old Faithful might erupt in a few minutes! I’m afraid we’ll miss it, because (again) I’m expecting a hike and a trail, but it’s only a brief paved walk to a wodden outlook.

I’ve imagined Old Faithful for months. I’m expecting some great rushing force of water, like a reverse waterfall. But instead, I hear nothing but fellow tourists as I stand on the boardwalk.

It’s 2:16. Time for the expected eruption.

And nothing happens.

A hush falls over the crowd as a faint smell of sulphur fills the air and Old Faithful bubbles slightly.

More time passes.

Another brief scent of sulphur, another slight eruption, more silence.

As time passes, people inch away and go back to the shops and their cars. Murmurings of Old Faithful being a tease and a let-down can be heard behind me. I inch closer to the edge of the overlook just as Old Faithful, in a final show of strength, erupts.

After a 20-minute tease, Old Faithful erupts!

It’s not at all what I expect. The faint scent of sulphur is not present here. The strong powerful sounds of gushing water I expected are definitely absent as well; instead, it sounds like faint ocean waves.

After a couple of minutes, Old Faithful settles down, and many people clap and start to move away. It’s kind of weird to think about, Sarah says. It’s like everyone is congratulating earth on being earth… “YAY! Earth!” But I just HAD to get a picture with Old Faithful in the background.

Me and Jenny crouched down with a calm Old Faithful in the background

We zip inside another store for road snacks. Dwight buys a bag of grapes for $8 and Ben buys more road cheesies. I get a Gatorade and Sarah buys her snacks – we all spend a small fortune on road food.

We take our last bathroom break before piling into the car. Jenny – as she’s done all the way through this trip – finds the accessible stall without my asking her to do so. Sarah keeps telling me how impressed she’s been with Jenny on this trip, and while I can dwell on Jenn’s mistakes and missteps, I have to agree with Sarah. Jenn laps up the water I set down for her by the sink, and we’re all ready to hit the road.

Old Faithful – Grandview CampGround

Distance: 308 miles (496 km)

Travel Time: 6 hours (including stops)

 

We keep our travel configurations from this morning as we pile into the car. Ben’s got a Google map on his phone and is hopeful that he can still navigate in these areas with no cell service. Just twenty minutes out of Old Faithful, Sarah spots the geisers they wanted for pictures, and Ben pulls in.

Dwight and I stay in the car, talking. We haven’t really had an opportunity to do so on this trip, and I confess my feelings of uselessness. I’m not a seasoned camper, and Ben and Sarah seem to frequently have everything under control. Sure, I’ve rolled a sleeping bag or two, or helped set up the tent, but to me it doesn’t feel like nearly enough. Dwight offers some perspective that I desperately need – that I have been contributing, but that I need to temper my need to be needed with the practicalities that come alongside camping with experienced campers. My blindness has nothing to do with it. I’m not sure I feel any better, but I feel better for having talked about it.

Sarah and Ben come back to the car, thrilled with the pictures they’ve taken of this area. It’s called the Painted Pots. There are signs that state that you must stay out of the water; it’s so clear and so hot that you would never come out.

The Painted Pots

We’re ready to go again. Sarah and Dwight chat in the back while Ben follows the route he sees on Google maps. There’s a motorist in front of us who keeps speeding up and slowing down and speeding up and slowing down. Ben finally gets so annoyed that he takes the first available turnoff and hopes it’s the right one.

The highways are well-paved and well-maintained. We’ve driven for about half an hour before Ben thinks he made a mistake – turning left instead of right. His google map is useless up here, and he asks me for directions. I pull up Nearby Explorer, put in the address of Grandview Campground, and start giving directions (basically, keep going straight and take one turn or another).

As we travel, Dwight and Sarah nap while Ben and I chat. I talk to Ben about my feelings of inadequacy, and he’s quick to reassure me that I have pulled my weight – heck, I’m the one navigating on this leg of the journey!

The signs for Bozeman appear, and we are all tired. It’s 20 minutes to Bozeman now, and someone points this out. Dwight says that’s a perfect name for a band, and we all laugh and agree.

In Bozeman, we stop for gas. We’re getting hungry and find a burger place with a drive-through. We order massive burgers and fries, and we’re all impressed as we munch. Only Ben seems disappointed by his waffle fries (I try one and agree that my traditional fries are better). Sarah has cell reception, so she calls Grandview and tells them our ETA appears to be about 9:30. They thank her for her call and tell her they’ll see us when we get there.

As we drive through Bozeman, Ben and Sarah express a strong liking for the city. The architecture looks cool, and now I think we’re all sorry we won’t get a chance to explore it further.

Nearby Explorer continues to map our route – go straight. we pass small towns and lovely scenery as the sun sets. Even I can see the sunset filtered through the trees, with mountains in the background on either side. I’m blown away by the majestic beauty of this sunset as I munch my fries and tell Ben to continue to go straight, through county after county, past unpopulated areas or tiny hamlets.

We reach Billings. It’s a big city, too, and we all agree that tomorrow, we will go into Billings, split up for a couple hours, and do our own thing. As we leave the city limits, I start to worry about directions to Grandview. The email says GPS can sometimes be wrong, and we have no cell service to contact them if we get lost.

I worry for nothing. As we pull into Hardin, pass the gas station indicated on the email, the sign is clearly marked. We pull in to the drive at 9:00, and Ben and I get out of the car. Lori arrives just a couple minutes later and opens the office/gift shop. She’s warm and welcoming and she’s thrilled we got in earlier than we’d estimated and gives us a rundown of the campsite information. We’re given directions to the showers and our campsite, change for the laundry facilities (open 24 hours), a Wifi password, and kitty cuddles from the resident cat. We can dry our clothes! AND see kitties? With showers and wifi, we’ve hit the camping jackpot!

We get back to the car and tell Sarah and Dwight about our good fortune. We pull up to our assigned space, and the guys get to work on pitching the tent. Sarah and I haul the mattress bags full of wet clothes to the dryers. The first dryer eats Sarah’s quarter, so we have to go back to the car and get more. We move the wet clothes from one dryer to another, and I constantly drop them. Sarah and I laugh giddily as she loads the second= – hopefully functional – dryer with our clothes. They fit in one load, and the dryer takes our quarters with no fuss.

We get back to the tent, which has been completely set up. Our air mattresses are inflated and sleeping bags unrolled. Jenny is bounding around the camp site like she’s never seen such a beautiful grassy area, and I’m struck by the sound of crickets I hear. If you’ve ever seen a movie that has a night-time scene with crickets in the background, these crickets sound like that. It feels like I’m in a movie, and I’m so happy I could burst.

We check on the clothes in the dryer, and they are – miracle of miracles – all dry. We stuff them into the mattress bags again and put them in the car; we’ll take care of them in the morning.

It’s 10:00 PM, and I’m ready for sleep. I crawl into the tent and bury my face in my pillow. Jenny will not leave my side, squishing my legs under the weight of her Labrador frame. The movie-crickets sing me to a restful, contented sleep.

The Epic Road Trip of Awesome day 5: bad Wardrobe Choices

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Wednesday, August 30, 2017

I wake up well-rested, thrilled that we can all squish in the tent. For an air mat that’s barely an inch thick, my body has felt remarkably supported. Why didn’t we buy these mats sooner?

Jenny has decided that sleeping with me is over-rated. She’s moved her way over to where Sarah is sleeping, squishing Dwight halfway off his air mattress. I’m more amused than offended.

The smoke that has been hovering in the air the past few days has finally started to decrease. For the first time in days, the sunrise is not singed with orange. This, coupled with yesterday‘s run and jiu jitsu, have put me and Sarah respectively in a better mood. We both express our extreme gratitude to the guys for their patience with us yesterday, grateful to feel so relaxed. I know that Ben, in particular, needs some solo time; being in close proximity for five days now – with almost no pictures to show for it and no other outlet – has frustrated him greatly. The plan is to stop in Boise this afternoon, go our separate ways for a couple hours, and come back together as a well-rested, rejuvenated team+.

But Tami and Wayne have other plans. While I am in the tent, getting dressed, and Ben and the others are out by the picnic table, Wayne approaches Ben and asks if he and Tami can treat us for breakfast. Absolutely! Schedule be damned; today’s gonna be a long haul, and the more time we can spend with these new friends, the more fun we will have, and the more prepared we will be to slog through what promises to be one of the longest single-day drives on this trip.

I exit the tent and immediately regret my choice of clothing. Because today’s drive through Oregon and Idaho will be long and hot, I figured I would be best served by wearing a comfortable cotton skirt and lightweight top. I hadn’t considered… the wind. I spend more time messing with my skirt, wrestling it into some sense of order, than just about anything else. But I’m short on comfortable clean clothes (our hope is to do laundry in Boise), so my choices are nonexistent. I just hold my skirt firmly, put Jenny in the back seat of the car, and start getting ready to go. We roll up our mats and sleeping bags, stuff our backpacks, and load up the roof bag.

Loading up the Roof Bag

 

We follow Tami and Wayne the 17 miles to the closest Denny’s, in the Dalles. Dwight really wants to get “honned” at some point on this trip, and he’s pretty sure the server will oblige him by calling him “hon”. The six of us – and two dogs, pointedly ignoring each other because, PROFESSIONAL – pile around the table and order coffee. Sarah and I are both thrilled that we can order fruit with our breakfast. No one calls Dwight “hon.” We eat and laugh and drink coffee and chat some more and drink more coffee. By the time someone notices the time, it’s 10:00, and we need to hit the road.

It takes us fifteen minutes to say our farewells, give hugs and well-wishes, and pile all humans and dogs into their respective vehicles. We’re well-fed, well-rested, and ready for the long haul.

 

The Dalles, Oregon – (campsite name redacted), Idaho

Distance: 643 (plus ???) miles (1035 plus ??? km)

Travel time: 11 hours (including stops and detour)

 

It feels good to be on the road. Sarah takes the wheel, while Ben takes the passenger seat. Dwight and I are at the mercy of Jenny, who alternates between scrunching up into a tiny ball and using our bodies to resituate herself. The mental map I have in my head tells me that Idaho is close by. We can have our “me-time” in Boise, maybe do laundry, and still make it to our campsite on time.

Not long after leaving Tami and Wayne, we stop at a service station near Rufus, Oregon, where we buy snacks (including a replacement for the “road Cheesies” that have gone stale from sitting open in the car for days) and an adapter to charge Sarah’s cell phone. Going to and from the station, I’m holding my skirt, because the wind keeps blowing it around, and I crack a joke about wearing totally the wrong underwear today.

Ben doesn’t have to fill the tank with gas; the station is full-serve! We haven’t seen this in Alberta in ages, and it feels quaint and charming. With a full tank of gas and snacks in hand, we pile back into the car and get ready to meet Idaho.

A sudden “pop!” startles me just a few miles after we get going. A trailer in front of us has lost a tire, and it clearly needs to be replaced. When Sarah sees the occupants of the truck hauling the trailer are an elderly man and his wife, she pulls over to the side of the road. Ben gets out and helps the man change the tire in the blistering heat. When Ben gets back into the car, he says he’s glad to have helped someone out, and was amused by how the man introduced himself by name and home state. Sarah and Ben are both impressed by the manners of the motorists on the highway. No one stops and stares, they merge into other lanes so that no one is in danger of getting hit, and they keep on going. once we see that the truck and trailer are safely back on the road, we start up the car again and continue our journey.

Oregon lasts forever. Once our breakfast has worn off, we open more GoPicnic lunches, swapping for our preferred foods, and snacking on the way. I’m thrilled that, at the next stop, the 1-foot-square box that’s taken up a ton of space by my feet will be halved. LEG ROOM!

We drive east on I-84, away from the smoke that’s infiltrated our vision and/or our lungs for days. Because of this joyous fact, Ben is finally able to get some good pictures. At seemingly random moments, he rolls down the passenger window and snaps multiple frames in quick succession.

 

A stone House

 

We drive from the green (if hazy) scenery of the Dalles, past mountains, and into high desert. We pass the turnoff to where Tami and Wayne live just as it starts to get cloudy, and we wave fondly at the turnoff. A few miles later, seemingly from nowhere, we find ourselves under a cloudburst which pummels the car with rain, then quarter-sized hail. We worry about the potential condition of the car, and wonder how the roof bag is taking this first barrage of bad weather we’ve seen. It doesn’t last long, though, but it’s at this point that I realize that the chocolate bars we bought before the trip – that have stayed out of the sun in the air-conditioned car – have all melted into soupy, unrecognizable puddles inside their wrappers. It’s been an hour since the hail stopped, and we stop at a rest stop seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Exiting the car, we encounter a blazing sun and fierce desert winds. My comfortable flowing skirt is blowing in the wind, and Sarah and I each hold one side of it down while running for the closest washroom.

Hurrah! We’ve thrown out the big box! I have leg room now, and we still have snacks. Ben has checked the car and the roof bag, which have both held up nicely against the hail and rain that now – an hour after driving through it – seems like a distant memory.

We point the car eastward again, finding more varied terrain from deserts to mountains and valleys to rivers, through baking sun and further cloudbursts.

Oregon has Mountains!

 

Exhausted, we make it to Ontario, Oregon, where the time jumps from 4:30 to 5:30. Just like that, we’ve lost an hour, and I’m starting to wonder if we’ll make it to our campsite on time for check-in. It’s becoming abundantly clear that our “me time” and laundry stop in Boise is not going to happen, but it’s supper time and the car needs fuel. We stop at another full-serve gas station and buy dinner at Chester’s Chicken. Our chicken is so hot that the steam makes the paper sacks rip. We walk from the restaurant, holding our sacks awkwardly to keep from spilling chicken on the sidewalk. The air is electric around us; it feels like it’s going to storm.

From the car, Ben calls the campground we’ve booked for tonight, telling them we’ll likely be slightly late for check-in. They tell us that’s no problem; if we can’t get in the main gate, we can still access the facilities from another entrance.

We cross the state line into Idaho. Almost immediately, drivers stop to look at pulled-over vehicles. At about the same time we realize the seemingly instantaneous loss of driving skills, we notice wildlife everywhere, and it’s brave wildlife. Coyotes dash across the highway, a turtle (tortoise?) risks its life in the middle of one of the traffic lanes, and more than one bird attempts to make contact with our windshield. It’s starting to get dark in Idaho as we drive past Boise, noticing a massive wind farm that we think might provide power to the city. This stretch of highway is buffeted by wind, and it feels like the car is fighting the gusts as we fight the clock, driving mile after mile through Idaho.

 

Idaho Scenery

 

We stop for gas again in Carey, and while Ben fills up the car – no full-serve here! – Sarah spots an owl sitting on a telephone pole. Leaving the town, we notice a large Mormon church, which we find surprising for a town this size (apparently, population 604).

We drive.

And we drive.

And we drive.

Every time it looks like we might just make it in time for our campsite closing, we have to fight some weather or traffic or otherwise annoying quirk of the road. The sun has set now, and Sarah is driving on a highway with no street lights. Music is a means to an end, providing a much-needed break to conversation (something that’s lacking at this moment). We’re all so tired that we sing “I would Walk 500 Miles” in bad Scottish accents, converting the 500 miles into their metric equivalent. A few songs later, I’m belting out “Crocodile Rock” at the top of my lungs, which prove to be rather reedy. Then I just become sad when I really listen to the lyrics of David Bowie’s “A Space Odyssey”; I’d nevver heard the words before and they make me really sad.

This drive will never end.

Sarah pulls into our pre-booked camping area thirty minutes after the posted check-in time. The gate is closed. We pull over to the side of the highway and put our heads together. As we see it, we have three options: find another camp site, walk in through the pedestrian gate, or drive in through the exit. We are so exhausted after the long drive that options 2 and 3 seem the most desirable. Ben checks the exit gate and sees that it’s clear – no spike belt to prevent us from entering. We agree to drive in through the exit, circle the tenting sites several times and cannot find our name on any of the “reserved” posts. When Sarah locates an unoccupied tenting spot, we pull over and bring down the roof bag.

I can think of few things I would want to do less than set up the tent. It’s late, I’m tired, and I just want to close my eyes. It’s a beautiful night, so I propose sleeping under the stars – for practical reasons more than a true desire to do so. The others agree readily, and we blow up our mats and unroll our sleeping bags, using the car as a buffer to protect from some of the highway noise and lights. Because we’re so close to the highway, we leave Jenny in the car for the night – much to her displeasure. I drift off to sleep almost instantly under an open Idaho sky.