An Open Letter to Those who Get it

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If you’re reading this and think you might recognize yourself, you probably know who you are. If you’re reading this and wonder why I’m writing this about you because this should be common sense, you probably know who you are. If you’re reading this and know I’m writing about you… I’m probably not.

 

I’m a person with a visible disability. You are somehow part of my life. You could be a colleague, a teacher, a friend, a stranger in line at a coffee shop… less commonly, you could be a family member or a romantic partner. Your life could’ve intersected mine in a hundred different ways. Before meeting me, you’ve usually had little to no experience with the day to day realities of living with a disability.

 

And yet… you get it.

 

You get it in ways I can never put into words until I fumble and falter and try and thank you for just understanding so I don’t have to explain at all. When I stammer out the words of joy and gratitude I feel from deep in my soul, more often than not, you remain still for a moment, eyebrows raised, and ask me with all seriousness what the big deal is. Because more people should understand. You think that more people should stop asking intrusive questions. You believe that nobody should grab my body when “trying to help”. You think I belong at the table just like everyone else, and you’ll quietly move heaven and earth to level the playing field so I’m part of your group and not just a token participant. You understand why some ideas are so harmful. You may not know what my life feels like, but you leave me plenty of open space so that I can fill in the gaps – not because I owe you an explanation, but because you know that so few people leave their agendas at the door.

 

You may be a new friend, or a colleague who got to know me on that project one time. You may be a stranger who offered assistance when I was standing in line at a coffee shop and just knew how to help and let me be when it was no longer required. You may be a random group of people who regularly play board games. You may be a part of a group of musicians. You may be a member of a sports team or other club. You could literally be anybody. Often times, you intrinsically understand me – and my life with disability – better than many of my family members, partners, or friends. As much as we love them, there’s always been a growing experience, an adjustment period, a drawing of boundaries. With you… that’s never once been there. You’ve always just… known. You’ve never called attention to my disability, but you’ve never neglected its presence either. You’ve never asked questions unless they directly flowed out of a conversation we’ve been having. You’ve understood – with no input from me – why little things that many people say shouldn’t “get to me”… get to me. You’re furious on my behalf at intrusions into my privacy, and yet you’ve given me space to fight the battles myself. You’ve presumed me competent when I’ve spent so much time trying to convince people that I’m not just a child in an adult body. For all of this, you have my undying gratitude.

 

You get it.

 

All of it.

 

And you’re right, more people should. But maybe, just maybe, if more people did… I wouldn’t be so aware of the rare and precious mystical belonging places. It’s more than the absence of negatives; you’ve given me something that so few people have… the gift of true acceptance. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

 

Go ahead, raise those eyebrows. If you think I might be talking about you – if you remember some stammered, incoherent conversation about thankfulness and gratitude toward you – I probably am. If you don’t remember this conversation… that’s OK. I’m probably not writing about you directly right now. But I could be… or someone else could be down the line. Read this post again. And again. And again. And let it sink in. It’s not hard to “get” disability; it’s a leaving behind of preconceptions, a listening to what’s being said, an opening to a change in script. I’m eternally thankful for people who intuitively “get it”, and also for those who want to get it, own their missteps, and don’t lay all the emotional labour on me. It’s never too late to move forward, to be that person that doesn’t understand how something so simple can be so profound.

 

And yet, it is profound.

 

You get it.

 

And these fumbling, faltering words are the only ones I can come up with to adequately express myself. But maybe, just maybe, they are enough.

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Ask me to Dance… better yet, Play my Music

Let’s get this out of the way.

I have the physical capability to dance. But I can not dance. My rhythm is off and my body doesn’t cooperate, so I have the coordination of the Tin man from the Wizard of Oz. I am in no way asking to be invited to a real dance party, largely because… well… I cannot dance.

And I play music. I sing a lot (now that I realize it’s in my blood). But I don’t literally want you to play anything I’ve recorded in my presence. I hate how I sound; two days ago I found recordings of songs I wrote and recorded in my teens… and while I can’t bring myself to get rid of them, they sound objectively bad. And I still have nightmares about recording sessions that produce phantom neck pain from staying in one position for long periods trying to get perfect vocals.

So why am I contradicting myself now?

I’ve heard a saying over the past couple of years: “Diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance.” I’ve always liked that phrase, but felt it went further. In fact, research for this post brought me to a continuation: “Belonging is playing my music.” I could not agree more.

Most of us crave relationships. We want to feel like we’ve met people who “get” us on a bunch of different levels, particularly the deep ones. But even casual, low-key environments can be powerful in the relationships, because of the “music playing” in the background. Finding that acceptance can prove difficult; yet when you do it’s both so powerful and so quiet that you don’t want to draw attention to it. As my friend Meagan wrote in her brilliant post on this subject:

But when I have been fortunate enough to stumble upon an inclusive environment—my current workplace is an ideal example—it’s never been joyless or contrived. A lucky convergence of factors makes me perfectly comfortable, long before I realize it’s happening. By the time I become aware that I have found that rare sense of belonging, it’s too late to pinpoint precisely why it happened that way. All I can do is sit back and enjoy it, hoping I find it again elsewhere, and knowing there’s little I can do to reawaken the magic.

 

Over the past couple of years, I’ve stumbled into belonging. My workplace believes in my skills and experience, and trusts me to advocate for myself if I need it. My running crew treats me like a runner who’s blind (not a blind runner) with a seriously badass guide dog; I don’t get cheers for just showing up in the first place, but I’m encouraged as a runner, full stop… and yet I’ve been told more than once that Ed’s and my showing up for runs and coffee most weeks brings more runners out for post-run coffee. Are we, by our presence, creating an inclusive place, a place to belong, building our own magical “safe space”?

 

Maybe we are.

 

People who are part of someone’s “tribe” – the individuals and groups in which they feel most safe and accepted – don’t seem to think twice that they are creating and building something beautiful and mystical. Anytime I’ve brought it up to my tribe – or “my people”, as I call them – they shrug and think it’s nothing. And I don’t have the words to adequately describe the magic, the music, the dancing… because it just… is. There’s a regular board game meetup I’ve attended for the past six months, and I’ve literally had to explain nothing about blindness, never had to push the point that Pictionary isn’t an inclusive game, never had to enforce rules about interacting with Jenny, or find ways to include myself. Even when I hit a glitch with AiRa one night when it was my turn to read Taboo clues, my people refused to take the cards I tried to pass to them. One even thought of texting me the clues and the Taboo words, and I was able to continue being clue-giver – and no one complained about the length of time it was taking, because we were all just sitting around and joking and laughing anyway. They were playing my music, and I didn’t dare pinch myself in case it was all a dream.

 

Falling into belonging is unexpected, and beautiful, and life-giving. Rick, my running instructor, calls it the “absence of negatives”. I like the phrase, but I don’t think it entirely fits here; The absence of negatives is filled with something I can’t quite describe, and trying to do so seems to cheapen it. Having been met with such understated and seamless acceptance has freed me up to offer the same in return. It’s as simple as inviting someone to a party, as joyous as an enthusiastic dancer with two left feet, and as beautiful as your favourite soundtrack on the speakers. And more magic in the world brings more parties, more dancing, and more and varied music… and I think we all could use a little more of that.

“You’re doing WHAT in this weather?”: Digging Deep for the Hypo Half

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Five months ago, I ran my first half-marathon. On a whim, I decided to see what races were going on while I was traveling on a journey that would change my life. I paid for my race fees, then crossed my fingers that I would have a guide runner on race day and a bus ticket to get there. My guide runner materialized months before I bought my ticket.
That race had perfect weather, with sunny skies and a light breeze and not too much heat. Even though my training program went completely sideways due to my guide dog’s emergency surgery – and later the thick smoke from wildfires that blanketed Edmonton for weeks – I’ll never forget it, and never regret it.
No sooner did I write the words “I’m never doing this again” than I started looking for my next half-marathon. Less than a week after arriving home, I signed up for what Edmonton Runners call the Hypo Half. It’s a half-marathon, run in February, in Edmonton – where temperatures can range from -40 to something above freezing… and you never know what you’re going to get.

I had no idea.

Spring and summer running are relatively easy. You get motivated by the opportunity to spend time outside, enjoying the neighborhood or trails or wherever brings you running zen. I knew winter running would challenge me in the motivation department – it’s cold and dark and sometimes snowy and gross. So I signed up with a training program through the Running Room, and started running with them three times a week. Over the course of the next four months, magical things happened. I found my space with a group of people who never once made me have to adapt to how they did things. There was always someone running with me, because you always run in pairs in the winter. Rick, our instructor, was always up to provide fascinating information (who needs Google with a Rick around?) or trying to talk all the runners into sticking around for a post-run coffee. Ed, who would later guide me and Jenny on race day, often joined me for coffee and was generous with his time, fuel, and date bites on long runs. I don’t think I had a single inappropriate question asked of me (the first person who asked anything about my vision promptly ran into a pole). The super fast runners still cheered for those of us who brought up the rear. Anyone who’s rarely had to insert their way into a given space may not understand what it feels like, this instant knowing you belong somewhere. And I was lucky enough to just fall into it.

Over the next four months, training was HARD. We ran on icy sidewalks, down hills that required traction devices on our shoes, in the cold and snow and wind, through three inches of snow that felt like running through sand. More than once I wondered why I was doing this – sometimes, the shocked response to my running in winter was enough to make me smile and keep going. We ran fast, or we plodded along. I mixed and matched my winter clothes, and had more than one fellow runner leave gloves in his car for me because I finished most of my runs without them. I learned more than the importance of good form or nutrition, I learned a few things about life and about myself. At low emotional moments, I discovered the somewhat magical healing properties of running the 109th Street bridge. And I had to really learn that staying upright and uninjured was better than logging the speed and mileage (because kilometerage isn’t a word) that my training plan demanded. This was a whole season of my life where the universe was trying to tell me to just be OK with just being.

And then, the first Hypo Halfers ran their race in early February. It was -30 Celsius, with the windchill making it 10 degrees colder. One of them gave us late Hypo halfers a pep talk – what worked, what didn’t – and I thought I was ready…

And then, February 17, 2019. It was just like any other Sunday morning. My alarm went off at the same time it does every Sunday. I drank my coffee, ate my bagel and eggs (after spending the previous five days eating more than two teenage boys could pack away), and got myself ready to run. Ed, my guide and friend, picked me up at the same time he has every Sunday morning for months. It could’ve been any other Sunday… except that day I held a race bib and a couple of obnoxious safety pins. The temperature was a relatively balmy -18 Celsius. “Not too bad,” as Ed wrote on Facebook before we went outside to wait by the start line.

Ed, Jenny and I found a few of our other runners, we wished each other well, and we started running. There’s something magical about the cadence of multiple pairs of feet – the rhythm in the light dusting of snow – that I can’t adequately put in to words. it finally felt real – we were really running! After several kilometers, it just felt like Ed and Jenny and I were alone on the course. And still runners – some we knew and some we didn’t – and volunteers cheered us on. Our speed was flawless, and I felt like I could take on the whole race… until 12 kilometers in. I didn’t wanna do this any more. I slogged through four kilometers of mental mud, swore at Ed when he “tried to be encouraging” by helpfully reminding me we’re 17 weeks out from a full marathon, and pushed… and pushed… and PUSHED. Finally, I got a second wind, and found my motivation – two of our runners were running with injuries; they wanted to run this race so much that they didn’t care if they had to crawl that finish line. I ran those last three kilometers for them, thinking of their grit and determination, and finding some of my own. When we crossed the finish line – 2:28:22 after crossing the start – I felt proud and tired and ready to eat! Jenny just felt tired, but looked REALLY cute with her own finisher’s medal.

 

The brunch is one of the biggest draws of the Hypo Half in Edmonton – that and winter running badass points – and it didn’t disappoint. I stuffed myself on bacon and fruit and potatoes while Jenny snoozed contentedly under the table. Many of our running crew came by to congratulate and commiserate, to high-5 and to compare notes, to laugh at the error in my chipped time, to ask the question we’ve been asking for weeks – “What’s next for you?” Some of us are training for another Half, others are preparing for a full, and some – like Ed and I – are straddling both worlds because of the dates of our next races. But I couldn’t think about a full marathon – I just had to soak in the successes of that morning, and all the people who helped to get me there.

 

It’s been four days since that race. I’m a little stiff and sore, but ready to get back onto the road to log the distances that will lead me to another goal: my first full marathon! This journey will be unlike anything I’ve done before, and yet I know some familiar faces – some of my people – will still be with me, training and cheering and dreaming their own dreams, and helping to make my own possible.

The Day the Music Died

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I used to say that music was in my blood…

Until it bled me dry.

 

I used to sing. A lot. All the time. In the car, at home, with friends… I’d literally get together with people – those I knew and those I didn’t – to do nothing but sing. I practiced singing – I had to work at it – when I was alone, just so I could perform better. Whether or not I could hit the notes, I’d try and try and try again – probably to the dismay of my long-suffering parents, particularly when I couldn’t quite reach the high notes. I fronted bands, sang karaoke, provided background vocals. From the time I was about twelve, you’d find me gathered around the piano at summer camp with my friends, or walking down whatever hallway singing songs I liked – and every now and then songs I couldn’t stand but couldn’t get out of my head. During free periods in high school – when I didn’t have homework to do – I’d sit on a bench in the hallways and play my guitar, because of course it came with me to school even on days I didn’t have guitar class. I wrote music, for those times when merely speaking words wasn’t enough and I had to express my fear, faith, anger, pain, hope, or what I thought was love. When I was sixteen, I taught myself the guitar, scraping raw the fingers on my left hand and making it impossible to read braille for months. I fell back in love with the piano in Bible college because there were too many guitarists and no one else would play the piano. Between classes at that Bible college, I’d sneak into the chapel for a few moments of solace, where the music from that old out-of-tune upright would mingle with my voice, echoing slightly in the empty room. I’m glad I didn’t know until years later that people would sometimes sneak in and listen. I would have stopped playing if I’d known.

 

I used to say music was in my blood…

Until it bled me dry.

 

I remember the exact moment when I made the decision to step back from performing – even though I didn’t realize that decision would remain steadfast for over a decade. I was standing in a church in La Crete, Alberta, singing a song while combating a terrible cold. My voice was hoarse, and I was thrilled that no one I knew – beyond my Bible school classmates – could hear me like this (and maybe not even them). I remember thinking “No one knows me beyond the fact that I can sing and play… I can’t do this anymore.”

 

Over the next few months – that eventually turned into nearly twelve years – I jammed a few times with classmates, played alone on that old upright in the chapel, but I don’t remember singing and playing publicly much after that. I did karaoke with friends once or twice over the years, but that felt awkward to me. I jammed a handful of times with friends on the piano I insisted Ben and I buy when we bought our house, but the house was never filled with music the way we hoped it would be. I played a piano here and there, wrote a song a couple people I trusted heard and liked (eight years after that church service in La Crete), and made some noncommittal noises about joining a friend any time he asked or cajoled or badgered me to go for a jam (he always asked again)… But I was done, burned out, had nothing… Music had let me down. It had taken me in and spit me out and I wasn’t ready for the merry-go-round again.

 

I used to say that music was in my blood…

Until it bled me dry.

 

I haven’t written a complete song in over three years. And before that, I hadn’t written one in seven. It’s not that I had nothing to say – in fact, I’ve had a lot to say – but I feared what I would say, what I would have to acknowledge to myself if no one else. And I felt that I could never find the time and space to explore new musical frontiers without feeling the unintentional pressure to perform by those around me. That’s another reason I have been extremely reluctant to sing publicly. My vocal “gift” is not raw talent. I literally had to teach myself to sing. When I was young, I loved to sing but couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. When I started buying tapes and CDs, I’d play them for hours, pitching my voice to match the artists – first country, then pop/rock – and somehow, magically, I could sort of sing. And people responded to that. I soaked up the attention, and in many ways it was a great thing.

 

Until it wasn’t.

 

Until I became known as the girl who sang with conviction and passion (if not technical perfection) and could maybe accompany you or front your band. And then it was an obligation, not a joy. I’ve silenced my voice for over a decade, because I knew on some intrinsic level that if I didn’t, I’d spend years playing and singing songs I didn’t feel, or writing songs I could perform for no one but myself, or writing “performable” songs that would steal a piece of my soul. And I’d hate it. That’s why I have been extremely reluctant to sing in churches or karaoke bars, to play at functions, or even to write. Because one such event always always leads to another.

 

Over Christmas, I visited my parents. There’s an annual tradition my Dad attends – a Christmas morning brunch with a bunch of folks who may or may not have somewhere to go for the holiday. After we’d had our fill of food and coffee, we all headed in to the living room for some caroling. My Dad performs a solo every year – Six White Boomers – and his friend with the guitar didn’t know the song. I offered to get her a key to play in, and somehow – with shaking hands and an unpracticed ear – ended up accompanying Dad on the whole song. No one made a big deal when I handed the guitar back, leaned back on the couch, and sang along with the others on the next song.

 

I loved it.

 

Because it wasn’t about me.

 

I was part of a collective, not a show monkey being paraded in front of a group of people. And that one experience told me that it was time to steady my hands and hold the music again. It paved the way for a solo New Year’s Eve – just me and a guitar and a seriously out-of-tune upright – opened the door to bleeding fingertips and aching wrists and a voice I didn’t realize I had.

 

Even so, after so much reflection and work and a few tears, I started to wonder
if music was really in my blood, or if I was just kidding myself. Of course my skills are rusty. Of course I need to practice. It’s been so long since I sat down and wrote that I forgot the process (for the record, there is no “process” beyond sitting and writing). Of course I have things I want to say… But does music coarse through my veins? Do I need it like my morning coffee, or a hard run, or a good night’s sleep?

 

Absolutely, yes!

 

I used to say that music was in my blood…

 

And I’ll start saying it again.

 

Because it is.

The Intrepid Journey 2018: Retrospection

Four months ago today, a plane from Denver touched down in Edmonton. I grabbed my backpack and started walking between the rows of seats, Jenny restless at my side. A member of the cabin crew welcomed me home, and I stopped for a moment and cried tears of joy and relief and exhaustion, realizing that I was really and truly home.

My friend Keith picked me up from the airport and listened to me yammer on and on about the places I’d been and the people I’d met and the good, the bad, and the ugly of my trip. When he dropped me off at my front door, I soaked in the silence of the place I call home. When Ben arrived a little while later, we compared notes about our trips, swapped souvenirs, and hung art and mementos on the walls.

Over the next few months, my life shifted in some unexpected ways. I joined a support group that also sometimes played board games. I signed up for my second half-marathon (in Edmonton… in February… what was I thinking?), and started training for it. I did a couple of craft shows with my jewelry business, with mixed success. As my social world blossomed and grew, Ben and I came to terms with the truth that our marriage was over. We have always been great friends, and we have set ourselves up to continue to be so in the future. We wish each other nothing but joy and peace and happiness; and, no, I’m not just saying that.

Over the past four months, I’ve heard from a few folks from my journey. Jeff, my guide runner from Great Falls, pops up occasionally with a smile in his messages. Leesa, my guardian angel from Bozeman, messages me regularly; I’ve also stayed in sporadic touch with my Bozeman host. I hear from Jay and Emily, my guides for my first half-marathon in Billings, from time to time; last I heard, Jay has a new puppy that’s keeping him busy. Aziza (from Denver) and I stay in touch online, as do Robin (from Seattle) and I. Ken, my guide through Yellowstone, loved the blog post I wrote (he’s biased; he took the pics). James, from the Governor’s Mansion in Cheyenne, popped by my blog to say hello. And Ray, my pottery instructor from Whitefish, is on to some new adventures of his own; and (even though I can’t prove it) I think he’s the one who sent me the pieces we made together, all glazed and pretty… they arrived after one of the darkest nights of my life, just before Christmas.

The Intrepid Journey 2018 prepared me for this current place of peace I find myself. Those pianos I played in Billings and Cheyenne helped me fall in love with my own piano – for the first time since we bought it. Accepting rides from random strangers in Butte, Helena, and Bozeman helped me remember that we are given intuition about people, and I should use it in other life interactions. I rediscovered how to dust myself off when everything hits the skids, and keep on going. I learned to push myself when I’ve got a little more in the tank, to smile more, to listen to stories, to take a deep breath and tell my own. I don’t know that I would be who I am today if I hadn’t decided, riding in a Nissan down a Montana highway, to take a risk and travel alone, on my terms, in places where I didn’t know a soul. Before I left, before Jenny went for emergency surgery, before I had any true idea what I was in for, I bought a display for my race bib to commemorate my first half-marathon. It hangs on a wall in my house, where you can see it as you walk in the front door, or as you enter and leave the kitchen. I chose, after thoughtful consideration, to customize it with these words that proved to be prophetic:
The Intrepid Journey 2018
Stronger than You Think

2018: The Year of Growth

2018 was… complicated.
I haven’t been around much on this blog since returning from The Intrepid Journey 2018 for quite a few personal reasons. I have not shared the details here, and I won’t share more than broad strokes, but needless to say that my life has gone in a direction that I never expected it to go. For those who read my original Intrepid Journey posts written on a bluetooth keyboard with 80 million spelling mistakes, I love you all… take a read back through them; they’re now much tidier… and have pictures!

 

If I had to pick two words that would adequately summarize this year, they would be “growth” and “Truth.” They’ve fed off each other. I’ve spoken a truth – or more – into the air, and gone through a prolonged growth process. I went through a long solo trip (a growth process of its own) and discovered some more truths. And the cycle continued.
Even earlier this year, at the same moments I didn’t realize I was laying some personal emotional groundwork, I was speaking more truths. From a blog post that has become one of my site’s most popular (apparently to the surprise of no one but me), to opening up to some personal struggles, to acknowledging and voicing my needs in life, friends, and relationships… this year has been full of standing up – sometimes shakily with trembling knees, sometimes strongly with head up and shoulders back – and speaking my truth.

 

Top Viewed Blog Posts of 2018

5. To the Parents of Blind Children, Part 1: You have SO much Power
4. You Inspire Me! No… REALLY!
3. An Open Letter to Service Dog Fakers
2. Book Review: “Carry On” by Lisa Fenn
1. Is this OK with You?

Speaking Truth

This year, probably more than any other, has been a year I’ve been more outspoken than usual (yes, apparently, this is possible). I’ve continued to self-advocate in disability spaces, outlined specific expectations related to running a first race, and taken pride in the person I am, refusing to apologize for things I cannot change or control (still working on that last one). I’ve also found myself more careful, more cautious, of the words I put out into the world. From a blog post I wrote and published in the span of an hour to the one that sat in draft form for over a year (and which three people I respect had to talk me in to publishing), I’ve gained a whole new respect and appreciation for the power of words.

Growth

And I’ve grown – am growing – in ways I never expected. From examining why I respond to compliments in the way I do, to expanding my social and emotional worlds, to putting into words why music – something once as much a part of me as my hands or my lungs – was silenced for years. Some of these stories are still being written – some of them here – and I can see only good things moving forward. Even though 2018 saw the end of my marriage, it has also given me the tools to be able to move in to 2019 with grace, with strength, and with confidence.
And I cannot conclude this post without mentioning the friends and family cheering me on. There have been many friends new and old – some from truly unexpected places – who, in ways big and small, have held me up and kept me going, reminding me of who I was, who I am, and who I want to be.
Bring on 2019!

“Can I Borrow your Eyes?”: My Aira Story

“Oh, you’re blind. I’m so sorry. It must be SOOOOO hard.”

I hear this sentiment on a fairly regular basis, and I’ve generally dismissed it with comments like “I’m used to it” or “it’s not so hard.” While I still believe that inaccessibility and societal perceptions are the biggest barriers to my life as a blind person, I can’t deny that sometimes I would really like to “borrow” someone’s eyes when self-sufficiency is impractical or unrealistic.

For as long as blind people have walked this earth, assistance has been provided (or not) by family, friends, hired helpers, or strangers. Whether it’s getting rides to appointments, reading mail, finding stuff that fell on the floor, or making sure our favourite dress shirt still looks good for that big presentation, sometimes having working eyes just makes life easier. From low-tech volunteer matching services to high-tech cell phone apps, there’s no shortage of ways for blind people to request the help of someone whose eyes function better than our own. Over the past few years, the tide has started to turn from a volunteer-based model – relying on the good will of sighted people – to viewing blind people as a consumer base who should be able to rely on – and pay for – a service whenever we wish to.

Enter Aira.

What is Aira?

According to their web site, Aira is “… transformative remote assistive technology that connects the blind with a network of certified agents via wearable smart glasses and an augmented reality dashboard that allows agents to see what the blind person sees in real time.” A blind person – “explorer” – uses their smart phone to connect with an Aira agent, who can provide visual information based on the view from the phone’s camera or smart glasses worn by the Explorer. Agents are trained to provide unbiased information – no editorializing here – on everything from the application of makeup to the items on a restaurant menu to the cycle of a stoplight. Depending on the equipment setup of the Explorer, agents can also take photos, remote in to computers and cell phones, and provide technical assistance. The possibilities are numerous.

 

Using Aira

 

I decided to sign up for Aira while preparing for The Intrepid Journey 2018. My hope was to receive the glasses – the Austria glasses were shipping to new subscribers at the time – before I left. Unfortunately, this didn’t work out for me, so my use of Aira on my trip was limited by my cell phone’s camera range, battery power, and generous data constraints. Even before leaving for the airport, I tried out Aira to differentiate my passport from Ben’s, to help organize the receipts in my wallet (all of which were useless), and provide visual information about my regular route to work that had construction magically spring up overnight. While I was traveling, agents helped me navigate the complicated neighborhood where I was staying in Butte, set up my new bluetooth keyboard when the one I packed crashed and burned, and guided me through the state Capitol in Helena. My Austria glasses arrived at my house three days after I got back, and I’ve found them incredibly useful for tasks that require the use of both hands – like sorting socks or organizing my closet. But the phone is just as useful when I just need someone to quickly tell me what my Instant Pot screen says after I hear a beep that heralds the end of the world. The agents have always been professional and approachable, providing useful information that I wouldn’t necessarily even think to ask. Even with technical issues – some of which have since been resolved – I like the ability to contact someone who can provide useful, unbiased visual information on my terms, and I have no problem paying for the service, even as I realize that their pricing points can be out of the reach of many of their customer base.

 

Growing Pains?

 

While the user experience has been slick and professional, where Aira often falls short is their customer support. After waiting nearly a month for the glasses, I had to call them multiple times to get a status update on where they were in the shipping process. When the glasses finally arrived, the Hot Spot that came with them (which would provide a data connection so my phone wouldn’t have to) wasn’t enabled with international access. That was finally resolved with a long call to tech support that could have been avoided if the unit would have already been enabled with international data.

As an Android user, I am limited in my use of Aira. Iphone users have lots of useful features – like the ability to text message an agent when they cannot talk – but the Android app does not have this capability. My app will frequently freeze when an agent tries to take a picture (I work around this by using the glasses), and I am not alone; to date, nothing has been done about this, despite multiple calls to tech support. And I pay exactly the same price as an Iphone user, with maybe a third of the functionality. Because I wasn’t using the minutes allotted to me in my pricing plan, I agreed to share them with a couple of friends; the on-boarding process for one of my friends – which is free – was charged to my purchased minutes. I had to make three calls over 3-4 days to get the minutes credited back to me. And now that credited minutes don’t expire, I shouldn’t have to call and get them re-instated at the renewal of my billing cycle… except that I did, and a part of me is expecting to have to do the same in January if I don’t use my credited minutes during the holidays.

Some people have said that Aira is a new company experiencing aggressive, rapid growth, and they should be forgiven for these issues because the service itself is so valuable. I disagree. The service is useful, the agents are professional and well-trained, but – while growth is painful – it’s clear that the customer support model is broken. Phone tag should not be the status quo for technical issues or billing concerns, and that’s what I see regularly in online spaces.

 

Other Concerns

 

Recently, there’s been a lot of discussion – and dare I say controversy – about Aira’s business practices. While the customer service has been a frequent concern cited in social media spaces, it’s definitely not the only one. From appointing the CEO of Foundation Fighting Blindness – an organization that silenced concerns about their #HowISeeIt campaign – to their advisory board – to inconsistent messaging about pricing plans and roll-over minutes, to personal stories about attempts at customer retention that veer into blame territory, there’s plenty to be concerned about. I’ve read stories from explorers who talk about how they literally cannot live independently without the service; how much of that is the company marketing, and how far has the consumer base bought into it?

 

Conclusion

 

I think Aira has a lot of things going for it. But I think it has some very serious issues that it needs to address directly with its customer base. I’ve recommended the service as a useful tool to several friends, and I still think it’s true. However, the back-end issues have coloured my perception of the company and the service itself. And while I have lived without the service before – and can do so again – I’m not currently willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Hopefully, Aira will be able to listen to and appropriately address the loudly-voiced legitimate concerns of their customer base, who pay premium rates for a premium service with a few premium flaws.

The Intrepid Journey 2018, Denver: Culture shock!

My bus is so late arriving that I seriously wonder if it’s meant to arrive at all. It finally pulls up half an hour late, and the same driver who got me to Cheyenne is taking me on to Denver. He asks if I want to get off downtown or at Union Station; my ticket says Downtown, but he leaves the choice to me. We get hung up in traffic and arrive at Union Station 45 minutes late. At this point, I want OFF the bus, so I grab Jenny and my backpack and head in to the station.

 

This building is HUGE, and Jenny flawlessly takes me to a flight of stairs, where I ask a security officer where to go to get to Gate B8. He sends me up the stairs, and I find myself on some kind of platform. Jenny guides me somewhere… and next thing I know my arm is being gripped by two closing doors! Thankfully, Jenny had made it all the way in to the train, and didn’t get caught herself. Other commuters help me and make sure I’m OK. Another security officer agrees to walk me downstairs, to Gate B8; I had previously been directed to TRACK B8. My #15 bus arrives, and I show my pass to the driver (I’d purchased it from my phone on the bus). My first impression of Denver: it’s loud, it’s big, and oh boy I know I’m not in Montana anymore!

 

My friend Aziza has invited me to stay with her and her boyfriend, Ellaun. Ellaun meets me at the bus stop – after a brief period where we had no idea the other was there – and we head over to their apartment. We all sit around and get acquainted, and Jenny makes fast friends with Marna, Aziza’s guide dog. During the course of the evening, we eat, laugh, watch Forrest Gump… I turn in early (11:30 PM) while the others continue to watch movies. I want to join them, but I am SOOOOOO tired…

 

Saturday morning, I’m awake early. Aziza is dog-sitting a gorgeous puppy named Bernie, and he arrived earlier. He’s hanging out in Marna’s crate and Jenny’s chilling in the guest room. Aziza and I try and get the Keurig machine working, but it refuses to brew coffee; this leaves more counter space for Aziza! Instead, I enjoy a hot cup of coconut coffee and a buttered bagel.

 

A couple months ago, Aziza met a personal stylist, and found the experience of learning new ways to match clothes, accessorize and dress in a way that flatters her to be incredibly helpful. It’s something I’ve considered in passing, but never knew where to start. When I heard about Aziza’s experience with Sandi, I just knew it was something I wanted to try while I was in town.

 

Aziza and I leave the house late, and the Uber has a hard time finding us. We finally make it to Cherry Creek Mall, and ask directions to The Loft, where Sandi is meeting us. No fewer than six people offer to help us, but have no idea where the store is. After a frustrating 20 minutes of getting conflicting directions, Sandi meets us out front of The Loft so we could better locate her. The next two hours are spent trying on clothes, different sizes, different cuts, and taking some new but not outrageous risks in clothing purchases. Aziza loves some of the clothes Sandi has picked for me – particularly a gorgeous silver-gray cardigan I fall in love with at first touch. Sandi is attentive and observant, and her philosophy “If it’s not a LOVE, it doesn’t go in your closet.” In the end, I walk away with two pairs of pants (one forest green, one navy), two shirts (one navy, one cream with some navy stripes and a slight sleeve ruffle) and that cardigan. The whole store is on sale, and Aziza has discount cards that will expire next week, so I save more than 50% on my purchases… AND I have learned a lot about coordination that I didn’t know before… And I never once felt judged for not knowing something, or not wanting to fiddle with anything remotely fussy. The time has flown by and I’ve walked away with more than just a bag of clothes – though the clothes are nice!

 

We grab a coffee and light lunch at Nordstrom, then browse for a while before heading to Lush. The scents at Lush are starting to overwhelm me, so I step outside before I get a headache. Jenny guides us to Urban outfitters, where the closest exit is, and I’m so impressed with how well she and Marna are working together; we even ask a Nordstrom employee to snap a picture of Jenny resting her head on Marna’s back! Once outside, Aziza says there’s some local shops she wants to take me to. We struggle to find the Artisan Centre, and once we locate it we can’t browse too long because they’re closing soon. I purchase something I just know one of my friends will love, and Aziza calls an Uber to get to downtown.

 

Jenny and Marna

 

Our first stop is Dog Savvy, where we browse all kinds of dog supplies and dog-themed merchandise. Jenny is offered a treat, but she’s allergic to so many things that I have to decline, much to Jenny’s disappointment. From Dog Savvy, we head to Aillea, where I purchase a tiny container of shea butter for a spot on my arm that bothers me particularly in the fall. From Aillea, it’s just a quick jaunt to the 16th Street Mall, and that’s where we walk next.

 

The 16th Street Mall is a pedestrian mall in the middle of downtown Denver. Shuttles take shoppers up and down the mall, musicians play on most streets, and there’s lots of local businesses to explore and enjoy! There’s the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, Where the Buffalo Roam, and more coffee shops than I can count. We even manage to find a bunny rabbit just hanging out on a patch of grass, not seeming bothered at all by all the people and dogs in its immediate vicinity. Jenny found the bunny when I told her to “find something fun”, and she finds her fourth coffee shop of the day (I think I drink too much coffee!)

 

Bunny Rabbit in Denver

 

Ellaun meets us at 5280, where we sit in a massive booth meant for eight people. I get a burger and salad, and enjoy the music from the ’90s and early ’00s being pumped through the speakers. We talk politics – which with Aziza and Ellaun is a lot more fun than it sounds – growing up, changing perceptions, tipping, supporting others’ decisions even if you wouldn’t make them yourself… it’s incredibly rare that such a deep conversation can be so humorous!

 

We call an Uber back to the apartment, and the driver is terrified that Marna will do something to him and his car. He seems unsure of the directions Aziza and Ellaun are giving him, and then Jenny tries to rush out of the car, trapping Aziza in the back seat. The driver then offers to hold my dog for me. NOOOOOO! Aziza holds her leash while I come around and get her out, and we’re both really really glad to b out of that Uber!

Bernie, the dog Aziza and Ellaun are dog-sitting, needs a run! Aziza and I are both exhausted, but we know our girls need a free run, too. Ellaun is heading up the stairs while I’m giving Jenny a chance to relieve… and my Loft bag rips, spilling smaller items onto the grass. I’m gathering things up, and Ellaun asks if I’m OK, then hauls the ripped bag upstairs while I finish with Jenny.

 

We make our way to the dog park, each holding the leash of a dog. Aziza stteps in a puddle and asks why I didn’t warn her. I laugh, though I probably shouldn’t; its a little puddle! What is NOT little is the amount of mud in the dog park. The dogs are running and chasing each other, and the humans are trying – mostly in vain – to keep out of it ourselves. we’re being sprayed with various levels of mud, and we all know we’re gonna have to clean off three sets of doggie paws, if nothing else.

 

I have more mud on me than Jenny does. My sandals are caked with it, and I’m speckled with it from toes to knees. Jenny’s got it on her paws, but just needs a brief wipe-down of her back leg and belly. Finally, as clean as we can be, three humans and three dogs head inside and call it a night.

 

Sunday morning, I get up early and start to pack. Now that I’ve decided to retire my sandals, I’ve got more room in my backpack. I thought I’d rolled my running clothes… until I make a concerted effort to roll them this morning. WOW! How many things can fit in one tiny packing cube! There’s hope for me to fit everything in and be able to fly home tomorrow.

 

Aziza has to work this morning, and so does Elaun. I’ve decided to hang out at a coffee shop while Aziza is at work for the morning. I order a coffee and a burrito, and sit down to enjoy the ambiance of a LOCAL coffee shop. When I’ve had my fill, Jenny and I walk around the neighborhood to see what we can see. I turn down residential streets, and discover a quiet pocket of space right inside this bustling city. I’m reminded of my own neighborhood, and I miss it immensely. In just over 24 hours, I’ll be home!!! A resident is mowing his lawn and stops to chat, and points me to the park up the street. I don’t have time to visit, since Aziza is on her way back to the coffee shop, but it sounds like some kind of event is taking place near the park. Back at the coffee shop, Aziza and I sit in large comfortable chairs that we don’t want to leave… ever! But leave we must. We’ve got a craft show to attend!

 

Handmade in Colorado is just like it sounds. We stumbled across a vendor yesterday tearing her table down, and she told us about the event at the 16th Street Mall. We browse through pens, dog collars and leashes, a lot of jewelry, and some beautifully carved jewelry boxes. There’s a lot of people, and it is HOT. Jenny flops down on the ground at every table we visit. At one of our last stops of the small show, we find some cool massage pillows, and humans and dogs alike are glad to get out of the heat. Then we relax in hanging chairs, like hammocks, and the craftsman/salesman calls me “touchy” when I firmly tell him to please not touch my legs to put them up on the footrests. The chairs are super cool, though!

 

Our budgets are stretched, but we hop the Mall Ride trolley and hop off two stops later, where we stop for lunch at a Mexican restaurant. I have a deluxe burrito with carnitas (seasoned pork). Our water glasses are constantly being refilled, and we talk about language, family, and music, and then head out to I Heart Denver, a fun artsy shop that consigns work from local artists. I buy a few things, then try and find a gelato spot Jenny showed us yesterday. We find it easily, and eat our gellato from paper cups with little spoons that look like spatulas. Then it’s time to battle the heat and make our way home.

 

We both doze off on the bus ride home, but we make our stop and get back to the boiling apartment just after 6:00. We feed the dogs, then watch them play, show each other souvenirs and important pieces of jewelry. Aziza shows me the wonder of vacuum-sealed bags; everything gets squished into a tiny package! I manage, with some mad Tetrus skills I didn’t expect to need again, to get everything squashed into my poor, long-suffering backpack. When Ellaun gets home, we take “twin pictures” of Aziza an me in our matching outfits, eat pizza and chat for a while before I sadly have to call it a night.

 

 

We are wearing matching dark green leggings and cream-coloured sweaters

Aziza and I are long-lost twins!

 

I wake up early, make sure I have everything I need, and play another game of “Backpack Tetrus.” Aziza asked me to wake her to say goodbye, so I do. We chat drowsily, pet each other’s dogs farewell, and hug goodbye before I head down the stairs. We had hoped to go to the state capitol together, but life had other plans. Instead, I’m doing my last part of my trip alone.

 

I get lost coming out of the apartment complex, but I make it to the bus on time. The bus, however, is late. When I arrive at the state capitol, Jenny takes me to a door that happens to be closed. It’s not her fault! When I get into the part of the building that is open, I am asked in a sickly sweet voice to please go through security. So I do. I make it up the stairs and start exploring the building. Unfortunately, the internet is spotty and I am not able to get too much visual information. Also, I find it a little bit creepy to be going into a building that, while public, is still somebody’s workplace. It’s kind of an interesting feeling that I didn’t expect to feel. The capital of Colorado has a lot of marble. It’s a very nice building, and I wish I could stay longer. But I have one more stop. The airport.

 

My bus arrives on time, and I relax for the few minutes until I head back to Union Station. After my experience when arriving there, I am a little bit concerned about making it to my train on time. However, the bus driver gives good directions for the train, and I manage to hop on in plenty of time to be able to make my flight. I have a lot of thoughts going through my head as the train makes its way along the tracks. Who was I when I left? Who am I now? What will I carry with me when routine sets in? Home will have those answers. And as amazing as this trip has been, my next adventure starts at home.

 

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The Intrepid Journey 2018, Cheyenne: Wild Wild West

My alarm rings at 4:30. I turn it off; I’m wide awake.

 

AAAAAACK! It’s 4:54!!!! Jay, who’s driving me to the bus station, will be here at 5:00. Thankfully, I’m mostly packed, so I quickly brush my teeth, throw my cosmetic bag into my backpack – more like playing an impromptu game of Speedy Tetrus – and do a quick check through my little room. I’ve got everything; if I don’t have it, I don’t need it.

 

We make it through the bus station doors just as the bus is loading. Jay and I hug goodbye, and Jenny and I nearly fly to the bus. It’s so early that no one is chatting to anyone else; I wonder if, like me, they haven’t had coffee yet.

 

The bus travels into Wyoming, and there’s either no time to stop for coffee, or no coffee to be had. Even when we change buses at Buffalo, WY, my body is screaming for coffee. The drivers of the Jefferson Lines bus and the Express Arrow bus are having some kind of personality conflict involving the transition of bags from one bus to another. I’m interested, but a rancher in the seat behind me engages me in conversation (which, now that I think of it, is probably a more gratifying use of mental energy). The rancher behind me is Neil, and he tasks himself as my “helper” on this journey; in Casper, he insists on running across the street to the Starbucks for coffees. I’ll take that kind of help any day!

 

The coffee doesn’t last long, but we reach a meal break stop in Wheatland. Arby’s isn’t my preferred fast-food place, but they have wraps, curly fries, and passable coffee. Once we board the bus, it’s just a straight shot to Cheyenne. Another passenger is heading to Salt Lake City, and their connection is more pressing than mine; we’re the only two getting off the bus, so I wait for them before Jenny and I take off.

 

Right by the bus station, there’s a Loaf ‘N Jug convenience store, and I pop inside to confirm the location of the city bus. Turns out, it’s right around the corner! After nearly nine hours of travel, I see the light at the end of the tunnel… I hope!

 

The city bus pulls up a couple minutes late. I pay my fare and settle in to a nearly empty bus. The bus announces the stops! I do a little happy dance at the clear, easy-to-hear voice. When I tell the driver how glad I am of this, he seems surprised that I’m so happy about it. I tell him briefly about what I’ve experienced in Montana, and he makes a joke about Montana being behind the times. Just a few minutes after hopping on, the driver pulls up to the side of the street with sidewalks to guide me. After a brief, rather circuitous route, I make it to my AirBNB, where one of my hosts hauls my backpack down the stairs, shows me around, and leaves me to get settled.

 

I am TIRED. But my time here is so brief that I have to make the most of it. Browsing Facebook, I find a Hops and Henna event at a local brewery, and I decide to go. I hop the bus to the transfer centre, swing by a local Chinese restaurant where I grab beef and veggie fried rice to go, then walk to the crowded brewery.

 

The doors open, and immediately my ears are assaulted by sound. Caitlin, an employee, helps me sign up for the henna tattoo an gets me settled at the bar. Over the next hour, I eat my fried rice, and encounter several patrons. Most notably of these is Mike, a sweet, harmless, and a little creepy retired Air Force man. Callie, the henna artist, decides to play “wing man” and rescue me from Mike. She draws a whimsical, intricate design on my right shoulder, and we talk about work and creativity and travel. When she’s done, she hands me a token, and I order a beer.

 

Other patrons have witnessed my interaction with Mike. He’s pretty well-known, apparently, and it seems their general impression matches my own – he’s nice enough, but doesn’t quite pick up on social cues, but overall he’s pretty harmless. I’m having a wonderful conversation with another regular, and I would love to stay, but I am exhausted and need to get back to my AirBNB. It’s raining lightly as I step outside and order an Uber, which arrives in less than 30 seconds. My driver says that Jenny is his first service dog; I think he’s got a great first one! He drops me off, and I meet my other host at the back door. After a brief chat, I call it a night, having already fallen in love with Cheyenne and its people.

 

I wake up early, having had a great sleep. Just for fun, I drink far too much coffee before figuring out a game plan for today. At 8:30, I leave in plenty of time for the bus to take me back to the Transfer Station. Twenty minutes later, I’m back in the historic district, and off in search of breakfast. Lots of people have told me about the Paramount Cafe. It’s only two blocks from the Depot Museum, where I will catch my trolley tour. Jenny flawlessly “finds coffee”, and we enter, order a black bean burrito and a honey raspberry green tea that I am told is addictive. It is So good… I wish I could take some home with me!

 

At the Depot, I pick up my trolley ticket, board, and get jenny situated. A few minutes later, our guide, Val, hops on board and is cracking jokes about everyone’s home towns, and starts talking about Cheyenne’s early days. We hear that Cheyenne was the first territory to give women the right to vote, and the right to hold public office, and had the first woman female governor. History came alive over the next 90 minutes as we toured through the historic district, stopping at various points that I’d like to see later. Unfortunately, we can’t stop by the Capitol Building because it’s been closed for renovations and won’t reopen until sometime next year.

 

After a thoroughly enjoyable ride through the Wild West, I pop in to the Depot museum itself. The main floor has all kinds of audio displays, showing how the switches worked, and the gear the rail dispatchers used. Up a flight of stairs is a model train set, a fully-operational scale replica of 55 miles of Colorado train track from the 1930s. A couple of folks from my trolley have come up, and they live in the area and are absolutely blown away over how accurate the setup is. As more guests arrive, I head back downstairs, check out a couple more displays, and head outside.

 

Over the next half hour, I pop in to a couple of small museums. The Cowgirls of the West museum has movies playing about the early women who participated in rodeos, some of whom could be considered early feminists for their desire to earn the same wages as the cowboys on the same rodeo circuit; others weren’t bothered by unequal pay and thought that’s just the way it was. After the movie snippet, I walk down to the Nelson Museum of the West. When I ask if someone can show me around, I’m directed to a chair “out of the way” and am given the phone number for the audio tour. While audio tours are nice, I don’t feel particularly welcome. So I listen to the audio tour – which is being offered to everyone who enters the museum – and then get up and leave.

 

The Historic Governor’s Mansion was a stop on our trolley tour, and I look forward to exploring it – since many of their tours are self-guided, I wonder if I will need to use AiRa, or if there are other ways to experience the home as it was in 1905. It’s a few blocks’ walk, and there’s construction on House and W 20 Street, but the construction crew helps me out by stopping their work and making sure I get on to the sidewalk safely. When I reach the Governor’s Mansion, Jenny takes me up a long ramp to a door… that’s locked! I’m about to head back down the ramp – oh, no, is this someone’s house? – when the door opens, and Christina introduces herself and welcomes me inside. She asks if I’d like to explore on my own, or if I’d like a tour guide. If someone’s available,, a tour guide would be excellent! We’ve made our way to the front foyer, where I wait for James, who’s super excited to show me around.

 

Over the next hour, I receive a completely described tour of what each of the rooms look like. You can only physically enter a handful of rooms, but in those I am able to feel the original furniture from 1905 – much of which was sold at auction in the ’30s – and play at the concert piano. With the latter, I am shy, but you don’t get an opportunity to play these every day, so I take them when I can. The rooms behind barricades are described extremely well, and James and I play word games to try and figure out what to call “that big black suitcase that you’d use to haul around your stuff.” There are beautiful, well-appointed rooms, and there are “hideous” rooms – like the gaudy 60s-themed room complete with Beatles records and beads. The laundry room is bigger than my house, with all kinds of machines that would have been used as time and technology progressed. Right by that is the fallout shelter that was mandated everyone build in the 1950s, including the types of canned goods, games, and things that would have been used at the time. More than an hour after I enter, Jenny and I step out into the sunshine. James thanks us for coming and “making him work” to describe things. I thank him for his descriptions and his obvious enthusiasm; he’s a natural.

 

Jenny and i meander over to the Wyoming State Museum. It’s an interesting place to spend some time, with some tactile displays, but not a lot to explore on my own. I consider using AiRa, but my phone battery is low, and it uses a lot of battery power. Instead, I pick up a couple mall Wyoming themed gifts at the gift shop and ask for recommendations for somewhere to eat.

 

Lots of people have mentioned Two Doors Down, so I head over there. Somehow I end up talking with a tourist from Colorado who offers me a ride there. It’s only a couple blocks from here, and I’m not quite up for company, so I choose to walk it on my own. When I enter, one of the waitresses reads me the whole menu with the patience of a saint. I love the burger I order, but I’m really REALLY starting to miss home-cooking!

 

It’s been a long day, and its time for Jenny and I to relax. We walk to the transfer station, where all of the buses are lined up in a row so that passengers can make their connections; all buses start and end here, only doing one loop and not providing quick service if you have to go to the previous stop (you have to do the WHOLE loop again); this is about the only thing I don’t like about the transit system here. We find our AirBNB, run some laundry, make plans for our next destination and just lay low. Jenny is so tired after her long day that she curls up into a tiny ball and tries to get as close to me as possible.

 

I don’t sleep well, but I’m too restless to stay put. My host has given me the OK to leave my backpack and pick it up on my way to the bus. But I think about it; my backpack is manageable, if clunky, and I decide to take it with me and walk back toward where we were exploring yesterday. I plug a gift shop’s address into my GPS, take a windy route to stay on the main roads… and the door to the gift shop is locked.

 

It’s EXPLORATION time! This is an exercise I sometimes enjoy, where I pop into businesses along a particular street. Immediately, this pays off, and I find myself enjoying a breakfast sandwich and a coffee for an hour, chatting with locals and tourists and the business owner himself!

 

The next half hour is less productive. I’m not near anything super interesting… Jenny decides it’s a great idea to hang out and rest near the Depot Museum, where we were yesterday. I’ve got some time to kill, so I meander over to the Crooked Cup. On my way there, I end up at Electric Sabbath Tattoo, where yesterday I asked directions to the Nelson Museum. I’m starting to wonder if I was meant to stop in there… maybe I’ll get a tattoo next time I’m in town. Jason, who gave me directions yesterday, asks how the Nelson Museum was. When I tell him about my experience, he is frustrated and disappointed on my behalf. Apparently, it’s a really interesting museum!!

 

We have a wonderful chat about tattoo culture in Cheyenne, which is thriving (unlike similar towns of this size). I ask for a Crooked Cup smoothie recommendation and I’m on my way. I order something else – pineapple and coconut – and I am enjoying it when my host calls me. Apparently I left a few things at the AirBNB. Thankfully, she’s close by, and is able to drop them off for me at the cafe. I stuff the bag into my backpack, sling it over my shoulders, and wave a fond and wistful goodbye to the city that has unexpectedly stolen my heart.

 

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The Intrepid Journey 2018, Billings: Run, Run, as Fast as You Can!

My Bozeman host gives me a ride to the bus. Our lunch has been fillling and enlightening, and I’m grateful for the company and the lift to the station. As we approach the bus, he’s told that “she needed to check in.” I’d rather be spoken to directly, so I walk toward the bus and hand in my ticket. The driver wants to put my backpack under the bus, but I want to keep it with me. It takes some convincing, but I get to keep it with me.

 

No one knows what the fuss is – the bus has six occupied seats. Other passengers chat, I read, and the bus arrives in Billings two hours after it leaves Bozeman. When I leave the bus, the driver insists on taking my bag, and insisting on carrying it myself does nothing to change his mind. I make my way to the package pickup counter – my gloves were sent here by my Butte host – and I sign for my package.

 

Jay, my guide runner for tomorrow’s race, meets me at the counter. Jenny’s restless and unfocused, and acts like she’s never heard the “steady” command in her life. As we make our way to Jay’s truck, Jenny is determined to get wherever we’re going as quickly as possible. Jay makes his way to my AirBNB, and after a brief period of confusion – how to get to the back door – we haul my backpack downstairs, along with a couple of packages I had shipped to Jay as preparation for race day.

 

Jay and his daughter Emily have both agreed to guide run tomorrow – and both are running with me tonight to iron out some wrinkles. The sun is bright, and it’s quite warm outside, and I’m grateful that today’s run will be short and easy. Emily apologizes for the shape of the sidewalks, and I laugh; I’ve run through Helena and walked through Butte, and these sidewalks are smooth in comparison. Jenny, after a brief period of poor focus, settles in for the run. We figure out placement, lead time for information, and actually run the finish line. We are ready for tomorrow. Back at the AirBNB,, I eat a light meal of snacks from my backpack, and head for bed early; tomorrow will be here before I know it.

 

My alarm goes off at 5:00. I wake up with a headache, and swallow an Advil. The old-school coffee pot sizzles and pops as the water heats up. I down one cup of coffee, unsuccessfully scour my room for my deodorant, pour another cup of coffee for the road, and almost leave the house without my race bib. I calm my nerves, grab my race bib, and mentally run through everything I’ll need for the race. Today is the day… and now I am ready.

 

Jay is waiting at the back gate, and we walk over to the bus. Its 6:30, and the bus is making its way to the start line. There’s a runner from Atlanta who wants to run in all 50 states. She’s easily the funniest passenger on the bus, marveling about the sunrise, expressing surprise at the cows on the side of the road, asking where the police are – the standard response to everything: “This is Montana!” We are all laughing and preparing and cheering for each other’s goals.

 

The bus drops us off, but the start line is nowhere in sight. We walk past the porta-potties, which someone has tipped over – an amusing alternative to cow-tipping! The sun rises, and the air heats up. As start-time approaches, we all breathe, mentally prepare, and wonder where that start line is. With fifteen minutes to go, we finally locate the start line, and start moving toward it. I leave my windbreaker in Jay’s drop-bag; I doubt I will need it, and it will only slow me down. Jay congratulates me for making it to the starting line, and I realize how profound that is; you can never finish unless you start.

 

The gun goes off, and half of us don’t hear it. When we do, we start running. I hear a “beep” as I cross the start line, and from that point on the clock is ticking.

 

The first three miles, I can only describe as “magic.” I run them each as 10-minute miles, something I have never done before. My first 5 km are run in 31:28, another first. Whatever happens today, I can take immense pride in how I’ve started this race. We hit a snag with traffic on the road, the air heats up, and my race pack is starting to rub against my back. I’m still overwhelmed by the speed I am running, and how easy it feels. Jenny’s keeping the pace and watching for cars, ignoring the dogs that are accompanying their owners who are cheering us on.

 

7 km in, we’ve hit the subdivision. Emily joins Jay and I, ready to step in if Jay’s not able to. We hit a water station at the 5-mile mark (8 km),, and Jenny drinks straight from the paper cup. We’ve slowed slightly for the water break and the traffic in the subdivision, but I’m still thrilled with our pace. The pathway we encounter next (9.66 km, or 6 miles in) is crowded with runners and walkers. Jenny ignores the groundhogs that make noise right beside her, weaves around as many people as she can, but we’re slowed down in this crowd.

 

We settle in for the mid-run slog – the part that’s always been a mental struggle for me. Water stations are conveniently located on sidewalks, but so are their extra supplies. After another period of straight road running – where I shout encouragement to “Atlanta” from the bus – we make our way into the city, where high curbs, traffic, and sidewalk supporters slow us down even further…

 

But I have to finish! I can feel that finish line as the kilometers click by. Jenny insists on running the sidewalk, rather than the road, and I spend some time redirecting her; eventually, I follow her lead, an she guides me around water stations, mailboxes, and other obstacles on the sidewalks. Every mile, Jenny and I are offered water, but after mile 11 we’ve hit something of a groove and have to keep going. After 20 km, I hit another milestone on my running journey – my longest run ever! The hill we ran yesterday approaches, and I’m moving! My feet cross the finish line, I hear my name called… and I run right past my medal. Jay and Emily – who’ve done an amazing job – retrieve it for me. It is done!!!

 

A volunteer grabs me a water – and one for Jenny – and some fruit for my lightheadedness. Now that the hard work is done, it’s time to relax and rebuild. A band plays pop medleys as runners and supporters cheer as more names are called at the finish line. Emily grabs a sticker with my finish time (2:36:01) and sticks it on my race bib. We are all happy and a little emotional, buut it’s now time to walk it off. Emily has a ride home, but Jay walks me back to my AirBNB. As we walk, we are both overcome with what has been done today – we’re still talking about those first three miles.

 

Jenny and I relaxing in the grass

 

Jay and I, with medals, arms around each other

 

Jenny is exhausted! She’s worked so hard, and she needs to recover. Within three minutes of unlocking the door, she’s sprawled out on the tile floor. Thirty minutes later – as I’m fielding congratulatory messages and phone calls – she curls up into a tiny ball on the carpet and sleeps the afternoon away.

 

My body is in surprisingly good shape, though I have blisters on at least three toes. That area on my back that was in contact with my running pack has a nice 4-square-inch raw patch. But there’s no major injuries to myself or Jenny; another victory in a series of victories today.

 

Monday morning… THAT’s when I hurt. My blankets are so comfortable that I am reluctant to get up in search of coffee. I don’t want to know what muscles will be angry with me. But coffee! Immediately, I feel stiffness in my ankles, calves, and thighs, and funny twinges in my toes and arches. And I’m walking a kilometer for coffee. This had better be good!

 

After Bozeman, I wonder about my ability to travel confidently and safely in this state. Thankfully, I get to the Ebon Coffee Collective without incident,, even traversing an angled crossing easily (Jenn gets credit for that one). Jenny “finds coffee!” and I meet Ty behind the counter. He says he saw me cross the finish line yesterday and thought Jenny was awesome! I order a coffee and pull up a chair beside Ryan, whose young daughter is fascinated by “the puppy!” Over the next two hours, I drink two cups of coffee, eat a baked oatmeal, and chat with Ty, Ryan, Ryan’s wife Ana, and three American missionaries who are performing missions work in all 50 states. Ty seems to know everything and everyone in this city, and has never met a stranger. I’m absolutely enchanted by him and the vibe of this coffee shop.

 

A question I get asked a lot: “What brings you to Montana?” or “Why here?” One of the missionaries – Derek – asks this question during our conversation. I tell him about the Epic Road Trip of Awesome, describing it as “four introverts and a dog.” We laugh about that trip becoming a book on the best-seller list (Derek, here’s your google search result!!) When Derek and his friends leave, my second coffee is gone, and it’s time for me to take off.

 

I make my way to Straight N Arrow, a shop that sels Native American art, jewelry, clothing and other items. At first glance, the shop is small, but as I work my way through it continues to expand. After a pleasant 30 minutes, I leave with a slim bracelet, an promise to come back tomorrow and make a final decision on a piece of art.

 

I’m getting hungry, and I had wanted to go to Red Robin yesterday to celebrate a successful race. But I was so tired last night that I ordered from an Italian restaurant and had it delivered. So today, I’m heading to Red Robin! The transfer point for the bus is just a couple blocks away, so I make my way over there… and find all the buses running, doors closed, no drivers inside and no passengers to ask what route the buses are. Despite arriving early, I miss my bus, and am waiting for the next one when a woman approaches me. She stands right in front of me, grips my arm, and asks how much vision I have. Startled, I tell her that’s a personal question, and can she please not touch me like that. She says she needed to touch me so that I knew she was addressing me, and by the way she is the bus driver. I board the bus and ask for the Red Robin, and can practically hear her wringing her hands while asking me how I will ever find my way there from the bus stop. No explanation will allay her concern, and I half-expect her to go off route and follow me there when I get off the bus.

 

After enjoying some fried food I haven’t allowed myself in weeks, I leave Red Robin happy, full, and a little bloated. It’s a beautiful day, so Jenny and I walk back to our AirBNB along a busy road, take a wrong turn when we approach our street, but find the AirBNB with ease. Tomorrow will be a jam-packed day, so we lay low for the evening, connecting with friends, family and husband, listening to pre-season hockey, and enjoying the quiet of a Billings Monday evening.

 

I don’t sleep well. Tuesday comes early, and I make my way over to Harper and Madison, a very well-known breakfast stop. I’m only a few blocks away, and I look forward to trying them out. For an hour or so, I sip coffee, eat a “hash”” with potatos, eggs, pork belly, and arugula, and enjoy the vibe of the restaurant. It’s charming in its way, and the staff is attentive and the food excellent, but it doesn’t have the openness of the Ebon Coffee Collective from yesterday. When it’s time to hit the road, I’m glad I spent some time there.

 

Jenny’s got that massage booked today, and I can either walk there or take a calculated risk on the bus. The bus gamble pays off – you stand at any corner along the route and the bus stops for you – and pulls up five minutes after I arrive on the corner. For the next hour, Jenny’s muscles get treated to some TLC, and I’m given a couple more stretches I can do at home. Just as I suspected, her right hip is stiff; to my surprise, so is her left shoulder. She gets up from the mat, relaxed and happy, thrilled to enthusiastically greet everyone. I pay and leave, knowing she’s been in excellent hands.

 

We gamble with the bus again,, and this time, too, it works out. The driver from earlier is headed downtown. When I get off the bus at the Transfer Centre, I walk the few blocks to Straight N Arrow. I choose a sand painting, pay for it, and make my way to the Moss Mansion to meet my could-have-been AirBNB host.

 

My could-have-been host? Yup! I booked her place, corresponded with her for months,,,,, and then life intervened. Due to unforeseen circumstances, I was unable to stay with her… and this all happened the week before departure! There was no hard feelings, but we had hoped to meet, and here was a perfect opportunity!

 

We tour through the Moss Mansion for a little while, and I take a rare opportunity to play a grand piano. We walk through formal and informal rooms, and I’m amazed at the display of old wealth in front of me.

 

It’s lunch time, and we decide to head to the Burger Dive. It’s a casual burger joint, with unique – and award-winning – burgers. I eat an excellent burger with bacon, bleu cheese, onions, and spicy sauce. It’s delicious!

 

We spend the next couple hours chatting, walking, looking through antiques… I feel a sense of sadness that I could not spend mmmore time with this warm and interesting woman. But I am also glad we’ve been able to connect at all. When she drops me off at the back gate, we hug goodbye and promise to keep in touch.

 

I spend the next little while tidying up and getting ready to go. It’s hard to believe my time here in Billings is almost over already. After fighting with technology, packing as much as I can, making arrangements for my transportation to the bus in the morning, I mmake my way downtown for dinner and a beer. I spend a pleasant couple hours on a patio, with the bar door open behind me, music and conversation over my shoulder. My beer is paired with a spicy Mac & Cheese, and when I’ve had my fill, I walk out into thhee Billings night, sorry to see this town behind me.

 

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