September 24, 2019 / Comments (0)

Accessible Wilderness

I follow an Appalachian Trail group on Facebook, and a few days ago, there was a post from a wheelchair-bound young man who was angrily saying that he was going to thru-hike the trail.

Social media being the echo chamber of our worst inclinations, his post prompted many angry responses, but all I could think was, “I get your anger. I get your hostility. I get how emotionally defeating this could be for you.”

My natural response is to ask, “how can I help?”, no matter how bitter someone might be. I’ve worked with disabled veterans long enough to know what a salve wilderness experiences can be, but also how frustrating the logistics are, especially for those who have severe impairments for movement.

We look at stories like this, where a woman paralyzed by lupus made a false claim about completing the Pacific Crest Trail. Her claim to have finished the Appalachian Trail is incredibly suspect, as well. We’re all rooting for her, but we know these trails are challenging for able-bodied people. An unsupported thru-hike on any major trail is impossible to conceive of for people with limited mobility.

I don’t judge this particular woman harshly. She may sit on quiet resentment of able-bodied people who can complete the trail in the same way I sit on quiet resentment of people who have the fiduciary means and space in their lives to undertake a thru-hike. The difference is, while I’ve completed the AT, I’ve only ever section hiked portions of the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail, and I don’t need to tell anyone that I did.

“Authentic” Wilderness Experiences are Inhibitors

I am very leary of letting other people define the benchmarks for an authentic wilderness experience. If I had to pick between a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail and some of the backcountry experiences I had while stationed in Alaska, the unsupported traverse of Alaskan mountain ranges, like the Chugach or Brooks Range, would win, hands down.

The first thing we need to do for our disabled friends who want authentic wilderness experiences is to get rid of the frame of abled achievement.

(I am sure I am using incorrect terminology here, and for that I apologize.)

Fastest Known Times, thru-hikes, etc., these are features of a privileged access to the wilderness. Even for those of us who don’t struggle with anything but arthritis, flat feet, and aches and pains from two decades or more in the military, these achievements do not need to be ours. I might even want to do some more thru-hiking, but I have financial, paternal, and employment responsibilities that I cannot shed and be a decent human being.

So my vision of authentic wilderness experience has a different benchmark. Can I fit in it in between this Jewish holiday and this pre-school dance recital? This is part of why we moved to Maine – we’ve shortened the distance between the kind of wilderness I love, but still can be responsible adults.

But I’m still speaking from an aspect of privilege. I can conceivably drive to, park, and hit Gulf Hagas in an hour or so, but I’m able to walk the trail, ford a river, and hike some more.

Someone with leg braces or wheelchair, doesn’t necessarily have that option.

What are you willing to do to get someone into the wilderness?

Think about it: a significant portion of “accessible” wilderness, at least in ADA parlance, is constrained to paved front-country trails. I think these are fantastic, and certainly the extent of human impact we can tolerate with regards to wilderness.

Our friends who have constraints on mobility, however, may feel completely different about this. I’ve walked Shenandoah National Park’s Limberlost Trail with a wheelchair-bound friend. When we parted ways, I headed towards my favorite hike out to near the Jones Mountain PATC cabin, and he, well, was consigned to a crowded campground.

This is very often the story. Are we content with our disabled friends being stuck in the front-country? Taking a tour bus through the wilderness?

There are ways we can help. Social media gives us the ability to be private trail angels. Can I help with logistics for a thru-hiker with special needs? If I’m going to thru-hike, can I take on, or help out with, another hiker who may have a rougher time climbing or negotiating fords?

Can you take someone who cannot walk unassisted on a wilderness canoe trip? Can you get the training to provide specific, and sometimes different, wilderness first aid?

These are the questions we should be asking ourselves when we see someone angrily posting about their undertakings. Don’t chide them, or take it upon yourself to tell them their dream is unapproachable (unless it truly is inviting harm to themselves and others).

Ask, “how can I help?”

Last modified: September 24, 2019

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *