Tandem Trailblazing

By Jeanine Schmitz 

Jenny lives in Seattle because of its unique offering of mountains, water, culture, and cool weather. She spends as much time as possible enjoying the outdoors. Her passion is travel, which has become a multi-adventure experience since her MS required a transition into a wheelchair.

When my first boyfriend went off to college, he left me with a broken heart and a weightlifting program. I gradually got over the former, and I have been modifying and using the latter more or less regularly until this day.  I won't win any weight-lifting contests, but because this, my arms are fairly strong. My taste for adventure, however, is bigger than my muscles and in order to conquer the steep hills and miles of trails that take me deep into the woods, I need help.

In addition, the trails I choose are not exactly wheelchair-friendly.   Kudos to the park leaders and volunteers who build and maintain wheelchair-accessible trails and boardwalks in the wilderness; those trails, however, are few and far between, and most are short and paved, only superficially touching the actual wilderness.  I have looked instead for unpaved hiking trails with minimal elevation gain that are designated family-friendly.  In doing so, I’ve discovered that Washington kids must have hiking super-powers, since these trails often turn out to have large rocks and roots, fallen trees, tilted paths, rough surfaces, stream beds, or rocky gullies.  Often, a destination is rendered unattainable by the obstacles in the way.  Again, I admit that – in order to conquer these obstacles and hike these trails – I need help.

I recently read a blog that listed 10 important tips for traveling with a wheelchair.  Tip #2 was to travel with a rock-star support person.  Mine is my husband, Ted. While I am pushing the levers on the wheelchair, he is pushing the handles on the back of the chair.  While I am pulling the levers to brake down steep hills, he is spotting me by holding the handles on the back of the chair.  In this manner, we are able to hike for several miles, traversing steep hills and uneven or rocky terrain.  In addition, my rock star can remove obstacles by moving rocks, pushing me over large rocks and roots, lifting me over fallen trees, and helping me wheel through streams and gullies.  When the obstacles are too daunting, he has even given me a piggy-back ride to a clear section of a path, a scenic overlook, or a trail-side bakery.

In a country that values people who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, and especially for a stubbornly independent personality, asking for help is anathema. However, a little help can open doors to experiences not otherwise possible.  Skiing alone requires a psychological confidence I can not conjure, but skiing in tandem allows me to tackle fresh powder on black diamond runs.  Tandem hiking has expanded my access to trails, views, and adventures.

All of this assistance complements an equally important non-physical component.  In 1993, Cupid’s arrow found its mark when Ted and I were back-country skiing in Northern California.  We discovered in each other a mutual love of adventure and play, and this bond was strengthened over the next several years in a collage of outdoor activities. This part of our lives was integral to who we were individually and together.  The progression of MS has been maddening in its relentlessness, but its slow timeframe has given us time to adapt. Perpetually thinking two steps ahead is awful, but it allows you to figure out how to make reality workable and life as fun as possible.  

We’ve discovered and developed tandem activities that allow us to continue our adventures and to enjoy the outdoors together.  After years of practice -- honing a method and building trust, Ted and I have reclaimed our previous pastime of outdoor activities.  We can be found many weekends either tandem skiing or tandem hiking. Tandem does not mean a free ride.  Tandem hiking requires working together as a team: I use the levers while Ted uses the push handles. “In tandem” doesn’t necessarily mean synchronized.  Our moves are subject to marital (mis)communication.  Sometimes somebody (usually me!) falls.  But it’s an activity that we can – and even must – do together!  We’ve taken this tandem show on the road and have covered trails all over Washington state and beyond. 

Yes, I had to swallow my pride and give up some independence by asking for help. However, in return, I get to travel on exciting trails with spectacular views -- adventures that I most likely could never accomplish by myself.  I know I am lucky to have willing hiking companions.  What a great excuse for us to spend time together!

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