Monday, October 19, 2015

Rollercoaster Summer: Hotels

When you are living your life, it flies by you in the blink of an eye. With hardly a pause to breathe or digest the events, you can sit down one day and realize that a fair portion of the year has sped past you in a blur. Such was the case with this summer.  It's been a hell of a ride, with thrilling high points as well as lows. To describe everything that we experienced will seem like a novel, so I'd like to break it up into a few subjects that will make it easier for me to process it all and explain it coherently. I hope you'll bear with me.

At the beginning of summer, through a combination of luck and savings and good credit and persistence and hard work, my husband and I acquired a wheelchair lift van and got it into good enough shape to plan a trip to California to see my family. It's a fairly complicated undertaking, given my particular mix of ability and disability, and the size of our family: two adults, and three kids.  

The last time we traveled to California our twins were three years old, sleeping in playpens that we brought with us, so it wasn't difficult to find hotel rooms.  And I was sleeping in beds at that time, that helped, too.  This time we would discover that two adults and three children aged 7 and above are not permitted to occupy most ADA hotel rooms, which are typically suites with a single king bed and a pullout couch and only allow four persons. 

Of course having an ADA room with a suite was preferable because we could bring my chair in and I could sleep semi-upright on the couch instead of in miserable pain and discomfort on the flat bed mattresses, but the only time we got into one of those rooms was when the desk clerk forgot to ask how many people were in our party.  The rest of the time we were offered choices including switching to non-accessible double queen or double king rooms, or taking the ADA suite and booking a second room for the overflow of people. This would, of course, double our hotel expenses for the trip, which was out of the question. 

We decided the best scenario was to book the double queen or double king rooms that had pull-out couches whenever we could, and I would make do on a flat bed whenever the couches weren't available. Sounds simple enough. Except it turned out that the particular weeks of our vacation turned out to be monumentally busy and full of huge regional events that left us facing No Vacancy signs at every turn. There was a softball tournament near Denver, a monster truck rally in Nevada, and after driving more than an hour longer than we planned the first day just to find a hotel with room for us, we realized we would need a strategy in order to continue our trip successfully. 

When I'm driving, I like to just go as long and as far as I can, letting my husband spell me now and then, and find somewhere to stay when I get too tired to continue, often at nearly midnight or even later. It became clear that this would be impossible on this trip, and we would need to call ahead to towns we thought we could reach that day and see if they would have rooms. Most of the places we usually stay on our way to California, like Laramie, Rawlins, Elko, and Wendover were either completely full or didn't have big enough rooms left for all five of us.  So after sleeping an hour north of Denver the first night, we found that we could get no further than Salt Lake City the second night unless we drove all the way to Reno, which was too far. It felt completely strange to stop driving for the day at dinner time, but at least that way there was time for the kids to enjoy the hotel pool before bed time.

The next day, we got up and got moving by around eight, and I had realized that it was going to be a very long day.  You see, if we drove an ordinary 10 hours or so, including meal and restroom stops, we would be stopping for the night in the vicinity of Sacramento, a scant three hours from my hometown, and I knew I couldn't stop that close. Not when I hadn't seen my parents in three years. We would just have to drive the whole rest of the way in one day: almost twelve hours of drive time, plus two or more hours spent on stops.

So we did. And it saved us from having to find another hotel room.  On our return trip, we were prepared for how busy everyone would be and planned our stops for each night, calling ahead and pre-booking rooms as we went. We went all the way to Salt Lake again the first night, and Denver the second.  It was an important lesson that we'll remember on our vacations from now on: a family of five, and one with disabilities to consider, is no longer a family that can fly by the seat of their pants and take chances on last minute hotel plans.  Like so many other things we grapple with, we've got to plan ahead every detail that we can, because our situations are too inflexible to accommodate true spontaneity.

Coming up next in the Rollercoaster Summer series is part two: Accessibility.

Rollercoaster Summer: Accessibility

One of the most frustrating things about traveling outside of our home turf is not knowing what kinds of accessibility issues we'll run into when we go places. In your neighborhood you learn where the sidewalk ramps are, you know all the good parks with paved paths, what restaurants have table spacing that allows for wheelchair occupants to not feel like inconvenient roadblocks, and where all the decently clean handicap-accessible public bathrooms are located.

When you venture out, the world is full of unknowns. For some this may be exciting, for others stressful; for us it's a complicated blend. We're proud of ourselves and exhilarated when we conquer a new situation with accessibility challenges, but the constant strain of worrying and planning can really wear on us.

What I hope you'll learn from our experience, though, is that it's worth trying. We saw and did things as a family on this trip that are priceless and irreplaceable. I couldn't always participate as fully as an able-bodied mom would, but I was there, as close as I could be, and the kids got to make wonderful new memories with me and their dad. 

We went to the beach even though I had to stay on a paved path at the top of the bluffs. The kids got to feel the power of the waves and run scared and excited back up the sand, then swim and wade in the safer tranquility of the river and play with sand castles.

We saw gorgeous botanical gardens where lengthy trails have been especially designed to be accessible for manual and power wheelchairs, including taking the steepness of grades into consideration. It even had a trail out to the edge of the headlands with gorgeous views of the ocean.

My husband and I walked a whale and seal watching trail that was entirely elevated on a wooden platform so the whole circuit was accessible.  We saw seals sunning on the rocks, and sat at lookout points enjoying the wind on the headlands and the salty spray in the air and just being together at the ocean.

We took our kids to Confusion Hill and the Drive-Through Tree, where they played in the Gravity House and took a train ride to learn about California's logging history. I waited at the bottom of the hill for those, with my mom to keep me company, but I could go through the tree no problem. 

You might notice in this photo, however, something missing from my power chair: the legs. That's because, one night when we were taking the kids to the carnival that came to town for the Fourth of July, we ran into one of those unexpected accessibility mishaps. We had to park several blocks from the carnival, and it was well after dark. And all of the sudden, the sidewalk ended at a side street with no ramp. I had to backtrack to the nearest driveway we'd crossed, but in the dark I couldn't see that the there was a two inch drop from the driveway to the street, and that the street met the drop at a steep angle.  When I drove off the driveway onto the street, the wheelchair legs hit the street and bent under, snapping the metal of one of the leg attachment points right off.  If I had been someone who can't quickly pick up their feet, I would have broken my ankle quite badly.  We were extremely fortunate that I could jerk my feet up before I was injured, and that it turned out we were able to replace the leg mounting bracket a couple months later for not much more than a hundred bucks.

Maybe not everything went perfectly according to plan, but I think you can see from these few images that we made memories on this trip that we'll treasure for a good long time, and the mistakes and mishaps and worries were absolutely worth it.  Go forth! See and do! Because another thing this summer has been teaching me is that the future is promised to no one, and you need to make your moments count while you can.

Next up is Rollercoaster Summer part three:  Cancer Sucks.