My bestest best friend Stephanie and I love Broadway musicals. We quote them regularly. We sing showtunes whenever we feel the moment needs music. We believe the world would be a better place if there were spontaneous song and dance numbers sporadically scattered throughout the day.

So in 2007, we decided it was time to form Stephanie and Denise Wicked in New York, or SADWIN. SADWIN is all about music, laughter and fun in New York City. That first year, we saw Wicked and Avenue Q. Over the years we have seen some great shows – such as Boeing, Boeing; Rent; The Book of Mormon and [title of show]. We still wax poetically about the afternoon I convinced her we NEEDED to see Broadway legends Elaine Stritch and Bernadette Peters in A Little Night Music. It was magical.

If we could go see a show every other weekend, we would. But life gets in the way. So we try for once a year instead, and even then we aren’t always successful. It has been at least two years since our last SADWIN trip, which is far too long.

I called her at the end of September. “Stephanie, what are you doing October 24? I don’t have to work. I think we need to see a show.”

It didn’t take much arm twisting. SADWIN ’15 was on!

Saturday we boarded the 7:10 AM train at the Albany/Rensselaer station. It was a perfect autumn morning in upstate New York. The rich colors of the fall leaves sparkled in the mist rising off the Hudson in the early morning light. The blue sky was a perfect backdrop to the colorful Catskill mountains. If you have to travel between New York City and Albany, the train is the most picturesque way to go.

Photo of the Hudson River taken from a moving train. The far bank of the river has autumn colored trees. There are wispy clouds in the sky.
The train trip along the Hudson River is beautiful in October.

After brunch with my friend David, we took a quick walk up to Central Park before heading to the Imperial Theater. This year’s SADWIN show was Les Misérables. While we usually see new-ish shows, Stephanie had never seen Les Miz (EVER!) and I pleaded with her to pick this show because I knew she would love it. I had a selfish reason for picking Les Miz too. Alfie Boe is currently starring as Jean Valjean and I have a bit of a crush on him am in awe of his voice.

Photo of two women in front of a Broadway theater. Both have brown hair and are wearing glasses and smiling. They are posed in front of signs for Les Miserables.
Getting ready for this year’s SADWIN show!

The production did not disappoint. The sets, inspired by Victor Hugo’s paintings, are evocative. The score is full of anthems as well as tender moments. The audience roared with applause after a rousing “Do You Hear the People Sing” and silently sniffled through “Bring Him Home.” Montego Glover, who was nominated for a Tony Award for her performance in Memphis, was perfect in projecting Fantine’s fear and devotion to her daughter, Cosette. Brennyn Lark, who is making her Broadway debut as Éponine, has a beautiful voice and made “On My Own” one of the highlights of the show. I think as she grows as an actor, she will get other parts and we will be hearing more from her. Gavin Lee, who was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance in Mary Poppins, was a charming and conniving Thénardier. And Alfie. Oh, Alfie. He could sing the phone book and I would swoon. Everyone, even the men seated behind us who were dragged to the show by their wives, was crying at the end of “Bring Him Home.”

The first time I saw Les Miz on tour back in the mid-1990’s, I cried for almost the entire second half. The second time I saw the show (also on tour two years ago) I only cried during “Bring Him Home.” This time I teared up at the end of the first act, and then cried again for most of the second half after Éponine died. I was not alone. Be prepared with tissues if you go see it.

Once Stephanie and I dried our eyes, we decided to head towards Times Square. Neither of us are big fans of walking through Times Square on a Saturday evening. But for convenience, we decided to avoid the tour buses on Eighth Avenue and cut across to the Broadway pedestrian walkway. Stephanie noticed a crowd gathering on Broadway and stopped when she realized it was the Naked Cowboy.

In our multiple trips to New York City, we have seen many street performers. We often stop to watch musicians and dancers. But until Saturday, somehow we never encountered the Naked Cowboy. Stephanie turned around to take a photo and I wheeled over to the curb to see what was happening. That was when he saw me.

Photo of a woman seated in a wheelchair next to a man wearing only a cowboy hat and cowboy boots. The man has a guitar strapped to his body, making it look like he is naked. His hat and boots have the words "Naked Cowboy" printed on them in red and blue letters. The man's leg is up across the woman's lap and she is holding it. They are in Times Square in New York City, in front of brightly lit electronic billboards.
Honestly, HE approached ME!

Upon spotting me, the Naked Cowboy (whose name is Robert Burck) came over and said, “Let’s take a picture!” Before I knew it, his hand was on the back of my chair and his leg was in my lap. In our brief exchange I learned he was not cold, even though he was essentially naked and I was all bundled up. I apologized for my cold hands on his leg, to which he replied, “Aw, honey, don’t you worry. Those hands will feel good on my butt!”

To prove the point, he turned his butt towards Stephanie and the camera, and reached behind me as I doubled over in laughter. Thank you Stephanie for capturing the moment.

After capturing the photos, we had a brief sixty second conversation about disability, wheelchairs, and his personal history with disability. There is more to the Naked Cowboy than a guitar, boots and Fruit of the Loom underwear. I actually wish we could have had a more in-depth discussion, perhaps with him in some additional clothing.

Photo of a woman in wheelchair bent forward laughing. A man is standing next to her, away from the camera. He is wearing a pair of underwear with the words "Naked Cowboy" printed on them in red and blue paint. He is leaning over her, with his hand on her backside.
I haven’t laughed so hard in a long time!

Stephanie and I walked back to Penn Station, stopping for frequent breaks as we had several laughing fits which brought us to tears.

The Naked Cowboy’s sweat is on my glasses!

He had his leg on your lap!

Dude – it looks like your head is in his armpit!

Your face is priceless!

Seriously, who has more fun than us?!

Nobody. Nobody has more fun than us.

Well, perhaps other bestest best friends do. Isn’t that what bestest best friends are for? They make us laugh with one glance or one word. They know all of our vulnerabilities and faults, and yet they love us anyway. They cry with us at musicals, laugh with us when street performers make us part of the act, and cry with us again when we can’t stop laughing at our silliness.

At least, that’s what my bestest best friend does. Both Stephanie and I have said we feel sorry for those who don’t have a “Denise” or a “Stephie” in their lives. Everyone deserves such a blessing.

Thank you Stephanie for another amazing adventure. I am already looking forward to SADWIN ’16. Next time, you get to pick the show!


Cheering for the Underdog

One late August afternoon in 2002, my sister Sandy called me. “What are you doing this weekend? I think we should go to the track. It’s Travers Weekend and it will be packed!”

“The track,” officially known as Saratoga Race Course, is located in Saratoga Springs, New York, just 22 miles from where I live. The race course is dubbed by many to be the oldest sporting venue in the country. Each summer people of every social status travel to visit and gamble on the horses. The highlight of the meet is the Travers Stakes.

In 2002, I had lived in the Capital District for a decade but I had never been to the track. So on Travers Day, Sandy and I joined the tens of thousands who watched Jerry Bailey ride Medaglia d’Oro to victory. On the busiest day of the season, we wandered through the crowds, taking photos of the horses and the people, and making friends with “the boys from Connecticut.” And we won – both of us picking the trifecta in the Travers! My $1 bet brought back about $150 but you would have thought we had won a million dollars to see us celebrating.

The first thoroughbred race in Saratoga took place in 1863 during the United States Civil War, just one month after the Battle of Gettysburg. Racing has been held almost every year since. I have been to all Travers Stakes since 2002, except 2009 when I was in South Dakota for Ms. Wheelchair America.

I am not a horse expert. I am a very conservative gambler. In fact – my “rules” for wagering cause most of my friends who do follow racing or make their living handicapping to shake their heads in dismay. My rules are simple:

  1. Always bet on a “cat” horse. If the horse’s name has anything to do with cat (kitten, kitty, wildcat, tiger – you get the idea) I will throw a dollar on it.
  2. Always bet on a “weather” horse. If the horse’s name has a weather phenomenon it it (storm, windy, thunder – anything weather) I will bet it. Storm Cat? Bonus!
  3. Always bet on a horse whose name includes the name of a friend or family member. SandyInTheSun? Winner!
  4. Never follow my rules if you hope to win a substantial amount of money.
  5. Never go to the track with money you cannot afford to light on fire, because chances are you will not leave with it. So, if you aren’t financially prepared to leave it there, don’t bring it there.

I don’t go to the track to gamble. I go to the track because it is one of the best venues for people watching. If you enjoy watching human interactions, as I do, the track provides hours of entertainment – all for the $5 general admission fee. Spend a day there and you will see all types. There are the rich and famous, who walk around wearing fancy clothes and big hats. You will hear different languages as you stroll the grounds. Generations come to picnic in the backyard or around a table in the grandstand. Each day, a live band performs out back behind the clubhouse. There are food carts and vendors. It is also one of the last venues on earth (or at least the USA) to allow patrons to bring in coolers full of food and beverages. As long as it is not in a glass container, you can bring it in. My plastic water bottle holds one small bottle of tonic water, two shots of gin, three lime wedges and four ice cubes.  As my friend Archana said last week when she went to the track for the first time, “It’s like a carnival with horse racing!”

Saratoga Race Course has been dubbed the Graveyard of Champions. In fact, the term “upset” was coined here when Man O’War suffered his only defeat in twenty one starts at Saratoga, losing to a horse named Upset in the 1913 Sandford Stakes. Other notable “losers” include Gallant Fox, the 1930 Triple Crown winner, who was beaten by Jim Dandy in the 1930 Travers Stakes (a real long shot at 100-1 odds) and Secretariat, the 1973 Triple Crown winner who was beaten by Onion. 

This year, for the first time since 1978, there was the potential for a Triple Crown winner to be racing in the Travers. As soon as American Pharoah won the Belmont, becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed, people here began to ask, “Will he run in the Travers?” The debate continued for months, with tickets for this year’s Travers selling out even though it was not confirmed American Pharoah would be here. In fact it was not until last Sunday, six days before the big race, that the owners announced they were bringing American Pharoah to run in Saratoga.

I was going to Travers, with or without American Pharoah or the boys from Connecticut (who were unable to get tickets this year). So, Saturday morning I packed my cooler with snacks and mixed my gin and tonic in my water bottle. Thanks to my friend Kevin, I had free parking just a few blocks from the track. After visiting with him and his neighbor, I joined the crowds of people carrying their lawn chairs and coolers towards the entrance.

A lawn jockey stands before the fountain outside Saratoga Race Course. He is wearing blue silks with the letter "R" in orange print inside an orange circle. He holds a sign which reads "The Alabama, 8-16-2014, Stopchargingmaria, Owner: Repole Stable, Trainer: Todd A. Pletcher, Jockey: John Velazquez"
Jockey statues greet guests at the Wright Street gate.

The crowds continued to gather throughout the afternoon. The mood was festive. People wore Triple Crown t-shirts and hats. I even saw a man wearing an Egyptian Pharoah headpiece with his tank top, cargo shorts and loafers. Like I said, you see all kinds. Although I didn’t take a poll, I’m pretty certain most of the 50,000 fans were hoping for American Pharoah to win. Not me. I was secretly hoping to witness another historic defeat at the House of Upsets, another of the track’s nicknames.

Photo taken from a grandstand over Saratoga Race Course. Rows of people in the grandstand look down on the track. Horses are running on the turf past the jumbotron screen.
My view of the track from the grandstand.

Before long, it was time for the Travers Stakes. American Pharoah arrived to great fanfare. Fans in the grandstand rose and cheered as he sauntered onto the track. To be fair, he is a beautiful horse. But I didn’t put money on him. I picked Frosted, the gray horse starting in the sixth post position.

The horses gave the crowds a race. American Pharoah and Frosted were neck and neck for almost the entire race. But the only thing that matters is who crosses the finish line first. And at the end, it was Keen Ice, a long shot at 16-1 odds, who came up and beat American Pharoah by a head.

The crowds roared! People watched the replay on the monitors in disbelief. Did he really just lose? Where I sat, there were a few cheers from those who had gambled on the successful underdog. The local news showed some fans in tears, which is “a bit much of a muchness to me” as my host mother from Australia always said.

While American Pharoah didn’t win this race, it is difficult to call him a “loser.” He will be immortalized for being a Triple Crown winner. He has earned his trainers and owners millions of dollars. Victor Espinoza, his jockey, has found renewed fame. ABC just announced he will join the cast of Dancing with the Stars. I don’t know if that’s a “win” for Victor, but his run with American Pharoah had to help him get that gig.

In my eyes, Saratoga was a winner on Saturday too – beautiful weather, sold-out crowd, and another historic upset. I’m already making plans for next year’s Travers with the boys from Connecticut.

A Canadian, a Norwegian and an American Meet in Montreal…

Surely, there is a punch line waiting for a story with that introduction. My story about a Canadian, a Norwegian and an American meeting in Montreal includes crepes, a hotel evacuation with six fire trucks loaded with Montreal’s finest firemen, and a train evacuation just fifteen miles away from my final destination. Please – someone work all that into a joke!

After my trip to Australia in March, I decided all my future travel must revolve around people, not places. If meeting up with people takes me to wonderful places, it is an added bonus. But it is more important for me to see people I care about rather than new places. So, when I saw a friend’s Facebook post with photos of her visit to Montreal, I quickly asked how long she would be there. Yes, she would still be there the following weekend. Yes, if I came to Montreal, she would have time to meet up for a reunion.

Because of my disability, it is not always easy for me to travel at short notice. I have to find an assistant, this time one with a passport, locate accessible lodging and arrange for accessible transportation. These logistics take time. Sometimes I get lucky though and things just fall into place. Within a few hours, I found a Personal Assistant, booked train tickets and reserved an accessible hotel room within walking distance of the train station. While it’s easy to drive to Montreal from where I live, it is the same price to take the train and this allows me to be productive (read: write and crochet) for hours at a time thanks to wi-fi. I requested Monday off from work and started studying street maps, using French for the first time since high school.

The next day, a friend from Ottawa (she’s the Canadian) asked if I would have time to see her if she came to Montreal during my whirlwind visit. Yes! I have been eager to meet Crystal in person since we “met” in an online writing group. But I didn’t want to ask her to sacrifice her weekend to travel only to see me for a few short hours. Since she offered, I happily agreed it would be wonderful to meet up.

My thirty eight hours in Montreal were brilliant! If you plan to go and require an accessible hotel, the Courtyard Marriott Centre-Ville has very good access. Our room, 509, had a roll in shower with a height adjustable bench. The water pressure in the hand-held shower was not wonderful, but there was plenty of space to maneuver. The toilet was a bit low for me, but since I had help this wasn’t an obstacle. The king size bed is high, as is the disappointing trend in most hotels these days, but there was a sofa bed in the room at a good height for transfers. The concierge was helpful, identifying accessible restaurants and advising us which sidewalks should be avoided due to construction barriers. I am not receiving any compensation from Marriott for my praise. I just believe it is important to highlight businesses which do a good job so other people thinking of travel have a “real world” recommendation.

I met Crystal for a lovely brunch on Sunday. We talked non-stop. We laughed. We gushed over Montreal street art. We took photos in parks. It was an amazing morning. We both felt as if we were spending time catching up with a lifelong friend, not meeting each other for the first time.

Crystal – you have been a mentor, a cheerleader, and sounding board for me since September. Thank you for making the sacrifice to come meet me. I treasure our all-to-brief visit and look forward to the next chance when we can meet up. There will be a next time!

Photo of a statue of a man sitting on the back of a park bench, typing on an open laptop computer. Next to him is an open bag from McDonald's with fries and a burger. While he is absorbed in his computer, a squirrel is climbing up the back of the bench with the a hamburger bun in his mouth. Two women are seated near the statue. A woman in a pink dress sits in a wheelchair in front of the bench. Seated next to the statue on the back of the bench is a blond woman wearing a black and white polka dot shirt.
Sometimes you can become a part of the street art! Photo by C. Thieringer, used with permission.

After brunch, I met my friend Astrid (the Norwegian if you are keeping track). Astrid and I were exchange students at the same time, hosted by the same Rotary District in Tasmania. We traveled together throughout Tasmania and mainland Australia. Prior to last weekend, I had not seen her since our farewells in 1991.

Astrid is a kind, intelligent, funny, and articulate woman. As exchange students, we shared laughs about “those crazy Australians” and had many late night conversations about the meaning of life. It was terrific to talk about our respective travels and adventures. Astrid is a biologist and had many fun stories to share about her time spent working in national parks in Western Canada and Alaska. We reminisced about our exchange student experiences and played “have you heard from so and so?” while we walked through the city.

Two women sitting in a park. The woman on the left is wearing a pink dress and glasses and is sitting in a red power wheelchair. The woman on the right is sitting on a park bench wearing a blue shirt. Behind them, a family is riding on a tandem bicycle.

As we listened to a fantastic jazz quartet and ate a delicious dinner at Jardin Nelson (try the Diva crepe if you go), we talked about our unique experiences with exchange brought about due to my disability. I learned so much from the others during that year, and sometimes forget they were all learning from me as well. Astrid and I laughed over shared memories, and I was reminded of how invincible we all were as teenagers. Adults with good intentions would caution us or express doubts in my ability to participate in an activity. But as a group we had already figured out an accommodation or means for me to be included. To hear Astrid’s take-away was humbling and I am grateful to her and all of my exchange student peers who “got it” and worked to include me not out of a sense of obligation but just because it was the sensible thing to do. That sense of “mate-ship” is a very Australian trait, and we embraced it even though we all came from other cultures.

All too soon, it was time to walk back to our hotel. Astrid and I hugged and said goodbye in the lobby, promising to email photos. As I sat waiting for the elevators, I noticed them all opening one by one and then heard the alarm. I have stayed in enough hotels to know this means somewhere in the building a fire alarm has been activated. Sure enough, ten seconds later the concierge was asking everyone to evacuate the lobby, telling us this was not a drill.

Six fire trucks, three police vehicles and an ambulance quickly surrounded the building. I sat on the corner, performing a mental inventory of what personal belongings were up in my room. I had my passport, phone and money with me so I knew I had everything important. The couple next to me had been in the pool and had only their bathing suits and a towel. I counted my blessings and watched the firemen enter the building to conduct their search.

Fire trucks are gathered in front of a city building in twilight. People are standing on the sidewalk and in the street watching first responders.
Thank goodness it was not a real fire!

Thankfully, there was not a real fire and we were allowed back inside an hour later. I crashed in bed and made a joking remark to my Personal Assistant along the lines of, “Well at least we got the evacuation out of the way before we were asleep.”

Whether or not you have a disability, you should ALWAYS take the time to look up your hotel’s evacuation plan and emergency procedures when you check in to your room. Some new hotels have an “area of refuge” near a stairwell or elevator. In the event of an alarm, guests who are unable to evacuate without assistance gather in these areas to await help. Sometimes, guests are asked to remain in their hotel rooms with the door closed until help can arrive. Emergencies happen everywhere, not just at home. I have been a guest in at least twenty hotels where the alarms have been activated. Advanced preparation is crucial, especially when traveling.

I thought our encounters with the unexpected would be over, but of course I was wrong. Monday morning we arrived at the train station to find the mechanical lift to our platform did not work. I did not worry, as I have been through the bowels of several train stations when elevators have not worked and I know there is a subterranean labyrinth of tunnels between platforms. Sure enough, Stephanie (the kind VIARail Canada employee) took me through a maze of corridors and ramps to get to the train.

The trip home was uneventful until we approached the station in Saratoga, New York – the final stop before our destination in Schenectady. The train stopped on the track and a few passengers exited but nobody boarded. Then, my Personal Assistant’s phone began to ding with incoming messages at the same time the Conductor began talking earnestly to an Amtrak employee outside the train. The track south of Saratoga was closed because of a freight train accident. Amtrak was calling for buses and all passengers would be transported to Albany to make connections.

I know other people with disabilities who have not had good experiences with Amtrak, but I have always had good, if not great experiences with them and this was no exception. Usually, I am the last passenger taken off planes, trains and buses. This time, I got to be first because there was an accessible cab at the train station available to take us to Schenectady. The station has a wheelchair lift, and it was in working order. Bobbi and John, the Conductor and Assistant Conductor, had me off the train and across the tracks in just over a minute. Amtrak doesn’t endorse me to say nice things about them, but given the chance I take the train almost any chance I can. I always get good customer service, and being able to remain in my chair for the entire journey is much less stressful than worrying about airport baggage handlers damaging it.

I arrived home exhausted several hours later than expected, my head spinning with thoughts and ideas for future writing. Who says you can’t pack a week’s worth of adventure into three days? Certainly not anyone who has been traveling with me!

**Thank you to all the Capital Region advocates who fought to have accessible cabs available at all times at the Albany airport and regional train stations! Our cab was clean, the driver was polite and followed my directions when I told him how to properly restrain my wheelchair in the safety straps. We shared the cab with a delightful woman from Montreal. For the first time in my life, I introduced myself as a writer only to learn she is also a writer and illustrator of children’s books. We had been on the same train for hours but chance, fate, the Universe – whatever you want to call it – threw us together for the end of our journey.

Day 15 – Returning Home (AKA: The Day that Never Ends!)

My trip to Australia ended last Saturday when Kelly and I flew back to the United States. We both set our alarms once again for another early morning. Ulla and Carlos helped us schlep our belongings down the hill to the train station. After repeated farewell hugs, Kelly and I boarded the train for the airport. The sunshine sparkled on the harbour as we rode out of the central business district. I watched the pedestrians walking to and from coffee shops, wishing I could spend just a few more days exploring with them.

The Qantas counter at the international terminal was very busy, with long queues for every check-in terminal. However, a very kind customer service agent pulled us aside and brought us straight to the counter. Brian, our friendly ticket agent, processed our luggage and I was relieved to see I was .3 kilograms under the weight restriction for my suitcase. He then walked us through security and escorted us right to the gate, where he arranged for me to receive a pre-flight latte upon boarding. I’m not saying you’ll get the same service if you fly with Qantas, but they provided us with many extras which weren’t expected.

I have flown many times and I am accustomed to giving the ground crew instructions on how to safely maneuver my body in and out of the aisle chair for transfers on and off the plane. Boarding the plane in Sydney was a new experience. Qantas uses an Eagle lift to help people who cannot walk. I have used a lift before for transfers on and off examination tables in doctor’s offices, and I knew some airlines were using lifts on planes, but prior to last Saturday I had never used one. To see a demonstration of the lift process you can watch the promotional video here.

The video makes the process look simple, which in theory it is. The harness is positioned behind the passenger’s back. The leg straps are positioned under the legs and then securely fastened to the hoist. The passenger’s wheelchair is moved into the lift and locked in place. The passenger is then lifted out of the wheelchair, suspended in the lift which is then wheeled down the aisle to the appropriate seat on the plane. The passenger is moved over the row of seats and slowly lowered. The video is approximately five minutes long, and if your transfer only takes five minutes it would be shorter than the time it took to transfer me on to the plane in Sydney.

My experience began when Jim came to introduce himself and explain the transfer process. Jim was training a new team member (Betsy? I can’t remember so I’ll call her that for now) and wanted to know if I was comfortable having an extra person participate. Because I was once a student clinician, and I believe people learn best by doing, I have always agreed to let people learn through me in medical settings. This was no different. Adding Betsy to the boarding party, it took four people to use the lift to get me to my seat. Boarding with an aisle chair takes two.

Fifty minutes before the flight was due to depart, Jim and Betsy came to bring me down to the plane. We were once again flying on an Airbus A380 so I drove my chair directly onto the plane and into the lower forward galley behind first class, in front of the economy section. (Note: If airline regulations permitted people with disabilities to sit in the exit row, I could have transferred directly into the aisle seat of the bulkhead row by the door and avoided the need for assistance from anyone other than Kelly. If the airlines let us stay in our wheelchairs like we can on every other mode of public transportation, I could have easily maneuvered my chair into a space. But that’s a discussion for another post.)

Jim then began demonstrating how to position the harness, instructing Betsy as he slid the harness behind me. Betsy was timid about lifting my legs to place the strap in the correct position. I told her not to be afraid, and showed her how to lift and move my legs.

As an aside – people always worry about hurting me when they help me for the first time or two. Don’t. I have a high tolerance for pain. It takes a lot to truly hurt me or cause an injury, should we ever be together and I ask you for assistance. You’re not going to hurt me. I appreciate the concern for my well-being, but I’m tougher than I look. End of complaint. Back to the lift.

Once Jim and Betsy had the harness correctly positioned, the two lift operators (I don’t know what else to call them) brought the hoist frame forward towards my chair. They hooked me to the hoist and slowly began lifting me from my chair. Kelly instructed Jim on how to disengage my wheelchair’s drive motors, placing my wheelchair in free wheel mode so it could be wheeled manually off the plane. The lift operators rotated the lift and wheeled me down the aisle to my seat.

The video I referenced above shows a smooth lateral transfer from the aisle to the seat. If my knees bent at ninety degrees, my lateral transfer out of the aisle to the seat probably would have been smooth too. But my knees don’t bend at ninety degrees, which meant Jim and Betsy had to try to hold my feet out of the way of the seat back in front of me in order to move me out of the aisle. And when they lowered me into the seat, my foot got caught on the tray table latch and the back of the harness got caught on the movable head rest. Thankfully, the lift operators listened to me as I instructed them on how to move me. I was eventually positioned comfortably in the seat and I was not hurt along the way.

The entire process of hooking me to the harness and completing the move took about eight minutes from start to finish. When I transfer using an aisle chair, I can do the entire process with two people (one to lift under the arms and one to lift under the legs) in about three minutes. That includes the time it takes to strap me in and out of the aisle chair.

The Eagle lift could be great for those people who are unable to be directly lifted by others. If someone regularly uses a lift at home for transfers, the Eagle lift might make it possible for them to fly when they have not been able to be assisted safely on/off the plane in the past. Using a lift could reduce the risk of injury to both passenger and the staff assisting them. But, given the option, I would rather just have two people lift me onto an aisle chair and then again into the seat.

My choice is not what everyone would choose, and I understand that the option which works for me may not be the best for everyone else. Would I like to see wider use of the lift by other airlines in other airports? You bet. Will I use it if it is available? Yes, but only if I have to because an aisle chair is not an option. Would I rather just have the opportunity to remain in my own wheelchair on an airplane, securely fastened with tie down straps as is currently done on buses and trains? Of course.

Our flight to Los Angeles was completely full. We shared our row of three seats with Jennifer, who expertly crawled over both Kelly and I using the armrests to get to her window seat. She was returning home to Florida from a trip to New Zealand. I settled in to watch movies, something I hardly ever do at home. After two long-haul flights, I am caught up on almost everything I wanted to see, with the exception of Lincoln, because I finally fell asleep after I started watching it.

The Qantas flights provided me with THE song which will forever remind me of this journey. I attach memory to music. I always have. I hear a song and I can tell you who it reminds me of and why. The “Aussie tunes” playlist on my iPod has 289 songs which bring me back to my previous times in Australia. I really didn’t listen to music during this trip, except for the long flights over the Pacific. Last year, Qantas launched a new advertising campaign featuring a version of the Randy Newman song, Feels Like Home, performed by Martha Marlow. The song played repeatedly over the airplane speakers as passengers boarded and disembarked the plane. One of the lift operators sang along with it as he moved me into my seat. It also played each time I activated the touch screen at my seat to select a new movie. Good job Qantas; the song now triggers memories of Australia. You can see the ad and listen to the song for yourself:

We departed Sydney on Saturday at 10:45 AM local time and landed in Los Angeles on Saturday at 6:15 AM local time, three and a half hours before we left. Well, not really. It was really 12:15 AM Sunday back in Australia. But when you travel you are supposed to adjust yourself to the time zone you are in, and I was smack in the middle of the day that never ends.

One thing which made this trip easier was the availability of family restrooms at many of our destinations. Kelly and I were able to have space for our belongings as well as space for my wheelchair near the commode when we used these public toilets. I also didn’t have to wonder who might be listening when I gave commands like, “No, move the left butt cheek further over.” The domestic and international terminals in Baltimore, Los Angeles, Melbourne and Sydney all have family restrooms. Family restrooms are especially useful if your personal assistant does not identify or present as the same gender as you. I was fortunate not to have to worry about this with Kelly, but I know several couples who choose certain airports for layovers because they know they will have access to a family restroom.

Kelly’s flight for Arizona left about an hour before my flight. While we were waiting for our domestic flights, I learned it was snowing back home. In fact, many friends and family took great delight in letting me know I would be coming back to snow. I was not amused but then again, I had been bragging about my adventure in warmth and sunshine for two weeks so the ribbing was probably due.

Thankfully, I slept for most of my flight to Baltimore. When we landed, I confirmed my arrival with my sister Sandy who was picking me up at the airport. Unfortunately, we were delayed leaving Baltimore. I finally arrived in Albany on Saturday, 10:15 PM local time, twenty seven and a half hours after departing Sydney that morning.

I wish I could tell you how wonderful it was to be home, in my own apartment. But my homecoming was not good. There was snow on the ground, it was cold, and the apartment repairs and maintenance which were to take place in my absence were not completed. I returned to a mess, piles of boxes, and a botched paint job in my bathroom. The property managers and I have since taken steps to ensure all of the work will be done within the next week. But the state of my apartment upon my return, combined with fatigue, jet lag and the depression from leaving Australia, caused a massive midnight meltdown.

However, I will not let the current situation take away from what was an AMAZING experience. My Australian adventure was all I hoped it would be, and more than I dreamed. I connected with old friends and “family,” forged new relationships, visited beautiful locations, ate great food, drank great wine, and made memories which will keep me going until the next visit. Because there will be a next visit. I don’t know how, and I don’t know when. But it will happen.

I appreciate all of you who have read my travel journals for the past few weeks. I started this blog last year so I could learn the mechanics of blogging before this trip. What a joy it was to be able to share my adventure with those at home and around the world. I am grateful for your comments and reactions through the trip. I will archive these posts into an Australia 2015 page at some point. Next week I will return to regular blogging. And then I think it will be time to start the book I promised my sister Mary Jane I would write.

Kelly & I at Kate's Berry Farm
Kelly and I eating ice cream at Kate’s Berry Farm in Swansea, Tasmania. The salted caramel was delicious!

**Today’s post is brought to you by my wonderful cousin and travel partner, Kelly. Kelly – you volunteered to join me on this adventure and made it possible for me to travel back to Australia. I am so grateful and happy you were able to be a part of this trip. It would not have been the same fantastic experience without you. I’ll keep working on New Zealand!

Day 14 – One More Day in Sydney

Last Friday morning Kelly and I woke to our final full day in Australia. I knew two weeks would pass with lightening speed, and my attempts to slow time have never worked so I don’t know why I thought this trip would be any different.

We met Ulla and Carlos in the hotel lobby and walked to the GPO Grand for breakfast. The GPO Grand is a collection of restaurants, bars and entertainment venues located at the former Sydney General Post Office. This historic building was opened in 1874, relatively old by Australian standards. We found an outside table at the Intermezzo Cafe which gave us a great view of the plaza where they were setting up for a military memorial service. The Market Street side of the building has steps, but the GPO is wheelchair accessible via a ramp on Pitt Street. Once off street level, you can wheel around to the outside of the building, as we did, or continue up another ramp to enter the atrium.

Inside the GPO.
Inside the GPO

Carlos left us for a meeting after breakfast, which left Ulla, Kelly and me free to spend a leisurely day shopping and exploring Sydney. I am not a shopper. I am the person who goes to a store with an idea of what I want or need to buy. I get frustrated if I can’t find what I am looking for quickly and easily. I hate spending time having to go through racks and racks when I am know what I want. The idea of spending an afternoon shopping for the sake of just seeing if I can find something is close to my definition of torture.

Wandering the pedestrian mall in Sydney, I had one goal: a new Country Road tote bag. These canvas tote bags have been my ‘go-to’ bags since I bought my first one in Melbourne in January, 1991. That khaki green bag lasted until my second trip to Australia in 1996, when I dragged Ulla into a Country Road store to buy a replacement blue bag. After nineteen years, my trusty tote now has tiny holes at the seams and is past ready for retirement. Yes, I know I could just go online and buy a replacement bag. I could easily find a different bag at home. There are many stores which sell canvas tote bags. But if I’m going to Australia, I have to return home with a Country Road tote bag. I’m sure there is a rule for that. Besides, I needed a larger bag for my carry-on for the flights home. So, as soon as I spotted the Country Road store, I was in like Flynn and on the hunt. After searching every level, we found a wall of tote bags right next to the door. I am now the proud owner of a new navy blue tote bag. I reckon this one will last until my next trip.

As an exchange student, I took a trip to Melbourne with a fellow exchangee, Susan, from Canada. We spent a great afternoon in the Melbourne David Jones shop. We went directly to the foodhall and ate our way through samples, finding foods from home (crispy dill pickles and real maple syrup) which we purchased with glee. We also treated ourselves to a trip to the salon. It was, up until that point, the best haircut of my life.

When we saw the David Jones store last Friday, I convinced Kelly and Ulla we should go inside to find the foodhall. We tasted our way through the displays, sampling chocolates, cheeses, chutney and fruit. I discovered these adorable penguin chocolates which sounded yummy (white mango ganache liqueur – because the sign is blurry when you take photos through the display case) but decided they were better off staying behind the glass at $130 (Aus) per kilo. In addition to a tempting array of chocolates, the foodhall also has an oyster bar, a sushi bar and a wine bar. I could be converted to shopping if every store had a wine bar. Although they probably have some rule about not letting you take the wine out of the bar area.

David Jones Penguins
How could anyone eat these cuties?

We left the store and found ourselves near the Sydney Tower. Since it was a clear day, we decided to take a trip up to the observation deck. The tower is the tallest building in Sydney, standing at 309 meters (1013 feet). There is an outside observation deck, the Skywalk, but we stayed inside behind the glass. Trivia fact: there are 420 windows on the tower and they are cleaned by a semi-automatic cleaning machine named Charlie. It takes Charlie two days to clean all the windows.

View from Sydney Tower
See the clock down on the left? Our hotel is the brown sandstone building behind it.

The views from the observation deck were spectacular! There were no clouds, so we could see for miles – towards the Blue Mountains, Botany Bay and out to the ocean. We pointed out our hotel and watched airplanes leaving the airport. On a clear day, it is worth the elevator ride.


We decided the afternoon was too nice to say inside, so Kelly and I went to claim a space in Hyde Park while Ulla went to grab “lunch.” Hyde Park was verdant green and filled with people enjoying their mid-day break from work. I was basking in the sun when I heard Kelly calling to me. I walked up the hill and discovered a lively chess game taking place in the dappled sunlight.

I’m not a good chess player, but I’d love to push these pieces around with my chair.


Kelly and I sat in the shade, watching the chess game and waiting for Ulla. After a few minutes, she returned from her trip to Lorraine’s Patisserie with the most divine flourless chocolate cake. I am not much of a cake person, mainly because I don’t like sickly sweet icing. But this cake – oh my! It was moist, with a perfect crumb, and swirls of dark chocolate on top. The three of us easily polished off half of the small cake while sitting on the steps behind the chess game. It was the perfect “lunch.” If you are visiting Sydney using a wheelchair and want to try some of Lorraine’s baked deliciousness for yourself, bring an able-bodied friend. Ulla said the shop is very tiny, and she is not certain a wheelchair user would have much success. I was quite willing to let her battle the crowds. Ulla and Carlos had been talking about Lorraine’s cakes since we arrived in Sydney. After having one, now I know why.

Cake in Hyde Park
Kelly and Ulla, not willing to smile because they are too busy eating cake!

Andrew joined us once again on Friday night. We played tourist and joined the crowds at The Opera Bar for wine in the evening sunshine. There was a cruise ship in port, lit up against the city skyline. The bar gets crowded, and I was nominated to be “line leader” and clear us a path when we decided to walk back to The Rocks for dinner after dark. One of the staff saw me and decided to help us push through the crowds. Half-way through, he turned around and said, “You probably do quite well at this on your own, don’t you?” Yes, I do. But it’s nice to let someone else get the looks of annoyance now and then.


Opera Bar
With Andrew and Ulla at the Opera Bar.

I live with my disability and the gradual changes in my physical abilities every day. I am aware of the decline as time passes, but the differences aren’t forefront in my mind. However, friends who only see me occasionally often comment on these changes. Andrew and Ulla have never known me to use a power wheelchair because I used a manual chair on both of my previous trips to Australia. Both of them made comments about my increased independence, and the change in our interactions caused by the improved mobility I now have with a power chair. I will have to spend some time thinking about this for a more in-depth discussion in a future blog post.

We said good-night to Andrew in the hotel lobby after posing for several more photos, and went upstairs to finish packing. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect ending to my Australian adventure than to spend two days with great friends, in a beautiful city, with brilliant weather.

**This post is brought to you by my dear friend Ulla. Ulla – you made it possible for us to spend another two phenomenal days together in Sydney. Thank you so much for everything you and Carlos did to give Kelly and I a fantastic end to our trip. It’s your turn to come see me! And bring Andrew!