Saturday’s stormy ride on Monterey Bay featured one particularly exciting moment. It came about midpoint, just off the pier at Santa Cruz. And oddly I would not have missed it for the world. For it was one of those special quadriplegic moments, one known to only a select few, hard to comprehend, impossible to observe. And composed of the most utterly simple fact of human life. I had to pee.
The logistics did not amount to much. Seated outside in the boat’s aft portion, it was a matter of standing and walking about five meters. The complication being the stormy sea, of course. The fact being that at such points in life experience I simply want the problem to go away. The problem seeming insurmountable, but really just insurmountably annoying. With the secret belief that tackling the situation will both gauge my physical state, and perhaps improve it. And knowing that the obstacles are largely sensory. Though they keep nipping at my heels. That is to say, whatever musculoskeletal pains go with standing and schlepping across a moving deck, not to mention the psychological stress…falling is to be avoided at all costs. And yet the alternative? Immobilization and drawing in the boundaries of the possible. Retreat. And the boundaries being tight enough as is, thank you very much, let the process begin.
Doris, the sturdy middle-aged oceanographer, grabbed me under the wrong arm but asked the right question. What should she do? For which I had the wrong answer. Don’t know. It is all uncertain, this sort of thing, for when was the last time I tried to crutch across a pitching boat deck? Jane had a reasonable idea based on normal terrestrial experience. Hold the paralyzed arm while the good one fitted into the crutch. And we had a shot at this, but a couple of tossing waves changed my mind. I sat down again. Doris departed for a chat with the skipper. Try to turn the little boat leeward, see if this had a calming effect. And then try again. The critical factor here being the lack of dire urgency in the urinary department. I could wait. Makes all the difference, trust me.
In the end, I had to trust the two of them, Doris and Jane. Abandoning the crutch, I gripped their arms, explaining when to back off, let go. For my walking requires lots of leaning. Tilting here, lifting a foot, inclining there and raising the other. Knowing all the while what was coming next. Doors on boats do not fit flush with the deck, flush being what waves tend to do across flat surfaces. So, there was a threshold of several inches. The two of them got me standing on it, descending from it. And damned if we weren’t on a neuromuscular roll. Inside the cabin, I grabbed at a table, someone opened the door to the toilet. And there we were again. Another massive threshold, but surmounted however unwillingly, and the door shut behind me.
The last time I encountered a similar situation Northumberland was hurtling past. The train from Edinburgh was shooting along Britain’s eastern coast at an easy hundred miles an hour. And while I had gotten my wheelchair inside the toilet, just barely, now there was a staggering problem. That is to say, staggering and peeing at the same time, holding on to…well, what? The handrail or myself? The handrail, of course, which does nothing for the male aim. The sort of experience one does not want to repeat. But must, life being what it is. Fortunately, shipboard toilets seem to have a small hole in the floor for swabbing the deck or whatever the expression is. One does one’s best. After all this, I collapsed on a bench in a corner of the cabin. Oh, I must go down to the sea again. But not anytime soon.
Which makes me wonder about what it was like, really like…oh, about 35 years ago. In retrospect, I really must give myself credit. At a time when I had no money, I still found a way to have a most pleasant holiday. And on my own, for I was utterly single. Tassajara. The Zen retreat in the mountains behind Big Sur. At that point when I could still walk everywhere and got around entirely by crutch…. Still, what was it really like? How hard? Difficult to say. Difficult to forget, also. Most memorable was the drive. The first time I did it, surely I had little sense of the difficulties.
The natural hot springs at Tassajara have drawn people to the site for…well, without recalling the history, I would estimate at least 100 years. The road to the modern Zen retreat is actually a wagon road. Steep, narrow. And dirt. One leaves the paved highway at Carmel Valley and starts over the Santa Lucia Mountains. Surely I was not expecting the heat. After all, Big Sur, which is only a few miles away as the crow flies, spends its summers in fog. Funny thing about California, though, just go a few miles away from the ocean, particularly over the coastal mountains, and it’s another world. Certainly another climate. In any case, the ocean breezes may waft up and down Carmel Valley, but they say goodbye at the Santa Lucia Range.
What got me through most of the 1970s was a 1968 Plymouth Valiant. Something about the car was indomitable. In fact, it was known for its robust mechanical design. I once met someone who had driven a Valiant through Central America and back, still rolling around San Francisco with 250,000 miles on his car. For now, the only issue was the road and the heat. However robust, within a few miles of the beginning of the dirt track, the route turned vertical. Up one impossibly steep dirt hill, over the top, and down another. Luckily, I had the presence of mind to check the gauges. Not that there were many on a Valiant. But the engine heat indicator caught my eye, and just in time. It was hard to the right, into the red, and I was almost into big trouble. After all, a solitary quadriplegic driving a lonely mountain road that only sees a few cars a day and is also overheating, the quadriplegic, that is, well…he is not in a good situation.
I don’t sweat normally, that is the problem. What quadriplegic does? We are all undersupplied with sympathetic nerves. So in hot weather, the body doesn’t get the message. Mine certainly wasn’t, but I did have all the windows open. And now with the engine overheating, a brilliant stroke. I turned on the heater, of course. Now I had not only the 100°F blast of August weather blowing over the arid mountains, but Chrysler’s fine engine warming me as well. I continued on, frantically watching the gauge, stopping now and then at the summits to see if the engine would cool. It did. I was all alone. There was no automobile club that even knew about this road. Mobile phones were still a decade away. And Tassajara? Still miles away, and I continued my lonely drive. Hot and getting hotter, both the car and me. On and on. Until other cars appeared. Stationary ones. Parked. The end of the dirt road.
The other end of the back of nowhere, in fact. Tassajara being that remote. At night, much of the place was, and probably still is, lit by kerosene lanterns. Tassajara is off the grid. It is practically off the map, but not quite. Someone showed me to my room, which I shared with another man about my age. Odd sharing a room with strangers. But not at Tassajara. The whole experience was so odd, everyone having come so far, and the atmosphere so extraordinary. Such trifles did not matter. During the hot days there was a swimming pool. The vege
tarian cuisine was stunning. And, of course, in and out of the hot baths. How I negotiated the sulfur springs, well, that has slipped my memory. People must have helped. The environment was not an easy one, I am certain of that. Old railings, steep steps, and it all added up to something wonderful. A holiday. Broke and single and none of it mattered. I got there. I turned up.