Mountain Dance

The trip, and its difficulties, began in my bedroom. That’s where I switched from the Swedish to the collapsible.

I am not fond of the folding electric wheelchair. Yes, it can fit in the trunk of Jane’s little car, but there are trade-offs, aren’t there? Comfort, for one. Actually, when your body is compromised, comfort counts for a lot. Maneuverability is the other thing. This complicated by the difference between my front-wheel drive Swedish chair and this flimsier reardrive model. Whatever makes the chair foldable also makes every bump on Live Oak Avenue vibrate from pavement to cervical region en route to to the Menlo Park railway station.

A gray day in San Francisco. What other kind? Jane and I meet for sushi in a neighborhood restaurant by her church. Cappuccino afterwards at Bernie’s, of course. And why not? We are on holiday now, albeit briefly, and particularly when one considers the rigors of this folding, hard-to-steer wheelchair…well, even another cappuccino would have been in order. But that’s the thing about the neuromuscular bladder. It enforces moderation.

Don’t get around much anymore…my song for these last few years. A somewhat embarrassing admission, but I can’t recall the last time I drove, or was driven, up Interstate 80 eastbound out of the Bay Area. Instead, friends like Laurel and Joe do this for me, heading to the Bay Area for visits. It would be nice to see them on this trip, I am thinking, but our stop in nearby Loomis is brief. Too brief, it quickly develops. I have never seen these friends since they moved here, and that was almost 10 years ago. Roberta and I are high tech colleagues. Robert and I used to exercise together…a version of which always included, you guessed it, cappuccino. And now here we are in their beautifully converted house in California’s oak and grassland ecological zone, the first step out of the baking San Joaquin Valley toward the mountains.

The settlers had to cross the Sierra. I have to get into Robert and Roberta’s bathroom.

It’s a funny thing about the power of the human spirit, particularly its manifestation in friendship…and even funnier, its impact on wheelchair access. For it’s a difficult topic. Robert and Roberta assured me, with the absolute best of intentions, that their remodeled home would be a snap to get around. Actually, I can’t get around the first corner by the toilet. Of course, Jane is here. And this is why God invented plastic urinals and, in a little-known commandment, forbade quadriplegics from using showers without railings. Thou shalt not.

So I don’t, of course. Did I mention the toilet? Too low for me to rise from. So guess who helps me stand up? It’s an embarrassing…and doubtless as one weaves the great fabric of life…bonding experience. And we are bonded, all of us, Robert and Roberta and Jane and I. Their home is beautiful, and all the custom touches give it an extra warmth. Robert has personally welded the steel railings around the deck. His design helps one take in the enormous oaks beyond. Their dog Cody seems to have remembered me after all these years. And now, barely 18 hours after arriving, damned if we are not driving again.

That is to say, Jane is driving again. Fortunately, she doesn’t mind these scenic excursions. We are now contouring the Sierra Nevada foothills on Highway 49, named for the prospectors. The American River, and we are in its canyon, seems remarkably low. By the time we begin climbing the range up Highway 50, the protracted drought reveals itself in browning forests. Could I make this drive in my newish van? Maybe. Problem is, I don’t really need to carry my redoubtable Swedish wheelchair anywhere. For it can’t carry me. Not where we are going. Echo Summit, Desolation Wilderness…names familiar to Northern Californians. At 2500 meters, the canyons and the vistas open in all directions, the road hanging precariously off the side of a chasm. And I am here, probably for the first time in 20 years.

Fallen Leaf Lake. Friends have long talked about it. Just south of Lake Tahoe and slightly west. A small rise separates it from the vast mountain basin, filled with water, ski slopes and thousands of tourists. It is quiet here, I decide, as we trundle along a one lane road near Jane’s friends’ cabin. She has been invited here by members of her church. And after a couple of days I almost feel like a member myself. I like these people. They take chances with each other, it turns out. We have all sorts of discussions, including some edgy political/socioeconomic ones. They seem to trust each other. Superficial politesse often gives way to content. Everyone cares about the world. Their backgrounds span clinical medicine, homebuilding and public policy. And we not only discuss well but eat and drink well. Above all, we gaze at the lake well. The banks are high, positioning piney cabins like this one hundreds of feet above the water. In other words, it’s all views…personal and geographic.

It also isn’t accessible. Jane and I do a complex series of pirouettes in the bathroom, as she tries to sponge me down. Which she does quite successfully. While I am verging on despair. Murphy’s Law, known in the UK as Sod’s Law, has painfully strained my piriformis muscle in the last few days, which makes these very bathroom maneuvers not only painful but perilous. My supporting leg keeps collapsing. I want to collapse also…but one keeps going.

And on the second day, it’s all easier. That’s why dancers rehearse. I’m sorry to go, sorry to leave the mountains, sorry to leave the people. It’s a hot drive across the Sacramento Valley. Smoke from the seasonal forest fires adds to the unpleasantness. I am relieved to glimpse the cool, breezy waters of San Francisco Bay.

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