Northwest Passage

If it seems spoiled, churlish and downright petty, well there you have it. Returned from a spectacular trip…something in me is asking the question “why?” Calling into question…what? The worthiness of travel? Why I travel in particular? Or more basically, what other journey am I neglecting?

There is an idea behind changing the human scene. This essential purpose has not altered in eons. What has changed is our capacity to casually shift continent, waltzing in and out of global airports. They did this on horseback, I remind myself staring down at Klamath Lake, the distance from San Francisco to Jacksonville, southern Oregon’s major burg in the mid-19th century, feeling particularly tangible thanks to a recent novel. Somehow, this is where I always start, an awareness of what it generally takes to traverse mother earth. The train rides helped. The 24-hour trip to Seattle from San Jose occupied me for more than a decade. I must have made the overnight journey 15 times. How, I don’t entirely recall. The two-story train careening over freight tracks, me hobbling up and down stairs, using the lurching toilet…and so on. I gaze down upon it now through an airplane window, those days now consigned to orthopedic history. Could I do the train ride again…perhaps with massive assistance? Perhaps. But time has taken its toll. Which I have a hard time truly believing. The toll for the paralytic being different. It’s like glancing at the bill of fare posted as one crosses the region’s bridges. This much for a car. That much for a six-axle vehicle. My toll is the half-axle. Special. Very special.

What I must attempt is to fully acknowledge the pleasant neuromuscular surprises. Chiefly, ascending my brother’s steep wooden stairs to a bedroom. Essentially, no problem. The easiest stair climb in recent memory. In my mind, I pretend this is the baseline. How things should be. Normal. Which it isn’t, this stair experience. I’ve been walking a certain way in my daily workouts, developing a particular capacity in my right leg. And it has paid off.

This Northwest trip is a series of minor miracles, each anticipated as a potential malfunction. But things work. Alaska Airlines delivers my wheelchair in Seattle in a functioning state. Jane and I roll through the parking structure and find the van we are renting, the one equipped with a wheelchair ramp. We find our way to a business appointment in Seattle. Next to my brother’s house. Even to the scene of a family reunion in woodsy, lakey southern Washington.

Much as I enjoy my cousins, it’s news of those missing that preoccupies me. My cousin Dave’s adopted sons, in particular. Both need help. And that’s what I am determined to provide. We meet Dave in a hotel room in Olympic National Park. Spectacular change of scene. Cold, to boot. Strange how things like wind and rain can actually occur, even in the summer, with California seemingly close by. I talk to Dave about his sons. Afterwards, Jane and I take a wheelchair stroll along the front of Lake Crescent. The mountains here ascend a thousand meters, shooting almost vertically above the lake. I long to see the upper slopes, wondering how one hikes there. People do. There are trails. I’m curious. The slopes are so steep that it seems impossible for trees to find purchase. Forested cliffs, they are. I regret that I cannot go there.

To keep me humble, or keep me alert, or keep me in touch with life…the disabled shower proves orthopedically perilous. It’s a bathtub with rails. Still, we have only one queasy moment as Jane lowers me over the edge of the tub and back into my wheelchair. Things continue going well. The tourist burg of Port Townsend even has a parking space. There is no wait for the ferry to Whidbey Island. The drive to our hotel involves no wrong turns. It rains in the island town of Langley, and rains and rains, just like in life. It’s wonderful that Jane and I can enjoy this, the Northwest climate. I can’t remember when it last rained in our part of California. We go out for pizza. We roll down the cliffs to the village harbor. We go out for coffee. We read. I stare at the rain and read some more. There are all sorts of tourist sights about, but who cares? Our hotel serves wonderful breakfasts. We don’t move the car until it’s time to head for home. Another ferry, Interstate 5 down the mainland, Seattle Airport. All easy. Still, I’m a grouch at San Jose Airport.

True, this is where the one significant mishap occurs. Alaska Airlines carries on the long global tradition of wheelchair mishandling. I stare in disbelief at the wires that have been ripped from my joystick controller. The baggage agent does everything right, apologizing, even explaining the realities of maneuvering a power chair in an out of the belly of a 737. She also accomplishes the necessary paperwork to authorize a repair in a few minutes. Still, there’s one hanging thread. It’s the matter of my chest strap, part of the quadriplegic’s stable of driving aids. The thing has been taken off, and Jane and I argue about how to reattach it.

I wonder why I made this week-long trip at all. I wonder about everything. I wonder who wrote the book of love. I wonder how to get my own disabled van through the special exit gate. I wonder if this trip has cost me some good writing. A short story forming in my mind before departure…well, it’s still a good idea, I decide. And on the drive home, the end of the evening rush hour on 101, the main Silicon Valley expressway, there are things to notice. Principally, that my chronic anxiety about driving seems to have lessened. On the 280 run to San Francisco, for example, I still can’t quite believe that my one working leg is enough to activate the brakes. Yes, something in me panics on the downhills. I find myself applying the brake pedal for no reason, slowing from 65 to 50 mph, much to the astonishment of my fellow drivers. But that’s not here. None of this is happening now, despite the crowded 101 motorway. Despite the driver who jumps from his lane into mine without so much as a flash of his turn lights. I have been somewhere in the last week. A greater distance than I can quite ascertain. I complain of traveling. I complain of not traveling. I complain of aging. Not aging, an experience to which I came perilously close at 21, isn’t an option.

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