At one stage of things, Virgin Atlantic Airways seemed to have an edge over its competitors in the entertainment department. Also, it must be admitted, food. But at the end of the 11-hour flight from London, this notion seemed like a flight from reality. My movies didn’t work. Neither did Jane’s. Lunch was regrettable. Still, no one can deny the miracle of such a thing, wrenching the body out of a continent 6000 miles away and in less than half a day depositing it here in San Francisco. I left my heart in San Francisco, one could say, but I left my wheelchair at Gate 18, Heathrow…and it is always a matter of concern, what has happened to it since.
My wheelchair lies beyond the U.S. Customs Service’s line of glass booths. Passengers are backed up in long, slow-moving queues. Mine, a special wheelchair line, is clogged with entrants rolling into these United States from Air Emirates, the gateway to San Francisco from India. And why 20 Indian wheelchair users are queuing ahead of me is uncertain. Our line, like all the others, is barely moving. I am sitting most uncomfortably in a collapsible airline wheelchair.
After an hour and fifteen minutes, the immigration officer, a thirtysomething guy with a military-style haircut, stamps my passport. There is no resisting the temptation. ‘Is it always like this?’ I ask. Yep, he replies, everyone wants to come to the United States.
Jane and I have just come from Heathrow, which even without the Olympics, easily absorbs 30 jumbo jets per hour –10 times the traffic now bringing Immigration to a standstill at SFO. And it doesn’t bother me that an immigration guy at a provincial airport is clueless, but I suspect his bosses have more or less the same opinion. What de Tocqueville termed, America’s ‘perpetual utterance of self-applause.’
Home, home. And what ensues only makes sense days later when my computer balks at shutting down its web browser, I hit the usual Windows remedy of control-alt-delete…and the entire display flips upside down. Now I am looking at a PC screen that can only be seen standing on my head. I restart the thing. It persists. I wonder, really wonder, if there is some way of hanging upside down, dangling . That I am even considering such an approach says much about the past few days.
Not to mention the past few weeks.
Jane will take the pain out of Paignton, I joked with my friend Don. He lives in Brixham, the next Devon town along the Channel. And Jane, a native Devon lass, has organized our reunion. I met Don and his wife Dawn…much joking about my American accent’s mangling of their two differently pronounced names…last January on the ship from New York.
And how the British organize their coastal geography, well it’s rather staggering. What sounds to me like ‘tinmuth’ turns out to be Teignmouth, which is no big deal, but the Teign is. The River Teign rises only a few miles away, but by the time it gets here, the town that bears its name, it has carved out an estuary that is actually a major harbor. Much of the English coast is equipped with major harbors, one after the next. And one river after the next. Jane and I docked up the River Solent, the port of Southampton. Portsmouth is only a few miles to the west…its name self descriptive. And this railway line provides one of the most dramatic lessons in coastal geography I have ever seen. The estuary of the River Exe having slipped out of view just five minutes ago…and its urban namesake, Exeter, three minutes before that. Truth is, I am a desert bumpkin, endlessly impressed by wet climates. And at this moment even the British are impressed by their own. The UK has just experienced its wettest June in recorded history.
Arriving at Paignton, Don takes us on a quick tour of the coast near his home. But I am really most impressed by the tour of Don himself. A wheelchair user like me, Don is…forgive the pun…undaunted. He is waiting for us at the railway station with his disabled van. Can my wheelchair fit on his lift? Only one way to find out. I roll on, Don hits the up switch, and I ascend. The platform tilts in a way that mine does not…and with my feet dangling to accommodate this different sized wheelchair…the overall effect is mildly terrifying. Never mind, for Unquiet Flows the Don. We have things to see. My wheelchair is inside, time is wasting, and in moments here it is, the spectacular Devon Coast. The English Riviera, Don jokes. But to me there is no joke. The comparison seems apt, the views incomparable.
Even from Don’s hilltop home, the English Channel shimmers. The slopes are higher, the maritime effect more dramatic than I had imagined. Dawn serves a magnificent lunch. We talk as best we can, time being limited. Jane and I are on one of these frantic American holiday schedules, meeting friends of hers for dinner in a rural village beyond Exeter. Still, Don and I have a moment, two guys in their mid-60s, in their wheelchairs, in their lives…to compare notes. I have just been admiring the garden. Don tells me in his robust style about the secret of the soil. Horse manure. Adding casually that he carted this stuff himself in his wheelchair. Uphill, which in this Devon slope is putting it mildly. How, I ask. He demonstrates. One hand dangling the load off his arm rest, the other hand on the joystick. I am still somewhat dazed from Don’s account of how he gets to and from a swimming pool near Paignton Harbour. Overland. In his chair. Quietly, I do the math, decide this is not possible, that he is covering more ground than his batteries can sustain. Yes, he admits, now and then he has run out of juice and phoned his wife.
I am still somewhat dazed, while admiring, as we set off for the 3:13 train back to Exeter. I am concerned that we’re going to be late. But Don really isn’t. He is doing his best. Traffic will either cooperate or it won’t. And there are other trains, after all. What is there to do with life, but pack as much in as possible? While I heartily concur, it stays with me this image of quietly running out of battery power on a slope far from home. Helplessness. Abandonment. All specters, emotions, understandable but groundless. This is life. We are all humans and in this together. And is there something about disabled people that is singularly human, or is this just my imagination?
And has the River Teign actually followed us across the land? Andrew and Cath, Jane’s friends in the Devon village of Dunsford, hear the river tinkling at night somewhere beyond their garden. I can’t exactly see where it is as I stand at their dining room window. There is a garden with play equipment for their little kids…there are three of them. Beyond, a pasture with sheep. And looming over everything, the village, the houses and gardens and stone walls and dark streets, the green bank of a hillside. Dartmoor. Wild and windswept and remarkably empty and, of course, gushing with water. Only some of which feeds the Teign. There are so many rivers here, after all. All of them hungry to be fed. After today, the latest in a series of such days, I resolve never to be fed again. Don and Dawn served a magnificent salmon. It is time to not only stop eating, but to stop traveling…at least, for a while. Home.