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In February of 2009 I traveled by myself to Houston for a conference. When I arrived at the Portland airport to catch my departing flight I drove up and down the parking garage several times, looking for one of those oh-so-valuable handicapped van spots. The only one I could find was on the top floor. So I parked my wheelchair van in the open air on the roof of the parking garage, without much thought.
The business trip was fruitful, and the return flight was uneventful. However, it was one of those late arriving flights- we touched down just before midnight. This was perhaps the coldest night of the year. Heck, it may have even been one of the coldest nights of the decade. My van was parked in the open, and it was parked high in the air, just so that I could experience a little more of the cold, biting wind. I took the elevator to the top floor of the parking garage, and surveyed the situation. I was towing my checked bag on wheels with my right hand and operating the joystick on my wheelchair with my left hand. This left me one hand short for trying to open the door from the elevator lobby to the top floor of the garage.
I require so much “handicapped stuff” that I can’t manage with a carry-on bag only, like most business travelers do. There is an unspoken competition among seasoned travelers- a badge of honor. How lightly can you pack or how long of a trip can you go on without checking a bag? This was just another indignity I had to suffer on the road. I had become, and I almost shutter to say it, a “bag checker.”
I managed to get through the door from the elevator lobby after a couple tries. The cold wind took my breath away as if I had jumped into an ice bath. Here I was, in extreme weather, in the middle of the night, all by myself in my wheelchair. If I got stuck there for any reason, I wonder how long I would have lasted before freezing solid like a chunk of ice. The first challenge was to get across the icy roof of the parking garage to my van. Because of the four wheel drive mode of my iBOT, that was no problem. The next objective was getting the automatic side door to my van open, and the ramp extended. That went fairly well, despite temps well below zero, and wind chills well below that. Once I was in the van I pushed the close button on the van door. That worked. Although my van was like an ice box, I was already significantly more comfortable simply because I was protected from the wind.
I transferred from my wheelchair to the driver's seat, inserted the key, and turned it. The van did not make a comforting sound. It struggled. It protested. “You’ve got to be kidding,” it muttered under its breath. Just when I thought it would never turn over, the engine relented, and did what engines are supposed to do. What a relief. I turned the heat on high, and started the 15 minute drive for home. That was another late night, although not 3:30 late. But of course, all’s well that ends well…
Remember, I took great pride and satisfaction in my ability to travel solo for business. But after these three winter trips, I had to ask myself if I wasn't taking too many risks for the satisfaction of feeling like a fully functional traveler. “All’s well that ends well” is something you say when you’ve been lucky. It is not a strategy. These had all been close calls with no lasting negative effects. But when would my luck would run out, leaving me in trouble on the road, by myself, in god-only-knows-where?
I had been very fortunate in my travels, not just the three trips I mention here, but all of my business trips. Even though I often rented wheelchair accessible vans at my destination cities, I never had any significant automobile problems. I'd never been sick or injured while traveling in my wheelchair. Once when I was traveling in my scooter, it died on me, and I was able to get it repaired by a local technician. I never had a flat tire. I never fell down and couldn't get up. I never got struck by lightening or contracted flesh-eating bacteria. I had a good run, but how long could I expect that to last?
In addition to avoiding the traps mentioned above, I was simply having more trouble managing by myself in my hotel room under the best of conditions- unpacking, getting ready for bed, transferring to and from the bed, getting ready in the morning, etc.
If you're not disabled, you may not appreciate how very satisfying it is when you can do anything for yourself. But it's particularly satisfying when you can do something significant, like business travel. I didn't want to give that up. Being a business traveler gave me independence and a sense of normalcy. I loved it.
I had to ask myself if it still made sense to travel solo, and the answer I gave myself was no. I made my last solo trip in April of 2009, just one month before my last day of work.