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  • Julia Fieldhammer

Adventures Out West

Although summer is long gone, this fall, I was so busy with my new job as the blog writer for Brother Andre’s Cafe, I didn’t have a chance to write about the awesome vacation my family took in July. I love to travel and usually we go to the beach, but about every couple of years, we go somewhere different. This past summer my family and I went out west.

As a family, we decided we wanted to see more of the National Parks and do some hiking so we went to Zion National Park. My mom’s friend had been telling her for a few years that some trails in Zion were handicapped accessible so before we went, my mom and my sister, Sarah, did some research and planned out our trip. My oldest sister’s boyfriend did some planning of his own, but more on that later. I was really excited about going to Zion but not very excited about getting there.

One of the best ways to get to Zion is to fly into Las Vegas and then drive about two and a half hours to Zion. Let me tell you flying with a disability isn’t easy! We had so much luggage, like my shower chair, and a manual wheelchair, it took us a while to check in. After we got our boarding passes, we headed to Security. We had contacted the TSA before our trip so someone was there to help us navigate, but the process still takes extra time. Since I can’t go through the metal detector like everyone else, I had to be patted down. This means that they have to physically pat me and my wheelchair down to make sure there’s nothing suspicious. Even though most of the TSA people were very nice, I still felt uncomfortable with the process.

After we collected all of our belongings from security, we headed to our gate. There, I had to get out of my electric wheelchair so they could take it down to the belly of the plane. But, as my dad knows from previous experiences, first things first… bubble wrap and more bubble wrap. We bubble wrapped to protect my wheelchair, especially the joystick, and to prevent damage.

After they took my wheelchair down to the plane, we waited for our turn to board. The gate agent and my parents helped me get into a little chair with wheels that is called an isle chair. It is super narrow and can fit down the aisle of the airplane to take me to my seat. I like to sit closest to the window to look at the view so my dad helped me get settled. I kind of felt like I was someone famous because there were so many people around me doing different things.

Fortunately, we had a direct flight to Las Vegas. When we landed we waited for everyone to get off the plane because it is easier that way. Since there was no isle chair at that gate, my dad helped me walk up onto the jet bridge where my mom had my manual wheelchair. Once we were inside the Terminal, they brought my electric wheelchair up to the gate. Thankfully the wheelchair was fine, the joystick was fine. My wheelchair is a vital part of my life, without it, I feel completely dependent.

My parents rented an accessible wheelchair van, so we could drive the 2 1/2 hours from Las Vegas to Zion National Park. There were 6 of us and all of our luggage and all of my equipment so we were really packed in there but the drive was absolutely gorgeous. There were mountainous everywhere. I enjoyed just listening to my music and looking out the window

We had reservations at the Desert Pearl Inn in Springdale Utah, a cute town very close to the entrance of Zion National Park. We decided to just relax and chill by the pool for awhile. I was happy to go swimming after the long plane ride. Swimming is one of my favorite activities because when I’m in the water, I feel like I can move more freely. Later that day, we walked up to the Visitors Center and got some first hand information about accessible trails from the Park Rangers so we could plan our agenda.

The next day, the first trail we did was called the River Walk. This trail was really pretty, it went all along the Virgin river. For about 1 mile at the beginning part of the trail, it was marked as handicapped accessible. There was a sign to tell us when that part ended. We decided to keep going and see how far we could get with my wheelchair. The trail became bumpy and narrow at times, but we kept going. It also was really crowded so sometimes I had to stop and let people pass me. We made it to the end of the River Walk which begins a very famous trail called the Narrows. It would be impossible to do the Narrows in a wheelchair because you have to hike through the Virgin River the entire trail. Even though I only did the River Walk, it felt like I had accomplished something amazing. Later in our trip, some of my family came back to do the Narrows trail and they said it was incredible!

The following day we all did a trail called Emerald Pools, this trail was not marked as handicapped accessible. We suspect the reason it isn’t officially an accessible trail is because it is not paved at any point. This was definitely the most difficult hike I did and at times it was nerve racking because the trail climbed up high and, since it wasn’t paved, could be very hard to maneuver. I had to keep adjusting the speed of my wheelchair, depending on what part of the trail we were on, to compensate for the hills and the lack of guardrails around the turns. I was so glad I had my electric wheelchair since it is good on rough terrain, however one slip of my hand on the joystick and off the side of the mountain I could’ve gone.

I was able to make it to the waterfall at the first pool. After that my wheelchair couldn’t go any further. My family wanted to check out the upper pools so my dad and I stayed behind and waited while the others went on. At first I was sad that I couldn’t go on, I also felt a little bad that I was holding my dad back but after he reassured me, he didn’t mind just enjoying the scenery where we were, I felt better. Over the years I’ve learned that there are just going to be some things I can’t do.

After a while my mom came back to where we were. She asked my dad if he wanted to go to the upper pools and he said yes so my mom and I started to head back down the trail.

I was a little bit nervous and so was my mom. The trail was very steep and the path was sandy which made my wheelchair slide a bit. We got to a certain point and decided to stop and wait for the rest of our crew. When we were all back together we made our way down safely.

The last trail we did was called the Pa’rus. In terms of accessibly, it was a breeze. This trail is about 4 miles long with a flat, paved surface perfect for wheelchairs, strollers and bikes.

When we started out, the sun was shining and it was scorching hot. The whole trail is in a valley area between the mountains so it is completely open to the elements. We saw lots of cacti and small animals and reptiles. My dad and my sister had their cameras out to take some cool pictures.

The thing about Zion, in July, is that it’s Monsoon season, and flash rain showers and flash floods are typical. At the beginning of our adventure the sun was shining, but all that quickly changed. It started to look really dark and we heard thunder. Then before we knew it, we were in the middle of a downpour of rain and nowhere to take cover. We just had to keep walking to get back to the visitors center.

My mom was miserable but my sister and I were loving it. We were dancing around, we literally were singing “Singing in the rain” in the rain. Something about zooming in my wheelchair through a rain storm felt liberating and made me so happy!!

Even though on this vacation we did a lot of hiking, we also had time to relax. We spent time in the Desert Pearl’s beautiful pool with a view of the mountains surrounding us.

We also liked to walk around the little town of Springdale to explore the restaurants and shops. I’ve never been anywhere like it, just one long street in the valley with mountains on both sides. One of my favorite things to do any place I visit is to get a T-shirt or a sweatshirt. Springdale also had some great crystal shops where I got a cute turtle rock.

While we were visiting Zion National Park we also took a day trip to Bryce National Park. Bryce is about an hour away from where we were staying. When we got there, we had a quick picnic lunch then we hit the trails.

Bryce was completely different from Zion. In Zion you’re down below looking up at the mountains, and in Bryce you’re up above looking down. Besides the fact that we were up so high the scenery was beautiful. I felt like the mountains just went on forever. There are plenty of lookout points at Bryce that are paved and very accessible so we could see for miles.

One of my favorite parts of this vacation was the private tour my family took from Zion Jeep Tours. The Jeep was open with no roof in the back and could seat 6 people. Inside the cab there was room for a driver and tour guide. They came to pick us up at our hotel, we knew beforehand that the Jeep was not handicapped accessible so we had to bring my manual wheelchair. I really enjoyed riding through the desert in the jeep with the top off the whole night.

The tour took us all around the Kolob canyon and plateau area. We learned a lot of history about the first settlers and how they made a living and survived the harsh conditions in Utah. I thought it was cool to learn about the people of the town and surprised to hear their descendants still live and raise cattle there today.

Sometimes the Jeep would stop and we would all get out and take some amazing pictures. It was hard to get in and out of the Jeep. The only bad thing about this adventure is my dad hurt his leg helping me get out at one of the stops and had to ice it when we got back to the Desert Pearl Inn.

On the way down the mountain, our tour guide stopped to show us some etchings in a rock that were done by Native Americans hundreds of years ago. That was really cool.

As if all that wasn’t exciting enough, Andrew, my oldest sister’s boyfriend made it a vacation we will never forget when he proposed to Brigitta on top of a mountain after a private yoga class. We weren’t there at the time but I knew what was coming and I had to keep it a secret for about a month. That was so hard. Anyone that knows me, knows I’m horrible at keeping secrets, but somehow I managed to keep my mouth shut. I’m so thrilled for my sister and my future brother in law, and I’m super excited to be a bridesmaid.

Zion National Park is definitely one of the most beautiful places I’ve been. I was so sad to leave, but I knew our adventure wasn’t quite over.

Since we were flying out of the Las Vegas airport on an early morning flight, we stayed overnight in Vegas. That was quite the experience. Las Vegas is a crazy city. As the saying goes, Vegas is the city that never sleeps. Now that I’ve been there I can definitely say that’s true.

We stayed at the Venetian, one of the most incredible hotels I’ve ever seen and probably the biggest place I’ve ever stayed. The Venetian is made to look like Venice, Italy. There are so many statues and columns and an actual water canal with gondolas that take people for a ride. The gondolas are boats and I really wanted to ride one but it was too hard with my wheelchair and pretty expensive, so instead we got ice cream.

My family and I walked around the Strip and it was bumping! There were so many people that sometimes it was hard to drive my wheelchair. I’ve driven my wheelchair through the streets of downtown Pittsburgh and once in San Francisco but this was way more crowded. Despite the fact that there were so many people, I think I did a pretty good job driving through the crowd.

We ate lunch at a restaurant called Momofuku, which is owned by chef David Chang. This chef has received world wide recognition for his innovative cuisine and since Brigitta and Andrew had watched a show on David Chang, they really wanted to try his food. It is so popular, they had to make a reservation for us. The food was Asian but very unusual. I had Ramen, it was delicious, the broth was really flavorful. We all liked our meal and we were glad we got to try something different.

We also went to the casinos and I played some of the slot machines. People say that I’m lucky and that I always win at games, so when I played the slot machines, I was lucky at first, but then I started to loose. Vegas is just like one huge casino, there are literally slot machines everywhere, even in the airport.

Later that night I walked around the Venetian with my sisters and Andrew. We were checking out all the different stores. The Venetian has over 160 shops and about 60 restaurants. We went in this one store that was selling all kinds of things made out of wood. Even though no one bought anything it was still really cool to see. I loved walking around with the younger crew, enjoying all the nonstop action of Vegas, while my parents were crashed out in the room, exhausted from too much stimulation.

The next day It was time to go home. I was kind of sad but at the same time anxious to get home and sleep in my own bed.

The flight back went pretty smoothly except when we got to the Pittsburgh airport. My wheelchair was stuck on the lock position, and wouldn’t move. The Pittsburgh ground crew used a lift to bring my wheelchair upstairs where my dad met them. I was panicked for a minute because I thought we wouldn’t be able to figure it out, but Goggle and YouTube saved the day. My dad goggled how to get a Permobile C300 wheelchair out of the lock mode and a YouTube video showed him exactly what to do. Thank goodness it did! Given that it was the end of our trip, we were extremely tried and ready to get home.

This vacation was definitely one for the books. I really loved all the adventures we had on this trip and I hope to get out west again sometime soon, but for now, there’s a lot happening right here in good old Pittsburgh, PA. Stay tuned!




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