Last month, Brook and I traveled to Lake Tahoe to join my favorite group of people for a weekend of inspiration and adventure. The last time we made the cross-country journey, we had five kids in tow, so this time, our day of flying seemed easy and short. We made it to the Squaw Creek Resort, had a quick dinner, and turned in early since we knew we would need every bit of energy over the next few days.
The next morning came quickly, a California sunny sky with a cool mountain breeze. Mornings don't get better than this.
After greeting some old friends and meeting a few new ones, we set out on our first adventure of the weekend — an “easy” four-mile hike. Four miles up and down, over and around on a rolling and hilly trail may seem easy to some; and five years ago, I would have actually been bored during this half-day jaunt. But on this chilly June morning, I was admittedly a bit intimidated by the distance to come and downright scared of all the roots and rocks underfoot that threatened to trip me and throw me face-first into the dirt.
Then I looked around and was comforted to see what we at No Barriers call a rope team — a physical support group of sorts who is willing, able and eager to help you through any feat. A good rope team will push, pull, protect, catch, or carry you through any barrier. I knew in that moment that, with them, I could do this!
As we set off, someone tossed me a hiking stick, about which I had conflicting thoughts…
First: “Do I look like I need a stick to help me up that measly, little hill over there?”
Second: “Yeah, well, maybe I do.”
Swallowing a tiny bit of pride, I smiled and accepted it, “Thanks.”
And so, we were off. All of us. Short, tall, skinny, round. All of us were off for a hike.
As young as one year, and as old as “I'll never tell.” All of us.
A handful of amputees. A bunch of folks with all four limbs. All of us.
Some of our limbs didn't “work”— due to strokes, disease, pain, or just plain… because.
But all of us would hike.
A few people in our big rope team were blind. One was deaf.
But together, we would hike. All of us.
We brought wheelchairs, canes, crutches and sticks, and we embarked on our four-mile hike.
All of us.
And hike we did.
I don't know about everyone else, but for me, it was a short four miles. Too short.
Not only did I meet new people, but, at the prompting of the hike leaders, I also had meaningful conversations with them.
We learned about the local flora, not only gorgeous but also life-giving. It was right as I was noting their beauty, however, that we were all given blindfolds to stimulate being vision-impaired … Suddenly, the roots and rocks and fallen branches became monstrous in my mind. What if I fell, got injured, and the rest of my trip was ruined?
But soon Brook was tying a blindfold around my head and gently tugging on my arm. Then it dawned on me. My rope team! I had nearly forgotten! (And isn't that always the way?). On the hike, like in my life, Brook was my partner; and I'm so grateful to have him on my rope team. He led me down a large hill and even over a tiny stream, announcing each rock, its size, and how best to avoid it. He also gently pulled me along — otherwise we may still be on that mountain! It was nerve -wracking to not know what was coming next, where a good foothold might be, or how steep the next step would be; these fears are only exacerbated fire me because I have no sense of touch on my prosthetic feet. And it was not lost on me that I was taking the easy way out of the exercise by choosing my “trust partner “ to be the one person in this world who I trust the most.
We switched partners, and it was with my eyes wide open that I was made fully aware of all the folks guiding and encouraging each other. Almost back to our busses now, I looked back up the hill and noticed the last few hikers and their partners, working to communicate, foraging their best paths, and encouraging with positivity. If only I could bring that spirit back to Charlotte, back to the real world…
Luckily, we did bring it back to our hotel, because next up was kayaking! We enjoyed a beautiful afternoon rowing on Lake Tahoe, where we could see straight to the bottom through sixty feet of crystal clear blue water. I had tried kayaking a few years ago at the Summit, but it hadn't worked so well because I had to be tethered to the oar, and the tether was, at best, awkward, and, at worst, dangerous. This year, they'd improved the design and had velcroed the oar to my arms, making things work so well that we could travel that much faster along the water! The adventure only grew when dark clouds suddenly rolled in, long bolts of lightning decorated the sky, and rough waters forced us to shore earlier than planned.
The next morning, I had two hours of instruction, practice and competition climbing the rock wall - and I have to brag that I rang the bell at the top of the tower four different times! Who knows, this could be my next sport? But there is a clear differentiating point between the way I might have climbed before my illness and how I climb today. Before I became sick, my mindset would have been to beat the other climber to the top. Nowadays my main goal is for BOTH of us to reach the top! I've learned that, when we all reach the peak, we all peak!
In addition to participating in the adventure activities , Brook and I were inspired and entertained from sunrise until way past our East Coast bedtime for five days straight. We heard seven speakers, each one better than the last. We viewed two documentary films on giant screens under the stars. Then we were introduced to the Magic Giants, a folksy and fun rock band that (though new to us) is hugely popular on the West Coast. We even got treated like VIPs when Brook and I went backstage to meet the band mended! In short, The No Barriers Summit of 2019 was an entertainment hit!
Back when I first learned about No Barriers and its world-famous Summit, my reason for interest was to become a speaker. With stars in my eyes, I'd emailed their event planner to apply. We exchanged several emails; and she let me down easily but encouraged me with constructive tips, invited me to attend the Summit, and then even walked me through the process of applying for my whole family to become scholarship recipients. And the rest is history! Moments before I spoke at this (the 2019) Summit, I got to meet, thank, and HUG the event planner who first convinced me to attend.
At this, my third Summit, I finally got to claim my dream of being a mainstage speaker! I got to share my experience of No Barriers with a slew of folks who needed encouragement to join (or rejoin) the workforce. My specific task in speaking was to not only introduce myself and my story but also to reframe disabilities in the world of work.
Instead of thinking about what people with disabilities CAN'T do; I spoke about the need to focus on what we can BRING to an organization! Instead of dreading how they will ever meet the quota for inclusion, employers should celebrate in hiring people with disabilities for all they can bring to an organization - determination, creativity, and compassion, to hand just a few. I used this platform to persuade people of all abilities that including people with disabilities in their organizations can increase morale, motivation, and their bottom line. Pretty cool, right?
I've written in previous blog posts of how much I enjoy being on stage, holding a microphone, and spreading my story of hope and resilience. My talk in Tahoe was no different, except that it was even more fulfilling because I got to share the stage with a new friend Kathy Martinez (pictured below).
Kathy is a top executive at Wells-Fargo in San Francisco who has been charged with making Wells an organization that is attractive to people with disabilities and where people with disabilities can easily succeed. In a similar way, she made it her job to make me, a disabled woman, shine on stage. That she did. (And in one of my favorite No Barriers photos below, I tried to return the favor - LOL).
Kathy is fun, she's funny, and she put me at ease right away. She asked good questions and allowed them to flow naturally. Kathy "got" so many of my fears, frustrations, and failures but also shared in the increased rewards I feel when I surmount struggles in order to succeed in this world of able bodies. You see, Kathy understands. She has a disability herself: Kathy is blind.
This doesn't sound like the typical bus trip for the elderly or disabled, does it? Well, it's not. As I've learned over the past three years, the No Barriers Summit is for people who aren't defined by physical abilities. It is for those of us who truly believe that "What is within you is stronger than what is in your way."
At the No Barriers Summits, every person I meet is more inspiring than the last. In fact, Brook made the comment one day that he was feeling like a second class citizen and sort of wished he was disabled too! My friends at No Barriers inspire me to keep reaching and to keep achieving more and more. One night while at dinner in Tahoe (without kids, hooray!), Brook and I decided that I need to step up my game if I'm going to keep up with the group! It didn't take long to decide on my next goal… So… (Drum rolls?) My goal for this year is to participate in Cycle to the Sea— a local charity event where I will bike 180 miles over three days — from Charlotte to Myrtle Beach— in April of 2020. Watch out Myrtle Beach, here I come!
II am so grateful to many who have mentored and motivated me over the past few years, but No Barriers has exceeded any other in providing the biggest, most supportive community as well as the largest number of adaptive activities and sports. If you are ever feeling philanthropic and have any amount of money to spare, I highly recommend donating to No Barriers, USA. And if you are ever in a rut, need a bit of inspiration or are starved for motivation, let me know. I'd love for you to join me at a future Summit. You won't be sorry.