Who Dat?

Back in the 80s, long before the X-Games existed, Tom Haig traveled the world as an extreme athlete. He visited more than 50 countries as an international high diver, doing multiple somersault tricks from over 90 feet.

That life came crashing down one Sunday morning in 1996. While training on his mountain bike, he smashed into the grill of a truck and became paralyzed from the waist down. But less than a year later he completed a 100-mile ride on a hand-cycle and traveled by himself to Europe and the Middle East.

Since then he has continued to travel the world as a consultant, writer and video producer. He spent six months launching a Tibetan radio station in the Himalayas and shot documentary shorts on disability in Bangladesh, France, Albania, Ghana and most recently Nepal.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Earlysville

With both the gig and the race in the books, Toys and I retrieved to Earlysville to tone down the pace and take in Charlottesville on a more even keel. Charlottesville can be a bit of a labyrinth until you get to know the place so over the next few days, Toys spent a good deal of his time reading the map while I read off street signs, and scouted for on ramps and exits.

The payoff for this, however, are some of the country’s most significant historical monuments as well as some of the nicer terrain this side of Denver. We visited Jefferson’s home at Monticello and took a day to drive the southern strip of Shenandoah National Park (No. 28 on my list!). Much to my amazement, Monticello, built in the late 1700’s, was basically handicapped accessible and even cooler, we ran into two bears up in the mountains.

Even if we’d never left town we still would have been spoiled by the University of Virginia’s Rotunda and Lawn, the Charlottesville City Courthouse, or even Murphy’s Pub where Dave Matthews made a name for himself. I really can’t think of any city its size that gives you more bang for your buck.

While Toys and I were gallivanting about the town like tourons, Dan was at work getting emails from Phuntsok Dorjee, the head of the new community radio station in Dharamsala. I’d put that part of the trip on hold until after the race, but now it was front and center. And the Tibetans were saying, “Yes, we’d love to have you.” This pulled the odds closer to 95 percent that I was not going to return to Oregon, but fly to India from D.C.

Toys, however, was not going to India and his time on this roadie had come to an end (aside from a 12-hour trek back to Wisconsin). It was really sad to see him off because he was as excellent a road trip partner as one could ask for. Nothing really phases the guy (he was dead calm when shooting a photo of a 600 lb. black bear) and he always brings reason to whatever kind of chaos the rest of us can muster. If you ever come across a friend like that, I suggest you travel across the country with them and play music together. It works out famously.

With Toys on his way back to Wisconsin that left me with a few weeks in Earlysville to create and knock off a monster check list for India. We also had to come up with some scratch to pay for my ticket. It’s cheap enough to live in India once you’re there, but getting there can run you up. I thought Dan was going to tap on his list of Tibet supporters for some funding, but he made just one call, to brother Bagus. Bagus didn’t even balk at it. He just asked for my bank numbers and within a week, I was shopping for tickets from D.C. to New Delhi.

As all this was taking place I was being treated like a king in Earlysville. Besides the daily feasts, Dan built a nice ramp up his front steps; I had a huge room to myself and a bathroom that was almost completely accessible. It was a huge room, very easy to get around in, only lacking in an accessible shower. I thought I had that solved by setting up a green plastic patio chair under the showerhead. But when I made the transfer from my chair to the shower, the legs on the plastic chair split like Bambi’s legs on ice (or on my windshield, which ever image you prefer).

The last time I’d spent any time with Dan in a non-manic situation (read: Christmas!) was nine years earlier when I shared the city of Dharamsala with Dan, Zoe and three-year-old Tashi. Tashi was the star of that show and people in town declared her the second most famous resident next to His Holiness. She used to chase cows and sit in my room laughing her teeth off at the daily monkey gymnastic show. Fast forward to 2009 and you get the older version. She may be the most responsible 11-year-old I’ve ever met, yet she is always up for mischief. She’s a very conscientious student and reads whenever she can, but she also lives for sleepovers with her friends who giggle long into the night. Every night after she did her homework, the two of us returned to the kitchen table for some kind of game. We played card games, board games and even invented a couple games. But mostly we spent the time laughing.

Meanwhile Dan and Zoe were singing to eight-month-old Tristan so he would get heavy eyes and fall asleep. But he usually had nothing to do with their tactics. He looked over at Tashi and I playing and wanted no part in an early bed time. This, of course brutalized Dan and Zoe who both have heavy work schedules and tend to like to stay up late anyway.

Aside from being a mother, wife and employee, Zoe is one of the world’s most consistent bloggers. Her work paid off when a local news station’s ‘blogging expert’ discovered her work and decided to make ‘Vale of Evening Fog: Notes from My Twilight Realm’, their blog of the week. It’s an extensive blog she’s been working on for the better part of five years. It’s full of travel stories, poems and pictures (check out these crazy winter Charlottesville pics ).

Early one morning a camera man came to Earlysville and filmed Zoe while she was making an entry. He asked her a few questions and it all seemed like a non-event until the 6:00 news when they made her the biggest story on the news. They teased it through three segments before the blogging expert called Zoe a ‘blogging celebrity’ who is constantly stopped downtown by her fans!

Although her work deserves the accolades, the celebrity angle may have been a bit of a stretch. But Zoe just rolled with it and announced, “You guys can stay here with Tristan. I’m going downtown to let my fans buy me beer!” It was easily the highlight of my stay in Earlysville and more than anything it distracted me from the fact that I was actually freaking out about moving to India for six months.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Marathon pt. 2

With the guitars all packed and stored in Earlysville, it was time for phase two of a seemingly endless day. Toys helped me load my bike into the van, I made one final check on my race bag, then we said goodbye to the Gizard clan (they’d promised Tashi a couple days at a Renaissance Fair for all the help she’d given to Tristan) and rolled out of the Virginia hills for Washington D.C.

It took about twenty minutes to get out of Charlottesville mall hell and then we had a good hour of semi-open road until we came upon the mall hell of the western D.C. Burbs. The van had been overheating ever since the Bambi incident took out the secondary cooling system, so the requisite traffic snarl coming into the city was less than welcoming.

Thank god Toys was there to navigate because it’s a big ol’ clusterf*ck getting into the city and another one trying to figure out where to go once you've found the mall. You also had to hand it to the race committee to put the expo in one of the easiest places to find in D.C. - the Walter E. Washington Conventin Center just a block away from the NPR offices. Every big marathon has an expo attached to it with sponsor booths and great deals on training gear as well as what used to be a decent SWAG collection. But marathoning is discretionary spending (dare we call it ‘entertainment’) so the ugly economy had done a number on the free stuff. In Portland it was embarrassing to see how little (read: nothing) we were able to give the runners. In D.C., aside from a couple of vitamins and some training tape (not rolls, just a few free strips) there really wasn’t anything worth keeping either.

One nice thing was that since we showed up so late, there were plenty of free race t-shirts just taking up space. Whatever they couldn’t give away, had to be packed up. We waltzed out of the convention center with three nice long sleeve tees, one for me, one for Toys and one for our host in D.C.

Our host was a long time friend of the family with whom I have regular email rants during the NFL season. Although he and his wife are both good friends of my brothers, the two of us had never actually met. But once we found the house, we quickly fell into a conversation as if we’d been hanging out forever. They even went back to the grocery store for beers, which I really shouldn’t have been drinking. But seeing as I had pre-race jitters, the two Carlsburgs I tossed back did nothing more than put me to sleep at a reasonable hour.

The wakeup call, however, was NOT at a reasonable hour. Race time was 8:00 and seeing as we had cruddy directions to the handicapped lot and didn’t know where we were or where we were going, a 6:00 a.m. wakeup was cutting it close. Luckily traffic into the city was non-existent and aside from one quick 180 degree turn to put us back on course, we made it to the start area with about 20 minutes to spare. Parking was going to be tough, so Toys dumped me out of the van, made sure I was solid in my rig then shoved me off in the general direction of the start.

As opposed to the rush of the Portland start, this time I had a mile to slowly warm up and even five minutes on the starting line to stretch my shoulders and shake out my neck. I was in the front row, but directly behind me was an army of hand cycles. Out in Oregon where the population is less than the D.C. metro area, I’m lucky if I can get seven riders to take the start of the marathon. But in East Coast D.C. with a huge military population and plenty of Gulf/Iraqi/Afghan war vets, there were more than 50 wheelers toeing the line.

This was not the ‘Washington D.C. Marathon’, but the ‘Marine Corps Marathon’. Whereas you might not want the Marine Corps to run a rock festival or a spring break party; running a marathon is right up their alley. It was hyper-organized, the roads were clean, and the course was well-marked.

But as it turns out I was just about two weeks away from being able to really tackle the course. When the gun blew off I flew off the line and grabbed a spot among the leaders. Right off the bat the course hit a quarter-mile climb that caught me out of breath. Had I flown out directly from Corvallis where I was in mighty hill shape, I would have really attacked. But being almost three weeks away from serious hill training, I felt the tug on my lungs and arms and fell into a reasonable pace – watching the race leaders pull away from me.

Of course, I’d looked at the race profile several times, but sometimes lines on a graph don’t relate to actual road conditions. My training runs in Corvallis were much more challenging than these hills, but under race condition and my loss of competition climbing form, I didn’t have it in me to keep up. For the first three miles of the race I found myself out of breath and losing ground. I knew I immediately lost half a dozen places, but when the 7th, 8th and 9th riders passed me before the Key Bridge at mile four, I knew I was in trouble.

The bridge flattened the course a bit and I managed to get into a nice rhythm going into the wealthy (and hilly!) neighborhoods of western Georgetown. Three more riders took me on these hills and I was getting really pissed off. With the same conditioning I had just a month earlier I was a top five rider. But now I was struggling back in 11th place.

Finally, at mile eight, the course smoothed out and even went on a slight downhill. I found a nice heavy gear and plucked off two riders as I circled the golf course in East Potomac Park. A young rider, doing the course in a new sleek aerodynamic ride (his head was only a few inches off the ground and he was in near-prone position) took me as we crossed the Kutz Bridge and circled the back of the Lincoln Memorial.

Then the race, the whole event, turned surreal. When I first looked at the course a decade earlier I dreamed what it would be like racing up and down the mall with crowds screaming as I passed by our country’s greatest monuments. But the reality was so much cooler. As is common in wheelchair events, we’re on the course much earlier than the runners. The bands are usually just plugging in and tuning up as we pass them. When it came to racing down Constitution Avenue not only was the street closed and wiped of the daily grind of the city, the air was completely silent. I was flying as fast as I could down one of the most famous streets on the planet and the only sound I could hear was the wind I created.

I whizzed by the Washington monument and saluted the White House without even a pigeon in my way. Occasionally there was a spectator cheering me on, but it was just a little Doppler blip on an otherwise unblemished soundscape. I passed by all the buildings of the Smithsonian without a single murmur from the non-existent entry line. Eventually I found myself flying past the Capitol of the United States of Freaking America, the windiest building on the planet – without a sound to be heard. I looked west down the Mall, which was standing room only just a few months earlier at the inauguration, and saw empty fields of grass; not a single decibel shaking my ear bones.

I saw an interview with Tom Hanks and Ron Howard talking about how cool it was to film the DaVinci Code in the Louvre with nobody in the building but themselves. I’ll match this experience with anything they’ve got. They may have parallel experiences; none better.

As I flew down Independence Avenue, I realized that I only had six miles left to put some hurt into this race. While I was tripping out along the mall I occasionally looked down at my speedometer and made sure I stayed ahead of my training pace. The course was a trip, but it makes for a much better story with a good result at the end. (and let’s not even think of the Portland flat!)

To my surprise, not only had I kept up a spicy pace on the flat; I’d made up for the junk I turned in on the hills. I was actually in line for a PR (personal record) which would more than make my day. As the course left the mall it jumped over the I 395 bridge across the Potomac towards the Pentagon. At this point I was feeling the hurt, but the thought of the PR gave me a burst of adrenalin to haul me to the finish.

The last few miles of the race go through Crystal City on the southwest side of town. It’s a series of hurky-jerky turns that took the punch out of my stride. By the time I got rolling again, a fierce northerly wind jabbed me in the chest and, even though I was on a clear flat, slowed me down under my training pace.

I saw my PR go away and then the Marine Corps dealt its nastiest trick of all. Just a quarter mile before the finish at the Iwo Jima memorial, they took me up a ridiculously steep chunk of terrain that slowed me down to 5 mph – the slowest I’d gone all day. At this point the crowd is furious in its zeal, and they pushed me beyond what I ever could have mustered in a training run. I finished four minutes over the PR, but considering my conditioning, the top ten finish (10th!) in one hour and fifty four minutes was a fantastic ending to the story.

Unless, of course you count the 200 pints I had watching the Packers beat Cleveland after the race – that was monumental too.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Have Ballroom will Gig.

Once we’d navigated the winding, forested road to the Gizard Crib in rural Earlysville, Virginia, Dan popped out of Toys rig and got triple hugs from wife Zoe, daughter Tashi, and seven - month old Tristan who was the real reason I came out. The original plan was to meet Tristan and just come out and hang in Virginia for a while. Then the marathon got tossed in, then Toys came aboard, then the Gizard booked us for a gig and after all of that, the India situation just slammed us in the head. Not even two flats and a Bambi splatter was going to keep this roadie from happening.

Zoe has a habit of spoiling everyone who walks through her door with copius piles of unforgettable grub. She cooks with the best of them and the chow is so damn good you actually feel guilty for eating it. You know there’s no way you can adequately return the favor. All one can do is eat, rub the belly and moan – which is what we did until our road-weary eyes directed us to our beds and we passed out, not moving a muscle until morning.

Before I got tagged by Bambi, my original idea was to get to Virginia early and go on daily rides on what appeared to be some challenging hills. But after one trek on the Earlysville road I realized that had the trip ended up like that I wouldn’t have gotten in one single ride. The hills were no more challenging than those in Corvallis, but the lanes were anorexic and there were no shoulders at all. They were death traps for regular cyclists let alone a wide-bodied low riding hand cycle.

So as much as I cursed Bambi, I found my self six solid rides the better for her sacrifice and in great condition for the race which was only three days away. Since there would be no riding, that left the three of us to concentrate on the gig: a 10:00 a.m. pre-UVA Football parking lot tailgate. When Dan booked us he’d envisioned a sunny afternoon with us playing outside with the wind cooling us off and an appreciative crowd walking by the stage and occasionally stopping to check us out or maybe even toss a jig back at us.

Then UVA announced the game time as noon and the weather channel revealed a blanket of downpours heading in our direction. But a gig’s a gig so we just bit our lips and went in to rehearse. The venue was the Fry's Spring Beach club, an old ballroom about a mile south of the stadium. Dan’s band, Surfzilla, a surf revival project, had played any number of gigs there and it really was a great place to play. Unfortunately if the rain announcement held up we would be playing inside, while all the spectators would be outside underneath orange and blue kitchen tarps.

Another wild card in the mix was that our drummer, Vaughn, was the 15-year-old brother of one of Tashi's classmates. Vaughn had been out to Earlysville earlier in the year and grabbed the kit during an impromptu jam session in the living room. Dan said he’d held his own and was willing to give the kid a whack at it, even though he’d never played out before in his life.

Once we got to the ball room, Vaughn was there making sense of his borrowed drum kit while the rest of us plugged in the spaghetti that constitutes a band set up. If you’ve never seen a garage band set up it’s quite amazing as there are chords and wires running in and out of amps, mics, guitars, keys, speakers and sound boards. Luckily for our outfit Toys always has this stuff mapped out in his head and organizes what can be a completely chaotic situation. We were short some PA speakers so for rehearsal we were just going to have to play soft and sing vocals over the top of it. It’s actually not a bad way to rehearse – blasting away is fun and all, but you’re not really listening when you do it.

We knocked out the first couple of numbers and they fell completely flat. Vaughn hadn’t heard the material before and he wasn’t sure what tempo to play at or where we wanted to go with it. It was a bit frustrating so we just lowered the bar, played some good old fashioned rock and roll standards and by the end of the night we were pretty sure we could pull it off. Then it was time to pack up, drive home, sleep, and set it all up again. Show call was 8:00 a.m.

We’d kept the beering down to a minimum firstly because of the early show call and secondly because after the gig, Toys and I were cruising to D.C. to register for the race – which was at 8 a.m. the next morning. It was a ridiculous schedule, but there was just no way around it. And after the race was over, we’d have nothing but relaxing vacation.

Zoe loaded us up with pancakes and the Gizard, Toys and I filled up my van and cruised over to the Beach Club. Vaughn was already there and we’d stashed the drums behind the stage hoping nobody would break in. It was warm and muggy when we arrived and we were tempted to setup in the entrance way where there was a bit of a covering, but the clouds just got uglier and uglier by the minute. Instead we set up in the middle of the dance floor and opened up a big double fire door that led out to the parking lot and our adoring fans, who had actually started showing up.

The game was against Georgia Tech who was ranked No. 18 at the time. If UVA pulled off the upset it would be a big ACC win so neither the weather nor the early start was putting anyone off – it was just keeping them next to their cars at least 60 yards and a wall away from us.

Once we got set up Toys ran us through mic checks as we tuned the guitars and got Vaughn warmed up with some easy rhythms. It had only been 11 hours since he’d put down the sticks, but now he had an idea of what we sounded like and what he needed to do. At one point I started messing around with the beginning of Morning Dew and before we knew it, everyone was ready so we just kept playing it through. My voice was hardly up to the task, but the four of us clicked on it and it provided for a reasonable opener – albeit with absolutely nobody in the crowd.

Normally we rotate around the members of the band calling tunes, but neither Toys nor the Gizard really felt like calling one out so I became the defacto leader. We zipped out a couple of originals and rock standards before I had to give the mic over to the Gizard because my voice was getting a little stretched for the morning. He took over admirably, Vaughn found the pocket and we sounded like a real rock band.

We’d just finished a tune when a monumental thunder blast leveled our sound and the accompanying deluge sent the tailgaters into their cars. I got inspired and whipped out “Let it Rain” which the Gizard hates playing as he thinks we’ve got it all wrong, but the momentum of the moment carried it through and Toys just lit up the empty ball room with some sizzling leads. We’d played about an hour and a half and the joke of doing a gig to a completely empty ball room was getting a bit old, so I whipped out the opening of Johnny B. Goode which we rode to some really nice peaks and slammed it to death by the end. Zoe, Tashi, Tristan and Vaughn’s mom thought it was all spectacular!

And as much as I’d love to have a dance floor full of people in front of me singing every word, I was just as proud of us for doing the damn gig. When I was a high diver I used to get really pissed off at jaded divers who would complain about doing shows in the rain or in freezing weather. I mean what the hell – you could be washing dishes somewhere. I’ve always taken the old adage, ‘The Show Must Go On’ as a way to live life. I’ve performed 80 ft. dives in front of a crowd of a Chinese guy and his dog. I sure as hell wasn’t going to balk at a nice cushy indoor gig – regardless of who didn’t show up.

And in the end we played a damn good gig – especially with a rookie drummer! Cudos to Vaughn!!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

And that Makes 50!

The night before leaving Ann Arbor we had a flurry of activity as Dan was driving up from Charlottesville to drop off his mother-in-law’s car and Toys was meeting us with a car full of band gear so we could caravan down to Virginia together.

Will and I had done our last training run and were watching baseball when Toys called in telling us he was on his way. Not ten minutes later the Gizard (that’s Dan) phoned in saying he’d reached AA and was having dinner with his mother-in-law. Within an hour Andy’s house was hopping with all sorts of people, electronic gear, guitars and a random assortment of baggage. The game was on, Will was jamming on the violin and Molly was in the next room tossing in a clarinet solo. Brigit’s normally tame household had erupted into … well … us.

We took an early wakeup call, packed up my van and Toys' car, said goodbye to the AA folks and made a quick trip downtown to feed the Gizard’s rabid caffeine addiction. Dan tends to caffeine through his fatigue, while I prefer the power nap. He gets more stuff done and I feel much better.

Once on the road we snuk under a Michigan thunderstorm then headed for the Ohio border. We skirted Toledo, crossed the state to Cleveland, avoided it like an ugly girl wanting to ask you to Sadie Hawkins, then dropped south towards the West Virginia border.

Around 1:00 p.m. we crossed the Ohio River into the state of West Virginia and I had achieved one of the big bucket list items of any American traveler: I had arrived at my 50th state. Not only was it my 50th state, I had been to 46 of the 50 via road trips - not airplanes. A dozen or so Grateful Dead trips along with just about every big western drive on the map (including the ALCAN Hwy) had taken me to every state in the Union. Of the four states I hadn’t driven to Hawaii and Florida were the only ones I’d reached exclusively by plane. Kentucky and Tennessee came via a cross-country cycling trip in 1989 (although I’ve since flown to Kentucky twice).

Our family rule is if you put your foot down on solid ground in that state you can say you've been there and cross it off the family list. That way we avoid someone counting fly-over states. We drove all the way through Charleston, picked up I66 at Beckley and were almost out of the state before I remembered that I hadn’t stuck my foot down. I called for a gas stop about 50 miles short of the Virginia border, opened up the driver’s side door (something I almost never do, as I exit through the middle of the van) and tossed my leg out until it scraped the pavement. Now it was official.

You would think I would be satiated in my U.S. travel itinerary, but that’s not the case. Ever since I moved out West I started tallying up U.S. National Parks. There are 53 of those (and counting) and I’m just over 50% on that list. And those are the best road trips of all!

But alas, this road trip was far from over. We still had to cross the Appalachians into Virgina and motor on to Charlottesville before we could toss back a beer. We spent the better part of two hours cresting ridge after ridge. It’s no where near as nice as crossing a big Western chain, but it sure beats the hell out of everything inbetween. One funny anomaly along the way was crossing the New River Gorge rumored to be one of the oldest rivers in the world. Locals claim that only the Nile river is older, but Geologists have a hard time dating rivers. The pros claim it could be anywhere from 25 million to 250 million years old – and that’s a pretty wide swath of time. But the mountains themselves are surely the oldest in the world and should the Himalayan expedition come to fruition I would be flying almost directly from the oldest mountains to the newest – 8000 miles away.

This was all interesting stuff to consider and a great time killer on a 12-hour drive, but eventually the sun went down and we were faced with a nasty two-hour stretch in pitch dark. Eventually we scooted the city of Charlottesville and veered north east eight miles out of town to the Gizard’s very comfortable abode in Earlysville.

Very nice to get out of the car !

Friday, December 25, 2009

Free Willin'

The next stop along the journey was in Ann Arbor, Michigan where my brother Andy lives with wife Brigit, high school senior Molly and 5th grader, Will. Andy and I do a lot of work together because he just happens to be one of the top spinal cord doctors in the world. I gave him all sorts of credibility by breaking my back, creating our little horse and pony show. How’s that for brotherly love!

We started an organization about a decade back called the International Rehabilitation Forum. It’s a consortium of doctors, institutions and do-gooders from all over the world who are trying to advance the concept of rehabilitation medicine in developing nations. It sounds like Doctors without Borders, but those guys usually go into a country, do surgeries and leave. It’s incredible and necessary work, but it also leaves very little for post-surgical care or long time rehabilitation plans. That’s where these docs come in. They are either doctors from developing regions or Western docs who operate clinics in developing regions. Their work is as, if not more, important than the surgeons – just not as sexy, thus harder to get funding.

In June Andy, Will and I went to Turkey and along with the IRF’s Executive Director Sierra Loar, pulled off the first World Conference on Rehabilitation in Developing Nations. It was an unforgettable three days in the Cappadocia region in Central Turkey. (For a write up on the medical part of the conference click here. For the travel side of it click on the June and August posts in this blog).

I had a huge list of website updates to code from the conference, but I was getting stuck on several of them and we needed a team meeting - thus the side trip to Ann Arbor which isn’t exactly a bee-line from Brewtown to Charlottesville.

But the coolest part of the trip was that Will had become stable enough on a bike so he could bust out some training runs with me. Although a hand cycle is more efficient than a regular wheelchair, you’re still using arm power which means an average road cyclist can put me to shame. But with Will cruising on his mountain bike and me putting in some good hard miles we matched up almost perfectly. For three days we owned the Huron River Drive and he helped me get right back into peak form.

Oddly enough Andy lives near ‘Delhi’ park (pronounced DEL-high???) and we used their quarter mile double looped parking lot for drag races. I really didn’t have a place in Corvallis to practice sprints so the lot provided me with a perfectly-timed and long-neglected part of my training. After you’ve done all the mileage you really need to do some speed work. I was announcing the races in French, which Will thought sounded as ridiculous as goose-squak. I always got the early lead, but he crushed me on the curves then waited for me at the finish line with a fresh batch of trash talk. One time I called a fast start and got a nice lead, but come turn 4, he leaned on his two wheels, easily passed me and made me look like a fool. We laughed and laughed and in the end I was in great shape to take on the D.C. Marathon.

The thing that really sucked in Ann Arbor was that the baseball playoffs were in full swing and Will and I just love hanging out watching baseball. Although he hates the Brewers and I hate the Tigers, we are in complete agreement over one thing: The greatest player over the past 20 years has been Pudge Rodriguez. However many runs Bonds created in his bogus heyday, Pudge shut down three times as many. He’s got by far the best throw out ratio in baseball history and if that doesn’t impress you – well then you just don’t know squat about baseball. But the annoying thing was that if you’re a kid living in the Eastern Time Zone you don’t get to see more than an inning or two before going to bed. How the hell does that serve baseball? The sport is dying out among young people but they put their biggest games on when most of the young people in the country are sawing z’s. And the reason for this? Prime Time Ratings?? WTF? Sell a few cars and some beer and lose the entire younger generation. Nice job MLB – maybe you can up the royalty rate on Major League team names on Little League uniforms (yeah – they do actually charge Little League for using their team names).

The IRF meetings went great too as we put the finishing touches on the website, fulfilling some promises we’d made to the doctors in Kayseri. We even had dinner one night with a bunch of visiting scholars from Ghana, Andy’s main country of interest. Ghana had just won the World U-21 Soccer Championship – the country’s first international title EVER! No previous gold medals – even in track where Africans usually break in. Needless to say they were in a giddy mood and nobody laughs harder than a Ghanaian when they’re having fun!

Oh yeah – Dan called. India just slid up to an 85% chance…

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Brewtown

I rolled into my parent’s house in Milwaukee and, after some hugs and breakfast, I plopped onto the couch and fell soundly asleep with ESPN on and the remote in my right hand pointed vaguely in the direction of their new flat screen. I stayed that way for the next 48 hours until my friend Toys, who would be joining me for the next two weeks, reminded me that I had a marathon to do in ten days.

With the help of Toys brother, Ox, I managed to get my tire replaced and have his mechanic check the alignment on the van which had become sketchy since the Bambi incident. When the mechanic looked under the car he experienced a massive gag reflex, popped his head up and said, "Yup, that's deer alright!"

I also had to run all over Milwaukee trying to find the specific tire to fit my handcycle's front wheel. I way short on training runs and didn't want to rest anymore before we headed out to D.C. In the midst of all this was brother Dan in Charlottesville telling me the Tibetans checked out my credentials and were more than happy to have me come. What started out to be a 40-60 chance of me being in India by Christmas was looking closer to 70-30. And if it were to go down, it would require me to create and knock down a monumental check list, all while in Charlottesville, a city I spent two days in 18 years ago.

A week in Milwaukee not only means hanging out with my parents, sisters, brothers-in-laws, two nieces and a nephew, it also requires several jam sessions with the extended members of The Khampas, a latently immature bunch of musicians who unfortunately got good at playing their instruments way too late in life. Had we gotten as good as we are now in our early 20’s we’d probably be junkies in L.A. by now. Instead most are responsible parents who do their damndest to squeeze out a day a week for rehearsals.

Toys’ house is the epicenter of this action since he’s a sound engineer with more gear in his crib than five bands need. His basement is a recording studio that can handle anything from a full horn section to a 10-piece guitar band with drums. The best day of the Wisconsin stint was a 12-hour session in his living room. Any number of fools both young and old (my nephew Tim even sat in with us) plugged in various instruments and played every single tune any of us had ever learned – with the exception of the gazillion Grateful Dead covers that most of us know. It’s not that we don’t still love that material, it’s just that it’s all we used to play and we really needed to move on. I’m sure that stuff won’t stay in the closet long, but it was nice to put it away for this trip. Ox looked at me after about seven hours sans Dead and said, “When did you guys start playing music people like?”

But the sobering fact was that I DID have a big race ahead so I needed to put in some miles. I managed to get in two nice long rides in Milwaukee before it just got too damn cold. One was a 30-miler up and down what used to be glorious Lake Drive hugging the shores of Lake Michigan. Budget cuts and time have made what was once my favorite training route into a road that could be substituted by the junk I would encounter in Old Delhi. The following day I humped it out to Ox’s house in the Northwest suburbs of Milwaukee along roads even more pock-marked than that. It reminded me of how lucky I’ve been to train in towns like Pullman, Portland and Corvallis. Nothing but wide smooth road shoulders along gorgeous stretches of the planet out there.

The Milwaukee stretch offered some really great R&R and, after the horrible disappointment in Portland, I was feeling good about D.C. But, alas there was plenty more road calling so I was off to Michigan. And no, my Mom was NOT pleased with the thought of me in India.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Black River Falls Flashback

With the van back on the road albeit much worse off for the ware (wrinkled hood, busted cooling system, deer stuff EVERYWHERE) I drove east and might as well have just fallen asleep until Minneapolis. Around Midnight just short of the Wisconsin border I was debating hauling through the night to Milwaukee when for the second time on the trip I heard:

“pffffffffffffffffftftftftftftftftft..ka bum ka bum ka bum ka bum ka bum”

When it happened on my hand cycle in Portland the streets were lined with people and I was rolling at about 19 mph. This time I was on a near empty highway going 60. My left rear had blown no doubt due to some abuse Bambi had given it the night before. By the time I exited the freeway the thing was shredded like one of Rush Limbaugh's pharmacy bills.

I pulled over a hundred yards on to the state highway and hopped out of the van to check the damage. I opened up the back hatch and started unscrewing the tire gear. The very first car to pass me up, circled back around and two Minnesota high school students whipped out their ‘Minnesota Nice’ and changed the tire in about ten minutes. In the past I’ve tried to change tires, but it’s just something I can’t do. I can’t get under the van to see where to stick the jack, and even if I make a good guess, I still can’t get the flat back in the car at the end of the job. If I try to lift that much weight my chair tips up on it’s castor wheels and I go shooting forward. Had they not bailed me out I probably would have had to call for my second tow truck rescue of the trip.

Sunday flat in the middle of the Portland Marathon.
Tuesday, Bambi takes me out of action with a belly flop.
Thursday, flat before I hit the Mississippi River bridge.

That’s three strikes right? I’m done right…

…PLEASE!!

I drove another blurry hour into Wisconsin and pulled over in the town of Black River Falls. The last time I pulled over in BRF was by a cop for speeding in 1981. I was driving up to Eau Claire, Wisconsin with my parents for my sister Barb's college graduation. I got pulled over by a chubby bald state trooper for what I later found out was a routine speed trap. I was only doing 70 in a 60 which back then didn’t mean squat - probably just a slap on the wrist. Unless, of course, you’ve got an outstanding warrant out. Which I did.

Just about eight months earlier I attended my high school baseball banquet. The Nicolet Knights were a damn good team that just missed the semis of the state tourney. Most of us had been together since we were 10-years-old so this was our final bash as a team. The banquet was at a bar and since most of us had already turned 18 we were of legal Wisconsin drinking age circa 1981. So we drank. Most of the parents did the same thing at that age so they thought nothing strange of it – in fact our two Little League coaches whose sons were two of our All-Conference players bought us beers.

After the banquet we headed onto the town and stopped at a Mexican restaurant (one block from our Little League fields) known for strong margaritas. Five of us downed a pitcher, then another and then, of course we got loud and were asked to leave as it was actually kind of a family place. We left, but not before hijacking a couple of the wide-rimmed margarita glasses.

As we were on our way to Milwaukee’s hip East Side, we got pulled over by two local cops who said one of the cars in our caravan had rolled a stop. Our shortstop who was a damn good ball player, but lacking in the social graces after two pitchers of margaritas started arguing with the cops which lead us to a quick sojourn to the Glendale, Wisconsin police station. They printed us and took mug shots and arrested us for shoplifting the margarita glasses - which they knew came from the Mexican Restaurant which was also kind of a cop hangout. I think with all the lawyers living in that town the DUI paperwork on the shortstop would have just been a hassle. One of the Little League dads came by, picked us up and drove us home telling us we better watch out when we get to college or they might kick us off the team for crap like that.

And so I never went to court on the summons and actually forgot all about it until nine months later when I was sitting on a bench in the Black River Falls police station watching my Dad haul out his credit card to bail me out of jail so I could go up to my sister’s graduation party that night.

I told my Dad I had nothing to do with the glasses and it was all a misunderstanding. He was trying to buy it but he was justifiably suspicious. Three weeks later I went to court, the cops had no margarita glasses to show the judge (whose son was also a Little Leaguer a few years younger than us) and the whole thing was dismissed. My Dad even got his bail money back.

BUT, I never stepped foot in Black River Falls again, until 2009 when I was just too damn tired to go on. I pulled into a neighborhood, unrolled my sleeping bag, tossed the drivers seat back and slept soundly until 8:00 a.m. I wondered what would happen if I got hit up on some vagrancy rap? Two strikes in BRF! Three strikes and they hire you to teach at the high school.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Bambi!

After some really great jams with Bill, I once again loaded up the van and he sent me off to Sandpoint, Idaho to crash with an old high school friend, Doug Faude. It’s always nice enough to hang out with the Faude clan, but this time it was for the first ever Favre vs. Green Bay game.

The fans in Wisconsin are plenty pissed about all of this but I’ve got a neat little Favre story that will keep me on his bandwagon for the rest of my life. Three months after I broke my back a journalist in Milwaukee wrote a story about me staking out on a new life after having been an extreme athlete for most of my previous life (I used to jump off big ladders into teacups for a living). Favre read the paper and was kind enough to send me a shirt, a hat and an autographed litho of him in front of Lambeau Field. Now that’s pretty nice eh? Well cheggit out – he sent it three days after he’d just won the goddamn Super Bowl! He was THE most wanted man in America and during that stretch of time - when he’s refusing calls from CNN and Good Morning America - he takes time out to send me this get-well package. So no, I don’t want to see him ever beat the Packers (which he’s done – errrr twice as of this writing), but I sure as hell wish the guy the best.

I met the Faude’s at Ponderay, Idaho’s famous ‘Slates Sports Bar’ and proceeded to see Favre mop up the floor with a defense he knows better than his wife’s eyes. The Packers had installed a new system since Favre had left, but what the hell does a system mean to a guy who’s been around that long. He sees players, finds mismatches and beats ‘em. No one’s ever been better at it.

The stay at the Faude residence was way too short, but I had to make some time if I was going to get to Wisconsin, fix the bike and get in a week of training before D.C. Inside this big marathon were going to be tons of little sprints. Doug sent me south following Lake Pond Oreille, one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. When I wasn’t gawking at steep cliffs, I was getting rocked by 14,000 foot peaks in the distance. A few white puff balls broke up the big western blue sky and took me into the Montana Rockies though Missoula, Butte and Bozeman. The sun set behind me with the northern flank of the Washburn mountains that border Yellowstone just to the south.

I powered on through to Billings and made a dash for the North Dakota border hoping to camp somewhere before Bismarck. I wanted to get up early and catch a road-grub breakfast before driving the mind-numbing flatlands during daytime. My friend, Tom in Chicago loaded up my Ipod with something like 4000 Grateful Dead tunes so I had some old PigPen numbers grinding me right through the darkness. I was following a small canyon along the Yellowstone River when Bambi stepped onto the highway and stared me down.

Bambi was a female white-tailed deer that I’m guessing was pushing 220 lbs. I locked eyes with her and while slamming on my anti-locks, channeled this message:

“Listen honey, you know that if I swerve this car going 80 mph, it’s gonna kill me, so that’s just not in the cards. I suggest you scamper back off the road just like you hopped on it.”

Her glassy glowing red eyes filled with fear and her telepathy matched mine saying:

“Sir, you know I’m a dumb animal and even though I know I should be backing off here, there’s something in my breeding that just won’t allow me to do that. So while I’d appreciate the swerve on your part, I do realize that’s probably not what’s going to occur here. Sorry ‘bout the damage.”

Jerry, Phil and Bob dropped their axes and winced waiting for the impact – Pigpen and the drummers kept playing.

The interaction probably took about .9 seconds in real-time, but we really did have a nice discussion about it. And then Bambi, standing parallel to my hood, blew into more pieces than there are stars in the Milky Way.

In an instant my windshield was completely covered in green cud and I was calculating the odds that I would soon fly into a ditch. I kept braking and pushed wiper fluid like it was saline into dehydrated elephant. Soon enough I had a clear vein that I could see through. Amazingly, I was still on the road and the car was still running. Then I heard a loud thump as Bambi’s carcass slid off the destroyed grill and rolled under the chassis. Something caught on the muffler and dragged for another mile or so, just long enough to distract me from the fact that the temperature needle was slowly rising toward the H.

I was four miles from the town of Hysham and praying that I could get myself off the big road to some kind of repair shop. I slowed down to 35 MPH and waddled off I94 driving the final dark two miles to the lifeless hamlet of Hysham. The only lights on in town were at a convenience store, but luckily enough, the woman at the counter wasn’t a zitty-faced nimrod, but the actual owner. She took one look at my van, made two phone calls and within 10 minutes the van was being loaded onto a trailer.

The wreck driver took one look at the murder scene and declared the culprit van would have to do some time for this act. The closest shop was 30 miles away in Forsyth and it would be at least a couple days before he could get parts.

I couldn’t climb up into the truck, so the local sheriff who’d stopped by to see the mess offered to drive me to the motel in Forsyth. We caravanned along the state road with the sheriff telling me that he’d like to shoot more deer, but seems like they keep about 50 percent of the business in town afloat. "Deer accidents is big business ‘round here!" he bragged.

I woke up to a snow-covered Forsyth, Wyoming so thoughts of me getting my bike fixed and getting in a training run went out the window. Instead I plugged in my laptop and let my friends and family know what went down. Dan was sending me posts saying the India thing was progressing, but nothing for sure yet. I had the insurance company to deal with and was phone tagging with the mechanic who was nice enough to make a special run back to Billings for a new water pump and radiator. The good news was he said I’d be on the road in the morning. The bad news was that the insurance company called it an act of god and I was screwed.

I’d saved up enough money for gas & grub to D.C. and back, but it was a no frills budget. A grand full of repairs was going to end the marathon right there. I called my mom to tell her that I wasn’t going to make it to Wisconsin and she just laughed at me.

“What are you talking about,” she said, “You don’t just make a big plan like this and bail on it – your nieces and nephews will kill you.”

Before I could say I just didn’t have the cash, she had me taking down her credit card number and footing the bill. Not only is the marathon a series of sprints and pauses – it’s also a team sport. Nobody finishes one alone.

That night I went out into the sleepy town of Forsyth and discovered it was anything but sleepy. I found a sports bar with some first round playoff games going on and spilled a few with dinner. I also discovered I was a local celebrity. Not two bites into my burger the cook comes out and said, “Hey was that yer deer out on mile number 57? What a bute eh? Knocked her clean to hades eh? Nuthin’ left o’ dat one!” Then he pointed me out to two friends who both agreed that ‘Mile 57 was a damn good hit!’

When I asked the owner what there was to do in town, he snickered and told me to look out into the street. I rolled out the door and saw cowgirls, Indians, ranchers and farmers of all ages darting in and out of a half dozen bars. I chuckled, rolled my eyes then hopped out into the fray. Before I knew it I had four new best friends who goaded me into going back to the motel (almost two miles back!) and getting my guitar to play a set. When I got back to the bar I was handed a beer which I slammed pretty quick because I’d just pushed four miles. I strapped on the ol’ Epiphone and the bar tender turned off the tunes. I looked up to see a pile of lit locals staring at me. Only one tune came to mind. The set went like this:

• Momma Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to be Cowboys (learned for just such an occasion)
• Folsom Prison
• Big River
• I Weren’t Gone (one of mine written for just such an occasion)
• Runnin’ Down a Dream.

It was a nice little sing along for most of ‘em but I knew my book here was thin. That was a good enough stunt, so I took another free beer (OK, maybe 2… 4 free beers) then rolled back to the motel.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Marathon pt. 1

Being the worst senior on my high school cross country team I never in a million years thought I would train for a marathon, let alone finish one. Winning one? Hah! But thirty years later marathons have come to symbolize just about every facet of my life. I used to be a springboard diver and my life was all about brief bursts of energy. But 13 years into my stint as a paraplegic, what other people consider marathons are daily exercises for me - both literally and figuratively.

In the literal sense, it’s not at all uncommon for me to hop out on my hand cycle and cover the 26 mile distance. I would imagine that over the past dozen years I’ve completed more than 200 marathons – and maybe 500 more rides of 17+ miles. It’s sounds counterintuitive, but wheelchair marathoning is much, much easier than marathon running. The first one seemed like an impossible task, but once I’d completed it, I realized that my arms did all the work and I could recover much more quickly than a runner whose knees take all the pounding.

Then I realized as long as I could recover quickly there was no reason to just do six or seven miles a day. It was better to do 15 or 16. Once that became routine I’d toss in a nice big hill (now hills are MUCH tougher for the guy in the chair!) and go for longer rides on the weekends. 30 miles; 50 miles; 100 miles. So the feat of actually completing a marathon is quite routine for me.

On a figurative sense, I’ve been looking for gainful employment for over a year and that is the most heinous drain a human being’s spirit can experience (and your talking to a guy with a broken back!). I’d recently gone back to college after 23 years and got a degree in broadcast journalism. The first time I went to school I didn’t want anything close to a job upon getting out so I got a psychology degree and 2.5 GPA. This time, frustrated with my lack of a job skill, I went back with solid employment in mind. I worked my ass off, graduated Cum Laude and was one of the most decorated students in my class.

Three years earlier the local stations would have been bidding for someone with my resume, but it just so happened that upon graduating, the economy collapsed taking with it all of print journalism. I found myself in line for TV news writing jobs with Pulitzer Prize winners.

So while living in my incredibly gracious sister Sue’s basement in Corvallis, 90 minutes south of Portland, I sent out gazillions of resume tapes; did informational interviews; got rejected from the few jobs who actually showed interest in me - and continued riding. And this is the story of how the two marathons; the literal and the figurative intersected.

One of the first marathons I ever competed in was my hometown Portland Marathon. I rode it in a racing chair donated to me by my employer at the time, Adidas America. The first time I did it I was stunned by how awful the course was. It went through the ugliest part of Portland and crossed two dozen railroad tracks. There was also a part along the course where runners were crossing the road to a water stop not noticing that wheelchairs were barreling down the street at them. I knocked two women right out of the race. After that debacle, I wrote to the race commissioner who invited me to join the race committee as the wheelchair race director.

Since 1999 I’ve been the wheelchair director of the Portland Marathon. I have met some incredible people on the committee who work really hard for no pay. We also get a luxurious SWAG bag for our efforts as well as free entry to the race; although I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who routinely takes them up on it.

But this year after an unexpected training break (freebie trip to Turkey for building a website for my brother Andy’s group of International doctors!) I found myself about six weeks behind in training for the Oct. 3rd race. I could tell I was getting into shape, but I knew I wouldn’t get all the way there. I began looking for a different race to peak for and discovered that one of my dream races – The Marine Corps Marathon run around all the big monuments in Washington D.C., was being held three weeks later. My brother Dan and his family live conveniently close in Charlottesville, Virginia and I’d never been to their home. I got a late exemption to the race and I now had a marathon road trip with two big city marathons in the crosshairs.

Three days before the Portland Marathon, Sister Sue helped me stuff my van with not only my racing chair and enough clothes for a month, but also three guitars a couple of mic setups and a practice amp. As it ends up my two younger brothers and I got stung in the ass by a hard dose of Pete Townshend when we were teenagers and now we carry a ridiculous, but irreversible reverence for playing loud music. If I’m going to drive out to Charlottesville and come back via Denver (where brother Bagus lives), you can bet that van’s gonna be hauling some music gear. And no – one guitar does not suffice.

I pulled out of Cornvalley and headed north up to Portland to crash at my friend and playing partner Bill Crabtree’s crib. Bill and I were roommates in 1996 when I cracked my back. Since that time we’ve discovered we both lived in Milwaukee, are rabid Packer fans, fanatical followers of the Tour de France and have both completed the Boston Marathon. But the cool part is just about two years ago Bill decided to stop looking at the backpacker guitar in his living room and start giving it a good workout every day. Now after a nice Ibanez acoustic upgrade, he too is a guitar addict. So we do just fine.

After two days of working the marathon expo and jamming with Bill the Sunday morning raceday alarm clock went off. I got up at 5:30 a.m. (why they start this race at 7 a.m. is beyond me) and caught the light rail downtown to the start. My chair was locked up at the Marathon offices at the Hilton but I arrived after breakfast with 20 minutes to spare. Unfortunately they don’t hire the best help for early Sunday mornings so the guy who went to look for my hand cycle just disappeared into the bowels of the hotel not to resurface until 6:57. I usually like about 20 minutes to check my gears and brakes, stretch out, maybe catch a sprint or two. Not today. It was all I could do to get in the rig (I assumed they would take care of my day chair because I just left it in the lobby) and haul ass towards the starting line. I asked a group of spectators to open up a barricade (luckily I was wearing my committee credentials) and I found myself in full sprint towards the line while the other five competitors in the hand cycle category were sprinting back at me having already started the race. I got to the start line with only 20 seconds to go before the other 10,000 runners took off. I begged a group of volunteers and elite runners to help turn my rig around (hand cycles have the turning radius of Rhode Island). I got pointed fairly straight and busted away from the throng just seconds before the mayor yelled, “Three, Two, One…BANG!”

So any chance I had of being up with the elite guys was gone, but I had nothing to lose so I put in the college try to catch the front of the race. I realized at the first turn around that I was so far behind I didn’t have a chance. Demoralized, I also realized that I was riding about 2 mph slower than I do in workouts. I never found out why, but I must have had a brake rubbing or some bad alignment from carrying the hand cycle around in the van. At that point I decided to go for a hard training run. I put in a lot of effort but was still not up to top speed when I came up to the St. John’s Bridge, the steepest part of the course. I was dreading the climb, but for some reason the bike started to loosen up and I was able to hit it pretty hard. After crossing the Columbia River, I barreled down the bridge in a solid third place (I caught all but two riders, but those two were minutes ahead of me). The bike felt great and I was ready to put some hurt into the last 9 miles of the race.

“pffffffffffffffffftftftftftftftftft..ka bum ka bum ka bum ka bum ka bum”

And so ended my 2009 Portland Marathon. My front tire which takes all the pulling from the drive train, flatted. Sure I had a spare in the back, but at that point just too many things had gone bad (and I HATE changing flats). So I slowly rolled the nine miles back to downtown Portland stopping to chat with several old friends along the way. I stored my messed up rig back at the Hilton, grabbed my day chair and hopped the light rail back to Bill’s house.

I was thinking the day was a complete disaster and I was just going to drown my sorrows in a 12-pack when my cell phone’s obnoxious ringtone woke me from my funk. It was brother Dan in Charlottesville. I assumed he would ask how the race went or what gear I was bringing for the gig we planned on playing, but before I could say a thing he said:

“Hey man – I just got an email from one of the guys on the Tibetan tech network. They just got a radio license and don’t know what to do with it. You wanna go to India and help ‘em run the place?”

In order for that to make sense you would have to insert Dan’s as-yet unwritten 700 page synopsis of how he brought the Tibetan Government in Exile in Dharamsala, India into the 21st century – all during the 20th century. But since that tome hasn’t been written, just trust me – it happened and he knows people. I actually spent three months in Dharamsala in 2000 seeing what went down, so I’ve got a decent grip on the place too. Before he could spew out any of the details I said, “Yes! Hell YES! Hell fukking yes!”

We both got a good chuckle out of it and he said it’s a pipe dream and we could talk about it more as I get closer to Charlottesville. That little marathon I just wimped through in Portland was just the start of it.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Ankara

By the time I woke up, Andy and Will were already on a Turkish Air flight to Istanbul. All the doctors were gone and I was by myself in a non-English speaking town in central Turkey. Instead of having someone grab my bag, I bungied my duffle from my footplate to the handle on my seat cushion. I’ve got two little posts on my chair that serve as mini luggage racks and keep most of the weight off my feet. As long as I don’t have any big hills and I can get on the sidewalks, I roll fairly freely.

I didn’t roll long before I flagged a cab not far from the hotel. The cabbie took me to the train station and lifted me the two steps to the ticket office. While I was bungying my bag back to my legs, my cabbie was at the ticket window buying my ticket. I was on my way to Ankara to check out a wheelchair factory run by a friend of one of the doctors from the conference. I found a card phone and called the doctor in Ankara while my cabbie bought my ticket for me. In some cities this would be a setup for a ripoff, but I was told at the hotel that Kayseri cabbies were honest. This wasn't New York City and my cabbie had an honest concern for my welfare. When he came back, he had my ticket, my itenerary and my change. I offered him the change, but he refused it.

The Kayseri train station was a combination of industrial, military and passenger rails. The platform was a 200-meter uncovered concrete slab only a foot above the rails. When the train came I was going to need a lift to get up to my car. The train was an hour late, so I had plenty of time to gather a posse. I found a room with a crew of uniformed train workers and showed them my itinerary. They weren't sure what to think of me but then they then signaled they would take care of the situation. When the train finally pulled into the station, five workers
grabbed the handles of my chair and lifted me up the four steps to the car. There was plenty of room inside the car so I took the first chair from the door and settled in. The train workers disassembled my chair and stored it in the luggage rack above me. In Western Europe the train workers are rabid about making sure people sit in the proper seat. In Turkey they are rabid about comfort and common sense.

The train pulled out and rolled painfully slowly toward Ankara 350 km. northwest of Kayseri. I was sitting in a family car with a bunch of kids and some very tired mothers, looking to catch some sleep. While there eyes were shut, my eyes were glued to the rugged Anatolian farmscape. Behind me were a pair of 12,000 ft. volcanoes and far off in the distance were the highlands that surround Ankara. While the parents were sleeping, I goofed off with their kids, making faces and noises. They were asking questions and laughed uncontrollably when I responded with, “Tomatoes are actually a fruit,” or “Grand Funk Railroad was misunderstood.” But I’m pretty sure there favorite answer was, “Zeke Bratkowski.”

The train was an hour late taking off and lost two hours on the way to Ankara. We crossed one mountain pass and slithered through three deep river canyons, stopping in each one to let a train pass in the opposite direction. Every ten to fifteen miles we passed a hamlet with two or three mosques and the requisite prayer minarets. You’ve got to think that in a town of 2000 you would need only one mosque, but apparently that’s not the case. I wonder if they take turns on the daily prayer sirens.

I was hoping to get into Ankara in daylight so I could catch my bearings, but the three-hour delay got me to the train station just as the sun dropped over Ankara’s West hills. It took almost an hour to get from the outskirts of town to the city center, but that gave me time to pick out a guest house near the station. There was a city map in the Lonely Planet Turkey guide that Andy and Will left me, but those maps are typically lame. They don't mark hills and they tend to leave out non-major streets. In a city with poorly marked streets like Ankara, it’s easy to get lost.

But orientation and housing were problems I could only attack once I got out on the street – something I couldn’t do because the conductors had forgotten me on the train. I assumed someone would help me after the train got to the station, but as the passengers filed out with no conductors were in sight, I needed to ask my friends for help before the train pulled out of the station. I tugged on one of the parent’s coats and pointed to my chair stashed neatly in the rack above my seat. The guy looked kind of surprised. While I was playing with his kids he had no idea I was a para. He started speaking to me in Turkish, but I shrugged my shoulders and poked at my dead legs letting him know it was my chair. He motioned he had to get his wife and kids off the train, but just seconds later he was back with two other helpers. They plucked my chair off the rack, we assembled it and the three of them lifted me down three tight steps to the platform. Seconds later, my bag followed. I pulled out my luggage racks and bungy chords, showed the Turks my system, and thanked them in one of the few Turkish words I’d picked up, ‘Tesekk├╝r ederim' or ‘Thanks broham!’

Once loose in the station, I bought my ticket to Istanbul, found a card phone and called one of the guest houses. I scored an English speaker on my first attempt. The concierge at the Hotel Spor in the middle of the town center or ‘Ulus’, ended up being the only English speaker I ran into the entire weekend in Ankara. He had a $50 room he thought might work, but told me he’d help me find a room if it didn’t. Had there been daylight I would have navigated my way with my bag bungied to my feet, but at night it’s always best to find a home before exploring. I had no idea what the curb cut situation was, and with a heavy bag on my feet, I needed a cab.

The concierge at the Hotel Spor was a blond Turk who had spent years abroad as a truck driver in Germany and England. He had short hair and tight cheekbones and was a spitting image of Lance Armstrong. When I said he looked like Lance, he said I should call him that so I wouldn’t forget his name. Lance had a room for me on the 6th floor and was worried I wouldn’t get into the elevator. I unstrapped my bag and, with it balancing lengthwise on my lap, was able to close the door. I made it to my room but couldn’t get past the first of two small beds. I called downstairs and Lance came up to figure out the situation. He lifted the first bed on its headboard and leaned it against the wall. I was short one closet, but I wasn’t going to use it anyway.

The biggest issue was getting through the tiny bathroom door. I asked Lance if he could pop the door off the hinge, but he said the owner would kill him if he messed up the paint. Instead he suggested I use the restaurant bathroom on the first floor. It was potentially a pain in the arse, but since I was leaving on the midnight train the next night and I’d only be staying for one night, we were square. We settled the difference over a few Effes beers (best beer in all of Ephesia!) and I was out to discover the nightlife of Ankara.

Whereas Kayseri had no drinking and no nightlife, Ankara had a bustling, if not seedy, night life. There were plenty of bars in Ulus; basically open-air restaurants that stopped selling food after dinner. Most of them had TV’s tuned to horse races or Turkish MTV. The tables were full of men, but no women patrons were in sight. The only women around were overly made up barmaids who, although sitting behind the bar, were not carrying out any drinks. It didn’t take a Mensa to figure out what they were doing.

I discovered the same beers I was paying 4 TL for at the bar were available at the convenience store for half the price. Since I wasn’t chatting it up, there wasn’t any live music and I wasn’t in need of a hooker, I got a six pack and rolled to the room. Lance told me they had ESPN on the tube and plenty of international channels. The Turkish version of ESPN was showing archery (no sport could ever be more TV unfriendly) and none of the international channels were in English or French so I flipped off the tube, popped open an Effes and watched the streets of Ankara go to sleep from my 6th floor window. There was a 15-storey building under construction across the street from my window and the construction workers slept on sight instead of going home. The hookers and the construction company were doing ‘bang-up’ business. It wasn’t a pretty night.

##

The air-conditioning unit in my room gave off more heat than relief so I woke up with sweaty sheets and catheters sticking out of the two Effes bottles I’d stored because I couldn't get into the bathroom. Although my chair couldn’t breach the bathroom door, I was able to reach the sink to empty my bottles and wash my hands. I couldn’t see leaving the bottles of Effes full of piss for Lance to clean up.

I made it downstairs and found Lance off duty, replaced by a non-English speaking Turk. He didn’t get the idea that I was checking out but wanted to leave my bag. And then he freaked out when I headed for the restaurant bathroom with a towel and my shaving kit. His 20-word English vocabulary and my five words of Turkish wouldn’t do the trick, so I left my bag and went in to clean up.

The whole reason for my side trip to Ankara was that I’d met an American doctor at the Kayseri conference who told me he had an American friend in Ankara who builds wheelchairs. I told the doctor that I’d love to check out the workshop and he said when I get to Ankara, I should call. Evidently the guy thought there’s no way I would take a seven-hour train by myself so it shocked the hell out of him when I called saying I was in town. The doc fumbled for words then told me he would call his chair welder to see if he could meet me. Since my Verizon cell phone was useless (get a T-mobile phone if you plan on spending any time in Europe) I left him with the hotel phone number and started out on a nice reconnaissance mission through the center of Ankara.

Ankara, like many Middle Eastern capitols, is a series of steep hills with thousands of apartment buildings saturating the landscape. There’s been people living there for 3200 years, but until Ataturk moved the capitol from Istanbul in 1923, the population never amounted to more than 35,000 people. Now, there are more than 4 million Turks creating a no-nonsense business, government and academic climate. Whereas the folks in Istanbul like to get loose and party, the people of Ankara tend to buckle down and work.

Just 100 meters outside of my hotel, I realized my decision to take a cab from the train station instead of rolling the streets with my bungied bag was the best decision I’d made since leaving Portland. The curbs were preventatively high and although there were some curb cuts, most of them were ridiculously conceived and poorly maintained. Beyond that, the hills of Ankara can be viciously steep, turning a mile on the flat Lonely Planet map into an insurmountable wall for someone in a chair. The main streets of Ankara are divided by foot-high boulevards that an able-bodied person can step over, but a person in a chair may have to detour more than a mile to get to the opposite side of the street.

TURKISH CURB CUTS








Instead of following a map (I couldn’t find one – Ankara is not a big tourist destination and there is very little tourist infrastructure) I looked towards a hill just outside Ulus and made my way along a sloping boulevard towards the summit. I tried to stay on the sidewalks as much as possible, but at some points I was forced to jump off foot-high curbs and roll hundreds of yards on busy streets before I could find a driveway with access to the sidewalk. My chair started feeling a little soft, but I didn’t realize for another week that I’d actually snapped one of the support bars of my chair jumping the curbs of Ankara.

After an hour of climbing, I reached a high-end antique market at the summit of Kale hill. I was soaked and my hands were filthy so I chilled with a bottle of water and got my bearings before the drop down the hill. One might ask why I was getting myself in such a state when surely there are busses and metro trains in a city of four million. There are, but the busses are inaccessible and most of the metro stops are a flight of stairs below ground. Ankara had some accessible mini-vans, but they were only for residents who filled out long medical questionnaires and phoned in for rides 24 hours in advance. Cities all around the world have programs like this, but they are so impractical that only the most disabled citizens use them. Most of the insurance regulations are so restrictive that any semi-functional crip finds another way to get around. For me it’s rolling and getting filthy; unless I need to show up looking respectable - then I buck up for the cab (and usually roll home).

I was hoping to find a music shop in the district so I asked one of the antique dealers if he knew where I could find a guitar shop. Again, English wasn’t working, but the universal gesture of strumming lit up the eyes of the forty-something Turk. He rushed into his shop and returned with a nylon-string Gibson which, unfortunately, was strung up right handed (I’m a lefty – curse of my musical career). I gestured to him that I wanted to hear him play, but instead he offered it to me. I protested towards my blackened forearms and sweaty shirt, but he insisted I play. I set the guitar besides me, cleaned up with baby wipes and got a feel for the axe.

After nimbling through upside down scales and finding a couple of barre chords I could fake, I lifted my head to see a dozen Turks waiting to see if I could play the damn thing. My seven years in the circus taught me to never waste a good crowd, so I cleared my throat and dug into a set of the easiest tunes I could muster. The first thing that came to mind was Johnny Cash’s ‘Big River’. I belted out the tune and, to my surprise, got a nice round of applause. I followed it with ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ and even got a few of them to sing along. But these were Turkish antique-ers, not classic rock fans. They put up with one more tune, but after that I was playing to the shop owner and his son.

I gave the guitar back to the shop owner who was too shy to play, but his son ran into the shop and came out with a Turkish 'Saz’ or ‘long-necked lute’.
It’s a three-string instrument with movable frets that are actually pieces of tied string. You can tune it with the pegs or realign the frets. It’s a freaky, funky, bazookia-sounding rig that takes a week to learn and a lifetime to master. While I played some twangy rhythms on the guitar, the kid sat there and whaled on the Saz. I was dying to rip out some runs on a lefty guitar, but I wasn’t going to be too upset with the experience anyway. Just as I was about to leave, the shop owner came out with tea and sandwiches. You just can’t beat the hospitality of the Turks.

After lunch, I had the harrowing task of dropping back down the two-mile hill. On a bike, the reward for a climb is shooting the down hill. In a chair, going down a steep hill in traffic is scary as hell. First, I put on a pair of thick leather gloves (Thanks Mom!) and check my bags (I’ve got a backpack and two small sacks on the legs of the chair) to make sure they’re zipped up. Then I pop a wheelie and drop the street like a ski racer. I can’t squeeze my rims too tight or I’ll burn through my gloves. I can’t drop the hill at full speed because there’s no way I can brake without tossing the chair on the pavement. I let gravity pull me and wherever I can, and use the street like a slalom course. I wait for a red light behind me then lean back in the chair and do wheelies that last a quarter-mile at a time. Once the traffic comes up, I duck behind a parked car and wait for it to pass. My goal is to make the hill without anyone honking at me. In America I usually succeed. In Asia, they honk at anyone no matter what they’re doing.

Eventually I made it back to the Hotel Spor where Lance was back at the helm. He told me my friend called, but there was no way I would be able to meet the chair builder. So much for my reason to be in Ankara, but then again, I had the rest of the day to explore. I spent the afternoon in and around the walled Ankara Kalesi, or citadel. Again, it didn’t look far on the map, but the climb up to the summit was too steep to do by myself. It took two hours to get to the top, but it was only by the grace of a lightly trafficked back road and the help of a half dozen Turks that it was possible. The reward for reaching the summit was a glorious view of the city as well as a visit to the Museum of Anatolian History, named Europe’s Museum of the Year in 1998 even though it’s not even in Europe.

By late afternoon with temperatures hovering around 90, I peered over the edge of the citadel walls and looked for a long route back as opposed to the steep ascent I took to get up. There were plenty of roads back down to Ulus, but all of them were life-sized HotWheels tracks. Whereas the traffic wasn’t bad on the way up, I was leaving at the museum’s closing time with cars and busses lining up at the exit. I had to pick my line and drop the hill as quickly as possible so as to beat the traffic but not kill myself. I started down the hill doing switch backs in the middle of the road until a line of traffic would come and I had to park against the curb. There were sidewalks, but the hill was too steep to drop using a four-foot path. I needed to weave back and forth on the street in order to control my speed. Eventually the bus traffic became consistent enough that I could just slip in between a pair of bumpers and slither into the valley without disrupting the flow of traffic. At first the driver behind me was honking to get me out of the way, but he discovered that I was easily keeping up with traffic (had to slow down more often than not) and he got a kick out of it. When we got to the bottom, he sent me off with a series of horn blasts, a wave and a big smile.

Ever since breaking my back my athleticism has been severely limited and I’m frustrated when I watch people play the sports I love. But wheeling in Ankara was the coolest shit in the world. Bombing a killer hill in a funky Asian capitol was as fukked-up as jumping off a 90 ft. ladder. I don't know if that means anything to you, but it's gold to me.

When I got back to the Hotel Spor, I was drenched and as filthy as could be. Lance gave me the same look my mother used to give me after returning from a day playing along the banks of the Milwaukee River. He smiled, tossed me a towel and asked me if I needed a clean shirt. I told him any shirt would do so he dug into my bag, found a my Portland Marathon shirt and sent me to the restaurant toilet with a towel and my shaving kit.

I spent the evening at the restaurant watching game one of the Turkish basketball league final (Effes beat Finnerbachi for all you Turk hoops fans) and asking Lance questions about the future of Turkey. Before I knew it, it was time to grab a cab for the train station. When I went to pay my bill, Lance’s cash register had run out of 5 TL bills and he was short. He’d been an invaluable help so I told him to hold onto it. He told me I’ve got a 5TL credit next time I stay at the Hotel Spor.

I’d love to take him up on it.

Kayseri


After the 33-hour flight from hell I didn’t have much time to collect my wits. The reason I was in Turkey was to present my Internet strategy to the doctors of the International Rehabilitation Forum (http://www.rehabforum.org). Just seven hours after arriving in Kayseri I found myself on stage in a large academic hall at Erciyes (EAR-jis) University addressing 75 doctors and medical professionals hailing from every corner of the globe. It was a fairly daunting task seeing as I’d only had six hours of sleep out of the previous 72. But the silver lining of all this was that just 15 minutes later, my major responsibility for the trip was over. I still had to attend group sessions and address the conference in the wrap up session, but for the most part, I was on vacation.



IRF Pres and CFO, Andy Haig and Devendra Peer.



But when you’re traveling in Asia in a wheelchair you’re never really on vacation. Although my room was in a modern hotel and 100 percent accessible, the rest of the city, including the University, was 100 percent inaccessible. There are no curb cuts, no ramps, no busses. Elevators are non-existent or, even more annoying, in foyers three steps up from street level. Phone booths and public toilets are tucked behind tiny doors and even something as simple as washing your hands can become a half-hour excursion.

In order to deal with the town without going crazy I need to come equipped with four things – money, sanitary wipes, an above-average fitness level and a blind faith in the human spirit. In America I probably take a cab once every two years, but with accessible public transport being virtually non-existent in darkest Turkey, I end up taking more cabs than I ever would in the states. The price of taking a cab is probably five to ten times more expensive than the public transport, but it’s still a third as expensive as cabs in the U.S. or Europe. The other thing that comes with the cab in Asian cities is a cool, savvy driver. This is my third trip to a third world setting while in a wheel chair and I’ve discovered that if a driver picks up a handicapped person they will make damn sure that person gets exactly where they want to go. I’ve had drivers argue hotel fares for me, carry me up flights of stairs and even have me into their house for tea. On the other hand, I’ve also gotten dropped off miles from my destination on the far side of town (in Delhi) so the driver can get a commission on the hotel he knows. But by and large, cabbies in the third world have saved my arse.

Besides the cabbies, I cannot be shy in asking anyone for help. You don’t have to speak a lot of English to get the point across. When you point at stairs or are sitting outside of a train or bus, it’s pretty obvious what you want. I’ve asked hundreds of strangers for help and only once have I been ripped off. That was some A-hole in Jerusalem’s old city who took me for 20 bucks after I got stuck in a dead-end at the bottom of 50 long stairs. I was screwed, he knew it and, as soon as he got me up the stairs, he held me up for everything I had. Luckily I didn’t have much cash on me.

That explains money and faith in mankind. The wipes just make intuitive sense. If I can’t get to a sink, I need to be able to wash my hands at anytime. They don’t just get dirty, they get filthy. I’m basically walking on my hands wherever I go. Whatever is on the streets or sidewalks ends up on my wheels and eventually my hands – even if I wear gloves. I bring gloves with me, but unless I’m in a hilly city, they’re more trouble than they’re worth. I’m constantly taking them off for money, my camera, a credit card or my phone (although my Vorizon phone was worthless on this trip – you need T-mobile in Europe). If I’ve got a steep downhill where I go for a half-mile wheelie and use my hands as brakes or if it’s so hot that my rims get blistery, I wear gloves. If not, they’re not worth the hassle.

And that leaves the fitness level. I wasn’t in marathon shape before I left, but I was cranking out 3-5 15-mile hand cycle rides per week heading into the trip. At any point I could easily find myself miles away from my destination without anyway to get there. It’s reassuring to know that if I find myself ten miles from home with no cab in sight, it’s no big deal to go ahead and roll it. I’ve done it before – and eventually on this trip, I would do it again.

In Kayseri I was participating in a conference with 75 doctors, so I didn’t need to use any of my solo-ranger tactics. The university was completely inaccessible, but I was traveling in a sea of adaptive professionals so I didn’t even have to ask for help. If I wanted to get on stage or up to one of the classrooms there were immediately four people there to lift me. If I needed a gopher for water or food, my 11-year-old nephew, Will was always at my side. Nonetheless, when the president of the university gave his closing remarks, he apologized profusely for his institutions lack of handicapped awareness (yes, it was a medical school!).



Unfortunately the mode of transport for the conference was the dreaded five-step luxury bus. That meant everywhere we went as a group, my brother, Andy, stowed my chair under the bus and we made our way up to the seats, one step at a time. I used rails to lift my upper body and Andy took my legs. I was so filthy after the first bus trip (a city tour to the oldest hospital in the world) that I never wore the good clothes I brought – including to the final banquet.

The final day of the trip was an incredible day trip to the Flintstone-type villages in the Cappadocia region of Anatolia. The volcanic plumes of the region have been the hiding place for everyone from the early Christians to the wandering Hittites of the 8th century. Houses are carved out of porous rock and have been standing for millennium. The neighborhoods are a system of stairs and caves, which of course I couldn’t explore. But I wasn’t complaining as the cities are some of the most stunning sights I’d ever seen. What I did complain about, however, were the 15 trips up and down the bus stairs. By the end of the day I was so exhausted that I turned down the dinner offered to us at the home of the hotel concierge. Andy and Will went to dinner, but I hit my bed at 7:00 and slept for 14 straight hours.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Simply the Worst Flight Ever

I’ve been road tripping for most of my adult life and I have to challenge anyone to come up with a worse travel day than my recent Portland, OR to Kayseri, Turkey flight. If you are currently staring in the National Geographic series, ‘Locked Up Abroad’, you may have had worse days, but aside from that – I think I’ve got you beat.

It all started relatively well as I woke up in my friend Bill’s house at 5:00 a.m. without even using an alarm. I groggily bungied my bag to my chair and made it out the door to the Portland light-rail train. As the train pulled into the airport I couldn’t believe how smoothly things had gone. Just three days earlier I was forced to drive up to Seattle to wrestle my passport out of the hands of a bungled rush-order passport operation. They said my passport photo was 1/8 of an inch too small. The only way I could get it was to take new photos, drive seven hours out of my way, sit in their line and walk out of their office with the passport in hand. Stunningly enough, when I got the new passport, I discovered they had attached a scanned copy of my photo, not the actual pictures I’d had taken at Kinkos. They could have scanned the originals, enlarged them 5% and saved me the two days. But that headache was gone. This trip was gonna be fun.

Nonetheless, I made my 7:45 a.m. flight and was on my way to Newark for the first leg of a 4-flight, 20-plus hour travel day to Kayseri, deep in the center of ancient Anatolia. I was going there to present my communication plan for the future of the International Rehabilitation Forum, a group of doctors headed by my brother Andy who deal with rehab medicine in third world settings. Ten days earlier I didn’t even think I was going, but when the call came to hop on a plane, I was on it.

It was a cloudy day in the Northwest so only the tips of the biggest Cascade and Rocky mountains snuk above the cloud cover. I’m always game for a nice ride over the great American West, but seeing as I was in for a marathon travel day, I was just as happy to slide back and catch a couple of z’s on route.

The six-hour flight was harmless enough and two hours later, I was giddy with the fact that I’d made my transfer and was on a cross-Atlantic flight to Rome. Whereas missing a connection is a rarity for an able bodied traveller, it is a common threat to a crip. We are always the first ones on the plane and the last ones off. In order to get us to our seat, we are strapped onto a thin aisle chair and carted down the walkway in the same fashion that Hannibal Lector was transported in Silence of the Lambs. If one of these aisle chairs is waiting at the terminal upon arrival, I have a decent chance of making my flight. If the aisle chair is a half mile away, I have to sprint like crazy to make my flight. But in this scenario, the chair was there and I even had time for a slice of NYC pizza.

The long haul to Rome was again eventless as the same pack of clouds that had been following me since Portland was still below me. As the sun rose following a three-hour night, I was not greeted by the shores of France, but the same collection of non-descript fluffy white teasers. The plane was flying directly over Marseilles, Corsica, Sardinia and Tuscany, but I was watching marshmellows. Annoying, but typical; nothing to lose my socks over… yet…

The transition in Rome was typically Italian. Whenever I’m strapped onto the aisle chairs in the states, the attendants make sure every strap is fastened and every belt is firmly connected to the chair. Once a guy in Cincinnati pulled out an instruction manual to make sure I was properly loaded (yes, I did miss my connection that day). But here in Italy I bounced on the chair, the AlItalia worker shrugged his shoulders and pushed me through the aisle with me holding my knees together and balancing on the chair while the belts hung loosely below, clanking against the seats. I’m not sure how the quads feel about it, but I’ll take the Italian method any day. Once back in my normal chair, I was accompanied the entire way by a cute Italian woman who didn’t speak a word of English. In U.S. airports, I’m almost always left to my own devices, but in European airports I am always escorted. The first time it happened I found it was annoying, but I quickly discovered that along with the escort comes the line-skipping at customs and security checks. They also take me right to my next gate and push me to the front of the line at check in. I know I don’t need it, but after missing as many flights as I have, I just let them do their job.

As I was waiting for the plane to Istanbul I made my first mistake. I took out 80 Euros at and ATM. I didn’t think twice about it, but in just a few hours that was to be my undoing. At this point I’d been travelling for 18 hours and had only caught a few hours of sleep. My head was nodding and the realization that I still had at least five more hours to go was weighing heavy. Once again I was strapped onto an aisle chair, tossed into the plane and tried to get some shut eye.

And this is where things started to get annoying. There was a mess up at the airport and I was stuck in the plane, on the tarmac for over an hour. This being my third flight of the day, I developed a little headache. The odds of me catching my connecting flight in Istanbul were shrinking which meant a possible five hour layover before my final flight. Finally the plane lifts off the tarmac and for the first time since leaving Portland, the skies clear and I am witness to some of the most famous real estate in the world. The plane swings down the Mediterranean and swoops over the boot just North of Mt. Vesuvius. The organic Italian country side morphs into villages and vineyards as we cross the boot and witness sleepy port towns along the Adriatic. The plane hits land over Albania and wisps along the Aegean coast until the church steeples of Greece are replaced by the prayer turrets of Turkey. Before long I see the Bosphorus and the traffic-clogged streets of Istanbul. I know I should have been sleeping, but who can pass up sights like that?

I’m just one leg short of getting to Kayseri with no major mishaps, but my luck has just run flat to zero. This time when I am strapped into the tiny aisle chair I am met at the gate, not by my chair, but by an Ataturk Airport guide with a nurse-pusher wheelchair. Since I can’t go to the bathroom on the plane, the first thing I always do upon deplaning is hop in my chair and roll to the nearest toilet. This was not an option with a Turkish woman pushing me, and me having no say in where I was going. Nobody within earshot spoke any English or French so my protestations made me appear to be not only paralysed but mentally ill.

I am rolled over to Turkish customs where I hand my passport to the officer who stares me down and demands to know where my visa is. I was told U.S. citizens didn’t need a visa, but when I inform him of this he slams my passport down and in a perfect Soup Nazi voice he screams at the airport guide to fix the problem. The guide takes my passport and tells me to give her 20 Euros. I hand her the bills and she disappears with my passport and my money. I sit motionless in front of the Soup Nazi who keeps staring me down as travellers from all over the world pass by, assuming I’m at best a smuggler but probably a terrorist.

Ten minutes go by and the woman arrives with a visa stamped in my brand new passport. The Soup Nazi grudgingly lets me pass and I am whirled down to baggage claim where I have to pick up my bag before transferring over to the domestic terminal and the final flight of this never-ending ordeal. I’m also told that I will be reunited with my chair which will in-turn allow me to say good bye to my ever increasing supply of urine. Since everyone in my flight is long gone, my bag is the lone article on the carrousel. Good luck, one would think, except for the fact that my chair is nowhere in sight. My Turkish hosts, who now number three don’t see the problem as they are more than willing to cart me around the airport for as long as it takes. But there’s no way I’m going any further without my chair. The odds of it showing up in Kayseri without it showing up first in Istanbul are nil and there’s no way I’m going to try to tackle a Middle Eastern city without my chair.

When I put the brakes on the nurse-pusher chair and refuse to move, they get the idea that I want my own wheelchair. Two of them run behind the magic baggage claim curtain and ten minutes later, they come zipping out with my chair which had been tagged for the far-off land of Portland, Oregon. With that crisis over, I strap my bag to my feet and roll as fast as I can to the domestic terminal hoping beyond hope that my flight to Kayseri was delayed.

It was not. So now after travelling for 22 hours, I am faced with a five-hour layover. The patience for this voyage is just about empty. Aaaahh, but that’s when they get ya! I rolled up to a Turkish Airlines check-in, show them my ticket and explain that I need to get onto the later flight. The man behind the desk looks at my printout and says, ‘This flight has left. You must get new ticket.’

He sends me over to a ticket window where I show them my paper and ask for a new ticket. The man behind the window pounds on his keyboard for ten minutes then hands me my new seat assignment and says, ‘158 Turkish Lira, Please ($140 US).’ I chuckle at the miscommunication and say, ‘No,no - I’ve already bought the ticket, this is just for the new flight.’ He’s not chuckling, ‘158 Turkish Lira, you must buy new ticket.’

Obviously this guy isn’t getting the situation so I ask for the manager. The manager comes over, looks at the situation then says in perfect English, ‘You missed your flight. Now you have to buy a new ticket. 158 Turkish Lira, please.’

At this point I am ready to blow up. I tell them that no airline in the world behaves like this. I was detained by airlines. This is not in anyway my fault. I have a perfectly good ticket in my hands…

‘158 Turkish Lira.’ he says (note, no ‘please’ this time).

I decide that I’m in no position to argue and I’m on the other side of the world and they’ve got me by the short and curlies so I pull out my Visa card and slap it on the counter. The ticket agent runs the card and, of course, it is declined.

I’ve had this card since 1994 and it has never been declined and I even got a brand new one just a month before taking off because the magnetic stripe failed on me once and how awful would that be to find myself in say, Turkey, without my card.

They run the card again. Declined. My friendly credit union in Portland has decided that there’s no way I could be in Rome pulling out Euros so they cancelled my card. Even though I’ve used this card in more than 20 countries since I’ve been a member. I pull out my wad of Euros and discover that after cashing them in I will be 10 Turkish Lira short of the ticket. I put the bills on the counter, they do some math and come back saying, ’10 more Lira.’ Again, I pull out my printout and start yelling, ‘Look! this is a perfectly good ticket! I’m only 10 freaking Lira short of buying another ticket! I’ve been in the air for a day already and now you are stranding me for 10 freaking Lira!’

‘NEXT!’ he shouts (this guy has the Soup Nazi down pat!) and I am pushed aside.

At this point I roll back from the counter and collect my assets. I’m in Istanbul, a city I spent four days in 22 years ago and have absolutely no contacts whatsoever. My cell phone does not work here. I have 70 Euros and a worthless credit card and nowhere to go and somewhere to be. This is not stacking up well on my side. I’ve also been travelling for so long and passing through so many time zones that my body has absolutely no clue as to whether it is tired or dead or getting some kind of weird adrenalin buzz from the whole thing.

Just then another Turkish Airline worker asks to see my ticket and says, ‘I can get you on the 5:30 flight. I’ll put you on standby and if there’s room, I’ll put you on.’

Holy crap! I’m on! My troubles are over! I knew the Turks were a hospitable lot! I just had to find the right one! The ordeal with the baggage and the ticket had taken so long that my plane was boarding in only three hours. I parked next to his counter, pulled out my book and tried to make those three hours disappear. I needed a good eight hours of sleep at this point, but it wasn’t coming now. I was staying awake until I was on that plane.

Eventually the time passed. There were three open seats on the flight and I stepped up to claim one of them. My friendly Turkish Airline rep tagged my bag, and printed out a boarding card. Then he asked to see my passport and ticket printout. I showed them to him with my eyes wide open and my lips sporting a purely ecstatic grin. I might even get to Kayseri in time to have a drink with Andy who has been in town for two days already. Anatolia here I come!

Then the Turkish Air worker responds, ‘Mr. Haig, this is an old ticket – you must buy a new one.’ My face turns crestfallen, my energy level turns a sour shade of green and I emotionally collapse. ‘I have paid already!’

But my friendly Turkish Air worker misunderstood what he overheard. He thought I just wanted to get onto an overbooked flight. He hadn’t heard the real problem. He pulls my bag off the conveyor and says there is one more flight – at 11:45 if I can come up with the cash.

If only I’d brought my guitar I could set up on the sidewalk and surely I could make 10 Lira in six hours. What if I sang A cappella? What if I just sat out there looking crippled and defeated? Maybe if I ripped my clothes and rubbed dirt on my face – I’m sure I had the right expression to pull it off?

When I looked up from my quandary I saw a row of card phones mounted to the wall. I saw an airport sign that read, ‘Post Office’ so I rolled over and bought a phone card. I could reach high enough to put the card in the phone and touch the numbers, but I couldn’t read the instruction screen. After about a dozen tries of various card insertions and number combinations I was able to call my brother, Bagus in Denver. I told him how screwed I was and he set out to call Turkish Air and buy me the new ticket. We decided I should hang up and call back in a half an hour. It was about an hour later when I finally got a hold of him again, but he said he couldn’t buy the ticket without showing his card in person. The Turkish Air on-line sales system is a pitiful excuse for ecommerce, but I was just hoping he could find his way through it. I told him I’d call back and I thought of another option.

During my wait, I’d called my sister, Sue, in Oregon and left her a message saying I was stranded. When I finally got her live, she had already found the phone number for my bank in Portland. She’d already figured out that they cancelled my card after the withdrawal in Rome. Luckily, by this time my bank was open and, after pushing five option buttons, I finally got a live voice. I must have sounded like someone trying to rob a bank over the phone, but they finally got the message that it was actually me and I was actually in Istanbul. They opened up my card and 10 minutes later I was rushing to the ticket window with 200 Lira.

I slapped down my cash and everyone in the office seemed genuinely happy that I had solved my problem and I was going to make my final flight. I rolled over to the counter with my new ticket and presented it to the very first agent I’d seen. He smiled, tagged my bag, cranked out my boarding card and then said, ‘Now Mr. Haig, who are you travelling with?’

‘Nobody,’ I said, ‘I’ve been here all day by myself – don’t you think I would have gotten the money from a friend if I had one?’

‘I’m sorry, Mr. Haig,’ he said, ‘but we simply cannot let you travel on Turkish Air by yourself. What if you get sick? How will you go to the bathroom? A man in your condition can only travel with a doctor.’

‘That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard!’ I said. ‘I’ve been travelling for 12 years in a wheelchair and nobody has ever refused me before. I’ve been travelling for 24 hours TODAY! This is crazy!’

And once again, I was staring down a Turkish Airlines employee who was holding all the cards. Except one. I had my boarding pass. I rolled away from the counter, rolled out of his sight, then dashed over to the customs maze and crossed over without him seeing me. I still had two hours to kill and I was feeling the thrill of victory so I found a faux British Pub and settled into a pint of the Islamic world’s finest brew, Efes.

One pint led to three pints at which point I discovered a German couple, heading to Kayseri on the same flight. I explained my situation to them and they, being equally outraged, agreed to adopt me for the flight. Then I did Turkish Air one better. Evran, a German doctor who spoke fluent Turkish and was on his way to the conference, spotted me in the line and recognized me from my picture on the conference website. Evran became my new best friend, and we went down the runway to the plane together.

Instead of waiting for Turkish Air employees to get me on the plane, Evran held my chair as I pulled off the wheels and he rolled me on my small front wheels to the front row. I hopped in the first seat, buckled in and nobody ever questioned us. The chair went under the plane and at Midnight, Istanbul time, 30 hours after I’d left Bill’s house in Portland, I was on my final flight.

The beers and fatigue put me out and I woke up as the plane was floating over Kayseri. I was told someone from the conference was going to meet me at the airport, but seeing as it was 2:30 in the morning and I saw no sign in the small provincial airport, I just grabbed a cab and landed at our hotel. 33 hours door to door – the last ten of which were hell.

Five hours later I woke up and found Andy and my nephew Will on their way to breakfast. They were the most welcome site I’ve ever had in my life. While at breakfast I overheard two doctors talking about their travel horrors. One of them was simply beside himself: There was nobody at the airport to greet him! Can you imagine the outrage!