It’s All About the Journey: Travels With Dr. J. and Saint—The First Week of Hiking–Part 3

The ride to the trailhead took about 1.5 hours. We had decided not to take Miracle because of several factors. For one thing, we didn’t know what we would do with her while we were hiking. Some were afraid that someone might break in and damage Karma, my wheelchair, or something else. Also, the van, since it has been converted, is very low to the ground. When a van is converted so that someone can drive from a wheelchair, they cut from just in front of the backseat and lower all that area so that one can roll in and drive without having to bend over or cower. We were concerned that on the roads leading in to Springer, the van would be too low and would scrape on the road. Even if that did not happen, we would have to crawl along and slow everyone down. So it just did not make sense to take it. We got to the parking lot, debarked, got out a few light day packs. One of Sean’s was all the paperwork that he needed for the kids. The big question was how to get me into the Jac Pack. We were to experiment with this and refine it throughout the hike. When Honey and Bear were there, we used the tailgate of their pickup. The person who was to carry would put on the Jac Pack. I would sit on the person’s right side. Then I would lean far over to the right and have help threading my left leg through the Jac Pack seat. Then I would scrunch/sidle over until I could get the rest of my body into the Jac Pack. My feet would dangle free. The carrier would lean backward so that I could position padding and try to get square into the seat. Then people would help the person carrying stand up. There would be adjusting straps. People would help me get my feet into the stirrups. Al had put the stirrups onto the carrier rather than the seat (as he had them when we went out to Aroostook State Park). I could use the stirrups to help position myself.

I would not then get out of the carrier usually for several hours. We kept time (Jimmy was our timer generally) and people rotated through roughly every 10 minutes. Lindsay often did not make it to 10 minutes, although one time she went even longer. Philip probably held the record for going the longest, when he was trying to get us to shelter before a thunderstorm hit on Tuesday night. In order to swop out, we had to try to find a relatively flat area that wouldn’t block the trail for others. That could take a while to find. So sometimes the rotations would be minutes longer.

Al did an amazing job with his carrier design. But we had not had a chance to really field test it before we left for our ATA. We had worn it a little in the living room, but that is hardly proof for the AT. So we found things that needed to be tweaked. The chest strap quickly pulled completely off. And the shoulder strap on the carrier’s left shoulder nearly tore through. We believe that that was because people were continually pulling on the straps to try to make them as comfortable as possible. We had such a range of body types. Our tallest guy was 6’2”. Our shortest was 5’7”. Al had stitched in thick, wide microbial padding. He had stitched it so that it would not move around, as had been a problem with the PiggyBackPack. So there needed to be a happy medium. The answer was probably to lengthen the shoulder pads. Early on, the metal framework on the carrier’s left side had slid out of its web harness. We could not get it back in so that it would stay. So we eventually made due by duct taping it so that the metal didn’t jam directly into my chest. When the chest strap first pulled off, we made due using a bandana. But when the left shoulder strap also tore and looked as though it might tear through all the way, it was time to act. If the left strap tore through completely, I would be unable to move. Hopper had a needle, but knew that the thread that she had would not be strong enough. Fortunately, Nate had brought dental floss. Hopper doubled the dental floss and re-secured the straps, sewing them twice. That made the straps fairly secure, but the tearing was symptomatic of the adjustment problems and needs. The other adjustment that we would need was to the levers under the seat. Al had two little levers so that the seat could be adjusted for nearness to the carrier’s body, angle, tilt, etc. He had purposely lengthened the levers so that they would be easy to grasp. But we found in the field that they were really too long. When we would take a break and the carrier wanted to get out of the harness, we wanted to be able to have the carrier set me on a log or a boulder and step out of the carrier. If I could prop my legs up, I could unload my weight that had been on my groin/pelvis. But setting the carrier down on such objects bent the levers. We found it really hard to move the levers after this, because they became bent by the boulders and logs. So making them short would ultimately make them easier to use. Longer and they became bent and impossible to turn. These issues and others made us need to send the carrier back to Al for tweaking the following week. But the prototype is amazing. And to think that Al envisioned this all and made it with tools from his woodworking shop. Amazing. It ultimately can be made lighter and more refined with precision tools. But the overall design is ingenious.

Several people had talked about partnering with others to refine the design, make it from lighter weight materials, mass produce it. Sean was going to reach out to people he knew in business. He also suggested working with students in a Clemson program called Creative Inquiry. He had thought at first that there would be money to bring me to campus to talk about this. He was involved in instituting the program some years back. But since then it has gotten more restrictive. So he didn’t think that it would be a good fit because it isn’t directly rooted in/at Clemson. Fast forward to another Clemson teacher, Skye Arthur-Banning, who also suggested reaching out to the Creative Inquiry students. And Sean and others spoke about partnering with engineering students within the University of Maine System. But the question then becomes, Who then would own the design, the intellectual property? A goal is for BEYOND LMITS to patent the designs for the carrier and for the hiking wheelchair and then be able to use the income from the proceeds to support and sustain the work of BEYOND LIMITS. So that is one thing that I need to get busy on when we return to Maine.

We wanted to start at the very southern end of the Appalachian Trail. We decided not to hike the eight-mile approach trail. But the trailhead to which we drove was one mile up the trail. So we decided to hike the mile south to Springer Mountain, then hike back to the trailhead. That way we could sign the log book at the very beginning of the trail and get some photos. We could also slack pack: just take light day packs with water and snacks for this first couple of miles before we got back to the trailhead and got our really heavy packs.

This was the first time for the Sherpas to get a feel for what it would be like to use the Jac Pack and carry me. It was the start of our getting to know one another. With the Katahdin gang, we had had some practices together beforehand so I knew them a little. With the Clemson Crew of kids, this was climbing on the backs of strangers. The closest comparison would be when I first met Rod Jandreau and within 10 minutes was on his back and hiking up the little hill at Aroostook State Park. It could potentially be awkward. But one finds oneself instinctively beginning to ask questions and learn about the wonderful people carrying you. Thankfully I had already had the Katahdin experience. I knew that gentle verbal encouragement and the healing power of touch would be extremely important. It proved so, over and over again.

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