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Wilderness is no handicap

Essay by Paul Larmer

Outdoors – May 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

I FINALLY LEARNED how to ski this winter. It took the prodding of a friend and the skills of an instructor who specializes in helping people with disabilities, but now, at 37, I have experienced the joy of swishing down a dazzling white slope in the Rocky Mountains.

I needed the special instructor because I have only one functioning leg. Like every other sport I have tried, skiing took some adjustments. My instructor showed me how to use modified crutch skis, dispensed timely hints as I clumsily fell a dozen or so times in a very flat practice bowl; and then set me loose on the bunny hill.

What a blast. Gliding down the gentle hill, I could hardly imagine the adrenaline rush people experience on the expert runs high above. Some one-legged skiers and sled-skiers rise to that challenge, but I felt just fine where I was. I’ve learned over the years that you do what fits, and you don’t hold a grudge against those who can do more.

I’ve come to think about wilderness in the same way. More than a year ago I attended a conference in Salt Lake City sponsored by the Western States Coalition, a group of conservative western legislators who have pooled their resources to better fight off environmentalists and federal land managers, whom they see as the biggest threat to the “western way of life.”

One speaker got up and spoke disparagingly of the “elitist environmentalists” who were pushing for legislation to protect more than five million acres of roadless wilderness in Utah. “Why they want to lock it all up as a playground for the young and healthy,” he said. “Most people, including our old people and the disabled, won’t be able to hike into that beautiful country. Is that fair?”

Good question.

I have felt the frustration of not being able to do the things others do easily. In high school I watched my two able-bodied brothers star on the basketball team. I could sink nine out of ten free-throws and hold my own in a game of H-O-R-S-E, but I had to accept that I would never be a player on the team.

I remember my angry embarrassment as a kid when, after waiting an hour in line, I was told I couldn’t ride Space Mountain at Disney World because there was no place to put my crutches. Last year, I took my children to Disney World and was happily surprised to see that all rides are now accessible to people with all kinds of disability. Activists have accomplished much over two decades.

But, still, the question pulls on me: Is wilderness unfair to people who will never be able to visit it? Though I respect the idea of equal access to public resources, I have to answer with a resounding “No!” The people who created the Wilderness Preservation System more than 30 years ago weren’t elitists or prejudiced. They recognized that wilderness is about more than equal recreational opportunity. It’s about clean waters, habitat for wildlife; and keeping some vestige of the wild to feed our hungry souls.

I feel used when people with an agenda categorize people like me as victims. I should have told that man at the conference, “If you think that every last acre of public land should be roaded and developed, fine. That’s at least an honest — if misguided — opinion. Just don’t hold me up as your shield.”

As it is, I have plenty of access to public lands. The national forests alone, have more than 400,000 miles of road carved through them. And national parks have wide, paved roads and trails and handicap camp sites within easy rolling distance of restrooms.

I am glad long-closed doors have been opened to the disabled. My parents made sure I could play Little League baseball. The coaches bent the rules so that I could bat and have a teammate run the bases for me. I was a decent pitcher, but I knew when my last game ended at age 13 that my competitive hurling days were over. High School ball was like the big leagues, and I couldn’t imagine pushing my right to play under a different set of rules from everyone else.

Wilderness has its own rules, too. High in the mountains or in the desert, the weather can turn from bucolic to bombastic in an instant, and a hillside can give way before you even take a step. Everyone who enters takes a risk, and that’s how it should be. No four-wheelers or snowmobiles to make the experience easier and safer. It’s the big leagues.

I will never take a week-long solo hike into the Sawtooths of Idaho, the Maroon Bells of Colorado, or the Aldo Leopold wilderness in New Mexico, but I revel in their existence. It’s OK that I can’t go everywhere and do everything. Still, I can’t wait to hit the ski slopes again. Sitting here, the possibilities seem almost limitless. Maybe I’ll try that black diamond run yet.

Paul Larmer is the editor of Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, a newspaper based in Paonia, Colorado, covering natural resource and community issues in the West.