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Andy Mills Guest Blog: Travelling

  • Posted on Jul 31, 2019

I never did the whole gap year thing. At the age of 18, when most of my school friends were off backpacking around the world before starting university, I was recovering from a broken femur and spinal surgery. Instead, I went straight to uni, and then from there into full time work. It wasn’t until my late twenties, after a few trips to my parents’ apartment in Cyprus, that I finally caught “the travel bug” and found myself longing to see a bit more of the world. Finally, after saving up a little bit of money each month for a year, I decided to go on an adventure.

A friend of mine from Los Angeles had told me about a train service that ran along the West Coast of America, from Los Angeles to Seattle. And so, after a lengthy chat with an AMTRAK representative, I managed to negotiate a great deal (including a 10% discount applied for disabled travelers) that would see me travelling 2600 miles of Pacific coastline, stopping at San Francisco, Portland and Seattle, before heading back down to Los Angeles again. I contacted various Facebook friends and old acquaintances who lived in each of the cities and asked if I could stay with them for a few days; and booked my flights. I spent some time looking online for cheap flights; but managed to get a better deal through the Virgin Travel Shop at my local Debenhams which was almost £100 cheaper than what I would have paid online and included a seat upgrade. I chose Virgin as I’d flown with them before as a child, and remembered the service being excellent. The travel agent also made sure to pre-book my assistance for both flights and made a note that I would need this assistance throughout the airport; not just getting on and off the plane.

The final hurdle was to find a travel insurance company willing to cover my Brittle Bones and Scoliosis. I was recommended a company called InsuranceWith (https://www.insurancewith.com) who specialize in travel insurance for people with medical problems, and was quoted £240 for a one year, multi-trip policy which not only covered the United States, but covered anywhere else in the world, should I choose to go on another adventure in the near future.

All in all, the planning for the trip took about three weeks. Much of it was based on recommendations from the friends I would be staying with, as well as some advice from fellow members of the OI community who’d done similar trips. For the tourist excursions I’d booked (such as Alcatraz), I called the tour companies directly to make sure that everything was accessible and to see if they’d offer any kind of disabled discount.

I was a little bit nervous about travelling solo. Although I’d be meeting and staying with people along the way, I’d never taken a trip abroad without at least one able-bodied companion to help me. I needn’t have worried. As it turned out, America is a country full of people only too happy to help someone in a wheelchair.

 

“From the moment my terrified mum dropped me off at Heathrow airport, I was looked after”

 

The first thing to note about my travels is that the staff at Virgin Atlantic are outstanding. From the moment my terrified mum dropped me off at Heathrow airport, I was looked after. The check-in staff did all the heavy lifting with my luggage and had someone escort me through security – skipping the usual queues. I’ve had plenty of experience with airport security over the years, and usually it’s fairly straightforward – just as long as you tell them not to be too rough when they’re searching you and the wheelchair! I also recommend carrying a letter from a doctor to explain your condition, in case you encounter any problems. Once I’d boarded the plane, a member of the flight crew assured me that she would check in on me every half hour on the flight to make sure I was OK and assist if I needed to go to the bathroom or stretch my legs. I’ve flown a lot of budget airlines over the years, so this level of service was a welcome change. At LAX, I was again assisted by Virgin staff, who did not leave my side until my ride to Venice Beach arrived.

I was surprised at just how spread out Los Angeles is. Unlike many of the European cities I’ve visited, where everything is usually crammed into a few square miles of narrow streets; Los Angeles is made up of several areas the size of small towns, joined together by vast 5 lane highways. Although they have a metro system, many of the stations are inaccessible to wheelchair users, which meant that I was forced to use taxis for most of my journeys around the city. Thankfully, my friend Katie had pre-warned me about this, and I made sure I budgeted for a few uber rides each day to get to the places I needed to be.

I was staying in Venice Beach – a place best known for its golden beaches and large population of artists, musicians and other free-spirited types. I felt immediately at home. Along the beach itself, there is the Venice Boardwalk. This is a long path that runs from Marina Del Rey in the South, to Santa Monica in the North. The path is wide and flat and perfect for pushing a wheelchair along. Every few hundred meters, there are accessible paths that are meant for wheelchair users to be able to get closer to the sea and enjoy the beach itself. It’s a nice touch that I’ve yet to see anywhere else.

 

“Every few hundred meters, there are accessible paths that are meant for wheelchair users to be able to get closer to the sea and enjoy the beach itself. It’s a nice touch that I’ve yet to see anywhere else”

 

After a few days in sunny Los Angeles, where I visited (among other things) Santa Monica Pier – the end of Route 66, MacArthur Park and the Grammy Museum – well worth a visit if you’re a music fan; I hopped on a train that would take me to San Francisco. The staff at AMTRAK were fantastic from the moment I arrived. There was no need to pre-book assistance. I just arrived an hour before my train departed and made myself known at the assistance desk in the station. From there, I was helped with my luggage and, once on the train, a member of staff made sure I was looked after for the 14-hour train ride North.

San Francisco is vastly different from Los Angeles. The short trip over the Bay Bridge at night revealed a skyline dominated by skyscrapers, and once in the city, I was met with narrow streets and the steepest hills I have ever seen. I was staying at a tourist hotspot called Fisherman’s Wharf, which was thankfully at the bottom of the hills, so I didn’t need to negotiate pushing my wheelchair up the 45-degree slopes to get anywhere. This area had been recommended by the Virgin travel agent, not only for its proximity to the main tourist attractions, but also so that I could avoid the steep hills. Of all the cities I visited on my travels, San Francisco was by far my favorite. I took a morning cruise around the bay, where the fog was so thick, I couldn’t see the Golden Gate Bridge until I was directly underneath it. I also took a trip to Alcatraz – an experience that was both fascinating and haunting. On the boat over to “the rock”, the guides give you a brief history of the island and how it came to be a penitentiary; but nothing quite prepares you for how isolated you feel once you get to the island. The tour of the prison itself was completely accessible for wheelchairs, although I’d recommend to anyone going that they take the trolley up the steep hill to the entrance – it’s no fun push for a wheelchair! Tourists can move through the buildings at their own pace, and there were audio tours offered as part of the trip. On the day that I visited Alcatraz, a former inmate happened to be doing a book-signing in the gift shop. Being able to talk with him briefly about his life in the prison made the whole experience even more poignant.

 

“I decided to do the one thing I’d been dreaming of doing for years. I “wheeled” the Golden Gate Bridge”

 

On my last day in the city, I decided to do the one thing I’d been dreaming of doing for years. I “wheeled” the Golden Gate Bridge. I cheated a little and got a taxi to the Visitor’s center, since it was up a rather steep hill, and I didn’t want to tire myself out before I’d even reached the bridge! From here I set off along the pedestrian path that runs along the right-hand side of the bridge. Conveniently, there were several spots along the way for resting and taking photographs of Alcatraz, the city skyline and the lush green hills of Golden Gate National Recreation Area. My only recommendations to people crossing the bridge on foot were 1) bring headphones and music – you’re essentially walking along the side of a motorway and it gets very noisy; and 2) wrap up warm – San Francisco’s bizarre microclimates are at their most unpredictable along the bridge, and it’s quite chilly in those thick fogs.

For the next leg of the journey, I had to take a 17-hour train ride North to Portland, Oregon. Once again, the AMTRAK staff were extremely accommodating; although I made the mistake of not booking a sleeper cabin, so I was forced to try and curl up along across some empty seats in my carriage to get some rest. My spine has yet to forgive me for this! For this part of the journey, the train moved inland; and I was treated to some incredible scenery outside my window – vast pine forests, snow-capped hills and crystal-clear lakes. The train ride passed by in no time as I played an hours-long game of “spot Bigfoot” with the family next to me.

In Portland, I met up with my good friend Shannon, who also has OI. We’ve been “Facebook friends” for nearly ten years, and it was wonderful to meet her in person. She took me on a tour of the city that included Voodoo Donuts, Powell’s Book Store – a cavernous, 3 floor building that sold everything from the latest releases, to first edition and signed prints of some of literature’s most celebrated pieces; and the Shriner’s Hospital. Shriner’s is one of America’s main hospitals for the treatment of OI – their equivalent of our Children’s Centres for Excellence. Shannon, who has volunteered at the hospital for many years, introduced me to some of the doctors, nurses and physiotherapists; and we had a lively discussion about the pros and cons of the NHS, compared to America’s insurance-based healthcare system.

 

“In Portland, I met up with my good friend Shannon, who also has OI. We’ve been “Facebook friends” for nearly ten years, and it was wonderful to meet her in person”

 

After Portland, I once again headed north, for a (relatively) short journey up to Seattle. This was the city I’d most been looking forward to visiting, since so many of my musical heroes were born here. My first stop was the Museum of Pop Culture – a must see for anyone who is interested in film, TV or music. I got to see everything from the swords used in the Lord of the Rings films, to Kurt Cobain’s personal diaries and Jimi Hendrix’s guitars. After this, I took a wander around the city. Seattle is built on several hills and can be quite tricky to navigate in a wheelchair; however, they do have an excellent (and cheap) public transport system which is mostly accessible.

On my second day in the city, I met with my friend Anita – another wheelchair user. Knowing that I am absolutely terrified of heights, she convinced me to go up to the top of the Space Needle. After the initial wave of panic that swept over me at being nearly 200m above ground subsided, I was treated to yet more breathtaking views – this time of the city and the surrounding snow-capped mountains. I distracted myself from the uneasy feeling of being so high up by taking as many pictures as I could. To round off the day, Anita took me back to her parents’ house, where I was treated to a wonderful home-cooked meal – a welcome change from the endless fast food I’d been consuming on my travels so far!

After a few days in Seattle, it was time to head back South to Los Angeles. The 1,300 mile-journey would take two days, so I made sure I had plenty of snacks (although there is a dining car on the train), and some good books to keep me occupied. In the end, I needn’t have worried. Just a few hours into the journey, I struck up a conversation with an artist from Wisconsin, and we spent the remainder of the journey chatting and sharing photography tips. Although the train-ride was fairly smooth, after two days of sitting / sleeping on a chair my back was pretty sore. I’d been wise enough to take a prescription of painkillers with me for the trip, so these came in handy once the fatigue set in and my muscles started aching.

 

“I’d been wise enough to take a prescription of painkillers with me for the trip, so these came in handy once the fatigue set in and my muscles started aching”

 

Back in Los Angeles, I had one final item to tick off the bucket list: Hollywood. I got up early on the Friday before I flew home and took a short cab ride from Venice to the Chinese Theatre. As expected, Hollywood Boulevard was packed with tourists. I wheeled up and down each side of the walk of fame, trying to spot the stars for some of my favorite actors. I then took the obligatory tour of Hollywood Hills and the homes of the stars. Unless you’re massively into celebrity culture (which I’m not), I wouldn’t recommend paying the $50 fee for this tour. We drove through the long, winding roads, stopping every so often outside some gates, only to be told that somewhere behind those gates lived Katy Perry or Brad Pitt. The only part of this tour worth noting was getting to see the famous Hollywood sign up close and getting some photo-worthy views of the huge expanse of Los Angeles below us.

From Hollywood Boulevard I wheeled down to Sunset Boulevard – a strip of clubs, bars and music venues that had been the start of so many famous bands, from the Doors to Motley Crue and Guns’n’Roses. Over a beer in the Viper Room (Johnny Depp’s club on the Sunset Strip), I got chatting to a wealthy comic book collector named Roy. Before I knew it, I was being treated to a night on the town with some Hollywood locals!

I spent my last day in Los Angeles on the beach in Venice, catching a tan and buying the last few souvenirs for my friends back home. It gave me a chance to reflect on what an amazing journey I’d been on. I’d travelled 2,600 miles of coastline, through three states, and visited four very different cities. Everywhere I’d been to, I’d been met with friendly faces and a warm welcome. Perhaps more interestingly, I hadn’t been to a single place where I felt like my wheelchair was a burden. In the few places I ended up that didn’t have wheelchair access staff would, without question, lift me and / or my wheelchair up whatever steps there were. It contrasted deeply with some of the experiences I’ve had back here in the UK, where so many venues would simply refuse me entry because of my wheelchair.

 

“Perhaps more interestingly, I hadn’t been to a single place where I felt like my wheelchair was a burden”

 

I boarded the plane back to Heathrow with a mixture of joy and sadness. Joy that I’d had such an amazing experience. Sadness that it had to end. I made a promise to myself that I’d be back soon to see more of this wonderful country.