Baja California Sur is the home of Cabo San Lucas, the perennial party destination of college kids and families alike. However, a couple hours up the peninsula and off the beaten path is La Paz, the launching point to incredible beauty and adventure.
Along the coastline of the Sea of Cortez are hundreds of unpopulated islands, and one of the most stunning is the Marine Sanctuary of Espiritu Santo. I’ve been fortunate to visit many unique places, and as a blind adventurer, in some ways, I’ve seen as much or more than those who see. And I can state emphatically that Espiritu Santo is one of the most majestic and healing environments in the world. I first visited this area last Thanksgiving vacation with my family. The first time I smacked my kayak paddle against the water, it made an echo so crisp and precise, I felt as though I was seeing the volcanic cliffs rising vertically hundreds of feet from the placid sea.
My first paddle through one of the deep narrow coves rewarded us with a deserted sandy paradise hiding in a back nook; we splashed and explored for hours. Listening at the edge of a frigate bird colony became a symphony of thousands of intermingling chirps and guttural pulses, part of an elaborate mating ritual. And most memorable, was the tactile experience of swimming with a sea lion colony, with dozens of adolescents spinning and weaving below me playing tag with a starfish. Some swam close and playfully nipped my fist like puppies. And for sighted people, the sea is a plethora of fish and vibrant coral. The explorer, Jaques Cousteu, called it “the aquarium of the world.”
However, for people with limited mobility, places like this are perceived as off-limits. They’re simply too rugged, too risky, too inaccessible. And thus the reason behind our recent No Barriers trip – to blast through these internal and external limitations and experience something with the rare power to renew and transform.
We planned a trip designed for folks with a variety of disabilities with a beach basecamp and daily excursions around the island to kayak, snorkel, and swim. But the challenges to make this experience happen can feel overwhelming, with solutions that require lots of expertise and logistical problem solving. Hundreds of pounds of specialized rubber mats rolled out across the beach from sleeping tents to the dining tent to the bathroom tent makes navigation easier for those in wheelchairs, or for “wheelies” – as they affectionately call themselves. A special adapted third wheel attached to the wheelchair, called the Freewheel, enables chairs to roll easier through the deep sand. Adapted kayak seats and sometimes outriggers provide better stability and balance. the list goes on and on. So Rather than reinventing the wheel, No Barriers partnered with Environmental Traveling Companions, an outstanding organization run by my friend, Diane Poslosky. For 28 years, ETC has been making travel accessible for those with disabilities. So No Barriers decided to go on the fast-track and learn from the best.
As I wrote in my invitation letter, “this trip isn’t for the faint of heart or those looking for a lazy beach vacation.” Roberta, a 75 year old activist, mediator and photo editor, was one of the first to take on the call – despite living with MS for the last 30 years. Although currently ambulatory, Roberta accepts the unpredictability of this disease, one day walking and the next day being too fatigued to get up. The adventure began for Roberta when she lost her cane on the way to the San Francisco airport. “Well, that’s that,” she remarked. However, to me, her real reach came early in the trip when we pulled our boat up alongside a giant whale shark, it’s gaping mouth sucking in tiny plankton. As folks donned snorkel gear, and readied to dive in, Roberta held back reluctant. “There are many days left on the trip and another opportunity will probably come,” she said. “Plus I’ve never used fins and a snorkel before.”
It was a moment that wouldn’t seem like much to most people. However with me, it struck a nerve. I hate when people are left out or allowed to sit on the sidelines. It’s something I’ve fought against my whole life. When I was going blind as a kid, I remember a day when my brother and cousin went fishing with a family friend. I wasn’t invited. The perception was that I’d be too much trouble for the boat captain. I’ll never forget the hopeless feeling of standing on the dock as I listened to my brother and cousin climb aboard. Ultimately I rebelled against that feeling, but I knew it was all too easy to settle, allowing other’s low expectations to shape our own perceptions of ourselves.
Our Baja trip was designed for inclusiveness and to break barriers, and for a moment, it seemed like Roberta might allow herself to miss out. So I pushed a little. “There may not be this opportunity again,” I said, “and there are plenty of folks on our team who want to help. They’ll be there right next to you.”
After some more team encouragement, a couple volunteers helped her put on gear. Then I heard her splash into the water, and with a few kicks of her fins, she was alongside a creature the size of a bus. It was the highlight of her trip.
There were plenty of other remarkable characters including Josh, a young environmental engineer from Seattle. Almost exactly 3 years ago, he fell during an ice climbing session and became paralyzed from the waist down. Josh had moved to Seattle from Upstate New York to pursue a life of adventure. So as he lay in recovery, devastated and depressed, he wondered if life in a chair was worth living. He decided it was! While the way he participated would be different, he could find plenty of ways to challenge himself. Besides, he realized his love for the outdoors was tied to his love for people, and he was sharing this Baja experience with his best friend, Turner, who had stuck by Josh through his rehab and recovery, through some very dark days. Often I could hear the two kayaking along in a tandem kayak with their fishing lines trailing behind them and taking turns singing verses to their favorite pop songs.
The last night, I led the group in a No Barriers tradition, the passing of coins between members of the team. The coin ceremony is modeled after an old military ritual, to show gratitude for the people who lift us up and elevate our lives. The coins are engraved with our life elements and our motto, “What’s within us is stronger than what’s in our way.”
To kick off the round table, I gave mine to Rob. A naval and military historian at the National Archives, Rob had spent a career with his nose buried deep in stacks of old documents. In his early thirties, Rob was diagnosed with RP (retinitis pigmentosa) a genetic disease that gradually deteriorates the retina and slowly constricts the field of vision. Now retired and in his late 50’s, Rob is legally blind, only seeing shadows. Despite this, he’s recommitted to travel and adventure. Most impressive, he signed up for our trip without knowing anyone and with the daunting knowledge of the challenges ahead. In fact, he’d only kayaked a couple hours in his entire life.
Earlier that day, we’d planned a group paddle around nearby Isla Ballena, about 6 miles and involving a crossing of an open channel, replete with wind, size-able waves, and sea currents. In the spirit of adventure, Rob wanted to paddle it in his own kayak. I am all too aware of the extra bobbing and weaving, zig-zagging and recalculating that it takes to paddle a boat blind, but Rob seemed excited, and a little nervous, for the challenge. The way out went reasonably smoothly but as we turned to loop around the island, the wind and waves picked up. Rob was having trouble hearing the guide kayak in front of him, and he was struggling to keep his kayak straight. The wind was constantly shoving him towards the rocks and boulders with waves crashing against them. In response, different teammates took turns kayaking beside him, patiently yelling directions and suggestions on paddle strokes and using his foot rudder. I even herd that Miguel, one of our local guides, was paddling backwards so he had a constant view of Rob’s kayak.
On finishing, I pulled my boat up on the beach and swam out to greet Rob as he entered the cove. He came in slowly, clearly exhausted but also, I heard, beaming. We stood in chest deep water clapping, and a few moments later as he touched ground, the entire team surrounded him. Rob was engulfed in a chorus of loud uproarious cheering, and as he got out of his boat, there were plenty of hugs and slaps on the back.
At our final ceremony, I laid the coin in Rob’s palm and said, “listening to you paddle into the cove today was the highlight of my trip. You made me so proud to be here. Thank you for your reach.”
Thank you also to the entire team, and especially to Diane and ETC. The trip wouldn’t have been possible without you and your volunteers.