by Roy (Monte) High
Over the years I’ve heard numerous people disparage the designation of wilderness areas by speaking on behalf of people with disabilities. They say that wilderness areas are unfair to the disabled because there are no roads allowed to take them there. I’ve heard it said that the designation of wilderness areas is like a slap to the face of the disabled population. As a person with a disability, I wholeheartedly disagree.
In 1983, as a 20-year-old boy, I was driving along a small winding highway between Dolores and Cortez, Colorado when five horses ran out in front of me. The ensuing collision caused a spinal cord injury that left me paralyzed, a quadriplegic with limited movement below the neck. I have now lived most of my life navigating the Earth in a wheelchair.
Before the crash I was very physically active, and spent much of my time in the great outdoors—hiking, hunting, fishing, camping, being. Some of my best memories are of traversing the tree line—hiking along rushing streams, through mountain meadows, aspen and pine, to come face to face with rocky outcroppings. Walking through the wild wonder. Otherworldly surroundings. The silence—there is sound, but no noise. Just the soothing sound of nature. I’d sit still and listen, and move on with a renewed sense of belonging. I am reminded of the connectedness of all things, that everything is one in God. I am awakened to reality, aware of my place on the sacred path I follow as a human being. O the beauty! O the peace, the exaltation of my soul! Even now, as I write these words the beauty brings me to my knees in reverence, tears roll from my eyes. The tears come not because I can no longer visit these pristine places, but because these places exist—just knowing that such beauty exists within our world brings me joy.
I still love getting out into nature. There are many beautiful natural areas that I can access in my wheelchair, places I can sit where it seems as if I am out in the middle of the wilderness, where I can recharge my connection to nature, experience a sense of immediacy and enter wholly into the moment. I live in Grand Junction, Colorado. I love spending time on trails along the Colorado River and the local state parks. Wheelchair accessibility has come a long way in recent years. I am grateful. Yet, I am aware of the need for designated wilderness areas and I am grateful for the wild places where wildlife can thrive.
As a wheelchair user I have learned to adapt. There are many places that are not accessible to me, including many of my friend’s homes. I do not take this as a sign that I am not welcome. I do not expect my friends to spend thousands of dollars to remodel their houses just so that I can enter. There are many other places where we can meet, where my friends can welcome me into their hearts. Likewise, I do not expect anyone to build roads and trails over every square inch of wilderness so that I can visit in my wheelchair. Especially when I realize that my selfishness could lead to the demise of the very land I love. I love knowing that there are wild places where animals can room free without human disruption. Many species are going extinct. Some animals, such as elk, require large wildlife corridors for migration, and many species cannot survive around the noise and pollution of machines. These lands mean much more than how much money we can pump out of them—for much of God’s creation these wilderness lands are crucial for their survival.
Roy (Monte) High lives in Grand Junction, Colorado. He enjoys getting out into the natural areas nearby with his wife Elizabeth.
Thank you so much for sharing this. I commend you for your far sighted, holistic, and objective view. So many would not be capable of this. Sincerly, Dave
As a CO native and fellow quad wc user (accident in Woodland Park in 1977) I whole heartedly agree with you. Thank you for sharing your perspective!
Judith Smith, (she, her) residing on Huichin Chochenyo Ohlone land
Founder and Director Emerita of AXIS Dance Company
Thank you for that eloquent post. My many backpacking trips into the wilderness have brought me all those wondrous, soul-enriching things you describe. My personal favorite - "I'd sit still and listen, and move on with a renewed sense of belonging. I am reminded of the connectedness of all things, that everything is one in God." Perfectly said!
I am so sorry that you cannot enjoy nature as you once did, but I love that you still get out there. My soul longs for the sounds of nature without the noise of man, but I don't go to those places as I should and I'm not in a wheelchair. I love to sit on a rock somewhere in a forest and just let the peacefulness wash over me, but I have not done that in a long time. Thank you for reminding me and inspiring me to get back out there.
What a great piece. Although I am able to walk I cannot go very far due to a severe back condition. Wilderness is pretty much off-limits to me as it has been for almost 30 years, yet I support it now more than ever. I'll probably never get to the Arctic or Africa but that doesn't mean I don't care about them.
As an abled person, I have always enjoyed backpacking into the back country. I have also argued with myself as to whether wilderness areas should be altered so that disabled people could have access to these beautiful areas. But, then I think that that alteration would expel that area from the "wilderness" status. You have spoken very well to my dilemma, especially when it comes from one that is disabled. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
Accessibility for everyone: As much as I think people should be able to enjoy the outdoors - our National Parks and other areas - I don't believe roads or other things should be built to allow them access. I fear heights. Does that mean parks and other wilderness areas should build sturdy fencing or other structures just so I can take in the view? Absolutely NOT! If someone cannot get to an area because of a disability, or in my case, fear of height, then they must accept the fact - as I do - that they will not be able to visit such places. There are many, many other beautiful areas of this country that can be accessed by disabled people, or people with phobias, that can be enjoyed. Just accept your limitations and go out and enjoy what is available to you.
I so agree with you, and applaud your viewpoint. Being over 70,there are places I can't go, and that's just how it is. That doesn't stop me from supporting these places and seeing them in pictures and videos. A world without wilderness areas, if you can visit or not, is no kind of world.
Thank you for sharing your story. I am so glad that you still enjoy the beauty of the wilderness. Your personal story is inspiring.
As a grandmother of a boy who became paralyzed after a football injury, I hear you loud and clear and I cheer every word that say!
Years ago I was able to hike but now my lungs just do not allow for such activity. When it comes to wilderness, I consider that wilderness belongs to the animals and WE DO NOT BELONG THERE! Stay out, stay away, let the wild not know the harm mankind brings to it.
What a wonderful selfless blog. You feelings are akin to mine. At 77, my ability to visit many remote areas is diminished, but my memories of them are precious, and knowing they still exist and that the wildlife survive for my great-grandchildren and others to enjoy gives me joy. They empower me to fight daily to preserve them and to end climate change which threatens us all. Thankfully wonderful documented of nature exist and post their invaluable blogs and photos of the wild places and animals I love. They will live forever in my heart.
Beautifully stated. There are places all humans should leave alone - we do not need to intrude on or dominate everything on this planet.
Well said, Roy.
I, too am disabled and can no longer explore my favorite Wilderness areas. But Wilderness deserves to exist for its own sake.i am grateful for all it provides - clean water, clean air, habitat for wildlife, birds and fish, carbon sequestration and much more.
I wanted to share this moving essay on my Facebook page, but when I tried a request to protest some government action came up instead.