Phoenix, Arizona. The Valley of the Sun. The Sonoran Desert. Heat exhaustion. Sunburn. Dehydration. The voices in my head told me not to go to Phoenix in the summer, but I’d already booked my trip and told my friends I’d be there. I blew three tubes in my wheelchair tires 72 hours before leaving. What if I got to my layover in Denver and found another flat tire? What if I was awakened in the middle of the night, alone in my hotel room, by the sound of a tube popping? Could I find an accessible bathroom each time I’d need to eliminate all the water I’d have to drink to stay properly hydrated in the desert’s brutal summer heat? Despite the reservations I had about going through with what seemed like the dumbest thing I ever agreed to do, it was hard to imagine backing out of the plans I made. I was conflicted, and the closer I got to departing, the louder the voices screamed.
So I got out of bed in the middle of the night on a recent Tuesday, drove my car to Dulles airport, rode the shuttle from the extended parking lot to the terminal, and boarded a flight to Phoenix. A week later, I reversed the process and returned home. Not surprisingly, the dreadful scenarios I imagined prior to departure never materialized. In fact, quite the opposite happened during this vacation. Contemplating all I would have missed had I given in to doubt and fear leaves me thankful that I ignored the voices.
For starters, I am reminded that the effort required to reconnect with old friends is worth it. I was able to spend time with people I’ve known since I was a child. We share memories of growing up in the same small town in Pennsylvania where we ate in hoagie and pizza shops that are considered local institutions. We competed together on the swim team before we were old enough to drive a car. We graduated from the same high school. Our parents know each other. We tell the same stories we told a quarter century ago, and they’re just as funny now as they were back then. That’s just how it is with old friends.
Water is often called “the great equalizer”. Although I have a spinal cord injury and am unable to walk, in the water I am weightless and free. That’s one reason I love going to the Caribbean to scuba dive. But exploring the Desert Botanical Garden and the barrier-free trails at the McDowell Sonoran Preserve (Bajada Nature Trail) and Estrella Mountain Regional Park (Gila Trail) provided a different way for me to appreciate Mother Nature. Surveying the desert, the cacti reminded me of the coral formations I see in the ocean. It came as a pleasant surprise to remember that the peace and solitude I know below the ocean’s surface exists on land as well. When my options for entertainment one morning were to peruse the Bible Museum in my hotel or meander along the Gila Trail, I chose to get out and leave only tire tracks. Nature deficit disorder is for real, people. Why be a statistic?
And then there’s Sedona. We drove in from the south on route 179. The first humongous masses of red rock appeared ahead while The Moody Blues sang “Nights in White Satin” on someone’s playlist. Tears formed in my eyes. A quick stop in Sedona’s Visitor Center taught us that the Centennial Trail, on the west end of town, is paved and navigable in a wheelchair. We went straight to it. I needed help to propel my chair along portions of the trail, but we were surrounded by awe-inspiring natural beauty. Clear blue sky with an occasional puffy white cloud. Jagged peaks and table-flat mountaintops off in the distance. Colorful rocks ranging from red to tan to light grey. Some covered with spots of green vegetation. Others totally barren. Each one its own unique version of perfection.
I now understand why Sedona is considered one of the most beautiful places on earth. And I also get why Lyle Lovett said, “You don't have to have anything in common with people you've known since you were five. With old friends, you've got your whole life in common”.