On February 9th, at 2:30 pm, I woke up in my car. I had blacked out on impact from an automobile accident while driving my son home from sledding. That day I woke up to a completely different world—a world that was not accessible. Three vertebrae in my neck had been damaged, a disc in my back was bulged, my femur was broken, and my acetabulum (what holds the ball of my hip in place) was broken all the way through. My son suffered wounds to his face from the broken windshield. All I could do was be still—I couldn’t even put weight on the left side of my body. Everything had changed.
I was confined to a wheelchair. My son and I moved back into my mother’s. It was hard to not be able to take care of my son, to bathe or cook for him, but it was being unable to keep up with him that was heartbreaking. I missed his Valentine’s Day party at school, which would have been fun for both of us (I’m studying to be a teacher, and practicing teaching craft lessons with the kids is good for my career goals). That was one of the many things I missed out on while recovering. I also lost a semester of school because hardly any buildings on my campus are handicap accessible.
As the weather got nicer, my son wanted to be outside more. We tried to take walks around the block. I wouldn’t think that rolling around the block would be difficult, but I was wrong. Tree roots, uneven sidewalks, and missing ramps made it nearly impossible to get around. It was very painful to try to navigate around a once-familiar neighborhood. Aside from the terrible pain I felt in my arms from trying to move the wheels, I felt the struggle of trying to keep up with my son.
It made me think about my experiences from Summer when I went with clients of PARC (now known as EP!C) and how wonderful it was to have a place that allowed individuals with disabilities to access nature. For 11 years, Camp Big Sky, a nonprofit organization, has been providing opportunities like fishing tournaments and camping.
On a Thursday morning, Phoebe Johnson brought the bus around and the two of us worked together to board three individuals from EP!C. Every other Thursday clients from EP!C get a chance to go visit Camp Big Sky. After seat belts were fastened and a walker was secure, we took off to Fairview, IL, to enjoy an afternoon of boating and hay rack riding. Sometimes, dependent upon the client, weather, and timeframe, clients would drop a cane pole into the water in the hopes of catching one of the bluegill that linger around the dock.
The route to camp cuts through memories of my childhood. We pass through Farmington, IL, on the main drag in which takes you downtown. I saw the Wareco gas station that I would visit for a cool drink or sugary snack, now all tattered and closed to the public. Right across the street was the doctor’s office I went to throughout my childhood. After we passed downtown, the terrain gets very hilly and you’d think we had found a portal to Vermont. However, we just found a place that the glaciers haven’t completely flattened when the terrain in Illinois was being formed. Clients looked at me, unsure of the shaking and the dips we experienced and I smiled with reassurance and clapped, pretending we were on a wooden coaster at Six Flags. In turn, they smiled and cheered back.
The view is very pleasant seeing ancient blue International Harvester corn bins, big red barns, Swedish quilt-like crests on buildings, and bodies of water. Phoebe made the final turn onto the white gravel road meeting the gate with a bleached bone white cow skull and sign declaring that this was Camp Big Sky. Our bus cleared a drastic hill to the top to where all the volunteers were waiting.
The fun began there. After unloading and slabbing on sunblock, we enjoyed a beautiful day at camp. A red-wing blackbird sang in a barren tree with a glimpse of the moon behind it. Aboard the pontoon, clients were thrilled to see a herd of cows run down to the strip mine lake and playfully moo and swim. We were joined by volunteers who attended a ten week training program, some of them clients from EP!C. One of the volunteer playfully suggested that the craft be dubbed the Burger Barge.
Seated on the hydraulic hay rack ride, I felt like I was transferred back into a time where Illinois hadn’t been settled. Long grass and clovers waved in the wind. An aerial view of the lake could be seen from our seats. Dragonflies of multiple colors could be spotted. The skies really were big and Kool Aid blue. Although bumpy and jolting, we all could have been seated in a covered wagon discovering the ground of the Camp for the first time. I think we all felt as free as the hawk that was flying high above these plains that day.
Although I am no longer in a wheel chair, I appreciate this place and am happy for its existence. I am happy that the client that is in a wheel chair could stroll with me in the tall prairie grass by means of a hayrack ride. I think of how difficult it was for me to go around my mother’s neighborhood and how I was alienated from my own school, and yet there is a place designated for all people to experience nature at no cost to them. I think of all the different people that the camp encompasses and the smiles and memories that come from pulling up a cane pole with a fish on it, or coasting down the lake by the breeze. I intend to take my son out there to enjoy its healing qualities that come from being out there. He is on the autistic spectrum and the owner has invited me to bring him out.
Camp Big Sky is open Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays (with additional days if needed). American Veterans are also welcome to experience the healing quality that recreation and nature can bring. More about the camp can be found at http://www.campbigsky.org.