05/16/2014: Went to Damascus, Va. for the annual Trail Days festivities. I spoke at the Rock School, but do not feel that I did well at all. I can't guesstimate how many were in attendance, but I feel strongly that I didn't give them my best. Each presentation is a learning experience, but I'd have to say that out of all the presentations I've done, this one would be the worst. I hope that my next one will be worth the attendee's time.
After the presentation, Leisa, the 4 boys, and myself searched for a place to pitch our tent. The plan was to overnight there in Damascus, then drive to Greyson Highlands the following day and hike. However, the weather on Friday evening started turning off rather chilly. While we were pitching our tent, it began to rain: big, COLD drops of rain. However, we managed to settle in, and slept rather comfortably. The following morning, the fellow who allowed us to camp in his yard, "Fidget" was his name, invited us inside for an awesome breakfast of pancakes. What awesome folks!!! I so enjoyed visiting with he and his wife, and look forward with great anticipation to future visits with them.
05/17/2014: We departed Damascus around noon-ish and drove on Hwy 58 to Greyson Highlands State Park. The original plan was to hike in, see the wild ponies, pitch a tent, hike some more, then go home. But it was too dang cold for camping, so we just hiked the half-mile trail that lead to the ponies. The boys really enjoyed seeing them. We drove back south, thinking about going to the Smokies and hiking some there. However, the weather didn't have a really good outlook, so we opted instead to go home and regroup - this proved to be the absolute wisest choice that we could've made. Two of the boys got really sick and ended up tossing their cookies most of the day on Sunday.
05/19/2014: By Sunday evening they were feeling much better, so we decided to drive half an hour north to Cumberland Gap State Park. After consulting with the rangers, we decided to do the Erwin Trail leading up to the White Rocks and Sand Cave.
The hike up was very strenuous - very taxing if you're out of shape like me. We made it 3/4 of the way to the summit when my leg battery died. I had a spare battery and charger in the Jeep, so I opted to hike back down and take care of the battery business.
05/20/2014: I overnighted in the Jeep while both batteries charged, then headed back up at 7:30 the following morning. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that Leisa and boys decided not to summit without me - they literally made camp right there on the trail.
We made the summit around half an hour after I met up with them. Looking at the directional signs, we decided to go to the campground first, pitch our tents, leave our stuff there, and be able to "slack pack" around the places we wanted to see.
The campground leaves a lot to be desired. There are several suitable sites for camping, but previous campers have no clue what "Leave No Trace" is all about. There was a lot of trash! We cleaned up the area as best we could, but it'll take a hardcore maintenance crew a full day to take care of the mess up there!
After making camp and leaving our stuff, we decided to go the 1.1 mile to the Sand Cave area. The scenery on the way to the cave was beautiful - but again, trashy. There were broken beer bottles along the trail. Very sad that the youth who live in the area see this as a party haven, and leave a mess for others to find.
Sand Cave is something to behold!!! It's a cave that has something akin to beach sand lining the floor. The boys had a heyday! I didn't get too "involved" with the sand, as the mechanical workings of my prosthesis could really get messed up if sand got in there. So I enjoyed it from afar.
(There was also a lot of trash in the Sand Cave area as well. The best I can figure, and this is just me assuming, Lincoln Memorial University is fairly close. I can envision college parties taking place here - If I were young and attending college there, this is probably the area I'd choose for partying. I'm glad that I've grown & matured from my youthful days.)
There's a really nice "trickling waterfall" just outside the cave entrance. We took advantage of the falls by filling our water containers and allowing the boys to take showers. (The smelled like rancid hikers.)
Afterward, we hiked back to the camping area for the evening meal. We cooked ramen noodles, which the boys thoroughly enjoyed. Caleb had brought along some popcorn that had to be cooked either in a popper or on the stove. Leisa took one of the boilers, added some oil, and popped popcorn over the campfire - it was really neat. We had an awesome time.
05/21/2014: Sometime around 8:00am, we packed everything up and began our trek back down the mountain. Going down, for me, is a whole lot easier than going up. Instead of taking 2.5 hours like it did coming up, it took slightly over an hour coming down. (We ran into 3 young ladies who were out hiking for their health; they told us that it only took 45 minutes to make it from the summit back to the parking lot. They must've ran those 2.5 miles to make it in that amount of time!!! Then again, they were operating on 2 biological legs, so that had to have made a drastic difference in going down.)
When Caleb, Jacob, and I made it to the parking lot, I turned on the stopwatch on my watch and timed how long it took Leisa and the younger boys to rejoin us. I was surprised and shocked when they emerged some 50 minutes later. Leisa explained that it took longer because the boys wanted to stop and explore various things along the trail. Can't argue with that logic!!! Hiking has, and always will be, more about the smiles than it is about the miles.
I'm very glad that things turned out the way that they did. Cumberland Gap proved to be an excellent choice for a nice family hike that provided some awesome family time. I hope that memories were made that will be with the boys long after I've gone.
05/23/2014: We have season passes for Dollywood. Along with the season passes, we were provided with one "bring a friend" pass with each season pass we purchased - we had 5. The 23rd was the absolute last day to use the bring a friend passes, so we assembled together 5 friends of the boys to bring with us - 3 of those had never been to Dollywood before.
Now, before I proceed with the story, let me first give you some background on my personal history with Dollywood. Back in 2012, they launched a new coaster called the "Wild Eagle". This thing looked like something I would thoroughly enjoy! However..... Dollywood and/or the ride mfgr developed some rules for the ride. Among the rules is one that says you have to have 2 functioning legs in order to board this coaster.
For 2 years, I attempted numerous times to experience this ride, but no deal. They did come up with this "safety harness" that I was told was developed for "people like me". Earlier this year, I decided to go with the safety harness, only to be told that I had to remove my prosthetic leg. I opted not to ride it. A month later, I went again, deciding not to ask anyone. I wore long baggy jeans, boarded the ride, and enjoyed it immensely!!!
Okay, so that brings us to the present. I decided against wearing jeans - this visit wasn't about proving a point - it was all about the kids. I sincerely wanted them to have a great time. In face, I told them "I want today to be the absolute BEST DAY of your lives!!!"
When we got inside the gate, we split into 3 groups, all agreeing to meet back at the gate at a certain time. Caleb and two of his buddies went one way, Leisa and Josiah went another, and the remaining 5 went with me.
My group and I went to the "ride accessibility office" to obtain the pass that allows me to bypass the long lines via the handicapped entrance for each ride. (The kids LOVED this pass, as they were able to ride 3 coasters in the time that it takes for one person to get from the end of the line to the actual ride itself, if that makes any sense.)
We rode each ride we came upon (they wouldn't allow me to board the "Barnstormer" - it is one of the 3 or 4 prohibited coasters for me). The kids were kind of put off that I wasn't "allowed" to join them, but they accepted it and rode the Barnstormer without me.
We were having the time of our life. My mood couldn't possibly have been any better: I was upbeat, and never once gave a second thought about the folks gawking at my prosthetic leg. (I'm 16 years into this - the stares doesn't bother me nearly as much as it used to.)
We approached the Wild Eagle, and the kids started to squeal - they all wanted to ride it, and they wanted to ride it with me! So I pulled them aside and thoroughly explained to them what would be required of me in order to get on the ride. They begged me to do it, so off we went.
When I got up to the ride, one of the workers came over to me and told me they would have to call down to the safety office to have a harness brought up. (Why can't they keep the harnesses at the ride they were designed for?) So, we waited... and waited.... and waited. The kids were awesome - they only asked once or twice how much longer it would be. 20-25 minutes later, here comes the safety dude with the harness.
I was instructed to remove my leg, to which I complied. Now mind you, this was all in full view of the folks waiting in line to board the Wild Eagle. There was ZERO privacy offered or afforded me. The safety guy, without asking or informing me, decide to use me as a practical block of instruction for the ride attendant, and allowed her to put the harness on me. This took what seemed to me to be an exceptionally long time. She'd make a mistake, and the safety guy would instruct her to undo what she'd just done and do it again the proper way.
As this was going on, my self esteem was plummeting. Knowing that others were watching, and even filming me with their IPhones was a very humiliating experience.
After the harness was applied, I was wheeled in a wheelchair over to the ride itself. Again, bear in mind that scores, if not hundreds, of folks waiting in line were intently watching what was going on. I was instructed to get into a specific seat in the middle of the ride - the only seat on the ride capable of accommodating the safety harness. I saw hands raised IPhones recording me from the waiting line. To say that I was at the height of humiliation would be the understatement of the century. Before long, I had tears streaming down my face. At that point in time, I wanted so badly just to become invisible.
Knowing that the kids I'd brought with me on this ride were privy to what was going on, I didn't cause a scene or make my true feelings known. I zeroed in on the rails that the ride was attached to and just stared at them - away from the direction of the waiting "crowd".
Attaching me to the ride did take a very long time - in excess of 20 minutes. More than once, Jacob (who was sitting next to me on the ride, but could not see my face) reached out, touched my hand, and asked "Daddy, are you okay?". Knowing that if I'd uttered a sound, the flood of emotions I was experiencing would burst forth, I could only nod - which he could not see.
That set my mood for the whole ride - the entire time, I stared at that same rail that the ride was attached to. Not an ounce of enjoyment for me.
When the ride was finished, a different worker came to me, got right in my face, and giddily asked "How'd your like it, Sir?"
I looked him straight in his eyes and said "It was the single-most humiliating experience of my entire life!"
His happy demeanor quickly changed, and he said "I'm so sorry."
I gathered the kids, put my leg back on, and with tail tucked between my legs, left the Wild Eagle.
My mood was severely altered after that.
One of the kids with me, a girl age 8, stopped me, threw her arms around me, and said "Thank you so much for going through that so we could ride the Wild Eagle!"
That felt good, but I was still seriously down in the dumps.
About that time, Leisa rejoined us to see what we wanted to do next. I pulled her to the side and quietly explained to her what had happened on the Wild Eagle.
Her eyes grew large, and very excitedly, she said "That explains a WHOLE lot!"
When I pressed her for an explanation, she offered:
I was passed this family on the way here. They had 3 boys who looked to be around Josiah's age or younger. (Josiah is 9.) One of the boys was very excitedly talking to his parents about the "awesome man with the bionic leg.........he was walking everywhere!..........he took his leg off and rode the Wild Eagle - he OWNED that ride!...............If he can do it, then Ned can when he learns to walk again!!!"
Evidently, this kid has a friend named Ned who recently lost a leg, and seeing me made him think about Ned. Now, what would his viewpoint be had I caused a scene and let folks know how I really felt?
This incident, as humiliating as it was, caused me to realize something very important: I had no choice in what happened to me 16 years ago that resulted in the loss of my leg. I am not an amputee by choice. There are aspects about being an amputee that I just cannot, or I guess you could say that I refuse to, accept. However, by exercising a measure of self-control, I can make a difference in the lives of other people, and I hope that I am.
What Leisa shared with me gave me back what I'd had before getting on the Wild Eagle: an upbeat attitude and the desire to have the absolute best day ever. And that is exactly what I had.