Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Virtually Inaccessible

I should have been tipped off when our Slovenian guide looked me at as if my head had just sprouted a glow-in-the-dark unicorn horn studded with bedazzled rhinestones perfectly placed by a unicorn horn bedazzler (as seen on TV, I’m guessing).  

“Yes, the cave eez technically wheelchair accessible,” she said, pronouncing each syllable of “technically” with intent. She tried to illustrate the steepness of the path through Postojna Caves with her hand. Her palm was a few degrees shy of vertical. Laura was thinking, clearly, it couldn’t be that steep. After all, there were people on our tour who did not appear to be mountaineers. Meanwhile, obviously, I was thinking one thing: game on.

At least the train was accessible.
Postojna Caves, a vast karst system, is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Slovenia. Tourists travel deep underground by train 3.5 kilometers, about an 8-minute ride, before reaching the 1.5-kilometer “accessible” walking trail. Their website boasts “wheelchair users friendly.” Of course I’m friendly. This should have been a flag, color red. And if I had bothered to vet the cave on TripAdvisor, I might have stumbled on the one-star review by a fellow wheelchair user with the headline “virtually inaccessible for handicapped.” Even so, my brain would have said, Virtually? So you’re sayin’ there’s a chance! Stupid, stupid, brain.

Indeed, the cave train was accessible, and the eight minutes were breathtaking as we zipped by stalactites, stalagmites, and all those other cool things you see in caves. But the whole breathtaking part took on an entirely new, literal meaning as we started our 1.5-km walk, er hike, er climb. Picture the polar opposite of ADA accessibility, or the steepest path one can walk without needing a rope. And a harness. Perhaps there was a reason I didn’t see any other wheelchair users on the trail. Of the 37 million tourists who have visited over the years, I imagine the total number of wheelchair users attempting the walking trail could fit on one train car.

Lovely switchbacks.
As Laura and I chugged up the first incline, a few things became immediately apparent. One, I would have to crank as hard I could. Two, Laura would have to push as hard as she could. And three, once we had momentum, other tourists better back the hell up because we were going to steamroll them. This technique worked, barely, as we reached the apex of that introductory hill, which exposed the full folly of our decision.

Our path then went straight down. Before going straight up again. And down again. Over and over for the next hour.

I’m not sure which part was more terrifying. The precipitous ups or the precipitous downs, where we both tried to keep the wheelchair from skidding out of control, ramming the safety railing, and launching me into a bed of very pointy stalagmites to meet my grisly doom like a James Bond villain.

Bug-eyed fellow tourists generously wanted to help the guy in the wheelchair with the unicorn horn. Some wanted to help push, others wanted to pull, while yet others took on the job of flagger, warning the throngs ahead with waving arms. It was a full-on team effort involving tourists from around the world. (I cannot tell you how many Japanese grandmothers we had to shoosh from trying to assist.)

Ah, the exit! Way, way down there.
We survived, but barely. And we sweat, a lot. It took maximum effort, indeed an Olympian effort, on both of our parts to explore Postojna. But was it worth it? Hell yes. We all know that there will be times when multiple sclerosis will have the upper hand, the final say, in life’s grand adventures. We have to, begrudgingly, accept that. But even when those MS hills appear impossibly steep, it doesn’t hurt to put on our unicorn horns and try to keep exploring the best we can.

Top photo courtesy Wikipedia by Ivan Ivankovic from Dubrovnik, Croatia.

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