When Julie had her surgery three months ago, we knew that the operation would severely impact the nerves in her right leg. Although the neurosurgeon did a good job, those nerves were impacted, and it was unclear how well she would be able to walk. Weeks in a rehab hospital, plus ongoing outpatient physical therapy, have helped her. However, I believe her determination has played an equal part in her recovery. With that said, most of the time, she requires a stiff leg brace and a rollator/walker to get around.
Six weeks ago, my sister and her husband offered us their Labor Day weekend camping slot. At that time, we weren’t sure if Julie could get into Violet the campervan as Violet’s chassis and seats were high. Before we accepted their offer, we attempted to get Julie into the passenger seat. She got in using a step stool, plus her pulling power and my pushing power. We accepted the camping slot and hoped for continued improvement.
DuPage County has beautiful forest preserves, walking paths, and parks. Fifteen minutes from our front door is the county campground where we were going. There, you feel like you are deep in the country even though DuPage County has nearly a million inhabitants.
I love to camp in Violet the campervan. Julie has camped with me, but she was always mobile. This would be our first attempt camping with her wearing a brace and ambulating with a rollator. As you can imagine, even the simple task of going to the bathroom could present impossible problems.
In addition, I had removed everything from my camper’s kitchen as my friend, Tom is building me a new one. That will likely be another post once it is completed. However, I also had to reload some kitchenware to make the trip workable.
I often camp alone and can do all the necessary tasks on a camping trip. When I travel with someone, I customize plans and buy special foods to make their trip enjoyable. For instance, when I camp with my son Will, I make elaborate dinners as I know he enjoys them. Likewise, when I camped with Julie, I ensured I had what she liked to eat. Planning, shopping, and preparing takes quite a bit of time.
I didn’t have it in me to do all of that this time, as I didn’t know the trip’s outcome. It could be possible that we would get to the campsite only to have to turn around. I had no idea how she would walk on grass and gravel roads.
Instead of going out and buying food, I went with Julie at the start of the trip to buy simple microwave meals. Violet has a little freezer compartment and a small microwave. If we had to turn back, I was sure the kids would happily eat our purchases.
We arrived at the campground and drove to site 40, a beautiful spot in the woods. Our first mission was to get Julie out of Violet and into a camp chair. Her rollator is designed for hard, smooth surfaces, and it was an effort for her to get from Violet to there. However, she succeeded. I brought her a cool beverage, and she opened a novel. However, I was still concerned about the rest of the weekend.
As I noted earlier, I’m comfortable doing most things when Julie camps with me, but that was not a good idea this time. My goal was to help when I knew that help was needed and be on alert at other times. Julie needed to see what she could do for herself.
Our first challenge was a trip to the bathroom, which was about a block and a half down a gravel road. Normally, it is a simple task. However, the rollator’s small wheels were not designed for this type of terrain, and it was a slow process. Despite our lack of proper equipment, we made it there and back without a fall. A triumphant success.
Julie has camped with me enough times that she knows how to do many tasks, from turning the passenger seat into Violet’s cabin to powering up the AC inverter for the microwave. I let her do whatever she could, and she found ways to accomplish her goals. She was an asset on the trip and not another responsibility.
Our first night was quiet, with food, books, and nature-watching. We discussed attempting a walk the next morning. I thought we would try walking a few blocks on the even-surfaced paved forest preserve road, but Julie had other ideas. She wanted to hit a hiking trail. There are many hiking trails in the forest preserve where we were at. Most are nicely maintained, but they do have some ups and downs. I was familiar with one trail, the McKee Marsh trail, that is flat. It is roughly 3 miles from the parking lot, around the marsh, and back to the car. I knew that would be too far for Julie, so I started the mileage tracker on my Apple Watch. Could we walk a mile? We planned to walk half a mile in and then back, yielding a mile trip. We knew the rollator wouldn’t work, so I pulled out my trekking poles, adjusted them to Julie’s shorter stature, and gave her a quick lesson in their use. We started off.
It was a beautiful morning, and we were in a beautiful location. People would pass us with a hello. I think folks were especially friendly as Julie’s brace was visible. Some offered words of encouragement. I kept warning Julie that we had gone past a half of a mile, then one mile, then a mile and a half. She wanted to continue. By then, the only option was to complete the loop. We soldered on, and the trekking poles were a great success. I couldn’t believe that we hiked 3 miles! Julie could barely walk a few months ago. We rewarded ourselves with ice-cold Coke Zeros from Violet’s fridge. A fantastic success.
If you have ever camped, you know that keeping your campsite neat and tidy is imperative. Keeping things organized isn’t difficult, but it is a constant quest. Naturally, I did my thing, but I let Julie do hers, and she continued to help.
Our evening ended with a surprise visit from a friend, followed by a campfire. I admit I’m not very good at starting campfires with damp wood. I know I should split the wood to get at the dry insides, but I’m clumsy with an axe. I got a fire going, but it was not the blaze I had hoped for. Does anyone want to teach me axe skills?… Warning: Keep your feet far away from me when I’m swinging.
Our Monday started leisurely with me making some coffee. I asked Julie if she wanted to try another hike, and she said she did. This time, we chose a path with more ups and downs- a big challenge when you have walking issues. We broke camp, drove to the parking lot outside the archery path, and started our journey. It was clearly more difficult and pretty exhausting for Julie. We planned to walk a mile out and a mile back. On the way back, Julie’s leg tired, and she had a few near falls. However, the trekking poles saved the day, and she was able to turn potential crashes into simple missteps. In the end, our total distance was 2.25 miles. Julie had walked over 5 miles during our camping trip, which was amazing.
This trip taught us several things. First, Julie could do many camp maintenance activities by modifying them. She also improved at climbing into and out of Violet’s campervan. At times needing no assistance. However, the most impressive win was that we could hike on paths. I don’t think it will be possible for her to hike on a traditional hiking trail; however, beautiful walking trails are everywhere, including National Parks. This trip showed us that she could go on a more extensive camping trip and even do a little hiking. Nothing would stop me from hiking more difficult trails independently, as I have been doing that for years.
The only significant problem I faced had more to do with my 6’3” bulky frame. Violet’s bed is a tight fit for two. I always take the edge of the bed, allowing me to hang my legs outside the bed when necessary. This time, I felt I should give Julie that spot due to her mobility issue. That meant I was stuck between her and the van’s back door. I could not stretch out completely; I could not hang my leg outside of the bed. This led to leg cramps and, even worse, a feeling of akathisia, or restless legs. I didn’t sleep well, and I’m not sure what to do in the future. I’m hoping that Julie will improve enough so that the next time, she will be able to take that inside position. At 5’6”, she is more suited for it. Otherwise, I’ll need to come up with a Plan B.
Our trip was a resounding success, well beyond my wildest expectations. Kudos to Julie for all her hard work and amazing trail-blazing abilities.