Friday, May 19, 2017

Forever Sisters (2014)

Lisa was in the final stretch of completing her master’s degree and needed as much peace and quiet in the house as possible. I knew it would be easier to travel with both girls than to try and keep them quiet in the house. 

Laurel not only wanted to join her sister on her adventures, but it had become clear that Laurel also shared the same passion for travel, hiking, camping, and wildlife observations.

As the year started, I was entertaining the idea of hiking a trail in all 50 states with both girls during the 2014 calendar year. 

I was in the early planning stages when we went on our semi-traditional hike in the Okefenokee Swamp on New Years Day. It's interesting how the girls can fight in the backseat as we're driving down the road, but as soon as we hit the trail, they are best friends and love each other. Laurel loves to help Kellisa by pushing her and she even has a great ability to get Kellisa more verbal than usual and has a knack for teaching her new words. Kellisa really responds to Laurel in the wilderness and enjoys it when Laurel pushes her. She really cracks up when they hit a rock or root, I think she thinks it's Laurel doing it on purpose and she's probably right, at least some of the time.

Our first trip had us visit the northern Gulf of Mexico states. We hiked in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama. The girls also enjoyed the ferry ride across Mobile Bay.

Top Left- Clark Creek Nature Area, MI   Top Right- Audubon State Historic Site, LA   Bottom Left- Bon Secour NWR   Bottom Right- Mobile Bay Ferry

Our next trip was a weird loop through Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas, and Indiana. The weather was cold and windy, but both girls were troopers and never complained. I was very proud of them as we hiked a trail in all 5 states we visited. We even had a snowball fight in Indiana.

Top Left- Land Between the Lakes, KY   Top Right- Land Between the Lakes, TN   Bottom Left- Hemlock Cliffs, IN   Bottom Middle- Lake Poinsett State Park, AR   Bottom Right- Towosahgy State Historic Site, MO

On a nice Saturday afternoon we headed to one of our "home" hikes- Julington-Durbin. It would be our longest hike of the year (3.1 miles). I would learn two valuable lessons on this hike. First, I always kind of assumed that Kellisa's hiking days would be over when the day comes that I can't push her anymore. However, Laurel insisted that she push Kellisa for "a little while". I was impressed as Laurel pushed Kellisa for at least one mile. Kellisa couldn't stop giggling while Laurel was doing the pushing. Second, I learned that Laurel's current level of endurance ends at 2.1 miles. Laurel stopped in the middle of the trail and looked back with a defeated face and pleaded, "Call the firetruck mens to come and rescue me". I explained that my cell phone wouldn't work in the forest and that she would have to hike out herself. Her next idea was to ride on my shoulders. I told Laurel that those days were long over. After a little more discussion, Laurel sucked it up and hiked out under her own power. I was very proud of her effort.

March arrived and we made our annual pilgrimage to New Mexico for the Bataan Memorial Death March. I was going to attempt it for the third time with Kellisa and for the second year in a row, our march was over before we could take our first steps (or wheels). We sleep in a tent near the starting line so we can get extra sleep. In the middle of the night, Kellisa had a significant (more than 5 minutes) seizure and I had to administer one of her rescue medications. She emerged from her seizure and fell back to sleep. When Kellisa has a significant seizure, she is tired and lethargic for the next 24 hours and there's an increased risk for follow-up seizures. I couldn't risk taking her out into the harsh desert.

The trip wasn't a complete loss, we did go hiking and sledding in White Sands National Monument.

Our next trip was to Texas for cousin Matt's wedding.  While he was too busy to go for a hike for some reason, we went to one of our favorite places, Brazos Bend State Park (Right). Even though we lived in Florida and saw our fair share of alligators, the girls always love seeing the abundant alligators so close up at Brazos Bend.

Lisa needed another quiet weekend and we were happy to make that happen. We spent a couple of days camping, hiking, and swimming at Juniper Springs (Below) in the Ocala National Forest. We also rode the Fort Gates Ferry across the St. Johns River on our way home.

We traveled to Hartford, CT to make a "Kellisa's Path" presentation to an association on a Saturday morning. Before flying home, we were able to hike in Rhode Island and Connecticut. We also made it all the way to the top of Rhode Island.

Left- Stratton Brook State Park, CT   Middle- Jerimoth Hill, RI   Right- Upper Roaring Brook Accessible Trail

An empty plane. Not unusual since we are the first to board and last to leave the plane. If Laurel's face doesn't express 1,000 words, continue reading on the next page.

I'm not a pilot or aviation expert, so I have no idea what the actual risk factor from our flight, but I know it was more than normal and I perceived it to be real along with the flight attendants and every adult on the plane. If perception is reality, then my fear was real. 
It was our last segment from Baltimore to Jacksonville. We had our usual spot in the front row, left side as you board. I gave Kellisa her nighttime medication while the plane was boarded. Both girls listened to their iPods. As with every other flight, the girls enjoyed the take-off. However, I did notice it felt a little funny, but didn't think too much about it. 
The plane leveled out almost immediately. I could tell that we were low. I told myself that the pilots were just flying around some weather. "We just passed 10,000ft. and it's safe to use your electronic devices", announcement was never made on this flight. 
The plane made a right turn and leveled off for a few minutes before making another right turn. I watched the same sights pass below us as we circled Baltimore. As this continued, I could tell that the flight attendants were starting to get a little nervous. I think most of the people on board just thought we were on our way to Jacksonville. 
I really started to get nervous when we flew over water for a considerable distance. I knew we were dumping fuel. After our flight over water, we returned to our circles above Baltimore. After almost 90 minutes into a flight that was supposed to be 2 hours, the captain came on with his first and only update on the situation. 
He explained that one of the flaps was stuck in the wrong position which was creating significant drag. He went on to say that it prevented the plane from reaching its cruising altitude and that it wasn't safe to fly to Jacksonville. He announced that we would be returning to Baltimore. 
Kellisa was sleeping by this point (it was 9:30pm) and I had my arms  protectively wrapped around both  girls. I know it wouldn't do much, but it made me feel better. The plane was completely silent as I'm sure most of the passengers started praying and reflecting. Except for Laurel, who was still rocking out to her iPod. 

We were told to make sure our seat belts were on tight and secure. I checked all three of ours. I wasn't too afraid of the worst happening. Except for the fear leading up to it which I was already starting to live, it would be fast and painless. Losing both parents to cancer and watching Everett and Kirsten, I knew there was worse, a lot worse.  
For a few moments, my thoughts went to Lisa who was at home. She trusted the girls care to me and had no idea what was going on in the skies above Maryland.
Then I had the even more horrifying thought. What if we needed to do an emergency evacuation from the plane? I was alone with both girls. The best idea I could think of was to make sure Laurel got off the plane and then I would tell her to run as fast and far away as possible while she stayed close to everyone else while not worrying about me and Kellisa. I would then be free to throw Kellisa over my shoulder as we slide off the plane before running away ourselves.  
We were coming in for the landing faster and a little rougher than usual. I was watching out the window and thought for sure we were going to crash into the trees. When a plane lands, you can see the runway and its lights for a few seconds before the wheels touch down. This did not happen during this landing. We touched down before I ever saw a light or the concrete of the runway. Then I could see dozens of fire and rescue vehicles and ambulances out the window. I looked out the other side and saw a similar line of emergency response vehicles. 
Shortly after the wheels touched the concrete, the plane quickly slows down on routine landings. This was not the case for our landing. We kept racing down the runway. Again, I'm not a pilot, so I can only describe what the stopping felt like. It seemed like the pilot was "tapping" the brakes or possibly alternating the flaps from one side to the other as we jerked down the runway. It got to the point where I was worried the plane would run out of space on the runway.  

The plane finally came to a stop and everyone on board started clapping and cheering. There were some tears of relief shed as well. As the plane made the turn to the terminal, I could see out our window that we were at the very end of the runway.  
When we got to the gate, the captain made another announcement that he troubleshooted the problem for as long as he could without finding a resolution. He went on to say he needed to dump as much fuel as possible because he knew we would come down fast and that it would be difficult to stop the plane. He explained that he needed the plane to be as light as possible. 
The pilot ended the message with, "the plane was always under control and you were never in any danger".  
"That's easy to say now", was my first thought followed by, "it would have been nice to have that reassurance while we were in the air". 
The gate agent in Baltimore boarded the plane and told us to proceed to B4 where another plane was waiting for us. This whole process took another 90 minutes. I had thought about getting a hotel and driving home the next day or booking a flight for later the following day. In the end, I decided that we would take the flight from B4 and get home as soon as possible. 
Laurel fell asleep shortly after our 2nd take off from Baltimore, but Kellisa fought sleep for the entire flight. 2 hours later we landed in Jacksonville and the same pilots received another round of cheers. Another hour later and we were home, it was after 2am. 
I don't know and may never know how much danger we were actually in, but it was a very intense and scary 90 minutes in the air. I've been trying to think about  it  and  I  would  guess  I've flown at least 1,500 flights and this was only the 7th time I was really scared. It was the 2nd time I was scared with Kellisa and 1st with Laurel. 

Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park has an accessible trail around Sprague Lake along with a spur trail to an accessible backcountry camping site. The idea of using this benefit was rattling around my head for awhile when I finally called the park with a few questions. By the time I was done on the phone, I had secured two nights for an upcoming weekend. We were off to Colorado.

As we were driving to the park, Laurel got excited when she first saw the big mountains. She asked if we were going to hike to the highest mountain top? She was very disappointed when I told her that we couldn't and one of the reasons was there was no way to get Kellisa to the top. Laurel was very upset and doesn't except any excuses for her sister and took matters into her own hands, literally. She wrote the following letter to President Obama.

Sprague Lake Accessible Trail and Backcountry Campsite

Top Left- Laurel helped Kellisa become a Junior Ranger
Five Small Pictures- I could tell Laurel wanted to play in the snow in an area where Kellisa couldn't play. I explained to Laurel that it would be OK if she played and she started to cry out of guilt. I eventually told her that Kellisa would have fun watching her play. Laurel eventually played a little and I was right, it made Kellisa giggle watching her sister.

Top- Euro Bungee in Estes Park, CO   Bottom Left- Lily Lake Trail   Bottom Right- Big Bear Trail

Kellisa enjoying extreme rides at Wild Adventures.

We headed west to California for Lisa's final two weeks of grad school. Our first adventure was a stop at Lassen Volcanic National Park. We camped at a Walk-in site which is a combination of backpacking and car camping. You carry everything to your site, but it's a short distance. We enjoyed our two nights in a tent.

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Spending so much time traveling with the girls revealed how close they are as sisters. I knew they loved each other deeply and Laurel was always looking to help and watch out for her older sister while Kellisa won’t go to bed without a bear hug and kisses from Laurel. But something was different on the road and trails. They didn’t fight in the backseat as they often do at home. They played nicely together making up games as we traveled. Laurel wanted to make sure Kellisa was equally included in everything. 

Laurel started holding Kellisa in hotel swimming pools while encouraging her to kick her legs as a form of therapy. To my amazement, Kellisa responded by enthusiastically following Laurel’s directions. Nothing prepared me for what happened on our long drive through the mountains from Redding to the rugged northern    California     coast. 

Laurel started saying a word and then asking Kellisa to repeat it. Kellisa immediately responded and Laurel started clapping, cheering and telling her what a great job she was doing and how proud she was of her talking. This made Kellisa very proud of herself. It was hard to keep the van on the narrow mountain roads as I was beaming with pride while listening to my girls in the back seat. Kellisa would pay Laurel for her therapy with endless kisses and hugs which Laurel gladly accepts. 

Laurel insisted on pushing Kellisa on some of our hikes. I was amazed at some of the trails Laurel navigated without ever complaining or giving up. She was incredibly responsible and careful. 
One time, at a visitor center planning our next hike, a lady bumped into Kellisa’s wheelchair. Laurel promptly notified the lady, “Hey, that’s  my sister  Kellisa!  You   need to  watch where you’re going!

Say you’re sorry to Kellisa.” Laurel is naturally becoming Kellisa’s biggest cheerleader and advocate without any pressure from her parents. If anything, we try and keep that kind of expectation away from Laurel, but she is actively seeking it out. 
I realized for the first time that Kellisa would be OK without her parents, as long as she had Laurel with her. 

We would spend the next 10 days exploring the redwood forests of Northern California and Southern Oregon. 

Left- Avenue of the Giants   Middle Top- Fleishmann's Grove   Middle Bottom- Shrine Auto Park   Top Right- Del Norte Coast Redwoods    Bottom Right- Crescent City Beach

Rockefeller Loop Trail

Left- Heaven on Earth (AKA: Gold Bluffs Beach)   Top Middle & Right- Trees of Mystery
Bottom Middle- Roosevelt Elk Viewing   Bottom Right- Redwoods Access Trail

Top- Rockefeller Loop Trail   Bottom Left- Prairie Creek Trail   Bottom Right- Burlington Campground

Confusion Hill

The railroad was NOT accessible. I made it "Kellisa accessible" by carrying Kellisa up the stairs to the train.

Left- Point Reyes National Seashore   Top Middle- Lady Bird Johnson Grove
Bottom Middle- Oregon Redwoods   Right- Muir Woods

Lisa completed her Master's Degree and we drove down to southeast Florida for her graduation. We cheered proudly as she walked across the stage after two years of hard work. We celebrated the accomplishment with family. We took a couple of extra vacation days without a real plan. Even though it was Florida in August, we found a couple nice and short boardwalk trails and explored a nature center.

Left- Cathy Burdett Nature Trail   Center- Daggerwing Nature Center   Right- Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge

Three of the four original Wiggles retired at the end of 2012 and we felt very fortunate to see their last concert tour twice. The Wiggles continued on with three new Wiggles. In September, this new version of The Wiggles was playing a concert in Jacksonville. Kellisa still loved The Wiggles and had a couple new DVDs with the "new" Wiggles and seemed to enjoy them. Laurel was just starting to grow out of The Wiggles a little, but was still excited to see them in concert.

After the show, we met Captain Feathersword on the street and he immediately remember Laurel by name. It had been almost 2 years since they first met in Sault Ste. Marie. We also met Simon, who also remembered us as soon as he saw us. We realize that our family has a "unique look", but we were still blown away that they remembered us.

Kellisa attending her 8th grade Semi-formal dance.

We spent Thanksgiving at home and went on some of our favorite local hikes in southeastern Georgia. We never get tired of going to the Okefenokee Swamp and we took Laurel to Jekyll Island for the first time for a hike at Clam Creek and the beautiful Driftwood Beach.

Large & Top Right- Okefenokee Swamp   Bottom Right- Clam Creek Trail

Driftwood Beach

Christmas in December- Florida Style 

Kellisa getting ready to create wheelchair art.

Our last trip for 2014 was a weekend drive to Crowders Mountain for a hike in North Carolina. We stopped at Congaree National Park to hike our favorite boardwalk trail. It rained during both of our hikes, but thankfully it wasn't too cold and we were able to finish both trails.

Left- Crowders Mountain State Park, NC   Right- Congaree National Park

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