Sarah Yates


3 Wheelchairs and a Wedding Cake

Like any family, ours has challenges. I have six sisters with families and significant others.  It’s complicated. My immediate family possesses just one set of walking legs.

I dreaded our road trip to Cranbrook BC for a family wedding, though I probably initiated it. I wanted to be there but I feared the schlepping would defeat me.  We travel with three wheelchairs: one for my husband and two for my daughter. Even in a customized van, it’s a spatial challenge. Our solution: we attached Gemma’s manual to an inner door with bungees and disabled both chair and door until our final stop.  Squeezing in suitcases, chairs, fifteen pounds of wedding cake and decorating supplies was like a completed puzzle. Before anyone could exit, we had to remove a piece. I imagined myself exhausted and trying to run out for a pee stop. I held my breath and agreed.  It was just 10 days. 

How do you manage a road trip with three wheelchairs and a wedding cake?  Detailed pre-planning and open discussion takes weeks, well spent. Be deadly honest with yourself and everyone.  I shared my fears with the others, visited my family doctor to discount any imaginary ailments and took some long walks alone. De-stress. Breathe. Just do it.

Though others push the miles back, Ted, Gemma and I planned three days of six hours each. The last day would be shorter, allowing us to visit the camp where the rest of the family stayed. Sadly, we’d dismissed it because despite having an accessible bathroom, it was otherwise inaccessible.  

We paid careful attention to accommodation, asking pointed questions on the phone, never accepting website boasts. Make no mistake; no hotels are equal. The majority don’t understand the wet-room concept.  Ask for a wheel-in shower; otherwise a shower inside a tub is what you’ll get.  A small room makes traffic control impossible with three chairs. Despite our pointed questions and careful planning, there were hiccups.  

The first day was remarkably easy.  Winnipeg to Regina is flat; the highway is doubled; the road is familiar. On the road, we relaxed and listened to music, mused privately and watched the scenery unfold.  I breathed a sigh of relief at the prairie space. I love it.  Conversation isn’t easily possible and I’d forgotten how silence relaxes. Time flew by as the miles ticked off. The Days Inn in Regina was close to the highway.  The room was good; staff were helpful. A long-time friend amused us with her domestic tales over dinner and drinks. 

Day two, Saskatchewan unrolled its abundance: dwarf sunflowers lined the highway, interspersed with dandelions, thistles, tall pink impatience and prairie grasses. Canola, blue flax and mustard coloured the fields. Fields undulated; white pot-ash hills erupted. Hawks flew overhead; dabblers, mallards, wood ducks and wee ducklings swam idyllically in every pond. As the hills became deeper, punctuated by the occasional butte, we crossed the Saskatchewan/Alberta border.  Every two hours we switched drivers.

Despite our planning, we lunched in Swift Current, a town that is remarkably friendly, disorganized and inaccessible. People insisted on helping. One led us to a family restaurant, advertising accessibility. The door opened outward, barely 35 inches wide. My daughter stalled. I urged her onward and continued to push into a bathroom, with sharp corners where the friendly gentleman held open doors and was joined by Mother. We pushed aside waste baskets and Mother, focusing on a wee stall. I insisted. Why? Have toilet will pee is my motto whenever I’m on the road.  It set my daughter off with an angry howl, much deserved.  What happened to the wisdom of my lived experience?

From Medicine Hat to Lethbridge, the narrow two-lane highway packed with trucks and without turn-offs, should have served as a warning.  Lethbridge’s Comfort Inn was a disaster. When Ted couldn’t get into the room, I scrambled over beds and upended a table to facilitate access.  Too tired to look further, we cursed and looked forward to breakfast.  The bathtub had a fixed shower head, seven feet high. Thank heavens for my daughter’s headset which shut out the world and us. Tempers were taut.

Taber, Alberta was a welcome stop with its full-service Coop. Try pumping gas from a wheelchair after exiting a packed van! A quick travelling lesson: Tim Hortons shares more than good coffee with Starbucks. Both can boast American accessibility: wide ramped entrances and workable bathrooms.

In Cranbrook, we splashed out on the only hotel that advertised a wheel-in shower. With only one such room in city of 25,000, it was quickly gone. The Prestige Inn, however, had a pool and a club, with a spacious private wheel-in shower.  It’s a much better solution than running to the YWCA, which we’ve had to accept in Canada all too often.  Let’s change it, folks.

Honestly, we needed greater access.

Sarah Yates-Howorth