Archive for the ‘Parks and Outdoor Travel’ Category


Liz’s update: Nope, I still don’t go to Burning Man. I’m slowly working my way up to attending bigger SCA events. But a 69,000-person dust-choked baking-hot week at Black Rock City with a chance of severe thunderstorms? Nope. Here’s why, with updates on how to do it if you really really want to.

A confession: I’ve always wanted to go to Burning Man. I’ve got firm roots in subculture; any number of my friends have Burned. Burning Man has long since gone semi-mainstream–families bring their children to the no-holds-barred festival of art and weirdness.

But I don’t go. For a traveler with pain, Burning Man really isn’t a good idea. Neither are other big multi-day festivals, like the Coachella Music Festival in California or the Pennsic War in Pennsylvania. This is one of the big bummers of being hiddenly disabled–I/we can’t go anywhere and do everything that healthy people do. Huge crowds encamped over hundreds of acres, miles of walking over uneven ground every day, crappy bathroom facilities, zero quiet for sleeping, ridiculously awful camping conditions or insane parking…it’s all a recipe for painful disaster.


It may be super-popular, but Burning Man remains a giant camping event out in the middle of the barren desert. Black Rock City has street signs, but no running water, no electricity, and only the most basic of medical facilities. While, er, certain pharmaceuticals do tend to be easily available at Burning Man, actual medications are much harder to come by. You’ll be out in the middle of nowhere, for real, with no cell phone signal and little chance of getting immediate help if your condition flares.


Here’s my most serious reason for not Burning–the climate out on the playa. Triple digit heat, endless winds, and of course the raging dust storms. As exciting as it sounds to fling off my clothes and run around in the pounding sun, then have dust particles blown into every crevice of my body, I’m going to pass for the next while. I can’t handle bunches of dust in my sinuses and lungs–and anyone with asthma or any other respiratory condition should think twice before packing up the RV.

If you choose to go, don’t just wander out into the desert unprepared. Read and reread this manifest by the operators of Burning Man about keeping yourself safe and reasonably healthy.


Speaking of lung-clogging dust, Burning Man patrons also get to inhale plenty of smoke. Leading up to the Man’s burning, other flammable art installations go up. As do pounds of smokable substances within the encampments. Folks with allergies and sensitivities are unlikely to find their fellow Burners to be interested in accommodate requests for a smoke-free area.

Recreational Pharma

I can’t do most recreational drugs. Which does in fact mean that I’d miss out on a pretty big aspect of the festival. Why can’t I? Because reliable research (not hysterical government-inspired propaganda, nor “it’s all good man” wishful thinking) tells me that many/most fun drugs don’t play well with my prescription medications.

If you’re planning to play that way, DO RESEARCH FIRST. Then be safe first, and entertained/amused/high second (or not at all). Combining ‘scripts with recreational drugs can have severe consequences, and no high is worth having a heart attack or seizure. (Remember, on the playa you’re hundreds of miles from the nearest real hospital.)


Finally, there’s the USD cost of going to Burning Man (called Burning Wallet by an acquaintance who goes to the playa every year) or to any other major festival:

  • Tickets to get in the gate cost hundreds of dollars per person.
  • RV rentals go for super-premium during Burning Man. Seriously–many renters charge double their high season rates for the week before and the week after Labor Day. Expect to pay at least $1,000 for one week for a small RV, and $2,500 for a larger one. Or more.
  • Food and drink: All on you, and you’ll need more non-alcoholic drink than you imagine. Figure $100 and up per person.
  • Gas to get to the event, and to run a generator in your RV.
  • Equipment: Why bother going to an event like Burning Man if you’re going to cower inside your RV all day? To get out and join the party, you’ll need stuff. Camp chairs, shade structures, some sort of vehicle to get around Black Rock City is big–to explore, it’s necessary to walk or bike or somehow travel several miles in the blazing heat of the day or weird dry chill of the night. Oh and a storm poncho and good sunglasses and a hat. A respirator if you’re sensitive. A giant art project or shareable community thingo.

It adds up to thousands of dollars. Thousands.

The Bottom Line

I’m not saying that it’s impossible to go to a festival with pain. I am saying that it’s likely to be really really hard. And maybe not a great idea. For me…I’d probably get about two hours of doing kewl stuff out on the playa, then get to spend the next two days of the festival in bed. That’s not the best fun vs pain ratio, and it’s always key to estimate the fun vs pain ration when traveling.

HOT TIP: Yes, you can go to Burning Man in a wheelchair. No, it’s not at all easy, and no, Black Rock City is not subject to the ADA. They’ve got some accessible port-a-potties, and that’s about it. They’ve also got square miles of alkaline dust that can harm or destroy your chair. But if you insist, they do have info about Burning in a chair here.

If you’re out on the playa now–awesome! I hope you’re having an amazing time. And I’m sorry I won’t be joining you.

Photo (c) Wonderlane on Flickr

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Coleman pop-up tent trailer

Editor’s Note: Yup, I got to spend five days and five nights in a trailer on Loon Lake, Washington with my husband. This trailer hasn’t moved in almost three decades, so I didn’t deal with the driving part of RVing. Actually, it was more of a cabin-style experience. So I’ll be updating and reposting my cabin camping post too.


I adore the outdoors, but it’s become hard to spend 24/7 out in nature. With chronic pain, sleeping on the ground goes from uncomfortable to untenable. And so comfier camping options start to look more attractive than backpacking tents.

RVs have come a long way from their Airstream and VW Bus roots. Today, even tent trailers burst with indoor bathroom and kitchen facilities, heaters, and push-button pop-up/pop out capabilities. Camper-vans include king-sized beds in the back. And bus-sized super-RVs have everything and the kitchen sink–A/C, satellite TV, pop-out living rooms, automatic awnings…all the comforts of home or more.

So how do you choose the right RV for you?

Make a list of your needs and wants

As a traveler with pain and a bladder condition, my RV needs list look something like this:

  • Comfortable bed that’s at least 6 and half feet long
    I’ve gotta sleep at night or my pain flares. Also, I’ve got a tall husband and we both need comfy sleeping space.
  • Heater
    Cold exacerbates my pain, and I can’t sleep if I’m freezing. And the best camping spots out in the forest often get cold at night.
  • Indoor toilet
    I have to get up to go to the bathroom at least once every night (and that’s when my IC’s not flaring). A long walk to a campground restroom totally disrupts my sleep.
  • Enough space to store things like pillows, blankets, hot water bottles, and coolers comfortably, so that I’m not tripping over things at night.

My high wants for an RV are:

  • Refrigerator
  • Kitchen w/ stove, oven, and sink
  • Indoor shower
  • Electricity for blankets, reading lamps, and so forth

But that’s me. Make your own list, based on your health needs.

Size and driveability

RVs and trailers feel cramped inside–even the bigger ones. Passageways are narrow and “rooms”…well, there’s a reason I put quotation marks around the word. My husband and I can’t change clothes at the same time in the bedroom of an average-sized RV without whacking into one another. If you’ve got an anxiety disorder with any hints of claustrophobia, RVing may not be the right choice for you.

On the other hand, somebody’s got to be able to drive the thing. If I tried to drive one of those giant RVs, I’d be a quivering ball of stress and pain within an hour, because I’m not accustomed to piloting a Greyhound-bus sized vehicle.

Giant RVs can’t park just anywhere, either. When you pick out your rental or purchase, think about who’s going to drive, where you want to go (windy roads? high wind areas? ice/snow?), and how much luxury and space you really need.

If you’re considering a trailer, do you have a truck that can pull it, or will you need to rent (or buy) that too? Renting RVs ain’t cheap–expect to pay about the same per-night rate as you would for a moderate motel. ~$100 per night is what I’ve found for smaller RVs, and it goes up from there.

I lean towards the smallest possible RV or camper that’s got all my needs and a few of my wants, even though it’s a squeeze to stay in. You might feel differently, especially if you’ve got a partner who’s comfortable driving larger vehicles.

Set up and tear down

How much physical work and time does it take to set up your RV to camp in? Do you just push a couple of buttons, or do you have to lift, pull and crank? How hard is it to detatch a trailer or truck-bed cap from the towing vehicle?

Possibly more important, how much physical work do you need to do to pack the RV back up, reattach the trailer, and do everything needed to get the RV ready to go back home. You’ll be more tired at the end of the trip than at the beginning. Make sure you’ll be able to pack down without causing a pain flare.

Pick the right campsite

Before you leave home, know where you’re going. RV campgrounds and campgrounds with RV spots often require reservations (and sometimes fill up months in advance). Here are some things to think about when choosing your destination:

  • Make sure you’ve got a spot your RV fits into. If you’re new to RVing, campsites go by RV length. The shorter your RV, the more sites you’ll have to choose from.
  • What hookups (if any) does the site offer? Electricity? Water? Sewer/sanitation? If there’s no sewer hookup, does the campground have a dump station?
  • Does your site have shade trees?

The Burning Man Effect

Just as an FYI, RV rentals triple in price for the weeks before and after Labor Day weekend. At least that’s true in the Western states. Why? Because they’re expecting you to take the RV to Burning Man and possibly to trash it. My advice–pick a different time of year to rent an RV.

All that said, a nice modern RV with push-button setup and easy sanitation clean-out can make camping with pain a viable and even comfortable vacation option.

Pop-up photo by jimduell on flickr
Bathroom photo by marada on flickr

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Nice tent–wish it were nearer to the trees

Editor’s Note: I’m camping again! My pain condition has improved since I wrote this in 2010. Also, I’m now following my own advice. I’ve got the double-thick Coleman air mattress with the 1-inch zip-on memory foam pad that keeps the cold air away from me. I’ve got the tent that sets up in 2 minutes. I’ve got a couple of friends I camp with who carry the heavy stuff for me so I don’t aggravate anything.

While I still wouldn’t recommend tent camping for anyone with severe chronic pain, I now believe that with mild to moderate chronic pain, tent camping can be both possible and fun.

Here’s how:

Bring friends

Then let them do as much of the work as possible. Because tent camping takes work–you’ve got to unpack the car, set up camp, cook, do dishes, secure food away from bears, hike back and forth to the bathroom, carry water…it goes on and on. Think about all the work that needs doing before you head out camping–it’s a lot harder than staying in a hotel.

Buy a big tent

Like one of these. Or these. Stooping down to fold and spindle yourself into a 2-3 man backpacking tent will make pain worse, not better. In a big tent, you can fit all the equipment you need to maximize your comfort, including the oversized air mattress and the propane heater.

Set up that nice big tent beneath a nice big tree. About three seconds after the sun rises on a nice summer day, the icy air inside an unshaded tent will rise about 140 degrees. Or at least it’ll feel about like that. But a shaded campsite makes all the difference. If you open up the windows to allow air to circulate through your tent, you can even take an afternoon nap in a shaded tent.

Create the warmest, comfiest bed you can

Start with a sturdy, self-inflating air bed. If  you like, add a memory foam mattress topper. Before you inflate the mattress, spread out a wool blanket, an old wool rug, or a sleeping bag. This goes underneath the air mattress, to keep as much cold from seeping up as much as possible.

Skip the expensive Zero-Kelvin mummy bag and make yourself up a real bed. Sheets, blankets, multiple pillows, the works. Regular rectangular sleeping bags, fully unzipped, make good camping blankets. Not only will it feel more comfortable and homelike, you’ll be able to share in your camping partner’s body warmth. Now’s not the time to be squeamish, either–even if your camp buddy isn’t your life partner, borrow some body heat!

If a pile of blankets doesn’t keep you warm enough (it doesn’t work for me), a few options can help turn up the heat. My favorite is the battery-operated electric blanket. A poor man’s version, the hot water bottle, doesn’t work anywhere near as well for general bed heating, but is better if you need to warm up chilled joints or icy feet.

Skip the traditional camp food and eat right

For me, beenie-weenies from a can mixed + burnt marshmallows + grape kool-aid = hideous pain flare. Instead, keep as close to your standard daily fare as you can. Unless you’re already good at it, don’t bother trying to cook whole meals over a fire. Instead, buy a propane camp stove–Coleman stoves are fuel-efficient, easy to cook on, and virtually indestructible. (My recommendation: always buy Coleman branded camp stoves. Cheap imitators never work half as well.) Cooking on a good multi-burner camp stove feels lots like cooking on an at-home gas stove. With a matching camp stove griddle, eggs and pancakes for breakfast fry up in a snap. A pot of boiling water plus some gourmet jarred sauce becomes a delicious pasta dinner. I do pack nuts and dried fruit in ziplock bags and call it trail mix when I take it hiking. And yeah, I’ll roast a few marshmallows after a nutritious dinner. Some traditions ought to be honored.

Bring a super-comfy seat

Bring a comfy camp chair, preferably with a footstool, like this one. Add an extra plastic dish pan to your kit, and use it for either warm water or ice water so you can soak your feet. Get a few crack-em instant hot packs and cold packs from the drugstore, so you can ice or heat sore spots each evening. If you’ve got an old yoga mat, bring it along too, and spread it out each day for a stretching and relaxation session.

Light up the night

Pack flashlights, a couple of camp lanterns, and plenty of extra batteries. Then use them every time you get up to walk anywhere at night. Nothing makes the pain of camping worse than adding a broken toe or a sprained ankle from tripping over an unseen root or stepping in a gopher hole in the middle of the night.

Use a camp toilet

Going to the bathroom in the middle of the night is my least favorite part of tent camping. Sure, most modern campgrounds provide shared facilities. So all I’ve got to do is slip out of my nice warm bed, find my shoes, struggle into a coat, grab a flashlight, unzip the tent, and shiver my way across the campground in the dead of night, hoping that I’ve remembered the right path to take. Given my bladder issues, I get to do that between once and five times every night.

The best solution: thrust my shivering dignity aside and use a camp toilet. These days they come with seats and high tech plastic disposal bags. Best of all, by shoving  a camp toilet in the corner of the tent (and possibly adding a makeshift privacy screen) I can avoid all of the wretchedness of leaving the tent in the middle of the night.

That’s about it. Oh, except for my opinion of backpacking and hike-in camping. Don’t do it. If you’ve got pain, the level of misery you’ll achieve while backpacking will be amazing. [Editor’s note: this part’s still true. Chronic pain = no hike-in camping for me.]

Next up…RVs and other civilized means of camping with pain.

Photo by baylina on flickr

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North Fork American River Tunnel Rapids

This is actually a rapids on the North Fork of the American River, and a different company's raft. I've got to get those rapids photos from my dad!

On one of my summer trips this year, I got the sudden, surprise opportunity to go on a free Class 3 whitewater rafting trip on the South Fork of the American River with the Whitewater Connection rafting company.

When I was healthy, I loved whitewater rafting. I went at least once every year on guided trips, and dreamed of learning to kayak at a Class IV level. But rafting is called an “extreme sport” for a reason. It’s physically demanding, from eyeballs to toes. Paddling correctly means using my hips and my core as much or more than the shoulders and the arms. I have chronic pelvic pain, so my hips and belly and back are where my pain lives. Which makes correct paddling…let’s say challenging.

But but but…free rafting trip! With my 70-year-old father, no less. Dad had never set foot in a raft before in his life, and was intrigued and willing to give it a shot.

We had a fabulous time! My body remembered how to paddle correctly, and was able to keep up with the pace of the Class III trip. We plunged through some white water, bounced off a few big rocks, got thoroughly soaked, paddled hard, and sat still and silent, glided down the river through scenic valleys that are not accessible by road.

When I was young and strong, I preferred to sit in the front of the raft–you get more control and more splashes in that position. This trip, I was more than content to let the two twentysomething guys who were our trip companions take the front-of-raft positions.

By the middle of the trip, I was feeling some pain. I took a painkiller and kept on paddling. The pain stayed very much in the background of my mind, when I noticed it at all. The fun and excitement of the activity totally overwhelmed the pain. The fact that my dad was also having the time of his life, grinning manically through every rapid, helped too. To introduce him to rafting and have him love it so much that he was willing to buy the silly pictures they take from rocks as the rafts negotiate the rapids absolutely made my day.

I had a magnificent trip!

The next day was…less magnificent.

When you play with pain, you pay the next day. Thems the rules–challenge them at your own risk. I knew the risks when I decided to go rafting. And the consequences were, to me, moderate. I spent the rest of the week-long trip enduring a higher-than-normal level of pelvic and back pain, plus sore muscles up and down my back and my core. That’s a tough set of pains to deal with, especially faced with two more full days divided between sitting in the car and hiking around parks and museums and shopping areas.

So I dealt with it. It made the end of my trip harder, but not impossible. My dad helped out all he could, schlepping bags and assisting me in every way he could. Thank you Dad! I honestly don’t think I could have done it without you.

My conclusions:

  • The rest of the trip would have been easier, possibly much easier, if I hadn’t gone rafting. I would have been in less pain for several days.
  • Rafting caused me to spend two days mostly in bed when I got home from the research trip. Ouch.
  • The positive consequences of the rafting trip outweighed the negatives for me, despite the weight of the negatives consequences. I’d do it again.
  • I can engage in mild to moderate outdoor sporting activities, with unpleasant but survivable consequences. Yay!!! (This wouldn’t  have been true for me even a year ago.)

How is it possible that I feel so happy and positive about an activity that definitely hurt me? Easy–I DID IT. I succeeded. I made it through the whole trip, and climbed out of that raft under my own steam.

And now I have the memory of myself out there on the river, paddle in hand, water in face, dad at side, scenery all around, feeling alive in a way that’s indescribably wonderful.  The pain calmed down in less than a week. That memory will be with me forever. I’ll have those silly photos of dad and me plunging into the white water on my wall for decades.

My pain will ebb and flow for the rest of my life. It’s just there, kind of like my hair and fingernails. But an experience–that matters. Experiences create memories that distract from the pain, and make it clear that I’m more than just a pain patient, that there’s more to life that pain.

There’s rafting!


Photo (c) fortherock on flickr

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Network of Accessible Treehouses Wins Paralyzed Veterans of America Award

Neat! But…whenever I see something like this, I have to ask The Big Question:

Have they taken disabilities that go beyond mobility impairment into account?

The web site for The Treehouse Guys features plenty of photos of the treehouses they’ve built in public parks and private camps, so I took a look around, and sadly, the answer to The Big Question is No.

True, the access ramps to these treehouses are fabulous. The ramps are not steep, making the climbs up easy. With spacious interiors, it’s easy for the owners of the treehouses to furnish them comfortably for people with a variety of needs. But most of those owners seem to be falling down on the job after the treehouse is built, and the interior design seems less important to the Treehouse Guys than the access ramps.

I don’t see any benches or places to sit to rest on the climb up those ramps. Oops.

Nor does there seem to be much in the way of comfortable seating inside the treehouses. True, this may be the responsibility of the camp or park. But why couldn’t there be built-in backed bench seating for treehouse visitors who need seating with lumbar support? How about window seat? I love a good window seat.

Don’t forget the footstools either. People with chronic pain and back problems can have a lot of trouble sitting comfortably in stiff, unupholstered chairs with a 90-degree back pitch and no place to put their feet up. For that matter, those kinds of chairs can cause back pain in otherwise fairly healthy folks.

Perhaps I’m asking the moon, but I’d also like to see some sort of basic bathroom facility, especially in the camp treehouses. It’s a long climb up and down those ramps, and in camps like that, activities can often run long. If somebody was having some trouble walking, walked slowly, *and* had an illness that required frequent trips to the restroom, those treehouses might not seem so friendly. It wouldn’t have to be fully plumbed–just a closed cubicle with a composting toilet and grab bars would get the job done.

I want to see water available too, but I could bring my own water bottle for that.

It’s not possible to tell from the web site whether the treehouses can accommodate heaters or cooling fans. This wouldn’t be such a big deal unless I was attending an event inside one of these treehouses that lasted more than an hour. Yes, I can dress appropriately and bring my own sweater or even my own blanket. But cold hurts me, literally. I can’t stay for hours in cold places, no matter how many sweaters I’m wearing.

Universal design encompasses more than just access to a building, because many disabilities affect more than/other than a person’s mobility.

The Treehouse Guys are doing wonderful work, as far as it goes. But I’d love to see more architects take the next step towards true universal usability in their structures, not just (literal) accessibility.

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Wanna go on Safari with pain? Apparently, Ecocta Tours and Travel can hook you up:

Women’s tours 

Disabled tours

The Women’s tour section describes travel options for women with special needs as well.

I don’t know this company personally–I’ve never been to Africa, though I’d like to visit sometime. My husband was born in Zimbabwe. I’m interested in some volunteer and cause travel–specifically helping women gain greater education, greater professional and personal power.

If I can, I’ll follow up with Ecocta to dig deeper into what kind of accommodations they can make for travelers with pain and hidden disability. They seem to have thought seriously about more than just wheelchair accessibility. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to take one of their safaris…

It’s good to dream.

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Trust Paul Theroux to find the most lugubrious polysyllabic means to take the fun out of, well, fun. Because that’s the translation of “undiluted jollification.” Since I’m on an anti-Theroux kick at the moment, I thought I’d try to think up a few places where travelers with pain can get their undiluted jollies. (No, not like that! Well, maybe like that, but that’s your business not mine.)

1. Disneyland

The Mouse realized years ago something that the mainstream tourist industry has yet to pick up on—people with disabilities want to leave home and SPEND MONEY HAVING FUN. Disney’s accommodations for park guests of all ability levels are incomparable. They want as many people as possible to walk, run, roll, crawl, hop, hobble, and cartwheel through their gates, then to have the time of their lives inside.

Even depressive goth teenagers get caught smiling at Disneyland. My own severely dignified father, who wears three-pieces suits to work daily, laughs like a little kid when Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride bursts into Hell.

2. Hawaiian Beaches

When I travel for pleasure instead of work, I go to Hawaii. When I step off the plane and into that delicious tropical breeze, my pain just floats away. I don’t know why, and I don’t really care. I spend whole days lolling on the sand with a drink in one fist and a cheap romance novel in the other; other days I have to be drug out of the sea by my ankles.

Granted, the overcrowded, overbuilt beaches of Waikiki don’t quite do it for me. Too many people, too few parrotfish. But I’m no misanthrope—it doesn’t harsh my buzz to see other people enjoying the sand and surf off the Kona coast. Hawaii feels fabulous, and everybody ought to have a chance to feel that good.

3. Musee d’Orsay

I visit the d’Orsay to worship at the altar of beauty. In the Musee d’Orsay, the Impressionists smear the walls with bright colors and joy of life outdoors. When I look at a Monet landscape, I feel myself walk through a flower-strewn meadow, listening to the whirr of insects and soaking up the gentle sunshine. Faced with an ornate piece of furniture, I envision myself folding up a silken nightgown and stowing it in the drawer with the whimsical slug-shaped handle crawling across it.

The Musee d’Orsay, a former railroad station that served the heart of Paris, refuses to permit the pale pathos of mere observation. Art, when it’s done right, creates experience for all who come in contact with it.

4. The French Laundry

I’m so glad I ate at the French Laundry, despite the bizarre gyrations involved in getting reservations and the breathtaking cost of the meal. Not just for a taste of the food, which is of course magnificent. There’s an embarrassing plethora of magnificent food in California’s Napa Valley.

What makes the FL special is the whole dining experience. Unlike similar pinnacles of cuisine in Manhattan, once you’re in the French Laundry, the staff treat you like…well, like people who can afford $500, 4-hour lunches. The servers’ choreographed performance as they slide each plate in front of each diner is worthy of a Broadway stage. And after 14 courses wallowing my way through some of the best-prepared food on earth, I was content to bolster my blown budget by skipping breakfast the next day. And lunch.

5. Shasta Lake

I love lakes; I grew up spending half of each summer on my family’s property on Loon Lake, Washington. I chose Shasta Lake for this post because it’s bigger and thus more fun to zip across in a power boat. Few revolutions happen on the shores of lakes. There’s little of import to observe (stars, deer, teenagers flirting awkwardly on swimming floats). Plus, staring at bikini-clad vacationers is creepy.

Lake vacations lend themselves to the simple pleasures—hiking in the woods, canoeing along the shoreline, fishing off a dock, racing a jet-ski across the deeps, counting constellations and watching the moon rise. All things that travelers with pain can have fun doing (well, maybe not the canoeing).

All of these destinations (and the many others of their kind around the world) tend to be friendly to travelers with pain, hidden disabilities, and visible disabilities. None are perfect, but all allow people of every ability level to step outside of the observer role and into the better and much, much more joyful part of participant.

Do you have a favorite destination that’s pain-friendly? What do you do when you’re there?

Speaking of which…if I led a trip/tour for travelers with pain, would you come? If so, where would you want to go? What would you like to do there?

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