By Ruth Nickels and Wayne Ashworth

The Aurora Borealis spread brilliantly across the eternal night skyline of Interior Alaska, in the Goldenheart City of Fairbanks. The streaking northern lights danced on the rosy dawn, briefly interrupting the thick ice fog rolling in that would be replaced in minutes or hours by sunset, cold and unrelenting.

Ice crystals twinkled delicately on every tree limb of the pristine landscape. Every breath drawn brought a sharp crushing shudder to face and shocked lungs. As the sunset hue was quickly overcome by splendid colors of sunset over the frozen frontier, the silence of the scene was momentarily broken by the roar magnifying high above in the dark unseen sky.

The solitary figure far below paused to listen as the “Red-Eye” Delta jet passed, fading into the distance. This was the reason for enduring the severe cold night training “walks,” the pain, and the difficulty. This was the promise of every dream come true. Soon enough, those months of preparation and years of disabled living would bear fruit. It would begin on a plane one pristine December night.

The snow crunched acoustically in the dark as the figure slid deeper into the bundled parka, shivered expectantly, and continued dragging on, short of limb and spine, but smiling…

Flying Delta Airlines

On December 7, 1999, Delta Flight 1541, delayed by snow storms, departed Fairbanks for Atlanta via Seattle and Salt Lake City. The Delta Airlines flight crews were helpful in providing assistance with seating, service, and accommodations on board. The ground crews worked diligently to clear the runways, de-ice the wings, and handled the luggage flawlessly.

Delta Airlines has streamlined their operations in the Northwest region, making it seem almost effortless, like well oiled machinery. The catered food is still slightly below hospital standards but their employees compensate by efficiency and grace under fire. I’ve had the glory of watching them work under adverse conditions (no lights, no ovens, no electronics, crashed service carts, turbulence, passengers who behave like chimpanzees, and even lack of biffies), and their professional demeanor and innovativeness is at times, incredible. One incredulous and happy traveler. “Thumb UP”, Delta!

Airport Review

FAI FAIRBANKS, ALASKA

Fairbanks International Airport is fully accessible. Restrooms, phones, and bathrooms are located on the ground level. Pickup or drop off for passenger or baggage can be accomplished in close proximity to the ticket counters/check-in. Curb breaks are in place, with automatic doors. Short term and long term parking are only accessible by stairs, however (unless you use the vehicle entrance ramp). The airport is clean and well-maintained. Baggage is located on the ground floor, and the gates are accessible by elevator, escalator, or stairs to the second level.

SEA (SEATTLE/TACOMA, WASHINGTON) And ANC (ANCHORAGE, ALASKA)

SEATAC and ANC are often in a state of construction. It’s helpful if you know someone locally who can assist you in negotiating the SEATAC terminal. Anchorage had diverted their Delta gate as of December 2000, and there were no facilities open, the gate was unattended by airport or airline employees, and the PA system was disabled. You cannot transfer in the chairs, and there will be less chairs than passengers. No phone is visible within dragging or wheeling distance. No vending machines are available, so plan to bring your own beverages for medications. There is a clock visible through one of the mesh gates of a closed vendor. It’s clean, isolated, and difficult to maneuver in. It’s slightly cool, so dress comfortably in layers. You’re not experiencing menopause, the heat variance between cool and hot are extreme.

The folks in Alaska are very down to earth, lacking pretentiousness, and willing to lend you a hand, so don’t be afraid to ask directly for assistance. Don’t let the moose meat bags throw you off. We don’t live in igloos and bears aren’t usually seen downtown- just moose.

(SLC) Salt Lake City, Utah

The airport in SLC was clean and well maintained. It was easy to follow flight information, locate gates, accessible restrooms, phones, and transportation was available to those of us restricted by mobility. Lounges were dispersed throughout the terminal, making rest stops between gates very convenient. An abundance of transport-carts and wheelchairs were in evidence, and the attendants were well trained and pleasant.

There was only one incident in the entire trip in which, (from the literally hundreds of Delta Airlines dedicated workers) one employee became the exception. He was stationed at the gate on both the flight down, and the return flight on the 21st. The man seemed to have an affinity for rudeness with those of us gimps who had gathered in one area of the lobby (due to delays with the planes electronic malfunctions) as directed, for quick boarding once the Captain and Airline Representative agreed that the plane was airworthy. I observed the man for some time, (having had a embarrassing exchange with him on the flight down) and was able to see him interact now with others visibly impaired by an assortment of prosthetic limbs, wheelchairs, walkers, and sight canes. At least he was consistent.

My Irish temper boiled a few times dangerously at his treatment of a particularly pleasant, affable couple, whose humor under the circumstances had us all quite delighted. I can only wonder what experience this tragic and angry man had encountered that led him to his attitude towards us.

If you ever pass through Salt Lake City, remember that this is only an exception. As a rule, most folks are generally very thoughtful and friendly. Don’t let one or two less desirable experiences keep you house bound, or grounded. The skies are friendly.

(ATL) ATLANTA, Georgia

Atlanta is a “megatropolis”. It helps if you think of the terminal as a huge wagon wheel with spokes. Each spoke leads to another terminal. The way to negotiate is to plan well in advance, with a free publication by your travel agent or airline. Once you visualize the layout, you can plot your arrangements to transfer from one gate to another. Trust me when I suggest that anything less will require “heroic” physical effort. You can’t afford to make hasty mistakes, so slow down, locate a monitor…and get your bearings, first.

The airport’s train, is the best choice. It may seem a bit frightening, but it’s accessible, it’s safe, and you will need to use this to reach all these terminals and locate your gate. Basically, it just runs to all the “spokes”, continuously. It’s centrally located, and if you get on, just set your brakes or hold on to the many stability bars, and wait. The stops at each gate are given audibly and by illuminated signs displayed. If you miss your stop, don’t panic, it will be back in a matter of minutes, again. There is no charge, but it stops at the stroke of midnight (EST) much like a pumpkin. If you’re flight arrives (or is delayed) in Atlanta, you need to have the flight attendant ensure you have someone waiting with a chair or cart. It’s a terribly long way to baggage and no carts are routinely running after midnight, so be prepared with a contingency plan.

Having said that, I can tell you that when your late flight arrives at a gate that seems two counties away…you can look with great dismay at a concourse that seems to stretch to nowhere…the end not in sight. Courtesy carts had long since stopped running… and when the never-ending trek finally gets you to the train station, only to find the last run of the night just departed (remember midnight) it does not add to the ‘enjoyment’ of your trip. People movers help some to get to the baggage claim area, but at airports this size much time and effort are expended if you arrive after normal hours.

Hint: Never buy new luggage before a major trip unless you mark it distinctively. Otherwise, you can wander around luggage carousels with a glazed look in your eye searching for a suitcase you don’t recognize. “Well, it looks something like that one over there,” I said. “Yes, that is my name on it,” I added, a bit embarrassed, ” I guess that must be it then.” Funny, it didn’t look that color in Fairbanks.

Safety

One warning regarding safety. As an individual with a visible disability, you may be subjected to the rare but disconcerting attentions of strangers. This could be a danger, but Airport Security and airline employees are readily available. Having said that, just because a person appears to be an employee, doesn’t mean they are one. If a person unknown to you seems to be following you or attempts to take your picture, the best course of action is to get the attention of a passerby immediately, and ask them to contact the Airport Police. This can be done by courtesy phones or at any ticket counter. Try to give a concise, accurate description of the person, and any identifying features. It’s not unlawful to take a photograph in a public place, but it’s disturbing to become part of an internet “gallery” without your knowledge or consent, and many states have stalking laws or disorderly conduct provisions which may be applicable to these circumstances.

Explain to the responding officer that you were fearful of being stalked, describe clearly the behavior, and don’t hesitate to ask for help if followed. Stay in a well illuminated area with others while you wait. Avoid restrooms and secluded places until help arrives. You might be helping others by your proactive choice not to be victimized.

Accommodations

The Hilton, in Mount Pleasant (Charleston), South Carolina has both rooms and cottages available, some with a scenic harbor view. The rooms are secured by electronic key card, and accessible by elevator. The restaurant is renowned for it’s cuisine. The rooms are accessible, and the restroom was spacious and ADA qualified. The balconies are a bit deceptive, should you request this feature. The wrought iron railing was mounted inches from the patio doors and no outside access was available. The room is air-conditioned, and it trips off automatically if you open the patio doors. The bathtub/shower does not have a removable shower hand control, nor a ventilation fan. The bed comes with a twin bottom sheet for a double, but you get two top sheets for a bonus. A very nice place, clean, quiet, roomy, well furnished (don’t use the desk chair, mine came apart) and comfortable. Extra luggage rack (just my height) and quality towels, courtesy amenities basket. Each room is equipped with a coffee maker. Ice is down the hall, with vending machines. Room service, a pool, and view. Well done.

The Adventure

The trip was intended to facilitate meeting other individuals with disabilities and without, who had become dear friends over a two year period online. Visions of blinking blurrily in the bright sunshine and the sensation of wearing less than fifty pounds of insulated clothing danced in a rather numb frozen mind. Having resembled a virtual turtle (eye slits only) for 20 years residing in Alaska, the memory of how sun felt on flesh was appealing.

Culturally, the Southerners have the most charismatic mannerisms and a soft, drawling accent that will charm you. You may be phonetically challenged, and not immediately grasp what is said, but listening to the speech of a true Southerner speak, is like musical chimes that nourish a northerner’s mind. It’s a language of genuine heart and you wouldn’t want to miss its allure.

Rather than wood stoves and the Alaskan pipeline, Southerners simply use air conditioning. We mush dog sled teams; they drive Volvos. And they wash and wax them too… without a blowtorch for heating. In Alaska you have square tires and granite hard seats. In Charleston, they have leather and roads without permafrost. We look for earthquakes and avalanches, and they have “hurricanes?” Frostbite is swapped for sunburn, hypothermia for heatstroke. We have bears, they have SNAKES. Yeetch.

While you keep your tongue off flagpoles and protect your digits north, the southern dwellers wear as little as possible, but do formal better than anything you’ve been privileged to see since Gone With the Wind. Southerner’s are not in a rush like we Northerner’s seem to be. The climate is warm and humid, and floral landscaping adds beauty to the stately Southern architecture. Charlestonians are enriched by their culture and roots. They have great honor, tradition, and pride.

Less the rugged individualist that cold climates expound, they are very close in family and community, and civic orientated. Some of their highlights are located in Charleston and Mt. Pleasant, where they recently raised the submarine C.S.S.Hunley.

They are host to places such as Battery Park, the Citadel, the World War II Aircraft Carrier Yorktown, and even horse drawn carriage rides are available in Charleston. Local merchants are often craftsmen in the finest tradition. Some examples consist of this Monogram Shop, the “Bills” Flower Shop, a fine seafood restaurant known as Locklear’s, and annual events such as sailboat racing.

Much to the warm hospitality, and bemused chagrin of Charleston beachcombers, a very pale white creature was reportedly observed splashing in the surf of the Atlantic Ocean, just before Christmas. By all accounts, it was a spectacle of some proportion.

The best of Mount Pleasant/Charleston SC

Witnesses close to the scene reported two dolphins leaping in perfect synchronicity at high tide, swimming close together a few yards from the shore, who seemed to reappear and follow the errant Alaskan everywhere. It’s interesting to note that animals and marine life are now being used for therapeutic rehabilitative purposes within the physically challenged population.

Bare of foot, struggling to stand knee deep in the glorious surf, clothes flapping and flailing in the breeze, startled South Carolinians on leisurely winter strolls stopped and watched. One rather undignified fall on the sand was rewarded by a hand (okay, an extrication) up, a crab walk to get upright, some laughter, and a most marvelous sunset over Charleston.

Barefoot tracks and drawings in the sand. The wind in your face. An Olympic-sized one-armed cheer matches this most magnificent adventure for one traveling gimp.

Dreams do come true. For I have lived one. South Carolina at Christmas was like Camelot. Two years of hope and trust in one leap. Now it’s your turn. By plane, ship, train, or by road. Go out and fly free. Every wish is a dream waiting for you.