The author (left) and his travel companions on the banks of the Whanganui River
The author (left) and his travel companions on the banks of the Whanganui River (Courtesy Christian McMahon)

The Beauty of Accepting Help

Having a disability and staging epic adventures can go hand in hand. You just have to be willing to ask for a little help.

The author (left) and his travel companions on the banks of the Whanganui River

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In 2012, I completed two of New Zealand’s ten Great Walks, the 87-kilometer version of the Whanganui Journey and the 60-kilometer Abel Tasman Coast Track. I was 33 at the time and in the best shape of my life, which meant that I could cover maybe a mile on an extremely even surface in a day—as long as there was a day of moving as little as possible, or of hot-tubbing, after each day of ambling.

I’ve lived with severe rheumatoid arthritis since I was an infant. Basically, my immune system wrongly imagines the cartilage in my joints as the mother of all viruses and attacks accordingly. Many of my joints are locked at uncommon angles. I’m also not at all flexible. I can walk short distances, but I tire unpredictably. Still, I did Whanganui in three days and Abel Tasman in four—both within the normal time frame for completion. How did I, a wee and weak disabled trans gentleman, accomplish this?

I had help.

In adventure and disability circles alike, help is a four-letter word. We are taught to be rugged individualists. I carried more baggage than a polar explorer around the idea of needing assistance, certain that asking for or accepting it would conjure up a neon sign above me, flashing BURDEN, BURDEN. I was also certain that it would involve an immediate surrender of the autonomy I’d cobbled together as an outdoorsy person in a society that views disabled folks as objects of pity with nothing to offer.

For years, “I’ve got this” was my rallying cry. While that attitude was liberating in some ways—it turns out I’m great at solo road trips—it kept me from saying yes to any plans I couldn’t imagine my way through unassisted. Likewise, it kept the people I loved most at a distance.

The trip to New Zealand came at a time when “I’ve got this” had taken me as far as it could. I’d hit a lonely plateau of independence. I knew that trusting people to see my limits had to be my next great adventure. That said, I didn’t expect to go so big right out of the gate.

My childhood friend Lorraine was spending a year working on the North Island of New Zealand. I invited myself to join her and her husband, Kevin, for a month. Thirty-plus years of friendship leaves little room to hide, and Lorraine is known for being both full of startlingly ambitious plans and difficult to refuse. Despite her reputation, I’d spent most of our friendship giving her polite but firm no-thank-yous, then being an eager audience for her stories of backcountry misadventure. The best of these tales circled around the theme of help, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Getting stuck out at night while cross-country skiing, or getting the car mired in an Alaskan bog. The happy endings were reached only when people helped one another.

Planning the trip, I had “no thank you” at the back of my throat, ready to fire. I knew that Lorraine would suggest something way beyond my skill level. She suggested we do two Great Walks. This was so preposterously inappropriate that I didn’t even get “no thank you” out—I laughed my ass off instead. She assured me that despite the Whanganui Journey’s classification as a walk, it’s really a canoe trip. I explained that on a river I am, at best, a large, chatty piece of luggage, and that the Abel Tasman sounded like actual walking—so no, just no. (If you are disabled, I cannot recommend immediate honesty about your situation strongly enough.) She had answers. She had suggestions. I had rebuttals, refutations, and even firmer no-thank-yous, which eventually gave way to maybes, my own suggestions, and finally, something productive: conversation and research.

It turned out that the Abel Tasman was coastal enough that, with a bit of planning, it was possible to do an accessible version of the journey. Each morning, water taxis traveled from the southernmost terminus to the northern end of the trail, taking day-trippers to various drop-off points that, as it happened, were close to the trail’s through-hiking huts. In the afternoon, the boats circled back to pick everyone up and take them home. On day one, I hopped on the water taxi near Kaiteriteri, where Lorraine and Kevin began their through-hike, and disembarked at Anchorage Bay, where we planned to meet that night. There, the day-trippers set off for their walks and picnics, leaving me with calm, warm-water beaches and groves of kanuka trees all to myself as my friends ground along the path to join me. We shared a hut that evening, and the next morning I hopped the ferry as it swung through and hitched a ride to the next stop.

During that trip, I began to consider help in a new light. Besides using radical honesty to get the aid I needed, I took stock of the ways that I was assisting my friends. Lorraine and Kevin are both certified rafting guides who are, in general, infuriatingly competent. My insecurity was fairly overwhelming. Yet I’m a keen amateur photographer, so I documented the heck out of our excursion. That’s not to mention that my frailty can have a civilizing effect on friends who might otherwise go crashing off into God knows what. Slowing down disaster-prone people can be extremely helpful.

I didn’t completely cede the power of no-thank-you, either—I let my friends push me past it. But with them, I wanted to be pushed. I hung on to the immovable no-thank-you with strangers. My arms don’t bend behind my back or over my head, so whenever I put a jacket on there was a whole shimmy-dance situation that drew a crowd. If someone were to help who didn’t know my body’s particular mechanics, I could have been hurt. Knowing when to say “no thank you” was part of getting the help I needed.

On the river, I was that chatty luggage I had warned Lorraine I’d be. On the coast, I carried very few provisions for the group. The vulnerability it took to be part of a trip where I was so clearly outmatched was terrifying. Yet the memories of days spent floating downriver serenaded by birds, of laughing and living these stories with my friends, will never leave me.

Being helpful isn’t about everyone having equal skills or contributing equal amounts. On an adventure, it’s about people collaborating to do something they wouldn’t dare to do by themselves. As Lorraine and Kevin dragged me out of my comfort zone, I slowed them down, dragging them out of theirs. Once I was able to admit to needing help, we shared an experience far beyond what I or they could have achieved on our own.

From Summer 2021 Lead Photo: Courtesy Christian McMahon

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