DECEMBER 18, 2023

by: Nerissa Cannon


Nerissa Cannon

Nerissa is one of the original GRIT Freedom Chair Trailblazers! Her journey with chronic illness has made her very passionate about helping other people get the most out of life despite a disabling condition.

All my life I’ve been drawn to nature. I think most of us are, though few understand exactly why. Science has shown that there are measurable physical benefits to being in nature. Many, many years ago, John Muir made just such an observation:

Fear not, therefore, to try the mountain-passes. They will kill care, save you from deadly apathy, set you free, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action. Even the sick should try these so-called dangerous passes, because for every unfortunate they kill, they cure a thousand.

John Muir, The Mountains of California

I would go to nature during the most difficult times of my life and would receive inspiration and encouragement. Nature has a lot of lessons to offer. When I developed a degenerative condition that affected my mobility, I could not go to nature for comfort and meditation. As severe as my physical pain was, not being able to explore outdoors was even more painful. Sure I could drive through National Parks and Forests, but for me, it’s not enough to sit in the audience; I need to be a part of the show.  I fell into a dark depression. I did not know how I could live the rest of my life and not be able to get into nature. Just as I was about to give up, I received the greatest gift I’ve ever been given: The GRIT Freedom Chair!

Those closest to me could notice a difference in me within just a few days of receiving my GRIT Freedom Chair. That’s not to say my pain or frustrations ended, but now I had an outlet. Now I had a piece of equipment that in many instances could put me on an equal playing field with an able-bodied person. Now I could take myself INTO nature again instead of simply observing from the sidelines!

The type of nature that enriches me is not exclusive. Whether it’s in the middle of sand dunes, a dense hardwood forest, a high mountain desert, or even the ocean, if I sit still I can feel energy pulsing around me. It invigorates my spirit, gives me energy when I’m exhausted, and clarity when my mind feels overwhelmed.

I’ve also had some fascinating insights the more and more I used the Freedom Chair. I am learning to appreciate my time in nature in a slightly different way. As an able-bodied hiker, I took pride in my pace. While I still set certain goals for myself, wheeling in nature has taught me that it’s OK to slow down. I allow myself a slower pace; I allow myself breaks to just breathe, look, and listen. I don’t remember allowing myself these simple moments along the way as an able-bodied hiker. Those pausing moments were reserved for the summits.

I used to pride myself on my ability to complete technically challenging hikes. I was the type of person who never turned back. If I started a hike I made it to the end otherwise it felt like I hadn’t “earned” the hike at all. Wheelchair hiking has taught me to be more flexible and self-forgiving. I don’t always know when I start a new trail if I’ll make it to the end, or even how far I’ll make it. I do my best to be creative when facing obstacles, but sometimes, as difficult as it may be, I must err on the side of caution, think safety first, and turn back. It can be unsettling not to know what I’m getting myself into on a new route. More often than not, though, it’s exciting! I feel like a pioneer! Think about it: the early explorers didn’t have trails for their carts or wagons. They did not know what type of obstacles and challenges they would come upon, but they pressed on. I’m just a new kind of Trailblazer!

“We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature”. – Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods

Using a wheelchair where a wheelchair wasn’t designed to go also makes me more in-tune and observant of trail conditions. Everything from the slope to changes in consistency of the dirt or gravel, ruts from water runoff, and even placement of rocks. In my “easier” hiking days I overlooked these tiny details. Actually, I’m grateful to now feel more connected and mindful of the nature around me as I move along.

One of my most favorite Freedom Chair accomplishments is visiting Walden Pond. I first read Walden in high school and was quite taken with it. Henry David Thoreau has provided many words of wisdom to help me throughout my life. The older I get, the more interesting I find his work. Visiting Walden Pond was the first thing I was really excited by when I was hired to work for the summer in Boston, MA.

The trail loop around Walden Pond is NOT classified as wheelchair accessible. The beach area of the pond is, and there are even beach wheelchairs available for rent. However, the main draw of the state park (Thoreau’s cabin site) has not been made ADA accessible. The most interesting part of that? I didn’t know that until I met certain obstacles on the trail, yet I was STILL able to complete the entire loop and “stand” on the site of Thoreau’s original cabin. My Freedom Chair gave me the ability to not have to do extensive research before going which is HUGE! Anyone with a disability can likely tell you about the intensive planning often required just to participate in “normal” activities. Having the freedom to just go for something is indescribable.

Another important element that helped me complete the Walden Pond trail loop was my able-bodied companion. Accepting occasional assistance on my hikes is something I’m constantly working on, but I’ve learned that my stubbornness can often limit the activities I can do with others. If I refuse help, and we all have to turn back, then we are all missing out. By working together we can overcome a lot more! At Walden Pond, the one obstacle that stymied my independence was a long set of tall steps. I was glad we ended up going the direction on the loop that allowed us to go DOWN the steps! Up would have been much more difficult, though I’m confident we could have pushed forward together.

After battling lots of roots, rocks, and inclines, I arrived at the site of Thoreau’s original cabin. I took great pride at the stunned looks on people’s faces who were not exactly sure how I had arrived there using only my arms! I loved showing off my Freedom Chair and answering their questions. I sat confidently next to the iconic sign that reads:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately. . . and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. – Henry David Thoreau

My experience at Walden Pond reminded me how important it is to make the outdoors accessible to everyone, regardless of physical ability. Nature has so much to teach and offer, and so many are unable to access it. I hope to be an example to show that people with mobility challenges WANT to come into nature, but there are barriers too often limit them. Thankfully I have equipment that helps me overcome a lot of these barriers I couldn’t otherwise, but there is still a lot of trailblazing to do!