Originally posted April 22, 2020
Carly Pearson says she’s the kind of person who “tries always to see the glass as overflowing.” So, when she told the GRIT team she was planning to take her Freedom Chair on a 100-kilometer (62-mile) trek through Spain’s Camino de Santiago, we figured this was her way of making sure that cup continued to overflow.
In 2019, Carly joined over 40 others on a trip through the final segment of the Camino de Santiago (often referred to as “Camino”), a pilgrimage trek that travels about 500 miles through Spain. Camino ends at the Santiago de Compostela, a church said to be the burial site of the biblical figure, St. James. The trail is hallowed for the diversity of people it attracts each year, but it is tremendously diverse in terrain as well—it features gravel, pavement, sections of narrow and wooded pathways, water crossings, and stone bridges. Translation: This isn’t something many would define as “wheelchair-friendly.” Carly and the I’ll Push You crew had other ideas.
We were lucky to sit down with Carly and talk about the details of her trip and, specifically, how the Freedom Chair performed. Other riders in Carly’s group used different mobility devices, and Carly told us how these different chairs compared along this tremendous journey, how they held up, how conducive they were for teamwork, and how they navigated the realities of a many-day wheelchair adventure through this historic trail.
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Carly Pearson, before Camino
Before we talk about her awesome trip, let’s introduce you to Carly herself. We’ll start with a moment, years ago, that began her journey toward GRIT.
At twenty-seven years old, Carly had been working as a wildland firefighter, managing the helicopters and helicopter crews responsible for dropping water on wildfires from above. Between shifts at one particular fire in Oregon, Carly left base camp to cool off at a nearby river. She lost her footing and fell twenty-five feet and, shortly after, was diagnosed with a T-12, L-1 incomplete spinal cord injury.
But that was long time ago. Now, Carly Pearson has somehow become even more awesome than “just” a wildland firefighter—now, she a mother, a medal-winning hand-cyclist, winner of Ms. Wheelchair Tennessee, a finisher in the 2019 Spartan Para World Championships, and more. Anyone who has spent more than 30 seconds with Carly also knows that she does everything with a disarming kindness that somehow obscures her long and diverse list of accolades. She is humble. She is tough. She is the one with the glass that is alway overflowing.
Camino: With new friends from I’ll Push You
“The trip itself was amazing. Justin and Patrick did a fabulous job and made it a trip of a lifetime. For anyone considering going, I highly recommend the experience itself.”
Carly didn’t do this trip alone. She traveled to Camino alongside others from I’ll Push You, a group founded and run by Justin Skeesuck and Patrick Gray.
Back in 2012, Justin had heard about Camino but knew that his progressive neuromuscular disease would prevent him from doing it solo. He mentioned the journey to his lifelong friend, Patrick, who told him, simply, “I’ll push you.” Two years later, they were on the trail. After their first journey, they documented their experience in a book, a documentary, and started Push, Inc., which helps organizations and individuals work together to achieve their goals on and off the trail.
Now, each year, Justin and Patrick return to Camino with groups of wheelchair adventurers, guides, and others. Each group must work together to make it through the grueling 100-kilometer path on Camino, headed toward the Santiago de Compostela.
For more information about Justin, Patrick, and their organization, check out their website here.
Logistics: The airport
The prospect of traveling with mobility equipment can be daunting at first, especially when you know you have multiple connecting flights, lots of baggage, and an ocean to cross! Before Carly and the I’ll Push You crew could even start their 100-kilometer hike, they first had to get to the trailhead.
The levers of the GRIT Freedom Chair are designed to be removed and inserted, so to make sure Carly knew where everything was, she brought her Freedom Chair right to the gate but packed her levers in with her checked luggage.
Her flight had a last-minute change, so when they touched down in Spain, Carly got some bad news: Her checked bag (and her levers) didn’t make the journey. They’d be delivered at the first checkpoint of their hike.
The good news? The rest of her Freedom Chair was in great shape. When the airport staff wheeled it out to her, Carly gave it an inspection, knowing that plane rides can be a bit rough on adaptive equipment. She said, “I’ve gate-checked my other racing chair so many times and it always has dings on it—now it looks like it’s been hail-damaged. Or, I’ve had to wrap it with 10 pounds of bubble-wrap.” Her GRIT chair (even without the levers!) came out ready to roll.
To make it to the first checkpoint, Carly wore gloves fortified with duct tape and pushed through the first portion of Camino using the Freedom Chair like a regular manual chair.
Thankfully, she added “At the end of day one, our luggage arrived and everything was hunky-dory. But, my point is, I will probably gate check it every time from now on—with all of the components.”
The beginning of the trail: Terrain
Carly and one other member of the group were both using GRIT Freedom Chairs. Carly says, “Everyone else who had a chair had a freewheel. The terrain was extremely difficult. There was 1500’ of climbing, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but it was. A lot of rocks—what I call free, as in loose rocks.”
Navigating this kind of tricky terrain often requires some teamwork. Carly told us a bit about how things went for her, her GRIT chair, and how it compared to the others in the group who had been using other wheelchairs:
One of the girls in another chair, they went to pick up the handles, they slipped out, and she fell and hit her head. Another one of the gals was insistent on helping herself and had to wheelie down all of these ungodly hills—which I think would be really uncomfortable after a while.
So, I felt like, from all angles, the GRIT was literally the best option…by far. Except maybe for Patrick, who is immobile below the neck and had an $8,000 custom chair that he had made. I feel like—for that event—GRIT was the way to go, without question.
Considering both the riders and the pushers
“It would have made for a long week had I not been able to contribute—you know, if I was just sitting there and people were pulling me, and I wasn’t able to push.”
Too often, wheelchair users face two equally unattractive options: Either be limited by where a standard, manual wheelchair can go, or be 100% pushed from behind. As Carly and the I’ll Push You crew continued through their journey, Carly noticed that with her GRIT chair, she was able to find an optimal middle-ground. She worked hard to propel herself in the chair, but also had some help from behind. Neither did all of the work, and they could both coordinate their efforts to move forward. Carly said:
From a pusher’s perspective, the height of the GRIT chair was so much better [than the other chairs], especially on the downhills. When going uphill, I felt like I was able to help and contribute a lot. It would have made for a long week had I not been able to contribute—you know, if I was just sitting there and people were pulling me, and I wasn’t able to push, I would have felt kind of worthless.
The teamwork involved on some of those uphills—I sometimes had someone pulling from the front, me pushing, and then someone pushing from behind. Some of the others had, like, five people on their chair. I thought that—physics wise—the chair handled beautifully.
“I polled the group, too, and they said that hands-down, the GRIT was the easiest chair to push. It was extremely freeing, knowing I could accomplish this with the group—and not be high maintenance, if that makes sense.”
Carly also mentioned the fact that, while everyone was working together, Camino demanded a lot from everyone. Pushing the GRIT chair was a bit of a different experience than pushing the other wheelchairs. She said:
“The only time I was lifted up in the chair was when we were crossing a creek. Some of the other folks would come up to a couple of rocks—not huge boulders or anything, but just rocks on the trail—and they would have to literally pick up the front and the back and lift them over it, whereas I was just rollin’ over that stuff.
I think that’s significant, when you’re talking about off-road usage.”
The other pushers had to be stooped over, or in some crouched position all day long to push—I’m talking all day, like ten hours a day, they were like that. So, if you’re looking from a teamwork perspective, you have to consider the whole team. I polled the group, too, and they said that hands-down, the GRIT was the easiest chair to push. It was extremely freeing, knowing I could accomplish this with the group—and not be high-maintenance, if that makes sense.
She continued on, discussing the fact that the others in the group often had to be lifted entirely over obstacles. Her and her GRIT chair, though? Not the case at all.
One of the things I noticed, when I went back and watched the footage from the rest of the group, is that the [pushers] had to lift the other chairs up over a lot of stuff. They didn’t have to do that with mine. The only time I was lifted up in the chair was when we were crossing a creek. I could have rolled through it, but I asked them to pick me up. Some of those folks would go over a couple of rocks—not huge boulders or anything, but just rocks on the trail—and they would have to literally pick up the front and the back and lift them over it, whereas I was just rollin’ over that stuff. I think that’s significant, when you’re talking about off-road usage.
A necessary detour: Bathrooms
Of course, if you are hiking 100 kilometers with 40+ people, you’re going to have to make a few bathroom stops. And, after a long day of hiking, sometimes you might want a glass of wine or a tucked-away cafe to relax. Remember, too, that the architects who constructed the buildings in rural Spain hundreds of years ago weren’t necessarily thinking about wheelchair accessibility. In fact, it’s pretty safe to say they didn’t consider accessibility at all. Narrow doorways, beat-up cobblestone roads, staircases, and more, made bathroom trips on Camino exactly as interesting as one might expect from medieval-era Spanish architecture. Carly says:
About four times a day, on the trail, I had to find a bathroom. And along the way, on this trail, there were cafés and little albergues [hostels], so it was heavily supported from that perspective. I went into every bathroom stop with a plan A, B, and C, not knowing what to expect. The fact that I was able to find a civilized place to “go” was great. But, the corridors were often small, or really not accessible at all. Even with an everyday chair, it would have been an issue.
After six days, four times a day—that’s twenty-four times—I only had to be transferred out of the GRIT chair a total of six times. So, I didn’t think it was really that bad. I started making notes about which places were accessible (but I didn’t start until day three because the chair fit in everywhere before that point).
Okay, break time is over. Back to the trail!
A trip of 100-kilometers along a rural Spanish pilgrimage trail requires not just one day of vigorous exertion, not just two days—Carly and the others were on the trail for six straight days. This is, of course, tremendously demanding for the humans (riders, pushers, and pullers alike), but also on the equipment itself.
“The GRIT handled like a freakin’ beast out there.”
Carly came prepared with spare tubes, Allen keys, screwdrivers, bike pumps, and more, knowing that any off-road adventure—especially one of this caliber—can require some equipment maintenance. Here’s what Carly had to say about that part of the adventure:
I was super grateful that I took the GRIT. It handled like a freakin’ beast out there. The reliability of it—I didn’t have any breakdowns. Nothing. I didn’t have to change a tire, I didn’t have a chain issue. I did tighten my chain a couple of times, but I don’t really think they needed it—I’d just been out there so long I felt like I needed to turn a wrench.
Carly did mention that the steep elevation changes had her thinking about different sprocket options. She said, “I’m not bragging, but I am pretty strong, so I felt sometimes that I needed more resistance (on downhills).”
Because the moving parts of the Freedom Chair are standard bike parts, the chains, the chainrings, and the freewheels themselves are all exchangeable—and it is often as easy as a trip to the bike shop. Whether looking to change the gear ratio or just to try a different part from a third-party manufacturer, these changes are as easy as they are for a mountain bike. Carly opted to leave her sprockets as they were, but the option is always available.
“I didn’t have any breakdowns. Nothing. I didn’t have to change a tire, I didn’t have a chain issue. I did tighten my chain a couple of times, but I don’t really think they needed it—I’d just been out there so long I felt like I needed to turn a wrench.”
The road ahead
For years, Justin and Patrick, from I’ll Push You, have helped riders with all kinds of mobility devices get through this same section of Camino. Carly’s final note about the trip was:
I can’t tell you how grateful I am for taking the GRIT. Justin and Patrick will be taking three groups back out there next year—they saw how much easier it was to push myself and [the other Freedom Chair rider], vs. the rest of the group, and they want their pushers to be comfortable. I think they saw that and GRIT is the way to go.
Justin and Patrick have since talked with GRIT, and have decided to make the Freedom Chair the official wheelchair of I’ll Push You adventures on Camino. Carly is also working with another organization to order three Freedom Chairs for their own hikes.
What a journey! We thank Carly for her time and her to-the-core grit, and can’t wait to hear about her next adventure.
How to get more information
To connect with Carly and others active wheelchair users, check out Beyond the Pavement, the Facebook group designed for outdoor adaptive recreation. This is a great place to speak with wheelchair riders who are each finding their own ways to get out and enjoy all that the outdoors has to offer (in the USA, Spain, and beyond)!
And, to talk with GRIT about getting a Freedom Chair of your own, click the button below!