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By Janelle Eckardt

Dec. 1, 2008 (San Diego) —  Native San Diegans
are quick to admit that we enjoy arguably the best weather in the entire country – boasting
a balmy 74 degree average in November.  While the North East freezes each
winter, we oftentimes forget to even wear a coat to work.  But as a wise
person once noted, perfection grows weary; East County’s weather can
be so predictable and mild that we revel in the slightest “pattern” or “flow.” And
I am no exception. The first gloomy sign of autumn inspired me to head out
for a day of hiking at one of our most wheelchair-friendly parks: the Mission
Trails Regional Park (MTRP).

For the nature-inclined, it can be very frustrating
to find truly accessible parks and trails in a county that screams to be explored
on foot – and
wheel. The beaches are lined by boardwalks that stretch for miles, and provide
hours of entertainment for those adventurous four-wheeled folk interested in
playing chicken with the two-wheeled kind (bikini clad rollerbladers are especially
fun to go up against). But for those more interested in taking in views of
nature than oiled -up sunbathers, the options are limited. One of my fondest
(or do I mean ‘most frightening’?) memories is of my uncle taking
my sister and I hiking when I was around eight-years-old. We headed up one
of his favorite trails in our doll-size electric chairs, only to realize the
farther we ascended the narrower the path got. With my two left tires edging
against the hillside and my right tires skirting the shear drop of what I swore
was 5,000 feet, I remember wishing I could turn around but being painfully
aware that wasn’t an option.

I have found three conditions that must
be met before most wheelchair-users will consider a trail to be worth traversing.

1) The slope of the trail must
maintain a fairly consistent grade, and not be so steep that it is impossible
to maneuver safely. As fun as it is to roll out of control down a 45 degree
slope, it is one of those experiences best savored once—if you’re
lucky enough to survive intact.

The surface should neither be too soft or too hard. Goldilocks was right to
be so particular in her demands; she obviously knew what it’s like
to dig oneself into a shallow grave by trying to drive on sand. And while spinning
tires in loose soil proves futile, off-roading it on a rocky path is infinitely
more annoying… not to mention painful. Until wheelchairs are outfitted
with the same shock absorbers as commercial aircraft landing gear, many veteran
wheelchair users will continue to equate gravel paths with torture devices.

3) Lastly, the trail should offer the sense of escaping civilization without
forcing you to mark your own trail with yarn just in case… lions, tigers,
and serial killers! Oh my! We all crave the quiet serenity that goes hand-in-hand
with being alone in the wide open spaces, but it is also comforting to know
help will come if we need it.

The Father Junipero Serra Trail at MTRP offers
1.8 miles of splendidly smooth tarmac that cuts across the center of the park,
and offers stunning views of the encompassing Kwaay Paay and South Fortuna
Mountains. The trail has a one-way lane for vehicles to pass, and one lane
open to cyclists, joggers, and wheelies. I drove into the park and found a
handicap spot in the lot at the entrance to the Old Mission Dam.

Before taking off on the main trail, I headed down
the stone walkway to get a glimpse of the dam. The stone path ends at a picnic
area that overlooks the reservoir, and firm dirt lines the rest of the way.
The dirt path leads to a narrow wooden bridge that crosses the river, and ends
abruptly at the other end – and for good reason. A sandy valley lies
on the far side of the bridge, and if it weren’t for a blockade of metal
pipes, many a wheelchair may be lost forever in the crossing. The Old Mission
Dam trail is a short excursion for a person in a chair, but it is well worth
the sprint. The dirt path was firm enough to where I needn’t worry about
skidding on the down slope, but was refreshingly cushy to drive on. Moreover,
I was quite impressed that it held up perfectly against the light rain that
fell all morning.

The Father
Junipero Serra Trail was a joy to follow – the air smelled
of fresh rain and flowers, and the mountains on either side reminded me of
an untouched time. The pavement gave me the freedom to take in the scenery
without having to scour the terrain for potholes and pesky rocks. Anyone walking
the trail, or simply hoping to relax a bit, may also appreciate the many alcoves
with benches lining the path. And travelers in manual chairs will be happy
to know the slopes and bends are gradual – no need to curse gravity the
entire trip uphill, this time. Once you conquer this trail, you might like
to visit the Mission Trails
and look up a new path to try – each trail is ranked by difficulty and
point of interest.

The seasonal conditions that San Diego enjoys deserve to
be savored outdoors. The Mission Trails Regional Park not only provides wheelchair
users with a great place to exercise and breathe in fresh air, but it is close
enough to visit any time. A short twenty minute drive away from most of the
county, MTRP is in all of our backyards. Leave nightmares of drowning in quicksand
and gravel-induced concussions in the past, and embrace the nature enthusiast

Janelle Eckardt graduated last year from UCSD with a BA in English
literature. She is currently feeling out her place in “the real world,” while
simultaneously devising a formula for Guinness-flavored lip gloss. Janelle
is a native of this most beautiful of counties, and is absolutely bent on showing
it off to the world: bumpy sidewalks and all. And if she knows anything, it
is this: bucket lists are for procrastinators–live as though you are…living.