Finding His Spirit And His Being
Joshua Winterhalt ‘97
Alaska gave me not only my home and my health, but my calling.
I finally arrived in Anchorage to a beautiful setting sun at 1:30 am after over 24 hours of travel. But what awaited me in the Alaskan terminal? Not my bags! So the trip was hell, but you can bet it was worth it!
For the Challenge Alaska summer program, there are four staff members: John, the Program Manager; Julie, the Activities Coordinator; and two summer interns, Ronda and I.
We worked with a client base of about 150 people with a huge spectrum of disabilities and ages. Some were mildy affected, as a child with a slight learning disability, to as severely affected as a deaf/blind quadriplegic with severe mental retardation. Our trips/activities included: deep-sea halibut fishing/camping trips, combat-fishing day trips for red salmon, fundraising events, white-water rafting day trips, white-water camping trips, river-float day trips, sea kayaking/camping trips, horseback riding, day trips to the Alaska State Fair, and one 367 mile 8-day wheelchair race.
On every trip I participated in, I had amazing and wonderful new experiences. Therefore, I can only really look at my summer as just that: “My summer!”
Julie got maried in my second week in Alaska. It was the most beautiful wedding I’d ever been witness to, located high in a mountain pass at an old gold mine. Ronda and I were still new to Alaska, and I didn’t know many of the fellow attendees, so at first, we kind of stayed to ourselves. While she was talking with some other people, I went and sat on the grass, just enjoying the environment. I looked around and caught the glance of a man with the brightest, most alive, pure, good, love-filled blue eyes you ever saw. He was sitting in a power wheelchair. I quickly looked away.
Note: That exact mentality was what I had the most difficulty with for my first couple of weeks in Alaska. I had become so conditioned to not making eye-contact after three years at Dartmouth, and much time in cities around the country, that, when I was in a friendly environment, it was almost a culture shock for me. And it took me some time to adjust.
As soon as I looked away, I felt bad, and looked back. He was still looking at me. So I smiled and we approached each other. I stood there with my hand out for what must have been almost three minutes while he struggled to get my hand and say, “N-Neal.” Neal had a condition called dystonia since he was a young boy. Dystonia is a condition of extremely severe muscle tension. If you’ve ever seen the movie “My Left Foot”, it is similar to the condition portrayed. In fact, the part of his body that Neal has the best control over is his left foot. Speech is very difficult for Neal. It may often take him many minutes to utter just a few words. But he has much to say.
Neal is an author, a poet and a playwright. He made many trips with us this summer with his girlfriend, Jane. Jane has her doctorate from Harvard Medical School in physical therapy as well as a Ph.D. in psychology. Jane is also in a power wheelchair. She struggles with muscular dystrophy.
For the three years I’ve been at Dartmouth, I have also struggled with many personal problems, not the least of which being alcohol. I had always considered myself to be an extremely spiritual person, but when I came to Dartmouth, I got caught up in the freedom and independence, and started drinking. Heavily.
For those three years I had struggled with my drinking problem. Then one afternoon, after a particularly bad night, I had a spiritual awakening of sorts. I realized the full extent of my problems. I pledged a change. Soon afterward, I found out I was going to Alaska, fulfilling a lifelong dream. I knew, in my heart, that I would find answers in Alaska. I knew that there, and only there, would I be able to confront and defeat the depression I had been struggling with for years. I was right.
I found my spirit in Alaska. It was the only place that has ever called me so strongly. It is the only place that feels like “home” to me. I prayed almost every day throughout the summer. I had found the health for which I had struggled for so long. Once again, my body, my mind and my spirit were strong and healthy and one. Alaska gave me not only my home and my health, but also my calling.
My job ended a week before I was to leave Alaska, and the people for whom Ronda and I had been house-sitting came back a week earlier. So, for the last two weeks, Ronda and I were homeless. It wasn’t the first time for me, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. But I spent that last week and a half doing something I’d never done before. For almost two weeks, I lived in a wheelchair! I lived as though that was my life.
The (power wheelchair) racers taught me a valuable lesson about disabilities. They don’t have to slow you down one bit!