It seems like you can’t swing a dead cat these days without hitting a travel blogger.
It also seems like many of these travel bloggers are tall, blonde, thin, and work as fashion models in their spare time. I mean, why else would they be wearing a haute couture gown in the middle of St. Mark’s Square in Venice without one living soul around?
Then there’s me. I’m a five foot six brunette (okay, I have highlights) who can’t walk, my go-to outfit is leggings and a t-shirt, and I usually don’t wear makeup. Yep, that’s right. I’ve had multiple sclerosis for over 12 years, and it mostly affects my legs. I use a power wheelchair full-time at home and an electric scooter when I travel. And yes, I usually travel alone.
I wasn’t always a travel blogger, as is usually the case. Out of college, I went on active duty in the Air Force and worked as a Special Agent for 8 1/2 years until I was diagnosed with MS and medically retired shortly thereafter. I got married and went on to work as an analyst and expert on Mexico’s drug war and border security, which would become my full-time career to this day. If you Google me, that’s the first thing that will pop up. For now.
Travel came to me early thanks to my parents. By the time I was a teenager, I’d already visited half a dozen countries and 22 states. I also got to travel while in the Air Force, visiting Panama, Paraguay, Japan, and England, and eventually going on my very first solo international trip.
After my MS diagnosis, I traveled occasionally for work, but my ex-husband completely lost interest in travel after we had children. So, my passport began collecting dust. I started to experiment with blogging as a way to document my experience as a military wife, mother, and author/consultant with a chronic disease. When I started using a walker and bringing it with me on work trips, I wrote about that experience.
After 10 years of marriage, that thing we never imagine will happen happened: my husband and I got a divorce. The thing I turned to in order to heal from our split was travel. At this point, I was using a power wheelchair full-time and had to travel with an electric scooter.
My first post-divorce plan was a solo road trip through Arizona and Utah that November. I was still able to take a few steps, which meant I could rent a regular car with hand controls and take apart my scooter to put it in the trunk. I started in Phoenix, worked my way up through Sedona then over to Monument Valley and farther east to Four Corners. Then I headed north to Moab for Canyonlands and Arches, west through the San Rafael Swell, then up to Salt Lake City. I wrote about it all.
This trip was the most emotionally draining and spiritually uplifting trip I had ever taken. It built in me a confidence that I could travel alone and be okay — not just physically, but mentally.
That was when things started to get crazy.
I had conquered domestic travel, but what about international? As serendipity would have it, two of my friends were working as teachers in Dubai for a year, and I Emirates Airlines had started direct flights from Orlando, my hometown, two months earlier.
The gears in my head started turning and the crazy began emerging. After some brainstorming with my friends and dozens of hours of research, I booked my ticket that December for my first international trip as a full-time wheelchair user to Dubai in February 2016.
That trip to Dubai unleashed a monster. I had been to the top of the tallest building in the world! I had ridden a camel! I had gone dune bashing in a Middle Eastern desert! Not in a formal evening gown, mind you, but I did it. And I wrote about it.
A cruise to Alaska with my best friend followed that May. Then a solo trip to Reykjavík, Iceland that September. Then a solo trip to Sydney that November. And I wrote about it.
That November. That was when something pivoted in my life. I had flown 16 hours to the east by myself and a combined 18 hours to the west by myself—being completely unable to walk, and relying 100 percent on an electric scooter for mobility.
Mind you, I was far from being a pioneer in this respect. I have found other accessible travel bloggers from whom I derive much courage and inspiration, and I continually ask myself, if they can do it, why can’t I? And not just the accessible travel; I wanted to make a living as a travel writer.
I’m a full-blown addict by that point. I write this post as I pack for my final trip of the year. By the end of that trip — a two-week cruise to Greece and Israel with my best friend — I will have visited 17 countries in 2017 alone.
And for those of you who want to know (because I know you’re out there), I pay for my trips with the proceeds from my consulting business, part of my disability pension, and retirement funds I have been saving for 20 years. You see, I don’t know how much longer my body will let me travel. I may be bedridden in 10 years because MS is a progressive disease and very unpredictable. So, I decided to retire now at the ripe old age of 43.
Traveling alone as a disabled woman is exciting and empowering, but it can also be scary and very challenging. I choose my destinations based on their level of wheelchair accessibility, and in more challenging places I link up with an accessible tour guide to show me around.
I make sure I’m always around people in case I need help in an emergency — and that includes my scooter getting stuck somewhere. I have to keep my cell phone within arm’s reach in hotel rooms in case I fall and can’t get back up, or worse, get hurt. And I constantly employ all the skills I learned as a Special Agent to make sure I’m not marked as an easy target by thieves or drunken men. Hey, those tall skinny blondes can kick and run away. Me? Not so much.
Today, I’m not only one of the very few female accessible (and solo) travel bloggers out there. I’m also a trained and licensed accessible travel agent, and I opened my own travel agency this past August. I thought, if I can arrange all of these amazing travel experiences for myself, why can’t I make those dreams come true for other wheelchair users (and get paid for it)?
But writing is my passion. I still write about the drug war because, hey, something needs to fund my habit — and I’m really good at it. My love for photography has been an enduring companion on this ride, and in December 2017 I will be self-publishing an accessible travel photography book called The View from Down Here. I’m donating all of the proceeds to my nonprofit The PreJax Foundation, which provides college scholarships to students to either have MS or a parent with MS.
For now, I will continue to travel as long as my body lets me. I will accept the curious stares and weird looks, and respond to them with a smile. I will both passively and actively demonstrate to those around me that wheelchair users can travel just like everybody else; we just do it a bit differently. And I will continue to write about all of it.
This has been a guest post in our “Voices of Travel” series. If you’d like to contribute, see our submission guidelines.
What do you think about Sylvia’s journey? What have been your obstacles to travel, and how are you overcoming them? Let us know in the comments!