Traveling around the country, interviewing Outward Bound instructors, I had heard tales of Gruffie Clough. Even among that group of adventurous people, she stands out. Maybe that is because many of her adventures are related to a concern for other people. She has spent months, for instance, alone in remote Africa, with a kayak and a tent, distributing medical supplies to remote tribes. I guess I expected to meet some sort of superb athlete. She may be an athlete, but she wasn’t what I expected to meet at all.
She was wearing a T-shirt and jeans–a tall, slender woman with a three foot single braid of hair down her back. I interviewed Gruffie in a small, white-washed room in the basement of the Colorado Outward Bound Headquarters. She radiated some kind of indefinable aura over me, the room, the conversation.
Gruffie grew up in Iowa in the 1950s. She had three brothers. Her father was an alcoholic. Her mother worked, and kept things together through the financial stress. She describes the family as being focused on relationships and qualities rather than possessions. “The major point,” she says “is that I had this absolutely incredible mother that wove this sort of safe home to be in…and loving home to be in.”
She lived in community houses in the sixties and early seventies, working as a waitress and carpenter, among other things. Then came a graduate degree in education. She got spit out of that early twenties lifestyle, as she puts it, as a high school teacher and, in the summers, an Outward Bound instructor. Her connection with Outward Bound has taken her up mountains in Peru, Africa, the Soviet Union, Mexico and Colorado. Medium peaks–19,000 to 22,000 feet. They take days to climb but weeks and sometimes months are spent getting acclimatized. Outward Bound, she says, has given her not only opportunities to climb around the world, but the reinforcement to pursue the things that make her feel really alive. It is a community of people that share the same values–a movement you get swept up in–a lifestyle.
In 1981, Gruffie and her husband Bob Roark (interviewed separately), worked in refugee camps in the Sudan. “After that experience, we knew we wanted to do work more in Africa but we didn’t want to do crisis care. It’s important stuff but it doesn’t really empower people. It keeps them alive but there are big missing pieces about really helping people develop full lives.” So in 1984, she went back to Africa with a Fulbright grant to work on a curriculum for high school kids. While there, Gruffie and her husband became aware of a remote area along the shore of Lake Victoria in Kenya where about 40,000 people were living without medical care. So she moved there with a tent, and helped the people build a clinic and start agricultural projects. Later, with the first shipment of medicine, came two kayaks- one for her, one for her husband. Her husband, Bob Roark, has a medical background and is a paraplegic from an ice-climbing accident that occurred when he was an Outward Bound instructor.
She continues to go back to Africa regularly. She goes to the community development project–Gruffie and Bob are “the old guard–maintaining relationships, dealing with the subtleties of things like AIDs education, problem solving, how to resolve conflicts.” She also works on other community development and relief projects funded by the U.S. government and corporations that have an interest in the stability of the African countries in which they have investments. In addition, she is helping Colorado Outward Bound develop a cross-cultural Outward Bound program in Kenya. And, when necessary, she still gets in a kayak and spends days or weeks traveling to remote villages with medicine.
What about your life or your philosophy allows you or compels you to try to help other people–to go through personal deprivation and hardship for people of a different culture?
I know there must be a philosophy. I know if I talk, you will be able to shape what the philosophy is, but don’t know that I can sum it up. When you ask the question, my mind started filling with ideas.
I do know a couple of things about myself. I know that I couldn’t do this any other way. I know that I don’t reach out for adventures. I don’t plan them. I don’t say what can I do next that’s really awesome. The question is never why do this–it is why not. That’s a basic reference for me. It’s never a sense of deprivation on my part. Yeah, there’s days when I’m really pissed off, and I have to give something up to make something else happen. But doing this work, or living this lifestyle is the most natural, fulfilling thing that I could do. There is some discipline involved and hard choices involved. I know I could do things in a much easier way. I know that I could make choices that would make me richer. Or appear cooler. Or more successful. But there is something inside of me that when I make these choices, that just sigh with relief. It says that this is right. This is good. This is fulfilling.
I am aware that I make conscious choices in my life to be thoughtful. I am aware that I think more, or figure out more or reflect more than many of my friends. I must be building a set of values or a set of guidelines that help me when I come to intersections and choices.
I find for myself that it’s very important to me that I live a meaningful life. That’s both professionally and personally. How I spend my life…really matters to me. I’m not comfortable just vegging out and floating through and if something happens I’ll be a part of it and work these many hours, punch a time clock and barbecue on the weekend. For me, there has got to be more rhyme or reason. But I have not found that to be true with some other people. Some people are at their total capacity doing things that I find very mundane. I don’t know why that is. It’s very intriguing. But there are many of us that consider striving to be important. I don’t know that we end up anywhere — I’ve attained it. That’s it. It’s more a series of striving and reaching goals and getting better and learning more and acknowledging more about what I don’t know. For me, it’s all about connecting in a relationship with the God that I believe in. But I know that that’s not true for everybody.
If I came down in any one way of thinking, in any one philosophy, it would be that every single human being on this earth is significant. I don’t lump people together in hunks of humanity. So working with a ? or working on an Outward Bound course or working with a fifth grader on how to read or a CEO of a major corporation–every one of those persons has equal value to me.
So I do it because I believe in it. I mean I get tired of the humanity that puts one person on a pedestal because he is capable of generating billions in revenues, and that values him as a more important person than the moma who has raised ten healthy, contributing members of an African tribe. A human is a human in my book.
I see myself as a very selfish person–just as needful as the next person. I never view myself as a do-gooder. Or that this time of my life is for service and this time is not. I definitely am a human-service provider–whether it’s Outward Bound or teaching school or community development. There is a common theme of service. There is a practical side of that–it’s what I know. I’m a community mobilizer and a teacher–that’s where my expertise lies. Also, the returns to it are great–I see results.
The concept of doing service or serving others is not ever done at the expense of myself. It’s very fulfilling. I continue to learn far more than I know. Just when I am in the thick of things, I get this view of myself and what I’ve yet to learn and what I need to know. I get that–get as much from Africa as I give.
I go to Africa and I know I have some things to share, and I know I have helped save some lives, and I know that probably the most important thing I’ve done is provide some people with hope. That is a very critical commodity–hope. I think I have found a pocket in the world where I can be helpful.
I do believe strongly that somehow, in this bizarre system we have set up, in this universe, that there is a better, more equal distribution of resources. Not only medicine and food but information. These are very intelligent, clever people but they have some development to go through before they can hear sophisticated information and decide what they want to do with it. One of the most oppressive concepts in this world is how some people get information and others don’t. As a teacher, one of my main callings is to help people get access to information–whether it is how to read, or how to plant, or how to communicate effectively.
And I know that I believe in a spiritual being–in my case God. The spiritual part of the pie is every bit as practical, as daily, as vital as the physical and intellectual and emotional. I think that that is a huge piece of why I do what I do.
What is it like to spend long periods alone or without others from North American or European cultures?
For me aloneness in Africa was living on the shores of Lake Victoria in a one person tent, with no other Americans or Westerners near. Working closely with two Africans building facilities. One of them did speak English. But the aloneness was in not having anyone to review the day with, or give a running commentary like “Gosh, I’m hungry,” or “Did you see that,” or “Wasn’t that funny.” That’s a kind of aloneness that any human being can experience anywhere. Many people of age in the United States experience that. That’s the obvious aloneness–not loneliness. Aloneness.
Did you find that depressing?
It caught me off guard. I had never been in that situation before–I had never lost a spouse. I had broken up with people and been lonely, but never truly void in terms of reaching out, and having to make very little effort to connect with somebody because we spoke the same language and had the same subtleties, the same values.
It was a tremendous adjustment. I didn’t know what was happening to me. There were people all around me. I wasn’t alone. But there wasn’t even anybody to help me figure out what was wrong. It was culture shock. It was being alone and not predicting that. Not understanding how powerful aloneness is. How deep it can penetrate before you know it’s there. But once I finally found the word that identified what was going on with me–I AM LONELY–then it was much more manageable. Then I could begin to do things to disperse that.
Did being alone affect your awareness?
When–then or now?
Both. Very much so. Because of the times in the tent, the kayak, and because I do some long distance running, and did a lot of that in Africa, and do a lot of walking–because of that aloneness I definitely saw everything differently. I was raw. When you go through the process of being alone I think a grievous loss occurs. A grieving occurs. I have thought a lot about that and worked through that. I don’t know that many people match the two, but I think that when you are grieving and you are in transition in your life, you become raw. So it’s like skin that doesn’t have the top layer. It responds to air with a ting, with a sharpness. My whole body was like that. It’s not particularly pleasant but it’s very vibrant. I have experienced that in my life, even today, I see things differently, because of those alone times.
I have a tough question for you. It has to do with a situation I heard described on the radio. An American journalist was interviewing a British relief worker at a refugee camp in Africa. A mother had brought her starving child to the food station a half hour after they had shut down the meal. The relief worker told her that she had come too late. The mother responded that her child would die without food. The relief worker told her to come back tomorrow morning. The journalist asked “What harm would it do to dig out a little food and give it to this mother?” The relief worker replied that if she did that the whole camp would start disregarding the times and coming whenever they felt like it. Second, if it’s so important for the child to live, why doesn’t the mother show up at the correct time? Everyone knows the times. The whole camp knows the times. I wonder what the experience of being constantly exposed to death, as you must have been over the years, does to a person.
It is a very tough question for me as an American. It is a very easy answer, as a person that lived and worked in that situation. I think that I came to understand it when I realized that in this culture minutes make a difference. In an African culture, days and weeks make a difference. Minutes don’t count. I myself have many times made decisions around such sterile things as time and rules. My guess is that the situation there doesn’t look like it sounds here. What that was about was: One, the child had been dying for a long time. If the mother had just walked in from spending two weeks trying to get across the desert, that’s a very different scenario. Having lived and worked in the refugee camps, though, there is a chance that that woman was being manipulative by coming late. Not necessarily in a bad way. Maybe being clever–sometimes if you come late you get more food than if you stand in line and they are measuring it out. Two: If the child was going to die through the night from that one lack of feeding, it would greatly surprise me. If the child died during the night, it was probably weeks of inadequate food. So there are some practical, tangible responses. The health care worker was probably just organizing a response to an absolutely overwhelming problem.
The health care worker sounded like she was exhausted, like she had been on her feet for sixteen hours. What does it do to a person–to their sensitivities?
In that situation you learn that you have to take care of yourself. You get exhausted and then you do get sick. Any help that you are being goes down the hill. But even so, I’ve found that it is very, very important to me that I respond to everybody with great dignity. Respect. If I got too tired or sick or cynical then I didn’t treat people well.
I don’t know if that was the case in that scenario, but if you ask me about myself watching people die, I dealt with that by writing short stories about what I saw in a journal. There was so much to cry about that you didn’t cry about any of it. It was absolutely overwhelming. And so, the way to deal with it is to look in that person’s eyes and do what you could for that person at that moment. It’s spiritually and emotionally difficult.
I still wonder, I guess, where your power comes from to do that work. The power to be what you want to be. The power to do what you want to do. The power to be a good person.
My experience with power is that it is not based on strength, it is based on weaknesses. If someone says that you are strong, you are powerful they tend to mean that you have influence, you have money, you have prestige, you have name, you have position. Those things have their place, and their time, and their appropriateness. But I think internal power–I have the capacity to move to Africa, I have the capacity to climb this rock, I have capacity to get through this divorce, I have the capacity to do my job well or to live my life well is different. That sort of internal power, I think, is incredibly ironic. This is where it becomes very spiritual and a bit Eastern. You only gain that power by letting it go.
A person that wants to be powerful will concentrate on their strengths. What do I have to get? What do I have to possess? What do I have to own? Who do I have to have under my thumb?
But people who are truly powerful, who do truly amazing things in life, are the ones that have let go of external power. Have let go of position and possessions. They recognize their weaknesses. They become far more aware of how they are vulnerable. Far more aware of what they are frightened of. Once you address those issues there is far less left to fear and you go about your business.
So I can work in a malarial ridden country, or a country that has AIDs and because I’ve dealt with what I’m vulnerable to–whether it’s death, or money–those issues don’t scare me anymore.
Said another way: Someone said to me, after hearing about my background in Africa, “You are such a strong person.” I feel very humble about what I’ve done with my life. I don’t think I have achieved great things. But I said to them, if this makes any sense, that if I’m strong it’s not because of my strengths. If I’m strong, it’s because I know my weaknesses. So, it’s all about being in situations where I’ve had to be honest with myself, what I could change, what I couldn’t change. When I’m frightened what really could harm me and what can’t. Those situations have led me to do a lot of thinking and reflecting. In a way, because I acknowledge my weaknesses I am far freer. Being willing to be alone, being willing to be in unique environments, being willing to do things that others can’t or won’t do for me has been about becoming aware of how vulnerable I am.
Does that scare you? To most people, vulnerability means fear.
No. I don’t attach vulnerability to fear. I attach vulnerability to honesty. To being able to say “What if?” Being willing to be honest–what are you good at, what are you not good at. There is something about the freedom that comes with that internal honesty. In the end it let’s you go further than if you just tried to be strong and to buckle up and bear it. It’s very round about, subtle…it’s coming in the back door, not the front door.
Does the prospect of getting old scare you?
It’s funny. It’s just starting to. With the death of my mother, it’s starting to. That has been the hardest, most devastating experience of my life, and one of the richest in terms of understanding aloneness and who I am. And aging. Because it is an inevitable process that I never before realized. Now I realize I’m 41 and guess what, I’m going that direction. But it doesn’t really scare me because I am still capable. I do get wiser. I follow my own lessons a little bit more often. I indulge myself a little bit more often.
One other thing I can say is that living in another culture has really given me a respect for old people that doesn’t exist in this culture. I’m just now beginning to see how much elderly people have to offer.
Do you worry about money?
No. But let me say that I am incredibly blessed. Bob and I have both had professional careers that have let us come in and out of this society. He is an associate professor at the medical school and is a child health associate–a PA of pediatrics. I don’t teach anymore but I have these consulting projects with a wide variety of agencies and companies.
But it is also important to say that we don’t have thousands and thousands of dollars. Bob is not an MD. We don’t work six months and make $50,000. It is not anything like that. We live very simply. Drive old cars. We make thoughtful choices with our money but we don’t live on a shoestring budget. We do occasionally go out for fine dinners. We don’t have children–lots of times having children puts a responsibility on you that doesn’t lend itself to doing this kind of work. If we had more restrictive careers, we couldn’t do this. But we would never chose those kinds of careers in the first place (laughs).
Do you think there is a reward in life for simplicity and hardship?
Definitely for me, there are many, many benefits in this life for living more simply. One of the reasons I keep going back to Africa, and one of the reasons I keep doing Outward Bound courses is to cut myself loose from too many niceties. get sucked into the luxuries and possessions and systems and opportunities to become sedentary. It’s really about pushing myself so I don’t get too comfortable cruising. I don’t want a lifestyle where I don’t have to think anymore. Where I don’t have to be cold or be hungry. So I consciously put myself back in those situations.
That is when the most learning takes place–when a person is uncomfortable. I know that as an educator, as an Outward Bound instructor–but I also know it in my own life. We don’t want to overdue that and be masochists, but I am real aware that it is about not letting things and comfort control me. I really think it sucks us in. Before we know it, we are not willing to do the work it takes to get back into those adventures or environments that put us on the edge. It’s too hard to get back.
Bob Roark: A Crisis of Courage
Bob is a paraplegic from an ice climbing accident. He has, it seems to me, that power that Gruffie was talking about. He has dealt with fear and disability and in the process has found a deep reservoir of strength.
I met Bob outside a restaurant in Denver. He parked his car, and with great economy of motion, moved himself into the front passenger seat, pushed the driver’s seat forward, grabbed a wheelchair from behind it, placed the wheelchair on the pavement and then placed himself into it. All in a few short seconds. Then he propelled himself forward to where I was standing and greeted me with a warm smile and handshake.
Bob and Gruffie worked in a refugee camp in Sudan and then co-founded a community development project in a remote area of Kenya. For ten years they alternated back and forth between Denver and Kenya — spending a year or two in Africa then a year in America. They continue to go back, Bob says, because they like the people. Also, in Africa, living simply, he has time to think. And he relates to poor, rural Africans because of his disability.
Bob is a physician assistant. In Africa, by necessity, he does 95% or more of what an MD does over here, including surgery. He says saving lives is important, but letting people die with dignity is also important. If you help too much, you hurt people. For a Westerner in Africa, listening can be more important than helping.
RM: How did you come to do relief work in Africa?
BR: I worked in Central America in the early seventies as a layperson in a health project. I came back to get medical training and began working for Outward Bound in the summers. I broke my back in a climbing accident in Boulder Canyon while on an Outward Bound staff training seminar in 1979. The thought of not working in a developing country was initially pretty depressing, but an Outward Bound friend made the opportunity available to go to Africa, even though I was in a wheelchair.
RM: It must take a lot of courage to go to Africa and do relief work from a wheelchair — particularly in the remote area where you and Gruffie operate?
BR: Courage. What is courage? I don’t really think I know much about courage. I don’t think I am very courageous for someone like me, the choices I make in life, I’ve made in part because I am a risk-taker. That’s why I’m in this wheelchair. That’s why a lot of good things have happened to me too. It’s a kind of searching…wondering…is this all there is? Have I experienced everything there is to experience? The answer is NO! There is more. A lot more.
I sometimes find myself saying: “There is a crisis of courage going on here.” Institutions need people, and people need institutions. That cycle takes courage to deviate from. Towing the line, having a job…those can overwhelm a person’s time and being. The less obvious but perhaps more grasping, tenacious ones are subtle. Material possessions, comfort — the things that help you get through life can suck you in and take over your existence.
In America, we are uniquely blessed with a wealth of opportunity. It is amazing that more of us don’t take a path. With access to unlimited opportunities to explore, to be creative, to pursue so many different avenues, why do we get completely caught up in the web of material things? Power and prestige and all the values that people find worthwhile also exist in my own mind, but my experiences in Africa have given me perspective. The people there, who are nobly enduring what would seem to us to be a very harsh life, seem happier. There are so many choices to be made in this culture — so much gunk in the wheels — that I find myself struggling to keep my head above it.
RM: Could someone like me — an average layperson — make a worthwhile contribution in Africa, if I had the desire and commitment?
BR: I have a medical background, but I have come to believe that the most important skill, and it is a skill, that a person needs to take into a situation like that is the ability to listen, to observe. Not to do. Westerners have a cultural imperative — we come from a bounteous land, ostensibly materially developed. We assume that this, in and of itself, has a tremendous value which we can impart just by doing something, even if it’s wrong.
Africa taught me that if I imposed my view of life on other people, I would cause more misery than I alleviated. For instance, everyone experiences a lot of death there. Individual human life is expected to go through transition which includes death. I am not saying that Africans don’t value life, I’m just saying that because of the realities, and the number of people, they know when it’s okay to say enough. Don’t do anything heroic. This person deserves to die in a dignified way. They say “Kalas. Kalas.” It’s enough. It’s fine.
RM: Do you have any thoughts on why Americans have so much and so many people in Africa starve to death every year, die of treatable disease? Did God bless America and not Africa?
BR: That perception comes from the mass media — which is focused on the dramatic. I don’t think that the media has gotten the story completely wrong, but they have missed some important points. For instance, being `blessed’ and `having a lot’ can be different things. Rural Africans should be the most desperate and downtrodden people on the planet, and yet they give me this amazing, amazing sense of the value of each moment of life. A view of a whole different way of prioritizing one’s values, and what gratifies a person. Just by being alive, being able to experience life, they help me see that I am incredibly blessed. A lot of it has to do with their spiritual connectedness that transcends the material.
That is a major reason I keep going to Africa. I feel a certain kinship with Africans because of my accident. I have been deprived of the ability to walk. What they are deprived of is different on the face of it, but ultimately it has a common denominator.
RM: Do you kayak much in Africa?
BR: Yes. Absolutely.
RM: Alone, or with Gruffie?
BR: Some of both. Mostly with Gruffie. I have kayaked alone on Lake Victoria, which is where our project is in Kenya. It’s a spectacular place, in every way. Our project is on a plateau beside the second-largest body of fresh water in the world. It’s warm. The wildlife is incredible. I drag my kayak to the lake in my wheelchair. Stash the chair in the bushes. Kids watch it for me. I jump in my kayak and I’m gone. There are some islands off the shore in Uganda that I paddle to and camp on. I love that feeling of independence.
RM: Is setting up camp a problem?
BR: It’s all a problem if you look at it as a problem. It’s a challenge if you look at it that way. Things that would be simple for a person that can walk are enormously challenging for me. I get out of the boat in the water so I don’t capsize it. Holding the boat by the bow line I crawl, dragging the kayak up to what I hope is a snake-free, da-ta-da free place where I can disgorge its contents. I just need a small ledge to camp on, enough space to stretch out.
RM: Would you be comfortable doing longer trips on your own?
BR: A couple of summers ago, I set out to solo kayak some Arctic rivers but Gruffie was able to accompany me, and so we did them together. We did some sea kayaking in a spectacular place…one was a ten day trip…there were other short trips, but in a very remote place. I could have paddled forever — months — the summer at least. It was an extraordinary time.
RM: Do you have any thoughts on the word `adventure?’
An adventure is an undertaking in which there are a lot of unknowns, where things can go wrong, where you can learn and experience things that change the way you see life. Adventure is essential — it gives my life excitement and meaning. I couldn’t live without it. My greatest fear about getting old is losing the opportunity for adventure.
Last summer, Bob and Gruffie joined World T.E.A.M. Sports for 700 miles of that organization’s 12,000 mile, round-the-world cycle trip. The trip publicized the abilities of athletes with disabilities. There were six core riders, five of whom were disabled. They were joined by “stage riders” such as Bob and Gruffie, who accompanied the group through Siberia and Mongolia. The cyclists who do not have use of their legs pedaled three-wheeled hand cycles. The terrain was mountainous. Gruffie was responsible for group dynamics.
The following is from my interview of Bob after they returned to Denver:
“It was different than I expected, a life-changing experience. A ten day immersion into an intense group with an exhausting schedule. In order to do 70 miles a day, we had to average 20 kilometers an hour. A constant effort was required to stay together. There were many moments of deep connection and friendship. At the same time, all these divisive issues kept creeping in. A number of the riders needed help. For those that had been schlepping disabled athletes around for five months, some of it got pretty old….
“Of all the unusual places we traveled through, Mongolia was particularly interesting. Mongolians once controlled the largest territory of any empire in human history. They are Buddhist, but much different than Tibetan Buddhists. They have repulsed both Russian and Chinese occupations. Genghis Kahn is the national hero. They are an animal-based people in a land without fences. You’d crest a hill and come into a valley and see their little houses and herds of horses and camels. It was after the rains and the grass was really tall and green. Horsemen would gallop along side us for miles and miles. It was warm and sunny. Everybody was in a good mood. Three year old kids would jump on horses and be along side at a dead run. That was so cool.
“It was hilly every day except one. In Colorado, a 6% grade involves engineering modifications of the countryside so that trucks won’t get out of control. We were doing up to 12% grades. Especially in Siberia. Ten miles, ten percent. Up hill. Go for it. A handcyclist has a real disadvantage. The upper body does not have the muscle mass of legs. It all comes down to the power-to-weight ratio and I have a lot of weight to push around.
“We averaged 70 miles a day with no rest days. When I was training, I would stop when I needed to stop. On the trip, if we had done that, we would have been spread over twenty miles. Cars and trucks would have been weaving in and out. Also, we did a lot of drafting off each other in order to gain efficiency. That took focus because the roads were full of potholes and craters.
“I could have done the 700 miles unassisted if I had enough time. But on the long, steep hills, some of the two-legged riders would slow down, lean over and push. That symbiosis was really neat. They would take turns because it was incredibly exertional for them. Sometimes they would have to get off to push.
“One guy was particularly amazing — a below-the-knee amputee, who was also missing part of his hand. He was as strong as any rider there. The team leaders — the stalwart, able-bodied riders — all had racing backgrounds. They were all, by definition, awesome. But this guy Ron, with the disability, was also the team mechanic for the entire ride. He rode every kilometer, and fixed and tuned every bike. In addition, he pushed me more than any other person.
“In order to stay together, the big, strong, two-legged riders had to slow down to a fraction of the speed they were capable of uphill. On the downhills, I could catch up. At the bottom, people would say things like, `Yeah, we are a group again, but we had to wait at the top of that hill for twenty minutes.’ Some people could make that sacrifice in a really good frame of mind. Others, because they had been doing it for five months, were tired of it. Kind of at each other’s throats.
“Gruffie’s expertise is to recognize these dynamics, and pull people together in a group and say, `Now this is what I am observing, and you tell me if what I am seeing is correct or not.’ Then she lays it right on the line. `You in the wheelchair are being a pain in the ass. Not respectful or thankful. Not considerate of others’ needs, like when you get to town not respecting that other people not only have to take the doors off the bathrooms for you but then go out and get the food for tomorrow. Somebody else has to boil water for tomorrow. Meanwhile, all you are doing is figuring out how to take a shower.’ She is totally cool. She says, `Okay, let’s list all the things that irritate us, prioritize them, figure them out. Talk about how we are going to deal with them.’ Some of the riders had not experienced that process before.
“I wasn’t as directly involved because I can crawl in and out of bathrooms and don’t have to have the doors removed, but to get to a hotel room on the third floor, I would need help. The stage riders were pretty fresh, so I would enlist them. Almost every evening there would be some event so we would go up to our room, then meet back down at the lobby, then load on a bus, go out to a reception or dinne in the countries we passed through scheduled all sorts of things without any thought of what it entailed.
“That was my first experience in an East Bloc country. The focus of the ride was disability awareness, but we were constantly referred to us as `invalids.’ Particularly in Russia, folks with disabilities are discouraged from being seen in public. Our presence kind of broke that rule. In the villages, people knew we were coming and they allowed their `cripples’ to come out of the woodwork.
“We were a little capsule of America zipping our way through these devastated economies in our nice uniforms — a big-time, fully-funded American gonzo expedition. We had four vans. One was a red CBS van. There was a certain amount of pomp and ceremony. We had a van for security: four members of the President’s Alpha special security unit — six foot five, two hundred and fifty pound guys in fatigues carrying nine millimeters on their belts and twelve-gauge shotguns. The people with disabilities we would meet were amazed by what we were doing but there was also the realization that they could never, ever afford to partake in something like this.
“Our hope was that people around the world would become more aware of the potentials of disabled athletes, but there is the risk that what you are doing is not all that good. `Thanks for trying, but you actually made it worse.’ I don’t think that happened but you have to be aware that everyone might not be applauding.”
At the end of our conversation, Bob asked me about my health and we talked about lymphoma. He said to me, “Now you know what it is like to be robbed of your take-it-for-granted wellness.” At that time my condition was less clear, and I told him you can let all this stuff get you down or you can ignore it, and I do my best to ignore it. Then I said, “Which must be the way you go through life.” He said, “Yes, totally.”
The following excerpts are from a letter Bob sent to World T.E.A.M. Sports after the trip.
…Many mountain passes came and went. The handcycle I was endeavoring to push over them humbled me as many things in life seem to, but as the days passed I came to understand something of the passion of those whose inspiration and determination had created this event….
It would be easy to go on and on about the thrill of riding in Mongolia with the descendants of Ghengis Khan riding their horses at a dead run along side as we worked to maintain some semblance of a pack of cyclists negotiating roads filled with potholes. Or of the magnificent hospitality of the Russian people and even the government there. But what lives most strongly in my heart and mind is the sense I came away with about the commonality of humanity. Whether subjects of a healing, disabled nation (as in Russia) or proud but disabled citizens of a robust and vibrant nation, we are all one. We share a tiny and shrinking planet but a limitless Universe and God. We are here for such a short time.
Wheeling down the sidewalks and streets of Irkutsk, Siberia I felt the stares of people unaccustomed to the sight of an escaped invalid. (Been there, done that.) What was unique for me was to be sharing the experience with fellow Americans. Together we could speculate about the fate of who knows how many Russians with physical disabilities. We noticed that they were out of the public eye. We, on the other hand, were a true anomaly.
Edward Abbey once said: “…keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much: I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those deskbound men with their hearts in a safety-deposit box and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this: You will outlive the bastards.
Out west some of us have come to revere the indignation with which Edward Abbey viewed the heartless, irreverent and cowardly way some people live (waste) their lives. Admittedly this is an act of involuntary incarceration for some; for too many of us it is a combination of a crisis of courage and a lifestyle of complacency. But to counter Mr. Abbey’s cynicism, it doesn’t matter whether we outlive our enemies. It only matters how we live our lives during the brief time we are here. World Ride ’95 was a sublime way for me to indulge in a moment of quality living….
Bob and Gruffie can be reached through Clough & Associates, 1003 Milwaukee Street, Denver, Colorado. 80206. (303) 355-9940. In addition to World T.E.A.M. Sports, Clough & Associates, Gruffie’s consulting firm, works with corporations and civic groups on human dynamics/team building issues. These have included General Electric and Banana Republic.