A photo essay by Kirk Williams
Don’t go to Mexico, they said. It’s full of banditos and drug smuggling cartels, they said. You won’t be able to get around on your own, they said. I’m not sure who “they” are, but they couldn’t have been more wrong.
As a C6 quadriplegic, I know travel can be difficult, especially in developing countries. There are always uncertainties that make you question if it is worth all the effort. From non-ADA lodging to the ever growing list of “what ifs,” it can be a daunting endeavor to say the least.
What I’ve found, though, is that without continuing to push yourself out of your comfort zone and willingness to adapt and overcome, life can be as boring as driving through western Kansas. I’ve chosen a different path on purpose. I’ll take the risk.
On Feb. 1, I crossed the border into Mexico. It was my first international road trip in my new van I named Spock. I have been designing, building and planning a trip to South America for years but wanted to give Spock a proper shakedown. Hence I named this journey the Baja Shakedown.
I knew Baja was supposed to be beautiful and relatively safe, so it seemed like a perfect first test. My plan was to see how the van performs both on- and off-road, test the equipment for durability, make sure there weren’t any critical changes needed before heading to South America, assess my body, and further my Spanish language study in a school in La Paz.
I don’t want to spoil it for you but Baja was absolutely incredible and I’ll definitely be back.
I spent the first half of my Baja Shakedown with this motley crew. I wanted someone to share the experience with as well as was unsure if I’d be able to navigate Mexico completely solo as a quadriplegic. Diana and Oleg were absolutely wonderful to have along on the journey! From margaritas around campfires to helping me get out of the sand when stuck, I wouldn’t have done it any other way.
Some of the best moments on the road are those times you can relax and soak it all in. Oftentimes in the United States, we’re expected to be efficient and productive; not waste time and make more money. When I was on the beaches of Baja with no cell signal and no obligations, I felt my anxiety level decrease and a general wholesomeness overwhelm me.
When designing the van, I knew the wheelchair lift was one of the most critical modifications. In previous vehicles, I’ve used platform lifts but have run into various issues in extreme conditions. Knowing that I’ll be spending much of my time off-road, I wanted the simplest, most reliable system I could find. I decided on the SuperArm lift from Handicaps, Inc. for a few key reasons: First, it doesn’t block the door when not in use. Second, it takes up less space in the van, requires much less room to park and works regardless of how level the terrain is. Third, it’s simple design means less electronics to potentially go wrong. And fourth, it’s also a great swing where I can sit back, relax and enjoy the sunset!
Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” After traveling internationally, I’ve learned this couldn’t be more true. I therefore wanted to challenge my mind in La Paz and learn a bit of Spanish before going to South America. I took a two week course that consisted of three hours of class a day. I’m still nowhere near fluent but definitely have a better foundation to build upon.
There’s no real way to describe the fantastically tall and hardened cacti along the Baja peninsula. From horizon to horizon as far as the eye can see, these green spires point toward the sky above and proudly display their battle wounds from such harsh living conditions. I took this pic with a drone hoping to capture the unique landscape. For scale, my van is close to 9 feet tall!
This is Esteban, who I met in Ensenada. He was the only quadriplegic I interacted with the entire trip, and he shared how tough it is to afford supplies, wheelchairs and caregivers without any sort of medical insurance in Mexico. He’s a music teacher and jazz drummer. An amazing guy. Follow him @quaddrumer on Instagram.
I envisioned this image long before I took it. It is a square portrait of both Spock and myself in Baja. A keepsake. Using a tripod and 50mm 1.8 lens, I wanted to keep the depth of field fairly shallow while still portraying the beautiful landscapes. My iPad in my lap is actually a remote trigger for the GH4 camera I used. This photo took me well over 30 minutes to setup and capture but I’m pleased with how it turned out and it’ll always take me back to this moment in time.
Navigation is all part of the journey and similar to pushing a wheelchair, line choice is critical. Despite using hand controls and a tri-pin because of my lack of dexterity, I love technical off-road routes that challenge my mind and abilities. The best part is not knowing what’s around the next bend and trying to pick the smoothest line to get there.
Testing your limits is always part of the adventure, but so is being properly prepared. Never do one without the other! Seen here is what happened when I thought it was a good idea to take Spock over the sand dunes. Fortunately, I had prepared for this type of scenario in advance and with the help of friends shovelling and Maxtrax recovery boards, we managed to get out and back to firmer ground.
As a photographer, I sometimes suffer a curse of FOMAS (fear of missing a shot). It’s very tough when the light starts to pop to just sit back and enjoy the moment. This moment however, with a GoPro in my hand and fresh drink on the bumper, I decided it was OK. I wanted to just be there, smell the air and reflect. I’m so glad I did.