After 11 days, 300 miles, three umbrellas and over 90 hours of driving full speed ahead in his power chair, Ian Mackay tilted back in a corner of Portland, Oregon’s Cascade Brewing with a wide, if exhausted, smile. Surrounded by friends, family and the strong smell of sour beer from the keg that exploded minutes before his arrival, he savored the magnitude of what he had just accomplished. But that smile also could have come from the sight of a server laying out a table full of beers in front of him.
On Aug. 13, Mackay, a C2-3 quad, set out from his home in Port Angeles, Washington, determined to raise awareness of the need for more accessible bike and multi-use trails. Instead of simply writing his legislators or trying to get an article in a newspaper, Mackay had devised a more elaborate and much more ambitious plan. Dubbed Ian’s Ride, Mackay’s plan was to roll almost the entire length of the state over a mere 10 days. Traversing 30 miles a day in a power chair would be a feat in itself for anyone, but it was even more ambitious considering Mackay uses sip-and-puff controls and a ventilator at night.
Mackay’s mom, Teena Woodward, wasn’t sure what to think when her son first broached the topic. “He sometimes talks big, so I just said oh really — and waited to see if he brought it up again,” she says. “He did, and I told him I’ll help you if you want to do it. Let’s make it happen.”
For Mackay, the Ride was more than an adventure or a publicity stunt. Before he was paralyzed, Mackay loved riding his bike and found solace in exploring nature. A bike accident eight years ago changed things.
“After that I was just mopey, sitting around watching a lot of TV and going on my computer. It took me years to get out and start meeting people in the community, and they told me to get back out there,” he says.
The advent of iOS 7 and improved switch control that allowed him to use a phone from his chair helped restore the feeling of independence. Last year Mackay clocked over 2,300 miles rolling on trails near his home in his Invacare TDX SP. As he familiarized himself with the existing accessible trails, his appreciation for the need for more trails and better access grew. Despite having no background in advocacy, he decided to get out there and make people understand why accessible trails are so important.
“The trail system is something I’m really interested and passionate about, and it really helped bring back my identity,” he says. “First of all, I wanted to raise awareness that people in chairs are using these systems as much as anyone else. And second, the more trails that are out there, the better it is for everyone.”
Reinforcing the Need for More Trails
To actually cover 300 miles in such a short period required lots of planning. For funding, Mackay reached out to local businesses and all of the suppliers he relies on for his wheelchair and independence. He was overwhelmed by the response, led by a financial donation by Invacare, media assistance and a new iPhone and Mac Book from Apple.
“I’ve learned that if you feel strongly about something that will help more than just you, people are willing to get behind you. It doesn’t hurt to ask — it’s hard to be willing to say you need help, but by doing that I was able to make this happen.”
With help from the internet, Mackay plotted a route and enlisted his mom and two friends to head the roster of what would be an ever-evolving support team. His mom would drive his accessible van, filled with supplies and his backup power chair for when his battery died, while his friends would ride bikes alongside his chair. Other friends, family and supporters would join the Ride when they could.
Rarely slowing below his chair’s top speed of 7 mph, Mackay rolled out as planned on Aug. 13. With the exception of a blistering heat wave, a few close calls with semi trucks and a lack of accessible trails and paths, almost everything went according to plan. Neither chair broke down and no one got hurt.
“When I first was planning this all out, I did expect a lot more bike paths and multi-use paths, and that wasn’t the case. Probably three quarters of the Ride was on roads and highways. Whenever we could we’d jump on trails, but there are only so many trails. There were some days that were awesome, where it was 30 miles of trail all day long. Other days we were hardly on trails.”
The disparity made for some sketchy and dangerous situations but helped Mackay’s goal. “It solidified the point. It wasn’t the goal, but it reinforced the lack of bike paths and trails in our state and the need for better access,” he says.
As a result of the ride, the Washington state governor’s office reached out to Mackay, as have numerous other access advocates. He admits to being a little overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and the impact his Ride has made.
“The first thing I’ve got to do when I get home is go through all the emails and the messages,” he says. “I’m going to start talking to the people who know what they’re doing.”
If the Ride’s success has shown anything, it is that Mackay is one of the people who knows what he is doing. Mackay’s longtime friend, Kenny Salvini, founder of the Here and Now Project, is excited to see him embrace his new role as advocate. “You see the quality people that are around him and it is directly proportional to the kind of guy he is,” says Salvini.
It’s all still new to Mackay, but he is excited about the possibilities. “It’s all about getting people in chairs out in the world. There are so many of us, and I was one of them who are homebound … if I can change any of that, then all of this was worth it.”
Find out more about Ian’s Ride at www.iansride.com.