Wheels Down in the Wilderness 

Four disabled children experience Idaho's backcountry for the first time

As the sunset tore across the sky—clouds swollen with pink, orange, purple and blue—14-year-old Meghan Wildman didn't show much interest. She hadn't shown much interest in anything since landing at the Sulphur Creek Ranch in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. She spent a lot of time staring off into the distance. She spent a lot of time resting her head in her hands. She spent a lot of time sleeping.

The past few years have been rough on Meghan. You can see it by the way she looks into the campfire. Two years ago, on a nice day in March, she was riding with her brother the day after he got his learner's permit. They were T-boned by a semi truck.

"She got folded in half," said Dayl Wuthrick, her cousin, who lives with Meghan and her dad to help take care of Meghan's needs.

"I was really shocked when I woke up because I couldn't feel my legs," Meghan said. "That was the most scary thing."

Meghan traded her love of gymnastics and dance for a life of challenges and adaptations. She gets frustrated when people offer to help her too much. Dayl said she's in a place where she needs to learn to ask for help.

In all other ways, Meghan is a typical teenager. She wears hot pink sunglasses during the day and rests her phone between her leg and the chair—she's not super stoked about being out of service for the next three days. Meghan signed up for this trip—Wilderness Within Reach—trip after encouragement from the director of the Boise Parks and Recreation adaptive program.

Wilderness Within Reach has been flying groups of people with disabilities into the backcountry for 27 years, giving them access to wilderness they could never experience otherwise.

Each participant can bring one person, and the cost is only $35 each: That includes lodging at the ranch, flights in and out and three meals per day—a $3,200 value for eight people—paid for by the Idaho Aviation Foundation.

Four three days, June 23-25, four kids with physical disabilities and their families stayed at Sulphur Creek Ranch. They were flown in on a series of Cessnas and charter planes.

Meghan took a Dramamine before her flight, and it zapped her of energy throughout the day. As the sun set, she slumped a little in her wheelchair.

Every evening, the couple who runs the ranch let their 20 horses out of the corral and into the ranch yard. The horses grazed alongside a row of rustic cabins and, to the delight of the guests, made their way up to the lodge and fire pit.

Dayl pushed Meghan out into the field as the horses meandered. A large black horse stomped up to Meghan, who reached out a timid hand and swatted away the horse flies. The horse gave an abrasive shake of his mane and pushed his nose into Meghan's lap. She looked unsure. Then, she put a palm on the horse's face.

Two more horses came up and Meghan was suddenly surrounded. She swatted away more flies and smiled a little. Then she smiled a little more. Then she started to laugh. Dayl laughed with her, taking pictures with her smartphone.

From the lodge yard, pilot Tom Boyer watched this scene unfold in the field of horses.

"This is why we do it," he said.

Welcome to Sulphur Creek

Sulphur Creek Ranch was built in 1948 as a destination for the Hollywood elite. Situated five miles from the Middle Fork of the Salmon River near Boundary Creek, the only way to access the ranch is by foot or plane. Most people arrive by plane.

click to enlarge Pilots look over views like this while they eat breakfast. - JESSICA MURRI
  • Jessica Murri
  • Pilots look over views like this while they eat breakfast.

Pilots call it the "$300 breakfast." They take off from Boise, Twin Falls or McCall in two- or four-seater Cessnas and they enter the world of backcountry airstrips, far beyond the reach of any air traffic controller. They fly in on cool mountain mornings, shred across the dirt airstrip, park their planes like most people park cars, jump out and order the Sulphur Creek $20, all-inclusive breakfast. It comes with a pile of scrambled eggs; crispy hash browns; homemade biscuits drowning in thick; white gravy; three strips of bacon; blueberries and vanilla bean yogurt; endless refills of black coffee and the best scenery a backcountry pilot could want with breakfast.

The menu says "YES or NO." You either want it or you don't.

Kiere and ValDean Schroeder took over management of the ranch a handful of years ago. ValDean looks like he has never known any other life, with his well-worn straw cowboy hat, spurs on his heels, a long white mustache and stiff knees. He rolls his own cigarettes and he has only had to shoot a cougar in this country once: She crouched down in front of him and lowered her ears.

Kiere considers her guests family. She calls everyone by name as if she's known them her whole life. She razzes the new pilots who fly in for breakfast and shouts at them when their food is ready. She leaves the ranch "only for deaths and lawsuits."

The couple, as well as their employees, run Sulphur Creek six months of the year. In November, after the last hunting party has gone, they board it up and pack their 20 horses out.

Throughout the day, planes constantly take off from and land on the airstrip. When a plane touches down or takes off, everyone stops their conversations to watch. After it lands or leaves, the talking resumes.

Alex, Ehnayah and their parents watched planes land and take off all day at the backcountry airstrip. - JESSICA MURRI
  • Jessica Murri
  • Alex, Ehnayah and their parents watched planes land and take off all day at the backcountry airstrip.

"It's like someone picking the needle up off the record," Kiere said, "then putting it back down."

On a recent Friday in June, Kiere served up 75 breakfast plates as more than 30 planes came and went. In other words, business is booming.

Emily Rigg was ecstatic every time a plane lands. She was quick to introduce herself and ask everyone their name—along with asking if they have a dog and also, one time, asking how they cut their dog's toenails.

Emily has congenital microcephaly: Her skull fused together when she was 11 months old, something that is supposed to happen at 2 years old. Emily's brain was never able to fully grow, giving her disabilities across the board. She struggles with fine motor skills like eye and tongue movements, and she walks with an awkward gait, but she loves talking to everyone around her and is filled with questions. She's 15 and starting at Boise High School in the fall.

Her mom, Joan, started enrolling her in Parks and Rec programs five years ago. Emily has been rafting on the Payette River and has taken many bike rides, art classes and a snowshoe trip. Joan has always wanted her daughter to experience the Wilderness Within Reach trip but because the program only takes five participants, it usually fills up fast. Finally, this year was their chance.

click to enlarge Joan has always wanted her daughter to experience the Wilderness Within Reach trip, but it usually fills up fast. - SONYA BUCHHOLZ
  • Sonya Buchholz
  • Joan has always wanted her daughter to experience the Wilderness Within Reach trip, but it usually fills up fast.

Joan is patient but firm with Emily. When Emily starts talking too quickly and becomes impossible to understand, Joan says, "Slow down," and Emily does. Joan talks to Emily the way she'd talk to anyone else and even makes jokes about Emily dating a pilot someday for the perks.

Joan said she hasn't always been so patient.

"I come from an upbringing of very well-educated, driven people where it's all about academics," Joan said. "There's a lot of value in that, but Emily has taught me so much about what life is really all about. It's about living each moment, loving where you're at. Celebrating what you can do. She's really taught me how to enjoy myself in a way I probably didn't know how to do 20 years ago.

"At first, you think they're going to be an anchor," she continued. "Then you find out that they're not."

"Growing up with Emily, she's brought more back to me than I've given to her." –Joan Rigg

This trip is especially important for Emily because at home, Joan said, she's hooked on electronics.

"It's kind of like her friend. She can't surf YouTube enough, or watch enough movies. That's just what she does," Joan said. "So to see her out here, experiencing a really good time and interacting with people without electronics, that's a neat thing to see."

She took a picture of Emily playing cards with some of the other kids, because it was a big deal.

"Even to sit and watch her play Uno—that's just wonderful, that she can just sit around and interact," Joan said. "That's incredible."

Therapeutic on Its Own

The Wilderness Within Reach program has gone through several reinventions. When Boise pilot and appraiser Joe Corlett started the program 27 years ago, it was as a day trip. He would fly 20 people with physical and intellectual disabilities into a backcountry airstrip, where they would all have lunch.

The trouble was that they'd all do fine on the smooth morning flight when the air was cold, but after lunch when they flew out—and the air was warmer—the ride became a lot bumpier. The results were unpleasant, to say the least.

click to enlarge Joe Corlett started flying people with disabilities into Idaho's backcountry almost 30 years ago. - JESSICA MURRI
  • Jessica Murri
  • Joe Corlett started flying people with disabilities into Idaho's backcountry almost 30 years ago.

Then he decided to fly the group into the Johnson Creek airstrip, where they could camp overnight, but packing all the tents, camping gear, food and wheelchairs became a tremendous amount of work.

"Back in the early days, in my naivete, I was trying to get people to Chamberlain Basin as quickly as possible" Corlett said. "We had a whole gob of wheelchairs, so I put them in the private aircrafts and the people in the charter planes. The charter planes were going 170 miles per hour, and the Cessnas, they only went 100 miles per hour. So I got there and here are all my guests and they're all propped up against pine trees, scattered around the campsite waiting for their chairs."

Six or seven years ago, he contacted Sulphur Creek Ranch and asked if the owners would be willing to host the program. The participant list was whittled down to a more manageable five guests plus family members, and they could come to a place with delicious food, cabins, showers and electric blankets on every bed.

"All they need to bring is a toothbrush," Corlett said.

The three-day trip is far from structured recreational therapy. The families simply get to relax. They have a pond to swim and fish in, a hammock, card games, campfires and, of course, the horses.

Sonya Buchholz, the adaptive recreation specialist for Parks and Recreation, said this isn't the time for therapy.

"The nature of recreation in itself is therapeutic," she said on the last evening, looking into the coals of the campfire. "There's some programs where it really is focusing on discussing our feelings, analyzing them. I think there's a ton of value in that, but I also think there's value in just enjoying these experiences, not having to break it down. It's therapeutic on its own."

For Joe Salinas and his longtime girlfriend, Leslee Martinez, this is the only vacation they'll take this summer. Joe and Leslee have six kids. Two of them—Alex and Ehnayah, both 9 years old—have disabilities.

Ehnayah has spina bifida, which affects her bladder and bowels. Alex is in a wheelchair and has periventricular leukomalacia, meaning he has cysts on either side of his brain. The part of his brain that controls muscles is pretty much non-functional.

"It's challenging because we have two disabled kids in the home and they both have different needs," Joe said. "Ehnayah needs a catheter four times a day, and Alex, he just needs help with everything."

Leslee homeschools Alex and runs an in-home daycare, and Joe fights wildfires in the summer. They get by, but it's not easy. Without a scholarship, the family couldn't have afforded the trip at all.

"When I was a kid, we used to go to our cabin all summer long," Leslee said. "But I can't just throw the kids in the car and go to the cabin. I'm just so glad that Alex and Ehnayah got chosen to do this."

The first time Alex told his mom he wished he could run with the other kids, she didn't know what to say.

"I've always thought, if there's something I can do for my son, something that will help him, I'll do anything to make sure it happens. The more normal I can make Alex's life for him, I will always make sure to take those opportunities," she said.

This was also the first time either child had flown before—and they loved it. Alex giggled uncontrollably when the horses approached his wheelchair in the evenings and Ehnayah made fast friends with Meghan and Dayl. Above all, the kids seemed simply happy.

"For what those two have been through, they are very happy kids," Leslee said. "Those two are probably happier than our other four kids, who don't have disabilities."

The two step-siblings are close. When Alex wakes up in the morning, Ehnayah likes to help him get dressed. Then sometimes they decide to go back to bed and Ehnayah lays with Alex until he falls asleep. Leslee thinks they understand each other in a different way.

Rex LaGrone flies his Cessna Cardinal using hand controls. His wife, Kathy, also has her pilot license. - JESSICA MURRI
  • Jessica Murri
  • Rex LaGrone flies his Cessna Cardinal using hand controls. His wife, Kathy, also has her pilot license.

On the morning of June 24, a Cessna Cardinal flew into Sulphur Creek Ranch and came to a stop right in front of the outside tables and chairs. Several pilots recognized the plane and rushed over to help. They opened the door and pulled a wheelchair out of the back, assisting Rex LaGrone out of his airplane.

Rex flew over from Twin Falls, where he works in the IT department at St. Luke's Hospital, to show the kids that it's possible to fly planes even in a wheelchair.

Rex's neck was broken in a car accident when he was 24 years old. He always had the desire to fly, so he talked his wife into getting her pilot's license—an idea she was not thrilled about. She ended up loving the sky, and Rex was happy to sit in the seat to her right. Then, one evening at a party with other pilots, Rex got into a conversation with someone about how he had always wanted to fly but couldn't. The pilot asked him why not.

"Isn't it obvious?" Rex asked.

No, it wasn't obvious. Much like for retrofitting a car, hand controls exist for planes, too. Rex bought a set and found what he called a "brave" instructor; he got his license in 1996. Now he and his wife wrestle over who gets to fly.

click to enlarge Meghan Wildman learns about how Rex LaGrone flies his plane using hand controls. - JESSICA MURRI
  • Jessica Murri
  • Meghan Wildman learns about how Rex LaGrone flies his plane using hand controls.

"Most of the problems I have when I fly are problems I would have if I wasn't in a wheelchair," said Rex. "It was a struggle for me to do it, but it wasn't impossible. I've had a lot of encouragement and so maybe, I can be encouraging for someone else."

He paused as tears came to his eyes.

"It's interesting how that still chokes me up," he said.

Alex and Meghan were especially interested in the plane. Rex's wife, Kathy, explained how the hand controls attach to the pedals on the floor and wrap around Rex's forearm. That way, he can control the rudder and the brakes.

With help from his friends, Rex took his time to load himself back into the plane.

"We're late everywhere we go," Kathy joked. They took off, just like every other plane, lifting the needle off the record of the ranch.

click to enlarge Rex's wife, Kathy, shows Alex how Rex flies his plane without using his legs. - JESSICA MURRI
  • Jessica Murri
  • Rex's wife, Kathy, shows Alex how Rex flies his plane without using his legs.

Access to the Land

Corlett started the Wilderness Within Reach program almost three decades ago partially as a response to a group of people who insisted that airplanes do not belong in designated wilderness areas.

He saw it as an opportunity to make a point: If you take planes out of the backcountry, you're cutting off an entire population of people who could never experience Idaho's wilderness without them.

"The certain segment that didn't want airplanes here went on record saying, 'Well those people have other opportunities like public parks,'" Corlett said. "That really got me going because that's just ridiculous. This is a treasure back here."

There are around 75 backcountry airstrips in Idaho, more than any other state in the country. Without them, Sulphur Creek Ranch could never sell enough breakfasts to stay in business.

Through Wilderness Within Reach, Corlett has shown the backcountry to children and adults with disabilities as well as military veterans struggling to readjust after deployment.

"A couple of years ago, there was a veteran with us who had a stroke. He said he laid around a couple of years feeling sorry for himself, then got back to life and found the [Boise Parks and Rec] AdVenture program. Then he saw the Salmon River. He hadn't seen it in 30 or 40 years. He used to be a river guide," Corlett said. "He pulled me aside and he said, 'I never thought I would see this again. Thank you.'"

On the last night of the trip, the circle around the campfire slowly started to dwindle. Leslee and Joe took Alex and Ehnayah to bed. Corlett and the other pilots called it a night as well. Joan got tired and pulled on Emily, who wanted to stay by the fire. Joan asked her if she was sure. She was.

It was a big moment.

"When she wanted to stay up and hang around the campfire by herself, without me, it was great," Joan said. "I want my daughter to not want me around. ... I hope she finds friends like her and wants to go live in an apartment with modified help someday. I hope to see her out in the community. These sort of experiences, outside the family, that's what's going to get her to do those things."

The final morning at Sulphur Creek Ranch was filled with the sound of propellers and high-pitched engines. Each family climbed into separate planes and took off, leaving the backcountry behind.

click to enlarge Meghan Wildman sits under the spectacular sunset at Sulphur Creek Ranch, enjoying the 20 resident horses. - JESSICA MURRI
  • Jessica Murri
  • Meghan Wildman sits under the spectacular sunset at Sulphur Creek Ranch, enjoying the 20 resident horses.

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