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Undaunted: Sacramento woman to tackle Spain’s famous El Camino trail in a wheelchair

Imagine walking El Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage route known in English as The Way of Saint James. It stretches 500 rocky miles from southern France, over the Pyrenees Mountains, down to Pamplona in Basque country, then across farmland and mountain ranges, cities and villages. It covers most of northern Spain.

Roughly 300,000 peregrinos do all or a portion of the path every year, as some have done since the first undertook the arduous route more than a thousand years ago. Peregrinos are driven by various inspirations – by faith or fitness goals, by bucket lists or a spirit of adventure. Or perhaps they’re inspired by the 2010 film “The Way,” directed by Emilio Estevez. They – rather, we, as I, full disclosure, completed El Camino in June – suffer blisters, sore knees, creaky hips and aching backs as we carry our backpacks from village to city to tiny hamlet, through each of the 33 official stages, each about 15 miles long. El Camino is a physical and mental challenge.

Now imagine doing it in a wheelchair.

Char Vine did just that, and she’s going to make that vision a reality starting September 28, covering the last 70 miles of the route over six days, with a group of 10 other people in wheelchairs, a blind person, and a large group of people who signed up to help.

“I’m ready,” she says. “I have a different wheelchair with big knobby tires on it, and one on the front that helps you get through a lot of different terrain. It’s still arm-powered, but the bigger tires help.”

Vine, 47, a graphic artist and web designer, has done her research. “We do about 14 miles the first day, 15 the second” she says, rattling off the group’s planned mileage. “It’s 6,800 feet of total elevation gain. The total decline is 7,300 feet.”

More crucially, she’s done her training: At Iron Mile Gym in Natomas, Evolved Bodies pilates studio in Gold River, on trails around in the foothills, on overpasses near her home in Natomas, and even in “a really good parking garage at the (UC Davis) med center.”

‘I’ve always lacked the fear gene’

Vine knows the medical center well, as she’s spent a lot of time there in the 20 years since her spine was severed in a snowboarding accident. She has been through a gamut of grueling rehabilitations, promising surgeries, pessimistic prognoses, surprising recoveries and dramatic setbacks that would have crushed the spirit of many people. But Vine has persisted, even having regained the ability to walk short distances – after being told she would never walk again. Now she’s going to cover 70 miles of a journey that is challenging even for people who’ve never used a wheelchair.

“I’ve always lacked the fear gene, which is probably what landed me in the wheelchair,” she says. “You are who you are, and the wheelchair didn’t change that. I may be a bit more cautious, I calculate risk a lot better than I did before. But I’m not really scared, I’m excited.”

Vine found the group adventure by chance, soon after going through a major surgery. “I used to be an athlete and do big challenging things, and once I had that spine reconstruction surgery, I was ready to do something big again. So I put it out there to the universe, and just ran across it on Facebook.”

What she ran across was a group adventure that was the brainchild of two lifelong friends, Patrick Gray and Justin Skeesuck of Idaho. Their story is an epic tale in itself: In 2014, Skeesuck, who has been paralyzed from the neck down since he was 16, decided his bucket list included El Camino. When he told Gray of his dream, the latter simply replied, “I’ll push you.”

The ensuing adventure is documented in the 2017 film “I’ll Push You,” and a book of the same name. Since then, the two have become much in-demand as inspirational speakers, and they’ve subsequently written a children’s book and a new book, “Imprints: The Evidence Our Lives Leave Behind,” was just published.

The two wanted to make their life-changing adventure available to others with similar “impossible” dreams, and this trip is the first of three already-announced group adventures, the next two scheduled for 2020. (Details about the trips are at www.illpushyou.com; .)

“We learned a lot about ourselves and other people,” said Skeesuck, 44, during a break in a speaking engagement in Phoenix. “I discovered that people are inherently good. …. So many people were willing to help us along the way.”

When they announced the group trip, they asked for applicants in wheelchairs, as well as others, to help the peregrinos, three per person. They got more applications than they could handle.

“So many people from all over the world stepped up and said, ‘I want to help make that happen for someone else’. That’s a beautiful, honorable act,” he says.

Each helper is paying the full cost of $3,750 plus airfare to be there, a remarkable act of generosity. Vine says her main helper is her longtime friend Amie Zawacki, a friend from Lake Oswego, Ore.

“I don’t think I’ll need more than Amie, I’m good on the flats and downhills,” she said. “But my spine is fused so I can’t bend forward, which is really helpful on the uphills. So I may need some help with that.”

Skeesuck and Gray interviewed all of the participants, peregrinos and assistants alike, with the idea of getting the right mix of people.

“We want to create a group alchemy that is set up for success,” Skeesuck said. “We wanted people with the right mindset, not just the people with disabilities, but the helpers, too. We needed people who are physically strong enough to be able to help someone in challenging situations. When we met Char, we loved her immediately. She’s willing to jump into something that’s foreign, and willing to challenge herself.”

The group comes from across the U.S., Canada, New Zealand and Australia, and arrive in Santiago on September 28, start walking on September 29 and finish on October 4. They will start each day and end each evening at one well-equipped hotel in Santiago, since the many inns and rustic dormitories along the way, known as albergues, are poorly-equipped (if at all) for people with disabilities. Private transportation will take them to and from each day’s walk, and there will be a support wagon.

But Vine, true to her adventurous character, says she and Zawacki may try their hand at staying in local albergues or hotels along the way. You can follow along on her adventure at her website, charvine.com.

“I don’t want to spend all that time back and forth on the buses, waiting for everyone to load and unload,” she said, with a touch of impatience in her voice. “I’m mobile, and we’re going to be in Spain, in amazing places – I want to get out and see them!”

David Watts Barton is a freelance writer and former Bee staff writer. He posts his work at davidwattsbarton.com.

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