A Day in the Park

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on August 12, 2020 # COVID-19, Lifestyle

I don’t know about you, but this pandemic siege is driving me nuts. Especially where I live in Southern California, the situation is getting worse, not better, and almost all the imposed strictures of March and April are now the strictures of July, including never leaving the house. Those of us with compromised immune systems do not have the luxury of being social iconoclasts (to put it nicely) by not wearing masks on our trip to the grocery store or poo-pooing the idea of social distancing. We stay at home and either cajole a younger, healthier family member or friend to buy our groceries or order in a lot.

Zoom-transmitted contact with the outside world helps penetrate the isolation, if only for one flickering moment. My wife and I sometimes take going-on-nowhere car rides around town just to feel like we are out and about, much like the news item that Taipei’s Songshan Airport in Taiwan is offering a fake vacation abroad including going through customs and boarding the airplane for an international flight to nowhere. Over 7,000 people, it’s reported, have signed up for this lame fantasy. Allen Rucker in UCLA garden

Starved for both a change of scenery and a change of mood, we jumped at the suggestion of a friend to visit what amounts to a sizable arboretum in our own backyard. We live only a few miles from the campus of University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and never knew that they had created a seven-acre nature preserve on the corner of their vast land holdings, an ersatz sylvan retreat on the border of the UCLA Medical Center. We had no idea what this place was like. I was thinking a prettified flower garden where any sense of peace and harmony would be drowned out by incessant traffic noise only a block away. But we couldn’t go to our own nearby recreation park – it’s all about sports, not nature, and the parking lot is currently full of trailers housing homeless people struck with COVID-19. What a strange new world!

In any case, we traipsed over to the Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden one Saturday morning, hoping it wasn’t jam-packed with equally cabin-feverish nature lovers. We entered one of the three or four pathways into the preserve and were instantly amazed. First, and most important to me, there was an entire path system through this enclosed forest for wheelchairs. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) lives!

This enclave wasn’t a flower garden – it was an Eden-like sanctuary, replete with mature, often exotic trees that totally blocked out the outside world, even nearby car noises. There were only a handful of people there, most young families, all wearing masks, and often you found yourself entirely alone amidst an endless thicket of shrubs and bushes and ferns and conifers native to anywhere from the Australian Outback to Zimbabwe. You could probably get a degree in botany just memorizing this vast display of flora and fauna.

It’s hard to describe the effect that this little trek into these Elysian Fields had on me. I remember feeling completely relaxed, unburdened by the constant stream of worries and should-do’s normally flowing through my furtive brain. Neither the virus nor our President once crossed my mind. All the clichés you hear about visiting the untrampled backwoods of the world – peaceful, blissful, restful, transformative – ceased being clichés in this quiet garden of earthly delights.

The point here is – maybe, during this horrible moment in human history, you don’t need to eat out at your favorite Mexican restaurant or indulge yourself with a leisurely trip to Costco to feel “normal” again. As anyone who is disabled knows, normal is a slippery word, often tacitly used to distinguish us from them. Wheelchair or no wheelchair, I have never felt more normal, more at ease with the world, than I was this sunny Saturday morning at Mildred’s botanical retreat. Sometimes the best things in life are both free and within driving distance.

Allen Rucker was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and has an MA in Communication from Stanford University, an MA in American Culture from the University of Michigan, and a BA in English from Washington University, St. Louis.