Allen Rucker — Ahhh! A Trip to the Spa

A Day at the Spa I’ve been in a wheelchair for more than a decade, but only in the last year or so have I had a strange and powerful new urge: The urge to move. I’m not just talking about my legs (those fantasies I save for my dreams), but to take planes, trains and automobiles and see the world. I want a well-stamped passport.

The great American hero, Dean Moriarty, in Jack Kerouac’s Beat classic, On The Road, put it best:

“We gotta go and never stop til we get there.”

“Where are we going?” asks his pal, Sal Paradise.

“I don’t know,” Moriarty says, “but we gotta go.”


I think this case of middle-aged wanderlust has something, if not everything, to do with my paralysis. Sitting still day in and day out is not all it’s cracked up to be. You need a countervailing force to feel energized, and logically, that force is movement. Tooling around the mall only gives you the illusion of going somewhere. Sure, it’s fun to zip along on the slick flooring, scaring old ladies, but you always end up back at the same parking space.

When you’re in a plane heading from Los Angeles to Qatar, as I did recently with ABILITY editor-in-chief Chet Cooper, you aren’t experiencing the illusion of movement—you’re zooming, man.

It’s not unlike the feeling you get when you ski down a mountain in an adaptive ski rig. If you could just combine these two sensory highs: flying long distances and skiing full speed, you’d be rocketing towards nirvana. One possibility is traveling to the all-indoor, all-fakesnow ski slope they’ve created in the Emirate of Dubai, right next door to Qatar. Sixteen hours on a plane plus a 12-hour time change for five minutes of pure downhill terror sounds like a dream vacation to me.

Of course my urge to leave town might be some Freudian impulse to run away from paying bills and watching Jeopardy every night, but that’s about as far as my psychoanalytical skills go. I just want to keep it moving. So when I got a call out of the blue from a very up-market British magazine called Spa Business about an “undercover” reporting assignment, I hoped they’d say:

“If you don’t mind going to Bangkok in October, with a two-day lay-over in Fiji…”

Unfortunately, Thailand wasn’t on the itinerary: I only had to travel 50 miles, not 8,000. Even before they explained the assignment, I blurted “yes.” This may make me sound easy, but they had me at the word “spa.”

The assignment was a gem: Spend a day at the sumptuous, yet reasonably priced Glen Ivy Hot Springs in Corona, CA, in the desert east of Los Angeles. Then I was to report back on how they treat a person in a wheelchair. That was the undercover part.

Since I’d become paralyzed, I’d never thought of visiting a healthy retreat like this. I don’t know why. It probably has something to do with the residual embarrassment of appearing unclothed or semi-clothed in public in a chair. You’re vulnerable enough as it is. Being naked and impaired sounds like a one-two punch to your dignity. Like a lot of paralytics, I had to be pushed into doing this, or lured by a British editor.

I also had to convince myself: This wasn’t just an awkward, potentially embarrassing trip to a spa to get massaged, muddied up and moisturized, this was a job, an investigative assignment and I owed it to spa-lovers with disabilities everywhere to thoroughly check the place out.

Besides, being a day off from real life, I realized I was also trying my hand at a burgeoning genre of journalism: accessibility reportage. This has been around in disabled-specific media for a while, but now it’s starting to expand. Like big-city restaurant reviewers, travel critics such as Peter Greenberg and those people who write those frothy, “What a soft mattress!” fluff pieces for Travel and Leisure, there is now a whole new area of general-interest, mass media coverage of places you can take a friend or relative who is disabled. So I was just dipping my toe in the pool, so to speak.

About the time I visited Glen Ivy, for instance, the New York Times ran a long piece by restaurant critic Frank Bruni entitled, “When Accessibility Isn’t Hospitality.” It was an in-depth study of the many problems people with disabilities encounter while dining out in New York: from getting in the door to getting to the loo. In one Italian hot spot, a woman with a disability said that to get to the bathroom, it would “literally have required all diners to stand up and remove the outer chairs of all the tables.” Her solution was to “dehydrate” before dinner and avoid the john altogether.

The article ended with a list of establishments labeled, “Top Tables for Diners With Their Own Chairs.” You can be sure that I, along with a lot of other chair users, will carry that list on our next trip to NYC. Some 50- million strong, PWDs are not just a cause, we are a huge market, something both Bruni and at least those seven swanky joints in Manhattan know very well.

Part of me, I confess, secretly hoped that Glen Ivy Hot Springs was woefully inaccessible and that the staff would ignore me, patronize me or otherwise treat me shabbily. That way, I could write a snippity, self-righteous rant against the universal view of people in wheelchairs, and those who are disabled in general, as secondclass citizens.

But that didn’t happen. From the moment I arrived at the spa and noticed the dozen well-marked handicapped parking spaces awaiting me, to the moment I rolled back to my car feeling like a limp washrag, I was more than accommodated. I was treated with dignity, respect and wall-to-wall helpfulness, just like any other stressed-out, spa-craving supplicant on a family budget.

Glen Ivy Hot Springs has been a commercial venture since the late 1800’s, but only recently grew from a modest mineral bath into an 11-acre complex surrounded by golf courses and born-yesterday residential communities. It is equipped with multiple pools and baths, a corps of masseuses and masseurs, a “Club Mud,” where you can be covered in restorative red clay, a restaurant, a grotto and a staff of the cleanest-cut young people this side of Disneyland.

Jason was one of the staff members who made my own stay so memorable. He stepped up to show me around and point out the fully accessible lockers, showers, sinks and toilets. Except for a few steep inclines, the grounds were wheelchair-friendly. My first stop was a 50-minute olive sage “renew” massage. The table was instantly lowered to meet the level of my chair. The masseuse had no trouble figuring out my problem zone: the shoulders, of course, which are the focal point of aches and pains for someone who pushes a manual chair around all day. She did a great job and didn’t once mutter, “You poor thing.”

Then Jason introduced me to a cheap item every spa should have: an old, fold-up, standard-issue wheelchair that you can probably pick up at a flea market for $25 and toss away when it rusts or breaks down. The moment I transferred into that relic, I could make a lot of stops at Glen Ivy with no hassle. I could roll into the steam room or shower without having to transfer to a hard surface. I could enter Club Mud, sit in a convenient area, coat myself (and the chair) with mud, dry in the sun and then roll into an outdoor shower stall and wash off.

Finally, I could enter the underground grotto, have myself painted from head to toe in a pea-green concoction of sea kelp, aloe vera and other elixirs, sit in a hydrating chamber as it did its magic and then shower off again. That old chair became my constant companion throughout the day.

Okay, Glen Ivy wasn’t completely accessible. None of the doors, for instance, opened automatically, making them a struggle to get through. And, ironically, the one feature of the place where no one could figure out how to get me in was the actual hot spring! It bubbled up into small individual pools that made any transfer from a wheelchair extremely difficult. If the staff had provided me with a solid chair of some kind, I could have lowered myself to the ground and just scooted into one of the hot springs outlets, but they couldn’t locate such a chair. In the New York Times’ piece I mentioned earlier, one resourceful New Yorker in a wheelchair hauled a 12- pound fiberglass ramp around with her to get up and down small flights of stairs in local eateries. If I had stuffed a simple metal folding chair in my trunk, I could have gotten into those medicinal waters. The lesson being buy a bigger car or truck for all of this lifeenhancing paraphernalia you should have on hand.

The swimming and therapeutic pools had no ready access, either. If Glen Ivy was really on top of things, they would have installed a self-operating hydraulic lift to ease me into the water. Short of that, a simple ramp would have allowed me to roll in and out of the water in that utility chair. Of course, like the lady above, I could have supplied that ramp myself, another handy item for the back of the super-sized pick-up.

These various stumbling blocks were upsetting but not that upsetting. I guess by the time I realized what I couldn’t do with ease, I had been subjected to so much de-stressing that I didn’t really care. On the other hand, if I had gone out there principally to take a soothing soak in the hot springs or a dip in a salt-water pool, I would have asked for my money back.

So, I guess on the Accessibility Meter of 1 to 10, 10 being best, Glen Ivy garners a 7 plus, or maybe an 8. Jason, on the other hand, gets a full 10 and hopefully a nice bump up in his next paycheck.

Spa Business seemed pleased with the finished article and I can only hope that it’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Certainly there are spas all over the Mediterranean that need to be critiqued with the cool eye of a globe-trotting paralytic. If not Corsica, how about a weekend trip to the new Paris Hotel in Las Vegas? Rumor has it they have both a state-of-the-art hydraulic pool lift, and a coterie of young lovelies in French maid outfits bringing you fresh towels. Okay, I made up that last part, but I won’t really know until someone sends me on a mission to find for myself.

If I play my cards right, maybe some day I could become the Gene Shalit/Peter Greenberg of the field and proudly wear the moniker, Accessibility Critic At Large: Have chair, will travel.

by Allen Rucker

Allen Rucker is a regular contributor to ABILITY and the author of The Best Seat In The House: How I Woke Up One Tuesday And Was Paralyzed for Life, among other books.

Allen Rucker

For more info, visit Glen Ivy.

Allen Rucker

ABILITY Magazine
Other articles in the Sandra Lee issue include Headlines — NY’s New Gov, Dancing with Marlee and more; Green Pages — Living With Ed, Fair Trade Goodies; Best Practices — Companies Doing It Right; Starbucks — A New Perspective on Diversity; Accessible Alaska — Cruising the Wilderness; DRLC — Removing Barriers to Education; Senator Harkin — Voting Access for All; Allen Rucker — Ahhh! A Trip to the Spa; Rohan Murphy — Paralympic Powerhouse; Walter Reed — Performing for the Troops; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences...subscribe

More excerpts from the Sandra Lee issue:

Sandra Lee — How to Cook with Rheumatoid Arthritis

Big Brain — Does Size Matter?

Accessible Alaska — Cruising the Wilderness

PepsiCo — Effervescent Corporate Culture

Ouch! — The First in a Series on Managing Pain

Allen Rucker — Ahhh! A Trip to the Spa

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