July 1, 2003
Real Living with Multiple Sclerosis
GOING TO THE MARDI GRAS celebration had been a subject of conversation for several years. I've always been interested in the entire southern experience, while Elmer and his wife, Anita, were especially interested in seeing Mardi Gras. Because Sega, my assistance dog, had been a member of our travel team when we went to the Yucatan Peninsula, I was certain he would be up for the experience.
Although I had my first MS attack in 1970, I wasn't diagnosed until 1985. In 1995, after another exacerbation, I began walking with a cane and became partnered with Blessing, a regal collie. Working with an assistance dog gave me the gift of mobility. After Blessing was retired in 1999, Sega, a free-spirited, sable and white rough collie, took her place.
Traveling with an assistance dog means dealing with the physical needs of the canine partner. As the human member of a team, I knew that I had to deal with Sega's travel needs, one of the most important being a place for him to relieve himself. Our travel agent made the preliminary arrangements. A week before we left, I made a follow-up call, confirming that all arrangements had been made.
When we arrived on the barge, we found a small room had been set up, complete with a piece of turf where Sega could take his "breaks."
Although most of the crew hadn't been exposed to an assistance dog before, we found them to be very accommodating. We often found that some people were fascinated by the work Sega does. Sometimes it was because of his appearance. Sometimes it was just because they had a dog of their own. In any case, traveling with Sega was a wonderful way to show how important an assistance dog could be to its human companion.
Traveling included a trip to Sega's veterinarian for a 30-day travel permit. Obtaining bulkhead seating wasn't as easily accomplished. There was no way an 85-pound collie, no matter how well behaved, can be accommodated in regular seating. Before each of the four flights, our seating required adjustment. Although the airline personnel were courteous and tried to be helpful, communication was often lacking. Of course, this oversight was understandable. Airlines have been dealing with more pressing issues.
I use a wheelchair on trips to combat fatigue. My travel companions were there to push the chair whenever it was needed. Despite the fact that we had done our best to ensure proper communication, our transportation wasn't waiting for us when we arrived in New Orleans. Quick-thinking Anita, who is a veteran traveler, grabbed the first transportation she could find at the airport. Although we had a very comfortable ride in a luxurious limousine, it was a mile too short-the driver was unable to get us any closer to the River Explorer barge because of traffic congestion.
In the end, we had our own mini-parade. My husband, Mike, pushed me in my wheelchair loaded with our luggage. Elmer led with their luggage while Anita walked along with Sega's lead in her hand. When we made it to the dock where the barge was waiting, Elmer quickly voiced his displeasure at our unscheduled jaunt.
Chillin' in the Crescent City
Our schedule called for a free day while we waited for the rest of the barge travelers to arrive. The next day, we headed for Bourbon Street to view our first Mardi Gras parade. The barge company had reserved bleachers for the use of its travelers. Because my balance is often faulty, especially on bleachers, my wheelchair proved to be a godsend. Mike parked it in front of the bleachers located behind a temporary fence that had been set up to protect the crowd from the moving floats. Sega found a spot next to me. It was an ideal location for catching the beads that were being thrown by the people dressed appropriately for their festive floats.
Up the Lazy River
On the fourth day of our trip, the barge began making its way up the Mississippi and arrived at Baton Rouge for our next stop. After enjoying another wonderful breakfast, we were bused from the dock to view several notable sites. We spent the morning visiting the War Memorial that houses the USS Kidd, which earned eight battle stars in WWII and four more in the Korean conflict. Sega didn't seem too impressed with the boat's notable history. To him, its bow was a great place to take a well-earned nap while Mike and Elmer explored the belly of the 900-ton ship.
From the Nautical Center, we went up the hill to visit the Old State Capital of Louisiana, complete with a winding staircase and wonderfully tall doors. I exchanged dog stories with a curator of the building-the proud owner of a 5-year-old dalmatian.
The next day we arrived in Natchez. We visited a historical tavern appropriately named Under the Hill Saloon. The establishment is stated to be the oldest settlement on the Mississippi and is complete with worn floorboards that demand caution. After a short visit to the tavern, we boarded a van to visit several of the historical homes for which the community is noted.
Although I had hoped to visit a plantation, time constraints called for me to settle for a visit to several 17th-century townhouses instead. Access to Rosalee, the first mansion we chose to visit, was questionable for a time. Later, the manager of the historic home told me that we were the first assistance dog team to go through Rosalee since she had been on the job. After some heavy discussion, we were allowed to enter the wonderful old home.
Because the old staircase wasn't disability accessible, I remained on the first floor. I visualized a southern couple, much like Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler from the classic film Gone with the Wind waltzing through the drawing rooms.
After we enjoyed lunch at Fat Mama's Tamales, we chose to enter the interior of another historical home. We chose Stanton Hall located on a cliff above the Mississippi River. As we approached the residence, I saw a woman of about 30 running across the yard in an apple-green dress complete with hoop skirts, which added to the historical flavor. The well-preserved house, complete with some of the original furnishings, is owned and operated by the Daughters of the American Revolution. After Sega was able to take some time romping in a small park complete with a gazebo, we walked down the hill to the dock.
The next morning we loaded into a van, where we listened to a park guide share her knowledge as we toured the Vicksburg battlefield. As the van rounded the curves of the road, we heard the lowdown on the entire battle. That afternoon, our group toured the Vicksburg National Military Park, which was complete with life-size reproductions of the boats used to wage the war on the Mississippi.
We spent the next day experiencing the flow of the powerful Mississippi River. The last afternoon we docked in Memphis, where our first stop was the Mississippi River Museum on Mud Island. We spent 20 very chilly minutes walking around Basin Street.
A Disability-Friendly Trip
As far as I'm concerned, the river barge was a great way to travel for a person with mobility problems. There were elevators that made travel from deck to deck easy. Because everyone was receptive to Sega, he was comfortable doing his job. Because our room, complete with a comfortable queen-size bed, was very relaxing, I was able to get plenty of rest. We ate most of our meals on board, which was just as well. I feel much better when my diet consists of mostly low-fat food, (available on the barge). I came home feeling as well as or even better than when I left home.
All the passengers and crew seemed to have a great time. Although some of the locations we went to weren't disability accessible and many of the sidewalks had some problems, I didn't find it too difficult because of Sega and my human travel companions.
As always, traveling with an assistance dog proved to be a wonderful
experience. Fortunately for us, Sega was on his best behavior. All in all,
I would love taking the barge trip again.
Copyright © 2003, Real Living with Multiple Sclerosis