Who has access to the West?

… and how does it change our views of this place?


Paul Larmer/High Country News

“On the Road to 50” is an ongoing series of the publisher and editor's notes to our readers, as they travel the region and plan for our 50th anniversary – through community gatherings, individual meetings, and other listening sessions.

If you’re looking for solitude in the increasingly crowded West, I recommend avoiding interstates and airports, especially right before Christmas. That’s when I found myself motoring alone on Utah State Route 95 through Bears Ears National Monument, on a roundabout way from western Colorado to family in Tucson, Arizona.There was not another soul at Butler Wash, where I crutched a half-mile through patches of icy snow to the overlook. There, above a tree-lined creek, Ancestral Puebloan dwellings basked in the slanting afternoon sunlight. It looked downright cozy, but I imagined living here 800 years ago, and wondered whether I, a disabled middle-aged man, would have made it. Nope.

Later that day, I reached Natural Bridges National Monument, a geological marvel formed by the inexorable force of water cutting through stone. The two other cars at the visitor center must have belonged to the two Park Service employees inside. 

“How much to get into the park?” I asked. “$20,” said the cheery woman behind the desk, “but you may qualify for a pass.” She pointed to a sign that said, “America the Beautiful Pass, permanently disabled, free.” A free lifetime pass for every park? I have wandered the West for 40 years now, but this was news to me. And, she added, it was good for all kinds of discounts.

Sold. I used my new “access pass” card that day, and then the next at Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park, where rainbow-colored crystals from 200 million-year-old stone trees littered the dry hills.

But I’m conflicted. “For U.S. citizens or permanent residents,” the card says, “medically determined to have a permanent disability that severely limits one or more major life activities.” My condition, a congenital anomaly that has shortened and deformed my legs, is permanent. I have back pain from a lifetime of asymmetric sitting. I will never run a marathon or climb Mount Washington. Occasionally, when I see photos of myself, I think, “I really am short and funny-looking.” But all told, I’ve had it pretty damn good, with the help of a loving family, and the privilege of being a white male in America. I’ve had a great career and helped raise two healthy adult kids. I am fit, with no severe limitations in sight. Do I really deserve this card?

How do our disabilities and abilities, inextricably linked, change our views of the West?

In 2016, the American Communities Survey identified 12.8% of the U.S. population as disabled. People with disabilities are employed at half the rate of those without, and those who do work earn on average about two-thirds the salary. As I motored on, I wondered: Who deserves access to the wonders of this world? Who actually gets it, and why? And how do our disabilities and abilities, inextricably linked, change our views of the West?

High Country News has asked such questions for 50 years now, and we plan to keep doing so in the years ahead.  I look forward to the journey, and to everyone who helps us along the way.

Paul Larmer is the publisher and executive director of High Country News. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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