Solo and Soulful: A Journey of Accessibility and Adventure for Disability Pride Month

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Words and photos by George McKenzie Jr, Live Wildly Adventurist

As a Live Wildly Adventurist, I spend my time exploring wild Florida. This April, I embarked on my longest solo expedition to date—a 900-mile journey to experience how our friends at the Florida State Parks Foundation are helping to make wild Florida accessible to people of all abilities.

The journey included primitive camping, exploring state parks, and celebrating a birthday while learning about accessibility and myself. Throughout Disability Pride Month, I’ll be sharing stories from my time in the Florida State Parks. Where will we explore this month? Let’s take a look.

Oscar Schaere State Park 15

Oscar Scherer State Park: A Primitive Start

My adventure began with primitive camping at Oscar Scherer State Park, nestled in the heart of Florida. The accessible fishing pier offered a peaceful retreat into nature, allowing me to reflect on the journey ahead. The park’s lush greenery and tranquil waters provided a serene backdrop for my first solo adventure, where I was completely immersed in the natural beauty that surrounded me. 

This initial stop was more than just a campsite; it was a place where I could connect with nature on a deeper level. I spent my days fishing off the accessible pier, where the calm waters mirrored the sky, creating a sense of peace and introspection. The park’s commitment to accessibility meant that everyone, regardless of physical ability, could experience this natural haven. Here, I began to appreciate the importance of making nature accessible to all.

Silver Springs State Park 5

Silver Springs State Park: Learning from the Best

Next, I traveled to Silver Springs State Park, where I was joined by David Bottomly, Peggy Taylor, and Wayne Duke. The highlight of this leg of the journey was undoubtedly the accessible glass-bottom boat tour. As we glided over the crystal-clear springs, I was filled with awe at the vibrant underwater world visible beneath us, a sight that inspired me deeply.

Wayne Duke, a passionate photographer, shared his unique perspective on accessibility. He showed me how essential it is to have the means to capture the beauty of nature through photography, a passion he pursued despite his physical limitations. Wayne’s insights were eye-opening, and I realized how easy it is to take the ability to enjoy such experiences without barriers for granted. This encounter reinforced my belief in ensuring everyone can share in these beautiful moments, no matter their physical abilities.

Wakulla Springs State Park 13

Wakulla Springs State Park: An Inclusive Journey

My journey continued to Wakulla Springs State Park, renowned for its pristine waters and abundant wildlife. I embarked on an accessible jungle river tour boat, accompanied by JR Harding and his wife. JR, who uses a power wheelchair, provided a profound insight into the necessity of inclusivity in public recreational areas. As we navigated the winding waterways, JR shared his experiences and challenges. He highlighted how crucial it is for all aspects of public spaces, from boat ramps to public binoculars, to be designed with accessibility in mind. 

His stories were a powerful reminder that disabilities do not discriminate; they are a universal aspect of the human experience. This part of the journey was a poignant lesson in empathy and the importance of designing inclusive environments that cater to everyone, ensuring no one is left out.

Rish State Park 21

Billy Joe “Rish” Recreation Area: Overcoming Fears

At the Billy Joe “Rish” Recreation Area in Port St. Joe, I met Donna Dickens, a remarkable woman who uses a wheelchair. During a photoshoot at the pool, Donna taught me about overcoming fears and embracing new experiences. Watching her use the lift to enter the pool with grace and confidence was inspiring. 

Donna’s story is one of resilience and determination. As a mother and grandmother, she emphasized the importance of independence. She relished using the beach ramp and chairs to access the shore without assistance, experiencing the beach’s beauty on her terms. This encounter was a powerful testament to the joy and freedom that accessibility can bring, a feeling that uplifted me and inspired my journey.

TopSail 15

Topsail Hill Preserve State Park: Embracing the Wild

My final stop was Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, where I explored the accessible beach matting and tram with Robert Griffith, an avid outdoorsman who uses a wheelchair. Topsail’s stunning dune lakes and white sand beaches provide the perfect setting for this leg of the journey. 

Robert’s passion for the outdoors was infectious. As we toured the park’s unique ecosystems, he shared his love for wild Florida and its freedom. His experiences underscored the importance of accessibility in natural settings, ensuring that everyone can connect with nature. Together, we navigated the beach matting and explored the pristine dune lakes, a journey that left me feeling energized and invigorated.

True Accessibility in Wild Florida

This expedition for Disability Pride Month with the Florida State Parks Foundation was more than just a journey; it was a soulful exploration of accessibility and self-discovery. Each person I met and each place I visited taught me valuable lessons about the importance of inclusivity in our public spaces. 

As I celebrated my birthday during this trip, I realized that true adventure lies in the places we explore, the connections we make, and the barriers we overcome. This journey was a testament to the power of accessibility and the human spirit. It reinforced my belief that adventures are for everyone, and with suitable accommodations, we can all experience the wonders of wild Florida.

From the peaceful solitude of Oscar Scherer State Park to the inspiring stories of individuals like Wayne Duke, JR Harding, Donna Dickens, and Robert Griffith, this expedition was a profound reminder of the beauty of inclusivity and the endless possibilities it creates. Reflecting on this journey, I am grateful for the lessons learned and the incredible people I met. This soulful expedition not only expanded my understanding of accessibility but also deepened my appreciation for the resilience and determination of the human spirit.