My Year of Adventure with Earle

I am writing this blog on a train from Cork City to Dublin, Ireland. I was scheduled to be on the train yesterday, but Hurricane Ophelia came crashing and blowing into Ireland, the worst hurricane to hit Ireland since 1961. After 24 hours of high force winds and 350,000 homes without power, I have emerged with a new appreciation for tea, a hearth in every room, and the Irish sense of humor & their willingness to plod through, making the best of everything. Irish pragmatism wins the day...every day.

Chris and Earle in Ireland

Ireland is the home of my heart, a place I traveled extensively by foot for many years before my spinal cord injury. I would load my backpack with the things I would need for a month (or three!), with little regard for weight, and leave America with barely a plan. I felt both free and safe, even invincible perhaps. It didn't take long after landing to once again become my true self. Traveling independently offers a way of seeing the world and meeting people in a manner that cannot occur when one has the safety and familiarity of a travel companion. Plus, I was never one to like the negotiations required for traveling with others. Travel is so treasured by me that I have not come to the point of wanting to sacrifice my freedom and desires for another's. I guess I am a bit selfish in this, and I am okay with that. Independent travel has always been sacred to me.

Six months after my last "pre-injury" trip to Ireland, I was competing in USASA Nationals as an adaptive snowboarder. I was born with a genetic disorder called small patella syndrome (SPS). This disorder affects the way the bones and muscles are formed, as well as causing vision and kidney issues. While I could ambulate for much of my life, as I got older I was increasingly impacted by the progression of my disorder. I eventually began using forearm crutches and braces to get around. Despite these challenges, and they were real challenges most of the time, I was always active. I did my best to not have it impact how I lead my life, but pain can be a strong deterrent. I found that traveling to new environments, meeting new people, and overcoming challenges did not remove my pain, but it moved it further back in my consciousness. I think it was lessened by distraction, really. Novelty is exciting, learning is exciting, and being aware in unfamiliar surroundings is important. Distraction was always a useful pain management tool for me.

On April 2, 2007 I crashed hard during a slopestyle run and sustained an L1 spinal cord injury (SCI). But I was still determined to lead an active life. Nine weeks later I was handcycling the White Mountains, still in my "turtle shell," and learned to monoski nine months later. I loved it and pursued it as a career. Soon training for the 2014 Sochi Paralympics became my focus. I still had the desire to travel independently, as I always had, but fear held me back. How on earth was I going to carry my bags, negotiate buses, and get into buildings that were hundreds of years old? Would I be more vulnerable as a wheelchair user? Would my chair break, leaving me stranded with no place to get repairs? What was far more daunting were the emotional fears I had. Ireland and how easily and freely I traveled through it would surely be gone. My céilís dancing would not happen, and that alone was enough to break my heart. It took me 10 years to even listen to traditional Irish music again without feeling like I would drown in the sorrow of loss. Those are the things I most feared: that things would not be the same as they had been. For 10 years I pushed aside my desire to return to independent travel...because of fear.

After a second SCI forced me to retire and made daily life much more difficult, I applied for a service dog through NEADS: Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans. Five months later I was matched with an 80-pound yellow Labrador Retriever named Earle. Over the next six months we focused on strengthening our partnership and learning to work seamlessly together. After these six months, I started to feel a pull to return to Ireland. The feelings and fears that I had, fears of it all being logistically impossible and potentially filled with reminders of the loss of the freedom I once had, began to be replaced with the desire for adventure with my new partner, Earle. If he could make my life so much easier at home, then he could do the same in Ireland.

Chris, Meghan, and Earle

I wasn't quite ready to jump into the deep end yet. I decided to do a trial run with my sister Meghan as sherpa and general mobility aide. It took 24 hours in Dublin to realize that Earle and I could absolutely manage international travel on our own. Ingenuity, confidence, willingness to adapt, and Earle's skills would open the world for me. Upon my return home 10 days later, I set about to plan, in my typical minimalistic way, a "Year of Adventure" to celebrate 10 years of life with a SCI. Since that trip a year ago, Earle and I have traveled in the United States, Ireland, London, and Norway. Before our Year of Adventure is through, we will see Spain, Quebec, and one other country: maybe the Czech Republic or Hungary.

But travel for the sake of travel isn't enough for me; adding purpose is key. While we travel, Earle and I speak to schoolchildren & community organizations, and visit our elders at senior centers & nursing homes. We share our message about finding adventures, large and small, every day. We try to show that those with disabilities can live and travel independently with some ingenuity and flexibility of thinking, and we show that a service dog like Earle can provide much more than the basic skills of fetching and opening (literal) doors. Earle allows me to open the door to the world and has helped me rediscover who I am while redefining how I interact with my world.

Chris and Earle on the Ireland coast

I am not the same traveler I was 11 years ago, and while traveling around Ireland I found that this country, the home of my heart, is not the same either. My experiences are richer, more impactful. And because I have known the loss of independence, before regaining it through Earle, I feel even more free, independent, and capable of anything.

About the Author

Chris Slavin and Earle

Chris Slavin is an advocate, educator, writer, and speaker who travels the world with her mobility assistance dog, Earle. Together they look for adventures, large and small, every day. Chris is a believer in possibility and the ability of each individual to actualize change in themselves while encouraging others. Using travel and relationships, Chris shares her story while listening and learning from the life experiences of others. A traveler before sustaining a spinal cord injury as a competitive adaptive snowboarder, Chris pursued elite-level monoskiing for eight years before retiring from ski racing after a second spinal cord injury. A desire to return to independent travel after being partnered with Earle has led her to a sense of independence and freedom that she thought she had lost.

Chris's ride is a Quickie 7R.

Earle is a three-year-old yellow Labrador Retriever from NEADS: Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans. While being raised and trained in a prison, Earle was an avid student with a wise, yet easy-going attitude. After being matched with Chris in February of 2016, it quickly became apparent that Earle's skills and temperament were what Chris needed to reconnect with the world and her dreams of independent travel. This "Big World Dog" shows the world that a great attitude and a willingness to greet everyone as a long-lost friend goes a long way towards creating a rewarding and fulfilling life. Driven by the desire to test every possible swim location, and to sniff every smell, Earle finds the world an endless adventure.

Follow Earle's adventures on his Facebook page.

Most of the stories here on Live Quickie were submitted by readers. Do you have a story to tell? We'd love to hear it. Submit your story here.

Date: 10/31/2017 12:00:00 AM

Fear is a key word I deal with, you writing and FB help me relearn read/write/etc. I use to backpack (boat, ski, bike, hangglide, etc.) self too, drive hubby insane a 4 foot 11 out and about in off places. Yes, was not safe, I stopped outback trails alone after being volunteer to search and recover missing trail couple that had got attacked and killed by boy who lived in house off applacian trail. I became high educated, high bread winner, computer nerd that only got out weekends with her dog. My job required me be within an hour response time, so 40 years went by fast. Just getting to point of plan adventures again when I got brain damaged, in last few years relearn many things, with Earle FB page I relearn some computer read and write, neighbors teach me FB (over and over ha ha). My brain damage means each day can be different issue, maybe one day confused and not house familiar to me, others just trying to keep from falling, and a couple days a month if I lounge lizard a few days in a row I can have almost normal day - followed by days of recoup. Each time on good days I try to pack in chores, airends, appointments, etc. Planning is hard due to not knowing if I can get out by self from day to day. I find doctors very nice not charge if I cancel, and fit me in on good days I can get out. But days I get out I get followed and photographed, heck, I feel like the president a lot times with so many look-e-lews, and followers. I am on wait list for SD balance dog, this way if out on a good day a photo losses financial benefit, he can help me get job and when I get confused and disoriented can give me a nudge on thigh or hang with me till I regroup. Fear is key word, mostly losing income if I try to get out, fear I will lose income before I can get to point consistent get out and relearn more, before learn how make income again. My brain got erased a lot, some weird things stuck like change tire, jump car (some things didn't, like don't wash something plugged in - don't worry, got that learned now), I relearned drive but only do on good days. But Fear is the key word, fear if I get out there cannot get back (hubby is super good giving directions and now that anxiety pretty much addressed), fear disability invisibleish that mistake for being on drugs or alcohol instead of a brain fart, fear if seen trying will result in loss benefits before I improve more. Yes key problem is fear, I hope get SD to get confidence if I fall or weave (I do a lot) he can steer me straight, confidence if I get confused or overwhelmed we can place quite and regroup together and not alone, confidence if I lose time (I can stand in one spot like in a store and four hours later shopping is done, wha, I know should take less than an hour) I'll get a nose nudge. I was better with my dog, he balanced me and nudged me, learned his own to do that, he stuck with me till reach 17 old. After that my environment shunk, I never realize how much he adapted to help me till he passed. I have no idea how dogs know a brain fart is coming before I do, but so far even my neighbor dogs do but humans and me not. I thank you and Earle very much, you share bumps and process helping me ALOT!!!. You two push me to press on learn more to get out again, you push me to get batter at things so I can get back out and help folks that I stopped helping cold turkey a few years ago. Your posts are very important, not to put pressure on you, to many you will never hear from are benefiting. I know what if feels like to have people around you disappear because you cannot do things for them anymore, or not the same person. Hopefully, when I get out again I can pass on what you do and visit people in my current boat or help make more SD dogs process, and hopefully to point where I can get folks to a store or movie or help them dust or put tree up or anything to help them feel less stuck. Now to pull that off without them or me losing benefits by being seen taken to a movie or store. You posts put bite size challenges, like Haiku, forces me to learn to research what it was, still working on how to do it; force me to relearn geography like Ireland, Portagul, Spain, and sadly yes, Massachusetts (this is even funnier if you knew my past required great knowledge of world geography). You have a lab heart too, no wonder you and Earle are a wonderful team benefiting so many world wide. Your sister can earn big bucks getting us folks out on our first 24 hours kick starts.
12/7/2017 11:11:10 AM
B. Catlin
Chris and Earle are an inspiration to so many. We love Earle's Facebook page, following their adventures. Seeing the world through a Lab's heart is something everyone should experience.
12/7/2017 10:15:25 AM
Kimberly DeMeza
You and Earle are an amazing pair. I've been following Earle on Facebook and he (and you) make me smile every single day. Your sense of adventure, your beautiful prose and your Lab heart (Earle's too) inspire me to be a better person.
12/7/2017 9:00:40 AM
My partner Tom and I are the Aussies who met you and Earle in Flam, Norway then bumped into you again in Bergen. I'm so glad you told me about Earle's FB page. I look forward to the stories every day. I admire your spirit, humanity and outlook on life and your ability to find the positive from every situation you face. Having met you and Earle it is clear that your relationship is very special. All the best for your future endeavours.
11/1/2017 7:05:25 PM
Wendy Slavin Tiger
Chris you are so very special and inspiring to many Earle is a beautiful special partner
11/1/2017 4:55:09 PM
Chris and Earle-- you two are killing it on an international scale now! I love it! Your writing style makes me want to read more, almost as much Earle's does! Thank you for taking these bold risks and role modeling for everyone! Been a long time since we rode together-- life evolves in ways we don't always understand in the moment. Yours is an incredible journey in more ways than travel! Love, Heather
10/31/2017 4:50:24 PM
Stephen Crowe
I met Chris and Earle on their travels in Ireland during 2016 and was totally charmed by you both. You are an inspirational team and i cant wait to help you further your adventures en espana. Keep safe and hasta pronto mis amigos
10/31/2017 11:42:17 AM
Chris and Earle, as you know, I am an avid follower of Earle's and your adventures and so admire your independence and courage no matter what you and Earle may encounter The bond you and he have is extraordinary and you give me the motivation needed to do things that one may not believe they can accomplish. Earle's "stories" are so entertaining and informative, I look forward to reading them every day. Thank you for sharing your life with us.
10/31/2017 10:08:12 AM
Michelle Maglieri
The story brought tears to my eyes! Chris, What an inspiration you are! And you have such a positive attitude! I love reading all your posts on yours & Earle's adventures, whether in the USA or abroad. Not a day goes by that I don't seek the two of you out. Brings a smile to my face! Happy Halloween! By the way, is Earle dressing for Halloween?
10/31/2017 10:08:05 AM
Thank you for sharing your adventures big and small with the wider world. I love the way you manage to inspire people, change some perceptions of those who are differently abled, and show that it is how we face the challenges we are presented with that really makes al the difference. I look forward to following you on all your adventures to come!
10/31/2017 9:15:13 AM
Nancy-Lee Mauger
I have had the pleasure of being your travel companion a few times. Yes, negotiating travel with a companion is a challenge! LOL
I remember conversations we had about your hopes and dreams of traveling again someday. I could not be happier you found your perfect travel companion. Your world is wide open. Adventure on!
10/31/2017 7:31:10 AM
Yvonne Marsh
Absolutely love the both of you! Your positive outlook on life is such an inspiration. I am so happy you have found each other. I look forward to reading more about your adventures!
10/31/2017 7:23:27 AM
Karen Kelley
I became friends with Chris a few years back, we have the common background of competitive snowboarding in our families, You've handled surgeries and setbacks with grace and courage. When Earle joined your family, you thrived! It has truly been a pleasure following your international adventures! This is just the beginning! I see a book series!
10/31/2017 6:50:23 AM
Chris and Earle, you are inspirations for many. I love your positive attitude and your willingness to share your journey with others and thereby blur the traditional view of disability. Here's to more travels and adventures!
10/31/2017 6:12:27 AM

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