500 Miles, Two Best Friends, One Wheelchair
“If you have those moments in your life where you just know inside and out it’s something you’re supposed to do, I just knew. I just knew,” says Justin.
For Justin Skeesuck, it would be the epic adventure he and lifelong friend Patrick Gray had talked about for years: a 500-mile trek on the legendary El Camino De Santiago. For centuries, people have been making the pilgrimage that traces the steps of James the apostle from the foot of the French Pyrenees to the Santiago de Compostela cathedral on the west coast of Spain. Every year, roughly 250,000 hike the trail, but very few do it in a wheelchair.
Justin says, “I just say, ‘Hey, do you want to go across 500 miles in northern Spain with me?’ And his answer was, ‘Yeah, I’ll push you.’”
Patrick says, “I didn’t have any other thought than, ‘Yeah, I’ll push you.’ Cause we-we’ve just shared so much of life together and it was just one more opportunity to build more memories.”
It’s a friendship that started forty years ago. Together, they have supported one another through tournaments, graduations, milestones, and even disease.
In 2004, Justin was diagnosed with Multifocal Acquired Motor Axonopathy, an autoimmune disease that has slowly robbed him of all his motor skills, and will eventually take his life. It has left him completely dependent on his wife Kirstin for daily care. But Patrick didn’t give it a second thought.
Patrick says, “We didn’t think about the challenge. We had no idea how difficult it was going to be. It was just, ‘Okay. The decision’s been made, it’s important to him so it’s important to me, we’ll figure it out.’”
The hike is a 5-week trek that traverses mountains, rivers, and desert. Training and preparing for the trip would take two years. Overcoming the doubt that crept in every now and then, took prayer.
Justin says, “Pat would be completely freaked out. I would be more calm and just kinda like “Okay, we’re going to get through this.” And then, you know, I would be then freaked out and he would be calm as well. Luckily we’re never in the same cycle together.”
Patrick adds, “Yeah. We felt like two hamsters on wheels, but they were going at different paces. Different points, and different points in time.”
Justin says, “But we had never – we’d never prayed so hard, I think, ever…EVER together.”
Then, in June of 2014, they said goodbye to their families in Boise, Idaho, and boarded their flight to Paris, France. With them was a film crew, documenting their journey to raise awareness for Justin’s disease. Two days later, as they made their way up the Pyrenees Mountains, reality set in.
Patrick says, “The trail it’s kind of cambered, and it pitches one way or the other. And so we’re always on a little bit of an angle to the right or the left. And so Justin’s constantly having to move back and forth to shift his weight, while communicating to me what he’s going to see coming up.”
Justin remembers, “We had some very steep declines and we had safety harnesses attached to me and two or three people would have to get behind Patrick.”
Justin says, “My wheelchair weighs about 250 pounds with me in it and the weight of gear and-and the chair itself and whatnot, so it’s quite, it’s quite heavy and it’ll pull you straight down – straight down a hill, and it’s very slow-moving going up.”
“There were moments where we literally thought, ‘This might be it for the day.’ Like I – ‘we’re done,’” says Patrick. But as only good friends can, they kept each other going.
Patrick says, “The dynamics that we just kinda just embraced vulnerability, accountability, kind of unabashed honesty about where we’re at, what we feel. If we don’t agree with something, just throwing it all out there and being okay A) saying it; and B) being okay receiving it, has just created this-this dynamic that exists where there’s no fear. There’s no fear within out relationship. And that, I think is-is where God has really been able to mold us into kinda one unit.”
Justin says, “We took our expectations off the table, and however that played out is however it played out. And if he just needed a listening ear, it was a listening ear. If he needed somebody to laugh with, somebody to laugh with. If he needed somebody to cry with, he needed somebody to cry with. I just wanted there for him.”
But their honesty and trust wasn’t the only thing that got them through the journey.
“God was with us every step of the way,” says Justin.
Patrick says, “Someone would show up out of nowhere. You have those call them angels and-and-and whether they’re angels or not, you know, I don’t know, but they’re people that God’s using. We met people from 27 countries. We had over 100 people help us. So at least 100 moments or periods of time where people were placed in our path for a reason.”
With God and the help of complete strangers, Justin and Patrick finished their pilgrimage in 35 days. Looking back, they have come to appreciate their friendship even more. For them, it’s not about sacrifice or humility. It’s about love.
Patrick says, “This whole journey has revealed to me the truth that we are so much better together than we are alone.”
Justin says, “We’re meant to live life together and that’s where God calls us to be. It’s way more exciting, way more fun, pushes you in ways you never thought you could go or who you could be as a person.”
‘Patrick says, “So often the beauty that-that God wants us to see is within one another. The opportunity for provision is in one another. The opportunity for experiencing God’s love is the love he’s pouring into our wife, or our husband, or our children. It’s community. It’s embracing others and loving them in just a recklessly, you know, passionate way.”
Since returning from Spain, Justin and Patrick founded Push Inc — an organization that helps groups and individuals achieve their dreams. Together, the two have co-written their first book, inspired audiences as motivational speakers, and are eagerly awaiting the documentary aptly titled, “I’ll push you,” which will be released this October.
Justin says, “You can see God at work, you can! You can see God at work right in front of us. When you ask God to take control of your life, hold on! Because you’re in for a wild ride.”
Copyright 2017, 700 Club, Christian Broadcasting Network–All right reserrved.
Image Credits: I Will Push You.com