Patrick Gray's deep voice cracked as he spoke to the parishioners in the ultra-modern Tree City Nazarene Church on a Sunday morning. Nearly every seat in the cavernous hall was filled and nearly everyone's attention was on the two men on stage—only the very young and the very old occasionally drifted off—and the slideshow moving across the giant screen above them. Gray paused as a photo of several people pushing a man in a wheelchair up a steep muddy incline faded in. His voice caught and a few tears dropped onto the front of his crisp, plaid shirt.
"It's your story," Gray said, looking down at Justin Skeesuck (pronounced SKEE-zuck), his friend of nearly 40 years. Skeesuck, who has no use of his arms or legs, smiled, used his head to shift his body a fraction in his wheelchair and began to talk about the 500-mile journey the two men took across the Camino de Santiago (a.k.a. St. James' Way) trail and how they returned with more than stories, pictures, a documentary film in the making, and a stronger sense of faith—they came home with a deeper appreciation of what it means to help someone and, more importantly, what a gift it is to ask for and accept help.
- Courtesy Patrick Gray
- These kids had no idea how much their lives would change.
Gray and Skeesuck were born 36 hours apart in the Idaho border town of Ontario, Ore., in 1975.
"We were friends from the get-go," Gray said.
They attended the same schools, went to the same church and played the same sports.
"Pat suckered me into playing football one year [in high school]. It was the worst football experience of my life,"Skeesuck said,
Gray added, laughing, "It was the only football experience of your life. The thing was, I just wanted someone worse than me on the team, so I asked him."
Though they both swear it's true, even if it wasn't, Skeesuck probably would have joined the team with Gray anyway. The two boys did everything together: family activities, church activities, even dating a few of the same girls. Their parents were friends; their grandparents were friends.
"We lived life together from day one," Gray said.
Unfortunately, at the young age of 16, Skeesuck would take a hit (literally) that would slam the brakes on his idyllic small-town existence and set the course for his future.
With their high-school basketball team scheduled to play a tournament, Gray headed to the game with the rest of the team, and Skeesuck rode with a friend. On the freeway, going about 85 mph, the car carrying Skeesuck and his friend was in a terrible accident. Miraculously, the boys walked away, but Skeesuck soon began to show symptoms of a progressive congenital neuromuscular disease lying undetected in his body: Multifocal Acquired Motor Axonopathy. It caused Skeesuck's autoimmune system to attack his nervous system, which sporadically shuts down, causing his muscles to atrophy. The disease itself doesn't cause pain, and he still has full sensory awareness.
"I can feel everything, head to toe," he said.
And though the atrophying began just months after the accident, for a while, Skeesuck could still do most things—using a special brace, he could still play tennis and soccer. Before too long, Gray and Skeesuck finished high school and headed off to college, and though Gray chose a Nazarene college in Idaho and Skeesuck a Nazarene university in Southern California, they remained close.
- Courtesy Patrick Gray
- Justin and Patrick chillin' in Jamaica.
"We stayed in touch pretty regularly all through college," Gray said. "He was my best friend through high school. It's kind of a weird situation because of most of your high school friendships, you might have a few that you sustain in a surface way, but that intimacy doesn't exist. Whether we made it a point or God made it a point ... we'd be on the phone every couple of weeks. I'd go down at least once a year to visit Justin, he'd come up here at least once a year to visit me, and he'd come home in the summers to work."
Though Skeesuck stayed in California after college, he and Gray served as best man in each other's weddings and the couples vacationed together numerous times. As the relationship between the two men continued to grow, Skeesuck's body steadily weakened.
MAMA is insidious. It progresses, then plateaus. Progresses, then plateaus. Over a period of years, Skeesuck lost function in his left foot, then his left leg, then his right foot, then right leg—his torso and arms initially remained unaffected. For a long time, he could still get around, but with each loss came another walking aid: He went from using braces, to a cane, to a cane and braces, to a walker and braces to a manual wheelchair for longer distances.
"There was never a point where I just [gave up], but there were definitely points in my life where I've been like, 'C'mon. Give me a break here,'" Skeesuck said, a slight edge slipping into his voice. "Definitely as the disease has progressed as I get older, it would almost be easier to be a paraplegic, because then I'd know I was going to be that way for the rest of my life. It's pretty much fixed, whereas mine constantly changes. Adaptation has been a major part of how I've had to live life. I had to re-learn methodologies: how to get my clothes on, brush my teeth, eat, go to the bathroom, shower. Stuff that you do every day, I had to learn how to do over, and over, and over. I had to adapt again, and again, and again. And as I've lost function, I've lost the ability to adapt and have to rely on others," he said, emphasizing how reliant he is on Gray, his children and his wife, and how grateful he is for them.
"My wife is pretty bad-ass," he said smiling, the edge gone.
- Courtesy Patrick Gray
- Meet the Skeesucks.
For Skeesuck, even the smallest tasks require assistance—as do the most personal and intimate ones—and as MAMA eradicated his muscles, it opened his eyes. He began to see that what he perceived as a burden, someone else might see as an opportunity. People wanted to help him. All he had to do was ask.
"Even strangers have helped me along the way," Skeesuck said. "Here's a funny but very humbling story. My wife was out with my boys, and I was home with my daughter, who was maybe 2 at the time. Um ... nature called. Nature of a serious nature. I was at the point in my disease where I could still get onto the toilet but just barely, and knew my wife wouldn't be home for awhile. And then I couldn't get my pants button undone. I tried for 45 minutes. I was even asking my 2-year-old to help. She was willing to help, but she didn't have the strength. I was thinking, 'This is not going to end well,' and all of a sudden I hear [the doorbell]. It's my water delivery guy, who I had built a relationship with over the course of a year or so. I opened the door, and I said, 'Dude, I need your help. This isn't in your job description, but could you unbutton my pants?' He said, 'No problem, man!' and I raced to the bathroom. Stuff like that happens all the time. I've had neighbors come over and pull up my pants, or get me up off the floor. It's very humbling. You could go two ways: You could have a sense of gratitude or you could feel pure embarrassment and anger," Skeesuck said. "Through all of those moments, I've learned how to ask for and accept help ... I found when you deny someone the opportunity to help you, you deny them a joy in life."
- Courtesy Patrick Gray
- Once Justin and Patrick set off for the Camino de Santiago, they never looked back.
The Camino de Santiago is actually a web of routes through Europe and Spain, all of which end at the Santiago de Compostela cathedral in Galicia in northwestern Spain. It has been a Christian pilgrimage route for more than a thousand years, and tens of thousands of travelers have walked its trails, starting from any one of a number of places, including from the French side of the Pyrenees Mountains, the Basque Country, Andalusia and Portugal. The Camino has modernized over the centuries, and amenities like food and lodging exist all along the trail. But it is still a 500-mile walk. It's an arduous trek at best—crazy to even consider for someone who uses a wheelchair.
Then, in 2010, everything changed.
"It was the worst year of my life," Skeesuck said. "I was really put to the test."
Skeesuck was a talented graphic designer and because his atrophy had been contained to his lower body, he had been able to work. But in 2010, he noticed a weakness in his right shoulder. Within 45 days, he had lost 60-70 percent use of his arm.
"I'm not going to lie," he said. "It sucked ... what was left of my positive nature and my resilience was gone."
As Skeesuck looked at a life of utter dependency on others, he hit bottom. Rather than dive headfirst into the darkness, though, he made a conscious decision to "buck up," surround himself with loved ones and figure out how to make the best of the situation. He decided, yet again, to adapt.
He started to set goals for himself.
"I really don't share this that often, but I wanted to be there to walk my daughter down the aisle," Skeesuck said. "If I've got air in my lungs, I'm going to be there."
He was determined to take things day by day. Then, the Camino called.
It was spring 2012 on a Saturday like any other Saturday. Skeesuck was watching an episode of PBS show Rick Steves' Europe on Spain, which included a short segment about the history of the Camino de Santiago.
"I thought, 'Why can't I do that?'," Skeesuck said.
"That's not really part of his chemistry," Gray added, laughing. "It's always why not. Not why, but why not."
For a few years, Skeesuck and Gray had been talking about just the two of them taking a trip together and had nearly settled on going to Germany for Oktoberfest. Gray and his family arrived at their friends' San Diego home for a planned visit a few weeks after Skeesuck had first seen the Rick Steves show—which he taped. Skeesuck asked Gray to watch it with him. Afterward, Skeesuck looked over and asked, "What do you think?"
"Sitting in my living room," Skeesuck said, "the first thing Pat said to me was, 'I'll push you.'"
- Courtesy Patrick Gray
- Justin and Patrick crossed a lot of bridges on their journey.
In 2013, Skeesuck and his wife took a leap of faith and moved the family to Idaho, into a home a few blocks from the Grays. Now in the same city, the two men began training for the 500-mile Camino trek. Because a motorized wheelchair would be no match for the Pyrenees Mountains, Skeesuck had to have an off-road wheelchair built, which Gray would be pulling or pushing through every kind of terrain, while carrying a heavy pack. Gray would also be responsible for dressing, feeding and bathing both of them over the course of their nearly six-week trip, so he began endurance training, walking up and down the Foothills near his home in Eagle.
As the reality of the trip grew closer, the two men realized they could defray some expenses if they could secure some sponsors. A local company was considering a sponsorship, and Gray and Skeesuck made a video trailer of their trip to help sell the idea. What it did, was sow the seeds for another, bolder idea: The duo would make a documentary of their Camino trip. Skeesuck got in touch with Terry Parish, a friend from college and the co-founder and CEO of video content agency Emota, to see if he could help.
"We went to Emota and said, 'Hey. We have this idea for this journey.' The team at Emota was immediately on board," Skeesuck said. As the weeks passed, however, the documentary took several different forms.
"We had a grandiose plan, and then we had a bare-bones plan," Skeesuck said. "We left May 28, 2014. The weather was good, it gave us enough time to plan and acclimate but through the whole time leading up to our departure, we had looked at getting corporations and companies involved to help fund the documentary. Basically, [they all said], 'You haven't gone on the journey yet, so why would we give you any money? The rationale over and over again was, 'You haven't done it yet, so why would we support it?'"
For the people Skeesuck and Gray approached in search of financial backing, the risk was too great.
"Part of the issue was what made it exciting for Emota: It was a story that hasn't been told in any way, shape or form. It was completely unwritten, so, from an investment standpoint, it could be a complete crap show. We could get two weeks in, and I could break my leg. Game over. That was the [reason for] reluctance, but it's also why Emota was so excited. Historically, documentaries are stories that have already been told. ...Our story hadn't been written yet, so [we heard] a lot of reservations about investing."
Parish kept hitting the same walls.
"A lot of people were excited to be involved in the project but, for whatever reason, we could never connect with the right sponsors," he said.
Grandiose or bare, however, Parish wasn't going to walk away: He was going to walk 500 miles. So, cutting back to a skeleton crew, Parish began to film what would become I'll Push You, a documentary that captured Gray and Skeesuck as they traveled across the world, as they set off on Camino and as they persevered through rain, heat, broken equipment, pain, exhaustion and fear. The film captures moments like Gray and Skeesuck allowing a group of fellow pilgrims to help push and pull Skeesuck's chair up a steep muddy incline; Gray brushing Skeesuck's teeth; the men meeting an opera singer at a crossroads; Gray confessing about feeling demoralized, but determined not to let Skeesuck know; Skeesuck breaking down as he admits how difficult it is for him to let Gray do everything. I'll Push You also shows the men letting go of insecurities and finding strength in one another.
The release date for I'll Push You has itself been pushed back a few times and is now tentatively scheduled for late 2017, but though it hasn't opened in theaters across the country yet, it has opened some doors for Skeesuck and Gray.
- Courtesy The Disabled Traveler
- An avid traveler, Justin provides travel tips and resources for people with disabilities.
After Gray and Skeesuck returned from the Camino, their lives changed yet again, this time for the better. Word of their trip and the documentary got around and suddenly, they were telling their story to a much larger audience. People, The Today Show, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The New York Daily Post, Spiegel, The Daily Mail and more carried stories of the duo's. Gray and Skeesuck were now being hired as inspirational speakers around the United States and here at home, where they presented a TedX Talk and were guest speakers at a huge 2015 event hosted by law firm Moffatt Thomas, at the behest of attorney Stephen Thomas, who also walked the Camino in 2013.
After a speaking engagement in Chicago, Gray and Skeesuck met Chris Portwood and her husband Brian, a 28-year-survivor of brain cancer. They struck up a conversation and became fast friends.
"God put Justin and Patrick in our path," Chris said.
Because they can't meet everyone in person, Gray and Skeesuck launched The Disabled Traveler website, which is dedicated to providing travel tips and resources for people with disabilities, as well as education on accessibility, etiquette and even architectural aesthetics for companies that provide services for people with disabilities. The two men were getting so busy, Gray quit his job to focus on The Disabled Traveler. It was a risky move, but for these two friends, that's just how they roll.