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Wheels Down in the Wilderness

Four disabled children experience Idaho's backcountry for the first time

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"I've always thought, if there's something I can do for my son, something that will help him, I'll do anything to make sure it happens. The more normal I can make Alex's life for him, I will always make sure to take those opportunities," she said.

This was also the first time either child had flown before—and they loved it. Alex giggled uncontrollably when the horses approached his wheelchair in the evenings and Ehnayah made fast friends with Meghan and Dayl. Above all, the kids seemed simply happy.

"For what those two have been through, they are very happy kids," Leslee said. "Those two are probably happier than our other four kids, who don't have disabilities."

The two step-siblings are close. When Alex wakes up in the morning, Ehnayah likes to help him get dressed. Then sometimes they decide to go back to bed and Ehnayah lays with Alex until he falls asleep. Leslee thinks they understand each other in a different way.

Rex LaGrone flies his Cessna Cardinal using hand controls. His wife, Kathy, also has her pilot license. - JESSICA MURRI
  • Jessica Murri
  • Rex LaGrone flies his Cessna Cardinal using hand controls. His wife, Kathy, also has her pilot license.

On the morning of June 24, a Cessna Cardinal flew into Sulphur Creek Ranch and came to a stop right in front of the outside tables and chairs. Several pilots recognized the plane and rushed over to help. They opened the door and pulled a wheelchair out of the back, assisting Rex LaGrone out of his airplane.

Rex flew over from Twin Falls, where he works in the IT department at St. Luke's Hospital, to show the kids that it's possible to fly planes even in a wheelchair.

Rex's neck was broken in a car accident when he was 24 years old. He always had the desire to fly, so he talked his wife into getting her pilot's license—an idea she was not thrilled about. She ended up loving the sky, and Rex was happy to sit in the seat to her right. Then, one evening at a party with other pilots, Rex got into a conversation with someone about how he had always wanted to fly but couldn't. The pilot asked him why not.

"Isn't it obvious?" Rex asked.

No, it wasn't obvious. Much like for retrofitting a car, hand controls exist for planes, too. Rex bought a set and found what he called a "brave" instructor; he got his license in 1996. Now he and his wife wrestle over who gets to fly.

Meghan Wildman learns about how Rex LaGrone flies his plane using hand controls. - JESSICA MURRI
  • Jessica Murri
  • Meghan Wildman learns about how Rex LaGrone flies his plane using hand controls.

"Most of the problems I have when I fly are problems I would have if I wasn't in a wheelchair," said Rex. "It was a struggle for me to do it, but it wasn't impossible. I've had a lot of encouragement and so maybe, I can be encouraging for someone else."

He paused as tears came to his eyes.

"It's interesting how that still chokes me up," he said.

Alex and Meghan were especially interested in the plane. Rex's wife, Kathy, explained how the hand controls attach to the pedals on the floor and wrap around Rex's forearm. That way, he can control the rudder and the brakes.

With help from his friends, Rex took his time to load himself back into the plane.

"We're late everywhere we go," Kathy joked. They took off, just like every other plane, lifting the needle off the record of the ranch.

Rex's wife, Kathy, shows Alex how Rex flies his plane without using his legs. - JESSICA MURRI
  • Jessica Murri
  • Rex's wife, Kathy, shows Alex how Rex flies his plane without using his legs.