*Let me begin by saying that this blog post will not be an accurate portrayal of how eye-opening, how earth-shaking, and how important this trip was to me, but if you wish to continue I would love for you to hear about my experience.*
The Wayfaring Band. A non-profit organization started by local advocates Andrea Moore and Pavel Reppo that seek to "create social experiences for our members to explore, connect, and engage with their communities through the lens of travel and adventure."
The Wayfaring Band: a group of incredible people who travel, experience life, and learn about each other over the course of a week. This organization is a neurodiverse group of travelers who are the most authentic, most upfront and honest, most positive-in-the-face-of-negativity minded band of people I have ever met. The staff is mind-blowingly good at their jobs and the band members are too perfect to even put into words.
Let me take a step back and walk you through my experience before this just turns into a gush-fest though.
I first met Andrea Moore through an event I was a part of with New Genres Club based out of Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design. Once I heard about The Detached Garage (a residency she runs out of her backyard garage specifically designed for EMERGING ARTISTS) as well as The Wayfaring Band I was hooked and needed to know more about who she was as an individual. She just happened to be speaking at RMCAD a few weeks later, so after attending her lecture on The Wayfaring Band, we began talking about me being the potential artist in residence for the upcoming trip that was set to take on the Colorado Hot Springs Loop.
If you know nothing about me, know that I love a good bath, and a good hot spring is actually just a bath in the mountains, so of course I needed to attend this trip, as well as get my first art residency under my belt.
I agreed to be the Artist In Residence, and I dove headfirst into a week of discomfort, not knowing anyone, and traveling with a band of adults who experience cognitive disabilities, something I had never really been in contact with this closely before.
My first day was a shock, trying to learn names, trying to think of everyone as complete equals who all experience something unique to their person (whether that is a cognitive disability or depression/oppression/privilege/etc.), and also trying to be my best self all the while. After a day of bus travel, hot springs, and poorly cooked angel hair pasta in a hotel room filled with 16 people, I figured I was already in the thick of it and had no place to go now but deeper into it.
The thing is: even while I was experiencing this craziness, I felt completely at home because everyone was so accepting. There was zero judgment, there were plenty of snacks, and everyone had a fun, or not-so-fun, story to tell about themselves. I could write a whole book on the week-long trip that I had, but I think three of the biggest things that happened to me will recap the trip well enough for the time being.
**For sake of anonymity I will refer to the band members in these stories as Jill, Bill, and Phil**
Let me tell you about Jill. She was among the older of the band members was experiencing a lack of love in her life and mentioned numerous times her emotional desire to have a boyfriend, husband, or partner to share her life with. She ended up latching hard to a roadie (term used for the staff of the trip) as well as myself to temporarily fill that lack of love, always cuddling, hugging, and talking about us, well, more so the roadie than me, but I was a close second.
Jill knew that I am gay, have a boyfriend, and am in no way sexually attracted to women, but still confessed to me a few days into the trip that she had a crush on me. I turned to her and started saying, "I am flattered, and I wish I could express the same feelings, but I just----" and she cut me off with, "I know."
I have never before felt so understood, so thought about, and so considered than in that moment. Jill had this insane ability to pick up on people's emotions and inherently understand that person without even talking to them about what they are feeling. On numerous occasions, I walked into the same room in the morning as Jill and was instantly greeted with her asking me what was wrong or how was I doing. She could sense that something was off with me, having only known me a few days. Her sense of the human spectrum of emotions was something I had never seen before, and something I likely will never forget.
On the flipside, Bill was the exact opposite. The wonderful thing about The Wayfaring Band is that even though band members are experiencing different cognitive disabilities, the staff do not treat them ANY different than they would if they were neurotypical. More help is given to people if they need it, of course, but otherwise, no one is special, no one gets special treatment or opportunities, and everyone has to advocate for what they, as the individual, need. This leads me to the moment I blatantly called out Bill for making a homophobic comment one night during the trip.
I am usually pretty tolerant of people, but after a few days of stubborn behavior, not realizing the help he was being given, and not giving help back, plus a homophobic comment about sleeping with another man, I had had it. Many words were used, but I went at this band member in the same fashion that I would have spoken to anyone else who was acting in this way, and the staff did not say anything to me because he was being him, I was being me, and ultimately, Bill was just being a dick. This was a hard night because Bill was also one of the sweetest band members, at moments watching out for other band members, being genuinely interested in what people were doing or thinking, but in this moment all of that faded away.
Later in the trip, in a discussion about oppression, I brought up to him how making these sorts of comments in a space that was supposed to be judgement free made me feel very unsafe and like I don't belong, leading to more discussion about the topic and how it related to oppression and tears were shed and hugs were given and everyone got along once again. It was a moment where things needed to be aired out to get past them, and the rest of the trip went smooth between myself and Bill after it was brought up and talked about.
The simple fact that The Wayfaring Band is completely okay with calling someone experiencing a cognitive disability a dick is one of my favorite things about the organization. Guess what? Humans aren't always nice, humans are dicks sometimes, and just because you experience a developmental disability or autism or any other cognitive disability does not mean that you get to get away with being a dick to another human. Everyone was on a level playing field and it was amazing.
But the single most important thing that happened to me on this trip was getting to spend time in close proximity with Phil. Phil is non-verbal because of the severity of the disability he is experiencing, but this meant absolutely nothing in terms of how fluently or coherently he could communicate with everyone. Phil has a device that allows him to say basic words, but his tool of choice is usually a small laminated keyboard, in which with some help holding his hand up, he can type out words and hold a conversation with anyone. He had a particular way of communicating yes or no, showing you he was angry, frustrated, or extremely happy, and he had his own special way of being a dick (such as bringing you very close, face-to-face with him, and then poking your glasses, referring to the age-old insult of "Four-Eyes". He also likes to point at something so you turn away from his face, meanwhile, he will smack the rim of your backward hat and laugh uncontrollably about his prank).
Phil was this all-knowing central figure of the trip, helping us find hotels at night on dark roads by nudging a roadie seconds before we pass it, telling us all that we will be in a place with a bird feeder and bluebirds (four nights before we are in this cabin with bird feeders and bluebirds everywhere), and typing out poems that gave us insights into the mind of a human without capacity to verbalize his own thoughts. Phil is this amazing man who is essentially trapped within his own body and mind, the catch is that you just need to be willing to try and understand his language, rather than make him try to understand yours, to grasp even a sliver of his extraordinary brain-power.
Again, I could go on for days about each and every person on this trip, but I won't at this time.
This trip was equal in importance for me as an artist and as a human as my trip to Ireland was a few years ago. My mental capacity for understanding compassion has grown exponentially and I can not thank Andrea Moore enough for inviting me to be a part of this incredible trip. Now begins the art portion of this residency. The way that this non-profit runs the residency is that as the artist, you get to go on a trip with the band for no cost, and in exchange, within 90 days of returning from the residency you give back a piece of art in the form of an ode to the trip. I am currently working with digital collage and scans of my sketches and notes for this ode, but it is still highly in process.
If you have not clicked any of the above links I highly recommend it, or visit the ones below to find out more about The Wayfaring Band, New Genres Club, Andrea as an artist, and the shirts that Phil makes using his poems as inspiration. Donate to this group, learn more about them, and try to be involved in any way possible, they are an important group of people.