Friday, August 23, 2019
‘I’ll Push You’-A Journey of Faith and Friendship
Justin Skeesuck read the trail ahead, telling Patrick Gray when to go left or right to keep the wheelchair from veering off because of terrain.
Sunday, April 21, 2019


It started with three words: “I’ll push you.”

That’s how Patrick Gray, a registered nurse, found himself struggling to push his lifelong friend in a custom-made wheelchair up the steep, rocky incline that constituted the first day of travel on the 500-mile Camino de Santiago.

Over the next 35 days, he would summon inner strength he never knew he had as he pushed and pulled his friend through creeks, up rocky paths and through mud that resembled gloppy glue.

Patrick Gray and Justin Skeesuck arrived at Santiago de Compostela one day ahead of time where they were greeted by their wives and many of the friends who had helped them along The Way.

But he also learned to accept help from without. And, by the end of the trip, both men had been transformed.

Patrick Gray and Justin Skeesuck shared their story Friday for 650 teachers, counselors and others attending the annual Idaho Prevention and Support Conference at Sun Valley Resort.

It’s a story they’ve shared with “The Today Show,” “The Huffington Post,” ”Fox News” and others. It’s a story they’ve shared in classrooms, at TEDTalks and at motivational conferences around the United States. And it’s a story they’ve told via a film and book titled “I’ll Push You.”

But it’s a story that still brings both to laughter, tears and profound emotion, as they demonstrated Friday.

Justin Skeesuck’s college friends pared 600-plus hours of film footage into “I’ll Push You,” which won the Audience Award at the Newport Beach Film Festival.

“I pushed Justin physically, but he pushed me emotionally and spiritually into a new level of freedom,” said Gray.

Actually, these two exceptional friends have been pushing each other for more than 40 years.

Born 36 hours apart in the same hospital in Ontario, Ore., they attended the same schools and the same church. Their mothers had known each other since fourth grade. Their parents went to college together. And Skeesuck’s great uncle had been the best man at the wedding of Gray’s grandfather.

But what had been an idyllic childhood hit a bump in the road when Skeesuck was involved in an   accident heading to a basketball tournament in Nampa. Both Skeesuck and his friend, who had been driving 85 miles per hour on the freeway, walked away from the accident.

Since the pilgrimage, Patrick Gray and Justin Skeesuck have launched The Disabled Traveler website to provide travel tips and resources for those with disabilities. They also wrote a children’s book, “The Push,” a story about friendship which Skeesuck illustrated using voice-activated software. And they just launched a new school campaign called The Push project to create healthy relationships within schools.

But six months later his right leg began flopping as he was running down the soccer field.

The accident had triggered Multifocal Acquired Motor Axonopathy, a progressive congenital neuromuscular disease that had lain dormant in his body. And it caused his autoimmune system to shut down his nervous system, causing his muscles to atrophy bit by bit over the years since.

He was able to continue playing soccer and other sports. He and Gray served as best man in each other’s weddings. And their families spent vacations together, during breaks in Skeesuck’s work as a graphic designer and Gray’s work as a nurse.

But nine years ago--in 2010--the disease paralyzed Skeesuck’s shoulders, effectively ending the use of his hands or legs.

Patrick Gray dressed, fed and bathed his friend Justin Skeesuck, in addition to pushing and pulling him along 500 miles.

“I found myself in a deep dark hole. I wondered if it would be easier for others, including my children who were feeding me, if I took my life,” said Skeesuck. “But eventually I began giving thanks for simple things—a smile on my child’s face, the sun in the morning… And it shifted my mindset.”

Two years later Skeesuck was watching “Rick Steves’ Europe” when the host described the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage across Spain dating back to the ninth century when pilgrims began making their way to Santiago de Compostela to pay homage to the apostle St. James.

“Everything in my body screamed, ‘You need to do this,’ ” Skeesuck said.

He showed the taped show to Gray. “I’ll push you,” Gray said.

Every year nearly 300,000 people walk the Camino, which was popularized in the movie “The Way.” They include atheists and Buddhists, college students and retirees. They travel by foot, bike and on horseback.

But, as far as Skeesuck and Gray know, no one had ever done it in a wheelchair before. And they set about to write that story.

Gray began training by hiking the foothills near his home in Eagle. Knowing his motorized wheelchair would never make it up the first hill in the Pyrenees Mountains, Skeesuck set about to build an off-road wheelchair that he calls “a three-wheel baby jogger on steroids.”

But even that specialized wheelchair proved no match for parts of the trail, as they soon learned on the first day’s 17-mile climb out of St. Jean Pied-de-Port in the Pyrenees of France.

“I looked up at the trail and said, ‘That can’t be the trail. It’s all just rock,’ ” Skeesuck recounted.

Gray and a friend who had joined them for the first couple days pulled Skeesuck out of his wheelchair and began carrying him a few hundred yards at a time until they got him to the top.

“I laid back with my eyes closed and, next I knew, a man in a little black beret was standing over me slapping me in the face,” said Skeesuck, who has no problem exercising his smile muscles even if he can’t use those in his arms or legs. “This man had been making sure the shelter at top was stocked with wood for 12 years and he was so happy to see me. He raised his hands in the air, and said, ‘The impossible’s possible.’ ”

“At that moment, when we were so discouraged, he chose that moment to encourage us,” Skeesuck added.

That didn’t make the remaining 483 miles any easier, though. Gray struggled through mud, his body almost parallel to the ground as he strained to pull Skeesuck by harness. The axis broke on the front wheel and they had to scrounge around Pamplona to find someone who could fix it.

By the seventh day, body parts Gray didn’t know he had were writhing in agony. His body was shaking because his tank was empty.

But one day when he was struggling to push Skeesuck uphill, a pilgrim all of 5 feet tall pushed him aside and spurted uphill pushing the combined weight of 250 pounds as if it were nothing. Out of nowhere a woman in a Nike hat who worked with people with disabilities showed up to help. And then, on the 28th day as a monster of a mountain climb loomed before them, they heard two fellows from Boise ask them, “Aren’t you Justin and Patrick?!”

Skeesuck and Gray reached the café in the town at the bottom of the climb to find out their new Boise friends had lined up more than a dozen people who were waiting to help.

“It was straight up, so steep, that my wheelchair had to be carried at times by six people at a time,” recounted Skeesuck. “It was a beautiful human symphony—I’m being pushed and pulled and by the time we got to the top of the mountain the police were escorting us. Being at the epicenter of that was very, very humbling—knowing all those people did it for me. They saw a need, jumped in and said, ‘We’re going to get you to the top.’ ”

In fact, Skeesuck and Gray gained a deeper appreciation of what it means to help and what a gift it is to ask for and accept help from that experience and others.

“I’ve always struggled with wondering when I should let people into my journey because our culture is all about, ‘I’m going to do it myself,’ ” Skeesuck said. “But I’ve come to realize that when you deny someone the opportunity to help you, you deny them the joy in life.”

Gray said he had long been a Type 1, control freak micromanager who put work before family. But he was able to let go of that at the Cruz de Ferro, the Iron Cross, which is also known as “the place of letting go.”

 “My obsession with perfection and my need to do it all on my own hindered my relationship with my wife and three kids because I was always at work. And when I was at home I was on call. I had to be the one to do it on my own. I didn’t let people help me very well. I learned it can be so freeing when you realize you can’t do it all on my own,” he said.

“To have other people come in and push Justin when I couldn’t taught me a lesson: I need to let go of control and let people carry me when I can’t carry myself.”


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