Not letting the use of a wheelchair stand in her way, 22 year old Charlotte Murphy and her partner Mikey Sunter still rack up plenty of miles…
My name is Charlotte Murphy. I am 22 years old and was born in Glasgow but have lived in Thurso, 15 miles from John o’Groats, for the past 13 years. I love where I live. It’s a hidden gem that isn’t so hidden anymore what with the growth of the North Coast 500, which has seen major growth in vehicle tourism for the region.
I was born with cerebral palsy (CP),which affects my legs. As a child I had the capability of walking with leg splints and walking frames. I did struggle when I was younger with the idea that one day I would end up in a wheelchair, as I had thought that it would make my life unbearably difficult. Eventually, around the age of 11 I had a knee injury, but because I couldn’t hop with crutches I then transferred to the chair and have been in it ever since.
I will say that my preconceived idea of a difficult life wasn’t the way things turned out. As well as the CP I suffer from scoliosis of my spine, nerve pain and pain from the lightest touch of my back - a hug would have me in agony for days. Because of my back problems I use many pain meds which could be a problem in the future if me and my fiancé want to travel outside of the EU.
It is not an exaggeration when I say that never ever in my wildest dreams did I think I would be into motorcycle travel. When Mikey – my partner – and his family introduced me to working on the bikes in the shed I decided to get involved because I could see how much it meant to him and to them.
I remember being strangely proud the first time I got oil on my jeans! The reason that I first ended up on the back of our first bike together, which was an ugly 1980’s Honda Spacey 250 cc - was that I wanted to visit a place on the north west coast called Durness. We had to get there by bike because my car at the time would have been very uncomfortable due to the road, but we also wanted to see if it was possible for us to travel in such a way. The significance of Durness and the date we went was that it was the one year anniversary of my mum’s passing and Durness to her was like heaven on earth.
Myself and Mikey had both been greatly inspired by Cathy Birchall and Bernard Smith’s book, Touching the world, which told the story of their trip around the world, despite Cathy being blind. The book certainly made us wonder if travelling on a bike was something I would do and find interesting. We could relate heavily to the story and now Bernard is a very close friend of ours.
With the bike we have now, a BMW RT 80 R nicknamed Matilda, she needed a new rack to carry the travel wheelchair, plus we had to adjust my foot pegs because of the shape my feet rest in. We used old wheelchair footplates we had from a spare chair, thus making new foot-plates for me which is much more comfortable.
Of course, there are challenges in relation to being on the bike and going places. The main challenges for us are my health - pain levels and sorting medications - and getting on and off the bike. My pain and fatigue has had a big part to play when we have made far off plans. I always want to push myself but sometimes you have to just hold your hands up and say, ‘it’s too much’. Mind you, it very rarely stops us. In the past, with smaller bikes, I would try and use crutches and not the chair whilst we were away.
On the smaller bikes I would have the problem that my legs would continuously spasm and shake to the point that the bike and Mikey would end up shaking with me from over exertion. With Matilda this doesn’t really happen, both because of my proper foot rests and that I use the chair now.
Getting on and off the bike is a much more obvious challenge. For getting on I need at least Mikey and if available someone else to help me get my leg over. Getting off is a different story. First the bike has to go on the center stand and mikey has to take the wheelchair off the back, once that is down I will then sit while he gets the luggage off. Something that I struggle with and have a lot of internal turmoil about is the fact that there is almost nothing I can do to help when travelling. Mikey has to pretty much do everything, but he does it without gurning.
There is almost an infinite list when it comes to what I enjoy about being on the bike. For me apart from of course seeing new things and meeting new people, one of my favourite things about being a wheelchair bound pillion is challenging people’s perception and expectations of someone who is wheelchair bound. For instance, on many occasions when we were out and about on Matilda this year, her blue badge proud on her windscreen, many people while we parked up came over to us ready to tell us off for parking in badge spots. That was of course until they saw the badge or me getting into my chair. Also, it is always amazing to me the way that biking has opened up the world to me, and how in not many other circumstances would you find a group of people from all walks of life from all over the world to so readily help each other.
At the moment most of our travels have been around the north of Scotland, as up until this year our bikes weren’t properly adjusted and equipped for us to travel further afield. With the arrival of Matilda this year we felt like there was nothing really holding us. We went to an adventure bike rally in Strontian as our first long trip, over the Applecross pass as well. Since that went well we felt spurred on the go to HUBB UK 2017 in South Wales, which was about 650 miles from our home one way. It took us three days to get there, mainly because I was suffering pretty bad with my pain.
Next year we plan to go to the outer Hebrides and we plan to tour around Ireland for a few weeks. I spent many summer holiday with the family there and would love to show Mikey it and tour on the roads with the bike, which I think will be spectacular.
Something that sums up my delight of challenging people’s expectations of the disabled is an interaction I had with someone when I first started going on bikes.
I was waiting outside an ice cream shop in John o’Groats while Mikey went to get our food. I was sat on the bike in the sun looking at my phone when a young girl who couldn’t have been more than four years old said to her mum, “Mummy is that a girl on a motorcycle?”
“Why yes darling I think it is”
“Wow, I didn’t know girls could ride motorcycles!”
At which point I chimed in “And this one can’t even walk!”.
That look of confusion, surprise and joy on the wee girl’s face has continued to motivate me to surprise people and will stay with me from then on, and while I may have challenges with pain, I would rather be in pain from doing something I love than being on the couch. Mind you, we all have those days!
To follow Charlotte’s travels go to her Facebook page: Facebook/thatshowIroll