by Lex Gillette
In June of 2017, I competed in the National Championships in Los Angeles at UCLA’s Drake Stadium. That was the qualifying competition for the World Championships which would be held in London.
I thought I was going to have a stellar performance, but it turned out to not be a great day. I didn’t jump as far as I wanted to. After that competition, I felt like I was in question. I didn’t feel confident and was worried whether or not my performance would be good enough to get me on the world championships team that would be headed to London a month later.
Long story short, I just needed to get out of town, clear my head; just get my mind off competition and track and field.
Thankfully, I did have a trip scheduled to Las Vegas. One of my friends was celebrating his 25th birthday. After competing so horribly in L.A., I needed a trip, and Vegas was the answer. (And no, it was nothing like the movie “The Hangover.”)
The Vegas Quest
This was the first time that my friend had been to Vegas. It was him and a couple of his fraternity brothers and me, and I was the only one who had been to Vegas before. So, they were taking it all in, all the lights and all the sounds and smells. It was destined to be a great time.
We got some food. We chilled out. Later on that evening, we decided to get dressed up, go out on the Strip, and walk around for a bit. We walked into the Bellagio, and these guys wanted to go into some of the designer stores there: Gucci, Prada, Louis Vuitton. While we’re in the Louis Vuitton store, I found a backpack.
Now, I’m fascinated with backpacks. I love them. I think a lot of it is because as someone who’s blind, I love to have my hands free. It allows me to walk around and use my hands and use my cane.
And this is no ordinary backpack. It’s Louis Vuitton. It’s made from gorgeous leather, and I’m touching these backpacks and feeling the straps and feeling the pockets and just imagining all of the things that I could put in there. I could easily take a weekend trip and perfectly pack a Louis Vuitton backpack, take it with me and be a stylish dude, the most stylish guy wherever I’m going.
My friends had been asking about and marveling about the prices all night. Typically, I don’t ask for a price unless I’m really interested. So, I asked. The associate told me and I was like, “Alright. Well, let’s get out of here.” There was no way in the world I was going to pay that much money for a backpack
We ditched the shops and hit the Strip, walking around, seeing the sights, and playing a little blackjack. That was fun, and I won a few dollars. I actually won a couple hundred bucks. So, that’s always nice. Thinking I can justify some more food or even more blackjack.
We get back to our hotel, and my friends’ flights leave the following morning around 9:00. My flight wasn’t scheduled until the next afternoon around 2:00. They got up and left for the airport, and I’m there alone.
Alone with a couple hundred dollars of blackjack winnings, five hours, and a very distinct, tactile memory of Louis Vuitton leather.
To be continued….
Let’s back up a little bit. When I was a kid, and I lost my sight, I had an orientation and mobility specialist who taught me to use a cane. He taught me all the techniques I would need to navigate and explore the world.
Now, as an adult, I talk a lot about how challenging it was for me to get out of my own way and actually use the cane. In my head, I was thinking, “A cane? I’m not 70 years old. I’m not looking for my AARP card or my Social Security check. I don’t need a cane!” When, in actuality, the cane was the very thing that helped me gain more independence.
I’m about 6’2”. My cane comes up to my chest. It’s long and tall, but it lets me know what’s in my path. I can tell when I need to step down off a curb or navigate stairs. I can feel if I’m about to walk onto grass or gravel. It gives me so much information.
When I got to the point where I was all right with the cane, and I really started to use it, I realized the cane had so much power. For me, it became a symbol of freedom. It was independence.
It gave me the autonomy to walk around my school, then my neighborhood, then all around Raleigh, North Carolina, and eventually down the crowded Las Vegas strip.
The Quest Continues
I was at the hotel trying to figure out what my next move was going to be. At first, I was just going to walk around on the strip, but I got into this mental space where I could not get the previous day’s competition out of my mind. I could not push back the thoughts about how poorly I competed.
I thought to myself, “Man, you could use some retail therapy.” For those of you who have been to Las Vegas and won a little bit of money, you know there’s something encouraging about having Vegas’ money in your wallet. Sometimes it prompts you to buy something you wouldn’t ordinarily buy.
I remembered that backpack at the Louis Vuitton store, how nice it felt. My friends had told me it was mostly blue but had some red and white on it too. Being a Paralympic athlete for Team U.S.A., that resonated with me.
I thought, “Man, that would look really nice on my slender frame.” So, I get it in my head that I’m going to get from my hotel to the Bellagio, to that Louis Vuitton store, and I’m going to walk it.
But even with my cane being a fantastic tool, I needed more than simple directions from the concierge to get there. There’s this company that I work with called Aira. What they do is connect blind and visually impaired users to human agents via there phones, usually with a pair of smart glasses. This way the agents can see where the user is and help direct them to where they need to go.
I didn’t have my glasses with me (lesson learned: take your glasses to a new city), so when I connected with Connie via my Aira app she had to direct me by viewing my surrounding through the camera on my phone. She was great! She mapped out the route via computer and told me how long it should take to get there. Louis Vuitton, here I come!
Connie helped me right out the door, through the hotel and out onto the Las Vegas strip….in early June. It was hot. I mean, one-step-below-hell hot. But Connie had my back, and we were off.
My cane kept me out of immediate trouble, but there were other things that Connie had to help with. My phone camera wasn’t quite as efficient as wearing the smart glasses. There can be some issues with clarity and depth-perception for the Aira agent, but we were doing pretty well…until the escalators.
I’ll just say that going up the down escalator was not a workout I was fully prepared for that day. A few more little glitches here and there, but I got to the Bellagio unscathed. Then, a new obstacle presented itself. I doubt there are few things as comical as watching a blind man negotiate a revolving door.
I stood there, and I’m listening and listening as it makes the ‘whroom, whroom, whroom’ sound. Every time it made that noise, I knew that’s probably the opening I needed. I finally got up the courage to go. After that next ‘whroom,’ I stepped in there. I mistimed it and got squished in between the door and the wall a little bit, but I was able to weasel myself out of that. I pushed until I felt the air conditioning on the other side, and I quickly stepped out. Now, I’m inside the Bellagio Hotel. Bingo!
Connie’s still there with me, but my cell phone signal wasn’t very strong. She told me she saw the store, directed me there, and I let her go. I walked in, cane in hand. An attendant immediately came to me, and I told her I knew exactly what I came in here to get. She got the backpack for me. I felt it and checked it out. Yes, this was it.
She told me the price. I couldn’t completely believe I was doing it. I knew that I was going to have to starve myself for two months, but I wanted that backpack. So, I swiped my card and walked out of the Louis Vuitton store with my brand new backpack.
Before I could even get to the airport, there were more issues that came up. I didn’t know there was a designated rideshare area at the hotel. I didn’t use any fancy apps to find that information. I relied on asking the people around me, but my first ride abandoned me before I could find them.
Now I had no ride, and I’m thinking about my flight. My departure was fast approaching. I was getting nervous about making it to the airport on time. The thrill of navigating Vegas by myself and buying the backpack was pretty overwhelming, and it’s the thing I will always remember most about that day. But when I finally got to the airport and found out I had missed my flight, I was hot, tired, and just plain ready to go home.
But I had my Louis Vuitton backpack!
Thinking back on my Vegas Quest, I think we all benefit from different tools. We all have canes. We have Aira or other resources that allow us our freedom and independence. But we sometimes just don’t recognize them as such.
We live in a world where people are constantly on their cell phones. Whether it’s on social media, talking, texting, or whatever, but your phone is a cane too. It’s a device that can lead you to new paths or even give you a straighter path to your destination. It can awaken you to new possibilities and totally shatter the barriers and limitations that you might have.
Every time you’re at school or work, and you have a pen in your hand or a keyboard on your desk, that’s a cane. That’s freedom. That’s independent achievement. If you write stories, dissertations, song lyrics, or even a business plan, that’s you breaking down barriers. You just have to view it as such.
Grab your cane and go. Grab whatever it is and go, because that’s going to be that one thing that helps you move forward. It’s going to help you see more than you ever thought you could.
You may have books in your room or in your classroom that you have never read. Read those. Those could be your cane. They could be the one thing that creates that path to help you navigate through your obstacles.
There’s so much knowledge, so much wisdom out there. We fail to use it because we look at those things the same way I looked at my cane when I was first introduced to it as an eight-year-old. “I don’t need this. I can figure it out on my own. I’m not old. I don’t look cool with this. This just isn’t me.”
When we have that mindset, we gyp ourselves. We rob ourselves of opportunities, rob ourselves of blessings, rob ourselves of possibilities, rob ourselves of broken barriers, rob ourselves of furthering our visions and shattering our limitations.
It could have been easy to surrender to those excuses and never use that cane. But when I made the decision to see it for what it was, I was able to travel, to broaden my world and my experiences. It’s funny that being blind and using this cane has helped me see so much of this world in such an intimate way.
I think it’s the same for a lot of us. We have phones. We have pens. We have books. We have computers. We have each other.
Grab your cane and go. Grab your cane and go.
Lex Gillette is a professional keynote speaker, 4x Paralympic Medalist, and 3x Long Jump World Champion who is currently training to win gold at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games. He has been wowing audiences of all sizes with his athletic gift since 2004, and he has been inspiring audiences on the corporate stage since 2013. His ultimate goal is to teach others to look past their current reality and challenge them to see further than they ever thought possible.
Photo credits: Rough Landing photo by Joe Kusumoto; Lex Feet & Cane photo by Joris Debeij, Las Vegas Sign photo by tookapic on Pixabay.