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Track-chair program at Staunton State Park makes the outdoors more accessible

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Justin Batchelder was "stoked" to try Staunton State Park's track-chair program again after the pandemic kept him inside most of the time.

PINE, Colo. — Dozens of footprints on a dirt trail is one of the most typical Colorado sights on a sunny, summer morning. At Staunton State Park, those footprints are mixed with markings that look like a small vehicle took on the trail.  

“It's a tank.” 

“It’s the Cadillac model.” 

“It’s a track chair.” 

These are all different ways to describe the specialized wheelchairs, which are available to rent, that make those markings. These track chairs are so popular they are booked through the summer, five years after the program first started. And it's easy to see why.  

“[The track-chair program] gives me an opportunity to do something I never would otherwise,” said Justin Batchelder. “I remember hiking a lot before my injury … how beautiful that was. But after I got my injury I didn't think that was possible anymore, and when I got up here for the first time, I was really blown away by how beautiful this park is.” 

Impact of track-chair program at Staunton State Park

Staunton State Park's track-chair program continues to make a big impact every summer.

About 13 years ago, the life of then 17-year-old Batchelder changed forever. While riding in a car with a friend, the driver took them down a windy road and took a turn too fast. 

“[He] lost control and ended up rolling it down a hill. So, the roof collapsed on my head, and I just got a spinal cord injury from that and kind of a broken arm, broken humerus. It was pretty wicked,” Batchelder told Rocky Mountain PBS.  

"[I] just try to live and breathe life to the fullest that I can," said Justin Batchelder. 

After the accident, he spent several weeks in the hospital in the intensive care unit and eventually went to Craig Hospital to rehabilitate. Now Batchelder uses a powerchair that he can control with a hand on a toggle using the muscles in his biceps and shoulders. But that powerchair is nothing compared to the track chair.  

“It can climb over anything,” Batchelder said with a laugh. “My other chair likes to get stuck in dirt like this ... I want to go fast and go over bumps as well as see nature. It is pretty fun to explore with.” 

The track-chair program at Staunton State Park started five years ago, inspired by a local Pine resident named Mark Madsen. After a car accident left him paralyzed, Madsen continued to find ways to get out in the nature that he loved so much. He borrowed a track chair from Craig Hospital and used it on the trails. After his passing in 2015, his family and friends established the Mark Madsen Accessibility Fund to buy track chairs for the park.  

The program now owns five, newer-model track chairs, while the older models were donated to other state parks that are working to implement similar programs. Each chair at Staunton has the option to have the participant or a volunteer control the movement at different speeds, direction changes and the ability to tilt the seat for adjustments when going up or down slopes. One of the volunteers who has been with the program since the beginning sang the praises of the new chairs, often calling them the "Cadillac" of chairs.  

The track-chair program at Staunton State Park has five chairs available to rent for free.

Each chair costs about $16,500. While certainly not a small price, program manager Kristin Waltz said it was cheaper than she expected.  

“Originally I thought a custom wheelchair might be $65,000,” said Waltz. “And we're all privately funded.” 

Also available in the track-chair garage are other materials to meet the needs of anyone who rents a chair. Among those items are cushions, straps, a variety of options for the toggle and a lift that can help transfer someone from their wheelchair to a track chair.

“We really try to communicate to people that when they come out for their trip, the chair is theirs for the day. They often bring family members, sometimes pets ... It's really just a whole day to be out in the wilderness and the outdoors,” said Waltz.  

Each trip requires a volunteer who is trained on how to operate the chairs in case something happens or extra help is needed. The volunteers are also well versed in the trails that are best for the track chairs at the park. 

A volunteer must accompany each track-chair participant and helps guide them through the park. They also have the option to control the chair with an attachment. 

For Batchelder, his friend, Travis, joined him for the hike through Staunton State Park. The two of them are known for trying out all sorts of activities together.

“He goes with me on all adventures. We've been rafting together, scuba diving, skiing, like, about everything you can think of. So, this is just one more thing we like to have fun with,” said Batchelder. 

When he's not on adventures, Batchelder's passion is nutrition. With a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nutrition, he's starting a dietetic internship in the fall.

“I love the science of it. I love, like, the counseling aspect of it. And I learned how important it is for folks with spinal cord injury to have adequate nutrition ... and I just want to help other folks with that too,” Batchelder said. 

The first time he participated in the track-chair program was before the pandemic. He has been trying to get back ever since. 

“I had to come back. It is beautiful — the wildflowers, the trees — they're awesome,” said Batchelder. “The best thing that's going through my mind is nothing ... I'm more relaxed here than I am anywhere else.”

Kristin Waltz is now the track-chair program manager after volunteering with the program for years.

Waltz said with three trips a day on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, the program is booked through the summer. However, she encourages anyone who is interested to still sign up through their website for the waitlist because the schedule can change quickly. 

“If you're looking to make a reservation, all those reservations go through me. So, if you have any questions, I see the questions [and] I can respond to those,” explained Waltz.  

She took over this job this summer after volunteering with the track-chair program for years. Waltz said now, as program manager, she can’t wait to get out of bed every morning.  

“It's the connection and the people that I meet … you just meet the kindest, you know, most grateful folks, whether it's the participants themselves, our volunteers, their families,” said Waltz. “And you just get an opportunity to really connect with people that you might not cross paths with otherwise.” 

As for Batchelder, this was the perfect opportunity for him to appreciate the good things in life.  

“[I] just try to live and breathe life to the fullest that I can,” said Batchelder. “I try to research programs like this, just so I can … have a life that's engaging and fun. And not think about my limitations but think about all the things that I can do.”  

Amanda Horvath is the managing producer with Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach her

Julio Sandoval is a multimedia journalist with Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach him

Hear from other voices around the state like Justin's who really connect with the outdoors and always find a way to get out there. 

You can watch "Colorado Voices: The Outdoors" below. 

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