Roger West Is Building a Rocky Mountain Highway for the Disabled to Enjoy

updated 09/18/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/18/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Roger West likes to build big. Most every weekend finds West on 20 acres in the wilderness on the edge of the Continental Divide, 60 miles southwest of Denver, acting like a one-man construction gang. West, 53, can be seen carrying planks, digging ditches, moving rocks, measuring joists, hammering nails—and pausing now and again to dream.

West's dream is a bold one: to provide wheelchair access to Mother Nature. To that end he is building a boardwalk that he hopes will one day wind a full seven miles up to the 12,300-foot north cone of Twin Peaks in the Pike National Forest. When West initiated his project three years ago, there were skeptics; after all, isn't "wilderness boardwalk" something of an oxymoron? But the logic behind West's vision is as sound as it is irresistible. "There are more than 30 million Americans who are disabled, and they should not be left behind!" he says emphatically. "They should be able to join their friends in the outdoors."

West's vehicle for affording wilderness access to those who cannot negotiate rugged terrain on their own is a not-for-profit organization called Wilderness on Wheels—WOW for short. Since its founding in 1986, West and an army of volunteers have laid down 2,800 feet of boardwalk, with another 400 feet to be completed this year before the snowfall. The Miracle Path, as some have called it, winds along a mountainside thick with aspens and bushy pine, Queen Anne's lace, Indian paintbrush and larkspur. Eventually the boardwalk will extend onto public land, but West anticipates no problem in working out an arrangement with the U.S. Forest Service.

To facilitate wheelchair use, the grade is gentle on the eight-foot-wide boardwalk, which rises no more than a foot for every 12 feet covered. The amenities now include nine campsites with raised tent platforms and access to a fishing pond stocked with rainbow trout. With a resident manager on hand to enforce a 2-mph speed limit, WOW has been accident-free since it opened in 1986.

"At other facilities I'm stuck at the camp-fire and watch my friends go fishing," says Steve Gavlick, 36, a computer programmer from Lakewood, Colo., who has used a wheelchair since an auto accident 11 years ago. "Now I can go fishing myself."

Gavlick is among nearly 3,000 disabled persons from all over the U.S., together with families and friends, who have traveled the boardwalk in a season that runs from April to October. Since WOW is entirely supported by individual and corporate donations, no user fee is charged. Reservations are required to use the boardwalk, but WOW has yet to turn anyone away.

The outdoors has always loomed large in West's life. Born Roger Roach in Colorado and reared in California, he spent a lot of time during his childhood fishing and camping with his father, an automobile mechanic. "I remember the stillness, the land that was untouched," says Roger. But after high school and the Marines, he went to work as a radio broadcaster, first in San Diego and then in Jacksonville, Fla. (where he legally changed his name to West, the moniker assigned to him as a broadcasting signature). He eventually abandoned radio for a succession of enterprises, which included owning a diaper service and running a one-man advertising agency.

In 1974 West returned to the high Rockies of his native Colorado. After eight meandering weeks on the road, he spotted a FOR SALE sign on Route 285 and promptly bought 35 acres. In a year of living without clocks or telephone, West built an octagon-shaped house and constructed ponds, roads and bridges on his property. His previous building experience? "I took wood shop in high school," he says with a laugh.

Up to this point, West hadn't given much thought to the plight of the handicapped. But in 1985 his father, Adrian Roach, then 81, fell ill from a circulatory disease that led to the amputation of his toes. The sight of a once outdoors-loving man in a wheelchair shocked his son. "What does a disabled person do to enjoy the mountains?" West asked himself. "I couldn't shake the question. It was there all the time." Adrian Roach died in 1987, but out of private sorrow Roger West has forged a vision.

The scope of his mission is so large that West has relied from the first on volunteers. He has enlisted Boy Scouts, local clubs, a building materials firm and just plain folks by the hundreds in WOW'S Give a Day program to perform weekend labor. "I just fell in love with the project; it's contagious," says volunteer Barry Teitelbaum, a carpenter from Denver. "I never believed I could get so high by working so hard."

West spends weekdays in Denver tending to his real estate and other investments, as well as running the WOW office. Every weekend he and his second wife, Byron, 41, who manages the Denver Public Library cable TV department, and Lauren, Byron's 9-year-old daughter from an earlier marriage, head for the octagon house near the WOW boardwalk. There they all work on the project, which leaves them little time for anything else. But West hardly minds. "I see the looks on the faces of the people here," he says. "They just radiate, and it blows me away." There is, for example, Frank Nelson, 36, who broke his neck in a trampoline fall 20 years ago. "I caught my first fish in this area when I was 3," he says, "and now I've been able to teach my daughter to catch her first fish here too." And there is Bill Inman, 31 and wheelchair-bound for eight years, who vows, "One day I want to step out of this chair and walk up this boardwalk."

—Harriet Shapiro, Alexandra Mezey in Colorado

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