Story by Carol Joy Patterson and photos by Ralph Saulnier
It started with a trembling right hand. Or, maybe much earlier, after a serious head injury when I permanently lost my sense of smell. Anyway, there I was with a diagnosis of Parkinson’s. I’d already beaten four cancers and was in a holding pattern with a rare lymphoma. Parkinson’s gave me real problems at first, but I was able to also put it on hold by experimenting with different medications and doses and exercising a lot. My symptoms disappeared, as long as I took my meds five times a day my handwriting improved, twitchiness and nightmares almost disappeared, and no more shaky hand.
I decided to go after some of my dreams while I still could. It’s one thing to try something new that scares and challenges you. It’s another thing to do it as a ‘vintage’ woman with not one, but two, incurable diseases lurking. Would it be too stressful?
I acquired a cherry-red antique car last year, just like the one I had owned in my twenties. I was rather hesitant at first, but my gearshift abilities came back and so did my smile. She’s an adorable 1953 MGTD that I call “Lulu.” To my great fortune, I have a great mechanic—a neighbor who renovated the bits that needed attention, and I was off, driving her only in perfect weather with the soft top down. My timid short excursions seemed long and glorious. I felt renewed.
Then this spring, the TV production company I run with my husband, Lawrence, got the contract to produce the legendary annual road rally, Targa Newfoundland. Self-employed people never really retire, even with Parkinson’s. I had produced and directed the first Targa television documentary 15 years ago and in several subsequent years. 60-70 automobiles of all shapes and sizes come from across North America to compete on closed-off country and town roads—for a full week! 1,600 kilometers total, counting the long transits on the highways.
The wild idea came to me: why not enter with Lulu? Lawrence could produce the TV show. I could drive in the relaxed ‘fun’ category with my mechanic, Lou, along and my brave friend, his wife Carolyn, as my navigator. It’s the chance of a lifetime.
After lots of paperwork, with safety gear and intercom helmets purchased, a transport lift across land and sea for Lulu, and flights booked for us, we were in St. John’s ready to roll. A fascinating array of cars from a brand new Lamborghini Huracan, to Corvettes, to race-prepared Minis and Subarus were geared up for the rally, covered in stickers, engines tuned. We rolled out for a qualifying Day, then for five days of a dozen spread out closed-racing stages between five and twenty kilometers each.
Every tiny fishing village and busy town seems a long way to reach in Newfoundland but oh-so-worth-it. Volunteers had blocked off the roads so we could drive as fast as we dared. The scenery was stunning. It was hard to keep eyes on the road. The other Targa drivers and officials were pretty patient with us driving the slowest, oldest car. We got lots of thumbs-up from them, even as we heard rumors of bets against us finishing even the first day! The days were long but the weather cooperated except for one very windy, rainy day. We returned each evening to either St. John’s or Clarenville, to lick our wounds and tune our engines.
The biggest challenge for me was remembering to take my meds on time and finding places to pee in the wilderness! ‘Newfies’ are known for their hospitality. I was desperate to pee at our lunch break, having downed a lot of levadopa pills to beautifully control my tremors. A volunteer saw the driver lineup at the only washroom. “Deary,” she said, “just go across the street, in the front door, up the stairs, to the left and the bathroom’s down the hall.” When I came back, I thanked her and she replied, “Oh, deary, it’s not my house!” I was a bit worried that the daily stress would worsen my health. It seemed to have the opposite effect—we were running on adrenaline and grins.
At the end of the last day of competition, after 1,600 kms and with only the last five km stage through the charming village of Brigus remaining, Lulu refused to start. My service vehicle was not nearby, but other competitors’ mechanics came to help and eventually got me started, in the true spirit of Targa. It was too late to cross the finish line so the week-long adventure ended with a DNF. It was very disappointing, of course, but a few days later we received Finishers medals as a lovely surprise from a Newfoundland team who had earned theirs previously.
What a week! Would I do it again? Absolutely. But, sorry Lulu, in a faster, newer car to the relief of all, I’m sure. Hope and trust in the future is what keeps us Parkinson’s people going. No time to be depressed. Adventures await! MM