Michael „Mitsch“ Schreiner travels the world in a wheelchair. And he makes pilgrimages. Not in order to find God or himself, but rather to explore paths for people with disabilities. This is a story about a remarkable encounter on a remarkable path along the Hessian Bergstraße road.
Mitsch Schreiner sits in his wheelchair in front of the open boot of his van at the station car park in Bensheim-Auerbach. He puts his hat on and shoulders his black backpack. Attached with a green cord: a pilgrims’ scallop shell. Here, on the Hessian part of the Bergstraße region, the 84-kilometre Camino Incluso runs along the Vorderer Odenwald to Heidelberg as a feeder to the Palatinate part of the Way of St. James. The “way for everybody” is a project by pupils of the SRH Stephen-Hawking-Schule school in Neckargemünd. “We wanted to make a pilgrimage to break away from everyday life,” says the teacher Claudia Hanko, who initiated the project with one of her classes. At the end of the day, the journey changed the pupils as well as the people they met on their way: like a priest that allowed the group to sleep in his church and a mayor that has to cope with an ever ageing village. “They all felt new life through the encounters,” says Claudia. And so it came that the journey left the group with the idea to turn their project into something that will last.
Mitsch closes the boot of his van that contains boxes with the fourth edition of his brochure “Südwestpfalz barrierefrei” (the south-western Palatinate in a fully accessible way) It also contains new Dubbegläser drinking-glasses he has brought as a little present for Bernd Loreth, who is accompanying him on this day trip. On some sections of the track, Mitsch will need assistance. “I am the community volunteer worker,” says Bernd and laughs. They are friends and have known each other for almost their entire life. They grew up together in Dahn in the Palatinate, went to the same school and gymnastics club and also shared a flat. At age 22, four decades ago, they wanted to hitch-hike via France to San Sebastián in the Basque Country “for a coffee.” Their journey came to an end in the Alsace when they went into a tree. Since then, Mitsch has been paraplegic.
The Camino Incluso: 84 inklusive Kilometer von der Bergstraße bis nach Heidelberg.
Eingespieltes Team: Mitsch Schreiner und Bernd Loreth.
Der Camino Inclusa startet am Auerbacher Bahnhof.
Mitsch Schreiner ist ein erfahrener Pilger.
Er selbst ist seit einem Unfall querschnittsgelähmt.
Gemeinsam unterwegs auf dem Camino Incluso.
Mitsch Schreiners Gästebucheintrag.
The yellow symbol of a pilgrim’s bag shows Mitsch and Bernd the way that meanders from Auerbach station through town, past the Fürstenlager (‘prince’s camp’) to the Felsenmeer (‘sea of rocks’) and all the way to Beedenkirchen, where the first of a total of six stages finishes. Mitsch pauses at the Protestant parish rooms: “The toilet facilities are a crucial criterion for full-accessibility travelling,” says the consultant for people with disabilities to the Verbandsgemeinde Dahner Felsenland municipality, who gives the municipality advice in meetings on construction and who tests the tracks.
“On the Camino Incluso, our pupils have learnt that you get something back, when you give something”
Over the past years, the Camino team has increased by two school classes. They have recorded and described the stages of the way in detail. They tested the tracks with handbikes and active wheelchairs innumerable times. They stayed overnight in “pretty and simple” accommodation sites suitable for wheelchairs, used the fully accessible station in Bensheim-Auerbach to get to the way as well as the low-floor busses that serve roads along the Camino Incluso. And they made a list of fully accessible toilets suitable for wheelchair users. They want to release all of this information on a website planned to go online upon the opening of the Camino at the latest. Even outdoor platforms and apps are to be supplied with the information. The Camino Incluso will be inaugurated on 15 October 2021.
Mitsch leaves the Protestant parish rooms at the centre of Auerbach and stops at the entrance. There, the track’s symbol with the pilgrim’s bag decorates a letter box next to the door. Inside, there are a stamp and an ink-pad: Any pilgrim can order a pilgrim’s passport at the Stephen-Hawking-Schule school and Claudia will send it to them. Next to the box, there are flyers, carefully folded and printed on both sides with information about the Camino: also in simple language. Furthermore, there is a little book containing greetings from people, who have already done the Camino. Mitsch grabs a pen. “Now, what will we put here,” asks the native of the Southern Palatinate, who is certainly one of the most experienced travellers in a wheelchair in Germany. In 2020 he tested and recorded in detail 120 kilometres of tracks, accommodation and opportunities to stop off for the volume “Pilgern für alle – von Worms nach Lauterbourg” (‘Going on a pilgrimage designed for everybody—from Worms to Lauterbourg). “You could just write: You can overcome any distance with a friendly Palatinate’s assistance,” says Bernd. The two men start to laugh. As usually when they are on tour. Mitsch and Bernd are connected by strong ties. And by a multitude of memories. Such as their trip to Valais, where the cook from a station on the mountain offered them the goods lift as a means to transport them further up. At the beginning of the 1980s, Mitsch travelled for the first time in a wheelchair on his own. “I had watched a documentary about the US and went to the travel agency the next day to book a flight.”
He rented a room on the campus of the University of California in Berkeley and finally stayed for nine months. He travelled through Australia and New Zealand—countries that are advanced about as much as the US when it comes to accessibility and whose standard is, thus, far above that in Europe. However, Mitsch travelled across large parts of South America and Asia as well. “This requires some planning, of course.” He has become so well connected that, today, he can send catheters and other important things to a “base” on the respective continent in order to be equipped the best way possible there.
The two men push each other through the town. The path becomes steeper. “Action!” says Mitsch with a grin. Bernd lends him a hand to assist his friend up the ascent. “After the accident, I swore to myself: To any place this guy wants to get, I’ll carry him, if needs be.” Bernd has kept his word. A few months after the accident, he and other friends heaved Mitsch up to the high grounds of the Dahn Rockland. Bernd has a video footage of this journey saved on the smartphone in his pocket.
“On the Camino Incluso, our pupils have learnt that you get something back, when you give something,” says Claudia. The idea of putting together a “way for everybody” out of consisting tracks has activated enormous endeavour in the region: The Protestant parish rooms in Winterkasten lacked a fully accessible toilet, so the parish organized a charity concert to fund the construction of one and the Catholic parish in Beedenkirchen put up a little safe for the keys to the church and to the accessible toilets, which you can use upon a call to the parish.
The two friends pass the barrier at the Fürstenlager prince’s camp. Mitsch does not have an electrical wheelchair, only the one he drives with his arm power as well as a handbike. “I find it important to maintain my body in a healthy condition, to have power in my hands and arms. This is why I used to play wheelchair basketball for several years,” says Mitsch with a smile. In one season, he even managed to become the top scorer of the regional league—an exceptional performance considering the kind of impairment he has.
In 2005, he became an advisor to the Philippine wheelchair basketball team—after an encounter in Manila, where Mitsch spends the winters and works as a volunteer at a vocational school. In 2009 he trained the Thai national team and they won gold in the Asean Games in Kuala Lumpur. “Who knows if I had achieved all that would I have been a non-disabled.”
Bernd puffs. The two friends take a look around in the prince’s camp: The place is an homage to sauntering as it used to be done in the 18th century. Poplar-lined walks, crunching gravel and burbling fountains. A bridal couple poses for the photographer. The friends take a rest in front of the manor house. Mitsch lets his gaze wander. “Beautiful place,” he says in acknowledgement. To make such beauty accessible for everybody is what drives him. With hardly any time for resting. Mitsch smiles: “Where’s the next part of the track?” He looks around in the park to find the next yellow pilgrim’s bag—a powerful symbol indeed.
Claudia Hanko welcomes questions and comments regarding the “Camino Incluso” directed via E-Mail to email@example.com
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