The first time you see Royce Morton in his wheelchair, you have to pause a moment to figure out exactly what you’re looking at.
From a block away, on a dark night on Portland’s West End, Morton’s ride looks partially like a stagecoach, and partially like a droid from Star Wars. Its tinted windows are hard to see through, the intricate designs of its dark wooden shell difficult to discern as it passes through pools of florescent street light.
You don’t immediately see Morton himself — just his dog Alice, a Parson’s Jack Russell, whose panting face peeks out from the front window while her master steers the chair.
Morton uses his motorized chair to get around town. He goes grocery shopping, takes the dog for walks, and sometimes just cruises. He said he rode from the Western Prom to the Eastern Prom and back on Wednesday.
“This is so much fun to me that I almost feel guilty about being handicapped,” he said.
Morton’s modified wheelchair is a local oddity to Portland passersby, who invariably pause to gawk at the vehicle as it bounces up Pine Street towards the Western Promenade, or stubbornly crawls up Munjoy Hill.
But to Morton, the wheelchair is more than a quirky expression of his personality; it’s a sanctuary. And he says it saved his life.
Morton, 62, who has multiple sclerosis, said he built the ride because he “got tired of carrying an umbrella.” He said it’s the sixth or seventh incarnation of his original wheelchair design, which he fashioned using cardboard, tent material and wire stripped from 2008 presidential campaign signs.
Morton’s current chair, which he named “Lulu,” is made of 1/4 inch luan plywood, furring strips, plexiglass, and a multitude of memorabilia and scrap material. The chair is essentially a normal wheelchair with a wooden cover — similar to a truck cap — set on top. But it also has bells, Tibetan prayer flags, and two working headlights drawn to look like googly-eyes. It has a range of eight miles and runs on two rechargeable batteries.
He found the wheelchair itself — which he estimates to be worth around $12,000 — in the trash room of his apartment building.
“First I figured out a way to build a support for my umbrella so I didn’t have to hold it, and it just has grown into this,” he said. “My original thought was it was going to be painted essentially flat black and look like an Amish wagon” he added.
The chair modification has several benefits. Besides giving Morton mobility in inclement weather, it also provides privacy.
“I personally like to be in my own little sanctuary,” he said. “I can button this up; it’s completely dark. It’s just my own little world, my place. I created it. I have a lot of people caring for me and it’s wonderful, but sometimes you need a break away. This is it.”
But perhaps most important, the chair gave Morton an activity upon which to set his mind during the difficult period following his diagnosis around Christmas in 2004. Morton and his wife Cheryl had just returned from China, where Cheryl, 61, an anthropology professor, had been teaching at the China Agricultural University in Beijing. Cheryl was looking for work at an American university when her husband fell ill. “He slept basically for 6 months,” she remembered. “We think he probably had it for years and just didn’t realize it, but the progression has been pretty quick,” she said.
Cheryl now cares for Morton full time. She said he has good and bad days. Most of the time he can make his way unaided around their two room apartment, but he also has bad days, she said. The Mortons are unemployed and live in subsidized housing on Danforth Street in Portland’s West End.
“She went through many years of struggle when I was sick, early, because I essentially slept the whole time,” Morton remembered. “If I wasn’t sleeping, I was violently ill. So this has helped to bring us back together. Not to be dramatic, but it’s saved my life. I was initially pretty suicidal. I didn’t want to live in that condition and this has given me something much greater than myself.”
“[The illness] split my wife and I up in the sense that we weren’t able to do real simple things together like hold hands and take a walk,” Morton said. Cheryl, who is in good health and can walk unaided, rides with Morton in one of his old wheelchairs. The pair go shopping together, take the dog for walks and go see the sunset on the Western Prom with their friend and neighbor, Margie Cushman, who also rides in a custom wheelchair.
Cheryl said she initially felt self-conscious riding in a wheelchair even though she wasn’t disabled. “But he couldn’t ride in the car and we had to get rid of the car because we couldn’t afford it,” she said. “It’s a way for me to go places with him; for the first time in years, we can go places.”