Andrew Shelley wasn’t happy with life. His nine-to-five job as an electrical engineer was more cage than career, one he’d fallen into only because it was what his dad and grandfather had done. Ever since he’d taken a job at Lockheed Martin after graduating from USD in 2003, he felt as if he was losing a part of himself with each passing year. He simply wasn’t living the life he wanted.
So perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a shock when, in 2007, Shelley announced suddenly that he was quitting to travel the world. He wanted to meet new people, see new places, maybe even fall in love. He wasn’t interested in hitting the usual European tourist destinations. He’d set his sights on more exotic locale: Thailand, Cambodia, India, the United Arab Emirates — places a little more National Geographic Explorer than Condé Nast Traveler. For Shelley, the itinerary was more than a bit of a gamble.
He has muscular degenerative disease, a genetic disorder that put him in a wheelchair not long after he finished college. That meant at best, the trip would be difficult. At worst, it would be life threatening. But he pushed that concern far to the back of his mind. After all, he reasoned, even the shower can be a dangerous place for someone with a disability.
Dusty Duprel’s first glimpse of just who Andrew Shelley was came in the Craigslist ad he’d posted looking for a roommate in 2006. It was a fairly typical post, he recalls, except for one thing.
“Instead of showing pictures of the room, he showed pictures of his Jeep,” Duprel says. “I thought that was sort of — odd.”
Shelley described himself as a backpacker, someone who loves wilderness and the outdoors and adventure. The Jeep, he said, represented a small part of who he was and who he wanted to be. He was proud of it. He couldn’t think of a better way to communicate that to a potential roommate.
Duprel was intrigued, and the two arranged to meet at Shelley’s house to talk about living together.
When Duprel rang the bell, Shelley, whose gaunt frame betrays his medical problems, came to the door without his chair. His walk, hampered by weakened muscles, is an uneasy lumber. At first it caught Duprel off guard, but after they sat down and started talking, all that faded away.
“You really see past the chair and everything else fairly quickly,” Duprel says.
Muscular degenerative disease attacks the body’s muscles, causing them to waste away. Shelly was diagnosed as a baby but has been able to walk, albeit not well, for most of his life. While a student at USD, he’d occasionally use a small scooter to help him get around campus, but he always preferred the freedom of using his own legs.
But soon after graduation, walking grew harder. He started falling and injuring himself so often that it eventually became clear he needed a wheelchair, if for nothing else than his own protection.
He wasn’t happy about the idea.
“My thoughts were, ‘This is terrible. I don’t want a chair. I’m not going to be able to do anything; I won’t be able to go anywhere.’ It was kind of a depressing thought,” Shelley says.
Then, in early 2006, he came across a type of chair he’d never seen before. It was made by an Australian company and was specially designed for all-terrain, off-road travel. It had six wheels, two in the back and two in the front for balance, plus two large knobby ones in the center connected to a high-intensity, high torque motor. At top speed it could keep up with an average person running on two legs and could even tackle street curbs, small steps and rough trails without trouble.
Shelly was ecstatic. It seemed like the chair was made just for him.
“I saw this chair and said, ‘Whoa, this is a cool chair. It’s got ATV tires. It’ll take me anywhere. I can go to the beach, go hiking, mountain climbing.’”
Duprel moved in not long after the two first met, just a few months after Shelley had gotten his new chair. Until he asked Duprel and his girlfriend, Rachel Pandza, to join him on his annual trip to Lake Tahoe, neither had really seen Shelley do much more than go to and from work. The trip turned out to be another glimpse of the real Andrew Shelley, one that surprised them both when they saw him take to the wilderness around the lake. Duprel describes it: “He’s just going on these trails, literally climbing mountains with his chair,” he said.
He and Pandza were both film students at San Diego State: They sensed a story.
“There was just something interesting about the kind of character that was trying to escape the body and the chair. It was interesting to actually see that sprit of adventure,” Duprel said.
They didn’t know it at the time, but that zest for new experiences was goading Shelley to make a big life change. He knew there were things he wanted to do and he thought it made sense for him to do them while he still had the strength.
“I wanted more out of life. I wanted to meet more girls; I wanted to see the world while I could … Mainly, I just wasn’t happy with where I was in life. I wasn’t happy with my life where it was,” Shelley recalls.
The chair had a lot to do with it. What he first thought would impose restriction and limitation had turned into something liberating. It was a type of freedom he hadn’t experienced before, one that convinced him he could make a life change, that he could not just travel the world, but go places most able-bodied people would think twice about.
Not everyone was as sure as he was. His parents were absolutely against the idea. They were certain it was too dangerous and that if he went, he would be hurt or even killed. But he’d grown up overseas — only moving to San Diego for college — and he’d already traveled most of Europe with his parents. Shelley wasn’t really that interested in visiting countries he’d already been to or that might be more accessible to someone in a wheelchair. So, despite the potential for problems, he opted for the exotic.
“The last thing it seems like Drew considers when he does anything is his disability. It’s not factored into anything he does. It’s commendable, but at the same time, he puts himself into — what’s the word? — predicaments,” Duprel says.
Meanwhile, Duprel and Pandza had decided to pursue the story they’d first sensed back at Lake Tahoe. They wanted to produce a feature-length documentary about Shelley’s trip. That meant putting together a film crew and traveling with him. This appeased Shelley’s parents somewhat, because they thought — wrongly — that Pandza and Duprel were going along to help Shelley and keep him safe. The reality was they planned to be nothing more than detached observers.
So, in 2007, after months of fundraising to finance the production, Shelley quit his job and Duprel and Pandza took a semester off school. They left the United States a few days after Thanksgiving with little idea what to expect.
In New Zealand, still on the first leg of his trip, the Zorb wrangler asked Shelley to change his shirt. (A Zorb is an inflatable globe big enough for a person to fit inside and roll down a hill — the latest thing overseas, Duprel explains.) Because the inner shell is filled with water, Zorb employees — called wranglers — give riders clothes to wear so they don’t get their own wet.
Changing a shirt, though, isn’t always a simple task for Shelley.
He doesn’t have enough strength in his arms to lift them high enough to pull a shirt over his head. Instead, he swings his arm and uses momentum to reach his collar. On tape, the wrangler, standing tall at a good foot over Shelley, watches in surprise as Shelley starts to swing his arm. The scene unfolds awkwardly as confusion crawls across his face. It’s clear he doesn’t quite understand what Shelley is doing or how he should respond.
The look on that wrangler’s face is one small moment in thousands of hours of footage that Duprel and Pandza captured during the trip. But like so many others in the film, that one moment delivers a visceral impact that could only have been captured as it happened. Duprel credits the scene with a decision they made early on — somewhat naively, he concedes now — to film Shelley nearly all day, every day. While that made editing a monumental task, the vast amount of footage allowed them to pull together a documentary that feels honest and real.
“I think if a larger company did it, they might try and film select things, and they wouldn’t get the whole emotional experience,” Pandza says.
There are plenty of other moments. Shelley talks fondly of the professional rugby player he met in New Zealand, Lucas Gibson. After giving him a place to stay in his home for the night, Gibson took Shelley out on his boat with a group of friends the next day and introduced him to one of the country’s native shellfish, the Greenshell mussel.
The encounter was caught on tape and will likely be in the final cut of the film. “Do you want to eat it Drew, or … ?” Gibson trails off; they stand on the deck of his boat. He shows Shelley the mussel, still in its shell, fresh out of the water — and very raw.
He’d just taken a bite of one himself, but Shelley was hesitant.
“Uh, I’ll eat a cooked one,” he said. “But I don’t know about a raw one … What do they taste like?”
Finally, Shelley acquiesced. He took the mussel and bit down. It tasted awful. A moment later, his face showed it.
“Aww, nice,” Gibson said, laughing.
“Chew it!” one of his friends shouted.
When he planned the trip, Shelley never thought he’d end up eating raw fish just pulled out of the water by a rising New Zealand rugby star, but it was the kind of experience he’d hoped for — a sort of instant kinship with people who viewed the world the way he did. It was, wrapped up in just that small moment, one of the big reasons he decided go in the first place. Duprel and Pandza say that was something they didn’t fully understood until they saw it for themselves.
And despite what they led Shelley’s parents to believe, they intended to be nothing more than neutral observers on Shelley’s journey, there to document but not interfere or help. It was a role they took seriously. Unless Shelley’s life was in danger, they resolved to stay back and out of his way, even to the point that they made the decision mid-trip to start staying in separate hotels and eating meals apart to keep physical and emotional distance between them.
“It allowed him to have his own personal journey without even relying on us simply as friends,” Pandza says.
In the end, the trip lasted about two months. He traveled the entire length of New Zealand, with short layovers in Australia and China on the way to Cambodia, then Thailand, all the way from the north of India to the south and a last-minute stop in Dubai. Then Shelley made the heartwrenching decision to cut the trip short: the physical toll on his body was becoming apparent. He’d lost five pounds in two months, weighing just 95 on a good day.
“He was progressively going to harder and harder countries to navigate. I think he still thought he could go on, but the way things were, physically, it wasn’t going to end well,” Duprel said.
It almost didn’t.
Late one night in Cambodia, Duprel and Pandza were in a rickshaw heading back to their hostel, ahead of Shelley and moving fast. They kept looking back, but in the dark and with the distance between them, they couldn’t see Shelley.
He was still there, keeping up, right up until the moment that the brakes on his chair locked.
“I just went flying out of the chair head first. I woke up in a pool of blood with all these people around me,” Shelley says.
At first, Duprel and Pandza thought that someone had attacked him. All they could see from a distance was the yellow neoprene sleeve that Shelley kept over the back of his chair. When he saw that flash of color, it was a sure sign Shelley wasn’t in the chair; Duprel’s stomach tightened into knots. They doubled-back, found Shelley and took him to a hospital. He was treated and released, but the fall rattled him. He grew despondent and stayed in bed for days.
In the film, Pandza and Duprel call Shelley’s mom to tell her about the accident.
“Can I talk to him? Is he okay, is he conscious?” she asks.
“He’s conscious,” Duprel tells her. “He’s awake, he’s just not getting out of bed. He’s not doing anything.”
“He can’t go on,” his mom tells them. “He’s just in way over his head. Way over his head and you know, I was afraid this was going to happen.”
Shelley, though, had already made up his mind. This was something he had to do. In his bed, lit by a small lamp and in between the mechanical sounds of the respirator he uses for help to breath while he sleeps, he told the camera: “I have to prove that people in wheelchairs can do this. That they can do anything.”
Still, the fall was a bit of a wake-up call.
“He has a seatbelt,” Pandza says. “But he was not wearing it. He wore it after that.”
“For about a week,” Shelley says, with a smile.
Shelley’s been back in the United States now for about two years, and life has changed.
He’s given up his career in electrical engineering entirely and now wants to be a motivational speaker. His last-minute stop in the United Arab Emirates at the end of the trip was so he could talk to students at the American School of Dubai, where he went to high school. He told them that if he could travel the world in a wheelchair, that they could do anything. He told them that there is no adversity they couldn’t overcome, and no dream they couldn’t follow.
It’s a message he hopes Duprel and Pandza’s documentary of his trip, “Beyond the Chair,” can carry for him when the time comes that he can’t. So far it hasn’t been an entirely smooth road. After returning home, the pair worked furiously to complete a rough cut of the film to meet a submission deadline for the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. They’d mentioned it in passing to Shelley, who was more excited by the prospect than they’d expected. Later, Duprel realized why.
There is no cure for muscular degenerative disease, and Shelley wanted nothing more than to be able to present his film to an audience while he still had some ability, however meager, to walk on his own legs.
But time wasn’t on their side. The massive amount of footage that made for such a telling and honest story made editing an almost impossible task. The deadline for Sundance passed without a finished product, and Duprel watched tears form in Shelley’s eyes when he told him the film was too incomplete to be accepted.
But the story, of course, isn’t over quite yet. After reading an open letter that Duprel posted on the documentary’s website about Sundance, the International Documentary Association put them in touch with Tina Imahara, an Academy Award-nominated editor who’s managed to rework films to the point that they were not only accepted into Sundance after first being rejected, but have gone on to win awards. She’s agreed to finish the final cut of “Beyond the Chair.” Now they’re looking toward distribution in theaters as early as August.
The prospect brings a smile to Shelley’s face.
“I’ve learned a lot,” he says. “And I want to share my experiences with others.”
He went across the world to find what he thought he was missing from his life, and to escape what he didn’t like. He went looking for friends, for like-minded individuals, for love, for adventure.
By all accounts, he got it all.
“How many times did you fall in love on the trip, Drew?” Duprel asks Shelley. “I’d say at least twice.”
“At least,” Shelley answers.
For more information on “Beyond the Chair,” or to pre-order a DVD copy of the film, visit btcmovie.com.
FEATURE PHOTO BY Rachel Pandza