Justin Skeesuck (97) was already a husband, father, and graphic designer when his life journey took an unexpected turn. In 2014, Justin and his lifelong best friend, Patrick Gray (NNU 97), decided to undertake the 500-mile Camino de Santiago together.
A pilgrimage across the vast expanse of Spain, the Camino is challenging for any hiker, but Gray and Skeesuck faced additional obstacles because throughout the 500-mile journey, Gray was pushing Skeesuck in his wheelchair. Together, they scaled mountains, crossed rivers, and overcame treacherous stretches of trail — and people they met along the way often helped them do what would otherwise have been impossible. Since his return, Skeesuck has become an author, the subject of a documentary, and public speaker. Together, he and Gray wrote I’ll Push You: A Journey of 500 Miles, Two Best Friends, and One Wheelchair, published in 2017, which instantly became a bestseller, gained worldwide media coverage, and was featured at last year’s Writer’s Symposium By the Sea.
A film crew followed the friends throughout their trek, which enabled fellow PLNU alum Terry Parish (97) to produce a documentary about Skeesuck and Gray’s journey entitled “I’ll Push You: A Camino Journey of 500 Miles, Two Best Friends, and One Wheelchair. The film was released in November 2017 and won several awards. It’s still available for viewing. Recently, Skeesuck and Gray released a children’s book, The Push, which is based on their friendship. Though Skeesuck has little function of his hands, he was able to co-illustrate The Push with his voice and a pen and tablet.
“The illustrations were based on some watercolors I did at Point Loma,” he said.
The friends’ third book, Imprints: The Evidence Our Lives Leave Behind, was released Sept. 3, 2019.
“Patrick and I were wanting to just do this,” Skeesuck said of their Camino journey. “We came back, and little did we both know how much it would change the course of our lives.”
Skeesuck and Gray were born in Ontario, Ore., in the same hospital, 36 hours apart. The boys’ parents were all alumni from Northwest Nazarene University, and they all attended the same Nazarene church. Growing up together, Skeesuck and Gray had childhoods filled with outdoor play and exploration, time at church, and sports. Skeesuck enjoyed football, soccer, and, especially, tennis.
When Skeesuck was almost 16, he was in a serious car accident with a friend on the way to a basketball tournament. Though at the time, he was able to walk away from the accident with only scrapes and bruises, a few months later, an unexpected result occurred. Skeesuck began to experience weakness in his left foot that seemed to have no connection to the accident. A brace allowed him to continue playing tennis during his last two years of high school.
Eventually, however, the weakness spread to more muscles in Skeesuck’s body. Though he described his time at PLNU as “a blast” where he met his future wife, made lifelong friendships, and discovered his passion for graphic design, college was also when Skeesuck had to stop playing tennis and running. The reason for his progressive muscle weakness remained elusive, but for the time being, it was only affecting his legs.
It took years for Skeesuck to receive a correct diagnosis. At one point, he was told he had ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). Thirteen years after the accident, Skeesuck was enjoying married life and a prolific graphic design career, using leg braces to stay as mobile as he could. That’s when doctors finally determined that Skeesuck has multifocal acquired motor axonopathy, or MAMA, a very rare progressive neuromuscular disease. They believed the disease was dormant in his body during his childhood and awakened at the time of the accident.
Eventually, as the condition progressed, Skeesuck moved from using leg braces to using a wheelchair for mobility. He used various assistive tools and programs to continue his graphic design work as long as he possibly could.
Meanwhile, he and his wife, Kirstin (00), had three children, Jayden, 16, Noah, 14, and Lauren, 10. The family lived in San Diego at the time, and Gray, who was also married with three children, lived in Idaho. The families remained close despite the distance.
By the time Skeesuck first learned about the Camino de Santiago while watching Rick Steves on PBS in 2012, his disease had progressed further. He now had limited use of his arms and hands and needed assistance with most daily tasks. Still, the idea of making the journey captivated him. He felt compelled to talk to Gray about it.
“I’m a firm believer that when I had the idea to do this, it was really God saying you need to go do this,” Skeesuck said. “I haven’t felt that kind of presence, so big and monumental, before.”
Some friends might have balked at the idea of such an undertaking, but Skeesuck’s best friend simply said: “I’ll push you.”
Kirstin and Gray’s wife, Donna, supported the idea, and so the preparations began. Skeesuck worked on raising the funds they would need and finding an off-road capable wheelchair. Gray started working out intensely so he could be physically ready for what lay ahead. The Skeesucks moved from San Diego to Eagle, Idaho. The families were happy to finally live in the same town. Meanwhile, Gray secured the six weeks off work from his job in healthcare administration that they needed to make the trip.
Some friends might have balked at the idea of such an undertaking, but Skeesuck’s best friend simply said: “I’ll push you.”
From the start of their trek, Skeesuck and Gray faced obstacles that would have caused many people to give up. They found accessibility limited in their travels and hotels and had to get creative in transporting Skeesuck’s three-wheeled off-road wheelchair from the beginning. The first day of their 500-mile journey involved scaling the Pyrenees, a mountain range at the Spanish-French border. The terrain was rocky, muddy, and arduous. It took them more than 10 hours of grueling effort to reach the top, and, at one point, Gray and their friend, Ted, who joined them for the first portion of their journey, had to carry Skeesuck in a sling up an incline before returning to the base of the rise to carry the chair separately. Meanwhile, the uneven and uphill trail meant Skeesuck had to counterbalance all of their pushing and pulling with his core while enduring punishing jarring and shock as the wheels of his chair navigated the difficult paths.
The second day on the trail, the front wheel snapped off Skeesuck’s chair, having taken such a beating the first day. It took the help of multiple strangers before they found a welder capable of working with the aluminum frame to repair the chair.
Their journey included many struggles — punishing inclines, frighteningly steep ascents and descents, exhaustion, narrows paths, rough terrain, and many other obstacles. But the friends persevered, believing that together they could achieve their goal. What they found was that “together” often became many more people than they expected. Strangers frequently stopped to help them when the going was tough.
God often provided just the right help at just the right time. When Ted had to leave to return to work with four weeks left to go, he was worried about leaving Gray and Skeesuck alone. But the day before he had to leave, the trio met a new friend, Christie, who decided to join them after her friend was injured on the trail and had to head home. As soon as they set out on the trail again, they met other Camino travelers who were also willing to help out. New friends continued to emerge when needed, making their journey possible.
“One of the biggest things and my takeaway was that there are so many good people in this world doing so many good and amazing things,” Skeesuck said. “It is unfortunate that in our current culture we don’t always see that… I learned how many people are willing to step into one another’s lives to help each other out. So often, many of us shy away because we feel embarrassed or see [accepting help] as a sign of weakness. In my experience, that couldn’t be further from the truth. That’s where life and Christ truly shine if you allow it.”
One of the stories of help that had the most impact on Skeesuck came about three-quarters of the way through their trip. They were coming up on the third mountain range on their journey; the trail followed a very steep ascent to the small mountain town of O Cebreiro. Two fellow pilgrims they had met on the trail previously planned to meet them there to help Gray and Skeesuck make the climb.
“We stopped at a tiny village to get provisions,” Skeesuck said. “Then, when we got up to leave the cafe, everybody got up. We were wondering: who are these people? They said they were there to help us. Twelve people were waiting for us. We met everybody and climbed the mountain. It was so steep six people carried me while others were carrying backpacks, sticks, and walking out front scouting the trails. Eventually, more people joined in. Seventeen people in total helped me get to the top.”
For Skeesuck, that story is more than simply an amazing memory.
“It’s a reminder of how community is meant to be,” he said. “It reminds me how God calls us as the church to love one another and to be hands and feet in times of need. It was a day I will never forget — and what a great metaphor: carrying each other.”
“So often, many of us shy away because we feel embarrassed or see [accepting help] as a sign of weakness. In my experience, that couldn’t be further from the truth. That’s where life and Christ truly shine if you allow it.”
Gray and Skeesuck did complete their Camino journey successfully, overcoming all the challenges with the help of so many new friends. Today, Skeesuck travels and speaks with Gray all over the country through their company, Push, Inc. The two have also developed courses and curricula for churches, schools, and businesses. Skeesuck also teaches and coaches people living with limited mobility.
One of the messages Skeesuck shares as a speaker and in the book is about the importance of friendship and community and the idea that we weren’t meant to live life alone.
“I may not be able to feed myself, shower myself, or go to the bathroom by myself,” he wrote. “I may not be able to hug my daughter, play catch with my boys, or hold my wife’s hand as we walk along a beach at sunset. But today, through the power, love, and sacrifice of others, I climbed a mountain.”
Also, in their book, Gray wrote, “By placing his faith in those around him, who are capable of doing things he can’t, who are capable of taking him places he never could reach on his own, Justin’s faith in us is pushing each of us to do the same.”
Another vital message Skeesuck shares with audiences is this: “It doesn’t matter who you are, you have something to offer, and you can make an impact on this world.”
This sentiment is so much more than a platitude. Though Skeesuck is an extremely positive person, he understands what it is to face dark times that cause doubt about self-worth. After slowly losing the use of his legs, losing function in his upper body took place rapidly over just a month and a half. That was a time of great trial for him.
He wrote: “The impact this was having on my wife, on my kids, was overwhelming… Sitting at the edge of the abyss, I asked myself, ‘How can I place this on my wife? How can I put my children through this? How can I let my friends endure this?’”
It was his faith that restored his peace and belief that he could still have purpose with limited mobility.
“Convinced this would one day mean something, I made the conscious decision to turn my back on the blackness and let light show me the way. Somehow, someway, something great would come from all this,” he wrote.
Something great has come indeed — not only completing an amazing journey but discovering a new vocation. Today, Skeesuck and Gray inspire so many others to strive for what might seem too difficult, to accept and embrace the help of others, and to believe that they can be used by God to do what only he can make possible.
“There is so much hurt in the world,” Skeesuck said. “And so much opportunity as Christ-followers to pour into that if we are willing to look and be open to it. There is also a lot of hope.”
That hope is something Skeesuck lives out every day.
PLNU is pleased to present Skeesuck with the 2019 Alumnus of Point Loma Award. Join us November 22-23, 2019 at Homecoming to hear from Justin Skeesuck in person during Homecoming Chapel and at Loma Talks.