It seems like I have told this story once before. Injuries are like that in stories. It is true what they say, that when you do not learn the lesson the first time, the universe will keep sending you the lesson, until it sinks in deep. Last summer, was a big one though. In a crazy crash on my mountain bike, while going uphill I might add, I crashed and somehow got my leg impaled on a 5 inch stick almost all the way through my left calf muscle. Yes, it was excruciatingly painful, but first some back story.
Earlier this year, I had been putting in a fair share of miles on the bike, I had done one 6 hour race, and I had ambitions to do others in the Southeastern Endurance Cup. I started doing Strava at the end of last year, and you could say I got bitten by the bug. Well, really let us call it what it is, ego started to tip the scales in my life. This year I became pretty obsessed in my riding, to the point it was becoming problematic. Every ride, no matter what, had an agenda. We had to do a certain route, we had to ride at a certain speed, we had to do a certain amount of miles, you get the idea. Basically, as my wife Shannon would have said, I was taking the fun out of riding, and she was right. I just did not really understand then or see her point. I thought I was just riding and I was still having fun I would say, but in reality I was just being selfish with the forced expectations. I was completely obsessed, even to the point where I was putting a barrier between Shannon and I, as well as other friends, without really knowing it. Even though I would not admit it during a ride, I was internally putting expectations on the ride, when all my wife or friends wanted to do was spend time with me and get some exercise. If we did not meet those expectations, Shannon and my friends were probably feeling guilty for not meeting them, and I was blind and did not notice. Sorry Shannon and anyone else. I understand a little better now.
I had just gotten back from a three week solo biking trip in Colorado in July where I did a lot of big mile days in Crested Butte, Gunnison, and the Salida/Monarch Pass area. Most of that riding was solo, except on Canyon Creek Trail with my friend Paul, from Boulder, which honestly, will one day be another completely separate write up. Go ride that trail off Monarch Pass. It is a super sweet ten miles up and ten miles down, probably my all time favorite ride to date, even though we were hailed on in July.
Anyway, I was feeling super confident after coming home from the high mountains and wanted to ride as much as possible before the new school year teaching started again in August. I had been riding new to me singletrack all summer, including a fun day at Rocky Knob near Boone, and the awesome new Fire Mountain Trails in Cherokee. Shannon and I were riding a good bit and having a great summer together. So since we had been exploring all summer, I decided to hit up a new trail near my house that unfortunately I cannot name, because they are not completely open to the public yet, even though they are completely built. Who knows? Efficient government for you I guess. So, confidence, ego and good fitness can be a bad combination in life. The new trail is some of the best sculpted, machine built and hand built trail I have ridden, very smooth and flowy, with a ton of amazing rock armoring on creek crossings and throughout the ride. I went to ride the new trail with my friend Tony, who has not ridden much this year and was a bit out of shape. We cruised the first six miles of beautiful singletrack in complete bliss, laughing out loud with how this was one of the best rides we had ever done, and it kept going and going. The evening light was perfect and we were gently working our way up the long ridge, slowly gaining elevation, and we came to a viewpoint that is one of the most beautiful I have seen.
We then realized that we were only half way up the mountain. The singletrack gods had been before us and like Odysseus on the open sea, the trail weaved a spiral ribbon into the woods beckoning us to keep going. Unfortunately, Tony needed to turn around and so I went on alone for a bit more solo reconnaissance. I rode about another mile, and unfortunately the evening light was starting to fade and I needed to turn around. I met up with Tony and we descended off the mountain. The long descent was all bliss and we made it safely back to the car. Remember the ego part of the story? I can never leave objectives not completed, so I had to go back as soon as possible to reach the summit of the new trail, even though the next day would be Monday, when no one else was off work. Mistake number 1.
So the next day, I of course went back to the new trail, determined that I would reach the summit and check off this objective. I was riding solo of course, mistake number 2. I made it to the previous evening’s high point with a bit more daylight left and charged on confidently into the unknown. There is something about solo riding in new places. The woods have that real adventure feeling to them, and you realize you are really far from your car and it is only you and your head. Moments like these are what it is all about for me. The freedom of the cog, pedaling alone and experiencing the bliss of movement. Well I was in the zone, feeling confident and I guess I kind of lost my focus a bit. I was cruising and would surely get a faster time up the mountain than the previous day, hello ego. I came to a narrow stretch of trail that skirted a large set of car sized boulders on the left. The trail narrowed down to only a handlebar width and I made mistake number three, I looked at the boulder. I always tell my clients guiding at Pisgah Mountain Bike Adventures to look where you want to go. When you see two rocks, do not look at the rocks, look at the line you want to take in between the rocks, and then your body and bike will follow your eyes. Well, the next thing I heard was a loud clink, and then I was endoing over my handlebars. My right handlebar had hit the boulder and I went flying down the trail to my left, which happened to be a very steep, probably 50 degree slope. I flew through the air for about ten feet, hit the ground hard and tumbled down the slope forever it seems. I flipped upside down and landed with my head down the mountain, my feet dangling above me. I was completely stuck and could not move. I tried to see what I was stuck on and everything looked fine. I turned my leg a bit and then realized I had been skewered by a stick, as blood was gushing out of my leg. I could not believe my eyes. I was upside down, impaled by a stick and I literally could not move at all. I grabbed the loose ground and dirt, and finally was able to grab a tree root and lift my leg slowly up off the stick and get my legs underneath my upper body. I then tried to climb back up to the trail, which was 15 feet above me on the steep slope. I somehow grabbed my bike and crawled back to the trail. Back on firm ground, I sat down, and breathed really deeply for a few minutes. The pain was intense. I cannot believe I did not pass out, it was close, but I somehow stayed conscious. I then cleaned out my wound with water and wrapped it in gauze and an ace bandage. Luckily, the bleeding stopped and I took some Ibuprofen as well. At least I had my first aid kit. Looking back, that probably helped save my life because it stopped the bleeding. I was able to text my friend Tony and asked him to meet me at the parking lot. Now the fun part, well really the horror part, riding back down the 8 miles to the car solo. That was excruciatingly painful. It was mostly downhill, and I could pedal with my right leg, while my left leg I held out straight-legged and did not pedal with it. The short climbs were the worst and I would have to get off the bike and walk instead of pedal. Well, I was hobbling as fast as I could. Each step felt like a dagger driving into my leg and I was wincing in pain with each step. In times like this, your mind shuts out the pain. Action is the only recourse. I was like a robot and kept moving in the fading light. I knew I would have to self rescue myself off this mountain. There was no one around and I was my only rescue squad. Two hours later, I saw Tony’s head lamp and I knew I had made it to the car. I then drove to the ER in Asheville.
They cleaned up my wound and sent me home to heal and to see my primary care doctor in a couple of days. I saw my doctor twice and the leg was healing fine. It was really swollen, but I did not have fever and it seemed to be getting better. After a week, the doctor put me on a stronger antibiotic and said to go to the ER if anything got worse. That was at one o’clock on a Monday. At four o’clock, suddenly everything turned. I started to spike a high fever and the leg got really swollen, red and very hot to the touch. I sent a picture of my leg and wound to my retired trauma surgeon friend James Hoffmeister, and he said I needed to get to the hospital immediately.
James was the true hero in this story. After talking with him on the phone, I was convinced I needed to go to the ER. I would not have gone on my own until Wednesday during my follow up appointment, and as James said, I might not have made it until then. These type of wound infections tend to go south really quickly. Thank you James, for truly being the one who saved my life that day. I am forever indebted to you. I went back to the ER and they did a multitude of tests including an MRI. My leg had gotten infected and I had a hematoma inside my leg near the left side of my calf, near the skin. The hematoma needed to come out immediately. They did emergency surgery to remove the hematoma and debried the original wound sight. Three days later, I went home and started the long and slow process of recovery. It all happened so fast. I did not tell you that Shannon was in Greece at the time, so I was making life or death decisions at two in the morning alone. That time in the hospital before and after the surgery was so intense. All of a sudden I started having a lot of clarity about so many things. I was overwhelmed by the amount of support I was receiving from my friends and family during that time. Many people came to visit me, including my principal at school and many other friends. Shannon was 3,000 miles away and yet I was being taken care of by so many others. I released everything in those few days. I cried, I was grateful, I was humbled, I was lifted up. Friends blew me away. Tony mowed my lawn before our clients came for our AirBnb rental, people brought me food, and even one friend named Katie cleaned the downstairs rental, which there was no way I could have cleaned, since I was hobbling around on crutches in a pretty good bit of pain still. I was basically on the couch most of the day. I would get up to pee, eat a bit of food, watch TV, take a shower, change the dressing on my leg and sit it out a little more. After three weeks I began to get more mobility back and I started to use only one crutch for walking. Work days at school started and everything started to go back to normal. About seven weeks later, I went on my first ride, down our neighborhood road. A few days later, I went on a real gravel road ride in Bent Creek. I was back!
That was when the real lessons started to sink in. When you are laid up for a long period of time, there is nothing to do, but think about everything. What had I been doing the past year? I had basically shut out my wife, many friends, and family, and nothing else really mattered. I only thought of riding and not much else. Work, family, time at home, everything in my life was just filling up space and time until the next ride, when I could be free again. The problem was that even when I was riding, I was not really free. I had an agenda. I needed to do some real thinking about what I was doing and for what purpose. I think the awakening came the day we went to retrieve the pokey stick, the name I gave the stick that tried to take me out. I had this crazy idea that I wanted to find the stick that caused my accident and burn it into the abyss. That day I assembled a strong group of real friends, my business partner Patrick, Joe, Allison, and my wife Shannon. We brought along a hand saw and the plan was made to climb down to the stick and cut it off the mountain and bring it back home. All day long I was very emotional. I knew we would make it to the summit of the trail and I knew we would get the stick, but it is still very scary going back to the scene of the crime so to speak. Before the ride I spoke to everyone and said how much it really meant for them all to be there with me. I told them everyone would be a part of a bigger moment, a creation moment of moving past fear, and overcoming obstacles in our lives, metaphorically, literally and symbolically. The ride was a major breakthrough for me and my wife as well. She had never done a ride with so much vertical and distance (20 miles with 4,600 feet of elevation gain), and it was so cool for me to be a part of her breakthrough moment too. She could have given up earlier in the day, but she was just as determined as me to get the stick and finish her longest ride. That was inspiring the hell out of me. We then made it to the site of the accident. Right away, I looked down the trail and I immediately saw the stick. Without hesitation, my brave wife climbed down the steep slope and began cutting the stick that was surreptitiously still poking straight out of the ground.
Talk about sexy. She did not even flinch. She was on a mission as well. She was giving completely of herself in that moment and I saw it in her eyes. She embodied self-less action and I was radiating joy and intense emotion. After a few jitters and silent reflection, we continued the ride to the summit. We made it and man that view is one of the best in the state in my opinion.
We descended the trail after having an amazing moment on the summit basking in the endless mountain views. On the way down, I even rode the section where I crashed. Wow, that was the pinnacle of the day! Everyone else had gone before me and I charged it confidently, and cleaned it no problem to the cheers of everyone. In that moment, I was free. No more ego, no more expectations. From that moment it was all gratitude, and a focusing on creating moments. Creating moments with friends and family, spending time with positive people, letting go of expectations I had been placing on myself and others, and truly becoming a part of life and not taking any moment for granted. Every breathe in this life is precious. I do not want to waste any more of this gift. I want to breathe it all in and experience everything with more clarity of purpose.
From now on it is waking up each day and saying what can I do to affect the quality of the day? Who can I help? What moment can I be a part of completely? I do not mean just floating by in a daze, but real presence. From now on, I want to be completely a part of all the moments I am experiencing. I want to talk with my friends and family and really listen to what they have to say. I want to slow down a bit on my rides and look around a bit more. It is all right if we do not get the 40 miles I wanted to do, at least I am out there creating and experiencing the woods with friends. I want to expand my experiences more and do other things with friends that I enjoy like hiking, rock climbing and skiing. Even doing things I normally do not do like playing tourist in Asheville, brewery-hoping with my old high school friend Conrad and his wonderful wife Lynn. By the way, he made me this beautiful fire poker stick and gave it to me on my birthday. Moments.
Oh, and we burned the shit out of “the pokey stick”. On my birthday, we had an amazing night of friends around the backyard fire-pit. Everyone got a stick from the woods and we burned them together and made symbolic vows to live more fully. These are the real moments where the blinders are thrown aside and you experience the joy, the sorrow, the hardships and most of all the shared journey. It is amazing what has taken place this time after this injury. I go on a ride and it takes on more meaning than I ever thought possible. Since my injury, every ride and experience is sacred and special, and you know what? We are still doing big goals and charging it out there, but I have let go of the agenda and it has clarified so much for me. A month ago, Shannon and I went to Mulberry Gap and had two big days of beautiful, back-country bliss riding. In fact, both days were Shannon’s biggest on the bike and I was a part of that moment too, smiling and fighting with her.
In the past, I probably would not have been patient enough to set aside my goals to help another. In that moment we were both in the same moment and it was some of the best riding I have had with Shannon. We were both exploring new places and being together in a common goal. Shared goals and moments are really what it is about. So get out there and create your moments and bring a friend along for the ride. We are all in this together and together we will create our lives.