Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A harsh end to the holiday

It began where these stories always seem to begin, on a bright and gorgeous morning. Keith and I were pedaling along State Route 120, the high road across Yosemite National Park. We had a big day planned — eighty miles and a long, rolling climb to near 10,000 feet elevation. We were about twenty-five miles in, and I was feeling discomfort from several different directions — yes, remnant undercarriage pains, as well as difficulty breathing in the sustained high altitude. Also, I didn't want to say anything to Keith, but I didn't really like this road. It was a little unnerving — narrow with frequent blind corners, and the kind of traffic and drivers typical of national parks. Sometimes things don't feel right, and I don't know why. Usually when I feel unwarranted negativity, I blame it on physical discomfort.

"I kinda wish we just went hiking in valley again," I joked with Keith. "There are so many awesome trails down there, and oxygen too." But when he asked me, more than once, whether I wanted to cut the ride short because I wasn't feeling well, I held on to my resolve. "No, this is a beautiful route. I can rally."

Keith waited for me at the bottom of a long descent, where I arrived still gasping for air. I admitted I would probably require consistent breath-catching breaks in order to make it up the next climb. Keith offered to ride behind me for a while, and chatted breezily while I turned slow rotations and strained thin air through my sea-level-weakened lungs. I didn't want to say anything to Keith, but after a mile I could hear him speaking to me, but couldn't really understand the words over my own loud breathing. We rounded a corner where the pavement notched into the mountainside just as a pack of four motorcycles roared beside us. I distinctly remember being frightened by the noise of the engines and moving far to the right when, just seconds later, I heard a loud, "Nooooo!"

The scream faded into a sickening crunch, and I felt something punching my left forearm. The force ripped my Garmin watch clean off its band and caused me to teeter violently, but I was able to put my foot down before the bike tipped over. I heard Keith cursing and my immediate thought was that his front wheel bumped my rear and he crashed. But as I swung around, I saw something much worse — an overturned Harley Davidson, a half-exploded road bike, and my friend Keith writhing on the pavement.


"Don't move, Keith, please don't move," I yelled as I darted around him, gathering the pieces of his bike from the road. The motorcyclist quickly stood up and we both flagged down vehicles coming from opposite directions. One man got out of his car and offered to direct traffic while another couple rushed toward us and said they were EMTs. They immediately started asking Keith the right questions before I had even fully processed what had happened. I grabbed my cell phone but it had no reception. No one had reception. We were high on a mountain pass, many miles from the nearest towns. So I dug my SPOT unit out of my pack and hit 911.

More bystanders helped the motorcyclist right his bike so he could wheel it out of the lane. His arm was crimson with road rash and he was bleeding profusely from one of his fingers. I dug out my first aid kit, offered him antibiotic ointment, and introduced myself. He said his name was Joe, from Staten Island. He was here on vacation with his buddies. They all rented Harleys in Oakland and were traveling up the Sierras and onto the Cascades. Joe was ashen faced and shocked himself. His buddies were now far ahead. They didn't know he was missing from the group. I felt for Joe. There was no doubt that his inattentiveness led to the rear-end collision, but the action wasn't malicious. He simply didn't see us until it was too late.

The EMTs  — Dan and his wife from Mono Lake — took charge of the situation, and their assistance helped calm all of us down. They determined Keith had all the good physical indicators to likely rule out a spinal injury, as well as no head injuries. But he was in a lot of pain and it was obvious something was very wrong with his back. Eventually construction workers arrived and took over traffic direction as Keith remained where he landed on the road. It took at least an hour for the ambulance to arrive. The nearest hospital was another hour and a half away.

The next 36 hours were a whirlwind of stress. They carted Keith off in an ambulance and the motorcyclist Joe, his friends, the EMTs, and I waited another half hour for a ranger to arrive. We filled out our reports and Joe's friends helped him build an arm bandage out of a greasy towel and a nylon strap. Hey was still bleeding rather heavily, but the one ambulance that arrived didn't have time to help him treat his wounds. I waited another hour for a ride with both bikes back to my car, and another hour went by before I passed into an area with cell reception. All that time, Beat and Keith's wife Leslie didn't really know what was going on — only that my SPOT sent out a 911 signal, and later that there was a collision with a motorcycle. Leslie told me later that she was surprised her reaction to extreme stress was to stay calm and eat a lot of bagels. I felt some survivor's guilt that day, both for almost inexplicably avoiding being swept up in the collision, as well as instigating the SOS call without being able to convey further information. But I had to hit 911 on the SPOT. It was the right thing to do.

I met Keith at the medical center in the town of Sonora, where a stage of the Tour of California was slated to start on Wednesday. Bicycle fever rippled through the tiny town, but I could only feel sadness, and some anger. The accident was just that — unintentional — but the fact is Joe was able to walk away and Keith could not. Bicyclists never get to walk away. And the number of friends who have been involved in vehicle-bicycle collisions only continues to grow. It can be difficult not to ask "When is it my turn?" and "Why not me?" and sometimes just "Why?" Keith held on to his usual cheery attitude and made optimistic observations about his condition. But as we plodded through the tests and procedures at the hospital, I could see that this was becoming more real to him with each passing hour. He was lucky it wasn't worse, which is something one can always say about any bad incident. But he was beginning to realize that he was in for a long recovery, that he won't be able to ride a bicycle for several months, that he might not even be able to work for a long while.

The final diagnosis: A fractured lumbar vertebrae, muscle tearing, and abrasions. He was transported to a larger hospital in Modesto for a whole second day when the Sonora doctor became concerned about signs of nerve damage, but further tests came up clear. We went through the long process of transporting him to my home, prepping him for his flight, and sending him back to Canada, broken.

Keith has a great support network of friends and he will recover. I of course realize how lucky I am that I was not hit. I think my saving grace was the fact I veered so far to the right seconds before the accident. The noise from the other motorcycle engines startled me, and I remember fluttering the handlebars when I drifted too close to the dirt shoulder. Then Joe slammed directly into Keith's rear wheel before his Harley veered to the left and turned over. The trajectory of the crash pushed Keith's bike forward and up. That's likely what hit my left arm and tore off my watch — the bicycle. Keith flipped backward onto his back, but luckily his body never made direct contact with the motorcycle. Otherwise, the outcome probably would have been much worse.

 There was lots of good in Keith's visit to California, and I wish it didn't have to end this way. I took this photo from Glacier Point the evening before the crash, overlooking the Half Dome and other mountains in Yosemite. This is the hike I talked Keith into as part of my "my butt can't handle every day on a bike" vacation negotiations. We started in the valley and climbed the four-mile trail to Glacier Point, and then I went on to the top of the Sentinel Dome, 8,123 feet. From there I ran all the way down in order to catch up with Keith, losing more than 4,000 feet in direct elevation over six miles. It was without a doubt my best running descent yet. My feet floated over rocks and confidently rounded switchbacks, as though I might actually be learning a technique or two in technical running. And honestly, it was the strongest I've felt in a while.

Keith told me that this accident hasn't changed his feelings about cycling at all. He's still excited to return to road riding when he recovers. I admit I can't say the same right now. I am a cyclist, though, and I'm sure this trepidation won't last long. But right now I'm more excited about trail running than ever, and I am grateful for my health to do so.

Get well soon, Keith.