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. 

26 comments:

  1. Anonymous5:55 PM

    I’m glad you are all in one piece Jill, I've been following your BLOG since the beginning articles. lets hope Keith makes a speedy recovery.
    Dave L

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  2. Keith strikes me as a very positive person, so I know he can get through this. Glad you were okay and could tend to him. As for the motorcyclist...I'm sure he felt bad, and he should. There isn't any excuse for what happened. There is a good reason to fear people in rented vehicles...lack of experience with local roads and possibly the vehicle itself. I hope Keith gets some insurance money at the very least. Cameron and I are thinking about him and wishing him a fast recovery.

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  3. Oh no, you know I can relate to this, although nobody hit me and my injuries are a lot less. It's funny how we sometimes feel a sense of doom before something bad happens. I hope Keith can heal quickly and returns to riding as soon as he can.

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  4. Holy SMOKES! I try my best not to, but I think about this type of thing on EVERY road ride.

    Keith is very lucky....a typical Harley weighs well over 800lbs, could have really done BAD things to a cyclist. Out there on our bikes we are SO vulnerable to the other vehicles...and can only pray and trust that they ARE paying attention. No idea how this one happened, but I think Cell phones are the biggest danger to cyclists since the invention of the car (and motorcycle).

    Which is why I love Mt biking so much. My theory on Mt bike crashes are that there are only 2 reasons why I crash:

    1) I messed up.
    2) Something broke (which is almost always a direct result of item 1).

    I can live with those reasons...cuz it means any crash is pretty much MY fault. But being in the wrong place and time when some inattentive driver ruins your life...well, that's a whole different animal.

    Best of luck to Keith for a full speedy recovery! And glad you are unhurt Jill! I've been in CA for over 10 years now and STILL haven't made it up to Yosemite (and most certainly will NOT be road riding there anytime soon!)

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  5. Heal up quickly Keith. Scary stuff and some long rehab, but so glad it wasn't worse. Thinking of you guys.

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  6. Thank goodness you had your SPOT with you. You were probably able to get him help much quicker than if you had just waited for someone else to come along that had cell signal. Don't forget though that text can be sent even when you don't have enough signal to make a call. In most states you can text 911 and get help. I have been commuting the last couple of days with out a cell phone. I will not do that anymore.
    Glad to hear you are okay.

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  7. That is terrible. And a serious place to get a fracture, though I do believe, as you say that Keith will recover quickly, given his good attitude, good health and his support network.

    What I don't understand is why there is not more of an outcry to make conditions safer for cyclists on roads (safe bike lanes) - and increase fines for hitting cyclists. WHY is it that cars & motorcycles have to rule our roads? I'm just planting this seed because I know there are a lot of political activists who read your blog and if our generation doesn't decide to make a change, this will happen again and again.

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  8. You know, Jill, this is a tough post to read. Aside from the physical trauma your friend endured, and your own emotional trauma, it's upsetting to read that you knew something wasn't right with the situation but couldn't stop. I don't know how many times I've done the same thing but still came through the situation relatively unscathed. The last couple of years I've been trying to muster the courage to tell my riding partner (usually my husband), "I don't feel comfortable with this situation, and I want us to stop." That's so, so hard to do because it feels like giving up. I want to be as tough as the guys, and yet, I don't want anyone to get hurt. Your post has given me the strength to speak my mind more often. Best of wishes to you, to Keith, and to all the folks out there who push themselves hard. But let's all try to be more thoughtful about our safety, okay?

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  9. Tragic, thoughts are with you, Keith and careless Joe...we have all taken our eyes off the rode at times. As you said, we cyclists always take the mistakes of others at great cost.

    Get well.

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  10. Jill, sorry for Keith being injured. I hope for a quick recovery. I suffered injury to two of my discs due to a vehicle collision, so I understand what his recovery may be like.

    Even though you state the collision was not intentional, it actually was. When someone gets onto a motorcycle or behind the wheel of a car, everything they do that is a result of that act alone makes it intentional. You start the motor, you are driving, it is intentional. You take your mind off the road and look around at the sights in a National Park, that is an intentional act, you choose to do such a thing. That makes what Joe did to Keith intentional. There is great responsibility when driving, Joe failed in the discharge of his duty as a motorcyclist.

    There are no vehicle accidents. It is never accidental. There are collisions, and just about all of them can be avoided if the person driving does what they are supposed to be doing when behind the wheel (or handlebars).

    As far as knowing what I talk about, the manner in which people drive made me sell my motorcycle after writing too many reports and cleaning up too many bodies off the roadway when I was working in the traffic division of a Southern California beach city Police department. The same experiences made me give up road cycling and focus almost exclusively on mountain biking for years.

    I feel sorry for Joe, but he very much could have avoided all of this if he simply tried.

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  11. There's so much I could say about this. We've had a number of local cyclists who have been hit from behind in the past few years and fractured vertebrae represent about the best outcome. It is quickly becoming my greatest fear when out on the road, and is one of the reasons I rarely do long solo road rides any more. I do a lot of my riding on a bike path atop the Mississippi River levee. One of the things that made that bike path possible was the death of a local doctor who was hit from behind by a car.

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  12. Get well, Keith! And, Jill, nice job responding to the emergency. Hitting 911 on the SPOT was the right thing to do. What a scary time. My thoughts are with you and Keith. Hang in there, girl!

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  13. even the phrase 'rented motorbike' strikes fear into my heart.. most motorbikers are very careful as they are the second most vulnerable road users after cyclists but an inexperienced motorbiker or one on a different bike can a danger to themselves and others. having said that, i feel for 'joe' - he sounds like a good guy and is probably feeling terrible for his part in this.

    wishing keith a speedy and smooth recovery!

    Lyndsey

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  14. I want to echo what Getspoked said. This is a really tough post to read. It's been haunting me since yesterday. Enjoy the trails on your two feets and I wish a speedy recovery to your friend.

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  15. two feet...

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  16. This makes me sick to my stomach. Yesterday our Tallahassee cycling community installed a ghost bike for our friend Dave Baton, killed by a motorist not quite a year ago.

    Please keep us posted on Keith's recovery, and enjoy that quiet time on the trails.

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  17. Uugh.

    Best wishes to Keith on his recovery.

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  18. Bagels? Now I want one.

    I do feel badly for this Joe guy. I disagree with another commenter's definition of "intentional" -- Joe obviously didn't intend to hit Keith. Certainly our actions (and inaction) can have dire consequences, but any of us could be in the shoes of Keith or Joe under various sets of circumstances.

    Anyhow, I'm sorry you had to experience this and obviously I am worried about Keith. The only good thing about it is that I can go visit him with zero pressure to spend a weekend sweating and being tortured. I can just wheel him to Lululemon and the bar and sit around :-)

    I do think road biking on certain roads is super dangerous. For me, just not worth it. Around here, the Seeley-Swan highway seems like it would make for an awesome ride but I am told that many cyclists have been killed on that road. I'll just stick to running... of course as you know that can be dangerous too as learned by my friend who was bit by the grizzly bear...

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  19. Isn't it weird how often that gut feeling is right? How terrifying... but I'm glad everyone is going to be okay.

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  20. Thanks everyone. Danni, I had to laugh at your comments about sweating and being tortured. I think Keith would enjoy a weekend of being wheeled around Lululemon and the bar. For what it's worth we can be as lazy as you want when you come here. That's pretty much where my head is at right now, although I don't have the ability to say no to any outdoor activity (and I do think you'd love the Skyline to the Sea trail run.)

    Everything is dangerous on some level, and I do agree with Keith's attitude that this kind of thing is a mostly random occurrence, and it's not a reason to quit road biking all together. Still, it's unfortunate, and although preventable as others have pointed out, that doesn't change the fact that it was entirely out of our control. That aspect, to me, is what was most upsetting about this incident.

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  21. Chyllyn8:30 PM

    As you say "bicyclists never get to walk away" from collisions with larger "vehicles". I am a cyclist and also a professional driver (bus). The level of risk evident to me in the picture of this road is far beyond any I would be willing to accept.
    This is not likely the only corner on a mountain pass and while drivers should know there may be animals to avoid hitting I know they don't think in advance or care at all about hitting an animal. There is no shoulder to pull over onto when you hear larger vehicle, and everyone should always accept that there will be all sorts of inexperienced drivers that take risks beyond their ability to manage those risks.
    I am sorry for everyone involved in this collision.

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  22. Actually a few years ago my masters swim coach (I was into triathlon back then) got tragically killed by a drunk driver in the cali wine country just north. The driver (a local resident and alcoholic, not a tourist) hit him with 50mph, then went on to hit his girlfriend a hundred yards later and drove on. He was stopped by an off-duty cop and claimed he didn't notice. Blood was on the cracked windshield. My coach, 30 years old, died on the scene, his girlfriend was for a few weeks in a coma and made a painfully slow recovery (I doubt it was a complete one). It was heartbreaking and horrifying to read her families blog posts: "Today I think she recognized us!".
    It put me off biking until I met Jill, a solid 8 years during which my (then almost new) Calfee gathered dust ... Jill got me back into biking mostly through mountain biking, which appeals to me for obvious reasons. I have to admit I wasn't initially very happy for her interest in road biking, though I ended up getting the new road bike anyways so I could ride with her.
    I'm extremely glad Keith didn't get hurt in an irreversible fashion. I do ask myself if it's really worth it. Road biking can be sublime fun (like our bike to work day with almost no traffic) but to be honest I simply prefer trails. I have now multiple friends who had brushes with/full-on death on a roadbike. I am usually fairly conservative when it comes to traffic, but it takes oh so little for a cyclist or driver to make that terrible mistake. In a way you can't let it stop you. But I'm not really stopped when I trail run or mountain bike either ...

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  23. Durango Joe6:48 AM

    It's all down to probability and chance, but some of it has to do with choosing your roads carefully. That road looks like it could be nice on low-traffic days, but with no shoulder, risky on a busy day. Hope you don't totally give up on road cycling, it's the pure stuff.

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  24. We Portland cyclists had another fatality yesterday. Large truck downtown turned left into and over a women commuter. Tragic, careless and avoidable, the truck passed her then turned in front of her....

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  25. I'm not saying cyclist's don't get hit in other countries, but I just got back from 3 months in England (and I had my road bike with me). I was AMAZED at the COMPLETE lack of cyclist-directed rage (during the 560 miles I logged anyway).

    The roads I was on over there all make the one in Jill's pic look HUGE. Yet the cars that come up behind slow up and WAIT until I signal them around (if they couldn't see around) or go on their own when they had a chance. I'd always give a friendly wave as they passed, thanking them for waiting, and almost always got a nice wave back.

    I think in the US drivers are conditioned to ONLY see other vehicles. Also here there is MUCH anger directed towards cyclists who are impeding the driver's speedy arrival at their destination. How DARE you slow me down...get off MY road!

    As has been said here, our laws typically let negligent drivers walk away, while the cyclist is dead or severely injured. That's not always the case overseas (in the places I've been anyway). In Japan, you hit a bike or pedestrian, you can hang it up...you will pay DEARLY! They do not accept the "I didn't see him" excuse. You are behind the wheel, it's your DUTY to see.

    And not that Keith's collision have anything to do w/ a cell phone (as far as we know), but until the US gets SERIOUS about cell phone use while driving (ie: treating it the SAME as a DWI), cyclists will continue to die in record numbers.

    So many people think they can text or yak on the phone and it's not impeding their driving, but study after study has shown it's WORSE than being drunk. I have high hopes that someday we will get there...20 years or so ago drunk driving was a wink-wink offense too...using the "it wasn't his fault, he was drunk" excuse.

    But god forbid we hold people accountable for their actions...gasp!

    (OK...sorry for the rant..had a tough day/week at work and had to vent some).

    Happy Friday! Get out on those TRAILS! I sure plan to!

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  26. Anonymous6:52 AM

    This is a road through Yosemite National Park. Bicyclists should be able to travel safely on this road with minimal anxiety.

    If motorists cannot, or will not, share this road safely with non-motorized traffic, the onus for safety should not be on bicyclists who are following the law.

    Are the government agencies (NPS?) responsible for the design and enforcement for this stretch of highway doing their job to create a safe corridor for all users? Are further restrictions on motorized use necessary?

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