After we checked into our lodgings near Paxson, the plan was for those interested to do a few miles on an “easy dirt road” to Maclaren Summit, which has a nice mountain view. I’m no expert dirt biker, but have done enough dirt roads that I feel comfortable standing on the pegs and navigating them. I don’t get crazy with my speed and maneuvering, but I don’t panic either.
We headed out from our lodging and soon were on the unpaved section of the Denali Highway. I was the fourth out of five riders and the front three quickly left me behind. I was used to this by this point and knew that it was important for me to ride my own ride, at whatever pace I feel comfortable. There wasn’t much car traffic so I knew I wasn’t holding up a line of people by simply going the speed limit. A couple times I thought about stopping to turn around and head back. I couldn’t see the group ahead of me and the person behind me was long gone from my sight too. I finally decided I was going to crest this last hill and turn around; that’s when I spotted the other three bikes parked at the summit
The last rider in our group arrived shortly after and seemed unhappy about having been left, as I was. We took in the views, took some photos and even had a prairie dog come see what we were all about. Pretty soon the rider who arrived last headed back since she felt she was the slowest of the group. Shortly after that two others took off, leaving myself and one other rider. We headed back pretty closely behind the first group but I never saw them again.
I estimate that we were about half way back when I came upon an RV that was traveling awfully slow in front of me. I checked for oncoming traffic and seeing none decided to pass the RV on the left. Next thing I know, the RV is coming closer and closer to me until I was at the far left edge of the road and the RV is right there too! I admit that I panicked knowing I was about to be hit I probably grabbed the brakes hard. That’s a bad idea on dirt and gravel because the front end went into a wobble. The last thing I remember is thinking “oh **** this is bad, now what do I do?!”
Apparently I flew quite a distance from the bike and landed face down, unconscious. The rider behind me came to my aid as did at least one other person. The RV continued on as if nothing happened, so I have to assume they never saw me. Since the rest of my group was so far ahead they had no idea anything had happened. There went the possibility to capture the RV’s license plate! An ambulance was called and a medical helicopter, plus Alaska state patrol. Since we were so remote, it was at least 2 hours before they all reached me. I am very fortunate that more folks stopped to assist and they were able to use a ladder to carry me up the embankment I landed on while I waited. It had been getting cold pretty quickly on that hill.
I landed pretty far from the bike – these ladies are on either side of me as I lay on the ground.
I remember bits of conversations while I laid there. I remember the kindness of total strangers who offered up blankets to keep me warm and those who kept me talking and awake as I likely had a concussion. I also remember my tour guide saying she was going with me to the hospital. Another call from her boss conveyed that would not be happening and that I needed to figure it out on my own. Maybe it was the head injury or the emotions of the whole experience, but I felt scared and overwhelmed. I was already confused, I didn’t know what was going on and now I was going to have to navigate this on my own too. As it turned out, there was barely room in the helicopter for me, my camera bag and one packing cube of clothes, so there was no way she could have gone anyhow.
One person that stopped to “help” sticks out as being decidely not helpful. As I lay there on the ground obviously in pain, this person came over to me and said “you know they’re going to cut your gear off at the hospital, right?” I couldn’t help but notice the sneer in the facial expression and the tone of voice. I may have had a concussion, but I’m still aware! I next heard one of the EMTs tell that individual to leave. I’m not sure why they thought poking me about having my gear cut off was necessary, but they did. Now it strikes me as a very cruel and strange thing to say to someone. I suppose some people just despise motorcyclists.
Soon I heard a helicopter in the distance and the EMTs made sure I was covered with a blanket so I didn’t sustain further injuries as the helicopter tried to land on the gravel road. Dirt and gravel went flying from the rotors and the photos show quite a dust storm! The pilot didn’t like what she saw there and took the helicopter back up and moved a bit further away. After the EMTs from the helicopter checked me out, started an IV and traded my helmet for a neck brace, I was loaded into the regular ambulance and driven a short distance to the helicopter. The people taking care of me said it would feel very strange to be loaded into the helicopter, like I was going to fall to one side, but they assured me I was safe and they had it under control. I’m glad they warned me because as I lay on what felt like a very narrow support, I was convinced that I was about to slide off and land on the road again.
Helicopter 1st landing attempt
Thankfully the helicopter ride was uneventful, at least for me. I was flown a couple hours away to the ER in Palmer, Alaska. I heard the hand off from the helicopter EMT to the trauma team and remember him saying they had to give me something because my vital signs took a turn for the worse. The trauma team was very careful, but efficient with removing my gear and no scissors were necessary! After checking me over, the doctor sent me for a CT scan to see what was broken or damaged. Until the scans came back there was not much they or I could do. I couldn’t even get up to use the bathroom!
Around 2 AM the CT scans came back and the ER doc came in to say he had no idea how I was alive, let alone escaped this crash with nothing broken. He was sure something had been overlooked and proceeded to check my hands and feet again to be sure. He then told me that my Klim riding gear and my Shoei helmet had saved my life! I think at that point, I just broke down in tears of gratitude. Again. Since the rest of my group was hours away and it was after 2 AM, the ER staff let me stay there for the rest of the night. The nurse even brought me some food, water and a Coke since it had been over 12 hours since I’d eaten. I’d never spent the night in the hospital before, but I can tell you there is very little sleeping in a trauma center! By then I was just grateful that I didn’t have to figure out where to go at 2 AM in a city and state I was not at all familiar with.
Around 6:30 the next morning as the staff was preparing to end their shifts, one of the nurses brought me some coffee, took off all the monitoring devices and helped me pack up my things so I could leave. I had no plan about where to go or what to do next. I was obviously not able to ride and the bike was hours away anyhow. I didn’t yet know that the bike was damaged enough it couldn’t be ridden anyway. I looked into flying home early and it was over $1,000 to change my ticket. I enlisted a friend to help me find a hotel in Palmer so I could get some sleep, but none were available until after 3 PM. Calling some rental car agencies turned up nothing either. I truly thought I was going to be stranded in the hospital lobby until I could get a flight home the next day!
A couple of hours later someone suggested an app that allows people to rent out their own cars. I checked and found one that was near my location, but was not available until the afternoon. I completed the reservation and then on a whim sent the owner a message and asked that he contact me if by chance the car became available sooner. As luck would have it, it was available soon after. I wasn’t even sure if I could or should be driving, but in that moment, I just wanted out of the damn hospital. I was exhausted and hungry, but I needed a plan for the day that didn’t involve trying to sleep in the hospital waiting room! I picked up the car that morning and started the journey to Valdez to catch up with my group. I’ll write about the rest of the trip in another blog post.
It has now been 18 days since the accident. The bruises are slowly fading. The muscles are slowly healing. When I was healed enough, I saw my massage therapist and acupuncturist to work on realigning and releasing muscle tension. There is improvement but nothing is normal yet, so the journey will continue. Next week I am seeing a chiropractor to see how far out of alignment my bones are and what can be done to remedy that.
A couple of well intentioned people have suggested that I stop riding after this experience. I can tell you that most certainly will NOT happen. I have discussed with my riding partner what the plan is once my body has healed. I will return to riding in my time, at my pace. I trust my riding partner implicitly and I know that he will push me just a little as I am ready to be pushed. I also know that if I have a melt down, he’ll be there to support me and help me find my love of riding again. While I hope that I never have another accident, I know that life is not without risk. I am so exceptionally grateful to be here, I can’t say that enough times.