Planes, Trains, and Automobiles – Part 4: Extreme downhill

downhill-bikingOkay, I’ve talked a lot already about near-misses on planes and automobiles. But, some of the mishaps for which I am best known actually occurred on two wheels. And the first of these mishaps, as painful as it was, actually went a long way to strengthen my faith.

And no, when I say “two wheels,” I’m not referring to motorcycles. With my history, my wife won’t even let me near one of those things!

By 2003, I had been working behind a desk for at least 8 years, and my physique showed it. I weighed in at over 240 and I knew my lifestyle wasn’t putting me in a healthy place.

What to do? I recalled my love for bicycles, as a child, and I thought: That’s it. I need to get back on a bike.

And, I did so with a vengeance. I bought a department store mountain bike, which weighed something like 40 or 45 pounds, and started tearing up the local mountains. I didn’t even know the thing was a monster, and so the added weight just made for better exercise. I began to feel a lot stronger, and, in combination with a careful eating regimen, I lost weight … ultimately, almost 40 pounds.

But, the first of two serious bike accidents occurred just as I was approaching my peak condition. It was late August 2003, and our daughter Mandy was just getting ready to head off to college. She had chosen to attend Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, where she wanted to study Nursing. It was expensive, but our son had decided to forego college, and so we were willing to commit our entire life savings at that point, which would get her through her first year of school. After that, she was on her own.

We drove Mandy and a lot of the things she wanted in her dorm room, down to Southern California, rather than flying. We planned a stop, a few days before she was due to register, at Darlene’s parents’ place in Wrightwood, a quaint little mile-high mountain community northeast of Los Angeles. I was excited about the opportunity to do some serious mountain biking there, so I strapped my 45-pound monster to the back of the car, and off we went.

We arrived on Thursday and were due in San Diego for orientation on Saturday. That left Friday wide-open for my adventure. I took the bike up to a trailhead parking area on the Angeles Crest Trail, due west of Mountain High, the local ski summit. Packing lots of water and energy bars, I started early in the morning for my destination: The summit above Mountain High.

Shouldn’t the Downhill Be the Easy Part?

It was a rough go, but in about four hours I had achieved the summit. But on the way up, I had seen nearly no one. It was a Friday, and hardly anyone was out hiking. It was a lonely climb, along the Crest trail, with the back side of the range dropping precipitously off to my right. I also checked for a cellphone signal several times, and never had any bars available.

I was exultant after all that work to finally achieve the Summit. I took a short rest break there, then eagerly turned the bike around for the fun part: the ride downhill.

The single-lane, rough asphalt fire road had ended roughly halfway up the route, so the first half down was a lot of fun … mostly sand and gravel, which allowed me to slalom down the hill like I was skiing! But then, I reacquired the asphalt road, and at that point I suddenly felt the need for a little more speed. I was probably doing about 25 or 30, zipping down that narrow forest service road, the bluff now on my left.

And I was going a little too fast for safety, I realized as I zoomed around a blind corner. For there, right in front of me, was a large washout of the asphalt, which I had evidently crossed on the way up, but had totally forgotten about.

I was a new mountainbiker and reacted in the totally wrong way, hitting my brakes and seeking to slow my descent before entering the washout. Afterward I realized I should have powered through it, pulling the nose high. But instead, I dove my bike into the washout as I tried to brake, then struck the far side with my front tire. My momentum at the sudden impact flipped me completely over the handlebars, and I landed hard on my face on the asphalt and rocks on the far side of the washout.

I don’t think I ever realized until that moment was true pain was. I knew instinctively my injuries were serious, and the sheer level of agony was terrifying. I had smashed my mouth into something hard and broken five teeth across the top and front of my mouth, two of them snapped in half. I had torn open my left cheek, and it was hanging open on the side of my face. (When I eventually got to the hospital and a mirror, seeing my molars through the wound was ghastly and reminded me of some sort of macabre Halloween skeleton.)

I had also gashed my nose and my right eye. One knee was torn open and bleeding profusely, and there were other minor scrapes. But the lion’s share of the pain was coming from my jaw and cheekbone, mostly on the right side. I was sure I had broken my jaw in the fall.

Is Anybody There?

After a few minutes of laying there in agony, I picked myself up shakily and began to take stock of my situation. My bike was completely mangled and unrideable. I was in the middle of nowhere, with no one but chirping birds around me for miles, as far as I knew.

I pulled out my cellphone, desperately hoping for a signal. No bars, as before.

After awhile, I concluded: Well, the only thing to do is simply try and make it downhill as best I can. Perhaps I will run across someone who can help.

So I began limping down that fire road, walking my broken bike and leaving a bloody trail behind me.

This went on for maybe 15 or 20 agonizing minutes, and then I had to stop, set the bike down, and sit down on the side of the road, cradling my head in my hands. I had lost a lot of blood and suddenly felt like I would pass out. I checked my cellphone for at least the tenth time, which revealed the same thing I had seen before: No bars. No signal.

And it suddenly occurred to me: The one thing I should have done at the very outset, and I had failed to do! Pray. What an idiot!

So, I prayed. It was probably the least elegant prayer of my entire life. I cried out loud, with all the strength I could muster, into the breeze blowing over the canyon:

“Jesus! Help me, please! I really don’t want to become food for some mountain lion, lying here. I need your help!”

Did I have faith at that moment? I don’t know. But, I was desperately sincere. By this time, my head swimming and flies buzzing around my clotting wounds, I was sure I would die if God didn’t intervene.

Then, I listened. I heard nothing but silence, the breeze blowing through the canyon.

A Call for Help

One more time, I glanced at my phone. It was as before. Zero bars. Nada.

But suddenly, as I stared at it, I witnessed something miraculous. At first I thought I was delirious. I saw the phone’s reception readout zip up from zero bars, to one, then two, then three, four, and five. Full strength!

There was no explanation other than God had heard my prayer. I desperately punched “9-1-1” into the phone’s keyboard, and listened as it began to ring. And ring. Twenty times. I counted them.

After the 20th ring, a man’s voice answered. “9-1-1. What’s your emergency?”

“I’m a mountain-biker, in the Angeles Crest Forest. I’ve had a nasty accident and I need help.”

Where are you?” the operator asked, somewhat skeptically.

“The Angeles Crest trail, near Wrightwood,” I told him.

“Is that anywhere near Los Angeles?” he asked, still sounding incredulous.

“Yes,” I said impatiently, pain punctuating every syllable. “I’m maybe 50 miles northwest of Los Angeles.” Then, a light dawning: “Where are you?”

“San Diego,” the operator replied.

I shook my head. How was that possible? San Diego was maybe 150 miles south of where I sat. How on earth could my cell phone even reach that far? Why hadn’t it connected me with a 9-1-1 operator closer to my location?

“Don’t worry,” the man said, as if suddenly deciding what to do. “We’re going to get you help. I’ll get a helicopter started in your direction now. But then we’ll try and figure out if there’s help that’s closer to you, that can get there more quickly.”

He gave instructions to someone to send the helicopter, then came back on the line. “So,” he said, “You said you were near Wrightwood. It looks like that is in San Bernardino County, but close to the line with L.A. County. Do you know which side of the county line you are actually on?”

I had no idea, and told him so.

“That’s okay,” he said. “I’ll get rescue units from both counties on the line, and we’ll try and figure out exactly where you are.”

He rang up rescue units from both counties and relayed their questions to me. It sounded as if they still weren’t sure which county I was in, because he told me both counties were going to roll rescue units. “Whoever gets to you first, wins,” he said. “At least we now have an idea of approximately where are.”

He asked for more details about the nature of my injuries, then told me, “Now, don’t go anywhere! Now that we know where you are, I’m going to hang on with you until help arrives.”

“Don’t worry!” I assured him. “I’m not going any- …”

Alone Again … Naturally

There was a sudden click, then nothing. I looked down and saw the signal drop from 5 bars, all the way back down to 0. I was alone again. (Well … sort of.)

I didn’t have the strength to stand. There was nothing to do but just sit there, in the heat, and wait.

It was perhaps 20 minutes later, when I saw dust way down lower down on the trail, and red flashing lights bouncing around a mountain curve. Help was approaching!

It was a San Bernardino County rescue unit, dispatched from Wrightwood. It had taken them maybe a half hour to reach me there, halfway up toward the summit.

They stopped my bleeding, and took all my vitals. They then srapped me to a guerney. I nearly screamed from the pain when they put a neck brace on me, and begged them to loosen it. They did so a little, but apologetically said they had no choice but to leave it on. In case there was any kind of neck injury, they didn’t want my head bouncing around in the ambulance.

Once in the ambulance I began feeling very faint, and my attendant, who was really good and very kind, administered oxygen and began trying to find a vein as we jostled our way down that mountain road. He started on my left elbow, and was unsuccessful, he said because I was apparently going into shock. Then the right elbow. Then he worked his way down my left arm, until he finally found a vein in my wrist. I’m guessing he poked me a dozen times, but at that point I didn’t really care.

We drove through Wrightwood, the siren blaring, heading down the mountain to a trauma center. I began to feel better as IV fluid coursed through my veins. He put electrodes on me and expressed surprise. “Wow!” he said. “You have the heart of a 20-year-old!”

“All that mountain biking, I guess,” I explained sheepishly. I wasn’t sure if he was serious, or not.

He asked me if I wanted to call anyone. “Yes, please,” I said, “I should call my wife.”

I no longer remembered whether Darlene answered that call, or my mother-in-law. I think it was my mother-in-law. I tried to be casual, but I could hear she was alarmed. I realized it was probably the siren going in the background.

Putting the Pieces Back Together

Darlene and Mandy arrived at the Trauma Center in San Bernardino, shortly after I got there and was wheeled in. I got lots of x-rays. They told me that thankfully, my jaw wasn’t broken, just my right cheekbone. I discovered there really wasn’t anything you could do for a broken cheekbone. It moved around and popped and grinded for several weeks, then seemed to settle in one place and grow back more or less the way it was supposed to.

My wife is always amazingly calm about my medical emergencies. She even assisted the ER doctor as he sewed my cheek shut.

Mandy wasn’t quite as collected. When she first walked into the emergency room where they were working at me, and took one look at my face, she wheeled around on one heel. “I need a Coke!” she declared, as she left the room. “I’ll be right back!”

But she didn’t come right back. And the next day, she changed her choice of declared major at Pt. Loma … from Nursing to Art.

After several hours, I was released, and Darlene and Mandy drove me back up the mountain. I don’t remember much about the next 24 hours, but Saturday morning we were driving to Pt. Loma. Once there, I remember Mandy kept apologizing to people, on my behalf, who were staring at my hideously bruised face. “This is my dad,” she’d say. “He doesn’t normally look this way.”

I’ve thought many times about that experience, and mostly about how long it took me to actually think to pray about my situation. Why did it take me that long? Why wasn’t turning to God for help my first instinct?

Learning the Lesson

I’ve mentioned before that I usually don’t have to learn the same hard lesson twice. During subsequent catastrophes (never for the same reason as the first), I’ve learned to pray FIRST.

Something else that experience did for me. Although we don’t admit this, I think that in ordinary life, we often sort of assume that God is somewhat aloof, too important to be bothered with our little problems. But this experience made me realize that God was just standing by there, waiting for me to seek His help. He is truly “a very present help in time of trouble.”

And when I asked, in desperation, His answer was both immediate and undeniable. Could the sudden cellphone signal be a coincidence? Perhaps. Sun spots, maybe? What else could explain the 0 to 5 acquisition of a signal where none had existed for hours?

But, one thing is clear to me … God intervened! If he hadn’t, I might not be here today. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that God is for us, that He loves us and wants to help us. Thank you, LORD!

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