I KILLED OUR FATHER-SON VACATION on day one. Nearly killed myself, too.
You can do that when you’re biking down the peak of British Columbia’s Whistler Mountain—venue for skiers in the 2010 Winter Olympics.
In summertime, Whistler—with its primo dirt trails—lures a different crowd.
Mountain bikers from all over the world.
Two from the Kansas flatlands the summer of 2009: me and my son, Brad.
On weekends at home Brad and I rode our bikes along a wooded river trail in Lawrence, Kansas, where he attended the University of Kansas.
Brad would graduate in May. Whistler was his celebration wish. We left behind his mom, a hospital nurse not especially fond of riding bicycles down mountains.
Brad and I would ride the first day with a guide. That was our plan. We figured the guide would help us make the transition from Kansas horizontal to Rocky Mountain vertical.
Yet on our first ride down one of the easiest trails, I transitioned from mountain bike vertical to bedrock horizontal. It happened when I locked my brakes, trying to avoid a log. Forward momentum carried me over the handlebars—gracefully, I’d like to pretend. I plowed my right shoulder into unforgiving ground that looked like dirt but felt like brick.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I had snapped my right clavicle—the collar bone—along with the rib just below it. All I knew with certainty was that my shoulder hurt—and that this was ride number one on day number one.
I pushed myself through the rest of the 45-minute ride—a thousand-foot drop from start to valley. Then my son and I walked to our nearby hotel. I swallowed a couple Tylenol, rubbed on some Icy Hot, and stretched my shoulder—not recommended for broken bones. Then back to the ski lift, where we ascended to the peak for a four-hour ride down a 4,000-foot drop.
I almost made it.
About 700 feet above the valley, our guide led us to a four-diamond trail called Joyride.
In the long haul, I think it was aptly named.
Joyride showcases three bumps—one instantly placed after another. At least they’re instantly placed when you’re going too fast.
I didn’t intend to catch air. I had already seen the first half of a century, and I fully intended to see much of the second half. But the inclines on this mountain are deceptive. This time, I didn’t squeeze the brakes hard enough. So I’m told. I have no memory of what happened.
Last thing I recall is heading into the bumps thinking, “No air.”
Witnesses said that after the first bump I stood the bike on its front tire before I let it buck me off and into a maneuver called the “scorpion.” It’s called that because you look like a scorpion trying to sting something. When I drove my face into the third bump, my legs folded behind me and my heels tapped the back of my helmet.
Brad said I remained confused and combative for 45 minutes, fighting to get up.
“What happened?” I kept asking.
“You wrecked your bike.”
That’s a conversation we played over and over until the ambulance arrived.
Brad said that as he hovered over me, pinning my arms and shoulders to the ground to secure my spine, he kept turning his face away so I wouldn’t see him cry.
He needn’t have bothered. I wouldn’t have remembered.
A guy thing
What I do remember is the moment in the trauma center when I realized I had killed our vacation.
It wasn’t when the doc said had I broken both collar bones, half a dozen ribs, and punctured a lung. I was still hoping he’d release me—a clue my bell had rung. It was when he said I needed a chest tube and transport to a Vancouver hospital where I’d spend several days.
Brad called my wife. She said she’d catch the first flight out.
“Tell her not to come,” I said, while Brad was still talking to her. “Tell her it’s a guy thing.”
I heard a nurse in the room chuckle.
My wife, indeed, would come. Nurses are like that.
But for now, with the doc slipping out of the room, it was just me and Brad. And silence. I wanted to speak the words plainly, but could only choke them out.
Brad had graduated just a few weeks earlier. He was starting a new business on a shoestring, and this would be his only vacation of the year. I had wrecked it.
Brad never holds my hand anymore like he did when he was a little boy. But he reached out and grabbed it this time.
“It’s okay, Dad.”
Man in charge
My son was now in charge. Morphine would be taking charge of me.
While the doc inserted my chest tube, Brad ran back to the hotel to grab us both a bag for the ambulance run to Vancouver. Before my wife could arrive, my son would be negotiating with the likes of a hospital bookkeeper, a social worker, a hotel manager, and a string of airline reps.
On our first night in Vancouver, he would sleep on the floor beside me in the ER ward.
I don’t think anyone but parents would believe me when I say that seeing him lie there, and knowing what I was putting him through, was the most hurtful pain of all.
I would spend three days in the hospital. It would have been longer had my own personal nurse not arrived from home. The day before the hospital released me, I had a few minutes alone with Brad. I told him I was proud of how he had handled all of this. And again, I choked out, “I’m sorry.”
This time I saw his eyes fill, matching mine. He took my hand again.
“Honestly,” he said. “The hardest thing I’ve had to deal with is knowing that you blame yourself.”
He looked right past my chest full of broken bones and saw my broken heart.
How lucky am I to ride life’s trail with this young man?
Whistler got that name right.
That’s where it all began. Because of what happened on that trail, I got to see my son at his best when life took a turn for the worse.
There was certainly no joy in watching him suffer.
But he persevered. He maneuvered all the obstacles. There’s the joy. A dad’s joy in discovering that his boy has become not just a man, but the kind of man this world needs. Caring. Capable. Determined.
I couldn’t be happier.
By late autumn we would be riding the river trail again.
I don’t think Whistler has much of a chance of making it past the Little Lady’s veto. But just in case it might, I’m not asking.
[…] remember my bike wreck on Whistler Mountain a few years ago. Two broken collar bones. Several broken ribs. One punctured […]