Highway 50, Pueblo, Colorado. September 10, 1995
A mile up the road from where I lay, legs horribly broken, a battered Nissan pickup pulled in front of a silver Cadillac, forcing it to stop. A Hispanic man with a pencil moustache stepped out and approached the larger vehicle. Passing motorists probably thought a carjacking was in progress. This was Dogpatch, after all, an area of town renowned for violent crime. In actual fact, Ed Apodaca was terrified. He and his young daughter had just witnessed a brutal hit and run—the Caddy ploughing into a lone figure skating along the hard shoulder, scooping up the body and flinging it over the roof like a rag doll.
Ed feared the worst. These people were clearly desperate, in all probability gangbangers out joyriding. Shooting the only eyewitnesses to manslaughter would mean nothing to them. He peered through a hole in the shattered windscreen, expecting to see a gun levelled at him. An elderly couple blinked back instead.
“Jesus!” Ed exclaimed, his trepidation turning to anger. “Do you have any idea what you’ve just done?”
Wilbur Ladd’s hands were trembling against the steering wheel. His wife had my backpack in her lap. “We thought we’d hit a deer,” she whispered.
“Oh my God! Oh my God!”
I came to with a lightly built man standing over me, gaping at my legs in horror. How long had I been lying there? Five minutes? Ten? The shock of the impact was wearing off, and barbs of molten pain coursed through my lower legs.
Ed knelt down beside me. “It’s going to be okay, buddy. An ambulance is on its way.” A bewildered-looking older man hovered behind him, shards of glass glinting on his evening jacket. Another motorist was talking urgently into a mobile phone.
Minutes passed. Ed kept me talking. “Where are you from? Where are you headed?” A highway patrol car pulled up, lights flashing. After giving Wilbur a friendly handshake, the officer strolled over to where I was sprawled, tibias protruding, and started scribbling on a pad.
It had been a long day: gut-wrenching feedlots, pasty-faced crackpots offering blowjobs, and being left for dead with two broken legs by an eighty-two-year-old drunk driver with cataracts. Incurring a fine was the last straw.
I closed my eyes and said nothing. The pain was becoming unbearable.
“I need an address,” the cop repeated impatiently. “Else I’ll be writing another citation for vagrancy.”
Is this guy being serious? I thought. Prick should be a comedian.
“He’s with me,” Ed suddenly interjected. “You can use my address.”
This Good Samaritan barely knew me, yet here he was volunteering his address for a ticket I had no intention of paying.
Sirens interrupted the farce, an ambulance turning the faces around me blue, orange, and white. Two paramedics in fluorescent yellow jackets took over, gentle fingers probing my head, neck, and spine before rolling me onto a stretcher. A needle prick in both thighs, and the dulling effect of morphine began spreading throughout my lower body. Then I was on a gurney being shunted into the back of the ambulance.
I roused from the narcotic haze to find Ed sitting beside me. The ambulance was still stationary.
“What’s the hold-up?” I asked groggily.
“Your ear almost got torn off. They’re just making sure they don’t leave any of you behind.”
A Far Side cartoon flashed to mind: some scavenging mongrel making off with a random body part in its mouth, paramedics in hot pursuit.
Eventually, all appendages accounted for, the doors closed and the ambulance picked up speed. Then I remembered something. It was Steve’s birthday. What would he say if he saw me now? I wondered.
“I told you so,” probably.
24 hours later. Parkview Medical Center, Pueblo
I awoke reincarnated into a world of tubes. Tubes in my arms, fingers, legs, nose, and penis—every hole, it seemed, apart from my bunghole. The blips and wheezes of hospital machinery filled a room lit by sunlight. I felt a wave of nausea, and the sky blue walls and eggshell ceiling swam together. A nurse appeared with a bowl just in time.
The room turned dark again.
The second time I awoke to voices.
“Good thing it was in his backpack,” one was saying, his voice nasal sounding. “Probably saved his life when he hit the windshield.” Then another, more familiar, and laughing: “I don’t think he’ll be doing anymore cooking with it, though!”
Stuart. What’s he doing here?
The edges of the room slowly sharpened. A powerfully built man in blue scrubs had my cooking pot in his hands. It was crumpled flat, like it had been run over by a Mack Truck. Costing fifty cents from a thrift store in St Petersburg, the saucepan was the best life insurance policy I could have had, cushioning the force of the collision and preventing my spine from being shattered against the windscreen.
The conversation became animated. Stuart, who I later learned had jumped on the first plane from Fort Lauderdale after learning of the accident, was pushing for a second opinion on the plan to hammer titanium rods through what remained of my tibias. Just as barbecue skewers hold pieces of meat together, so the rods would realign the shattered segments of my lower legs, long enough for the bones to knit back together.
Reminding me of an eagle with his beaky, schoolmasterly expression, Doctor Ken Danylchuk seemed more amused than anything by the cross-examination. He was one of the finest orthopaedic surgeons in the state, yet here was this Brit, familiar only with the antiquated methods of the National Health Service, challenging his expert opinion.
“Okay, Doctor Stuart!” he chuckled. “You’re the boss. I’ll see if I can’t get one of my colleagues to look at the x-rays for your … second opinion.”
This was the beginning of it, a special connection forged in the slash and cauterized burn of the operating room, and fortified during Ken’s daily rounds of the intensive care unit. Most days, the talk would digress from the state of my legs, to the state of world rugby, inevitably to the state of the Colorado Avalanche ice hockey team rating for that season. Ken was Canadian. He had hockey on the brain.
Noticing that I was awake, he turned to me cheerfully and asked, “So how is Pueblo treating you, Jason?”
Was this a Canadian leg-pull? Despite being a resident of the US for many years, the expatriate had clearly kept a dry sense of humour.
“Great,” I croaked. “The police have been especially kind.”
Ken proceeded to inspect the blood-soaked dressings for signs of primary infection. The night of the accident he’d carried out an initial procedure to irrigate the open fractures, removing as much dirt and debris as possible. Risk of suppuration had to be minimized before inserting the interlocking rods. For the next three days I had to lie completely still. Any movement and the bones would grind together.
“Looks like the fender hit your left leg first, midway between the ankle and the knee.” The surgeon gestured with a rubber-gloved hand. “With any luck we’ll have you up and skating again, Jason. But I’m obliged to warn you of the possibility of osteomyelitis.”
“That doesn’t sound good,” said Stuart, the seriousness in his face complementing the creases in his trademark leather hat. “What is it?”
“Inflammation of the bone marrow,” Ken explained.
“Can it be treated?”
“Depending on how advanced the infection is, we have pretty good results with antibiotics. But there can be complications.”
Ken hesitated. “Well, the infection can spread into the surrounding soft tissue. Worst-case scenario, your lower leg would have to be amputated. Otherwise gangrene could progress above the knee and we’d be looking at …”
I wasn’t listening anymore. All I heard was gangrene and amputated, words I’d only previously associated with healthcare in the Middle Ages. If I lost my leg, the expedition would surely be over for me. I would return to England crippled, unable to make a living even as a window cleaner. It was a dire prospect.
Later, though, lying in the darkness, imagining life as a uniped, I began thinking: Paralympians go like the wind using wheelchairs. If I can do a mile in one, I can do the remaining 2,000 to San Francisco, given enough time—just like I did with the rollerblades. But other doubts soon crowded in. How long is Steve prepared to wait? Where will the money come from to pay the hospital bills? And even if I could afford a specially designed wheelchair, is it actually possible to scale the Rocky Mountains using just the power of my arms?
*”The Seed Buried Deep is the second part of The Expedition trilogy by Jason Lewis, available online and at your local bookshop in paperback and ebook format. More information at BillyFish Books.”
Jason Lewis is an award-winning author, adventurer and voice for global sustainability. In 2007, he became the first person to circumnavigate the Earth without using motors or sails: walking, cycling, and inline skating five continents, and kayaking, swimming, rowing, and pedalling a boat across the rivers, seas, and oceans. Taking thirteen years to complete, the 46,505-mile journey was hailed “the last great first for circumnavigation” by the London Sunday Times.
Adventure is about much more than just records or firsts for Jason. Visiting more than 950 schools in 37 countries to date, involving thousands of students in a variety of programmes in conjunction with UNESCO’s Associated Schools Program Network, he uses human-powered journeys to promote world citizenship, zero carbon emission travel, and awareness of individual lifestyle choices on the health of the planet.
A frequent contributor to magazines (Men’s Fitness, Sports Illustrated, Geographical) and travel books (Chicken Soup for the Traveler’s Soul, HCI, 2002; Flightless, Incredible Journeys Without Leaving the Ground, Lonely Planet, 2008; The Modern Explorers, Thames & Hudson, 2013), Jason is the author of The Expedition trilogy (BillyFish Books, 2012/3): Dark Waters, The Seed Buried Deep, and To The Brink.