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Sunrise over the Flatirons in Boulder, Colorado (Photo: Getty Images)

Hiking the Mountain in My Backyard Became the Crux of My Recovery

After a driver struck and nearly killed me, I had to relearn how to walk. Hiking the trail outside my front door became a goal I never thought I’d achieve.

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The first thing I did upon arriving at my new home in Boulder, Colorado, in September 2018–before unloading my 16 bikes, peeing, cracking a beer, or even calling my dad to tell him I’d arrived–was to check out the small balcony behind the condo I’d rented, sight unseen, with my then fiancée.

Across the street, rising high above me, was a breathtaking mountain: steep, craggy, cut by canyons, and covered with evergreens that yielded to broad slabs of exposed gray stone that had been streaked by eons of pounding wind, thunderstorms, and snowmelt.

This was Bear Peak, located just behind the city’s iconic rock formation—the Flatirons—and the summit was only three miles from my front door. It looked nearly vertical, but I knew that hiking trails led to the top, from a trailhead I could see from where I stood. The mountain beckoned me with a concentration of adventurous western spirit and a oneness with wilderness, reasons that draw so many to great open spaces. I was, in that moment, very glad to be at the foot of this peak.

But I soon got so busy trying to make friends, refind common ground with my ex, and ride and race bikes that I never so much as touched that trail to Bear Peak.

Then, in my tenth month of living in Boulder, on July 20, 2019, I was hit by a driver while riding my bike, and I nearly died.

The next time I saw Bear Peak was when I came home from a three-month hospital stay, newly paraplegic. My left leg was paralyzed, and I was healing from 35 broken bones, internal bleeding, and collapsed lungs. It took me six minutes to walk 100 feet from my condo’s parking lot to the front door. I relied on crutches and a heavy brace that ran from under my foot to the top of my thigh, locking my knee to give me a peg leg. At the time, I was no longer worried about anything other than getting through each day with less pain.

As I healed, and the pain slowly began to ease, I started thinking of physical goals. I wanted to get rid of the massive leg brace. Then I wanted to be able to walk without crutches. My therapists said it would be a while—maybe years—before I could achieve these benchmarks.

I fell back on my years of experience as an athlete and dedicated myself to my fitness. For months I’d wheel myself into the gym in a wheelchair and lift weights from a seated position. I’d swim laps with my paralyzed leg dragging limply behind me. I eventually started pedaling a spin bike, and my fiancée would come home early from skiing or mountain biking to walk with me around our neighborhood. We were in a trauma-induced truce and joked that it was important for her to “walk her Bernie,” my nickname.

As I gained strength, I started to leave the wheelchair behind and walk more. The giant KAFO (knee-ankle-foot orthotic) brace didn’t allow me to lift my foot using my knee, so ambulating with it strained my trunk muscles, causing a painful soreness. My first major goal, then, was to develop enough quad strength to unlock the brace’s knee joint, which would mean relying on my own muscles to keep my leg from buckling and using my hip flexors to lift my foot.

I’d unlock the knee, grab my crutches, and walk laps around the living room. The cat was perpetually confused by this behavior, especially when I’d unexpectedly tumble to the floor. I fell a lot, and it was always scary. Everyone on my care team constantly reminded me that what might be an inconvenience to someone else could have a significant impact on me, because circulation in my paralyzed limb was greatly impaired, so even lesser injuries would take a long time to heal, increasing the possibility of infection. I worried about nicks and would run my hands up and down my sensory-deprived leg to check for broken bones when I found myself unexpectedly on the ground, regardless of how seemingly inconsequential the fall.

When I was certain that I knew how to regain my feet after a fall, I moved the show outside. On one early attempt to leave the pavement, I spectacularly yard-saled in the middle of a wide, smooth dirt road. This happened during the earliest days of COVID, and after making my fiancée take a video of me lying on the ground, splayed out but unhurt, I quickly clamored to my feet so we could keep our distance from other masked walkers.

Spring turned to summer, my confidence grew, and I felt safe walking alone. I started using trekking poles instead of crutches and gave myself the goal of walking ten kilometers by the end of summer. I achieved this goal in August 2020. Around the same time, I finally made it across the street to the trailhead. The lower trails weren’t too exciting, but it immediately became clear that the network rising to the top of Bear Peak offered a lot to explore.

All the walking and my dedication to physical therapy paid off. In September, I transitioned to a lightweight, below-the-knee AFO, an ankle-foot orthosis. The new equipment dramatically increased my mobility. Throughout that fall and winter, I methodically extended my hiking range and pushed my limits on harder terrain, venturing onto uneven trails with ample vertical gain.

As the second COVID summer wore on, I hiked every weekend, often alone or sometimes accompanied by my new girlfriend. I was soon familiar with every rock and root, and gave directions to other hikers. I slowly edged my way farther up the hill and kept increasing my distance. One weekend, looking for new places to go, I turned left at a junction where I usually turned right and found myself at the base of Fern Canyon, on a short trail that rises steeply up a slot carved into Bear Peak’s flank. At the base, the trail follows the bottom of an exposed rock dihedral that I’d been looking up at from my home for three years. I touched it with a sense of wonder and disbelief.

The canyon was very steep, requiring me to occasionally toss my poles ahead so I could clamber forward on all fours. In many other places, I’d step up as high as I could with my right foot, using the strong muscles in that leg to ascend. Then I’d match my feet and repeat the process. The muscles in my left hip were too weak to let me pick that foot up more than a few inches. On that first foray, I only made it two-tenths of a mile up the canyon before deciding I was out of my comfort zone. I retreated.

A few weeks later, I returned to the canyon, hiking a little farther. Back home, I pulled out a map and scrutinized the peak, glancing back and forth between the topo lines and the mountain across the street. I decided I’d try to reach a prominent saddle a mile below the summit.

One August afternoon in 2021, I got there. From the saddle, you can look down at Boulder, sprawling from the hills to the plains to the east. The summit rose steeply to the south.

My summit bid happened on a whim in September. Fern Canyon remained hard, but I knew what to expect. There were plenty of other people on the trail, including a tiny baby in a backpack. I was listening to an audiobook of World War Z, and right about the time Todd Wainio described the ineffectual military bloat that failed to stop the dead at the Battle of Yonkers, I reached the saddle and turned south to tackle the last mile to the summit.

That ultimate stretch was new to me and took more than an hour. It was much steeper than it looked from my balcony. My hip flexors screamed in agony with each step, and I could feel my right glute—the only one I can feel—seizing into a baseball-size knot as I neared the peak.

But this time, the view really was worth the effort.

The height was dizzying and wonderful—there was the local high school, and our brewpub—but it also showed me things I hadn’t anticipated: There, also, was the spot where I’d fought for my life in a roadside ditch. There was the hospital where I’d been saved. There was the clinic where I still go for physical therapy twice a week. There was the road where just 18 months prior I’d fallen like a fawn taking shaky first steps. There, to the south, was Denver, where I’d spent three months in three different hospitals. Arrayed below me were the thousands of trees I’d walked past, miraculously on my own two feet, on the monthslong journey to reach these heights. From that perch, sitting with my legs dangling off of a rock, I could see my whole life in Colorado—tragic and triumphant.

I wish I’d gotten up there sooner. I couldn’t believe I’d finally made it.

Lead Photo: Getty Images

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