“Yep, I’m alive. Check. Not bleeding. Check. Nothing seems to be broken. Check. I’m fine,” I said to myself. I look to my left and see the passenger window to my New Zealand rental is completely shattered, and both side mirrors are dangling from their electrical wires. I couldn’t see the rocky road that I had just rolled off of. What was the NZ emergency number? 999? No. 111, yes, I remembered. Dialing 1-1-1, waiting… here in the middle of nowhere in the farmlands. Ok no signal, figured that but had to try. Now what?
Getting back to the road was the plan, but how? I was surrounded by a sturdy wire fence with thick, tall wooden beams. Previously paralyzed by a car accident when I was fourteen years old, I couldn’t just get out of the car and walk out to the road. I needed to find another way. Somehow the rental was still working, check, but for some reason, the airbag didn’t deploy. How is the car still turning on? Can it drive? Maybe there’s a flat tire; either way, I felt compelled to try. I put the car in Reverse, then Drive to first successfully get out of the hole I was in. Then I “followed my tracks,” but my off-ramp was not a viable point of entry. How did I get here? Here’s what I recall.
One then two other cars appeared in the rearview window, and I was looking for a reasonable place to pull over, but there weren’t any suitable options on this narrow, dusty, rocky road, so I put my light on to signal I was moving over at a spot where the road was wider. The two quickly passed, kicking dust up in the air. I watched them for a while, one following right behind the other. They were going very fast. No other cars were on the road, not that many have been period. Plenty of time to casually get back to my hotel in Te Anau from Lake Hauroko and have dinner on my last night in New Zealand.
After a few moments back on the road, its thin dirt surface with scattered rocks and defined tracks quickly curved right down a hill. The surface on the downhill slope immediately; the rocks were thick and tightly packed together with not a single visible tire track, so this mixed with gravity, velocity, and no 4-wheel drive, resulted in the loss of tire traction instantly. I was floating on the rocks, which feels a bit like hydroplaning and going downhill on a narrow part of a narrow road. Each side of the road dipped down to a trench to keep water off the road, and while coasting without applying any gas, the car kept pulling to the left, and when the front left tire touched that edge, it was tugged further to the left, and I had absolutely no control. The car was just too heavy and flew off the road and into low-lying farmland.
I stared up at the road, in awe of the trajectory; at seeing the window rolling up from the ground, and upright next to me. I recalled thinking how I would have to climb out of the car, but it kept rolling. It was fine enough, but was it working? I squinted my eyes a bit and turned the key. It worked; it was on. The sound of a 4-cylinder engine never sounded so sweet. Finding a gate was my best option; there had to be something. I prayed for protection as I followed the 4-wheel tracks along the fence line while looking for a gate, and then I saw one. In front of a steep dirt “road” that went up and out of this valley below. My spirit lifted as I slowly approached, but then saw a small hurdle. The gate was partially up the steep hill, and the fence on the left made it impossible to reach if I stayed in the car; I had to get out. Not only that, but climb in front of the car, up an eroded hillside, and then scale a fence to the gate latch.
Reading routes is intuitive, especially after so much experience, so I needed to use that knowledge to execute this one propitiously because some of the ground below me was crumbling. After making it across the car, the scope of what I needed to do became more than myself alone. A single car had not passed by, and not a sound of farm life at all was seen or heard. Despite obstacles, I had to keep going because no one was around. I had to save myself. I had to fight. The dirt collapsed under my wheels like quicksand, taking me further away from the gate latch, so I pushed harder and got myself over to the wired fence. Wire by wire, I pulled myself up the hill. Reaching the last couple of wires was really challenging. ‘I don’t think I can do this,’ I thought, but just tried again, just kept going.
It took a few attempts to finally reach the gate latch and it burst forward. With cat-like reflexes, I avoided it from knocking me over, but as I scaled down the fence, a soft patch of dirt got the best of me, and I tipped out of my wheelchair. At this point, I don’t see the need for the chair now anyway I thought. I sit up grab the wheelchair and push it in the direction of the car, but ensure it doesn’t go down the hill and out of reach. The wheelchair is lifted overhead and thrown back in the car in record time. Since I’ve been hiking, driving, and adventure-ing all over New Zealand for two and a half weeks, my arms were toned. Grabbing the driver’s seat (on the right side), I pull myself up and onto my knees, then place one hand on the steering wheel and the other on the seat, and with all my strength lifted and twisted my body up and onto the driver’s seat. I took a deep breath, amazed at how smooth that all went on the first attempts. I looked at the top of the hill; soon I would be up on the higher ground, near the road, where I could get some help.
I started the car again, relieved that it was still working. I backed up the car to maximize the runway, which wasn’t much due to brush, and studied the hill for the best way up. Facing this obstacle was a bit intimidating, but the only way was up. The lack of 4-wheel drive would not aid my journey, but I had to try getting the car up and prepared at the same time for the idea of crawling up the hill and to the road. Adding a “Please, please, please!” out loud to somehow defy the laws of physics, I thrust down on the hand-control and took off. Reaching a quarter of the way up, it was clear this route was not direct enough, so I backed off and repositioned. The setup was as perfect as it could get. Again, I prayed, “Please, please, please!” and floored it. Up and up and up the car climbed until the last, steepest quarter where it could go no further. Black smoke was leaking out; the car was overheating; it was done. I let go of the gas, and as the car rolled back, I looked up at the hill I had to climb. Then bang! The car smashes into a fence beam; ‘that wasn’t the plan.’ I felt ashamed/embarrassed for damaging this farmer’s property and ashamed that the accident occurred at all after driving in New Zealand for over two weeks. Still, I was amazed to be alive and well; the irony that I was paralyzed in a similar accident was also not lost. ‘But wait, this means I’m not entirely down the hill. This is actually quite helpful. Every little bit helps. Mental note: airbag did not deploy again.’
After the car is officially parked, the key goes into the pocket; ‘someone will need this. What else do I need that I can carry? Plan as if I’m not coming back to the car.’ My sturdy, brown leather shoulder bag that I’ve traveled with around the world was first selected and then one of my air seat cushions. I plopped out of the car and onto the ground. The door of the car clicked, signaling closure. No time to waste. No time like the present. As I looked up the hill, I knew I could do it, though tired, but was just going to take some time. What to do with this seat cushion? And in an instant, I threw it ahead of me along with the leather bag. I positioned my hands and prepare to drag my lower body. In the grass I see a familiar object; a souvenir magnet of Downtown Los Angeles I bought for a friend that I was visiting after New Zealand. ‘Well, if this makes it, it would make a good story and be one incredible magnet.’ I lol, no really, and slipped it into the bag’s front pocket.
‘It’s go time!’ I thought to myself. Any and all motivation surged within me. At first, I used both hands to thrust my body forward and up but then figured that pushing and pulling with alternating hands gave the most go. And so, a few inches at a time, I hoisted myself up the hill, over grass rocks and dirt. The route I choose was the softest, with the most grass and smallest rocks, since I couldn’t feel my legs. The push and pull continued at a steady pace, like a trained athlete, and waves of gratitude flooded sporadically. At first, it was because the New Zealand farmland has such firm and tall grass, well rooted in the earth; not once did it break at my tugs and was like a rope. Secondly, I was not worried about snakes or hidden predators as I crawled defenselessly. I was also so grateful for the weather, so overall I had to praise New Zealand loudly and often, “Thank you New Zealand!” often followed by a laugh. ‘This New Zealand grass is really fantastic!’ I kept thinking, then I’d switch arms, rotating my body and position so as to not overstrain one side.
The grass was firmly rooted in the earth, my anchors to the top; without the grass, the earth would crumble like sand. I’m not sure how long it took me, but I made good time, surprising myself. At first, I was booking it, and about an eighth of the way up, I realized I lost a shoe near the start, which I didn’t feel falling off and wasn’t worth going back for. All energy was focused on getting to the road. Like the wheelchair earlier, the shoe really wasn’t needed now. The seat cushion and bag were markers indicating that I was progressing to the top. Each time I’d see either one, I would feel a little empowered before I hoisted it into the air and onto the path in front of me. Halfway up the hill, my other shoe wiggled off, which I was watching for, and threw it too ahead along with the other two markers. Carrying my dead-weight, hips and thighs was tiring, but the push-pull-and-toss tactic was going smashingly well. At one point, I paused for a moment because I was so shocked that I was already upon it again. ‘Have I climbed this much already?’ At one point I was hearing music from an approaching car, but it turned out to be just my rapid heartbeat; it was a catchy beat, and recall thinking ‘sounds like good song, I wonder what it is.’ My heart was really pumping loudly, and I laughed. I looked up the hill with glee, but there was still a good distance to go. No time for celebration, I could rest for a minute when I got to the top of the hill. Meter by meter, blade by blade, I got to the top, and the last few meters were the steepest. In one seamless motion, I stretched out onto the grass and faced the blue sky. I’d been intensely worshiping the earth for a while now, but now I could see the sky’s face and say grace.
Technically just half of my body had reached the intended, level destination, but I figured I’d crossed the finish line. It felt good. I had won; the place didn’t matter and no one was watching, but I won my race against myself. It was a colossal achievement and a self-congratulatory moment. Once my pants were straightened out and I was altogether, I began to “army crawl” across a meadow. Suddenly, it felt like I was being watched, and glanced up to get a better look and saw a pair of eyes staring back. It looked like a cow, not a bull, and didn’t pay it any more attention. I didn’t want to give it any reason to charge, so I laid low for the road. The meadow was vast, much bigger than I imagined climbing up the hill, and I still hadn’t seen or heard a car yet.
In front of me was a large barn and to the right was a shed; ‘shelter in case needed.’ I pictured what it was like inside each, but quickly let it pass. Where I thought I saw a cow earlier was now empty space, just bushes and grass. Lots of grass and no people. My heart wasn’t beating so hard, though my adrenaline was acute but super manageable. It was fine, I was fine and had options. By the time I reached the center of the meadow, I was running on fumes and collapsed for a moment to rest looking up at the sky. Just to be clear and set the record straight, I prayed out loud that in fact, I did not want to die, I was ready to be rescued. In the sky and two hawks appeared, so I continued to pray,’ send help, I need help.’ They flew on. Another meter gained and still no sign of a car. I prepared for the possibility of camping overnight. How I wished I’d taken my jacket, but I had a heated vest with a full battery, so justified not taking it. It was still humid and warm in New Zealand. ‘It would be nice to have the jacket if I need to sleep here overnight. …Oh well,’ and brushed that idea off like a hay strand in the wind.
Though my mind and spirit were strong, my arms were showing signs of fatigue, which was inevitable. The hill had less friction compared to the meadow where the grass was longer and thicker, like rubber. I was looking at the road frequently now, ready to be seen by a safe and helpful driver, but unsure if I would be visible from the road since I couldn’t kneel or stand. To maximize my chances, I kept crawling to the edge of the road, which was separated by the wire fence. Opening a gate from the ground would be challenging, but I’d find a way if necessary. I would “Macgyver” something up, so didn’t see it as a barrier, so no need to worry about it now. Even still, if I could get to the gate roadside, a car would surely see me.
Not long after reaching the midway point, there was a split second when I questioned, ‘Where were all the cars?” A local farmer driving? A tractor?’ But it really didn’t matter, I was certain I’d see one; even if it was while dragging my lifeless legs down the road, but I prayed it didn’t come to that, though it was a realistic reality. Physically fatigued yet alert, I allowed myself to daydream about sleeping in the barn as I crawled at a steady pace to the road and the grand finish line. My senses returned to their heightened state as I looked up from the grass with the eyes of a wild predator; it was coming, a car was coming. Nearly at the end, I waved my seat cushion in the air and screamed H-E-L-P to draw attention. The car honked its horn, hopefully, to signify that I was heard; I hope, I hope. Just in case, the seat cushion remained a flapping flag in my hand, and “Help!” flew repetitively off my lips. ‘Please see me…’, I thought over and over again in my head. The clearance between the bushes and barn didn’t provide much visibility; the driver would need to be looking out into the farmland, as opposed to the road, to see.
The nose car came peering first into view from the shrubs, and I shook that seat cushion as hard as I can; I’ll either be seen or I won’t. The car honks and then again and again. A hand flies out the rolled-down window and waves to indicate the message received. I’ve been seen. All is well and fine. I’m fine. The two hawks from earlier replayed as a music box in my mind; soaring gracefully and beautifully in the air, seemingly effortlessly. Relief surged through my body and released a wave of euphoria as a team of four wildlife researchers came running in on foot through the gate. I waved and collapsed for a split second, but then popped back up so as to not alarm anyone. “I’m paralyzed!” I shouted, followed by “but I’ve already been paralyzed for years now, so that’s ok. That’s why I’m not standing now. But, I’m fine!” Yes, I know I’m lucky to be alive, believe me, but I also know it wasn’t my time to go. My journey continues, and life rolls on.