35: A Road Less Traveled

35: A Road Less Traveled

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Hope & Miracles

A Road Less Traveled

Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear.

~Ambrose Redmoon

When I lifted the flashlight I saw a pair of twinkling, hungry eyes like twin candles in the dark. Behind those eyes were dozens of others — a pack of wild coyotes had surrounded us. My heart stopped. We were dead for sure.

Hours earlier, I’d been rolling across the highway that stretched from Colorado to Oregon with my Labrador, Jack. We were on our way to a family camping trip when I decided to take a detour by an old Indian Reservation in Malheur County—“Malheur,” I found out later, was French for “bad fortune.”

I happily turned off the highway onto a secluded gravel road. I needed a little distraction. I’d been thinking about my boyfriend and how the romance had to end, but I was afraid to do it. How would I survive? How would I make it on my own?

My fears, I knew, were illogical. I’d survived way worse than a broken romance in my life. And I’d found independence when people told me it was impossible.

Fifteen years earlier, I was a nineteen-year-old engineman in the Navy, newly stationed in San Diego aboard the USS McKee. Two months into my duty, police found my broken, beat-up body at the bottom of the nearby cliffs — I’d been raped by a fellow serviceman, thrown off the seventy-five-foot edge, and left for dead. I woke up hours later paralyzed from the neck down—a quadriplegic.

“You’ll never be able to feed yourself,” doctors predicted. “Walking will be impossible.”

But I believed in doing the impossible. So I spent the next fifteen years proving those doctors wrong. I worked hard to regain partial sensation, strength, and use of my arms and legs, enough to live independently. In the last few years, though, I had grown increasingly dependent on this boyfriend of mine, who encouraged it.

I’d lost faith in my own ability to survive on my own.

I was stuck—emotionally and mentally. And then, literally.

I drove fourteen miles along the gravel road, right into a thick pit of mud; my Subaru Outback wagon jolted to a stop.

I honked my horn but there was no one nearby to hear it. The nearest home was fourteen miles away.

I grabbed my wheelchair tires and frame from the passenger side, put my chair together, and set it outside my door. After transferring to the chair, I inspected the damage. The wheels had sunk halfway into the mud.

I slid to the ground and crawled to the tires to see if letting the air out would help. Nope. I put a towel under the wheels to get traction, then hit the gas again. Nope. Jack fetched sticks for me and I lay in the mud trying to dig the wheels out. By this time, the sun was setting and it was getting cold.

“Quad, how far do you think you are going to get with a little stick?” I said out loud. Jack cocked his head, as if to say, not so far.

“Jack, it’s just you and me, buddy.”

There was an outhouse 600 yards away. If we could get there, I figured someone would find us in the morning. I put on all the clothes I had in the car—a pair of pajamas over my shorts and a fleece pullover—and grabbed a can of Red Bull, a can of Ensure, a packet of tuna, a bottle of water, and dog food. With that and my flashlight, we set off toward the outhouse.

For an able-bodied person, it was a ten-minute walk. For me, it was a treacherous obstacle course that took two hours.

First, I had to get out of the mud. I slowly walked while pushing my chair, using it for support, until we got to solid ground. I didn’t have function of my triceps, pectorals or hands, but I did have some biceps, traps, deltoids, and leg muscles . . . so we made it. It was fifty feet and it took us fifteen minutes.

I collapsed into my chair. Then we reached a ramp with a three-inch curb. I stood up and tried to lift my chair over it, but my legs gave way and I fell to the ground with the chair—and our precious stash—on top of me.

Jack looked down at me nervously. He’d been with me for five years and he knew I’d never done the ground-to-chair transfer before.

“I know, I know. But I can do this,” I told him.

I inched my way onto the ramp, which gave me just enough height to reach the luggage carriers on my chair. In a complicated series of maneuvers that involved swinging one arm around the backrest, pushing with my feet, and stabilizing myself with my left arm on the luggage carriers, I was able to get myself back into my chair.

I felt ten feet tall! Jack barked in victory.

I found a mound of dirt nearby and used it as a little ramp to get onto the big ramp. We were doing great. Next, I had to get up that steep ramp. It had thick slats every few inches. I pushed myself backwards, uphill, an inch at a time. Every time I reached a slat, I rocked back and forth to get over it. That took another hour.

Finally, the road was clear to the outhouse. The sun had set so I turned on my flashlight. I could see the outhouse twenty-five feet away!

I could also hear the coyotes splashing and howling in the reservoir nearby.

“Don’t worry, Jack. They won’t bother us.”

Ten feet later, Jack suddenly put his head in my lap and stuck to me like glue. He was afraid. I lifted up my flashlight. Dozens of unfriendly eyes stared at us, the closest pair shining a few feet away. Oh my God.

“Get away!” I yelled.

They had us and the outhouse surrounded. My first thought: We’re dead meat.

My second thought: There is no way they are taking us down!

I lifted my feet to show the flashing red lights by my front wheels, hoping the coyotes would think it was fire, and we charged. I sped downhill the last fifteen feet with Jack by my side, straight into those glowing eyes. I cursed as loudly, as angrily, and as rudely as I could, and I kept cursing until we were safely inside the outhouse.

We spent the night there, with the coyotes howling outside our door.

At dawn, I gave Jack his food and I ate the tuna, and we ventured outside again. I pushed up a hill; my thumbs were bloody now. At the top, we reached a cattle guard—a grid of metal bars sticking up from the ground. How was I going to tackle that?

As I stared at the grid, a four-wheel-drive appeared in the distance, on the gravel road. I waved my arms wildly and burst into tears when I saw them coming toward us.

My rescuers, Bob and Bud, were out for some early morning bow hunting. They were shocked to see a woman in her muddied pajamas and wheelchair with her dog, in the middle of nowhere. I recounted the story as they bundled us into their truck, and they were amazed we’d survived.

I wasn’t. I’d survived worse. And I knew now that I could go home and send that man packing.

~Dana Liesegang with Natasha Stoynoff

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