One sunny Saturday in the spring of 2020, I left the house to ride my mountain bike across town. That’s the last thing I remembered for the next two weeks.

According to witnesses and official documents, just a few miles away I went off the road, down a near-vertical hillside, and crashed into some trees. I was unconscious, bleeding from minor wounds, and covered in poison oak. The next 24 hours included three emergency room visits, two ambulance rides, and one 22-mile trauma helicopter flight, followed by months of doctor appointments, a cornucopia of medications, and countless sessions of physical therapy. Plus intensive care from my loving wife Judy, who’s beginning to tire of adventures that involve Type III fun. Thank goodness for effective bicycle helmets!

This story isn’t about what happened that day, since I still can’t remember, and probably never will. It’s about recovery, and gratitude that my life continues, and continues to be much better than it was for others in the mind-blowingly bad year of 2020. I hope this helps you discover more parts of your life to be grateful for, especially outdoors.

In the past, when I heard the words brain injury, I pictured many bad things about what that person was going through. What I’ve learned is that, as with most things in life, everyone’s experience is different. For that, I am very grateful, as you will see.

A Multitude of Gratitudes

One of my most confounding experiences was scrolling through phone messages weeks later and discovering that I’d been texting back and forth with Judy from the second hospital, less than 12 hours after the crash. The neurologist said that wasn’t uncommon: “The TV was on, but the recorder wasn’t running.” I’m slowly becoming grateful that I can’t relive the experience, though I would like to avoid doing that again, whatever that was.

This brings up one of the stranger things I’m grateful for: my decades-long adventure with debilitating migraines. Several years ago, that journey finally led to a neurologist who actually helped me. So, when Judy gently guided me into his office soon after the crash, I was in good hands. I’m very grateful that my mental recovery took only a few months.

I’m also grateful for smartphones, voice recorders, and sticky notes, since my short-term memory took a while to come back.

I was able to continue writing for Backpacking Light relatively quickly. I’m grateful that Ryan, Stephanie, Chase, Andrew, and all the other staff, plus paying members (like you?), keep BPL running through trying times, and continue publishing stories like this one.

The physical injuries included poison oak rashes and blisters over most of my body, accompanied by dramatic swelling in places. I’ve suffered from a few gnarly poison oak incidents over the decades, but this time was different. For the first two weeks, Judy washed me twice a day and applied various medications to what used to be called “a real space cadet.” I’m grateful that she took on that job.

My running joke for many years was that “poison oak lasts about two weeks unless you treat it, and then it lasts about 14 days.” What’s lingering several months later are tiny patches of oozing rashes and white scabs that pop up on my legs and back every few days. My friendly neighborhood neurologist provided relief, if not a cure, in the form of a prescription steroid ointment applied sparingly. Once again, I’m very grateful to him, plus whoever invented that ointment. And the locally-owned-and-operated pharmacy that faithfully refills that prescription and others in spite of coronavirus disruptions.

But the injury that refuses to go away is best described as a sprained neck. I still wake up many mornings with soreness and stiffness that often gets worse as the day goes on. Driving gets even more interesting when you can’t predict whether looking over your shoulder is going to work. That makes me strangely grateful for piloting a variety of trucks and vans over many years—relying on side mirrors and body contortions was already second nature.

My neck is slowly getting better. I’m very grateful to my physical therapist for dramatic improvements compared to the early days. And once again, to my wife, who recommended her.

Grateful to be Walking

In the Before Times, my main forms of exercise were long day hikes and backpacking trips. But between the bike crash and recovery, coronavirus restrictions and closures, and months of record-setting California wildfires triggering terrible air quality, my longest walks now are one or two hours on quiet streets and beaches very near home. I’m dreading getting back into shape for 15-to-20-mile backpacking days. Still, I’m grateful that I can walk in beautiful settings a short drive away, knowing that too many people don’t have that privilege.

Sunset on one of my local walks.

After all I’ve gone through, and especially all that millions of others have been through, I’m grateful that I’m still walking, period. And I’m very grateful to all the doctors, nurses, and EMS personnel who took good care of me, and continue helping millions of other people day after day during crisis conditions.

My overall feeling, writing this on Christmas Eve 2020, is one of profound gratitude. I know that I live a privileged life in many ways, in a privileged part of a privileged country.

A neighborhood sign that changes frequently. Today’s saying is so true.

This story is not intended to provoke praise, pity, or scorn, nor to solicit suggestions for improvement. I hope this story encourages you to find opportunities for kindness and gratitude and generosity in your own life, no matter how stressful it may be.

I’m not a very spiritual person. But what I have learned is that the keys to happiness are simple, even in a crazy year like 2020.

Be kind to yourself and others.

Be grateful, and express your gratitude frequently.

Be generous—you’ll make others happier, and yourself.

I hope that you can find happiness, too. And may you follow a less traumatic outdoor adventure path than I have.

Editor’s Note: My favorite end of year/beginning of year tradition is to reflect on the past year rather than make resolutions, so I couldn’t pass up the chance to publish Rex’s reflections. What are you grateful for at the start of this new year? Drop us a line in the comments. -Andrew Marshall-

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