Part 1: Hobbled and Humbled … Not Down and Out

On the mend following my leg fracture along the Croatian coast (photo by Tomislav Simac)

The stomach-twisting sound of cracking bones is immediately followed by agonized screaming and a series of hard realizations in the following order:

1. I am going to have to crawl out of these dense woods, up a steep hill, on my own.

2. My injury is going to make caring for my two-month-old daughter that much harder, thereby making my wife’s life much, much more difficult.

3. I probably won’t be able to ride in the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally next month.

Here’s what happened:

It’s late in the afternoon and I’ve been hiking for hours through the woods along the coast in Croatia. While making my way up a steep hillside a misstep between two boulders causes me to fracture and dislocate several bones in my right leg.

At least that’s my initial diagnosis while clutching the leg from whence the ear-splitting, cracking sound came. There’s a bulge above my right ankle that’s certainly larger than your average post-injury, subdermal hematoma. This is no welt, I surmise, and according to my amateur diagnosis determine that either one of my bones has been yanked from its socket, or worse , is snapped clean from its other half, which is still firmly fixed in said socket.

By grabbing the bulge, the pain spikes another 15,000 decibels into territory I’ve only encountered one other time, sending me into an immediate panic.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck. I’m so fucked.”

I am certain I’m as fucked as my many aforementioned “fucks” would suggest because I certainly cannot walk and there is no one around to help me.

You’ve got to get out of here. Move!

I start clutching the dirt, first in pain and fear, then as a means of propulsion following a mission statement spoken aloud:

“Get up this fucking hill!”

I start hacking away at the ground like I’m trying to rip the hill down rather than climb up it.

There’s a road up there. Get to that road and someone will help you! You don’t — you aren’t getting out!

Hand over hand I drag my torso and useless leg up the hill, panting and panicking along the way.

This isn’t the worst injury I’ve ever sustained, but it’s up there in terms of pain and terror.

Worries reminiscent of those I endured immediately after I was hurt in Afghanistan rush back, except this time it’s not about my eye, but one of my limbs.

Am I going to lose my leg?

Will I run or jump ever again?

What about even walking?

Pulling fist over fist through stones and pine needles that scrape and gouge my palms, I tell myself to calm down and begin rationalizing.

Relax.

Keep moving.

My throat is burning from taking deep panic breaths while I mentally repeat this mantra.

You’ll be able to do anything you’ve done before, just like Aron Ralston.

For those that don’t recall or never knew of him, Ralston was an outdoor enthusiast who in 2003 had his arm pinned under a rock for 127 hours (hence the title of the film starring James Franco about his ordeal) until he screwed up the incredible courage to sever part of his arm with a pocket knife and find help on foot.

That Ralston guy did it. You can do it.

Of course my climb to safety is by my estimation only a few hundred yards and I’m nearly 100 percent certain I won’t have to hack off my leg to make it to the road. At best, I’m 1/127th as hard as him.

Ralston was a outdoors badass. You’re just a uncoordinated dumbass.

During the course of my inelegant belly crawl through the woods, my mind turns to my daughter and wife. Francesca at two-months is a handful. The constant pooping, changing and cajoling to sleep is hard enough with all my limbs in working order. My wife Nina does the same, plus handles all the feeding responsibilities. With me laid up for an extended period, it’s going to be up to her to pick up my slack. This will not please her and potentially put me in the doghouse, bum paw or not.

Another fine mess you caused!

Keep moving!

Then there’s the bike rally. I’m supposed to be in Sturgis next month to work on a story. I’ve always wanted to write about motorcycling and figure this is the perfect opportunity to take a break from all the armed conflict, political turmoil and persistent despair.

Maybe if I tape it up real right and cover the leg with a high boot I’ll be able to ride.

I tell myself this while hauling my battered carcass the last few yards toward the road at the top of the hill, where a man sees me sprawling on the asphalt and calls an ambulance.

Kind strangers come to my aid with a towel for my head and water for my severely parched throat.

I look down at my leg and see my right foot is twisted at a sickly angle unaligned with my leg.

Yeah, the riding part probably isn’t going to happen.

I admit this to myself while paramedics load me into the ambulance.

Staring straight up in the jostling vehicle, I try not to parse the paramedic’s reaction to my leg. After only a few minutes I break down and take a quick peak at his expressionless face. Perhaps that means it’s not that bad.

I goddamn hope so.

I surmise that at best I’ll be covering Sturgis from a set of crutches and figuring out how to change my adorable daughter while balancing on one foot.

Click here to read Part 2 of the “Humbled and Hobbled” series.