Interview with Lone Rucksack aka Dani Bradford
…aka dirtbag adventurer aka solo traveler aka digital storyteller — Dani is one fierce, determined and passionate explorer, currently documenting her journey by motorcycle south through North America, Central America and South America, finally ending in Patagonia at Fitz Roy.
Dani Bradford is covering new physical and emotional terrain in her solo travel adventures, escapades which she shares through her blog Lone Rucksack. On July 14th, 2017 it was a Friday morning at 10:30 AM when Dani was in a motorcycle accident that shattered her leg. During her recovery process, she found herself training at Sor Vorapin Muay Thai in Bangkok, Thailand. Here, she talks with me about how the accident has transformed her, about relationships and trauma, and how she is healing. Dani is defying odds and building up strength as she prepares to get back on course and finish her Fitz Roy trip. As Lone Rucksack, Dani inspires through her potent reflections and well-gleaned quotes as she uniquely shapes a life truly lived. Her journey challenges others, especially women, to step out of comfort zones, achieve greatly and dream courageously. She is a thinker, maker, and healer.
Judy: You are an accomplished multi-disciplinary individual, from being a fire-building expert, Wilderness First Responder, art director and entrepreneur to name a few. How did it all begin — can you pinpoint the genesis? What was your first solo trip?
Dani: It’s crazy but I have an exact date of when it all began — India, February 2012. In the basement of a swanky hotel in New Delhi I was editing video every night until 2 AM, in a room full of 14 Indian guys, having the best time of my life. It was an annual conference with heads of state from all over the world discussing food insecurity, and I was tucked away in this room with the video and photo teams — sending people from one room to another, uploading files, and trading hard drives between the five iMacs we had set up in a line. I wore jeans and a grey t-shirt with a hole in it, hadn’t had a proper shower or meal in days, and I felt like Queen of the world.
I realized there in New Delhi, I wanted my life to contain this kind of exhausted — the kind of tired where I’m constantly meeting new people and excited and proud about what I’m working on, the kind of tired that’s energizing rather than debilitating — which until that point, for the most part, was the only kind of tired I associated with ‘work’. I didn’t know then three years later I’d cycle across Europe, or go on to work for National Geographic, or start a motorcycle trip down the Americas. It all started with this small dream, a feeling, that I could do what I wanted in this world. It was the spark I’ve created my life from.
My first solo trip was a few months later after that discovery. I was in Jakarta, Indonesia setting up for another conference, and instead of flying back when the conference was over on Friday, I flew to Bali for the weekend. And it was the most glorious feeling in the world, this ridiculous new freedom I found at 27, sitting alone on the beach in Kuta at sunset.
Judy: It’s a terrifying thing to be involved in a motorcycle accident. You’re an experienced rider with extensive travel time under your belt. What happened to you in the immediate days and weeks following your accident?
Dani: Honduras is an incredibly dangerous country to ride in — there was this complete lawlessness on the roads, and unfortunately, I was hit by someone careless. The first week was a blur, staring out the window of the military hospital at the green hills in the distance, of being uncomfortable and in pain, trying to orchestrate what was happening with my motorcycle and with my body. I had a wonderful source of help on the ground through the Honduran family of a friend back in the states, and they helped me take care of everything — from pulling strings to get me into surgery the night of the accident, to helping me with paperwork and moving my motorcycle to their house until I could come back for it.
I spent a week in Honduras before I flew to my parent’s house in the US in a wheelchair. It was a very dark time for me. Almost immediately upon arriving, I heard rumours circulating around my family and extended family that my motorcycle was impounded by the police, the crash was my fault, that I had injured another rider and a family member would have to go to prison in Honduras — just the most outrageous speculative gossip, and it really changed me. Days after I arrived, I received a message from an Aunt telling me I needed to think about the decisions I made, and how they affect other people.
I was in a wheelchair for almost 3 months and during those three months in the US, I wasn’t able to do much. I was weak and in pain, and had to use the bathroom with the door open — my wheelchair wouldn’t fit inside and close the door. I couldn’t get out the front door in my wheelchair by myself, so I was inside almost all the time. I was suffering from PTSD at that time, having flashbacks and dreams and was easily startled and jumpy. I read about trauma and tibial plateau fractures and family dynamics and PTSD. I read articles and journals and books, anything I could find to relate to my current situation that would help me understand what was happening and why.
I accepted I could only change myself, and that I needed to leave as soon as possible. I planned my journey to Colombia for the rest of my recovery, coordinating with the doctor when I’d be able to get out of the wheelchair and manage a flight on my own, and started working on my design business every minute of the day. I cold-called potential clients, sent pitches, I hopped on meetings on Singapore time — early in the morning and late at night. Whenever I’d have something to design, I had this huge desire for creating positive change. I couldn’t leave my situation, but I thought a lot about being a voice for other people. Whenever I had a new webpage to design, I’d replace all the existing photos with women of color, or re-design icons to be more inclusive — figures and hands in ranges of skin tones and genders. If I designed ads for dance lessons for children, I found images of kids from all over the world to represent. For a business site, I’d change all the icons featuring men in suits to be non-binary. It didn’t matter to me how long it took.
I was driven by this idea that even though I felt alone, I was on a path, and somewhere down the path there was light — and in that light I wanted to be a voice for positive change.
Judy: You’ve been through trauma and loss, certainly. Yet, you’ve arrived at a space where you’re not thinking in terms of loss, but instead are focusing your attention on what was gained. You post a Mother Theresa quote on Instagram, “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.” Those are powerful words filled with determination and hope. How did her words sit with you in your initial recovery?
Dani: I came across this quote after the accident, and it reflected everything I was going through. There was so much confusion when I arrived back in the states, what exactly was wrong with me, how long it would take to recover, if I needed additional surgery. The first orthopedic surgeon I visited in the US told me I needed to go into emergency surgery immediately (I didn’t) and I spent the weekend thinking I wouldn’t be able to walk again, or climb, or ride a motorcycle, or do any of the things that up until then were such a big part of my life.
The only way I could deal with the situation was day by day. I remember the first time I was able to put my pants on without having to sit on the floor, when my leg was finally strong enough for me to balance my body weight on it, or the first time I was able to crawl into a tub and take a shower or put a shoe on my right foot. I experienced this joy as a quiet, internal thing, and it would get me from one day to the next. Several times a day I would do my physical therapy exercises, and every day I’d add more to it, a few more repetitions, another set, and I’d count over and over and over and hold onto those numbers. It was the only tangible thing I had to show for progress.
I’ve always believed there is only today, but being in a wheelchair and the long recovery afterwards, every day felt like a beginning, like a reset to keep struggling toward some light at the end of a really long tunnel. Even during that experience I was still making plans, working, moving onward. Whatever happens, there’s only ever one direction to move in — and that’s forward.
A huge healing component after the accident was an emotional one, getting past the lack of support and negativity. This idea that the accident was my fault and I shouldn’t have been there in the first place, that I should have been more careful and somehow a lack of responsibility was involved, that accidents are always the rider’s fault, that I should have been grateful to stay with my family and accept any and all behavior without question. It was really important to me to take all that negativity and channel it in a positive way for myself, and I made a point of really thinking about these sorts of comments and behavior so I could learn from them, and move forward, recognizing that’s not the way I want to live or the kind of energy I want to share, or even the people I want to be around — and this, more than anything, drove me forward. It still does, even today ten months later — I think about those moments and it drives me.
I’m influenced so much by what I read — from David Grann’s Lost City of Z to Cheryl Strayed’s Wild — narratives that tell us it’s okay to venture into the wild, to embark on a great adventure and accept and welcome the hardships along the way knowing they’ll forever change us. Whatever path we come from, there’s always a book waiting to teach us about ourselves and give direction on how we can move forward.
Some of the most defining moments in my life have been hauling a 35 pound backpack up a mountain without showering for days, and reading a book at night in my tent in the middle of nowhere. I remember reading Wild for the first time on a cycling trip in Europe, my body hurting from riding all day, in my tiny tent pitched between two hedges, and being buried in my sleeping bag reading about a woman being tired and hungry on an adventure and the hardships she went through, and feeling less alone. That’s how books have always made me feel. And now, this experience for me is just another defining moment another hardship. It’s just a narrative, and like all narratives and journeys there’s conflict and resolution, and the character evolves and moves onward.
Judy: You were in Muay Thai training for one month with accomplished boxers. Talk about this experience and how this community has impacted you.
Dani: There’s something incredibly freeing about arriving at a place where no one knows you or your story, or where you’ve come from, but just accepts you as a member of a team doing incredibly challenging physical activity every day.
I found such freedom boxing. I was the only native English speaker, for the most part, so in a way I was very alone there, but I never felt isolated. Everyone training did the same routine, helped each other, was excited about the sport. The physicality was frustrating for me because it was hard at first — my balance was terrible, I was weak, but every single day I showed up at the table. And every single day the trainers were there to help, along with other boxers, and every day I felt less isolated, less alone, supported, like I belonged. It was a huge part of my recovery, finding a community where I felt accepted and understood. And even though Muay Thai had nothing to do with my accident or injury, everyone there understood the physicality of training. And that was enough for me.
Judy: Will reaching Fitz Roy now post-accident be a different thing for you than your original expectations when you first set out on your trip? What are new thoughts and perhaps new questions?
Dani: When I first started, #FindingFitzRoy was this great adventure, which was wonderful, but now reaching Fitz Roy means so much more — to myself, to the people around me. It symbolizes something. It shows we, collectively, can overcome. It’s up to us to decide how we handle what people do to us, what life throws at us — and move on. We decide how it changes us, and what it drives us onward to do, and that’s such a powerful thing.
It’s easy to be angry and to feel a great sense of injustice when our lives have been taken away from us in some way — but the most important thing we can do is accept that on a certain level the only thing we have absolute control over is ourselves. In accepting this, we can accept what’s been done to us, and decide how we need to change to contribute to the world in a positive way, to share our experience, our narrative, so someone else can feel less alone. So someone else can move on.