15 October 2014

Archival footage: That's right, I'm JohnCoe

The following post was originally published in BiOpic, a semi-regular publication of FlagstaffBiking.org's, in January 2007.

My old friend Chris studies fish in Canada. He is not fond of Atlantic salmon raised in Pacific hatcheries.

He's the reason I never buy farm-raised salmon anymore.

His name came up the other morning, while I was driving out to ice-skate with some friends at Lake Mary. We were talking about Navajo sandstone and riding bikes out on the reservation as we drove along through the pre-dawn twilight.

"The worst crash I ever saw happened out on rez slickrock," I recalled.

"We were riding near Chinle in the middle of winter on this section of rock that Wade, who was living out at Many Farms with his girlfriend who was a teacher, said the locals call Slickrock Right . All these big waves, bowls of rock, arches hidden in giant coves.

Wade, riding Vulture #1 on Slickrock Right
"It's neat out there; no one around, no trails to follow. Not like Moab. Totally empty of people. And on this trip, the rock was about half-covered with snow, too.  Super cool.  Sometimes we'd come across a sheep camp or a stock tank out there; but otherwise, there was no reason to believe that anyone was ever around.  No man's land.  For sure.

"We'd been riding all day, across miles and miles of bare rock and snow, when we stumbled upon the biggest bowl of slickrock we'd seen.  It was an absolutely massive 360-degree depression in the sandstone. Huge, probably 30-plus feet to the bottom, smooth steep sides, with a scary wall-like entry and exit. It was fast going in, and you had to be going fast if you were going to hope to get out.

"We're all riding into this thing, one at a time, Wade, Huge, Chris, and me, whooping and hollering at each other, shouting out 'Yeah! That was rad!' and stuff like that.

"At the bottom of this bowl there was this maybe 6-inch-tall little rock blip, like a long, low ripple running right across the bottom of the bowl, right in the middle of the thing.

"When you got to the base of this bowl, because of your speed and the steep angle of the bowl, there was quite a bit of compression as you bottomed out, and that little blip was right there, right in the way, at the very lowest point.

"So Chris, who's this super good, naturally skillful rider rides into the bowl again, for maybe the third time, and angles toward the bottom like he's on rails, crouched over his bike, he's flying! And right there, at the bottom, he just nails that ripple.

"Bam! It throws him over the front of his bike and he gets launched, like Superman, and augers into the far side of the bowl full-speed.

"He hits hard and crumples. His helmet completely explodes! Pieces fly in every direction. 

"And Chris is lying there and he's not getting up. He's just sorta quivering, twitching, his whole body is quietly spasming with his arms and legs splayed out randomly at all kinds of wrong angles.

"Everyone, all three of us around the rim bail into the bowl, sliding down on our feet, our knees, our butts, to get to Chris fast as we can. We get there in seconds and nothing's changed, he's still unconscious, twitching.

"We've all got our hands on him; saying, 'Chris! Chris!' But we don't have a clue what to do. We're all just kneeling around him, at the bottom of this bowl, isolated from the entire world by red stone walls, a clear blue sky, and silence, waiting for something to change, for one of us to get a clue what to do.

"Eventually, Chris begins to moan; he starts to come around. He opens his eyes groggily. 

"Wade says to him, 'What's your name?' Chris says, 'I don't know.' 

"Eugene asks him, 'What year is it?' Chris says, 'I don't know.' 

"Then I ask him, pointing at Eugene, 'What's his name?' Chris says, smiling, 'Huge.'

"After a while Chris seems a little better; he can't move his right arm at all, but he says he thinks he can walk. We pick him up, what's left of his helmet and his bike, and we carefully climb back out of the bowl, the four of us arm-in-arm, and together we begin to limp across the slickrock on foot, pushing our bikes beside us, toward the road. Along the way, we're asking Chris, 'What year is it? What's your name? Who's the president?' and slowly, one at a time, he gives more answers. 

He remembers Wade's name, his name, Bill Clinton's name, that it was 1990-something.

But not my name.

He has no idea who I am.

"We get to the road together, and I remind the group, 'I've got the keys to the truck.'  So I hop on my bike and ride back up the road a mile or two, throw my bike on top, and race back down the road to where I find them. We get Chris loaded in; he's all kinds of bloody, still can't move his right arm, says he has a headache. And we high-tail it down the hill to the Chinle hospital.

"The place is queued up for hours, people are even waiting outside in a line to see a doctor. 

"So we rush over to Wade's friend's house. He's a doctor. He comes out, gives Chris one glance, goes back into his house, brings us a small bottle of Tylenol, give Chris a pat on the back and says to me, 'Drive him to FMC,' which is hours away.

“We made record time across the rez. We take Chris straight to the hospital ER and wait around until his mom and his sister show up.

“The x-rays show that he's completely busted off the end of his elbow; and he's got a serious concussion.

“They kept him at the hospital overnight and scheduled a surgery for the next day.

“He's all healed up now. I don't think he's any the worse for wear today.

"But it was kinda funny. While we were speeding across the rez into the setting sun, with Chris sitting there holding his arm gingerly and asking for more Tylenols every 5 minutes, no one talked much, and there's no radio or CD player in my truck so it was quiet. It'd been a sobering day.

“We'd been on the road for hours: passed a few lonely outposts, some weather-beaten horses and homes, and we were getting close to Leupp just as the sun went in.

“And then I hear Chris' voice, hoarsely, out of the darkness say, 'JohnCoe,'

“'What?' I ask.

“'That's your name. JohnCoe.'

“'That's right, Chris. I'm JohnCoe.'”

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. -- Ed Abbey