Travels in La La Land (An Out of Bike Experience)
An Afternoon Ride
If I drive to the starting point, my normal cycling routes in Vermont are loops of 28, 38, or 49/55 miles. It’s 10 miles more each way if I ride from home. I’ve ridden these routes dozens of times. They all share the last 9 mile leg on a piece of US Route 5 that takes me back to Meg (my car) who is always waiting patiently for me.
It was a beautiful late September day. The mid-afternoon start only allowed time to squeeze in the short loop before dark, so I rode fairly hard and covered the first 10 miles, turning just before Chester, at about a 17.5 mph pace into a light wind. Normally I do it at 14 mph.
Felt pretty good.
A long, but easy climb over the hump on VT 11 to Springfield with a breezing downhill run through town, then on a cycling path along the Black River arriving at the intersection with Route 5 and a coffee stop at Irving’s gas station.
Also called Missing Link Road, this last 9 mile stretch is nice, but not the greatest – a winding two lane road with small to non-existent shoulders with its share of cracks, though no major potholes. On the plus side, it has a nice rolling contour, views of the Connecticut River and a parallel interstate highway takes the bulk of the traffic. I rarely see a car there.
Re-caffeinated, I was cruising along enjoying the day and just checked my odometer thinking, “OK. Top of the hill at 3.4 miles from Irving’s.”
It wasn’t like waking up. There was no dream to transition out of. No feeling of a return to wakefulness. No memory suggesting continuity. I was emerging from a dense dark fog, slowly coming out of the depths of unconsciousness surrounded by deep shadows with a few details outlined in lighter shadows.
Keeping my head motionless and leaning toward the ground, I scanned this world with my eyes as a more details emerged.
I seemed to be sitting on the doorstep of a house that I didn’t recognize. There was a woman standing to my right, fretting about something, and a man walking back and forth in front of me. He was on a cell phone. I asked, with some effort, unable to lift my head, “Who are you?” She gave their names which I promptly forgot.
(I thought about writing Dark instead of Blank, but it didn’t feel dark. Darkness is something, or conceals something. Blankness just isn’t. It felt Blank.)
Re-emerging, I asked, “Where am I?” She told me, but it didn’t register. “WHERE?” She told me the name of the cross road, but I didn’t recognize it. Through repeated questions I finally processed enough information that I could try to verify it. “I’m on Route 5?” “Yes.” “Springfield is that way?” “Yes.” “Bellows Falls is that way?” “Yes.”
I knew these names and knew this should have helped me triangulate my position, but I couldn’t make sense of it. I couldn’t place either town or the road on my mental map. I was pretty sure I rode through Springfield and searched my mind for an image, but the image I found didn’t fit, and this confused me. Later I realized I was trying to match a picture of Chester with Springfield.
“How did I get here?” “We found you in the road and helped you walk here.”
I came to with a paramedic’s hands stabilizing my neck. Other activity was going on behind him. An ambulance had backed up toward the doorstep. A state trooper was there, though I never saw above his chest. I never saw anyone’s face.
There was some conversation about the state of my bike. Since losing the wheel was the only explanation I could fathom for being separated from it, I asked, “Is the front wheel still on?” “Yes.” Confused, I went…
The trooper asked, “Did you ride from home, or did you drive and leave your car someplace?”
I opened my mouth to reply, but this seemingly simple question really stumped me. I envisioned riding out the driveway and down the road toward Vermont, crossing the Connecticut River to Bellows Falls, and riding along the Vermont side of the river as I’d done many times before.
Did I do that today? It didn’t feel right.
Then I could almost envision where my car would have been parked had I driven. But I couldn’t place it in relation to where I was, wherever that was. And how did I get from there to here? “I … don’t …. know.”
I just didn’t know, and I cogitated on the fact that I didn’t know for some time. I know it took awhile because the trooper told me not to worry, that it didn’t matter now.
Finally it started coming back to me. “Oh. I drove. I parked at ‘Smokin’ Bowls’.” A fast food shack. He told me my car would be alright.
At least Meg was safe.
Aware of talk about measuring skid marks on the road and questions if anyone had seen a car. A hit and run?
The woman said something about maybe I hit a dog. And then said, “I think ours is alright” (in the sense that if it was a dog, it wasn’t theirs).
Cervical collar in place and moved to a backboard.
On a gurney being loaded into the ambulance.
Ambulance stopping while IV is inserted. First images of inside the ambulance. Two paramedics. Trying to make light conversation, I asked, “What’s your name?” Immediately forgot their reply.
I couldn’t stay conscious long enough to ask if I’d be able to play the piano. (I don’t and never have. They’ve probably heard it before, anyway.)
I remember saying something, maybe in response to a question, and they laughed. But then I said out loud, “No. That’s not the right word…. What’s the right word?” I distinctly remember the word coming out of my mouth was not the word I was trying to say. I thought how strange that was. And I tried to picture what the word was that I said and what the word I meant to say looked like, but I couldn’t remember either word.
I wish I remembered. Apparently it was funny.
Unloaded at the emergency room. Various periods of being awake and not. My jersey cut off me. A nurse and/or doctor asked a few questions to assess my neurological state and then, most importantly, a woman from the business office came by to ask if I had insurance. The state trooper left a business card.
No one told me about my injuries. While lying there alone for awhile I took the opportunity to do a self-assessment. I didn’t break either leg. My right knee hurt, but I could bend it. My right hip was a bit sore. I felt some scrapes and know my right shoulder hurt when they cut off my jersey. But I could move it. It didn’t feel separated. I didn’t seem to have any broken ribs – breathing or coughing wasn’t painful. And my jaw didn’t hurt. It didn’t hurt to move, though lying there was just fine by me.
Please turn off the lights.
I felt a big dent in my right front temple. (Later I saw that my helmet had two quarter-length cracks with the major scrapes on the right front and a few pieces of gravel stuck into the back.) I pointed the concavity out to the nurse. She put a cool towel on my forehead.
Between naps I was actively, though fruitlessly, trying to remember what happened.
Picking up the Pieces
Until an aide wheeled me off to radiology for X-rays and CT scans, the most recent pre-accident memory I could muster was of a partial fuzzy view of my handlebars. The picture was about half a frame with the edges blurred out. I remembered that I was checking the distance from Irving’s.
While waiting for the technician to get set up, another partial single frame snapshot image with blurry borders popped into my mind. This one was looking down at the front wheel of my bike and there was a big brown fuzzy thing to the right of my wheel. A dog?
To me it’s interesting that my mind was working totally with images, not verbal thoughts. I guess that’s expected. Every time I tried to place my activities or respond to a prompt I tried to register an image that would nail it down. When I made a verbal mistake and was searching for a word, I looked for an image of the word. (I’ve always maintained that I’m a visual person. My desk is messy because I need to see something if I need to work on it. I’ve dismissed the possibility that I’m a messy person. Being a visual person sounds much better.)
But a few seconds later an audio clip popped into my mind – a woman’s voice screaming. Like yelling after a dog that ran away? When seeing someone hit by a car? Yelling for her husband when seeing someone lying in the road?
I couldn’t place the audio clip in time. Was it before the accident? After? Was it real? Was it a woman, or the sound of tires screeching? My helmet scraping the pavement? A dog yelping because its snout jammed into a spinning front bicycle wheel?
The Next Day
All things considered I felt OK when I visited my primary care doctor for a follow-up exam. Nothing broken. (Prior accidents always resulted in broken ribs.) CT scans normal. Just some scrapes and bruises and a lot of dizziness and sometimes vertigo.
She repeated all the neurological tests I had in the ambulance and the ER, and then some. Who are you, where are you, where do you live, what is your address, what happened (“I don’t know”), what year is it, what season is it, what city are we in. Read this. Write something. Stand with your eyes closed and touch your nose.
I was ready for her. When she asked who the president is, I said, “Osama Bin Laden?”
Post-accident I was incredibly sensitive to light and sound. Sort of a permanent hangover with vertigo, though without a headache. Riding in a car, the sun flashing through the trees was painful. Not just the brightness, but the flashing. The flashing lights of a police car or ambulance were painful. A siren was agonizing. TV was unbearable – moving images, noise and lights.
My ability to drive was limited by my ability to turn my head from side to side to look for traffic. If I turned too quickly I’d get vertigo. I learned to avoid nodding my head to indicate ‘yes’ or ‘no’. A few times I took a couple of short running steps and it felt like my brain was slamming around in my skull.
When I felt well enough to go get Meg (+3 weeks), I drove by the accident scene to see if any memories would come back. I never paid much attention to the area on previous rides, and I didn’t notice anything special.
But pulling away from the scene, I caught a glimpse of a doorstep on the corner of a house and recognized it as where I was sitting when the paramedics came.
At +6 weeks I went back again and knocked on the door. The guy recognized me right away. I thanked him for their efforts and asked him to show me where they found me. It was right in the middle of the road.
I looked around searching for something to jog my memory and walked up the road a bit to see the view as if I was on a bike, but it brought back no memories.
I must have been unconscious for 15 minutes. The guy told me they didn’t carry me to the house. They helped me walk to their doorstep 50 feet away. I have no memory of this.
I looked around for a fuzzy brown dog-like thing with a neck brace or a recent small burial plot, but didn’t see one.
When I recovered my bike at the police barracks, I was amazed that it was undamaged except for a small tear in the handlebar tape.
At this writing 4 months have passed. No other memories have come back. I don’t remember hitting or being hit by anything, or going over the handlebars before hitting the pavement, or birds chirping, or ominous organ music, or anything else.
Three Pieces of a 500 Piece Jigsaw Puzzle
As you can imagine, I’ve tried to assemble the memories I had just before losing consciousness – partial images of the handlebars a fuzzy dog-like thing and an audio clip – to resolve how they fit into a time sequence.
After many weeks I concluded that all three fragments were at the same instant. The two partial images were portions of the same image and the woman screamed when she saw me hit the dog.
But looking through my photo archive to illustrate the view from the saddle, I realized that the angle was all wrong for the image of the fuzzy dog-like thing. That view could only be seen looking down from directly above the wheel. I could only have snapped that mental picture in mid-air as I went over the handlebars a few milliseconds after the front wheel stopped rolling and before hitting the pavement.
The scream may or may not have gone along with either image and could have been at any time – the woman screaming for her husband when she saw me in the road, or yelling after the dog when it got away.
I prefer to think that the scream was a dog yelping after having it’s nose ripped off by the spinning wheel. Careful inspection of the front wheel didn’t turn up any dog snout hairs, unfortunately.
Noise was bad. Sharp noises the worst. A fork dropping, plates clanking together, a door slamming, or even a coffee cup set down on a table were painful. A cappuccino maker frothing milk was excruciating. (These noises are still a bit too noticeable.)
Leaning my head back could bring on vertigo. Reclining in a dentist’s chair was a particularly memorable bad experience.
In my first big wreck, 15 years ago, I landed on and separated my left shoulder simultaneously hitting my head (shattering my helmet liner), hitting the left side of my chest, breaking ribs front and back, but not losing consciousness. I remember going over the handlebars and hitting the ground.
When I wrecked in Australia two years ago, I did a perfect three point landing – face, chest, right knee. Even though that was a slow-motion accident I still broke some ribs and two teeth.
Since my body was relatively unscathed this time (i.e. nothing broken), I came to the conclusion that when the rotation of my front wheel stopped abruptly all my momentum catapulted me aloft through a graceful arc coming down directly on my head (my neck was stiff for 2 months).
Incredibly, for about 3 months after the accident the tooth pain I’ve had since my wreck in Australia went away, as did the back pain I’ve had since 1989. They’re both back now, fortunately, indicating recovery!
It turns out that I transposed the digits and it was 4.3 miles from Irving’s.
My out of pocket medical expense was $4500.
I recently got my medical records. The ER report says I was admitted after being hit by a car. Shortly after the accident I wasn’t able to contact the state trooper by phone to clarify what happened (he was on sick leave) and gave up. But when I saw this reference to a car, I dug out his card and sent him an email asking if it was indeed a hit and run and if they had found the driver. His reply:
“The cause was unknown but based on witness statements and the fact that your bicycle was not damaged you either crashed because of the dog or just crashed for an unknown reason. …” (emphasis mine)
“The dog.” Implies to me one particular dog. That dog over there. Their dog.
A few bits of advice:
- Wear a helmet.
- Wear a helmet.
- Wear a helmet.
- Keep both wheels on the ground.
- Don’t hit fuzzy dog-like things.