Episode I: A second chance at life
As a kid, I loved catching air. The bigger the air - the better. Gymnastics training honed my ninja-cat skills for the all-important landing. I leapt out of trees, pulled “backscratchers” off of ski jumps and every so often, when my pals seemed particularly aimless, I would do a standing back flip. These adrenaline exclamation points propelled me beyond the tedium of school, and insulated me from my teenage insecurities. They helped me feel strong and alive.
Photo by Eric Dyer
I escaped from high school the winter of my senior year. My teacher called it a work study. As long as I wrote a weekly paragraph about what I learned on the job, I would get credit and graduate in June. I was in heaven! I didn't really aspire to be a dishwasher, but the job was at Crystal Mountain ski resort in the shadow of Mt. Rainier. It was a dream come true for a restless adventurer like me.
Every spare moment was spent bombing down the mountain with a hard-charging band of locals. We dropped into crazy chutes like “Brain damage” and the legendary “Teddy Bears,” accessed by a 25 foot jump off of the horseshoe cliffs that protected the untouched powder slopes below. Someone had strung a wire from one side of the cliffs to the other and hooked a teddy bear on it which dangled above the chasm.
Photos by Roger Barnett
While my classmates were confined in school, I was free! The $3.35 per hour minimum wage felt particularly rich considering that I also got a bunk bed, three meals a day, and a ski pass. Life was simple and exciting. By the end of the season, my fingers dried and cracked, I hated dishwashing. But I was totally addicted to skiing and my spirit belonged in the mountains.
After graduating that summer, I made plans for an advanced degree in skiology - and headed for the mountains of Sun Valley Idaho.
Little did I know that gravity would soon start crushing me.
I was 21, climbing on my third summit attempt at Mount Rainier when I experienced my first symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis. Pushed as hard as it was, my body frequently hurt, but this was different and it got worse. The disease waxed and waned over the next ten years. The flare ups, exacerbated by work, use and abuse left me disabled and barely able to walk. By age 30 I was a young man trapped in an old man's body.
In a life spent escaping self-doubt, I had defined my sense of worth by what I could achieve physically. Now, as a young adult, my identity had eroded and my life was shrinking around me. Still, I doggedly denied my disability because I couldn't face the death of my identity.
Then it broke.
Photo by Barbara Robbins
In 1995 I wrote this passage in my journal:
I went to the Mayo Clinic for a second opinion, to consult the top dog Dr. Hunder - the rhuemadeity. I felt a sickening ooze creep up from my stomach and constrict my throat. My face flushed with disbelief as he imparted his wisdom.
My skiing, biking, hiking, hacky sacking, state champion gymnast knees were shot. Bone on bone. “Mechanical replacement is the next step” he says matter of factly, “Just a matter of time”.
Alone that night in my dingy hotel room, I wailed. The cripple’s lament bayed from my lungs like some forlorn hound. Tears exploded out of my eyes like drops of water sizzling in a hot pan. The crushing finality of the doctors proclamation snapped me out of my dogged denial that anything was wrong with me. It was devastating. Ten years of pain and uncertainty. The silent shame of pretending to be normal was exposed. RAW.
Part of me was dead, gone forever. I don’t know why I needed to hide from it, and who was I kidding? I’ve been hobbling with a cane for six months.
Gravity, exerting its inexorable force took me down, but it didn't take me out.
The titanium and teflon replacement parts that filled the gap between my bones solved my biggest mobility issue. But more importantly the depth of the journey expanded my spirit in a way that never would have happened while living on the surface.
Photos by Barbara Robbins
As the pain and swelling shrank with long walks in the cold saltwater of Puget Sound my sense of self began to grow independently of back-flips and ski jumps. I began to practice pushing through mental barriers that previously held me down.
I got a second chance. Realizing that I might not get a third chance at life unlocked my soul and allowed me to explore life with a newfound freedom. Where could I go with such an escape from gravity? Could I fly high again? How would I live?
And how could I ever repay all those people who helped me along the way? That felt impossible.
But maybe, just maybe, I could pay it forward.
Photo by Lyn Lindbergh
Stay tuned as Erik narrowly escapes the clutches of gravity by getting out of bed in the morning (and joins a band of space-geek renegades called XPRIZE)