Words: Alicia Leggett
Hey again from Alicia's injury recovery world. It's now been a year, to the day this past Saturday, since I got hurt, and it's been an absurd enough year that I don't feel like I can even begin to fill you in on what's been going on, but I can try to start. (If you'd like to catch up on the injury updates so far, you can find my first four-month check-in here
, then one from six months later here
, and a podcast chat here
. The main idea, for context, is that I crashed and hit my head a year ago, sustaining a traumatic brain injury that put me in a nine-day "state of impending death" and a coma, kept me in hospitals for over two months and in intensive outpatient treatments for another two, and generally - although it's played out about as well as possible - been a pretty huge bummer.)
To preface all of this, I'm a little self-conscious about putting an article about recent adventures out there because I'm nervous about people repeating something I've heard in real life along the lines of "Wow, you're clearly doing everything you want to do - seems like that injury was a positive for you!" Just... no. This has been a big enough life event that there's a whole range of emotions related to it, and it feels impossible to reduce it to just any one feel, but if I were going to try to do that, it wouldn't look very positive. Still, there's been elation, real learning, connection, and so much love all around. It's cool that I get to often choose in the moment which of the many sides to focus on.
The last time I wrote, I'd just recently gotten into mountain biking again, and it felt like good practice for me. Still, one of the central parts of my experience with biking, that I mostly tried to ignore, was that it just wasn't fun. It was actually the opposite, quite unpleasant thanks to my balance having become unpredictable yet predictably bad, my visual processing too slow for me to feel like I understood much of the terrain coming at me, my ability to see while transitioning between sunlight and shadows disappearing... basically, despite having some rad friends go on rides with me and being so thankful I still can do this sport, it's just been not a very good time, and an even less good time when considering how sad it felt to lose something that I've more or less centered my life on for the last decade. Anyway, more on my evolving feelings about mountain biking later.
Soon after I last wrote, I got hand surgery, which really killed my momentum around biking when my hand was casted for a while, there was a pin in my finger, and all of that. I went to Crankworx right after that, and spent a week having the weird experience of being at Whistler specifically to enjoy and support the sport of mountain biking but without even pedaling a bike the whole time. I wrote a few articles from Crankworx and recorded a bit of podcast talk, but mainly was there to spend time with the Pinkbike crew. Mission accomplished.
The following weekend, I went to this year's edition of Hangtime, the women's freeride event where I was injured last year. I am a big fan of the event and am so glad I had the chance to go this year, but also, wow. That was an experience.
The event happens in Bellingham, WA, where I live, and is run by Hannah Bergemann, queen of the Blue Steel jump line, where it happens. The basic idea is that a bunch of female riders are invited to come throw down on the jumps for two days with morning and evening sessions and a spectator showdown the second evening. It's not a competition but is more a community hype event, where the riders can have a supportive environment for feeding off each other and chasing their riding goals. Last year, I crashed and hit my head on the first evening.
For the first day and a half of this year's two-day event, I was almost a little disappointed that I didn't feel much. Like, I was happy for the ladies riding and felt kind of neutrally positive about the whole thing happening, but it stopped there. Where's the processing of seeing the place and the setting where my life forever changed?
I'd felt more even during a running race on Galbraith a while back that routed us somewhat near the jumps, but not even within sight.
Anyway, the collapse I didn't even know I was avoiding happened on the final evening, when I crumbled into one of the bigger meltdowns of my life - just seeing the whole scene, I think a scene I was really looking forward to being part of last year. I'm so glad I got to go and am really thankful for how it played out, how caring and kind and supportive the riders all were toward each other and toward me.
Then, I spent a bit of time in Missoula, Montana, where I used to live. The report I have from there is from a bike-hike-fly-raft day. I rode my bike from where I was housesitting to a trailhead, hiked up to the top of Mt. Sentinel, launched my paraglider and flew to near East Missoula, landed near the river, packed up, inflated my packraft that I'd carried in my paragliding harness, rafted back down the river to near my bike, and biked back to where I was staying.
The day was great. The bike ride part was a nice flat ten minutes on my commuter, the hike was up a steep, rocky ridge trail that I used to really like to night ride down, though my pack was heavy enough with my paraglider and raft that the hike up was a definite challenge, the flight was really nothing impressive but got me close to a popular river put-in, so that float back was respectable and really enjoyable. I think it all went really well - I figured out, too, that my paraglider fits into a zipped internal storage compartment in the body of my raft, a great spot to save space and keep the wing dry. The rest of my flying gear went into a large plastic bag, which fit nicely in front of me. My main goal with this fly-raft thing is to figure out bigger cross-country flights and raft trips back, so in some ways I thought of that Missoula day as a test run, but it went well enough that I don't think there's much troubleshooting to do right now. I'm really happy with it and excited to do more with that idea in the future.
The next highlight was in Utah, where I went to fly at a site I've flown for four years now each fall. My first time to that zone, two of us had launched from one mountain, climbed a few thousand feet on rising air and crossed to a neighboring mountain, landed and camped on a small ridge, and relaunched and flown back down to town the next morning. That adventure has taken up a lot of space in my mind since, having shown me that I could just think of something to do and then, just, do it. Nothing was stopping me other than the friction of taking the initiative to do the things I want to do, a limiter that's not even a real thing anyway.
So this year, I decided to recreate that first mini 'vol biv' or fly-camp mission, this time solo and with a little more experience in the sport. I crossed from the same launch to the same nearby mountain, was able to soar higher on it this time, and eventually landed on a sidehill that seemed launchable the next morning. (The above photo, the one near the tent that I described as the happiest photo of me ever, is from where I landed.) The next morning, unfortunately, I didn't get weather conditions I felt comfortable launching from that spot in, so I spent that day taking a long walk out. That said, it was maybe more perfect that I didn't get to wrap up that adventure in a neat, tidy way with a bow on it. Since the trip didn't go perfectly to plan, I have more fire than ever to keep developing my vol biv abilities and make some successful trips happen. And the trip went well enough that I'm still over the moon about it.
The rest of my Utah paragliding trip actually kind of continued in that vein. I did a weeklong cross-country paragliding competition, the type of competition where my scores will be mediocre at best but I'll have the priceless opportunity to fly with and watch and learn from all my heroes, and the community I get to be part of there goes so far beyond that.
That type of paragliding competition involves a series of 'task' days, on which the organizers set a course of GPS turnpoints and pilots are scored based on how quickly they fly the course or how far along they make it. The winner will be in the air for maybe an hour and a half, and most will fly for hours.
The last task day, I was having a decent flying day. I'd actually never flown for more than four hours before, having landed several times around the 3:50 mark, and started getting low again around then but managed to climb back up, fighting in a series of turbulent thermals to go from 7.3k' up over 15k, which brought me a whole lot of relief until I eventually was in much deeper terrain and getting low once again, around the five-hour airtime mark. I ended up landing far from any roads. One of the biggest benefits of doing paragliding races is that 'retrieve' will pick pilots up as close as possible to where they landed, but pilots deep are out of luck. The retrieve coordinator's first InReach message to me included "You are deeeep... You're gonna have to hike a ways." And hike I did. Long after dark, I met up with two crew members who had hiked partway in to take my backpack and help make the getting-out process a little easier. I went to a lot of emotional and mental places during those hours of hiking out with my heavy pack, but I do think all that's good for me.
One of the more interesting pieces about that hike out was how aware I was of my new balance limitations, how risk and safety have moved in the ways they affect my decision-making. I've lost so much of my balance and coordination from this injury that hiking with a heavy backpack on uneven ground has become challenging, to put it really mildly. I landed on a little high point with a hike down a steep hill then through a series of drainages to get out. I had my maximum paragliding kit, which has a heavy competition harness with two reserve parachutes, an oxygen tank for high altitudes, and basically no planning for the purpose of lightness. So my backpack was closing in on 50 lbs and the steep slope was moving when I stepped on it. Not exactly a recipe for success. I fell over more times than I want to admit and got a tiny bit of bleak amusement out of the fact that I'd checked off the blood-sweat-tears triad several times over. (I do feel the need to defend myself a little bit here and say that at no point was I at any real risk of hitting my head again.) Anyway, I eventually did make it out, and enough time has passed that I can now look back on that afternoon and evening and night fondly. I think it was a great end to the competition week.
The next day I spent in the mountains was, similarly, a nice big scramble. Saturday, September 30, was a year after my crash, and I decided it would probably be a good day to go outside and disappear for a while.
I woke up early, drove up a monstrously long dirt road, and started moving toward Hadley Peak. Hadley Peak is a pointy sub-peak on the north flank of Mt Baker. There's a trail leading part of the way up it, but the rest involves a little more route-finding. Six inches of new-ish plus some older snow made things a little tougher, and at several points I wasn't sure how far I'd make it, but the snow ended up being just fine.
The hours moved by quickly, and somehow the Hadley Peak day felt like it gave me a lot of what I'm looking for and only sometimes find when I go into the mountains. It felt really great. I fully lost my sense of where I was in space and time. I've lost a lot of my sense of space and time after this injury anyway, but handing that awareness off in a way that I meant to sign up for felt pretty nice.
I have nothing at all and everything in the world to say about that day, but I think I'll keep most of it to myself for now. I'm just glad I went. I've been getting more and more little glimpses of myself again lately, getting to have moments when just existing feels like being me
, and that's a good thing.
Now, enjoy some of my phone photos from yesterday, a combination of craggy rocks and dorky selfies. I know this article is getting almost unreasonably long and I know these are a lot of photos, but I like them and I figure if you've made it this far down the page already, you probably have patience for me and my whims.
Sometimes when I'm out doing something, I get the almost giddy feeling of holy shit, after this entire ridiculous year, I'm still standing and I still get to go out and do this.
I felt that way for a lot of the day Saturday, and it was nice.
The sun came out again after the snow.
The route stuck with a trail for the first three-point-something miles, but by the time the trail disappeared the ground had long been covered in snow. I followed that up a long ridge, which then becomes a steep slog up to the final ridge that includes several rocky gendarmes and eventually leads to the summit. Climbers can climb up to then cross to the other side of that final ridge, then follow that up to the peak.
That was some powerful terrain. Time is a batshit insane thing, what it can do on both small and large scales. Geology is neat, lots of this is neat.
I don't have any major takeaways to share here from that day, just that it was f*cking good, and a great way to spend a day that could have been immensely painful. (Actually, it still was - lots of life is these days - but that pain also got to be mixed with some really really intensely positive feelings too.)
But hey, I said earlier that I'd fill you in on my relationship with biking, and now it's time to do that. See, I've started to like biking again, which is pretty cool. At the beginning of last week, I announced to my housemates that I'd go mountain biking the next day. "Now that I've said it out loud to you, I won't be able to back out," I remember saying.
Before last week, I hadn't biked in a little while because I was busy then very sick then surrounded by rain, and I lost enough momentum that I really didn't feel very motivated to go out on two wheels anymore. Still, I did, and something clicked that first ride back.
I pedaled from home, climbed a climbing trail that I'd never heard of but was just right, not too steep but with enough roots to make it technically challenging for me, then climbed another trail I vaguely remember from back in the day, then descended a trail I really like, one that I used to tack onto the end of most of my Galbraith rides because it went in the right direction and I liked it. Turns out, now, it's perfectly at my maximum, just tricky enough to keep me fully focused, engaged in the way that keeps me from thinking about anything else, which I think is the feeling that originally drew me into mountain biking.
I spent a lot of that ride grinning, kind of stunned that I still can go out and goof around on a bike, that after the intense hospital chaos that's been my last year, I still have times when I can just go into the woods and be fully present there. I love the smell of all the plants I ride past. It's just nice to be out.
Then, when I got back home that first evening, I noticed I was already scheming about riding the exact same loop the next day. So I did. It rained the next morning so the roots were all slippery, maxing out my bikehandling ability, but morale stayed high enough. It was really good to be out.
Sometimes looking ahead doesn't suck. Photo evidence that I've been getting out on the bike.
Then, I went again a day later. I don't want to get too far ahead of myself here, but I think something has shifted, and I think I can say that I officially enjoy mountain biking again. That's a big relief for a lot of reasons. I mean, the idea of working for Pinkbike while not enjoying mountain biking sounds tough, especially when I could just... like biking. So even just for human-job alignment, it makes a lot of sense for me to be into the sport. Plus, there's the whole world of everything I've gotten from the sport, which I described in a past article as: "The experience of working at something and seeing the progress, friendship and a venue where consistently being at our limits makes us all better at being friends with some nice forced vulnerability, permission to play around and just have fun, a job, and so much more." So now, I'm not only going to hang onto what mountain biking has already given me, but I think it's still very possible to keep leaning into that growth.
I guess that's my main big-and-not-big-at-the-same-time update, that the thing people probably assumed I still liked is back in my good graces. I'm beyond certain that things will still be hard going forward. Really, really hard. But I've done hard things before, so I can keep putting one foot in front of the other here. One of my most fundamental beliefs is that when taking 100 steps feels impossible, I'm still totally able to figure out taking one or two, then just doing that over and over and over. That's exactly how life feels right now, just continuing to do what I can to move forward. It's working well enough.
So to all of you out there, whoever and however you are, thanks for reading this and thanks for being there for me. The support from the people around has been mindblowing, both from my community like family, friends, and coworkers, and from people I've never met but who have chosen to be kind. You'll probably never know just how much that's meant. So much.
Signed with lots of love as always,