2018 — I was in a coffee house with a friend and “what happened” was the focus of our conversation. She had spent a night and two days in the hospital and I was telling her the story of how she had ended up there. Naomi M. and I were co-workers before I retired. We shared a belief in the unnatural order of the world, along with a morbid sense of humor which allowed us to laugh during the telling of this story, which wasn’t all that funny at the time.
The incident had taken place three days earlier, on Sunday. Naomi, myself, and Freddie, another former co-worker, went on a long bike ride that day. Although I’m an old man I’m in very good shape, and also a pretty decent bike rider. Freddie, over twenty years younger than I, and built like a college football linebacker which he once was, is a powerhouse on a bicycle. He is also a very nice man and adjusts his riding style to whomever he is with. Naomi is half my age and not the same kind of bicycling fanatic as Freddie and I. However that day she more than held her own.
Early Sunday morning we met on a bluff on Shepard Road overlooking downtown St. Paul. It promised to be one of those gorgeous summer days that are uniquely appreciated in Minnesota. The Sam Morgan, Bruce Vento, Gateway and Brown’s Creek trails passed swiftly under our wheels. Our pace was brisk, but not rushed. We rode anywhere from 15 to 18 miles per hour. There was no awkwardness to our riding, the three of us quickly fell into a natural rhythm. Sometimes we rode in single file, sometimes two would ride abreast and chat. We glided through the river town of Stillwater and along highway 95 to Lakeland where we took a break for lunch at an outdoor restaurant. We all agreed it was a perfect riding experience. Little did we know what was awaiting.
Having coasted down into the river valley, we now faced a long climb out. Highway 18 was uphill and twisting, but with an adequate shoulder. We biked through the sprawling suburb of Woodbury and had ridden more than sixty miles so far and I was starting to feel the effects of the miles, and age. Not struggling, but tiring. I needed a break and suggested we stop at Battle Creek Park. There we sat in the shade, drank water and ate Clif Bars. Naomi walked down to take a look at the creek. She was wearing a pink riding jersey and as I glanced over at her I got a vague sense of uneasiness. It passed quickly as I instead focused on my feet, which were hot and one was cramping. Naomi returned and now I walked to the creek with the intent of soaking my feet in the cool water. When I got there however, the uneasiness hit me again, much more intense. A dark threat of foreboding seemed to envelope me. I attributed it to location, something was wrong there and I abandoned the idea of cooling off my feet.
The other two were ready to ride when I got back so we saddled up. We were on our final leg, a downhill unnamed trail between Battle Creek and Shepard Road. Immediately we ran into a problem, a cement barrier had been placed in front of the entrance to the trail. We decided to take a chance to see if we could get through. I made a joke about sending a scout ahead so all three wouldn’t have to backtrack if we couldn’t. Freddie, still full of energy, took me up on it. He lifted his bike over the barrier, hopped over, and sped off. Naomi decided to follow suit and soon she was riding off also. I saw no point in waiting alone so I climbed over the barrier. Now for the first time today we were completely spread out. There was perhaps a hundred yard gap between Freddie and Naomi, and the same distance between her and I. Having been on this trail before, I had wanted to warn the other two to be careful. There was a section that was deceptively steep and speed could be gained quickly.
Freddie disappeared around a corner to where the downhill section started. The trail was in bad shape and a portion of it had caved in, leaving only about a two foot wide path on which to ride. I navigated slowly there and then looked up to see Naomi disappear around the corner. The trail was full of potholes and branches and I made no attempt to catch up. I rounded the corner and in the heavily wooded, shadowy darkness ahead, I saw something pink lying on the path. The trail was dark, the sun blocked by a thick canopy of trees. I could see the color pink through the shadows. One part of me knew exactly what I was looking at, but another part refused to accept it, searching for a different explanation. As I got closer there was no more denying, Naomi was lying sprawled out motionless on the trail. I braked as I descended, so I wouldn’t fall also. I coasted up to Naomi who was unconscious, or maybe semi-conscious. Even before I got off my bike I heard her. A sound I’m still trying to erase from my memory. Each breath she exhaled was accompanied by a low, desperate moan of pain and distress. I reached for my cellphone, intending to call 9–1–1. Except I didn’t know where I was, how I would give directions to a 9–1–1 dispatcher. Freddie! I had to get Freddie back here. But…I couldn’t call him. I had worked with Freddie for 15 years, and now I couldn’t remember his last name. At that moment I realized I was in a state of total panic. Somehow, that realization helped. I began to calm down and I knew I had to do something, even if it was wrong. Collect your wits, Jenneke, attend to Naomi.
“Naomi, it’s Gary, I’m going to help you.”
I knelt beside her. The left side of her face and helmet was pressed against the ground. Her left arm was folded underneath her body. Her legs were twisted up in the bicycle, which somehow was facing uphill, the wrong direction.
“Naomi, can you hear me?” The moaning subsided. I gently took a hold of her hand. “If you can hear me, squeeze my hand.”
After a moment’s hesitation there was pressure on my hand and I felt some relief. She was in such an awkward twisted position I addressed that next.
“Move your right arm for me.” She did. Her eyes were still closed but she was responding. “Wiggle your left foot.” Her left foot moved. “Now your right foot.” Impeded by the bike, her right leg and foot moved. Good, she could move.
I talked as calming and soothing as I could. “I’m going to get this bike off you. I’m going to lift your left leg.”
I disentangled her from the bike and pushed it aside. She was making some movement, an attempt to turn. “Do you want to turn over on your back?” Eyes still closed, she gave a small nod. There has been some criticism of my actions that day, of moving her. I just did what I thought I had to do at the time. I slid a hand under her neck, put my other hand on her right shoulder, and said, “Ok, let’s turn.” Gently she turned onto her back. Now I saw the blood. Her left side was a mess. Her face was scraped and bloody, as was her left leg, and her left wrist was a raw open wound. It also looked crooked and I thought maybe she had a broken wrist.
Her eyes flickered open which was a good sign, but they were scared and confused. Then I remembered I had texted Freddie this morning, when we were meeting up. “Come back. Naomi fell.” I texted.
With some help from me, she now sat up. She looked at her injuries. “What happened?” That question would become a recurring theme. I explained she had taken a fall. Her breathing became quicker, panicky and her eyes started darting about in fear. “Naomi, take a deep breath,” I commanded. “Another. Ok, drink some water.” Later I joked it was probably the first time in my life a woman had ever listened to me.
With my water bottle I washed the dirt and gravel from her wounds. It was dark where we sat, the sun barely penetrating through the thick canopy of branches. Naomi again asked what had happened and again I told her. Then I saw someone biking through the shadows up the trail toward us, another biker, not Freddie. In his fifties, he was on an expensive bike and wore all the high-end appropriate gear. He slowed, looked at Naomi and said, “Wow, that doesn’t look good!” and rode on. An incredulous laugh escaped from me. “Thanks, guy.”
Naomi kept asking me what had happened. I’d explain, and thirty seconds later she would look with new wonderment at her injuries, and ask again. I was becoming more worried and after what seemed an interminable period of time, but probably wasn’t, Freddie showed up.
Freddie shook his head as he got out his cell phone. “I’m going to call Karla.”
Karla was Freddie’s wife, and a friend of Naomi’s. Naomi was able to walk so we walked our bikes to the end of the trail. Karla was coming with a car to take Naomi to a hospital. Naomi continued to repeatedly ask what had happened to her. She occasionally would get a scared, wild look in her eyes but I was able to calm her down.
Karla arrived to take her to a hospital. I buckled the seatbelt for Naomi and almost had to laugh for she looked at the seatbelt like it was a new and wondrous invention she had never seen before. Karla left and Freddie and I biked to the hospital and got updates on her condition. A scan had shown no brain bleeding and there were no serious back or neck injuries.
So, scary as it had been, several days later over coffee, Naomi and I were able to laugh. She still has no memory of that day. Not the accident, nor any part of the ride. The last thing she remembers is getting ready to leave her house that morning.
A weird side effect is that she came out of the other end of the accident with a new and more positive outlook on life. Prior to the accident she had been struggling with some personal issues, including unhappiness, anxiety attacks and migraines, all of which have evaporated. She jokingly recommends a serious brain injury as a path to happiness. There are some lingering ongoing memory issues but hopefully that is getting better.
Later in the summer we returned to the scene, trying to understand how she had fallen. Speed, a mogul on the path, and faulty brakes on her bike had all combined somehow. Because the bike was pointed in the wrong direction we surmised she did a complete flip. The impact with the ground was obviously violent so thank goodness she was wearing a helmet.
Oddly, because of her memory loss, the accident was more traumatic for me than her. I can still feel the jolt of rounding that corner and seeing the color pink splayed out on the path. Those first few awful moments of finding her haunt me yet. I think about the dark premonition I had at Battle Creek although there was no way to act on it. The experience has made me a more cautious rider. Some would say that is a good, and sensible, thing, but, I’ve never found much joy in embracing sensible.
Before I posted this I asked Naomi for her permission. I’m adding her reaction as a postscript.
“It’s strange to read it. It’s like I am reading someone else’s experience. When I read the description of how you found me I thought, ‘Whoa, that sounds painful, I hope she’s okay.’” She added, “Turns out the path to happiness is mindlessness, or heart centered. The Buddhists were right.”