By Valerie Coffey
We have had some misadventures in our ten months as full-time RVers:
There was the first day we drove off in our brand new 2014 Thor Tuscany motor coach, leaving behind our empty Sticks & Bricks home in Massachusetts forever. Only a few hours from home, Mitch was making an acute left turn in our 45-foot monster plus the tow car, just as the green light turned yellow…then red. It takes time for 60-+ feet to clear a tight left turn, and Mitch was being very careful, going slowly.
As the cross-traffic received a green light, an impatient driver in a Jeep Wrangler on the cross street to the left pulled two vehicle lengths ahead of the stop line, right up into the side of the Tuscany. Then she refused to move until the police arrived, trapping our toad in the middle of an intersection at rush hour in the NY-NJ-PA tri-state area. This bad decision on her part created a delay that gave me time to take pictures! The police cited her on the spot, and her insurance covered the body work to replace our left compartment doors and repaint them several months later.
Then there was the time we were crossing the Continental Divide in Wyoming, on a Saturday night in December around 11 pm. We had two of our college kids aboard, and were trying to get over the mountains to beat an impending snow storm and pick up our stranded college freshman on winter break in Salt Lake City.
The Beast blew a fuel line and strewed about 30 gallons of diesel fuel across southeastern Wyoming before we could find a safe place to park and ride out the storm (read the whole story here). We managed to get her fixed before Christmas Day, but the kids may never go anywhere with us in the RV again, and we all probably have PTSD that can be triggered at the slightest whiff of diesel fuel. Snowstorm 1, Love Shack 0.
But here’s a doozy — the Series of Unfortunate Events (with apologies to Lemony Snicket) that explains what happened to Mitch’s face.
*Fair warning!* There’s a short story and a long story. The short story is that he crashed an ATV and had to get a lot of stitches on his eyelids and forehead. But people love asking for gory details once they’ve heard the short story.
The long story is graphic; it’s gruesome. We have pictures. So if the short story is all you wanted to know, you’re done! Thanks for reading. (This applies to Mitch’s parents – Rick and Carole, I’m talking to you. Go ahead and stop reading now! He’s going to be fine!)
But if you want to know the long story, don’t judge me for painting a picture. I’m a writer! Not to mention, the telling of the long story is cathartic and I personally need catharsis!
One day in mid June in Coos Bay, Oregon. I (Val) stayed home in the RV to work on a deadline while Mitch went exploring. I had had to send my phone away for repair after it was damaged the week before, so Mitch left his phone behind for me to use.
So I was surprised to get a call from Mitch around 1:45 pm from a strange number. He was excited to have discovered the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area on the coast near Coos Bay and was hoping he could drag me away to spontaneously rent All-Terrain Vehicles (ATVs) to explore the dunes. ATVs are low-slung, gas powered vehicles with four big knobby wheels. I hesitated. ATVing doesn’t interest me much, and I had more work to do. But he was so enthusiastic. I didn’t want him to have to do it alone, or decide not to do it because of me.
So I said okay. He drove back in the Hyundai Veloster to pick me up and we went to the ATV rental place. The owner, let’s call him Billy Bob, first had us initial a long list of rules and guidelines for ATVing in the dunes, followed by several waivers and forms indemnifying them from our apparently impending “death and dismemberment.” We initialed several boxes, one of which instructed riders how to avoid running into other riders at the top of a dune by turning sideways along the ridge when you get to the top.
We picked out motorcycle helmets. Billy Bob showed us how to operate the ATVs.
The dunes were more like mountains. Steep, huge, sandy, wind-shifted mountains. Billy Bob had told us the biggest problem people run into is getting their ATVs stuck in the sand.
“Just get off, lift up the tailgate, and run the throttle to get unstuck,” he had advised us. “Another situation people get it is if they don’t go fast enough up the side of the dune. If you get going sideways, you’ll roll the ATV.”
Then he added, “Don’t get going sideways! Don’t! Roll! The ATV! Don’t make me come out there and get you. My number is on the back of every ATV but don’t make me come out there. I’m the only one in the shop today.”
And we were off. We followed a dirt road for a mile or so and skirted some mud puddles. When we reached the dunes, we had to power full-throttle directly up the side of a huge, steep, sand mountain. We turned sideways at the top, along the ridge as Billy Bob had instructed. But the dunes in this part of the park were empty of other riders. There was no danger of hitting someone coming up the other side.
At the top, the ride down was steep. Scary steep. We did this a couple of times, with me always looking for the easier, less steep passage.
After about maybe ten minutes, I was trying to traverse a big hill sideways, but failing. My ATV slipped sideways down a slope and got stuck in some deep sand on a pitch between two mountainous dunes. The ATV slid until it was pinned at a steep pitch against a big pine tree with the weight of the ATV sliding sideways into it. My two rear wheels were quickly up to the axle in sand. Mitch came over to help me and it took both of us about 10 minutes to get it unstuck, “heaving” and “ho-ing” –it was extremely heavy; together we could only lift it about an inch — and throttling, the back wheels throwing moist sand into our faces and up over our shoulders. Lovely.
“This is scary,” I said to Mitch, looking up the next hill. Every direction was a slope to conquer. I could see no tracks to follow, no other ATVers around, no “easy path.” Just more of this.
Mitch agreed. “This is harder than I expected.”
I said, “Should we go back along the beach where it’s flat?”
Billy Bob had suggested if we wanted an easier ride, we could go along the beach, but “just about everybody wants to ride the dunes,” he had said. “I always go straight to the dunes. It’s a lot more fun.”
“Yeah,” Mitch said, “maybe we should go back to the beach.” But miles of dunes taunted us, where Mitch had seen kids riding with ease up and down with views of the coast, so we decided to go a little further. “Maybe it gets easier if we go a bit further,” he said.
I followed Mitch a short distance until he turned to ascend straight up a rather high dune. It was a gutsy move. Brave. I didn’t have the stomach for it, so I went around the dune to the right, looking for a way around it. On the other side of the dune, Mitch and I were separated by a stand of trees that stretched as far as I could see up and down the next set of dunes.
I went a little further, looking for Mitch to see if he would be coming from the far side. I waited. “Maybe I should go back and follow him or we’ll get too far apart,” I thought. I waited some more. I didn’t want to go back and have to follow him up that big dune. The steepness of these hills had already gotten me pinned against a tree. But after Mitch didn’t appear from the dunes in front of me, I figured he was probably doubled back and coming after me, so I turned back to meet him.
When the big dune loomed ahead of me, I successfully maneuvered around it to the left, but I didn’t see Mitch. I went a little further – are those his tracks? – and came over a rise and heard a long and high shout to my left. I could see someone – was that him? – over the next hill, walking on the sand, waving with his hands in the air. He was walking slowly, no ATV in sight. Something was wrong.
Mitch had powered full-throttle over a little hill about 8 feet high, over which he could see no other riders. But the problem was, the other side of this seemingly small dune was a steep drop off. The moment he saw it, he knew he was in trouble.
“Don’t roll the ATV!” he thought. With only an instant to react, he leaned as far back as possible before impact, but the force of the landing threw his face and head into the steering mechanism.
This is where the long story gets graphic. Feel free to use your browser’s back button.
Our motorcycle helmets were open-faced except for a lower face piece that protected the chin. Mitch had sunglasses on, and the force of the impact caused the chin piece of the helmet to hit the ATV, slamming his sunglasses hard against his face. The plastic adjustable nose pieces of the sunglasses cut his eyelids below his brows. On his right side, the nose piece kept going, slicing a deep gash upwards between his eyebrows through the lower part of his forehead.
Mitch was unable to see as blood from the gashes above his eyes clouded his vision. His nose was also scraped and bleeding. He was unable to see why his ATV wouldn’t move, but it appeared to be stalled and stuck in gear.
He had severed a nerve in his forehead, so he felt fine, other than the blood. He had walked back up the small hill and waved and called out when he heard my ATV.
I was horrified to see that he was walking with his hands held out from the hips, palms up, and they were covered in blood. His face, where I could see it, was covered in blood. His nose and eyes looked smashed in. I could see flesh hanging over his eyes! The gash above his left eye was horrendous!
“Oh my god! Mitch!! We have to stop the bleeding!” I untied the red bandana from around my neck, and shook the sand off of it as Mitch took his helmet off. We tied the bandana around his right eye and across his forehead to staunch the bleeding. Head wounds bleed a lot. We knew this, but the amount of blood pouring down his face was alarming.
“We have to get help!” Mitch found his phone in his pocket.
I tried to use Mitch’s phone to call the ATV rental office, but we couldn’t find the phone number anywhere on the ATV. Calling 911 would summon an ambulance to…where? The nearest paved road was miles away. We couldn’t describe where we were. An ambulance couldn’t reach him in the dunes. How would they get to him? We would have to get out of the dunes on our own. I was worried about the amount of blood he was losing, and my deepest fear was that he would collapse in the sand and I wouldn’t be able to get him out of the dunes for hours.
We couldn’t get his ATV started, and he couldn’t see to drive it anyway, so our only choice was to try and ride together on my ATV. He put his helmet back on, and we managed to travel a short distance before my ATV couldn’t get up a big dune with the weight of both of us. The ATV began to drag sideways on the dune, the sure route to rolling it or getting pinned against another tree.
He couldn’t see to drive my ATV. He would have to walk. He said he was okay to walk up the dune, so he set out walking, with me anxiously trying to stay with him on the ATV. After a while, a two-person dune buggy appeared over a far hill, headed toward us. I flagged them down and they stopped.
“He’s injured and needs help!” I said. The driver and passenger saw Mitch’s face, and immediately offered to take him out of the dunes, back to the ATV rental place and our car. The passenger, a lady, got out and gave Mitch her seat. Mitch got in and the driver of the dune buggy took off, taking him back toward the ATV rental facility and our car.
The lady passenger was left behind. She told me to go, to follow them, and she would be fine. I pointed out the direction of our abandoned ATV and asked if she would help direct the owner to it when he arrived. No problem, she said.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “My husband is just the guy you want to have around in an emergency. He always knows exactly what to do.” I thanked her and drove off.
Sure enough, her husband kept Mitch talking and got him back to the rental place. Mitch was in the parking lot with the owner and the dune buggy driver. When I arrived, the shop owner was less concerned about Mitch’s face and more concerned about his ATV. “Where’s my ATV?” he said.
Grr…I told him the dune buggy driver’s wife was waiting to show him where it is.
I took another look at Mitch’s face and repeated, “Oh my god! Oh my god!” The dune buggy driver took me aside and said, “Look, he needs to get to the emergency room in Coos Bay. Can you find the strength and calm enough to drive him there?”
“Yes,” I said, “I think I can. I don’t know where it is, but I have a GPS. I will get him there.”
“Okay,” he said. “Don’t let him look at it. And don’t tell him how bad it looks! It looks rough, but listen,” he said, “there isn’t a lot of ‘meat’ where the cut is. It’s a straight cut, it didn’t affect any muscle, and it can be stitched.”
Somehow I pulled it together enough to drive Mitch to the hospital myself. It was only a 20-minute drive but it felt like an hour.
Mitch felt his eyes and forehead beginning to swell up in the car and asked me if we could stop at the 7/11 convenience store for ice! “NO WAY!” I said. “All we need is to get stuck behind someone trying to decide what flavor of Slurpee they want. Time is of the essence here.” (“And you’re getting blood all over the car,” I thought.)
At the hospital, I pointed Mitch to a wheelchair and he said no. “I can stand,” he said. But when he lifted up the bandana to show the intake receptionist what happened, she took one look at his face — she tried to stifle her reaction — but she sprang into action.
She quickly pointed him to a wheelchair, and when he declined she insisted. “SIT!” Then she (too quickly!) reached for the phone and said, “I need a nurse in the waiting room! STAT!”
The nurse immediately brought bandages and gauze to the reception desk and wrapped it around his eyes and head, and gave him ice.
It was a long wait to be called into the emergency room, but in the waiting room, Mitch said he really wasn’t feeling much pain. He felt well enough to make conversation with a family who had brought their grandfather in for weakness. They had an 11-year-old boy, who asked after a while if he could see Mitch’s head under the bandages the nurse had wrapped him in.Mitch held up the bandage and the kid exclaimed, “WHOA! OH! MAN!” and visibly recoiled. Mitch had not looked at his wound. His reaction made Mitch laugh. “You need to work on your bedside manner,” Mitch told the boy. But see for yourself…
After a couple hours, we were called into the ER and a nurse cleaned up the wound and bandaged his head. After another hour or so, a physician finally looked at it. After some consideration, that doctor agreed that Mitch would need the best stitcher around, so he called the only plastic surgeon in Coos Bay, an off-duty Ear-Nose-&-Throat doctor, Dr. Shimotakayama, who arrived in less than 30 minutes.
I was sent to the waiting room while the doctor worked on Mitch. The waiting room intake receptionist called me by name to ask how Mitch was. I said he was getting stitched up now.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “When I saw his face, I tried not to react and just stay calm,” she said, “but it looked…well, I hope you didn’t notice my reaction.” No, I assured her, her horrified response was perfectly reasonable.
After it was all said and done, Dr. Shimotakahara had neatly sewn about 50 or 60 dissolving stitches into Mitch’s upper eyelids, across the bridge of his nose, and into his forehead. The gashes above his right eye and forehead were so deep, they required two layers of stitches, one under the skin and another layer on the surface.
The good news was, his nose was not broken. No broken bones. He didn’t even have a concussion. Mitch had remained calm and in his right mind, except for the idea about stopping at 7-11 for ice! He didn’t sustain any injury to his eyes or vision.
About a month later, and the even better news was, he never had much pain at all – as a matter of fact, he hasn’t been able to feel his forehead where the stitches are. A patch of numbness has conveniently masked any pain, but sensation seems to be returning slowly over time.
Is he still handsome?
Mitch has been very vigilant about keeping the wounds covered and helping them heal with antibiotic ointment and Vitamin E oil. He got to be an expert at cutting bandages in such a way that they would cover the wounds over the contour of his nose and brows. So they’re healing well. We hope someday they will be hard to detect, but for now, they’re a reminder to slow down and pretend to be less immortal.
I called one of my closest girlfriends a few weeks after the accident and finally got around to telling her the story of what happened. She said, “That’s horrible! What an ordeal!” and inevitably asked, in a cute, quiet way that only a dear friend could, “Is he still handsome?”
I’ve told him several times since, “It’s a good thing I love you for what you’ve got going on in here (taps heart) and here (taps head).”
But see for yourself: I can only see handsome.
In my next post, Close Encounters of the Wildlife Kind, we have a plethora of amazing wildlife photos and videos to share from our adventures in National Parks this summer!
Read our story from the beginning
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