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 motorcoach, 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 over-eager driver in a Jeep Wrangler pulled two vehicle lengths ahead of the stop line, right into the side of the Tuscany. Then she refused to move, trapping our toad in the middle of an intersection at rush hour in the PA/NY/NJ tri-state area. Her insurance covered the body work to replace our left compartment doors and repaint them, which was eventually completed 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.
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 many people have asked for details when they’ve heard the short story.
The long story is graphic; it’s gory. 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, try not to judge me harshly for sharing it. It’s cathartic in the telling and I personally need catharsis after this!
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, 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 showed us how to operate the ATVs.
The dunes were more like mountains. Steep, huge, sandy, wind-shifted mountains. Billy 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,” Billy 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. 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 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, my ATV got stuck in some deep sand on a pitch between two sixty-foot-high dunes, pinned beside a pine tree with the weight of the ATV sliding sideways into them. 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. 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 had suggested if we wanted an easier ride, we could go along the beach, but “just about everybody wants to ride the dunes,” he 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 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. I was afraid of the steepness of these hills. 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, 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 felt fine, other than the blood. He walked back up the small hill and waved 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 said. I fortunately had a red bandana around my neck, which I untied 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, and we knew this, but blood continued to pour down his face.
“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. Calling 911 would summon an ambulance to the nearest roadway, which was at least a mile away. 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.
He couldn’t see to drive my ATV. He would have to walk. He said he was okay to walk up the dune, but before we had gone very far a two-person dune buggy appeared over a far hill, headed toward us. I flagged them down and they stopped.
“He’s badly 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 him back toward the ATV rental facility.
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 safely back to the rental place. When I arrived, I took another look at Mitch’s face and repeated, “Oh my god! Oh my god!” He 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 a 20-minute drive.
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 a kid trying to decide what flavor of Slurpee he wants. Time is of the essence here.” (“And you’re getting blood all over my 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, she took one look at his face and you could see her try to stifle her reaction. She pointed him to the wheelchair, then she (too quickly!) reached for the phone and said, “I need a nurse. 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 yet.
His reaction made Mitch laugh, and he told the kid he needed to work on his bedside manner. But see for yourself…
After a couple hours, we were called into the ER and waited another hour or so to see a physician. 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 response was perfectly measured.
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 says 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. 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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