The four young men had been casually observing the stranger at the bar for over an hour. Jared gave Simon a nudge:
– You should go talk to him.
– Why me?
-Cause you’re fecking starin’ at him.
-Nah, I don’t wanna be rude.
-Come on, you wanna know about his arm, just go and ask.
-I can’t, it’d be too weird, even for me.
-Don’t be such a wimp, just do it.
Simon took a swig of his beer and thought for a moment then he got to his feet. “Alright,” he said giving Jared a look, “I’ll do it, but only to shut you up.” he grabbed his beer bottle and sauntered over to the man.
-Hey man, is it OK if I ask you a question?
-Is it about my arm? The man tapped the prosthetic against the bar
-Some young guy with a couple of beers under his belt, it’s always about the arm.
-I…didn’t mean to offend.
The man drained his glass then gave Simon a strange smile. “Alright, I’ll tell you,” he turned the glass around in his hand, “why don’t you pull up a chair, it’s a long one.” Simon waved to the bartender, “one more for my friend here,” then sat down next to the man.
“Life can be…funny sometimes; when you you feel everything’s on track it’s bound to hit you in some unexpected way, send you completely off the rails. You see, several years ago I was an average white collar idiot: a comfy office job, an apartment, a wife and kid; reasonably successful in a predictably white middle class sort of way. The thing about middle class life – and I’m sure you’ll find this out for yourself soon enough – is that you’ve got to have some way of taking your mind off things. Some people go to the gym or play some sport, some people do something creative like playing the guitar or whatever, and some people simply get wasted every weekend. My thing was motorcycles. I had an underpowered little bike that I would take up into the mountains every now and again, follow the road wherever it would take me and just ride. Few things are quite as good for clearing your head.
One Sunday morning a few years ago I decided to go out for a ride; I’d had a pretty shitty week and needed a bit of time for myself. Just as I turned off the main road and headed up into the mountains it started to drizzle. No big deal, I thought, and kept going. I had just reached the furthest point of my route when the rain became heavier. It would take just as long to turn back as to continue so i kept going. Besides, I had been riding for more than ten years at this point and never had a crash, I was confident the worst thing that would happen to me was getting wet.
A few minutes later I was going around a large swooping left hand bend, leaning the bike down as much as I dared. It was down hill and my speed was just a bit too high, and without thinking I tried to correct that with a slight dab on the rear brake. Normally that should have been fine but in those wet conditions I lost traction on the rear wheel and the bike went down on its side; it was as if it had just disappeared from beneath me. I went sliding along the asphalt, the bike pinning my left leg to the road, panicking as I could see the edge of the road rapidly getting closer. The bike went over first and I came after. Luckily it wasn’t a sheer drop or I wouldn’t be sitting here today. I tumbled several meters, hitting god knows how many rocks and other shit on the way, then stopped when I smashed into a large tree. The pain wasn’t bad at first, I guess that was due to the adrenaline kicking in, and I was still able to think rationally – at least that’s how it seemed to me – I knew I would have to get back up to the road to stand a chance of getting help. My entire body was beaten up but I managed to get to my feet and started stumbling, crawling and dragging my way back up. It was at this point I noticed the fingers on my left hand weren’t moving like they should and I immediately knew that my arm was in a bad shape. I forced myself not to look at it, the sight of my mangled hand would probably make me faint, and focused on getting back to the road before the adrenaline wore off. I can’t tell how long it took me to get up but after a lot of effort I finally did it. A few moments after I dragged myself onto the road I collapsed.
From that point on my memory is pretty fuzzy. I remember being woken up by paramedics, I remember parts of the ride in the ambulance, I remember telling a doctor I felt fine except my arm, I remember asking someone, probably a nurse, to call my wife and I remember her face, eyes red from crying, as she tried to reassure me. When I woke up the next day I felt like shit: my head was spinning and my entire body ached, especially my left arm. That’s when I noticed it was gone. I became enraged: why had those motherfuckers taken my arm? It was still there when I got back up to the road, why the hell would they chop it off? My wife, who had been slumbering in the chair next to my bed, had to calm me down so I wouldn’t disturb the other patients in the ward. She then kept me occupied for the next couple of hours by helping me freshen up and eat some breakfast, all the while talking about all manner of irrelevant shit. I’ve later realized she was trying to – and succeeding I might add – distract me from thinking too much about my arm.
When the doctor finally arrived on his round he explained what had happened. Apparently one of the bones in my forearm had snapped as I tumbled down the slope and the broken end had gouged a big hole in my arm and was poking out through my skin. After I fainted I had been found by an old man on his way home. He called an ambulance but soon realized that I was losing blood too fast and they might not arrive in time, so he did what he been taught when he was in the army, he used his belt to create a makeshift tourniquet around my arm. The doctor said he most likely saved my life, for that I will always be grateful. The paramedics couldn’t be sure how much blood I had lost so they kept the tourniquet on as they rushed me to the hospital, just to be safe. Unfortunately, due to the long drive down the mountain, the blood flow to my forearm had been restricted for too long and tissue had already taken too much damage, the doctors were forced to amputate.
I only stayed about a week in the hospital, when the doctor saw my condition was stable and the wound was healing well he let me go home but I had to come back for frequent checkups. Now started a period of learning to live with only one arm. At this time I realized just how many limitations you have when you are missing an arm; there are so many little things, just in every day life, where you use two hands without thinking about it and now I had to manage all of that with just one hand. I was very depressed during this period, it felt like I hadn’t just lost an arm, I had lost part of my identity. For the most part it was manageable but there were times when it got so bad I actually considered killing myself. My wife gave me a lot of support during this time and I’m really grateful for that.
After a few weeks I was fitted with my first prosthetic arm. It was a really simple model, just a piece of vaguely skin colored molded plastic with semi-rigid fingers, like a permanent grip. I was more or less just a cosmetic prosthetic but if I really needed to I could use my good hand to put something in its grip. I spent several weeks learning to use this arm as well as possible and trying to get back to a normal life. Eventually I could start going back to work and I was able to do most task, just a bit slower than before the accident. I still had to go back to the hospital for regular checkups and I had weekly rehabilitation and training sessions, but other than that, things went back to some kind of normal. However, all was not well with me. I probably seemed happy enough on the outside but below the surface I could still feel the loss of my arm.
I tried to deal with my feelings in various ways. During my initial recovery I watched a lot of movies and TV shows and that could take my mind off my feelings for a while but it quickly got old. After I got used to having my prosthetic I started going on long walks, often listening to some podcast or other. That worked quite well but I still felt that something was missing. I took me a month or two to figure out what the problem was, at least so I thought; my prosthetic was too simple, I needed a better one that could make me feel like I had a functioning arm. I knew there were plenty of stories out there of people who got ones where the hand could open and close with a certain movement of the arm. I started searching and soon enough I found a company that could 3D print one for me, they even let me customize the look. When they fitted the finished arm to my stump it felt great and it looked so cool. After a bit of calibration I could get the fingers to open or close with a movement that felt really natural. It wasn’t a fully functioning hand – it could only do one type of grip, but it was enough for me, it almost felt like I had my arm back and I was ecstatic.
At that point I felt like I could go back to a normal life again and be satisfied with it. For a long time it worked, there were still some checkups at the hospital and occasionally there was something I couldn’t do because of the arm but other than that things were mostly normal; it was as if my depression had shrunk down to a little ball and been stored away at the back of a closet. However, there was one aspect of my pre accident life that was still missing: those trips with the bike that would let me take my mind off the daily grind. I decided I would give it a try again. I went to a dealership and requested a test ride on a bike that didn’t require gear shifts, just to see if it was possible. I had been afraid to get on a bike again but as soon as I did I knew I would be able to ride it. It took me all of two laps around the block before I decided to order a small bike with an automatic clutch, that way I was able to ride it but still have that feeling of shifting gears.
I though getting back to riding would get rid of my depression once and for all but strangely it didn’t. Whenever I was out on the bike it felt great but it’s like it wasn’t enough. When I was at work or at home with my family I had this need, like something inside pulling at me, willing me to go for another ride. I tried to suppress it as best I could during the week then go out riding almost every weekend to satiate that hunger. Over time I came to realize that it wasn’t specifically a need to go out on the bike, it was more profound than that: the middle class life, though very comfortable, wasn’t suitable for me. I think deep down I had known it for a while and the accident had just brought it to the surface. Once that thought had formed in my mind I couldn’t get rid of it. Over the next few days I came to the hardest decision I had ever made in my life. I would quit my job, divorce my wife and leave my old life behind, try to live life in a way that wholly suited me. Some people would probably condemn me for this, call me selfish, and maybe I was but I couldn’t keep being miserable while outwardly happy for the rest of my life.
I don’t want to go into too much detail about the divorce, suffice it to say that it was difficult for everyone involved. After little over a month I found myself in a small, short lease apartment with all my belongings in two suitcases spread open on the floor. I was unemployed, my savings had been cut in half, many friends and family members had cut ties with me, and I was ready to start living my life on my own terms.
I started by signing up as a driver for a food delivery service, my little bike would go from a tool for relaxation to my main source of income. With my basic needs covered I set about improving my arm: I found several companies producing electronically controlled arm prostheses but all of them were way out of my price range so I had to look for alternative solutions. What I came up with was an upgrade to the mechanical one I already had. I got a new hand with a small lever on it that could adjust how the fingers would bend when closing. That way I could switch between different grips. A bit cumbersome since I needed to use my good hand to operate the lever but it gave me a lot more versatility. I then started fitting some different accessories to increase functionality and compensate for whatever my arm lacked.”
At this point the man held up his prosthetic arm and showed it to Simon. “The phone holder is by far the best modification I made,” he said, pointing to a smartphone attached to the inside of the arm, “turns out holding a phone in any sort of usable way is really tricky with a mechanical hand. This also comes in handy quite often, he continued,” turning on a flashlight attached to the outside of the arm then turning it off again. “And finally,” he said giving Simon a look, “we have this:” in one smooth movement he opened a panel on the arm, pulled out a pocket knife and flicked it open. He flashed Simon a smile then closed the knife and returned it to its compartment. “It’s a bit gimmicky I’ll admit, keeping it in my pocket is perfectly fine, but pretty cool nonetheless.”
“When my modifications were finished I booked a ticket, packed my bags, then set off on a backpacking tour of Europe. I did it partly to test the arm, partly also to prove to myself that I could do it despite missing a hand. When I was planning the trip I thought about going somewhere more exotic, I’d been to most of Europe before after all, but I figured Europe would be easier in case I had any problems with the arm. The trip wasn’t completely trouble free, but then again such trips never are, and I counted it as a success.
As soon as I got back home I went back to the food delivery gig, saving every penny I could while planning for the next trip. During my trip to Europe I had noticed that it was difficult to manipulate a camera with my prosthetic so while saving up for the next trip I also experimented with a camera mount for my arm.” The man paused his telling and pointed to something that looked like a tripod mounting plate on the back of his prosthetic hand. “It didn’t work as well as I had hoped so in the end I invested in a small handheld gimbal instead. Anyway, on with the story. This time I decided to give myself a bigger challenge: I would fly to Columbia, travel from there down through Peru, then Bolivia, into Argentina and go all the way down to Terra Del Fuego and fly home from there.
The trip went more or less as planned to start with but a couple of weeks in things started to change. I had been posting about my adventures on Instagram and Twitter and started to gain a bit of a following, especially among disabled people. I wasn’t famous, you probably never heard about me, but I guess you could call me a small time influencer. The little bit of fame I did have got me in contact with people along the way who would offer their help or services. It could be anything from a ride in their car if I was heading their way, to a place to sleep for a night, to taking me in for several days, buying me meals and showing me around. I’m forever grateful for their generosity. Thanks to this I was able to stretch my budget further than planned so I could extend my trip. In Bolivia I turned off the planned route, and entered Chile instead of Argentina. I then went all the way down to Terra Del Fuego, then crossed the border there and headed north through Argentina, into Brazil and flew home from Rio de Janeiro.
That trip was fantastic! Not only did I have a lot of amazing experiences and meet a lot of interesting people, but I also proved to myself – and in some sense also to the world – that despite some challenges, missing a hand couldn’t stop me from going on adventures; and not just a trip in safe Europe, but a real, proper adventure. When I came home however I had a bit of a dilemma. I had some kind of hope that I could turn the whole social media thing into some kind of career but like I said I wasn’t making any money off it yet. The thing is, I knew that if I wanted to grow my following I would need to go on another adventure soon. The problem with that was that I had spent pretty much all my money during the trip. I would need to save up before I could go out again, but with my old food delivery gig that would be too slow, and I would lose too many followers to make the social media thing work.
It didn’t take me long to decided to give up on becoming an influencer and just do things my way. I went back to working my delivery job and saving money while thinking about where to go next. I could do another backpacking trip, just in a different part of the world. That would be fun of course, but I somehow had the feeling I should up the ante, try something more challenging. After all, the difficulties of traveling are largely the same no matter where you go. During my travels I had done several hikes, most of them up some mountain or other, and I always enjoyed it. Those had all been relatively easy, with quite low altitudes and almost no climbing. I got the idea that if I tried for some slightly more difficult peaks, or some longer hikes with camping along the way, it would give me more of a challenge but also be fun. Besides, I would have to go to different countries to reach interesting mountains, so I would get to travel too.
The first mountain I climbed was Mount Blanc. I did it in the easy way, joining guided group trip meaning there were plenty of other people there to help me if the arm caused any problems. What I found during this expedition was that the arm worked fine most of the time, but for some of the more technical parts the hand seemed very clumsy. My fellow climbers gave what help they could and I was able to pass several difficult sections, but at one point the guide decided it was too dangerous for me to continue. I had to wait there while the rest of the group summited and came back down. Despite failing to reach the summit I enjoyed the challenge and I vowed to come back one day and climb all the way to the top. Before that however, I would need to improve my prosthetic.
I started researching other types of prosthetics to find one that could work. An electrically controlled hand seemed the most promising but those are susceptible to problems in cold temperatures. I had started researching battery operated heating systems that could fit a prosthetic hand when the solution came to me. Instead of making it more complex, why not make it more simple but fit for purpose? The main problem I had while climbing had been handling the ice axe. So why not bypass the entire hand and simple attach an ice axe at the end of my arm? I bought an ice axe then set to work modifying one of my old prosthetic sockets so that the axe could attach directly to my stump. The next time I had a chance, I headed back to the Alps to try it out.
My first time trying it gave some mixed results. While it worked really well when actually climbing a glacier, I found I missed having the regular hand prosthetic at lower altitudes. My next climb I brought both with me and just changed from hand to ice axe when I reached the glacier. This worked well, so I continued doing it this way for all my remaining climbs that trip. During one of these I had to go part of the way holding on to a rope fixed permanently in place. It was nearly impossible to to fix the rope in any way with the axe prosthetic so I found myself only using the good hand and hoping I could keep my balance while switching grip. I went well that time but I figured I would need to add some sort of rope holder to my left arm. As soon as I came home I started searching around. I thought about self locking pulleys used by climbers but they all turned out to be too fiddly to handle with one hand. In the end I simply mounted a kind of rope lock from a sail boat to the forearm. Not super safe, but at least it would make it easier to switch grip on a climbing rope.
With my new and improved arm I went back to Mont Blanc to try again. It was a challenge, but thanks to my ice axe prosthetic I made it to the top. It was the best feeling I’d had in a long time and I directly decided to set my sights for another mountain.
About a week after coming home I was contact by a company who had seen a picture of me, posing with my prosthetic at the summit of Mount Blanc, on Instagram. It was a small company specializing in custom sports equipment for disabled people. They had more or less decided to hire me directly but weren’t exactly sure for what. After some discussions it didn’t take long for me to say yes. I was hired as a freelance product tester for specialty arm and hand prosthetics. Basically, when they had a working prototype of a new prosthetic they would equip me with it and send me out to test it, see how well it worked, what needed to be improved and so on. I would report this to the engineers who would work to fix flaws then let me retest. Once all the flaws had been removed the compony would send me to some exotic location for a final test before approval. During the final test there would also be a photographer accompanying me to take promotional photos.
Imaging you can go hiking, climbing, kayaking or whatever, and as long as you write a report on the equipment you’re using you get paid for it. Not only that, a couple times per year you get sent to some exotic location to go on an adventure, all expenses paid by the company. Needles to say it was the best job I ever had. I honestly thought I would be doing it until retirement but after several years something started to feel a bit off. I still really enjoyed going out and testing new prosthetics but it somehow didn’t feel right that it was always someone else who decided where I should go and what i should do. It was like I was doing the things I loved but I didn’t have the freedom to do it my way.
I stayed at that job a couple of years more before I finally decided to quit. I’d gone on a lot of adventures and been to a lot of exotic places and now I felt it was time to go somewhere slightly less remote and do something a bit less extreme. While I had traveled all over the world for my tests, I had mostly just been to some specific location for a specific test. I wanted to see more and, rather randomly, I set my sights for the US. I bought a plane ticket to New York and, in a fit of inspiration – I wanted absolute freedom – I sold off most of my possessions and put the rest in storage, canceled my apartment contract then set off.
A few days after I landed I bought myself a Harley. I got one with a foot operated “suicide clutch” and shift lever on the side of the tank, you know, so I could actually shift gears with this hand, and set off on a journey across the United States. I travel slowly, zigzagging my way westward, stopping wherever I please, and sleeping out in the open most nights. Ever so often I end up in a bar, the stranger with the mechanical arm, telling my story to some curious local.” Here he paused for a moment, opened his hand, turned it over a couple of times then closed it again before continuing. “So here I am, talking to you; you’re not the first to hear my story and you probably won’t be the last. Tomorrow I’ll leave this town, keep heading west, and you can tell your friends about the weird guy with the prosthetic hand that you met in a bar the other night.” When he had finished speaking he drained the last of his beer, pulled a five dollar bill from his wallet and placed it on the bar then stood up, gave Simon nod and walked out.