Two Summit County men hike the Pacific Crest Trail for brain injury survivors
After recovering from a severe traumatic brain injury in a car accident in New Zealand, Tyler Wood walked about 150 miles by himself to the country’s northernmost point. He wanted to challenge his healing brain.
This year, the 23-year-old Copper Mountain Resort snowboard instructor will embark on a longer journey to help others recovering from traumatic brain injuries.
Wood will join friend and Copper Mountain coworker Joey Bartl in April for a five-month trek from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail.
The pair is raising money for High Hopes Head Injury Program, in Tustin, California, which will provide scholarships to brain injury survivors who need assistance to support their rehabilitation through the program.
AN INVISIBLE INJURY
Originally from West Lafayette, Indiana, Wood worked as an outdoor expedition leader with Outward Bound in Australia for a year and a half and then as a kayaking guide in New Zealand for about a year before his injury brought him back to the U.S.
Wood lived in Franz Josef, on New Zealand’s South Island, near two glaciers that run through tropical rainforest.
Just before his injury, Wood won a boxing match and finished a triathlon. For months while training, he had avoided drinking and smoking, but on the night of April 24, 2014, he drove drunk and got in a car accident.
He was tossed through the car like a pinball, and first responders found him contorted inside the passenger footwell and cut him out of the vehicle.
No other people or cars were involved, and he somehow didn’t break any bones, he said, but he suffered a diffuse axonal brain injury, which happens when the brain is shaken inside the skull.
About 90 percent of survivors of that type of brain injury never wake up from a coma. Those who regain consciousness are often severely impaired.
In the beginning, Wood would start the same conversation three times in five minutes. He didn’t remember his friends or his boss, but he remembered his mother.
Amazingly, he didn’t experience personality changes. He quickly recovered his coordination and other lost skills in a rehabilitation program and regained most of his short-term memory in about five months.
Wood praised the support of friends and their families in New Zealand and the work of the staff of the hospital where he stayed for two weeks and the rehab center where he received therapy for 10 days.
In the month after his injury, Wood grew tired of people looking at him funny and assuming every mistake he made was because of his brain injury.
“They couldn’t understand what had happened to me,” he said. “I was wishing I had lost a leg or something that people could see.”
He moved onto a friend’s sailboat, and for the next month and a half he helped fix up the 50-foot vessel.
Soon his brain felt healed enough that he wanted to test it. He left the bay of Whangerei, where he was living in the boat, and trekked about 155 miles to Cape Rienga.
Slowed by weather, he said, the walk took him about two and a half weeks but was overall a great success.
Wood also raved about the healing effects of a meditation course he took that required participants not talk, read, write or do much of anything for 10 days.
“It helped me phenomenally. I can’t really put it into words,” he said. “My entire life my brain had never felt so good as when I got out of this course.”
Though he said his brain injury no longer noticeably affects him, he plans to do the same 10-day course before thru-hiking this year.
FINDING A PARTNER AND A CAUSE
Bartl, 25, is originally from Cincinnati and has spent months traveling in Southeast Asia. He was set on hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and was looking for a partner when he met Wood a few months ago at Copper.
Both men teach snowboarding and work at McCoy’s Mountain Market grocery store in the Copper village.
Inspired by Jack Kerouac, Henry David Thoreau and Christopher McCandless, Bartl said he is driven to complete the 2,650-mile thru-hike in large part by his rejection of the societal expectations.
He doesn’t want to simply go to college, get a good job, find a wife, slave over a mortgage, make babies and then wait for retirement or death, he said.
Happiness lies beyond this system, he said, and dreams and experiences are more valuable than monetary possessions and luxury comforts.
When Wood agreed to join Bartl on the trail about two months ago, Wood insisted that they raise money to help brain injury survivors.
“He is a shining example of the good in the world,” Bartl said, “and I want to do everything I can to help his cause.”
MAKING BRAIN THERAPY AFFORDABLE
Wood and Bartl have already raised $2,000, and they hope to reach at least $20,000 in funds through the organization High Hopes Head Injury Program.
The nonprofit was started in 1975 and offers brain injury survivors physical rehabilitation through conditioning classes, therapeutic swimming, weight training and physical therapy.
High Hopes’ cognitive and social therapy asks survivors to manage a group lunch operation and participate in occupational therapy, speech therapy, pre-vocational training, community activities, independent living classes and art and music classes.
TBI survivors and their families and caregivers spend $7 million, on average, over the survivor’s lifetime for rehabilitation and care, according to High Hopes. The nonprofit estimates that 90 percent of its students need financial support to attend classes and receive therapy.
Wood said High Hopes will give the two men 25 percent of donations up to $3,000 each, which they estimate will be the per-person cost of their journey.
After that, the nonprofit will receive 100 percent of donations.
The men will leave Colorado Friday, March 27, to return to their hometowns and fundraise. Then they will start hiking at the end of April and finish in early October.
“I don’t understand why I got so lucky,” Wood said, “so I’m just trying to practice some good karma.”
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