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Photograph courtesy Nadia Boctor

From a Wheelchair to Walking Death Valley—One Adventurer’s Incredible Comeback

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Photograph courtesy Nadia Boctor

The sun’s welcome front was advancing, spilling into each successive crack in the dry lake bed until it reached Aaron, still cinched up in his sleeping bag. This was the dawning of day two in the Mojave Desert. Sixteen years ago Aaron had a motocross accident that left him paralyzed, never again would he experience adventure other than from the seat of a power wheelchair. The doctor’s said he had a one-in-a-million chance of ever feeding himself again let alone walking. Yet here he was, eyes squinting away sleep, and a pair of walking boots sitting neatly at the foot of his cot. “I slept so good!” he said stretching. “I only got up once to pee in the night, and I saw an awesome shooting star.”

While the world of adventure is littered with a healthy crop of hairy chests, sinewy calf muscles, and death-defying stunts, there are few out there as death-defying as Aaron, whose most recent tools of adventure include a pair of skinny, questionably functional legs and a stroller to aid balance and carry camping gear for six days on the dry lakes bed of Death Valley.

I had come out to the desert with him as a friend and a filmmaker to capture his personal endeavor to walk a tract of land measuring 20 miles. From a filmmaker’s perspective the stark beauty and symbolism of Death Valley was perfect for this journey allowing me to truly create a portrait of limited mobility and how it affects the lives of those who live with it. After we returned and started looking at the story it became clear that we needed to do more. This trek grew into a larger project and became the “backbone” of a feature length documentary entitled Coming to my Senses about Aaron’s 15 years struggle to regain movement.

Aaron’s story spoke to me in a powerful way. As a filmmaker I spend most of my time chasing and filming stereotypical adventure —skiing, climbing, mountain biking—but when I met Aaron it dawned on me that I’d found a guy who completely redefines the term “adventure”’ for me.

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Photograph courtesy Nadia Boctor

While we stare in awe at athletic endeavours at the top end of the functional spectrum, some of the biggest adventures are occurring at the other end, where there is often a struggle to move at all. “I used to be a leader of the pack,” Aaron said, describing the heyday of his motocross years. “Then I found myself in a power wheelchair trailing off the back, trying to wrestle back the life I once had. It’s kinda like being in a straight jacket—the more angry you get, the more you struggle, the less you can move!”

With the support of his family and Taylor Kevin Isaacs, a Clinical Exercise Therapist in Northridge, California, Aaron began to move after weeks of trying reconnect his mind and his muscle. Each flicker or shuffle was a quest, an adventure that Aaron had to prepare for and recover from. A stationary bicycle allowed Aaron to stare into the mirror and see his limbs move, re-educating his body through repetitive movement. After some time, he pedaled on the back seat of a tandem that his mother piloted, both of them quietly wondering how far they could take this progress. And they are still wondering today, Aaron having not yet reached a ceiling too thick to punch through.

The journey may seem like a mere 20-miles, but for Aaron there are obstacles which are almost imperceptible to the average person. For one, he cannot regulate his body temperature or sweat well. This means his heart-rate is prone to elevation which can cause him to pass out easily. Additionally, his proprioception and balance are lacking; we combatted this by having him push a baby stroller which also doubled as his gear wagon. And finally the effort to even just put one foot in front of the other should not be underestimated. Aaron has always described each movement as a conscious decision, it is literally a series of messages which he must send to fire neurons.

But perhaps the most extreme thing about Aaron’s journey is a simple fact that if he stop pushing himself forward he will literally go backward. Where as most of us have the luxury of “getting out of shape,” the consequences for Aaron are severe.

“If I stop training my mind and body, stop setting physical challenges for myself, I will start to slip slowly back down a slope towards paralysis— that’s the physiological path of least resistance. For my own sanity and for those around me that I have been fortunate enough to inspire, that is not an option.”

Each small step over the pan flat Mojave lakebed represents more than just forward progress for Aaron, it represents hope for every member of the community affected by paralysis, it represents a world where people don’t stop achieving just because a doctor’s prognosis is grim. It represents the power of yes and of possibility, which I have learned from Aaron is one of the most powerful tools you can use to accomplish something.

The documentary Coming to my Senses, as well as being released in the mainstream, will be used as a motivational tool for those in the early stages of recovery from spinal cord injury. To help support this film and to learn more, please visit the Coming to My Senses KickstarterComing to My Senses Kickstarter.