In this deeply personal narrative, Ryan Dunfee intertwines his journey of physical recovery and reconnection with the world of outdoor sports. His story details how a traumatic skiing accident transformed his life, leading to a newfound appreciation and approach to time spent on his bike. It’s not just about overcoming physical limitations, but also about rediscovering joy and grace in movement through the help of mountain bikes and skis. Delving into themes of resilience, adaptation, and the profound relationship between our bodies and the natural world, “These Boots Were Made for Pedals and Roots’' illustrates how sports can offer a transcendent sense of freedom and empowerment, providing a unique lens to view life’s challenges and triumphs.
He wore fresh white sneakers at the curb, that brave color so in rage right now that, alas, I couldn’t keep free of stains for five minutes. Waiting for the light to change, he curled his toes in his sneakers; I could see the knuckles push into the leather uppers of the toebox. Then he flexed, calves engaging, and pushed his heels skyward, holding the whole of his weight aloft just on the balls of his feet. The light changed. We crossed.
An odd observation, yes. But maybe not so odd when you consider that the last time I was able to repeat that simple series of motions was January of 2005. At the end of that month, an eager college freshman, I overshot a jump on skis, watched as I gained 25 feet over the flat ground below me, then lost it, and then felt the entire impact of that descent to the earth reverberate through my tailbone. Once I groaned in terror through the paralysis of my diaphragm, the wind knocked out of me to the point I thought I would suffocate to death, my attention scanned the rest of my body. Below my waist there was no movement, and no sensation.
I got extremely lucky. Assuming I’d be paralyzed for the rest of my days, I was only partly so. The damage was contained to my posterior chain – permanent nerve damage to my buttocks, glutes, hamstrings, calves, and many of the little muscles in the feet that keep us on an even keel and wiggle our toes. It was a mix of relief and pure shock. The week before, I’d been finally feeling at ease spinning 720’s over the 65-foot jump at the end of the terrain park. Now I was 25 pounds lighter, a chunk of my spine had been completely rebuilt, supported by steel rods and screws, and my best trick was noticing the dull feeling of pinpricks on the bottom of my feet. I could curl my left toes a little; my right foot would budge a half inch or so with my most intense straining.
"Had I realized at the time how long life would be, I’d have honored where my body was, given it the time to heal without constantly being throttled beyond its capabilities."
The initial, manic focus of those first few years was to complete a hero’s journey back to the physicality I was capable of before the accident, and the two activities I loved most: skiing, and rowing, for which I’d been recruited for college. It was an effort focused on the mechanical: could I ski a green, then a blue, then a black again, could I slide a box, then spin off it, land a 360 again, could I get a particular time on the 2,000 meter rowing machine test, earn my way onto the JV boat. Frankly, I beat myself up pursuing both, ignoring how it felt in the moment. Had I realized at the time how long life would be, I’d have honored where my body was, given it the time to heal without constantly being throttled beyond its capabilities.
A few years later, I was living in Lake Tahoe, making a go of it as a freelance writer. Bored in the summer, I had my parents ship my old mountain bike out, a 1998 Rocky Mountain DH Race, blue and yellow with coil Marzocchi suspension that had been leaking oil since I first blew all my caddying money on it. After a hot and dusty dirt road climb, we turned onto a singletrack descent that weaved down the dry hillside. And within a couple hundred feet, I was feeling good. I’d forgotten what a magic carpet a full suspension bike felt like. While during the ski day, my whole balance depended on the connection between my body and the ground through my feeble feet alone, now I could lean on my unaffected arms, and the increase in control was immediate. That feeling of momentum, of easy acceleration as the grade pitched down, the bike tracking straight as it clanked through rocks, was a revelation. I did not feel handicapped. Instead, I felt graceful.
In the years since, that connection to an embodied sense of gracefulness – of feeling, in the moment, an effortless ability to move elegantly, how and where I want, to be playful, strong, aggressive, to choose a tempo and have the music play seamlessly – still comes most fluidly with the accompaniment of some machine. Skis, snowboards, surfboards, and bicycles all seem to offer a kind of physical translation surface, turning inputs that are slow and forced on foot into butter-smooth movements. To be able to do it physically, to be able to afford it financially, and to be able to experience it amidst the natural landscapes of this world has been one of the greatest gifts of my adult life.
I’m still drawn to the mechanical challenges, the out-of-scope adventures of dumb ambition that overwhelm my ability to move gracefully and challenge me to keep moving, period. I think, after that traumatic experience of showing just how incapable I could become – no sensation below the waist, just a lick of movement in my toes – there’s a deep desire to prove, just to myself, that I’m capable. It’s no longer a push that comes so I can fit in with the cool kids on the ski team, like it might have when I was 10, though perhaps subconsciously still informed by that fear. It’s in part that no other kind of goal seems to offer the same kind of experience, same relationship with my own body.
I raced the Trans BC enduro earlier this summer. I knew it’d be hard, did what training I could while finishing grad school, and felt assured from the close friend I’d be racing it with that we’d “totally be mid-pack” after he’d gone to New Zealand and ran into the Trans NZ crowd mid-stage one day. Except that was a wild misconception. By the end of the first day, I’d fallen four times and lost 15 minutes on the field stoved up on the side of the trail with massive cramps in both of my legs. It turns out nothing you can pull off for training in Boston will prepare you for 5,000 feet of hike-a-biking in the sun, followed immediately by the steepest trails in living memory. I felt humbled, almost embarrassed; the average fitness level was an order of magnitude over my head. I had to switch to the early bus, get going quickly, take only muted breaks, just to stay ahead of the course sweep following the end of the pack from the second, slower bus. “The hyenas!” my buddy Devin would say as we spotted the fastest climbers from the second bus catching up with us, usually on the second transfer. “They’re coming to eat us alive!”
I ended the week in 67th place out of 69 riders in the open men’s category. A year before, I’d gotten top 10 in my age group in a competitive Northeast enduro series. By contrast this was, on paper, a pure shellacking. My main accomplishment was finishing, and avoiding the serious injuries or broken bikes (though I did completely destroy a rim) that had taken out a dozen members of the troupe over the course of the week. But I also got to feel my body get stronger every day, somehow reorienting the molecules overnight, to be ten or fifteen percent more capable every day. And everyday we rode at least half a dozen sections that, had I had any chance to think about or look at beforehand, I surely would not have attempted. And that kind of transformation of ability, of rapid expansion of the horizons of your own limits, only happens with your back to the wall.
I left that experience only a little frustrated in that to jump from almost-last-place to the mid-pack result I assumed would be in play would require a commitment to fitness that feels out of reach. I’ve got other goals, a career, a relationship, and frankly, after a few weeks from finishing, the motivation fades. But that’s okay. That window of time to expand the sense of your own limits is good enough.
"To be able to do it physically, to be able to afford it financially, and to be able to experience it amidst the natural landscapes of this world has been one of the greatest gifts of my adult life."
What keeps me in this, obligating stupid amounts of money and focus, is the embodied sensation riding offers almost regardless of fitness level. Whenever I can get it, that sensation of the bike dancing underneath me going through something rough, my head level as the frame whipsaws underneath, the sudden push towards the earth as I barrel into a compression and the explosion out the other end, weightless and drifting, is a sensation available, by choice or privilege, to a precious few. Beyond all the ancillary benefits – the fitness, the mental health release, the fresh air – what always strikes, in the moment, is just the outright ridiculousness of what I’m doing. How this world, in all its randomness, has conspired to offer me a slew of slippery roots and rocks, dangerous level of speed, shoulder-ending trees left and right, and have me slipping through it like it was all meant to be, easy, playful, cackling, painted with a stupid grin, is one of those mysteries I can’t quite seem to wrap my brain around. That we should all be so lucky to have something like it; that we should all find, through the din of options out there, something that makes life feel so beautiful, seamless, empowering, and just so goddamn fun.
For news, event updates, stories and more.