My Own Cautionary Tale
Two days ago, I became my own cautionary tale. I want to blame it all on my head cold that has been slowing my reflexes and clouding my thinking, but a great part of what happened just came down to carelessness. After three months of being on the road, of setting up camp and breaking down camp, of preparing and putting out fires I had a moment of bad judgment and paid for it.
I was getting the cook fire ready. I chopped up some wood into kindling and fuel. I built a teepee and lit the fire. Some of the wood was a little damp from the recent rain so had a hard time catching and threatened to go out. I thought that I’d give it some help and poured a little denatured alcohol from our canister over the fire and thats when everything went wrong very quickly. The wood came to life in big blaze. So did the canister. So did my hand.
I remember that instant looking at my hand and seeing it on fire and thinking that this couldn’t possibly be happening, that this was some bad dream, something caused by my cold. It all seemed very plausible that I was hallucinating this, until I FELT my hand burning.
I panicked and dropped the canister and stamped the fire on my burning hand which seemed to take forever to do. The thing with denatured alcohol is that sometimes you can’t tell if there’s a flame or not. The more rational part of my brain finally kicked in. WATER. I ran to the picnic table and found some water and dumped it on my hand and on some of the small flames on the ground.
When the panic was over we did virtual triage on my hand. I too a photo of my hand with the iPhone and emailed it to Laura’s brother who is a paramedic and gave us advice while over the phone.
It hurt like hell for the rest of the day. I joked a little with Laura and told her that, “the good news is that relative to my hand, my cold doesn’t feel that bad; the bad news is that my hand hurts like HELL!” The rest of the evening was pretty quiet, thinking about what just happened and what could have happened.
In my head, the whole thing played over and over again with varying results. In one version I was smart enough not to pour the alcohol. In other versions, things went horribly wrong, I panicked even more, managed to douse myself with burning alcohol and set myself ablaze in this campground 50 miles from any hospital.
When it got dark and all there was night and my hand that hurt like hell, I felt my fist pang for “home”, whatever that meant. I was frustrated and angry with myself. I wanted to pack it up and stop playing at adventurer. What a stupid rookie mistake. It was then that it really hit me that there was nothing to come back to. That this tent, in this campground, somewhere on the Sacramento delta was home. If we were on vacation we could just call it short, but we are traveling and this is the difference. I remember something that was written on a food box at a hiker/biker campsite somewhere on the coast. It was written in Latin but whoever wrote it also provided an English translation – “Your mistakes are your only true possessions.”
Maybe he burned his hand as well.
I wasn’t sure if I could ride the 40+ miles into civilization but we had to. Laura lovingly bandaged it up, we put on big heaps of Neosporin and I had to relearn how to maneuver my 110lb bike with one hand and one brake. I could lean part of my burnt hand on the handlebar, but I couldn’t operate the brake. Fortunately, the terrain was flat so I didn’t have to shift with my bad hand. However, we did ride a few hours on washboard gravel roads, moving at 5mph, bumping up and down and inside I prayed that I wouldn’t burst any of the blisters I had.
We made it to Davis. My hand and arm were sore from leaning on the handlebars in such an awkward way, but we made it.
Now we are in Sacramento and the last few days and the next few days will be a regimen of daily unwrapping and rewrapping the burns. Every time I see the blisters they are big ugly reminders of my mistake and of what it means to travel the way we are traveling and to live the way we are living. Any choices and mistakes we make are ours. I suppose it’s really no different than our prior lives, except for the fact that often the results of our choices are more immediate and dramatic.
Sorry to be such a downer in this post, but I really am frustrated. I’m having a hard time with the limited mobility, with the stupidness of the mistake and how much it could tragically affect our trip. But ‘cest la vie. I am still alive. We are still on the road. I’ve got a good hand and can use one brake and I would still choose to do what we are doing than anything else.
M.E. October 23, 2009 at 11:37 am
don’t let this mistake get you down….look at it this way….you can still type!
geoff October 23, 2009 at 11:53 am
russ, i hope it heals quick!
and maybe you take this time to relax a little. check out sacramento and go to museums and other mundane activities.
you will heal. you will keep going. things will be all right, just remember to take care of yourself now!
ethan October 23, 2009 at 11:59 am
I’m with Geoff. Do not get discouraged. You guys are on my very short list of heroes.
Carl October 23, 2009 at 12:41 pm
The good news is that you’ve learned a valuable lesson. The bad news is that you learned a valuable lesson the hard way. Don’t beat yourself up too much, I’ve done the same thing… twice. Some people just need to learn the hard way a few times. Hopefully I’m done with the lesson.
Keith October 23, 2009 at 12:48 pm
For those of us living vicariously through your blog/experience, you are even more of a teacher and inspiration. Laura too!
Cycle Jerk October 23, 2009 at 1:02 pm
Perspective in Haiku…
Care from your woman,
Gifts on the ride of your life,
Too many to count.
Michael October 23, 2009 at 1:05 pm
Hi Russ and Laura,
I’m really sorry to hear this happened but I’m SO glad that you are okay. It could have been much worse. I’m sure you’ve heard of this story: http://www.serve.com/cmtan/buddhism/Stories/maybe.html
but I instantly thought of it when Alan told me you were hurt.
I really hope we get to see you guys soon! : ) Take care.
Beany October 23, 2009 at 1:14 pm
Sorry about your hand. I do relate to your feeling of wanting to be home though. When I first had that feeling on our tour, I realized with a start that I was actually homeless and suddenly had a wave of empathy for the involuntarily homeless people everywhere.
My husband had a minor accident on our trip as well (fell and cut his arm pretty deep). I cleaned the wound, used neosporin and bandaged it well. It healed really well. We had plans to go to the doctor, but by the time we wound up in a town with a doctor we found that the wound was healing well and a doctor was not needed.
BTW, my husband and I will be in Sacramento on Sunday for business (well Monday is business, we’re flying on Sunday to check out Sacramento). If you are going to be around, did you want to meet up? We won’t have our bikes and plan on getting around by walking or public transit.
Clifford October 23, 2009 at 1:16 pm
“You guys are on my very short list of heroes.”
Spot on. I’m sending good (& warm) thoughts from Canada. With some patience, good care and humour, you’ll come out the other side of this ok. You come off as a humble guy, Russ — don’t forget to celebrate and value the _incredible_ work that you & Laura have done so far.
Tina October 23, 2009 at 1:19 pm
I would say mistakes are a portion of your true possessions…what you possess on the other side of them are yours too! From what I gather, you have gained caution, clarity, and inspiration, just to name a few, from this mistake. Something tells me that somewhere in your journey in the past, you two were able to discover your passion and follow it…can you reflect on precarious times of your life then too? Point is, it’s all a part of life! I’m inspired by you two! I know your hand hurts, it will heal, and so will you. Enjoy the journey again! I know I’m enjoying your journey! Thanks for sharing it with us!
Dwainedibbly October 23, 2009 at 1:48 pm
Keep it clean & do what the medical folks say. A co-worker got some pretty bad burns on the palm of her hand (a lot like like yours) from cooking. It was a few months ago and now you can’t even tell.
I like to think of these events as another sprinkle on the cupcake of my life. What’s a cupcake without a few sprinkles?
April October 23, 2009 at 1:52 pm
I did something not too different once–we had a metal screen over a campfire to rest pots and pans on, and I grabbed the wrong end. Plus I’m a klutz and forgetful in general (damn my ADD)…every time I’ve hurt myself while biking, it’s been entirely my fault: falling when almost stopped, hitting curbs, that kind of thing. It’s easy to be hard on yourself for making stupid mistakes, but almost all of us do them at some point or another. It’s just part of being human.
You will heal just fine. I know you’ve probably heard this, but ibuprofen (aka Advil) does wonders for the pain. Drink lots of water, keep the burn as clean as humanly possible and covered up. If you can get to a convenience store and buy some ice, wrapping ice in a cloth and putting that on it will feel so good, even a couple days later.
Also, as an RN friend put it when I burned myself: It’s a good thing you can feel it. If you burn yourself and *can’t* feel it, you’ve burned yourself bad enough to do permanent damage. The pain means you’re healing.
Adam October 23, 2009 at 3:11 pm
I can relate completely to the frustration one feels after a mistake with these type of results. I had a hand injury, cutting off 1/4 of an inch off of a finger. I remember the most difficult for me, even more than the immense pain, was the feeling of self proclaimed stupidity. Every time I look at my little stubbin these days I am reminded of the value of self-forgiveness and gentleness.
These are our pocessions, the lessons and wisdom we integrate from seeming “mistakes.”
You are a wise man, therefor I figure you’ve had plenty of mistakes to reference. Know that Julia and I are thinking of you and sending copious amounts of love.
Thank you again for your vulnerability and transparency throughout this journey. You help us all to learn from your honesty.
VeloHobo October 23, 2009 at 3:24 pm
Sorry to hear about the injury, I know from experience that sickness and injury on the road seems to feel worse than safe and sound at home.
Good thinking sending a picture and getting medical advice, wouldn’t it be nice if there were some not for profit service available to all travelers to do something similar?
Be well, Jack
Paul October 23, 2009 at 4:51 pm
Sorry to hear about your hand. Hold your head high and persevere. What you and Laura are doing is awesome and inspiring. I have been following your journey every pedal stroke and each day eagerly check to see if there are any new posts. Through your pics and words I’ve experienced your high points and now, unfortunately your low. They are all part of the ride and I’m glad you’re taking us all along. Thanks!!
Chandra October 23, 2009 at 8:23 pm
feel better soon. sending some healin’ vibes ur way!
Jeff October 23, 2009 at 9:52 pm
Hang in there. One thing I have learned over the years of getting hurt… chicks dig scars…. Oh, and you had better come up with a better story, like you had to defend Laura from a man eating bear or a crazy motorcycle gang or something along those lines….
Feel better. Ride safe.
Jeff October 23, 2009 at 10:07 pm
Russ – What a drag. I hope your hand heals quickly. On the bright side, we’re having beautiful weather in the Sacto region so enjoy it while you’re here.
Clara October 23, 2009 at 11:03 pm
…from the sound of some of these comments… I think we all know someone or have made a similar mistake at some point. A customer set my hair on fire once… accidentally of course… but unnerving nonetheless.
Hope you get to feeling better soon…
Love your blog… safe and happy travels to you both!
Aaron October 23, 2009 at 11:13 pm
Get well soon Russ! Hang in there.
Jenny Stockdale October 23, 2009 at 11:47 pm
This past summer my mom torched her eyebrows off (and burned her hands pretty badly) because she lit a pile of brush weeds on fire with a line of gasoline and a match. And she was home.
I come from good stock.
(I hope you’re laughing right now).
I think you shouldn’t be so hard on yourself for making stupid mistakes.
And, though your mistakes may be your only true possessions, the scars they leave behind make the best stories!
(I think that guy just got tired of carving into the food box and left the last part off).
Really, what will the folks sitting at their desk jobs have to say?
“Man, I got this one from the copy machine…”
“Oh yeah, check out this water cooler blood blister!”
Get my point?
Your mistakes stem from the amazing things you’re doing.Don’t forget that!
Sure do miss you guys down here.
Chris Cavs October 24, 2009 at 6:50 am
I”m glad you’re relatively ok Russ. Thankfully you had the presence of mind to stamp it out & get water on it. This is a good lesson for every traveler.
Kelly October 24, 2009 at 8:44 am
I’m sorry you were hurt. Thank you though, for this post. It was an interesting read. We all make mistakes, and often our mistakes tell us a lot about our character – our ability to move on, our humility, and the way we likely treat one another.
I hope you are feeling better soon!
Amy October 24, 2009 at 12:14 pm
Russ, take it easy on your hand (and yourself) for a bit. Relax and enjoy what is around you. Accidents can happen to a person whether they live in a castle, a house, or a tent. Most important is that you have Laura, and are loved by many.
p.s. (noxema or generic non-greasy cream is next best to Rx Silvadine cream. it moisturizes the burn)
William Seville October 24, 2009 at 11:21 pm
I’ve had the oh-that-was-stupid/how-do-I-get-to-hospital moment a few times.
It _always_ happens when you are fatigued, doing something that should be rote, _usually_ with some minor change causing an unthinking, stupid response. (one of mine involved an axe and my fingers 🙁 )
Don’t beat yourself up over this; heal quickly and remember to STOP & rethink when situations change.
Rich October 25, 2009 at 6:52 pm
Russ dude, that was dumb. There I said it. But most of us have done some dumb things and learn from it. That makes us the better for it. Those who don’t well… remain dumb. Get well. Get riding.
Marsha October 25, 2009 at 6:59 pm
Wow, that’s really scary – I hope your hand heals OK. It’ll be tough on the rest of your body compensating for not being able to use the hand much just now.
I’m glad you have Laura with you! It would have been so much more depressing to try to deal with this alone.
curtis corlew October 25, 2009 at 7:32 pm
OH, man, I’m glad it wasn’t worse. You say you’re still on teh road. Does that mean riding? I hope you are staying away from anything that requires serious braking. Be smart with your recovery.
Eddie October 26, 2009 at 6:59 am
Hey man, you dont know me but I grew up in Sacramento and have about a million friends and family there if you need to take a week off the bike for the hand and all. No charge, us tourists gotta stick together! I hope you recover quickly and get back on the road!
Clancy October 26, 2009 at 9:38 am
Burns especially on the hand suck. I had a rookie mistake when sailing up in the San Juans. I wasn’t wearing gloves and the wind caught the spinnaker as I was wrapping the rope around the winch. The rope whipped through my hand so fast. The burns where the worst.
As for the invisibility of alcohol problem. Try adding some salt to your bottle or mix in some Isopropal Alcohol. Read more down in the FAQ’s about alcohol types. http://bit.ly/sZAZk
Daniel Milnor October 26, 2009 at 7:25 pm
Geez, sorry to hear that. Chicks dig guys with scars? Good luck, keep going.
Porter Hall October 27, 2009 at 12:29 pm
Just wanted to say I’m a big fan of the blog and I’m sorry about your accident. I’m rooting for you both.
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Russ, I don’t know if it will make you feel any better, but a friend of mine did exactly the same thing years ago in my kitchen making a sauce for crepes of all things. The fire traveled over his hand and up his arm before we could get him under the sink and he had the same surrealistic instant of just standing there and watching it, obviously disbelieving what he was seeing.
The most important things are that you were not hurt worse, you had a source of medical information, and you were not alone. Hell of a way to learn a lesson, but I find that life has the nastiest way of doing that. On the upswing, you’ll never do it again. We all have scars earned that way. Try not to be hard on yourself and just let your hand heal.
Those of us reading having the utmost respect and admiration for the sense of adventure at the heart of your journey.