I have always been an active person. I get bored easily—I’m happiest when I have a dozen things going on at the same time. I think fast, talk fast and enjoy and excel at breakneck speed. Most of the time I didn’t stop and smell the roses because I just might miss something right around the next curve. All of that changed 18 years ago when I was forced to slow down, readjust and redefine my life.
In the summer of 1999, I attended a summer camp at a working ranch outside of Cody, Wyo. The other campers were young women from across the country who, like me, were looking for an adventure not found in our home states. During our time on the ranch, we had daily responsibilities to take care of the animals along with various other chores such as staining fencing, bailing hay and cutting firewood. Surrounded by the beautiful mountains and fresh air, it certainly didn’t feel like work and I was in my element.
This was not my first trip to Wyoming. In the early ‘90s, my parents decided to load our family in the minivan and embark from Indiana on the typical western road trip. We hit all the tourist stops along the way, including Mt. Rushmore, Wall Drug and the Corn Palace. I was ecstatic—not about the trip, but the destination. The Wyoming of my dreams was a paradise of breathtaking vistas, abundant wildlife, unmatched outdoor adventures and cute cowboys. It didn’t disappoint. The moment we passed over the state border and entered the Equality State, I felt something significant shift inside me. Even as a teenager, I knew that Wyoming would always be a special place. I was home.
Based off that first introduction to the West, I was eager to find another excuse to continue my love affair with the mountains, and the summer camp for girls fulfilled that desire. While I didn’t mind the manual labor required to keep the ranch functioning, I was most looking forward to the backwoods backpack trip scheduled for the last week of camp.
I woke up on Monday, Aug. 2, 1999, determined to finish my chores in plenty of time to pack for the trip. I bypassed the saddle horses in lieu of the steers we kept in the lower corrals and climbed up the wooden rungs of the hay rack in order to reach the bales stacked above us. I used my pocket knife to cut the twine encasing the hay and grabbed a pitchfork to drop feed to the cattle below me. As I opened another square of hay, a flake fell off to the side. I reached for it with the pitchfork, but as I leaned over, I lost my balance and started to fall. My last thought was to throw the pitchfork, but I hit my head and everything went dark.
When I became conscious a few minutes later, I attempted to get up off of the ground. When my legs wouldn’t cooperate, I thought maybe a bale of hay had fallen on me or one of the steers had gotten out, impeding my ability to rise. That’s when I noticed the pitchfork. I had landed on the wooden handle, making a giant cross with the implement and my broken body.
I began to scream for help, and from that moment on my memories are a blur. I was taken by ambulance to a local hospital before being flown by helicopter to a regional trauma center in Montana. My parents got the phone call that no parent should ever receive, and came to me as quickly as possible. The surgeons spent the first five days attempting to put me back together, and by the end of the second surgery they told me I would most likely never walk again. I had suffered a blowout fracture of my T-12 vertebrae and a spinal cord injury that had caused paralysis from the waist down.
When the therapists brought a wheelchair into my hospital room for the first time, one thought kept burning through my brain. People in wheelchairs do not get to enjoy outdoor adventures. I believed, as many others do, that nature was now a scary, inaccessible place. I assumed that I would be confined to the indoors and all of my dreams and goals would have to be silenced and discarded.
"[Hunting] provided me the chance to get back outdoors and challenge myself in new ways. ... I was proud to join the ranks of individuals who do more for wildlife than any other group in the world."Fortunately, I have never been more wrong. Over the next few years, with the support of my family and friends, I started the long journey toward redefining my life. While it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, the pain brought great reward. I learned the difficult lessons of grieving losses in order to move on to new and unexpected dreams, of being brave enough to wheel outside of my comfort zone in order to be given the chance to find new adventures. I opened my heart to a young man who just happened to live in Wyoming. After we were married in 2006, the decision to move west was an easy one. I was headed home to the mountains, but the fear crept back into my heart. You used to love Wyoming, it would say, but now you are in a wheelchair. Things will never be the same.
I ignored the fear and looked for opportunities to try new things, activities I had never even experienced as an able-bodied person. My husband, Russ, had been born and raised in Wyoming, and hunting was a way of life for him and his family. I had never been around firearms and had no experience with hunting, so when the opportunity was offered, I was hesitant. I loved animals and didn’t think I could actually shoot one. I had a bad experience with a rifle when Russ and I were dating, so I wasn’t looking forward to using one again.
I realized how much I needed to learn about firearms and hunting and how completely disconnected from my food I was. I constantly preached to others about being brave and not letting their disability hold them back, so I swallowed my own medicine and took a chance. I headed out with a borrowed crossbow and a mule deer license to see what this hunting thing was all about in the fall of 2009 and I’ve never looked back.
I fell in love with hunting for many reasons. It provided me the chance to get back outdoors and challenge myself in new ways. I loved the feeling I had as a wife and new mother—my daughter Addison was born in 2010—to know that I was providing my family with the most lean, organic and affordable meat possible. As I discovered more about wildlife conservation and habitat management, I was proud to join the ranks of individuals who do more for wildlife than any other group in the world. But most importantly, I found healing in the outdoors that I never experienced elsewhere and I realized that I could help others living with a disability find that healing as well.
Over the last several years, I’ve dedicated my time and energy to being a motivational speaker, advocate and liaison between the disability community and the outdoor industry. I’ve pushed myself to learn and grow in ways I never knew possible and I’ve been blessed to work with amazing people and companies along the way. When asked to join the NRA Disabled Shooting Sports Committee in 2016, my journey seemed to come full circle. To have the opportunity to work toward helping more people with disabilities engage in shooting sports is a dream come true—whether through hunting, competitive or recreational shooting or self-defense.
When I talk about my accident 18 years ago, it’s easy to dwell on what I lost that day. Instead, I choose to focus on what I gained: a new perspective on life, another chance to slow down and enjoy new adventures, and the joy in seeing others find their own redefined path into the outdoors. Maybe it wasn’t such an accident after all.