Christopher Reeve guided his horse at the Commonwealth Park Equestrian Center in Culpeper, Virginia. He was in the middle of an event sponsored by the Commonwealth Dressage and Combined Training Association. It was an equestrian event much like many others throughout the United States where amateurs and professionals compete in disciplines like:
- Dressage, where a horse’s obedience and precise movements are judged through a series of trots, canters, half-passes, piaffes and passages. (Think ballroom dancing with horses.)
- Reining, where the skills of a ranch horse are demonstrated through a series of trots, spins, circles, charges, changes and abrupt stops. (Think square dancing.)
- Vaulting, where individuals, pairs or teams perform static and dynamic moves on a cantering, circling horse. (Think gymnastics on a moving pommel horse.)
- Endurance, a marathon except the horse travels four times as far and carries someone on its back.
- Jumping, where a horse not only shows its skill but also its composure through a series of leaps over obstacles ranging from vertical, horizontal and diagonal bars to open water, banks, walls and mounds.
These events were once skills required in a horse for battle, ranching, travel or transportation. Even jumping came from a need for noblemen to have horses that could leap over fences while in pursuit of a fox.
Jumping is what Reeve was currently negotiating with his horse, Eastern Express.
At this point in his life, the actor was an accomplished pilot, sailor and scuba diver. He recently took up horse riding and started competing in equestrian events. He was currently in the second of three trial events, moving towards the third of eighteen jumps, a vertical triple bar not more than 3 ½ tall, a “training jump” his horse could easily handle. What caused the horse to refuse the jump nobody will ever know, but it abruptly stopped and sent Reeve over its neck.
Reeve was caught by surprise and unable to break free from the reins. So instead of sailing over the bars and landing in the grass, the man who made a name for himself by playing a flying superhero was violently spiked into the ground. It didn’t matter that he was wearing a helmet and protective vest. The weight of his 6’ 4”, 215 pound frame fractured his top 2 vertebrae and severed his spinal cord. Instantly, his brain was separated from the rest of his body. Surely, he would have died if it wasn’t for a doctor who saw what happened and quickly rendered aid.
What is devastating about the accident is how it happened. Reeve was a consummate professional in everything he did. He put in the time. He knew his horse. He followed the rules. Why did it all go wrong?
News of Reeve’s accident that summer felt like a reverberating wave for what happened to me a few days before.
I completed a long bike ride around the city and was coasting along the east side of Lake Bde Maka Ska fka Calhoun. I kept a leisurely pace, enjoying the setting sun, gazing onto the lake until everything came to an abrupt halt.
I looked back and saw my front tire stuck in a pothole.
Fortunately, I wasn’t going very fast. Unfortunately, my back tire was rising above me.
As I went over my handlebars, I put my right hand on the asphalt and propped myself with an impromptu handstand. It may have looked awkward but it gave me enough time to rotate my body before landing hard on my back.
The fall knocked the ever-living wind out of me. I sustained a nasty scrape. The scar remains to this day. It’s on my lower back, moon-shaped, the size of a penny, a small memento letting me know that even in the calmest of moments, disaster can spring forth…
As I walked up the 10th fairway, I saw my golf ball on the cart path. I didn’t have a feasible shot so I reached down, but instead of grabbing the ball, I placed my hand on the path.
It had been two months since a bike accident sent me to the emergency room. After talking to the park police and probing my memory, I have a slight idea what may have happened.
I remember it was a hot and muggy evening. I don’t know why I wanted to go outside other than I was itching for a ride.
As I pulled my bike out of the cool basement, I knew the air would be stifling so I made a deal: one trip around Lake Harriet and back home. It would be quick, just enough to stretch the legs.
That didn’t happen. This is what I know:
7:30 went for a bike ride.
7:49 paramedics responded to my crash.
8:23 entered into the hospital database.
One hour, three entries, the rest I can only surmise.
My short term memory, already suspect before I jumped on my bike, was knocked off line for a good half hour. Basically, I don’t remember what happened. I do know the bike ride did not have my full attention as I turned from Lake Harriet and onto the path to take me to Bde Maka Ska.
Part of me wondered if I should turn back. The other part thought I should continue for I was feeling good and moving into higher gears.
The report stated the park police found me unconscious on the bike path near the intersection at Washburn Avenue and the Parkway.
I was baffled.
I never really liked biking around Lake Bde Maka Ska. Even on a good day the trails are littered with too many people clamoring for too little space.
I started to think I probably moved off the bike path to pass some inline skaters. I always did. With arms flailing and legs splaying, a group of inline skaters move like a stand of hurried flamingos. Over the years I made a practice to give them a wide berth by moving off the bike path and then back on.
Taking my parents to the scene of the crime weeks later, I saw how the heavy summer rains not only spread thick weeds along the path, but behind those weeds, were significant amounts of eroded soil. If I would have negotiated my bike back onto this part of the trail my tires would have been kicked out from under me. Maybe that’s why there were no abrasions on my palms. Did my hands even leave the handlebars?
“I think I found the spot,” My dad said, crouching and pushing aside a sprawling weed.
My mom and I walked over and saw the deep black-rubber mark on four inches of exposed curb.
This is a story I tell myself. Putting my hand on the cart path made it feel real. I stretched my fingers over the coarse asphalt. Cold and impersonal, it was not accommodating to my greeting. My thin fingers may as well have been broken twigs; my glancing face, a bouncing golf ball.
A few days before a gentleman by the name of John Caouette was in town visiting family. An avid jogger he had an itch to take an evening run and asked his mother to drop him off by the Chain of Lakes. Eventually, he made his way to the west side of Cedar Lake and ran up the east stairwell of the parkway bridge. He then dashed to the other side and jumped over a low concrete barrier.
What John thought was a divider between the road and the sidewalk was actually a demarcation between the road and the west stairwell,
The misunderstanding sent Caouette into a 25-foot fall.
I couldn’t help think how similar Caouette and I were when it came to our accidents. We both were around the same age. We both had an itch to get out and zip around the Chain of Lakes. We both probably had too many thoughts going through our minds. We both were moving west into a setting sun and were blinded to what was really there. But where I would wake up in an emergency room, Caouette would leave behind a wife and two children.
I removed my hand from the cart path and picked up the golf ball.
When I was younger, falling was a lark, a laugh, a lesson to be learned. As I grew older, I no longer looked forward to my tumbles, but I still felt a sense of control. Putting my hand on the cart path, I came to realize I was never in control. I never thought I could fall on my face for I never envisioned it. But you can never negotiate a life on your own terms. For John, life came to an end at the bottom of a stairwell. For me, I was given a chance to get up, move on and keep falling.