- Chris Jones, ESPN Senior Writer
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I CAN REMEMBER the first time I met Kyle Lehman. He wasn't even supposed to be in my class for that blessed semester I taught at the University of Montana, but I suddenly had an extra spot, and I looked at the next name on the sign-up list. That name was Kyle's, and I called him into my office. In came this classic mountain kid with a flannel shirt and a patchy beard. He said all the right things, about wanting to be a good writer, about caring. He smiled a lot too. He had perfect teeth. That's a strange thing to remember about somebody you met nearly three years ago, but when I think about Kyle, I think about his perfect teeth shining through his patchy beard.
He was a terrific student, one of my favorites, even though we weren't supposed to have those. The last time I heard from him, he sent me an unpublished story he'd written about riding his bike, which he loved to do; Kyle loved to do a lot of things, so long as they took place outside. The story started with Kyle just a boy, riding an old Schwinn he'd found in his grandfather's barn. Then it flashed forward to the present, to Kyle riding south out of Missoula, hoping to find that barn again, even though he wasn't sure exactly where it was: "I leave at six in the evening for the 100-mile ride without a map or directions," he wrote, "just the anxious notion that memory alone will deliver me." Not many young men would do that or write like that about it. When his story was printed in Bicycle Times, I was overjoyed.
Then in mid-April, I got an email from a former colleague in Missoula. The subject line was "Did you have Kyle Lehman?" and my heart skipped a beat. "Bad news about him."
Kyle, along with three friends, had embarked on a cross-country bike ride last fall. They pedaled their way from his home outside Portland, Ore., down the California coast, across the southern states and into Florida. They enjoyed the kindness of many strangers. They slept in a chapel, in a funeral home, in fields, under desert stars. When they finally arrived in St. Augustine last December, they peeled off their reeking clothes and ran like victors into the ocean. The next morning, one of the four friends, Patrick Colleran, headed north for his flight home from Jacksonville. Kyle and the two other riders were flying out of Miami, and they headed south. They had pushed themselves across 4,700 miles and had just 300 more to go.
A car driven by a 71-year-old man swung into the group. Although Kyle was the lead rider, as he so often was, he was the only one hit. He was wearing a helmet, but he still suffered a massive brain injury. At first, he wasn't expected to survive, but by the tail end of that trip, Kyle, still just 24, was the strongest he'd ever been. Eventually, he pulled through, lifted out of his
medically induced coma after several weeks. He was then flown to Denver, where he has begun a long rehabilitation. He is now breathing on his own; he has just begun talking again; he can look at photographs and recognize himself, his family and friends. Each day there is progress, but some things are still missing. "They have to tell him every day what happened to him," Patrick says. Kyle can't walk yet, his muscles coiled into spasm, but when his therapists put his feet into the pedals of a stationary bike, his legs start turning as though delivered by memory alone.
I've spent the past few days swearing in empty rooms and trying to find a reason that isn't there: The same unknowable forces that brought Kyle into my life brought that wayward car into his. I can't help remembering that smiling kid with the perfect teeth and all those clichés about life and how to live it, those words that we nod at but don't really hear. But sometimes the world just conspires against us, and all we can do is become conspirators in return. We can only unfold our maps and get out our compasses and decide where we want to go and imagine how happy we'll be when we get there, back to that old barn, swimming in that distant ocean.
If you'd like to contribute to the cost of Kyle Lehman's continued recovery, please visit helpHOPElive.org and search for Kyle.