You open your eyes. Disoriented. Dirty. Details are sharp but nonsensical. Rising dust motes. The tick of a spinning freewheel. A dog with five white whiskers licking your arm. The smell of Christmas trees.
Then you hear her voice. The Crash Samaritan. Her voice is low and calm, rich with the sort of authority that’s built from experience and doesn’t need to assert itself. “Take a minute.” Her voice comes close, but not too close. Close enough so you feel the competence. A minute later you also feel her hands untangling legs and branches and bike, helping you off the trail.
As your world comes back, half a bubble off level, her voice adjusts with you, telling you what you need to know. “You scraped yourself good. I’ve got your bike. Take the time you need.” Your inclination is to jump up, dust off, and shout “I’m fine, I’m fine,” but her voice keeps you sober. She lets you make a slow assessment, watching but not staring. Your legs are a bit bloody but both work fine. Your shoulder twinges, you don’t want to lift your arm, but all ten fingers wiggle. Your neck and head feel okay.
When you decide you can ride out under your own power, albeit one-handedly, she rides with you, slowly, on easy service roads. She knows the way. You’ve never been so glad to see your car, but you’re not sure you can drive. Or should. “Want me to call somebody?” You do. She does. You hear her voice explaining simply and calmly what happened.
She hands you a towel for your face and together you talk through the best way to sling your arm. From the cooler in the back of her pickup she pulls a pair of beers. You wait for your ride on the tailgate in silence. The adrenaline is fading and your shoulder and chest start to burn.
“I have drugs if you want them.” You do. She builds a cairn of ibuprofen in your palm and passes you your water bottle.
“Crashes suck, but you’re going to be okay.” It’s exactly what you had been thinking.
Veteran readers and riders might have guessed the truth already; there is no Crash Samaritan. I know a handful of riders who possess most of these disaster-virtues, but not this exact alchemy. The aid outlined in this scenario comes from talking to people like you about how best to help fellow cyclists gracefully recover from the confused humiliation of a wreck.
In other words, how can we be Crash Samaritans?
Do: Stay calm. Offer help. Good Samaritan laws, designed to encourage and protect volunteers who assist in emergencies, exist in even the most litigious places on earth. It’s fine to “offer help within the limits of training,” which makes me pretty sure that a combination of beer and ibuprofen falls under the “general duty to render aid.” And do get training in basic backcountry first aid, especially concussion protocols.
Don’t: Panic. Patronize. Loudly express dismay. Circle and stare. Dismiss injuries with platitudes like “Shake it off” or “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Don’t swarm with questions like WTF? What did you do? How bad are you hurt? Questions later, not while the bells are still ringing.
Striking a balance between giving space and being helpful can be difficult, because every crash has its own combination of variables, most of them saturated in adrenaline. I sometimes forget that adrenaline is an insanely powerful drug, and that the guy in the dirt mumbling “I’m fine, I’m fine” might be deluded. Or he might actually be fine. Pain rips us into another reality and it takes time to orient.
The Samaritan who found me after my worst wreck understood this. The journey began on a rainy, rural, predawn commute, a familiar lonely road in late October. Then I found myself sitting on the shoulder, patting the gravel with one hand and staring into a black forest. I wasn’t sure where I was or why. There was a man kneeling beside me. I felt rather than saw him. He held his palm on my back, and through that simple human touch I knew his presence was utterly good. Something bad must’ve happened, but things would be okay because he was there.
Much like the biblical parable, this man had seen my broken body (& bike) by the wayside and interrupted his journey to help. He answered my confused questions in plain language and stayed with me on that dark country road, hand on my back, until the ambulance arrived.
Years later, I’m still not sure what happened. I still don’t know who he was. But I’m grateful for that Samaritan, who delivered the right sort of help in the right sort of way. May we all possess that grace.