The Hitchhiker

By John Urban

You know, some days, I get down. Probably from too much of nothing.
The greater power then might just arrange for me to see how well off I actually am…

Driving back from Ottawa one morning, there was a hitchhiker who looked decent and non-threatening, so I picked him up.

We got to talking, and I asked him if his missing ring finger on his right hand was from a construction accident. He said no, and then explained what had happened, and how his life had changed completely from that moment.

He said he was the top Canadian skier in 1986, World Cup and Olympics gold medal grade, and he was training, teaching, and working at Whistler, B. C. In April of that year he was operating a large Caterpillar tractor, grading the snow on the slopes of that big mountain.

With the machine in neutral, stationary, he reached across to the other side, but his foot slipped, and he fell onto the gearshifts, putting the machine in motion. He also slipped out, and under the track, crushing the whole right side, including his face, and living to tell the tale only because the snow underneath was soft and yielding. Something was moving at 2500 rpm…I didn’t quite get the mechanical picture he tried to describe, but he got chewed up by the machine on his right side.

He was holding onto a door with his left hand, and managed to pull himself up into the moving dozer, but 4 fingers of his right hand were cut off. He stopped the machine, got out and retrieved his fingers, broken pelvis and crushed leg and face and all. He said he wasn’t feeling pain. I asked him if he saw his life flash before his eyes. He said no, not exactly. But he did see the faces of all the people he loved, that he would have wanted to say goodbye to.

He made a tourniquet and slowed down his blood loss, and managed to drive the machine 3 km downhill to a ranger station, where he was soon airlifted to a hospital. His Olympic career was finished, but they did manage to save 3 out of 4 of his fingers, plus his hitchhiking thumb, and after 60 operations he looks pretty good. He still skis, but not competitively.

He never finished high school, but he’s taking those courses now, in his mid 40’s. He doesn’t have a vehicle any more, and manages to network his transportation one way, into Ottawa. But coming back from his school course, he usually needs to hitchhike.

I took him as far as I was going, and told him it was nice talking to him.