Environmental consultant Josh Hancock has always tried to foster an attitude of taking life as it comes. His positive outlook was put to the test four years ago when he injured his spinal cord at T12 while ice climbing near Source Lake in the Washington Cascades.
Soon after his injury, Hancock, living in Seattle at the time, planned a trip to the Western United States that turned into a two-year-long odyssey. To help quell his initial fears about travelling independently post-injury, he mastered important basics like transferring into his manual chair from the ground and getting in and out of his minivan. But he was unprepared for the emotions that washed over him when he finally set out.
“I felt this wave of both fear and excitement,” says Hancock. “I felt so exposed — it was like climbing. I was in the world again. I was thinking, what if my car breaks down, or if I get a flat tire, what would I do? And I didn’t have any of those answers.”
Allowing this mixture of emotions to fuel him, he packed his van for a month-long trip starting with the No Barriers Summit in Park City, Utah, where he got his first taste of adaptive sports.
“It was a large gathering of really interesting people,” he says. “This woman said, ‘Josh, have you ever wanted to go down the Grand Canyon?’ And I was like, ‘Fuck yes! I mean yes, I want to be on that trip, put my name down.’ She said it was a year and half away, and I said ‘I don’t care, put my name down.’”
Hancock says making a habit out of saying yes to life’s challenges develops mental pathways in the same way that repetitive exercises strengthen muscle memory. Just as bad experiences distort your perception of the world toward the negative, good ones build confidence, and that confidence is compounded with every success.
Once the summit finished, he made his way up to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for two and a half weeks. While there, he was forced to confront his disability head-on. “I was alternating between new friends introducing me to fun things like whitewater kayaking, and being in my van for two or three days, lying there naked and pissing all over myself from bladder spasms, just feeling like, what is all this?”
Hancock credits what he calls mental jujitsu for his ability to deal with these ups and downs. “I try to remember that consciousness is a gift. I’m in chronic pain all day, every day,” he says. “There is a saying that even the opportunity to feel pain is a privilege.”
As 2015 drew to a close, he made his way back up to Seattle. The lease on his apartment was coming to an end, and he could feel the itch — it was time to make a change. “I didn’t really know where I wanted to live, but Seattle was not working for me in many, many ways,” says Hancock, who is originally from Fairpoint, New York.
That’s when he decided to buy a Sprinter van, outfit it as a camper and make it his new home.
Hancock spent most of 2016 zigzagging across the western states, chasing cool opportunities that seemed to come one after another. He traveled through Oregon, Wyoming, Colorado and California. He learned to monoski, spent some time learning about adaptive surfing in Southern California, embarked on a 10-day trip on the Salmon River in Idaho, and topped it all off with mountain biking in Colorado. The fun came to an abrupt halt in December when an accident suddenly left him homeless and vanless at the same time. “I felt so helpless and depressed, just crushed,” he says.
Hancock eventually found a suitable place to live that was not quite ready for him to move into, leaving him a few weeks to kill. Instead of wallowing in his misfortune, he had a realization. “If I’m paying for rental cars and hotels and all that,” he remembers thinking, “why not travel?” He sent out a message to friends to see who might be free for an impromptu trip and four days later wound up in Colombia, South America, on yet another adventure. “We had a magical time,” he says.
Image credit: Photo by Author