Drawing of Gavin Gibson
Illustration: Claire Adell

Journey Back to Good

How snowboarding helped Gavin Gibson come back to life

Editor's Note: I met Gavin Gibson back in 2012 on a press trip to Chile. Gavin, much like myself, was a snow media junkie who loved all the perks and travel of the pros, with less responsibility and talent needed. Gavin was a badass skier, but chose the path of media to utilize his degree in creative writing, and pursue a career slightly more stable than one built on fickle sponsors. Months later, we worked at TGR together and had a damn good time ‘creating content’. Then, on November 27, 2016, Gavin was severely injured. A speeding F-150 truck barreled into his beater car, inevitably smashing Gavin. Throughout the next pages, you’ll get a glimpse into Gavin’s mind and how his brain now processes life with a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). He opens up about struggles and successes, and how snowboarding has helped him re-enter the world, and get back to good. We’re presenting his words the way he wrote them. Drop into his mind. - Heather Hendricks

“Everything is going just like it should be.”

A grin appears on my face as I merge with traffic. The eye, guiding everything but my steering, opens suddenly. The grin happens just after a smile, in response to the look of straight fear in the eyes of the pedestrian I wordlessly comfort while simultaneously skating off the sidewalk and merging with traffic just like I used to do on my bike.

The smile, a very cheesy one, was just there to say that “everything is going just like it should be.”

I learned last summer that people don’t know how to handle situations until I do. My neuropsychologist tells me there’s a reason babies evolved to smile quickly. Learning to recognize that other people’s experience with me might only begin the moments they first see me, and how I potentially physically appear to an onlooker has been one thing, the following struggle to transform myself to be mostly pleasant, has been the greatest struggle of my life.

Nobody understands me when I speak—the inevitably prolix circumlocution glazes thicker than Krispy Kreme—but if I smile like I mean it, even for just a moment, everybody relaxes. I smile because there’s a tight squeeze ahead, but if I roll my weight onto my front foot, easing my toes just a little and transfer quickly to the heel of my next, I’ll make this turn, and the pedestrian won’t miss a step. Smooth. Right onto the street and into the bike lane.

On a bike, it would have been a normal move. I would have been ‘normal’ at one point in my life, but at this point I’m easing out of an unplanned direct connection between my car and an F-150, which dented my driver’s side door in two-and-half feet, left my pelvis and lower spine and ribs crushed, and my head with a category IV rancho Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). I spent the next few days in a coma, the next few weeks in the hospital, and the next couple months on a fentanyl patch. Nobody knew what to do with me, and the only person that would stand up to me when I was trying to hitchhike home from the hospital in my wheelchair was my now wife, Claire.

Drawing of skateboarder
Illustration: Claire Adell

Biking used to be my life. It was that thing I could rely on when I didn’t have anything else. My way of exploring the world I thought—at least in the snowless months. But then I went on what was supposed to be a casual bike tour with my high school biking friend, Justin, and it nearly ended our friendship in moments when I let my sudden, inexplicable anxiety get the best of me.

That’s just biking, I told myself. We’d been through similar struggles when we were kids, only I thought I knew more now. I’ve never lived in a city where I’ve been too scared to ride bikes, but for the first time I understood the appeal. Maybe Justin was just too evolved to city life, and since bike rides have always required some sort of suck, I went home and started skateboarding instead. Biking is just too much stress.

If that seems like a sudden switch, it’s important to rewind a year from that point and look at myself.

My journal reads: Seeing the world through the eyes of a six-year-old, while remembering most of the twenty-nine years before, would be a great hipster day-camp campaign promise. Because the world is funny, and because I wasn’t ready to be called a hipster yet, that’s exactly what I got to do. I’d rank head injuries right next to apartment bathroom ayahuasca encampments in terms of likelihood of walking away. Somehow, I managed to miss the razor blades… and the Clorox. And the Drain-O and the cough medicine bottles.

The first thing any child will admit is that they’re ‘grown-up’ enough, just like some drunks will say they are ‘okay’ to drive.

Everything is going just like it should be.

Losing our freedoms after we have them is terrifying. For most of us, growing up is a series of checklists. Graduate elementary, middle, and high school. Get a job. If you have kids, it’s even more adult, because things depend on you. Don’t be a burden on society. We do these things so that we can have freedoms, mostly in the form of personal transportation and expenses. Break any of those rules, and being an adult never becomes an option in the eyes of all participating.

The summer before turning 30, a PA’s note declaring I was fit for work less than four months after partially severing my corpus callosum and damaging my frontal lobe in a twisting fashion, was all of the evidence I needed to be ‘good as new.’

Sure, there were red flags—I’d have total meltdowns every time I tried to park my car, by making complete laps around a block instead of trying to negotiate a 3-point turn using a driveway. The thought of blocking the road for even a second was too much to handle, but hey, parking in town sucks. When I did try and ride a bike on the BMX track at slow speeds, none of the feelings matched my vision. On a skateboard, I could still have fun riding slow enough to adapt to the world around me. So, that second summer, I committed to skateboarding.

Growing up I never learned how to push the right way. It took miles alone on a bike path to master the rhythm. Then to remember that I had to twist my feet a little bit. And then to be able to reposition them without stopping. But every foot uphill, there was one down, and in Marquette, Michigan there are miles of downhill bike paths through the quiet woods.

One day I wandered into a skatepark and bravery led to the magic of a front side turn all of twenty-four inches up on a quarter pipe. My racing heart released a smile. I hadn’t felt g-forces like that in, well, I couldn’t remember. Kick turning on a quarter pipe meant I could kick turn in the driveway. I started leaving the bike path and skating through the quiet neighborhood streets during the day. If a car came, or I got going too fast, I learned to just cut back into a driveway and suspend my speed sideways for a second.

I felt like such a rebel. Skateboarding the streets knowing that I could fall at any moment. Making turns made my body move in a way that stretched me on the inside. Loose and limber, I started to stress a little less. But only a little.

People don’t want to see a grown man skateboarding awkwardly. If you look at it from the perspective of somebody who doesn’t understand that in this country we’re free to do what we want— skateboards are fucking dangerous and super unnecessary.

Make no mistake, skateboards are dangerous and unnecessary, but so is writing. At the time I could only equate thoughts to sporadic feelings, and writing down my feelings only made people upset. I had access to the vocabulary of a man with a degree in creative writing, and none of the meaning. My brain treated every situation individually, not ever factoring the lead up or fall out.

Entering any situation without some level of protection is just asking for trouble. In life, our experiences become our armor. At this point in life, I’ve got armor on, but randomly. I don’t know who or what to attack and so I flail, just as I did when I started skateboarding.

Runs without mistakes are the highlight of skating. This takes timing. Sometimes it’s just the skater, and in the neighborhoods of Marquette during the day, it can be the occasional car. At first I stepped off my board every time I saw a car, or a light. But after a couple of months, I learned that if I use the environment around the street, I can get out of the way without stopping.

Slowly, cars became chances to think creatively while rolling in a whole new way. At less than 10 MPH through the neighborhood, I stopped worrying about how people will handle me, and start handling them.

The frowns of concerned passers-by start to turn up just because I’m becoming less of a liability.

My legs fall asleep every afternoon. My back aches, and I’m still not really coordinated, but I feel a general sense of contentment, despite the difficulties. I even discovered surf-skate trucks, and all of the sudden I can pump for speed without taking my feet off my board. I skate every day for almost six months, from cruising down the bike path to time spent in the skate park. Then winter comes way quicker than anybody was ready for. A summer of skateboard confidence and neuromuscular control is magnified on the surf-style snowboards I’ve been making for a couple of years.

Two years after my accident, my insurance case manager recommended that I get a functional capacity evaluation after I complain of my legs falling asleep, my awful temper, and a heightened level of anxiety.

Other than my mother and girlfriend, anybody close to me thinks I’m just being a loser. I don’t know how to talk about anything else to the friends I’ve made in other places. After a professional career spent dodging student loan collections, nobody even has my phone number.

My functional capacity evaluation rules that I have some abdominal weakness and should go to physical therapy. My doctor recommends the first MRI of my lower back. It’s the first time I smile at a Dr’s office, not on opiate medication in two years. Finally. Something.

Doctor’s appointments. Spread out all over the state. I keep trying and failing to make snow surf boards in the days between appointments. The MRI reveals damage to my sacrum, l5, and l4, as well as the disks between and above. A vision test reveals that I’ve been compensating for double vision. There’s a blind spot I was tested for, but never told about (maybe the optometrist who passed my eye test with my hooded puffy covering my head so that the fentanyl withdrawals were bearable didn’t wanna talk that much...) and there are bones sticking out of my body where they shouldn’t be.

It’s the first time I smile at a Dr’s office, not on opiate medication in two years.

I’m deep into questioning just what I’m trying to do when a text box shows up on my phone. “I like what you’ve done with…”

It’s a compliment on one of my earliest boards from a snowboard designer who spends his winters based out of a bus riding white waves of snow through the mountains. He cuts me a deal on my first snowboard, one designed to be ridden like a surfboard. He’s done the work to make boards that not only have similar lines to surfboards, but really ride snow slopes as if surfing a wave. His diagrams of different waves of carving and fall-line riding open my eyes. The ability to execute surf-like moves at speed awaken my senses in a way I once took for granted.

Sucking at snowboarding is rewarding because for everything that might make you fall over, there are ten options that you have the skills to do instead. It’s no different than skiing in that sense, but the damage done to the muscles connecting my pelvis to my femur is too much to compensate for, and my back won’t enjoy the repeated rattling of skiing anything but groomers quickly. Riding the snow like a wave forces you to work with the terrain instead of absorbing. I find myself riding green runs on sunny days by myself at incredibly slow speeds while I try to make tighter and tighter turns in places most people just skip.

Two years away from a chairlift makes me savor every second.

It takes me all winter to start surfing my snowboard well. It’s impossible to ride with anybody, because I don’t have the control I used to, and I’m still a beginner. So mobbing at super high speeds with friends who have spent the last decade riding isn’t really an option.

Drawing of snowboarder
Illustration: Claire Adell

Winter is long. I can’t keep up the way I used to. I spent my entire career skiing, wondering why anybody would want to snowboard, when the consequences were so tangible. From the pain of getting on—and off —the chairlift, to the dreaded buckle-and unbuckle every time the ground goes flat. Was all that even worth it? Instead I made some new friends.

It’s hard to do because I still have the mentality of a child when I get to ride. Mastering the basics pushes my senses to their max. Slowly, over the course of a winter, I go from excitement over each lap without a fall, to sniping lines through grass and rocks on closing day. It’s not like skiing used to be, but the warm spring sun and the soft snow are still the same—I’ve just learned a new dance. Of all my forced re-interpretations of the world, it’s the snowboard that challenges my re-developing belief system the most. Skateboards don’t fully engage my love of the woods the way snowboards do. In my experience snowboarders go most of the places that skiers do, and the ones that don’t are just because they just don’t want to. I never understood the “just not wanting to” part before now.

Taking a wrong turn in the woods on a snowboard for even a few yards can lead to serious sweating and posthole hiking through the snow—something that almost never happens on skis that can be used to side step uphill. Consequences. “It’s like I’m riding a unicycle at all times, impressive when it’s right, and very obvious when I’ve gone off course,” I tell my friend Josh about my head injury. I haven’t seen him in a couple of years and so I bubble out every detail about myself that I can. I haven’t really talked to very many people in the last couple of years, so with an audience, I unload my day-to-day.

I make mistakes constantly. I can’t attach names to faces, to experiences. I have nearly 30 years of misplaced memories all bouncing around underneath the new ones. I often times don’t understand the context of my past experiences, or the context of the current ones anybody around me is going through. Some people like to watch unicyclists, some people would rather live their lives. My conversations stem from associations I make from my own mind with nobody else having any idea of what I’m doing.

Strapping back into my snowboard soaked in sweat, I only care about getting the next turn without sending myself more rapidly toward the center of the earth than I need to. Carving down a snow covered face gives me a chance to go my own way down the hill. At first, I question why I ever even skied. I’m having too much fun. But then I switch boards. Inspired by the idea that different surfboards are for different waves, I try out a new one. The new board is shorter than the first, and it’s got a swallowtail shape that scares me for its potential lack of versatility.

It’s like I’m riding a unicycle at all times, impressive when it’s right, and very obvious when I’ve gone off course.

I’m hooked on the first run. The same slope has all sorts of new ways down it. It’s around the same time that the Freeride World Tour of skiing and snowboarding are going off. Every year a chosen handful of individuals get to travel the world riding some of the most unique and challenging mountain faces on earth. It shows exactly why the two sports exist side-by-side. From the surfing-inspired uphill-lines performed by skiers, to the massive airs sent by experienced veterans on snowboards, it’s easy to see how there really is no correct way to enjoy the snow.

The way our capitalist society works, we’re forced to disagree with what we don’t understand. There IS a correct way. Failing grades are handed out to those that don’t pass tests. If you can’t fix it, it’s YOUR fault. Who needs revisionist history when we can just talk about how the present should be?

I shouldn’t be skateboarding down the street. Gavin three years ago would have called Gavin today, ‘a dipshit’. Gavin three years ago only knew how to live as Gavin from 0-29. But I’m over that shit now.

My grin doesn’t fade until I’m walking my skateboard back up the hill. Normally I’d just push back up, but I’m too busy smiling at a walking pace.

Gavin Gibson now makes pow surfers at home in Michigan. Find them here: SyrupTree.com @gdotnator

Snowboarder with helmet on.
Photo: Ryan Dee Rider: Mikey Marohn

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