One afternoon 12 years ago, Mike Medberry of Boise was hiking across Laidlaw Park at Craters of the Moon. It is a barren, rugged, remote landscape, miles from the highway and the better-known visitors center.
He was enjoying the silence of place, the tortured artistry of the lava flows, the sense of endlessness. Expansively, he saw antelope; closer in, tiny wildflowers defying the harsh living conditions. Laidlaw Park is the nation’s largest kapuka, an island of grass surrounded by flows of lava.
He says: “I hadn’t really slowed down so much (that) I recognized what was really beautiful about this place.”
Mike was 44 years old. He had just run the arduous Race to Robie Creek half-marathon as evidence of his physical health; he was an active, passionate environmentalist and was, he says, at the peak of his abilities and career.
“Poof. Gone in an instant.”
Mike had come to Craters of the Moon with two friends for work. On behalf of President Clinton, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt was about to visit and would lay the groundwork to expand Craters of the Moon National Monument by 750,000 acres. Mike was to have a role in that designation, and he was freshening up his memory of the land.
“Am I the same person? I look like him. But I’m really not.”
He and his friends had separated in their explorations and ramblings, agreeing to meet at the car. Mike was “crossing the stormy sea of black rock” when the pain hit — hit him across the head like the blow of an axe.
“I never thought you could possibly lose your ability to think or to speak. I lost a lot of what I could assume — that you can’t lose anything. (Because) you can lose everything.”
When Mike came to, his disordered thoughts could not comprehend what had happened. He hit his head as he fell, but the pain was internal.
“When I was laying there in the lava, there was nothing beyond that. There was nothing I had. The past — (gone). There was nothing but that moment, laying there, looking at the sky, the clouds blowing by.
“The only thing that I could understand — I couldn’t understand it — were just those moments. Bang, bang, bang: each moment passing by.”
Mike had a stroke. And not only that, he was alone — alone in a vast land a long way from anywhere, with friends who didn’t know where he was or what had happened to him.
“I breathed heavily and deeply in the chill air and accepted that this day would be my last. I felt myself a part of this fantastic landscape, no more than the lava and no less. I gave myself to it. … ” (page 8 of his book, “On the Dark Side of the Moon.”)
But there was another part of him that wasn’t ready to go yet. He calls it “my soul’s decision on the lava.”
“I think I had the option to just die. I realized, OK, you’re close to dead and it’s close to nighttime — and I realized I didn’t want to die.”
In protecting wild lands like Craters, Mike had found his passion. But the remoteness of Craters was also the reason that Mike’s recovery would be so arduous. It would be nearly eight hours before his friends found him and he was flown to the hospital in Pocatello.
“ … (The stroke) totally zeroed me out. I was nothing. I had to come back to what I had, to what I was going to be. …
“ … I didn’t know how much work that would force me into (when I decided not to die). Regrets? No. I haven’t regretted that since it happened. But. I don’t ever want to relive it. Never, never, never.”
Mike likens his recovery to having climbed Mount McKinley and fallen into the Grand Canyon.
“I couldn’t (even) remember my name for a month.
“I think all the processes that I lost … assume the past and future. When I had the stroke, for about two to four months, I didn’t have a past and future. I just had the moment.”
He wished he had some visible head wound, some tangible sign of the internal trauma. On the outside, he looked fine, but he couldn’t name something as simple as a toothbrush or recall what to do with it. Understanding would vanish from one instant to the next. What thoughts he had couldn’t be formed into words that others could comprehend.
“ … The pieces of my brain were a blizzard of blowing pages ripped from a book. … ” (p. 49)
“(Philosopher Rene) Descartes says: ‘I think therefore I am.’ That doesn’t feel right to me. I think it’s just the opposite: I am, therefore I think. … When you lose the connection to yourself, you’ve lost everything.”
Mike remembers trying to articulate his feelings to a friend, a conversation that ended with his friend shaking his head, unable to understand what Mike was trying to say. That was the low point, the moment Mike realized he had a choice. And he would not give up.
“I realized I would have to put all of my world back together … that making my world have structure in it was going to fall to me and to me only.
“(That was the big lesson: ‘You are in control of your world.’ Which is, when you think about it, rather profound.)
“To simply be understood in talking about simple things, such as plants and animals and the good earth, was solidly on my shoulders.”
Mike had help in his recovery — his mother, many good friends, a puppy, a “godsend and Gestapo” rehabilitation therapist. Two other things helped: The first was writing.
Mike had always been a writer, but this time, writing was therapy, helping him re-learn how to organize his thoughts and his memory.
“To use language, to use it in the right ways, to connect the past to the present and to the future — and to put a paragraph that makes sense next to a paragraph that (also) makes sense in the next chapter. … ”
The first entries in his journal are evidence of his frustration — a jumble of words, phrases scratched out, full of false starts and repetitions and meaningless pairings. But over the next couple of years, a narrative took shape, and over the next decade, a book emerged.
Secondly, Mike went back to Craters of the Moon.
“ … And it was silent. I just went out there, and I didn’t have to talk with people. When I was back in town, I would talk with people and think, ‘I’m stupid. I can’t think, I can’t relate to people.’ When I went out to Craters of the Moon, I didn’t have to.
“ … It was the place where I felt least judged (which is, of course, my own self-judgment and my own lack of confidence: a wilderness of the self) than I’ve ever experienced. … The wilderness was just what my soul needed to survive.”
Twelve years have passed since Mike had his stroke (and he has taken his daily dose of preventative aspirin religiously). Strangers would not notice anything amiss, although Mike still feels the differences. Many of the differences are losses, like memory and ability and expectations, but some of the differences are surprises.
“The journey was a physical one. But what opened up to me was within me. … I look at other people and I see a lot more beauty. I see a lot of things that I didn’t look for or I didn’t see before the stroke.
“ … But still, ultimately, I am what I am: flawed and perfect.”
Also since his stroke, Craters of the Moon was expanded, without his help. Since then, too, a fire came through Laidlaw Park. Mike has watched the land recover, as he has. Craters is still part of his healing.
“The lava, I think, is so unknowable. There are no trails — a few trails but they don’t always lead anyplace. It’s kind of a puzzle: places of great beauty and places that are pretty ugly.
“The land was like my brain at the time I had the stroke. I could not see anything except parched, pavement-like reality and figured that was my future — that I would never recover and that I would never be able to talk about this place like I am now.
“I feel like I owe something to Craters of the Moon. How do you define love?”
Know someone living “from the heart”? Idaho Statesman photojournalist Katherine Jones spotlights someone in the Treasure Valley who influences our lives not only by what they do, but how and why they do it. Do you know someone we should know? Call 377-6414 or email email@example.com.