Alysia Kezerian: Going Places

My parents instilled a sense of adventure into my sister and me. Not just in terms of traveling far and wide, but treating every single day as if it were an adventure, also. Growing up in California, we visited historic homes all over the Bay Area, hiked in Yosemite, and took camping trips across the state. They really believed in learning about the world around you, and my love for travel is quite obviously hereditary.

I went to school at the University of Oregon, and whenever spring came around and the rain finally stopped, my friends and I went on some sort of adventure to, say, a waterfall or the coast. On August 2, 2015, my friend Jen and I decided to drive to Smith Rock State Park, up by Bend. It’s part of the “Seven Wonders of Oregon,” and we were trying to hit one of the seven before school started up again. I was 21 years old.

Smith Rock is the coolest landscape, with rocks that jut straight up into the sky. The beautiful Crooked River runs through it. That day we decided, somewhat ironically, to hike the Misery Ridge Trail. When we got to the top, we took a break, and I decided to do some bouldering. I was about to begin my descent off the boulder so I grabbed onto a rock—but it broke off underneath my fingertips. I fell backwards, landing on my butt, before tumbling down the side of the hill for 40 feet or so.

When people talk about near-death situations, they almost always say, “I saw my life flash before my eyes.” In my case, it was kind of true. The whole fall must have lasted less than 15 seconds, but I had hours of thoughts running through my head. It wasn’t just stuff that I had done, either—it was all the things I hadn’t done yet. I started to think of the places that I wanted to go to and the things that I wanted to see and how, well, this fucking sucks.

Once I stopped falling, I thought, I’m going to be OK, and I tried to climb up to get back to the trail. It was then that I realized my legs weren’t moving, and I knew that I was probably paralyzed. The start of my new life began in that moment. Everything else that I knew before was completely gone.

Jen stayed beside me as I lay there with the sun beating on us—it was such a hot day, probably 100 degrees—and after about an hour, the first responders arrived and started working on the process of getting me down to the bottom of the trail. We were in a very tricky spot between two switchbacks, and they had to attach some ropes to a tree from above, and then fasten them to me. They then slid me down the side of the mountain, and from there, put me on top of this rickety old gurney. I remember looking up and seeing this huge rock formation called Monkey Face and thinking, if I can still find this place so beautiful then this is going to be OK. Eventually, we got to the bottom of the trailhead and onto a boat that took me across a small stream, then through some shrubbery, and finally up into an ambulance. The whole rescue process took six or seven hours.

Planning for my new life was definitely my form of coping. Through my recovery process I learned that after a major injury, everyone copes in different ways, and in ways that work for them. Some people don’t accept what’s happened to them at first, and I don’t know why I so easily accepted it. I just decided that this was my new normal.

After two surgeries and two weeks in a Bend hospital, I flew to Craig Rehabilitation Hospital near Denver for the toughest boot camp I’ve ever been through. I had a wonderful support system thanks to my friends and family, and on my first day I was immediately assigned a team of people: a physical therapist, an occupational therapist, one main doctor, a therapeutic recreational therapist, and a couple of nurses. They taught me how to go through life with a spinal cord injury—little things like putting on my shoes, which now feels like nothing, but back then was so hard. There were fitness classes to build arm strength, and there was a wheelchair class to help me get used to being out in the world.

One thing Craig really encouraged was to continue doing the things that you love, and one day I went with a couple of other Craig patients to Denver International Airport. We learned how to get around the airport: to hold a bag, get assistance, and, what is most important, how to transfer from a wheelchair onto the thin aisle chairs that they use to take you to your seat, and then how to transfer out of that into an airplane seat. That day gave me the confidence I needed to travel again.

Since leaving Craig in late 2015, I’ve done a study-abroad trip to Vienna and visited more than 10 countries. We’re very spoiled in the US when it comes to accessibility—at least in the cities that I’ve been to so far—and visiting a place where accessibility laws are different can be incredibly daunting at first. But there’s no amount of effort I’m not willing to put in to see the things that I want to see.

In the spring of 2017, I got on a plane by myself and went to visit my cousin in London, followed by a visit with some friends in Edinburgh, with a quick layover in Iceland. Looking back, one of the best days of my entire life was when I rolled 11 miles all over London in my wheelchair. I stopped at everything from museums to Brick Lane, and I realized that traveling alone can actually be quite beautiful. That day, I felt, well, if I can do this, then I just need to continue to believe in myself. It was on that trip that I came to peace with everything and realized that I may not know where my life is going—there is a lot of ambiguity that comes with spinal cord injuries—but that’s OK.

When I first started Wheelies Around the World on Instagram, it was really to share my own story and advice on how I travel as someone in a wheelchair. I wanted it to be a resource page for other wheelchair users figuring out how to travel, and even though I started off posting my own pictures, people quickly started sending in submissions of their own travels. All of a sudden, it became a community page for wheelchair users all around the world. I love seeing so many people out there who have figured it out, who are resourceful, and have advice to give. When I was at Craig, something that helped me visualize the life ahead of me was to go on Instagram and find all these incredible men and women who were living their lives in wheelchairs. It gave me a sense of confidence to see another person doing it. As I was making the account, I thought of myself when I was in the hospital, worrying about not being able to travel, of not being able to do the things I love again. I made Wheelies Around the World for the woman I was then.

I love to travel because I love stories. I’m a voracious reader, and all of my favorite books growing up were ones with characters embarking on some sort of great adventure into the unknown, like Harry Potter or Milo in The Phantom Tollbooth. As my personal experiences have taught me, life is short—and anything can happen at any moment. Just like in the stories I grew up reading, this injury has brought on many unknowns and unanswerable questions, but it helps to remind myself that this is all a part of my journey and my story.

Everyone has those odd spots in life where we don’t have the answers or don’t know where life is going, but that doesn’t mean you stop living. It’s our duty as humans to keep an open mind, to keep going, and to keep exploring. And even if the answers don’t ever come, that’s OK. Everyone always says that it’s what you did along the way that truly matters.

—By Alysia Kezerian​​​​​​​

Alysia Kezerian, BS ’16 (business administration), was the student speaker for her graduating class. She told her story to Lale Arikoglu of Condé Nast Traveler, which first published this piece.