Every once in a while, Rick Bustad will drive his power chair outside into the crisp, winter air.
He’ll visit Cook Chevrolet, where he used to do bodywork on cars, or he’ll go to the convenience store.
On those rides down the sidewalks, he said he sometimes likes to put his chair into high gear and feel the dry wind on his face, pretending he’s still riding his Harley-Davidson around winding mountain roads.
“These things go faster than you think,” he said, patting his power chair Friday afternoon in his Craig home. “But I miss riding a lot. It’s like nothing else. When I used to get in a car, like my Suburban, I just wanted to rip the rearview mirrors off, because it just gets in the way of what you can see.
“On a bike, you can see the mountains and the sky, and it’s incredible what you can soak in.”
It was one of those rides, on a cool summer afternoon in May 2009, that left him without the use of his legs and threw a curve into his life he’d need more than a Harley to navigate.
It was late in the afternoon of May 11, 2009, and Rick, 38, had ridden his Harley to Steamboat Springs to file some paperwork with his attorney.
Around 7 p.m., he started back on U.S. Highway 40 toward Craig, just as the evening air was beginning to cool.
He stopped at the 7-Eleven on the west end of town to put on his jacket: a leather coat with the emblem of the Christian Motorcyclists Association, a sign of his faith and reform from his old life of biker parties and booze.
In the summer, Rick said the sun rests on the horizon and golden rays blind westbound drivers.
The glare is the only explanation Rick can come up with for what happened next.
State patrol officials said his bike flew off the road, hitting a sign and a delineator post. Rick was thrown from the bike and into the bushes on the side of the road.
Rick said he had two collapsed lungs and three broken vertebrae. His spinal cord had been pinched and his nose broken.
He said he knows he would have died if it weren’t for another man, with an identical leather jacket and CMA emblem, who stopped to call 911 and pray over his battered body.
“I don’t think it was coincidental,” he said. “Maybe that’s what saved me. I never lost faith.”
He was told later that when paramedics arrived at the scene, all he could say was one name.
“Amy, Amy, Amy.”
The emergency medical responders looked through his phone and called his wife of four years.
“The day of the accident, a lady called and said he had gotten into a motorcycle accident, he had broken his neck and couldn’t talk to me,” Amy said. “That first night in the hospital was really, really tough.
“We didn’t know if he was going to live.”
Three weeks later, Rick awoke after several surgeries. Surgeons had installed six plates and 20 screws into his neck where it had snapped.
But his journey to recovery and eventually back home to Craig had just begun.
The first time he tried to eat a meal, he couldn’t hold a plastic fork in his hand.
His vocal chords had been damaged during his spinal surgery, and he could barely communicate.
Doctors said he’d most likely never walk again.
He was transferred to the Craig Rehabilitation Center in Englewood, where he lifted weights and did physical and occupational therapy to gain as much movement as possible.
Amy and the couple’s three blue-eyed girls — Lily, 1, Brooklyn, 3, and Annabella, 8 — moved into an apartment in Englewood for the three months it would take for Rick to regain his strength.
Focusing on fatherhood
The Bustads returned to Craig at the end of September, but many adjustments, both minor and life altering, lay ahead.
“We knew things were going to be a lot different,” Amy said. “But I love having him home, alive. It’s been getting a lot better.”
The Independent Life Center donated a wheelchair-accessible van, which it received from Go Alpine taxi service, to the family Friday afternoon.
Amy and Rick agree the van will make an enormous difference in their lives.
The family also hopes to install a lift in their two-story home so Rick can go upstairs, where he has been only a few times since he’s been home.
The downstairs area has been converted into a sort of apartment for him.
“The kids come down here and tear things up,” he said. “And I exercise every day by taking that grabber over there and picking up every piece of laundry and putting all their shoes in a pile.”
Without constant movement and exercise, he said the tendons in his hands tighten and curl his fingers.
Although it hurts him to not be able to crawl around with his daughters, all of his willpower comes from them and his wife, who is his full-time caretaker.
“I just look at my kids and that’s all it takes,” he said. “I have bad days. But if God wanted to take me that day, he would have taken me.”
He said he knows his purpose for living is to be a father to his three little girls, staying home with them every day and having more than just an hour or so in the evenings after work.
He said he never knew being a dad could be as rewarding as it has been.
Last week, he watched Lily take four steps in a row for the first time, an experience more exciting than any motorcycle race, he said.
When Rick was in the hospital, Annabella always was asking nurses when she will be old enough to volunteer, and pretended to take her sisters’ blood pressures.
Since then, Rick has watched the girl develop an interest in becoming a doctor.
Every once in a while, Rick will drive his power chair to East Elementary School, just across the street from his house, where Annabella attends school.
He’ll put her on his lap and drive her back home.
At first, he was afraid she’d be embarrassed.
“She said, ‘No, it’s cool,’” Rick said. “Apparently, all the kids think it’s really cool that she gets to ride home on a wheelchair.”
He said when he has bad days and is frustrated, it’s the thought of his girls and their futures that keeps him going.
“I can’t let the girls see me wither away,” he said. “I’ve got to be a role model. I can’t show them I’m giving up.”