After a bike accident left him paralyzed from the chest down, a man says van life helped him regain his independence

Summary List PlacementRoughly 11 years ago, Kirk Williams drove to Lyons, Colorado, got on his mountain bike, and started pedaling through Hall Ranch, a trail he rode three or four times a week.  By all accounts, it started off a normal day for then-22-year-old Williams, a typical outdoorsy Colorado type...

Kirk Williams

Summary List Placement

Roughly 11 years ago, Kirk Williams drove to Lyons, Colorado, got on his mountain bike, and started pedaling through Hall Ranch, a trail he rode three or four times a week. 

By all accounts, it started off a normal day for then-22-year-old Williams, a typical outdoorsy Colorado type who spent his free time biking, camping, climbing, and skiing. But at some point during his ride, he slowed to let an uphill rider have the right of way and suddenly, at less than 10 mph, flipped over his handlebars. 

Williams told Insider he had crashed plenty of times before and fallen much harder than this. In fact, there wasn’t a scratch on his helmet or even any cuts that broke the skin, he said. But he landed awkwardly and broke three vertebrae in his neck, resulting in an incomplete spinal cord injury. Williams, a C6 quadriplegic, lost the use of his legs, his grip strength and dexterity in his hands, and the core strength in his stomach. He’s used a wheelchair every day since. 

While an accident like Williams’ would deter most people from returning to the outdoors, he couldn’t wait to get back. It wasn’t easy but eventually, he found the key to regaining his independence and access to nature: van life.

Here’s a look at his life on the road.

FOLLOW US: Insider is on Facebook

After his bike accident in 2009 left him paralyzed from the chest down, Williams felt he’d completely lost his independence.

It would be a year before he was able to get dressed on his own and almost twice as long before he could shower and use the bathroom by himself.

“When you have something like that taken from you, it really humbles you down to the bare fundamentals of what makes you happy in life,” Williams, 33, told Insider. “For me, that was being able to be independent. To get out of bed when I wanted to in the morning, to make food when I was hungry and not have to ask for help, and to do the things I love.”

“The van is the ultimate tool for me to regain that independence,” he said.

After relearning the basics, Williams bought a van solely for transportation purposes but quickly realized he never used the rear seats. He ripped them out, replaced them with a bed, and began car camping at friends’ houses that didn’t have rooms accessible by his wheelchair. 

“Somebody told me this quote early on in my life as a quadriplegic: ‘An injury like this doesn’t have to change what you do, only how you do it,'” Williams said. “That’s a good mantra to live by.”

Later, as his desire for longer trips grew, he sold his first van on Craiglist and bought a new one. Between 2017 and 2018, he renovated his current van, “Spock,” a 2017 Ford Transit 250 EcoBoost, which has a wide-enough aisle for him to maneuver in his wheelchair comfortably. Because he qualified for a Colorado Division of Vocational Rehabilitation program and secured other funding, Williams had the majority of his costs covered, though he bought the van. 

He’s outfitted his Ford Transit van with numerous modifications so it’s easier to use his wheelchair.

During the renovation, the locations of everything from his bed to a pull-down induction stovetop, counters, his refrigerator, light switches, and outlets were perfectly measured so that Williams could utilize or access them from his chair. 

One of the most important upgrades Williams made to the van is his chairlift.

Williams said the question he’s asked the most is what kind of chairlift he uses. He uses a Superarm lift, which is essentially an L-shaped bracket with straps that allows him to hook on to the device and swing in and out of the van. 

He said the lift has allowed him easy access to most terrains, whether it’s fishing in a river or navigating a rough backcountry road. 

“It’s not for everybody but for somebody like me that’s in Alaska or Mexico or, you know, Patagonia, it enables me to get in and out in rough terrain where a traditional wheelchair lift hates uneven surfaces,” he said.

Williams said the bubble level he mounted to the floor to make sure he wasn’t dangerously sliding around in his wheelchair is a key part of his rig.

Because many of the roads Williams travels are on beaches or mountains and made of no more than dirt and gravel, finding a level space to park can be challenging. This was frustrating for Williams, who found that he’d slide uncontrollably around his van, which could be dangerous if he was cooking or caught off guard, potentially causing him to fall out of his chair. 

It seems like a small addition, he said, but mounting a bubble level to the floor ended up being an important upgrade. 

“I used to think it was a diva move to really level your car at camp,” Williams said. “I’m like ‘Oh, it’s not that unlevel, like you’re fine.’ But in a wheelchair when you’re on wheels, it is a big deal because now every time I let go of my tires I’m rolling, either slamming into this cabinet or the other one. My chair won’t sit still if the floor’s not pretty close to level.”

Williams said he’s much more functional and maneuverable when the floor of his van is level — he doesn’t have to worry about sliding with a boiling hot pan on his lap or falling out of his chair. He added that when traveling with a companion, he’ll use leveling blocks to make sure the van is parked as flat as possible. 

Williams also has adaptive controls on his steering wheel that allow him to drive his van.

Williams’ steering wheel is essentially a handle mounted on the wheel and a lever system to the left of the wheel. If pressed in one direction, it activates the gas pedal, if pressed the other direction, it activates the brakes. 

Read more: 2 couples who have turned vans into tiny homes share how to make a tiny space feel big enough to live in

In addition to allowing him to regain his independence, the van forced him to downsize, be less material, and appreciate the experiential side of life more.

“I’ve found that I can function and I’m so much happier without clutter and with just having the necessities of, you know, four pairs of pants and two pairs of shoes and I’m happy,” Williams said. He added jokingly, that for “a guy in a wheelchair, shoes last forever.”

In his van, he’s traveled everywhere from Mexico to Alaska, and Williams said he’s found freedom on four wheels.

“When I’m on the road and in the van and taking pictures and traveling like, everything — it’s not really a flow state but everything feels right,” Williams said. “My health is better, my creativity is better, my mind is better, my humor, like everything, the food tastes better, the views look better, like it just seems right and it resonates with me so well that, you know, it’s … it’s hard to ignore.” 

Read more: A former political analyst who quit their job to travel in an RV with 2 dogs shares the reality of van life that you don’t see on Instagram

He has also started biking and participating in other sports again.

Williams has found ways to return to the outdoors and enjoy his former passions. 

He uses an accessory called the Freewheel that attaches to the front of his chair and lifts his casters (the smaller front wheels) off the ground, allowing for better traction and maneuverability on unpaved roads. 

He also has a Batec handbike which, Williams has written, is allowing him to rejoin his friends on mountain biking trails and explore old and new places from a different perspective. 

“When I’m biking I don’t think about the fact that I have paralysis from the chest down,” Williams wrote in an August 2020 Instagram post. “I don’t need help. I can ride when I want and go where I want. It’s awesome […] I’m able to attach to this E-bike in three seconds, ride over all sorts of terrain with a breeze in my hair, camera on my lap, and smile across my face. I’m able to bike with friends, run errands, or just go out for a cruise when I need fresh air.”

In 2019, Williams set out on his biggest road trip yet: a drive through South America all the way to Patagonia.

Williams traveled to Peru about four years ago with an ex-girlfriend and took a 24-hour bus ride from Lima to Cusco to see Machu Picchu. As the bus driver whipped around sharp corners along the mountainside, Williams wished he could stop to get out and take pictures of the vistas, peaks, and valleys of the Peruvian countryside. 

“As somebody who loves to camp and travel out of their van, it seemed like paradise, the ultimate adventure,” Williams said. “It’s like, ‘Well, I’ve driven from my house in Colorado to Alaska. Where else can I go? There’s only one direction, let’s head south.'”

Joined by his brother, Clayton, on a motorcycle, Williams headed to Patagonia before the coronavirus canceled the rest of his trip.

Williams intended to travel through South America for a year to a year-and-a-half, but when the coronavirus reached the country in mid-March, it put a pause on his travels. 

He and his brother ended up quarantined in an apartment in Buenos Aires, Argentina, for four-and-a-half months before returning to the United States. 

As he traveled through South America, Williams said his eyes were opened to the lack of accessibility and mobility throughout much of the continent.

Williams said he’s traveled enough to know how fortunate he is to not only be from the US but to have an accessible vehicle and a wheelchair that allow him to live life to the fullest. As he traveled through South America, he was struck by the poor conditions of the roads and the number of people in need of wheelchairs who didn’t have access to one. 

“Traveling in developing countries where people sometimes can’t put food on their table and then even at a more basic level, they don’t have access to healthcare, and medical supplies and things that they would need to function and survive,” Williams said. “[…] I feel like the least I can do when traveling through other countries that don’t have the support we do is somehow give back to them along the way.”

Williams became inspired to raise money and promote increased mobility by giving people wheelchairs.

Williams partnered with the Walkabout Foundation, which promotes awareness of paralysis and disabilities, and initially set out to raise $5,000 to purchase wheelchairs that would be distributed throughout South America. 

He ended up raising over $20,000 and is getting ready to distribute over 60 wheelchairs — which are being manufactured in Guatemala — throughout Venezuela. Williams said he was blown away by the contributions of others.

“I’m speechless and very fortunate, where I am and what opportunities have been presented to me and hopefully, I can do something within my power to help bring more opportunities to others,” he said. 

Additionally, he used his trip as a way to educate people about converting vehicles for increased mobility.

Williams created the brand Impact Overland ahead of the trip, not as a business but as a model for educating people around the world about converting vehicles, regardless of their range of mobility. The brand played a large part in his campaign to raise awareness of the lack of mobility and accessibility in South American countries. 

He has also started an Instagram account and, since his first post in 2018, Williams has accrued more than 14,900 followers who tag along on his global travels. 

Williams is currently splitting time between Colorado and Virginia, where he’s living with family and training a new puppy. Of course, he can’t wait to get back on the road.

When he’s not traveling, Williams works as a drone photographer — Williams said he is one of the few people with quadriplegia certified by the Federal Aviation Administration to use drones — and a freelance writer.

When the coronavirus pandemic is over and borders open up, Williams said a trip to Alaska might be on the table.

For now, he’s grateful for the new sense of adventure that life has provided him. He said the real treasure is being able to survive on his own in his van and that it has allowed him to continue doing the activities he loves most. 

“That fulfills my soul and then, the more you do, the more challenges come up so that’s almost like an adventure in [itself],” Williams said. “I was always an adventurous person looking for adventure, be it climbing and skiing and those sorts of things. Now, you know, adventure tends to find me more than I look for it. Like, I drop my car keys under the car or something where it’s really hard for me to get to, or I fall out of my chair doing something stupid in the middle of nowhere and I’m like, ‘Hm, now what am I gonna do?’ It’s still adventure, it’s just a totally different type of adventure.”

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: