VICARIOUS - A Real Life Motorcycle Fairy Tale
Apr 06, 2019 01:45PM
By Eric Hendrikx
Original article featured in META Magazine, March 2019
On August 3, 2017, I was riding a motorcycle in the magnificent Swiss Alps with a newfound friend when suddenly my back tire bottomed out on the cold asphalt. With little time to react, I tried to put the bike down on the road and save myself from going off the edge of the mountain. Instead, I high-sided and went into a horrific tumble with the bike before I was hurled like a rag doll through a wooden guardrail and 75 feet off the mountainside. Helicopter rescue hoisted me off the mountain and brought me to Kantonsspital Graubünden, where I was placed in a medically induced coma. Days later, I woke up in the intensive care unit, where X-rays and MRI scans revealed a dozen fractures in my spine, a broken hand, a smashed hip, broken ribs, a snapped collar bone and a shattered scapula.
Within an instant, my life had changed
forever. But, as time would reveal, it was one of the best things that ever happened
I’m a journalist by profession and a motorcycle rider by enthusiasm. And while my journalistic endeavors for Rolling Stone, Playboy and Revolver Magazine have taken me to the far reaches of the planet; this particular trip to Switzerland was not an assignment. Each summer, my son, Stone, and I take a trip to visit our Swiss family and explore new places. For the summer of 2017, we rented a chalet in the alpine village of Arosa to enjoy the celebration of Switzerland’s independence day while lighting up the sky with fireworks and eating as much cheese as humanly possible.
Just a few weeks before our trip, I matched with a beautiful girl named Nikki on Raya — a private, membership-based dating app. She was a lovely brunette with great taste in music, an eclectic vibe, and an evident affinity for cooking — beautiful, talented and could run circles around me at the barbecue? Sold! It wasn’t more than a few messages about common interests later that we switched to chatting on the phone. Nikki explained how she was a private chef living in Los Angeles and, along with participating on Food Network cooking shows, had worked as private chef for Robert Downey Jr., P. Diddy, Jared Leto, and Kim Kardashian. More importantly, she was lovely to speak with, confident but not self-absorbed, and gave off a creative and positive vibe that I instantly connected with. I wanted to meet her right away, but as luck would have it, I had several publishing deadlines that kept me busy until Stone and I left for our trip to Europe. I promised that I would take her to dinner upon my return in a couple of weeks.
There is something magical about the fairy-tale Swiss Alps. Once you arrive, it grabs you, captivates you and, chances are, holds you forever. And there is no other way to experience the meandering roads of the Swiss Alps than on a motorcycle. To do otherwise might be to miss it entirely. Fortuitously, on this trip, I would have such an opportunity.
One afternoon, I landed my ass in a seat on the deck of Provisorium13, Arosa’s most charming lakefront hotel and restaurant. Over a toasted käse-schnitzel washed down with a few crisp German pilsners, I met the proprietors of the establishment — Sascha Buchser and his lovely girlfriend, Iva Pilipova. In short time, I learned that Sascha and I share an enthusiasm for motorcycles. And Sascha happened to have two customized bikes parked next to the restaurant: a 2006 Harley-Davidson Street Glide and a 2004 chopped Dyna. We swapped stories about the places around the world we had both ridden and, despite our just having met, Sascha and I became fast friends — kindred spirits.
Not long into our conversation, Sascha invited me to come back the next morning for a ride down Arosa’s celebrated “road to Chur” — a serpentine road that features 360-degree hairpin turns that cut through the scenic Walser region of the Swiss Alps. Filled with excitement and anticipation, I accepted his generous offer and looked forward to our ride the next day.
Nikki and I stayed in touch during my trip, sending text messages and photos to each other. I’d send her a selfie with the majestic Swiss Alps behind me, and she’d send me a stunning selfie from the beaches in Malibu. On the early morning of August 3, I sent Nikki a text message before my ride with Sascha — “Hi lovely girl... I’m off for a motorcycle ride in the Swiss Alps. Have a nice day and will text you when I get back.” I gathered my things and hiked down from our chalet to Provisorium13.
Sascha had laid out a spread of protective gear for me to choose from. I kept it simple — Rokker riding jacket, gloves, and an open-faced helmet. After all, it was supposed to be a mellow ride. I climbed onto the Dyna and fired it up. Just before we took off, a drifting thought swayed me to quickly go back into the hotel to put on a spine protector — something I’ve never worn before. Moments later, we tore off down the sinuous mountain.
Corner after corner, I felt like a titan, a centurion of the Alps. Sascha and I rode through the twisted roads, past timeworn residences, flanked by vibrantly green farms. I wore a smile on my face that joy couldn’t match. The landscapes were breathtaking and left deep impressions — Claude Monet comes to mind.
An hour later, we made it to the bottom of the mountain, arriving at a small café, where we stopped for coffee. Sascha and I spoke about our shared attraction to motorcycles of all kinds; in my optimism, I couldn’t help but share my excitement about meeting Nikki on my return to the United States. “That’s it, Eric! Find a good woman and keep her,” he said. I agreed.
Before ascending back to Arosa, Sascha offered to swap bikes so that I could experience each of his bikes on the mountain. I snagged the keys to the Street Glide, suited up and off we went, riding back from the city into the alpine bliss — a beautiful contradiction between society and nature. Sascha led the way, while I just thrived in the moment, passing through dozens of S-turns on the centuries-old road. I recall peering over the edge at one point and seeing the sheer rocky cliffs seemingly hundreds of feet to the bottom. A dozen more turns — our speed was moderate; my spirit was high.
About halfway up the mountain, I cornered into a shaded left curve when my back tire bottomed out. In a mad panic, I tried to throttle through, but the mountain’s wry sense of humor bested me — my bike slid toward the edge of the road. I laid the bike down on the road, willing to take my chances with a nasty tumble, but instead, the left exhaust pipe hit the ground and caused both tires to come up off the ground, sending me into a chaotic spin and tumble with the bike. I slammed into the asphalt and was dragged toward the cliff’s edge. In a split second, I was launched through a wood-beamed guardrail and pitched over the mountainside.
I experienced my flight over the edge in slow motion, with plenty of time to think. One thing was certain — I was going to die.
I had seen
over-the-edge-of-the-cliff moments before, and knew that survival was
impossible. And just in that moment, while preparing myself to greet the
unknown, I was overcome with a warm and loving sensation. Suddenly, everything
was okay — I felt ready. I had time to think about Stone and of my family. I
had recognized and accepted that part of my journey was the end. I relaxed and
yielded to the final moments of my story. The last thing that I remembered was
wondering what it was going to feel like when I hit the ground — would it hurt
or would I just black out?
Sascha never saw the accident. He didn’t see me tumble across the road while his Street Glide turned into scrap metal. He didn’t see me roll with the scrap metal like some kind of science fiction meatball. And he didn’t see me get pitched over the edge of the mountain. A witness in a car stopped him and told him what had happened. He raced back to the wreckage, jumped off his bike and climbed down the mountainside to find me lying on my back in a small patch of dirt and grass, unconscious and convulsing like a fish out of water.
“Eric, the helicopter is coming,” Sascha said as I slowly woke. “I want you to answer some questions for me, okay? Can you move your legs?” His concern was obvious — whether or not I was paralyzed. I couldn’t speak yet, but was able to move both of my feet a little. “Eric! That’s really good!” he exclaimed.
But I couldn’t really move at all, and my right side felt dead. I just lay there, trying to answer Sascha as best I could; trying to recall what had gone wrong just moments before. I attempted to respond, but couldn’t breathe. I gave a heavy cough and spewed blood all over my chest. A broken rib had punctured my lung, and I was starting to drown in my own fluids. Sascha’s expression changed from confident to something drastically otherwise.
The medics rappelled down from the H145 helicopter and started working on me. They carried me to an area clear from beneath the trees, strapped me into a basket stretcher, and hoisted me up into the sky. The last thing I remember was Sascha’s voice: “Eric, I’m going to meet you at the hospital. Stay strong and don’t give up.” Swiss Air- Rescue Rega brought me to the Kantonsspital Graubünden in Chur, where I was placed in a medically induced coma and on life support. Surgeons worked tirelessly to stop my internal bleeding. Pint after pint, I was losing blood faster than I could hang on to it. The outlook was grim, and my survival was doubtful.
Back in Arosa, Sascha tracked down my family. They rushed to the hospital, where I would remain in a coma for days. Stone sat near, nauseous and pale with the ominous possibility that I might die in front of him. At the same time, he handled all communications between the hospital and my friends and family back in the United States. And luckily, my mom took over as liaison between my insurance company and the hospital; a critical task, since my hospital bills quickly surpassed six figures — clearly, alpine helicopter rescues and Swiss critical care accommodations don’t come cheap. Word spread rapidly back home. “Please pray for Eric. He’s on life support and hanging on by a strand,” my family posted on social media. My dear friends, Kelly Tribolet and Ben Harper, and my brother Brandon got on a plane from Los Angeles to Zurich.
Meanwhile, Nikki hadn’t heard from me in days, since the morning that I had chosen to go for a ride. Ghosting her seemed out of character, so she looked me up on social media, only to find the Facebook post about my accident. In spite of only having recently become acquainted, Nikki felt very connected to me — she burst into tears.
Three nights later, after so many bags of blood that I could probably claim Swiss nationality, my condition took a turn for the better. My blood pressure stabilized, and I woke up. I was covered with tubes and wire — my hips and wrists, a drain tube coming out of my ribcage, EKG wires all over my chest, a feeding tube up my nose, and a ventilator supporting my breathing. I was totally fucked up — bruised, smashed, and broken-boned. The nurse saw me stir and came to me with a smile. I pointed to a small dry erase board at the edge of my bed, since the ventilator and tubes down my throat prevented me from speaking. In my best left-hand writing, I wrote, “Am I going to die?”
“No!” she responded.
“You were in bad shape but now it’s looking better.”
“Can I have a beer?” I smirked from behind my ventilator. “I think you’re going to be okay,” she laughed.
“If you can joke, you can heal.”
“Where is Stone?” I asked.
An hour later, Stone and my brother Thomas walked into the intensive care unit. With my left hand, I pointed at my dick and gave the Okay sign. “Asshole!” Thomas exclaimed with a concerned, but also relieved, grin. Sure, it was crude, and maybe wishful thinking, but my nurse did say that humor was healing.
A few days later, Stone and Thomas brought me my iPhone. I sent Nikki a text. “So sorry I haven’t responded, I’ve been in a coma.” Of course, she already knew. “Are you okay? I’m so sorry. I feel helpless so far away,” she replied.
The following morning, a team of specialists, including my shoulder surgeon, Dr. Sommer, surrounded me in the intensive care unit and explained my situation. The fractures up and down my spine were negligible enough to let them heal on their own — I took this as a gift for putting on that Dainese spine protector before our ride. In fact, Dr. Sommer said that without it, I would most likely be paralyzed or dead. My broken hand and the cuts, scrapes and bruises would all heal without surgery. But I would require a titanium collarbone plate and several titanium plates on my scapula. They would do their best to reassemble the puzzle pieces of my shoulder blade.
“Okay, so, when can I go home?” I asked Dr. Sommer.
“You cannot fly for at least two months because of the hole in your lung,” he explained. “We have to make sure that you are fully healed after we remove the drain tube.” I devised a plan with my family where I could be away from home and work for the next few months. Nikki was disappointed. So was I. It seemed our momentous meeting would be postponed for the foreseeable future.
My surgery was a success. I woke up in the post-operating room with new titanium hardware. “Eric 2.0,” as my friends started calling me, was rebuilt and ready for recovery. But my return came with a new set of challenges: sitting, standing, walking, and taking a shit by myself. There’s nothing more humbling than having someone else wipe your ass. Let’s just say that the medical assistants at Kantonsspital Graubünden are doing God’s work.
Ketamine is an interesting drug. It’s used as an alternative to opioids for post-operative pain, but comes with heavy hallucinations. One night, I became convinced that Switzerland’s Federal Intelligence Agency had intentionally caused my accident in order to install a surgical implant by which they would control my thoughts and central nervous system. In some kind of Jason Bourne conspiracy, Dr. Sommer had installed micro-hardware into my back that would soon make me their agent. Fortunately, I was one step ahead of the Swiss Intelligence — I had a solution.
I sent a text to my dear friend Rodney Mullen, known for his genius thinking and computer-hacking enthusiasm. If anyone could get me out of this situation, it would be Rodney. I asked him to hack into the Kantonsspital computer network mainframe and slide in a virus that would release me from their monitoring system. I knew that Rodney could quickly develop a super-neurotransmitter that would free me from the clutches of my conspirators. Once installed, my escape from the Kantonsspital Graubünden would be easy. Rodney entertained my conspiracy theory, but was less optimistic about my plans for escape. “Eric, this is PERFECT. Best freakin’ text I have gotten since I don’t know when. And something tells me you are their favorite patient. But please don’t escape the hospital. In the meantime, I’ll get to work on a psycho-digital porthole.”
Despite these sporadic hallucinations, my conversations with Nikki were more temperate. Our early-morning and late-night talks had become the embodiment of hope, an urgency to stay positive and strive to recover. I really wanted to meet this woman, and I knew I had to put the pieces back together for that to happen. Nikki must have felt the same sense of urgency that I did. One night, she asked me, “How would you feel if I got onto a plane and came to see you?”
Was it too soon? Was this a bad idea to invite someone to circle the globe and meet me in my most vulnerable state? I had a shoulder full of staples, a right arm that didn’t work, and I was barely capable of making it to the bathroom on my own. But my hesitations didn’t last.
“I’d love to meet you here. Come in September, once I’m out of the hospital and back in Arosa,” I suggested.
Sascha and Iva had graciously welcomed Stone and me to stay at Provisorium13 to rehabilitate as long as I needed. I suggested Nikki meet me there, high up in the Alps. At the very least, I thought, after making the long trek to Switzerland, she should visit one of God’s most beautiful creations.
September came quickly. For weeks, Stone looked after me, getting my prescriptions filled, bringing food to our room, and helping me get out of bed and around the small village. Fortunately for him, I was back to wiping my own ass. I went to a physical therapist twice a day, rode a stationary bicycle to increase my healing time, and walked along the small lake a little farther each time. And then the day finally came when I would meet her.
It was cold and rainy in Arosa. Nikki had flown a dozen hours from Los Angeles to New York to Zurich, and then took a three-hour train ride up to Arosa’s small train station. It was an incredible leap of faith — to fly around the world to meet someone who had just been through a horrific accident. A few glasses of wine on the flight and train were paramount in keeping her nerves at ease. I walked in my pajamas from Provisorium13 to the train station and sat on a bench to wait for her. When the train arrived, I got butterflies.
Nikki exited the train with her luggage and walked right up to me with a smile that expressed joy, nervousness and fatigue all in one gesture. I greeted her with a bright smile and a big bear hug. My first impression was that she was more beautiful in person than in her photos — her eyes captivated me, filled with sincerity and compassion. In that moment, after all of our conversations, late-night texts, early-morning FaceTime conversations, and hopeful thoughts, I knew that her long journey wasn’t for naught — it was the right place, and the right time. I offered to carry Nikki’s bags. She looked at my slinged arm, giggled, and produced a shirt that she had brought from Roland Sands’ shop. On the front of the shirt were two words — “CRASHING SUCKS”. We laughed and walked together through the light rain back to Provisorium13.
We spent the next several days going for walks, sitting on benches along the Obersee, and getting to know one another. For my birthday, Nikki treated Stone and me to Lamm & Leu (Lamb and Lion), a top restaurant in Arosa. What I loved was how well they got along. Nikki and Stone joked, spoke candidly, and despite just meeting under highly unusual circumstances, seemed to hit it off very well.
After a week in Arosa, and a side trip to Lugano and Lake Como, it was time to leave the Alps. Thomas drove up to Arosa to bring us back down to Hettlingen, where we would stay with family until it was time for Stone and me to fly home. We said our goodbyes to Sascha, Iva, and the staff at Provisorium13 who were so good to us. To this day, I’m humbled by and grateful for the generosity and warm welcome during one of the most vulnerable times of my life. Without Sascha’s quick reactions that day on the mountain, I certainly would have died — an act that I can never repay, but I will always be grateful for.
My Swiss family loved Nikki, and she was wonderful with them. Nikki and Gabi cooked together, and the twins — Loris and Sven — included Nikki in their games, and Thomas gave me his approval. We visited for a week before Nikki had to fly back to Los Angeles for an event. She cried at the Zurich airport. I held my tears back until after she left. It had been an emotional trip for me and would be two long weeks before Nikki and I could see each other again.
Nearly three months after we had first arrived in Europe, the hospital cleared me to fly home. It was time — a bittersweet departure. I had become very attached to my Swiss family, but I also knew it was time to return home. Nikki picked Stone and me up at LAX and drove us back to my house in Trabuco Canyon. Fortunately, she didn’t have any pressing work that would take her back to Beverly Hills, and so she stayed with me.
I spent the first few weeks of October reacclimating to being home, visiting doctors, and getting physical therapy. I had lost 40 pounds from the accident, surgery and hospital stay. My running joke was that this was my new “crash diet” — the only stipulation was that you had to ride your motorcycle off a cliff. We can laugh about it now.
Nikki and I became inseparable. I never wanted to be without her. Half-jokingly, I started calling her my security blanket. In October, I took my first Rolling Stone assignment since the accident — a trip to the Riviera Maya with Tony Hawk. Nikki came with me. After my assignment was complete, we made our way to Tulum, where we borrowed some bicycles to ride beneath the rainforest canopy. Still trying to gain control of my right arm, I crashed into a parked car. Luckily, I dusted off a few scratches and we could laugh this one off.
On Halloween, Nikki and I flew to London. I had been invited by Royal Enfield for the launch of their new twin-engine motorcycles. We arrived a few days early to visit London and Paris. We visited Jim Morrison’s grave at the Père Lachaise Cemetery. I brought a bottle of wine to share with Jim, spilling a bit onto his grave before we dusted the bottle in his honor. When the guards came around to clear the cemetery for the night, Nikki and I hid in a mausoleum built in the 1800s. It was spooky and cobwebbed, but didn’t stop us from having sex inside the creepy enclosure. We giggled like kids in high school. We thought it was spontaneous and hysterical — until we ended up locked inside the cemetery for hours in the dark before finding a security guard to let us out.
For the remainder of the year, Nikki and I hosted holiday parties at my house — Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve. After my near-fatal experience in the Alps, it became even more important to be surrounded by family as much as possible. On New Year’s Day, I fired up my Harley-Davidson Road King to take my first ride since my crash. Nikki insisted on going with me, so she suited up, hopped on the back, and we went for a ride through Silverado Canyon.
In February, we found out that Nikki was pregnant. I couldn’t have been more excited — elated actually. Everything happened very quickly, but in a perfect way. We started looking for a new place to live, to move in together and start planning for our family. We eventually found a beautiful Montauk–style home in Newport Beach, California. We gave our landlords notice and packed up our respective homes, making way for our new beach-city lifestyle.
In May, Nikki and I visited the Big Island of Hawaii, staying in Hapuna on the Kohala Coast. One afternoon, we hiked down the Waipio Valley to the black sand beaches. I set up a couple of cameras, telling Nikki that we were going to take a selfie in the river that flowed into the Central Pacific Ocean. I set the camera timers and walked to Nikki in the shallow riverbed, where I took a knee, pulled a ring out of my pocket and proposed to her. I had found my soul mate and after a whirlwind of traveling, sharing, loving and good living, I was certain it was for keeps.
We married on July 15 in front of family and friends who had embraced our story and been supportive throughout my accident. Stone was my best man. Sven flew in from Sweden. Thomas, Gabi and the boys joined us from Switzerland. And Rodney Mullen became an ordained minister and delivered a wondrous and compelling wedding ceremony. Smiling at Rodney, I had a quick epiphany that my previous ketamine- infused plot to escape the Kantonsspital hospital may not have turned as well as things had. Then I steered my attention down the aisle. Standing proud and enchanted in front of my friends and family, I watched my beautiful Nikki, adorned in silk and lace like a fairy tale princess, walk down the aisle to Ben Harper’s “Forever”. Minutes later, we sealed our union with a kiss. I honestly thought that at this point in my life, I’d never find someone I loved enough to marry, much less have children with, but that evening, we returned home as Mr. and Mrs. Hendrikx, looking forward to a new adventure ahead.
On October 24, after nearly two days of labor, Nikki and I welcomed our beautiful daughter, Isabella Moon Hendrikx, into the world. The past year had been about new experiences, and this would be no different. No one can prepare you for childbirth. There are books, classes, and information online, but once you’re in that moment when a baby takes that first breath — it’s a miracle. And as I held our tiny daughter in my hands that night, and she had the faculties to stare back at me, I knew that all I had been through — the accident, the surgeries, rehabilitation, moving homes, getting married — all came with a deep recognition of purpose, and a renewed appreciation of family.
When I tell people the circumstances under which Nikki and I met — the accident, the train station in Switzerland, our Parisian romance, proposing in a Hawaiian riverbed, our fast-track marriage and beautiful baby girl — they often say our story sounds like a real-life fairy tale. And while it’s true, we do have an amazing story with magical beginnings, relationships aren’t always like a fairy tale. In fact, they almost never are. The reality is, Nikki and I will face the same struggles as any other married couple raising a child. But as I sit here typing these final words in our Newport Beach home, while baby Isabella gently coos in her bassinette and my beautiful wife, scantily clad in lace-edged lingerie, comes to me with a platter filled with sizzling Niman Ranch bacon; I just have to wonder — maybe I did end up in a fairy tale.
Wedding planned & designed by the Bride:
Day of Coordination: @perfectlypoised_events
Venue & Catering: @fivecrownsrestaurant
Groom's Attire: @calvinklein @goorinbros
Bride + Groom: @itsnikkimartin + @erichendrikx