Photo courtesy of Matthew Tilford

In the Wake of a Life-Changing Spinal Injury, Adapting and Healing in Nature

The adventurous outdoor lifestyle is for everyone. It may not have been this way forever, but it sure is now. I’m a wheelchair-user who likes to test my physical and mental abilities, and with the help of adaptive technology, recreational equipment, family, and friends, I’ve learned that nothing is impossible. I haven’t let my disability hold me back from adventure cycling, mountain biking, kayaking, hiking, and camping. Earth has way too many beautiful and interesting landscapes to not explore, and pushing my physical and mental limits has been a source of healing after sustaining a life-changing spinal cord injury over a decade ago. 

I love being in nature for too many reasons to list. One of my favorites is showing other outdoorsy folks that people with disabilities want and deserve the same nature opportunities as the rest of the community. I’ve enjoyed seeing the huge push for diversity in nature that’s been going on over the past few years—sex, nationality, political affiliation, ability, or age are not defining factors of whether you’re allowed to commune with Mother Nature.

Photo courtesy of Matthew Tilford

I’ve always been outdoorsy and plan to have dirty wheels until my last day on Earth. I spent my formative years in California; my family were the weekend warrior types who could be found playing charades around a campfire. Because California’s landscape is so diverse, some weekends you would find us lakeside surrounded by golden rolling hills, while other times we were in the redwood-shaded forests on the Sierra Mountains. I’m grateful I explored the many landscapes California has to offer, because I’ve experienced a change of environment recently and am stoked to start a new adventure.

I recently moved from California to Utah and am beyond excited to explore and learn from the Intermountain Region. I’ll never change my love for Yosemite Valley, the cartoon-looking Joshua Trees, or the mighty Redwoods from California. My heart has more than enough room for Utah’s arches in the desert, the powdery snow on the Wasatch Mountains, and the salty flats. I won’t forget about the past, but I refuse not to live in the moment. 

If you’re an outdoorsy person, you know the importance of adapting. Mother Nature doesn’t care about your plans—she changes the weather patterns, forcing you to adapt. A burst fracture to my T12 vertebrae tore my spinal cord to shreds. If I wanted to continue living, my only option was to adapt. I didn’t just lose the function of my legs the day I was injured, I lost my ability to function as a so-called “normal” human. For the most part, I’ve figured out how to live, not exist. 

Photo courtesy of Matthew Tilford

For me, living is a 50-mile handcycle ride, kayaking on a glassy lake, bombing down a mountain on my adapted mountain bike, sipping a beer while sitting around a campfire, and even tearing down camp and cleaning all my gear when I get home. I’ve experienced my fair share of road blocks and setbacks, but I’ll never let them steal my love for adventure, and you shouldn’t either. You may have hobbies that don’t align with mine, but I think we can all agree that living is being outdoors and enjoying nature. 

I’m stoked to be Hello Ranger’s Adaptive Disability Ambassador. I’m stoked to represent people like me on a larger scale. I’m stoked to share my adaptations and abilities so you can see that possibilities are limitless. The best part is I’m inviting all of you to join me. Follow along with all my adventures here:

Instagram: @mtilford

Facebook: @matthewtilford

Twitter: @matttilford

YouTube: @mrmatthewtilford

Website: matttilford.com

Header photo: Courtesy of Matthew Tilford

Matthew Tilford didn’t lose his hunger for adventure when he sustained a life-changing spinal cord injury. Being outdoors has been a huge part of his healing process. Being a wheelchair-user, he learned to adapt and to be creative in order to fulfill outdoor passions.


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