It’s late March and Ian Mackay heads out to continue his streak of consecutive days with at least one mile on the Olympic Discovery trail near his home in Port Angeles, Washington. He started back in October 2016. Today is day 508.
Mackay says it feels good to see the trail more populated by fellow outdoors enthusiasts. His presence is as much of a fixture as the iconic majestic views of the mountain peaks, rivers and lakes it’s known for — nearly everyone he passes knows him by name or nods in recognition. To be fair, the 4.5-foot-long dreadlocks draped over each shoulder, hanging down past his knees in thick, sunbleached cords, make him pretty hard to miss.
Humble almost to a fault, Mackay sidesteps any talk of his local celebrity status and redirects the conversation toward signs of spring along the trail. “You see it in the crocuses and the daffodils, the swallows and the goldfinches coming back around,” he says. “When you see those you get a little pumped up because you know warmer weather is coming.”
The lifelong birder, botanist and beer connoisseur is a driving force behind two nonprofits, runs three peer support groups and has accumulated nearly 10,000 miles in his power chair over the last three and a half years. In doing so, he has built a platform as a leading advocate for accessible trails all over the country. It’s a testament to a unique spirit whose love of nature brought him full-circle after a traumatic life shift in his mid-20s
In Survival Mode
Prior to the bicycle injury that left him a C2 quad nearly a decade ago, the San Diego native was a firm believer that nature was the best medicine. A self-confessed extreme extrovert, Mackay loved being outdoors, tailoring his college studies specifically toward a career as a community college field biology teacher. He wanted to share his passion with others. “I wanted to take people out and show them these things that made me love being outside,” he says.
When he wasn’t scouring Southern California’s backcountry terrain in hopes of photographing some of its more elusive flora and fauna or searching for the perfect soil to make Native American-style pottery, he could be found zigzagging the coast in his ’78 Volkswagen “Westy” camper van, serving as road support for friends doing bike tours. “It was often my job as road crew to swing through a brewery and grab some beers and get camp set up.”
That all changed in the summer of 2008 when the 26-year-old hit a loose patch of gravel while riding back from one of his classes at University of California, Santa Cruz, sending him headfirst into a tree, breaking his neck and rendering him a vent-dependent quadriplegic. The once fiercely independent outdoorsman was barely able to speak, and struggled mightily to adjust. “All of a sudden I lost my voice and I lost my body,” he says. “I became a totally different person. I wasn’t interested in being outside, I was in survival mode.”
Mackay relocated to the Pacific Northwest with his mother and stepfather immediately after being discharged from rehab, and spent much of that first year in self-imposed isolation as he worked his way off the ventilator. “I was trying to redefine myself, and I think that was a mistake,” he says. “Instead of cherishing those aspects that made me who I am, I was trying to figure out who I could be after my injury.”
Powerful Peer Connections
A road trip to his old stomping grounds in Southern California for a friend’s wedding a year after his injury helped Mackay start to come out of his shell. He and his family stopped off to visit the therapists who helped him through rehab at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. It was an emotional stroll down memory lane, but a trip up to the ICU to visit newly injured people put his situation and his progress in perspective.
“That was a turning point for me,” he says. “It allowed me to tell my story and see how far I’d come in a year.” It’s a pilgrimage he’s repeated at least once a year since, stopping off to see old friends and visit the newly injured. Kathy Kobayashi, one of his occupational therapists at Valley, says she’s been blessed to witness what she calls a total metamorphosis since those early days. “He’s taught us things that we still use today,” she says.
Recognizing the power of peer connections, Mackay didn’t want to limit those experiences to the occasional road trip, so he started a peer support meeting near his home with the help of a friend and caseworker. In the beginning, there were many meetings where it was just him, a caregiver and his family, but attendance slowly grew over the months and years that followed. While the meetings gave him an outlet, he was still looking for a larger impact moving forward.
It wasn’t long after he returned home from that first road trip back to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center that he met Todd Stabelfeldt [see “Tech Titan,” Oct. 2017], a database manager and C4 quad of more than 20 years who lived an hour away. Being someone Mackay’s age with so much paralysis experience made Stabelfeldt the perfect mentor. “To see someone with a similar injury who is happy, successful and independent made me realize that I had a future ahead of me,” says Mackay.
Stabelfeldt could sense something in his dreadlocked friend that ran much deeper than a funky hairstyle — a fire for independence roiling underneath the surface. “He is a very special individual,” says Stabelfeldt. “He’s hungry.”
I got to experience that fire firsthand when I met Mackay at a gathering of local quads for the 25th anniversary party of Stabelfeldt’s injury. When our first conversation bent toward how far behind I was with adaptive computing, he couldn’t contain his frustration with me. “You’re an idiot,” he said with a playful jab. He made a point of sending me some adaptive equipment a week later, and I couldn’t help but agree that I hadn’t known what I was missing.
The connections made that day planted the seed that grew into The Here and Now Project, a paralysis support network in the Pacific Northwest with hundreds of members who share their hard-earned knowledge for the betterment of others. For Mackay, it’s all about seeing what’s out there, meeting cool people, doing cool things. “We are lucky to be where we are in western Washington, to have a group of people who want to live well, have as much independence as they can, and are willing to go out there, find it and share it,” he says.
It was at another Here and Now get-together a year later that he and Stabelfeldt were introduced to Switch Control, an accessibility feature buried deep inside Apple’s iOS7 update that allows complete access to the iPhone platform with as little as a single microswitch. Within weeks, Mackay was testing the limits of the technology. “He was the first dude and was out there demonstrating it from the start,” says Stabelfeldt.
Reconnecting with Nature
Having reliable access to a phone meant Mackay could test a level of independence that he never thought was possible post-injury. Mackay’s compromised breathing means he needs someone close by at all times for a cough assist or other help. But having access to locator apps like Find Friends enabled him to take extended trips by himself, calling in support from the road only when needed. “It was scary early on,” he says, “but as my competence with the system steadily increased, it gave me the confidence to go further and further.”
The increasing solitude of those rides unlocked the familiar healing power of nature that had been missing from his life. “I could see the migrating birds come through. I could see certain flowers blooming, and the seasons change. I was able to talk to people and be by myself, and do things I wanted to do. That’s where I found something that I loved.”
Mackay soon found himself pushing the gearless, brushless motors of his Invacare TDX to their limits, topping out at 30.1 miles in a single charge. That kind of range opened up a whole new world of possibilities. Because his family’s home was nestled smack in the middle of the 17 miles that separate the two port towns of Port Angeles and Sequim, they were both well within range for independent trips. “It allows me to go either direction, depending on what I’m looking for that day,” he says.
The first time he visited Barhop Brewery in Port Angeles by himself, he knew he would have to ask the waitress to help him with his beer. “You have to do that,” he says. “You have to reach outside your comfort zones if you want to be independent.” By the end of 2015, he had sufficiently stretched his comfort zones, accumulated nearly 2,000 miles on the trail and was setting his sights on much more ambitious goals for the following year.
Dubbed Ian’s Ride, McKay’s grandest plan yet was to start from his home in Port Angeles, take a ferry up to Victoria, British Columbia, and then, using just his wheelchair, work his way south in 30-mile chunks, stopping at breweries every night. The trip turned out to be a more ambitious undertaking than he first imagined. In total, he spent nearly 75 percent of the ride navigating inaccessible highways and main roads in between the occasional reprieve of groomed trails. It gave him plenty to talk about with the handful of local politicians who joined him for stints along the way. “There was so much for me to learn about infrastructure and transportation, as well as the financial cost and the environmental impact of building new trails,” he says.
Mackay is quick to admit that the adventure wasn’t an entirely selfless pursuit. “I just wanted to explore new trails and drink good beer along the way,” he says. “I wanted to relive my heyday and rekindle that love of doing cross-state bike rides from my chair.”
He also met up with a handful of chair users like Joe Meyer, a C4 quad from Bothell, Washington, who joined up with Ian for a 17-mile trek down the Burke-Gilman Trail near his home. Being part of Mackay’s grand adventure motivated Meyer to push outside his comfort zones as well. “Ian inspired me to test the limits of my batteries and see how far I could go independently,” Meyer says. He would later put the Washington public transportation system to the test by traveling 300 miles in a single day to visit Mackay at his home, taking 14 different buses, and a couple of ferry rides to complete the task.
For Mackay, the whole experience harkened back to his pre-injury days. Instead of taking students up an obscure path in the backcountry to find rare plants, he was introducing the beauty of paved trails to a different cross-section of his community. “It was those experiences that I have such amazing memories of,” he says, “and to be able to re-experience them in a different way was really special.”
In total, the trip covered 340 miles in 12 days and raised $5,000 for local charities. “Don’t forget 15 breweries and 107 unique beers,” Mackay adds. In recognition of his accomplishments and work on behalf of others, Gov. Jay Inslee crowned him Washingtonian of the Day, and Washington Bikes named him its Person of the Year and asked him to be the keynote speaker at its annual summit. “If you would’ve told me I would meet the governor and do all these cool things, I wouldn’t have believed it.”
Advocacy One Mile at a Time
Most people would take a break after such an arduous experience, but Ian’s Ride just fueled Mackay’s drive to push toward increasingly larger goals. In 2017, he easily surpassed his new goal of 3,000 miles, finishing the year with an astounding 4,700 total. That included two nearly successful attempts to “Ride the Hurricane,” an annual 18-mile bicycle race from sea level to the top of Hurricane Ridge at elevation 5,240 feet. He also led a group of chair users up Mount Rainier to highlight the need for accessible trails there.
Much of 2018 saw Mackay settling into his new custom-built home on his family’s property, taking on a more active role in the development of both The Here and Now Project and Ian’s Ride, which became a nonprofit earlier in the year. But it hasn’t been all desk jockey work, as his elevated platform compelled him to take his advocacy to the national stage, making the long trip to Washington, D.C., for United Spinal Association’s Roll on Capitol Hill. “Too many of us are stuck indoors,” he says. “The more access that’s available, the easier it is for those of us who have mobility impairments to enjoy what’s out there. My brothers and sisters in chairs across the nation should have those opportunities to get out there and see the world.”
Once home from the nation’s capital, he set his sights squarely on prep for another epic ride with friends across Washington State in August, this time from East to West starting in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Spanning nearly 500 miles and over 25,000 feet of culmulative elevation gain, Mackay overcame a streak of days hovering near triple digit temperatures and smoky air conditions from multiple forest fires within close proximity of his route, stretching his consecutive mile streak to 661 days. “Adding an extra set of lithium-ion batteries to my chair was a game changer,” says Mackay. “It helped on the larger inclines and gave me a higher average speed overall.”
Asked about future goals, Mackay points to the East Coast Greenway, a route that stretches from Florida to Maine that he found time to zip down a portion of while in D.C. “It has been on my radar for a while, and I hope to ride a bigger portion of it one day,” he says. Whether it’s down the Eastern Seaboard or across the more familiar trails back home, Mackay is sure to continue his trailblazing ways one day and one mile at a time.
• Ian’s Ride, Iansride.com
• Switch Control, apple.com/accessibility/iphone/physical-and-motor-skills/
• The Here and Now Project, hereandnowproject.org