Not Even a Wheelchair Could Stop Seth Mohler From Going Home

Just think for a second how important your legs are — and now imagine attending Burning Man without being able to use them.

sethmohler3That’s the situation Seth Mohler was in this year after a motorcycle accident in 2014 left him paralyzed from the chest down. It was October. He was riding on a country road to see a friend, swerved to avoid something in his path, and the next thing he knew he was coming out of a 30-day coma. He spent the next four months in the hospital, where he started plotting his return to the place that meant so much to him.

(Quick PSA from the man himself: “A helmet saved my life. So if you’re going to be playing sports or riding a motorcycle, I can’t promote helmet awareness enough.”)

Having been to Burning Man twice before the accident, Mohler was determined to put new meaning into the idea of Radical Self-reliance. A builder and a fixer with a background in TV production, he always felt his gift to the playa was helping people, from helping with RV problems to securing shade structures. In 2015, he led his camp, Tortwava, remotely, helping them prepare to have a spectacular Burn. (At the last minute, he realized he wasn’t physically ready to join them, much to his wife’s relief.)

But in 2016, it was time to go home.

“I just wanted to get out there and prove that I could still do that and be an asset to the community that we’re building,” he says. “Other than climbing up a ladder, I don’t let being in a wheelchair stop me from doing that much.”

Mohler secured an RV with a wheelchair lift and was grateful to be camping at 7:45 and J, where the hard-packed earth made it infinitely easier to wheel around. Anytime he left his camp, he made sure to bring an umbrella, extra water, sunblock, and a backpack with any medication. “We did get caught in a couple of dust storms and it was nice to know that I had my supplies with me in case I really got pinned down by a dust storm or rain,” he says.

He prepared for the event as if it would not be accessible, but he was nicely surprised to find systems in place to help disabled people. He learned that at Disability Camp, located outside of Center Camp, you could arrange for ice delivery — a relief because “it’s really hard for someone in a wheelchair to sit in the sun. You run the risk of pressure sores, and when you’re paralyzed, it’s hard to regulate your body temperature.”

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Mobility Camp offered lifts to raise people who use wheelchairs into art cars, and Mohler built his own small vehicle to get around. “That was the biggest help to me: how easy the DMV made it to register a disabled vehicle,” he recalls. Compared to the more lengthy process of getting a non-accessible art car approved, Mohler appreciated the DMV’s speediness, both before the event and once there (because sun). And when his car broke down — as they so often do — a mechanic named Magnum fixed it right up.

“I can’t say enough about the Rangers and all the help… I’ve always had a great relationship with the heavy equipment guys, and this year they went beyond the call of duty to help me out,” Mohler says, telling another story of running out of gas with three people quickly coming to the rescue. He also says none of this would have been possible without assistance and support from his wife and campmates: “I really couldn’t have done it without them.”

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“You can’t be afraid to ask for help at Burning Man, whether you’re disabled or not,” he continues. “I went out there to make sure I could still be radically self-reliant. You can be and everybody will help you, too. Prepare to help yourself and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

Oh yes, there was one more thing Mohler had to adjust to this year. “It’s hard to get around because everyone wants to high-five you,” he says with a laugh. “It’s hard to high-five when you’re pushing a wheelchair.”

About the author: Mia Quagliarello

Mia Quagliarello

Mia Quagliarello is a San Francisco-based 'Burning mom.' By day, she does curation, community and social media work at a startup; by night she's either working on her blog, Disco Nap, going out to see live music, or snuggling up with her two kids.

13 Comments on “Not Even a Wheelchair Could Stop Seth Mohler From Going Home

  • Dean Porter says:

    Great story (not the accident part)! So glad Seth made it back to BRC.

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    • John Hartman says:

      I spent many 9f the first years working the event. In 2002, a drunk and high driver hit me and my wife on our bike. 14 years and 36 surgeries later, I have been going every year since 2007. I have to get an art car but just take it very slow.

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  • Book Fairy Katy from Mobility Camp says:

    Seth made it back to BRC…if anyone with a disability wants to attend Burning Man check out the friendly folks at Mobility Camp at 6:30 and inner ring road just behind Center Camp…we’ve been in place for years helping Burners with every kind of disability and we have a great time doing it.

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  • Greg Milano says:

    Cool story and nice art cars! But please do a quick edit and change the phrase “wheel chair bound”,it’s an unacceptable archaic term for most “people who use wheelchairs”, which is a better term. People are not bound to their chairs – they use their chairs to get around. And live outside of them plenty.
    Our Pyromid Camp leader Dave G. also returned to the playa barely 14 months after a similar accident. He was injured in July of ’96, and we missed him that year but led us back in ’97. He helped develop some of the systems that helped smooth Seth’s ride 20 years later. That’s the burn at it’s finest.

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    • Eggchairsteve says:

      Yup, Dave Galat literally paved the way to the playa…

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    • Mia Quagliarello says:

      Thanks for your feedback. I have updated the post to reflect this language. I appreciate you pointing it out to me!

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      • KC says:

        Thanks Mia for the great article featuring Seth’s story, I’m looking forward to reading more articles from you in the future. I saw Greg’s comment about the phrasing of “people who use wheel chairs” which was a great catch and wanted to help elaborate a little more on the topic as it might help with any further articles… this topic is called “People First Terminology”. I myself just recently learned about it in my Recreational Therapy class and wanted to share it with you in case you wanted to do further research. For example, instead of saying, “The blind woman” one could say, “The woman who has a vision impairment” placing the “person first”. I hope this helps and thanks again for the article!

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  • This is awesome. I wanted to throw in this video of our dear departed friend Trevor Mills, who we worked with to send on a mobility run down our Zip-Line in 2015. We converted an old wheelchair to our purposes and let him rip (with the help of a VR!).

    https://youtu.be/XumTCVFMLxw

    We want to honor his legacy by building a wheelchair-accessible man cage so we can (legally) send mobility challenged folks 45 ft in the air using the VR!

    Sextant is always up for a challenge. Let us know if we can assist in any shenanigans :)

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  • Sandy says:

    Brave real personal people stories like this help me view life and the world in a more positive light….thanks from my heart!

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  • Charis Hill says:

    Thanks from another burner who is disabled, albeit not (yet) a wheelchair user. I’m so glad to see more blog posts about Burners with disabilities (BWD?) come after the one I posted about my own amazing experience (and that was shared in a previous JRS).

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  • Jeff Cruz says:

    Great article and story! Thanks for this. Here’s more information on Mobility Camp if you’re interested. http://jcruzfoto.com/2016/mobility-camp-radical-inclusion-by-radical-accessibility-in-black-rock-city

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  • Magnum says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I’m the guy (magnum) who helped Seth. I just want to let everyone know that I run the vehicle maintenance department for the Rangers, and if anyone with accessibility issues needs help, please find me at Outpost Tokyo (9:00 & C). I’m there pretty much all the time, and if I’m not, I’m just a radio call away. I offer mechanical repairs, mobile welding, lockout assistance, towing, and pretty much anything else vehicle related. So if you find yourself in a bind, come find me.

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