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