GALLATIN GATEWAY — In more than two decades of hiking and hunting in Montana’s backcountry, collecting elk sheds and other animal parts along the way, Eduardo Garcia was accustomed to stumbling across the odd rusted relic from the state’s pick-and-shovel mining days.
A cast-iron stove or Hills Brothers coffee can here, an oil drum or iron tool there.
So as Garcia stealthily probed his way up Beattie Gulch in the Gallatin Range near Gardiner on a bow-hunting outing in October 2011, he thought little of the decaying remains of what appeared to be a bucket as he eyed the remnants — dark fur and a few bones — of a long-dead black bear cub next to it.
Garcia, then just shy of 30, set aside his bow and a backpack containing his cellphone and car keys. He reached for his knife and bent over the carcass, thinking the bear’s claws would be a “cool” addition to the wildlife mounts adorning the walls and corners of his rustic Emigrant cabin.
With the blade in his left hand, he grabbed a paw with his right.
What happened in a literal flash would alter his life permanently.
It also — as anyone attending “Charged,” the documentary film of his story screening Thursday in Billings and Aug. 5 in Bozeman, will discover — has moved Garcia to combine his outdoor interests with changing similarly altered lives around the world.
On Saturday, for instance, the accomplished former yacht chef and current owner of Montana Mex natural foods in Bozeman will run in the 10th annual Madison Marathon near Ennis, exhorting participants on the “highest road marathon in the world.” He is one of 18 people to complete the Greater Yellowstone Adventure Series’ so-called trifecta in one summer: The Madison marathon, triathlon and duathlon.
The marathon, which starts at 9,250 feet in the Gravelly Range and never dips below 8,500, is themed “turn the corner” — a fitting metaphor for Garcia, his story and his mission.
“It gives Eduardo a chance to tell his story,” said Sam Korsmoe, founder and owner of the six-event series in the Madison Valley. “He just loves that. And people around him, they gravitate toward him at the starting line.
“They want to hear his story.”
That story begins with the bear paw in Beattie Gulch. The moment blade met bone, 2,400 volts of electricity shot through the knife, entered both arms and found nine exits on his body, most on his left side.
Turns out the “bucket” was an aged electrical junction box that had fallen into disrepair; the unlucky bear’s remains obscured a still-live power line that had been bush-whacked to a miner’s cabin.
Garcia remembers feeling heat in the back of his head, hearing “a high-frequency orchestration like an electric-guitar kind of thing,” and seeing the tops of surrounding conifers from his back before everything went blank.
“When I came to … it was like trying to get out of a bad dream,” he recalled. “I had to get up, I had to get to my feet, and then getting to my feet and not remembering the next chunk — 30 minutes. The next memory was walking down the gravel road and hearing a western meadowlark whistling and piecing it back together. ‘Oh yeah, I’m hunting today. Oh yeah, I saw that bucket. Oh yeah, I went to grab the claws.’
“That point was when I realized, ‘I think I just got electrocuted.’”
Garcia then noticed his left arm, charcoal black and curled into a fetal position. The back of his right hand was badly burned, too. Unbeknownst to him yet, most of the left side of his torso was scorched.
As he further surveyed his body, Garcia was surprised to discover he’d used the two elk-calling lanyards around his neck to make a sling. He noted bear spray hanging from his hip. But in his confusion, he had left behind the backpack, cellphone and car keys inside.
At that moment, all he could do was commit to staying upright for a three-mile walk to help, fearful that if he fell he’d never rise again.
It was the beginning of a recuperative journey that continues to this day.
Garcia eventually staggered onto the valley floor and bumped into a worker at a vacation cabin along the Yellowstone River. A hustled stop at the hospital in Livingston was hastily followed by Life Flight to a burn unit in Salt Lake City.
Still in shock, Garcia remembers wondering jokingly to himself how much duct tape they’d need to stitch him up and asking how he’d get back home to Montana that night. Out of earshot, doctors grimly told his family and former girlfriend Jennifer Jane to expect the worst.
“The surgeon said I should speak to Ed on the phone, because it might be the last time that I speak to him,” Jane tearfully recalls in the three-minute ‘Charged’ trailer, as Garcia’s chin quivers in a hospital bed.
For 48 touch-and-go days, Garcia would be in the Burn Trauma ICU at the University of Utah, for much of it “a bag of bones with a heartbeat, hanging on by a thread,” a doctor told him later. He underwent 21 surgeries, losing his charred left hand and 10 inches of the arm below the elbow after one week to stave off fatal infection. Doctors also removed four ribs and muscle mass from his scalp, arms, legs and his torso.
He managed an even emotional keel, he recalled, thanks to “a don’t-quit attitude, humor, ignorance and damn good doctors”, support from his family and the nearly 24-hour vigilance of Jane, who interrupted rebuilding her life and flew in from London a week after they broke up to re-enter his in a moment of need.
Only once, Garcia said, did he cry tears of anguish.
He and Jane were watching a Netflix movie on a laptop computer in his hospital bed when he reached with his left hand to touch her knee, as he’d done so many times when they were together. It all felt so normal, until he looked down and saw empty space where he was certain his hand had been on her knee.
“I broke down,” he said. “That was a hard reality check.”
Another reality check was the revelation midway through treatment that remaining treatment would have to be delayed. Doctors diagnosed Stage 2 testicular cancer and sent him back to Montana for four months of chemotherapy before he could return. The cancer, remarkably, was a blip relative to the gravity of his burns.
Cancer-free and out of the burn unit, Garcia began the next phase of recovery, both physical and psychological. An engaging sort with an athlete’s solid build, wavy dark hair, a movie-star smile and, aptly, eyes that light up a room, he was determined to remain, as he put it, “fairly hard-charging.”
“At 30 years old, I had to re-think how to do every single task,” he said. “My role was to be positive and not hide pain and not hide loss, to try to still be me and to immediately start designing my life moving forward. Are there any amputee chefs? Boom. Let’s research. How do I fly fish with a prosthetic? How do I surf again? Maybe I’ll design a surfer hand. Let’s get to work. I’m not going to lay back on this one.”
For a time, diversions helped. As a chef for nearly a decade on private yachts after graduating from the Seattle Art Institute at age 20, the Bozeman native was accustomed to running in fast circles. After the accident, he was flown to New York to appear on the Today Show, Good Morning America and Katie. People magazine and Huffington Post wrote about “The Bionic Chief.”
He eschewed Montana media, though, finding it easier to share his story with strangers.
“I didn’t want to have to explain any of it,” he said of his local community.
Once the national buzz ended after two years, Garcia remembers struggling mentally to re-merge onto the lanes of day-to-day life, even if physically he’d become something of a marvel. He learned to use his hook to prepare food and returned to his active outdoors life.
Garcia might’ve stayed on that recuperative course had it not been for a follow-up visit with one of his doctors in Utah.
“God, look how you’ve recovered,” the physician marveled. “What are you doing with it? Your hair grew back after cancer; you look great. Why aren’t you sharing your success as an inspiration for others to believe in overcoming great odds?”
As he recalled the conversation, Garcia, now 35, glanced at his bionic left arm and gazed out at the distant Bridger Mountains from the small second-story deck at the unfinished log home he now lives in near the mouth of the Gallatin Canyon.
“He kind of charged me in a not-so-subtle way, and I think he was right,” he said. “That was a tipping point.”
Sharing the story
An immediate result was “Charged,” the documentary directed by Bozeman filmmaker Phillip Baribeau that came to fruition after a $165,000 Kickstarter campaign. As Jane helped nurse Garcia through his time in and then out of the hospital, she videotaped his story. “Charged” is showing at festivals across the country, from Hawaii to Puerto Rico.
“I’m one of the fortunate people to see the whole thing,” Korsmoe said. “It’s amazing.”
Garcia also has become a spokesperson and fundraiser for the Challenged Athletes Foundation out of San Diego, which will receive half the proceeds from Saturday’s marathon.
“My hope is that people leave the film thinking, ‘OK, at whatever place I’m at in life, who do I decide to be tomorrow? What story do I write for myself? What will be my legacy?’ “ Garcia said. “Because when the heart is beating we have total freedom to do that. It starts by dreaming big and putting that dream into action.”
Today, nearly six years after reaching for that bear paw, Garcia’s life has returned to relative normalcy. Last week, for the first time, he even retrieved line with his hooks while fly fishing with streamers on the Jefferson River. He and Jane co-own Montana Mex, which sells chemical-free seasonings and sauces, and they are working on a “Hungry Life” film series in which they harvest ingredients from the outdoors and prepare them over campfires.
Occasionally Garcia will look at the prosthetic or stare into a mirror at the punchbowl-sized raw-hamburger divot on the left side of his torso “and realize how much time has passed and still recognize that it turned my life upside-down.”
But only briefly. Within moments, he’ll hit reset. And remember it’s time to turn another corner.
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