By Missy Votel
This July 6, it will have been two years since Neil Hannum woke up in a strange hospital bed, in a city 300 miles from his home.
“The first thing I said was, ‘Oh shit, not again,’” Hannum, 54, recalled recently.
A free-range kid before there even was such a thing, Hannum was no stranger to hospitals and emergency rooms. He was reared near Davis, Calif., one of six kids, in the free-wheeling ’70s. Like many kids growing up before smart phones and the internet, the bicycle was his ticket to freedom and adventure. He developed a love of the bicycle at an early age, partaking in many not-so-carefully-thought-out two-wheeled escapades with his four brothers. He broke more than his fair share of bones along the way – femur, fibula, collar bone (both sides), ribs and scapula. There were probably a few concussions thrown in there, too. “All we did was hit our heads,” he said. “There were no helmets back then.”
Hannum parlayed his two-wheeled obsession into a job after college at Answer Products, purveyor of BMX and moto gear. Then, he continued on the familiar arc that ultimately landed him in the biking mecca that is Durango.
A longtime fixture in the local cycling scene, he did stints over the years at Bula and co-owned a marketing firm, Creative Conspiracy. But, perhaps he was best known for his most recent incarnation as The Chip Peddler, purveyor of locally made potato and later tortilla chips. His trademark yellow and green bags – featuring artwork of a bicycle of course – were a staple on local store shelves as well as Zia Taqueria. His golden-yellow Chip Peddler delivery truck and matching delivery bike were common sights around town.
Hannum was working on taking Chip Peddler to the next level, earning highly coveted shelf space at Whole Foods, when it all came crashing down.
On June 26, 2016, Hannum was finishing up a road ride, heading south on Highway 550. He was stopped at the light at Trimble Lane, about to turn left to meet his family in the parking lot at PJ’s Market. That’s when he was struck from behind by a vehicle trying to pass him on the right.
At least that’s what he was told. Hannum remembers 4 nothing about the accident, the events leading up to it, or several weeks after.
“I did not remember anything about the day until a friend asked me if I remembered being at their house that morning,” he recalled. “I do not recall nine days of my life.”
It’s a sad reality in the battle of two wheels vs. four, cyclists almost always lose. In Hannum’s case, he suffered a traumatic brain injury and a broken T11 on his spine and was airlifted to St. Anthony’s Hospital in Denver. With the local community, his wife, Kris, and two children keeping vigil, he woke up from a medically induced coma the day after the accident. Thankfully – miraculously – he suffered no permanent spinal cord damage. Although he didn’t walk away from the accident, he would walk again. That was the good news.
The bad news, his brain had taken the brunt of the fall. There was no telling how, or if, he would ever recover.
Fortunately, the brain has an amazing way of protecting itself in such instances. Like an intricate computer, it shuts itself down, goes into “safe mode” if you will. And when it finally reboots, the process can be slow and unpredictable. People have been said to awaken with amnesia (no, it’s not just a plot device for soap operas), speaking a foreign language, or with new aptitude for, say, piano.
In Hannum’s case, he was merely in the wrong decade. When he came to, the nurses asked him about his kids; he told them they were 3 and 5 (they were actually 13 and 15). The way he described it, the memories were there, they were just a disjointed and scrambled patchwork. “Basically, the shit hit the fan,” he said. “It’s like your memories are in a file cabinet that gets tipped over and all the files get blown in the wind. With the answer about my kids, I just pulled up the wrong piece of paper.”
Once awake and out of intensive care, Hannum was transferred to Craig Hospital in Denver for rehabilitation. He spent six and a half weeks in Denver, relying on others to slowly help him piece his life back together.
“It was only other people telling me things that helped me,” he said. “If they’d told me I had slipped on a banana, I would’ve been afraid of bananas.”
Although his stay at Craig was arduous at times – bad coffee, sheets like “sand paper,” a cacophony of blinking lights at all hours and Denver TV news, which he jokes was “even more traumatic than the accident” – it was also eye-opening. “Walking around and seeing the other patients, I realized how lucky I was,” he said.
But without the benefit of riding to keep his sanity, he turned to his second love – the yin to the rough-and-tumble biking yang – art.
“It was always Neil, the artist,” said Hannum, a graduate of the College of Design in Pasadena, one of the higher-profile art schools in the country.
Up until then, Hannum’s art had taken a bit of a back seat to making chips and his two-wheeled fetish. While his jobs over the years had incorporated his talent for design and illustration, it was almost as if the accident had opened some sort of artistic portal – or in this case, a veritable geyser. While still at Craig, Hannum – also a history buff – started a prolific series of hand-drawn portraits of the 44 presidents. (Trivia question: why is Donald Trump the 45th president if there have only been 44? Because Grover Cleveland served two nonconsecutive terms.)
“I poured myself into it. There’s a lot of therapy in that,” Hannum said.
Eventually released and sent home, he continued the art while working to rebuild his life. It’s something he said he never could have accomplished without the support of the local community. “That is the awesomeness of this community,” he said.
“I’d be hiking around or in the City Market line and strangers would come up and say, ‘You don’t know me, but I was at the intersection when you got hit. How are you doing?’”
Naturally, Hannum’s first order of business upon returning home – despite doctor’s orders to wait a year – was to get back on the bike. As luck would have it, the old adage about riding a bike proved true.
“Two weeks after I got back, I wanted to get back on my bike to make sure I could still ride, so I went around the neighborhood,” he said.
Eventually, he was riding back and forth from his north Durango home to the Chip Peddler kitchen, in Bodo Park. “I didn’t tell Kris,” he confides.
Ever the instigator, eight months out, he rode his bike from a friend’s house in Morrison to a doctor’s appointment in Denver – albeit along a bike path.
“They asked ‘How’d you get here?’ and I said, ‘I rode my bike.’ They didn’t like that,” Hannum said.
When the doctors protested, saying riding a bike could be dangerous, he pushed back. “Hmmm, I guess I probably shouldn’t be in a car then, either,” he replied.
And while the behavior may seem cavalier, it’s not for Hannum, who doesn’t even own a car. He is among the rare breed of diehards for whom taking away bikes is like taking away the very air they breathe. For him, accidents are a necessary, albeit unfortunate, part of the deal. “If you ride your bike 100 times a year, how many times do you think you’ll have a wreck?” Hannum reasoned. (He noted that he feels his accident was more of an “incident” than a “wreck,” with several culpable factors, including a poorly designed intersection.)
And while cycling offers much-needed psychological therapy, it also brings with it physical relief as well. Since the accident, an inner ear problem has given him the constant sensation of “floating.” Cycling is the only activity where he actually feels grounded, he said. “I feel better on my bicycle.”
Alas, Hannum admits he’ll never be back to his pre-accident riding form. Mental, emotional and physical limitations still hold him back. “I’m just not as excited about it,” he said. “Part of that is being so out of shape. I used to joke even before the accident that I had to train to be in last.”
That said, he does still partake in “slow” mountain bike rides (there are no cars on the trails) with a friend, who is helping to motivate him after the injury. And he attended some local cyclocross races last winter “just to be with friends.”
As for The Chip Peddler, that has also shifted gears. As Hannum explained it, sliding around on greasy floors with a head injury just wasn’t an ideal situation. Although he had an employee to help him out, without another investor, it was impossible to keep the chip ship afloat. In March 2017, after more than seven years in business, he decided to call it quits. The chips quietly disappeared from local shelves, as fans cried into their jars of salsa.
“I told (Zia) and held on for the rest of the summer,” he said. When meeting for this story in April, he had just brokered a deal with the Bluegrass Meltdown to trade his last box of chips for some concert tickets. The chipping equipment and fryer, which he bought leveraging his family’s savings, is for sale.
“It’s like a Big Head Todd song,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot of things.”
Perhaps it is more sweet than bitter, though. “The human body is an amazing machine. I can do all the things I still want to do in a way.”
For Hannum, the end of one road only means the beginning of another to be explored. In this case, that new road is his art – which has moved on from presidents to local landmarks as well as colorful, nearly psychedelic illustrations of old trucks. Working out of his home with no studio to speak of, the works – totaling 100 and counting – can be seen on his Instagram page, @2wheeltribe.
Hannum admits to becoming somewhat of a “truck stalker” as of late, combing the countryside for old trucks to emulate. “I like to take pictures of old trucks, I have a couple CDs full of them,” he said. “Sometimes, I’ll even look for old trucks on Google Earth.”
So, I guess if you’ll pardon the pun, Hannum intends to keep on trucking. (And he certainly hasn’t lost his sense of self-deprecating, morbid humor joking that the car will “have to hit him twice next time.”) He envisions ultimately teaming up with a storyteller and turning the illustrations into a series of children’s books.
“I want to re-emerge,” he said. “If I could work on art, and do more art, I’d be happy.”
(That and he’d like to return to Europe someday for a bike-touring trip, like the ones he did in 2006 and 2009, when he rode to Oktoberfest. Surely, there’s also a book in there somewhere, too.)
And although his wounds have healed – he refers to the purple scar across the left side of his face as his “tattoo”– it’s clear that the internal ones, the ones we can’t see, are still raw. He gets emotional talking about two other locals who are currently at Craig Hospital: Wiley Corra, 15, who suffered a traumatic brain injury from a fall in late March; and Bryan Brock, a 44-year-old father of two, who had a stroke believed to be the result of a collision in a hockey game.
For Hannum, ever the student of history, it all just helps to underscore the fragility of it all – the need to leave your mark, whether it be tire tracks on a dirt trail or ink on paper. But most importantly, do what you love.
“With what you’re doing today, make sure it’s something you and your family will be proud of,” he said.