(In 1999 motocross rider Aaron Baker broke his neck in a motocross accident, leaving him completely paralyzed from the neck down. Filmmaker Dominic Gill chronicles his journey in the documentary Coming to My Senses, available now on VOD via The Orchard.)
In 1999, 20-year-old motocross racer Aaron Baker broke his neck – cervical vertebrae 4, 5 and 6, to be specific – turning himself into a complete quadriplegic. The medical specialists treating him offered but a 1 in a million chance that he would ever be able to feed himself again, much less walk. And yet, as Coming to My Senses begins, over 15 years later, Baker is in the middle of a 6-day, 20-mile hike across Death Valley, in California. Though moving with no small amount of difficulty – each step is a chore that non-injured walkers would do in seconds, sans effort – he moves under his own steam, without braces, pushing a wheeled buggy filled with camping supplies. As we soon learn, what seems like a miracle is actually the product of prodigious effort, force of will and hard work, all profiled in this rousing debut documentary, from director Dominic Gill, which combines the best of sports- and health-related stories in one magnificent saga.
Gill not only directs, but shoots, as well, and hikes alongside Baker as he struggles through the desert, producing beautiful images that would be at home within the best nature documentaries. We tarry little in the present, however, as we first need to understand what brought our subject to this point. And so Gill cuts back and forth between Death Valley and the milestones – tragic and hopeful – in Baker’s past, from the accident to gradual rehabilitation and beyond. Along the way, we meet Baker’s mother, Laquita Diane, and physical therapist Taylor Isaacs, both of whom have been instrumental in Baker’s recovery. We watch as Baker is able to stand on his own, then walk, and then ride a tandem bike (with mom and friend Adam, on multiple cross-country trips and in competitions). It’s not all progress, however, as the health risks associated with a broken neck never completely go away. It’s always three (slow) steps forward, two tumbles back.
But things do improve, which leads us back to Death Valley. Once a somewhat frivolous thrill-seeker, Baker has matured into a physically and emotionally brave thirty-something, indomitable if not quite invincible. We never doubt that he will succeed – there wouldn’t be much of a film if he didn’t – but are gripped with anxiety watching his labors, nonetheless. By the end, Baker lives up to the movie’s title in all its meanings, regaining his senses from head to toe, brain to heart. His is a classic odyssey of a man’s return from the underworld into a universe of renewed hope and possibility. May his epic journey inspire all.