On November 18, 2014, Tim Burr took off for a day of backcountry skiing near Kebler Pass outside of Crested Butte. A 19-year-old student at Western Colorado University in Gunnison, he was excited to get outside for some early-season turns with a friend before the holidays.
But then, the unthinkable happened: Burr crashed. What he had expected to be a carefree day in the snow quickly turned into a critical emergency situation. The accident left him with a broken fifth cervical (C5) vertebra, in the lower area of his neck. He was instantly paralyzed from the chest down.
“First I was placed in ICU at St. Mary’s [Medical Center] in Grand Junction. Then I was transferred to Craig Hospital on the front range,” Burr, now 25, says of the nationally-recognized neurorehabilitation center in Englewood. “It’s a spinal cord rehab-specific hospital where they try and help you recover physically the best they can, but also teach you how to live life after your injury.”
Burr did not return home to Glenwood Springs until Valentine’s Day 2015, after nearly three months in the hospital. Then, he remembers, the real work of adjusting to his new life began.
“It’s a full-on learning curve,” Burr says. He had to learn how to navigate the world in a wheelchair, perform daily tasks, drive, and more—all without use of his legs, arms, or hands, although he has retained some function in his shoulders and wrists. “At the time I really wanted to get back home, and have a chance to figure out my own routines.”
About a year later, Burr got a modified Toyota Tundra that he could operate independently. He needed a bit of assistance getting in, but with a special seat and adapted controls, he could hit the road (or go off of it) and reclaim a sense of autonomy which he had not been able to experience since his injury. Right away, Burr knew he’d discovered a new realm of personal freedom.
“I found out that driving is an adaptive activity that’s fulfilling and freeing, even after trying a lot of other adaptive sports,” he says. “Exploration became my new passion.”
It didn’t take long for Burr to begin thinking of other people he’d met who are living with similar physical circumstances. If he had been able to find such joy in this activity, wouldn’t they also benefit from some time behind the wheel?
Thus, an idea was born, which would soon become Burr’s nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people with disabilities re-discover the thrill of driving and experiencing the outdoors: Return to Dirt. By the summer of 2018, he and his team held their first season of adaptive off-road trips with participants from across the U.S.—all gratis—and he hasn’t looked back.
“So far we’ve tried to get about 30 different people out with us in a year,” Burr reports. “We start up with trips to the desert in April, do high alpine in the summer, and keep going through October. Really we go all over, depending on what a person wants to do on their trip.”
Return to Dirt has a fleet of two adapted Polaris RZR off-road vehicles outfitted with numerous special features, capable of accommodating the needs of people with a wide spectrum of physical limitations. Modifications include hand controls for gas and brakes, five point harnesses, special seating, custom-built roll cages, adjustable power steering assistance, suspension work, and more.
“Whatever challenge a person has, we want to be able to find a way to work with it,” Burr says. “Plus, reliability and stability are extremely important. Safety is a top priority. The people we work with are not going to be able to hike out of the backcountry if something happens, so we’ve got to make sure the vehicles are capable and trustworthy.”
So what does a Return to Dirt excursion look like?
“It varies a lot,” Burr says. “People want different things out of their trips. Some are really interested in the equipment and the driving aspect, and for others the equipment is just a vehicle—literally and figuratively—to access a certain trailhead or an area they used to love seeing. Sometimes their requests are pretty broad, like they just want to be in high alpine to see wildflowers in July, and other times the trip is just all about who they’re with. They want to experience a day outside with people they love, and that’s all that matters to them. We do our best to deliver on whatever it is they want to do.”
Burr is quick to note that Return to Dirt is by no means an equipment rental company, however. He and his experienced team accompany each participant on their adventure, fostering unforgettable camaraderie and helping every person make the most of their trip. (Excursions might be one day long, or multiple days, depending on the situation.) Burr humbly credits his colleagues, a “chosen family” of people who helped him navigate the early days of his own return to dirt, for much of his success thus far; he also points to several other organizations that inspired his path into nonprofit work. Those include the Bridging Bionics Foundation, Access Unlimited, and the High Fives Foundation, among others.
“There are many other people behind the scenes who have helped make this happen,” Burr says. “When we think about our mission and how to plan these individualized trips for everyone who applies to come out with us, the big question is, what’s going to ignite this person’s soul?”
As Burr launches Return to Dirt’s 2021 season this month, it’s clear that helping others is what ignites his soul, too. Keep up with all of his latest adventures by following the organization on Instagram and Facebook, or visit ReturnToDirt.org.