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Earlier this year, Arlie Carstens was enjoying the kind of life he always dreamed of having when he was growing up in Seattle, spending all of his time snowboarding and listening to Jawbox records. He had just finished recording his debut album with his band Juno, This is the Way it Goes and Goes and Goes, and the disc was set to be released on Washington, D.C.-based DeSoto Records, the label formed by members of Jawbox. Carstens was making a living riding his board, touring the Northwest as a professional snowboarder. He was 26, and he spent his days doing the two things he loved.
Then it all came crashing down. Literally.
Carstens had performed the trick that broke his neck hundreds, maybe thousands of times. After all, he'd been on a board for more than half of his life. He began when he was 12 years old, became a sponsored rider at 14, and, since he was 19, had been a professional, making money at competitions as well as through endorsement deals with board-makers and sportswear companies. Riding a snowboard for Carstens was as easy as walking or playing guitar, which he did with Juno when he wasn't on the snowboarding circuit. The trick, a front-side rodeo flip -- basically, a back flip with one and a half rotations -- wasn't difficult. He had long ago stopped thinking about how to land it. He just did it.
Carstens wasn't even riding competitively on February 23, the day the accident happened. That day, he and 10 other riders on his team were assembled in Tahoe, California, for a photo shoot, showing off for the camera. Maybe that's why he rode a little harder, a little faster that day, spurred on by his friends and teammates, trying to be the best even though nothing was at stake except bragging rights. That was usually the most meaningful prize at the competitions anyway, the cash prize only important so none of the riders would have to get square jobs.
Not long into the shoot, Carstens attempted the front-side rodeo flip. He landed the trick, but when he reached the flat bottom of the half-pipe ramp, Carstens realized he was going much too fast. And that's about the last thing he can remember clearly. That, and waking up a few minutes later barely able to speak and unable to feel anything below his chin. Carstens was paralyzed -- though feeling would return to his hands, and gradually to the rest of his extremities by the end of the day -- because as he was speeding across the bottom of the ramp, his board hit a rut in the snow, sending him cartwheeling. As he landed awkwardly in the snow, his chin slammed into his chest, breaking four vertebrae.
"I realized that I was breaking my neck," Carstens says, from his Seattle apartment. This interview happened in May, one week after doctors removed the halo that protected his broken neck and had been screwed into his skull for more than 10 weeks.
"I blacked out, came to, and there was already an EMT holding my head, and a friend of mine had my hands," he recalls. "I was transferred to a hospital for evaluation, just like a local hospital up there in the woods. And they went, 'Oh, hell. You are really broken.' And they put me back in an ambulance and rushed me to a trauma center that has a neurosurgery ward that specializes in that sort of thing, because it's in such close proximity to the mountains. I spent the next three weeks there."
When Carstens finally emerged from the hospital, much of his upper body was encased in the protective halo, which takes the weight off the neck by suspending the head on screws drilled directly into the skull. A few weeks later, This the Way it Goes and Goes and Goes was released, but neither Carstens or the band -- which includes drummer Greg Ferguson, bassist Travis Saunders, and guitarists Gabe Carter and Jason Guyer -- could do much to support it. The halo made Carstens' neck muscles so slack he could barely talk, let alone sing. And he had pains that began at the pressure point between his thumb and forefinger and radiated up his arms, rendering his guitar playing ineffectual at best.
Carstens is doing better now, well enough finally to get back out on the road. He knows his accident could have been much worse. Even a few months ago, when he was in the middle of its hangover, when his hands felt "like they're being bitten by a dog or attacked with an ice pick," Carstens knew he was lucky to walk away from the spill.
"The thing is, I can walk," he says. "I can run around. I can do most things that most people do. They did X-rays and things, and they seem to think that because I'm as young as I am and as healthy as I am, that with enough physical therapy, I'm gonna be just fine."
Carstens won't be able to snowboard again, so he's focusing more on Juno, which is fine with him. He always loved music as much as he did riding on his board. Now that the hard part of his recovery is over, Carstens' biggest problem isn't wondering whether he'll be able to walk normally again but trying to shake the stigma of being a rock band from Seattle. Having grown up in Seattle, he knows all the problems that entails, that even the musicians who live there are caught up in the past. He's not one of them and, in fact, he doesn't even think there are any bands in the city that Juno can relate to.