The ranch is a sacred place for the Chant family.
The Sweetwater River snakes through their land, nestled near South Pass, 8,000 feet above sea level, at the base of Wyoming’s jagged Wind River Mountains.
To the north, Wyoming’s tallest peaks jut up in showy spires.
To the south, red rock canyons lead to yawning deserts that burst with life when the rains come.
Spring is Archie and Lesa Chant’s favorite time of year. Heavy snow and seemingly relentless wind give way to green pastures and calving season. The young couple — both raised on ranches — work the land together, riding and roping to tend their cattle, mending fences and doing the hard chores to make a living on their beautiful, but unforgiving place.
“I like the freedom, the fact that there aren’t a lot of people,” said Archie, 39. “It’s peaceful and it’s a challenge.”
Not far away, near his mom’s summer cabin, wagon ruts still mark the routes where pioneers traveled in search of hope and opportunity on the Oregon and Mormon Trails.
Lander, the nearest town, is 40 miles away. Isolation is the norm. When the Chants face a big job, like branding, they enlist the help of friends and family who come from dozens of miles away. Everyone teams up to get the work done, then enjoys a big meal, plenty of beer and tales that get taller as the skies darken.
The rest of the time, it’s just Archie and Lesa, working the land that his grandfather once owned. The ranch sits right on the Continental Divide.
When they are irrigating the meadows, Archie gets a kick out of thinking that if he diverts water from the ditch to the west, it eventually will flow all the way to the Pacific. If he sends the water the other way, it will wind up in the Atlantic.
“We’re right on top of the world,” said Archie, who’s tall and lean and looks most comfortable in a saddle, wearing his cowboy hat and spinning his rope.
‘If anybody was going to get hit, I was going to take it’
The Chants were heading home to their ranch, driving on a “middle-of-nowhere,” 2-lane highway about 50 miles south of Gillette, Wyo., back in 2015, when the course of their future forever changed.
Their lives could go one way or the other, like the water on their ranch.
Lesa had grown up in South Dakota on a ranch so remote that the highway ends in Camp Crook, 25 miles before you get to her folks’ place. The nearest grocery store is 130 miles away. She and Archie had taken their baby daughter, Charli, then 7 months, up to her parents’ place to help them get ready for winter.
It was October 26. There wasn’t any bad weather, no reason to worry that anything could go wrong.
Archie was driving the Chants’ white Dodge pickup truck and towing a trailer full of their horses. Lesa, now 36, was sitting in the front passenger seat, glancing down at her phone. Charli was tucked safely in her infant seat, directly behind her mom.
Archie came up over a hill on Wyoming 387. In the distance, coming toward them, he saw a white truck that seemed to be in his lane. It jerked back over to the right side, as if the driver of the 2-ton sanitation rig had been passing someone. But there wasn’t another car.
“Get off your phone,” Archie thought to himself.
He eyed the truck and tried to slow his heavy load as he descended the hill. He got down to about 40 miles an hour when suddenly the white truck veered across the center line again and barreled straight toward him, going about 75 miles an hour. Archie had only a moment to respond. He yanked the steering wheel to the right and headed toward a ditch.
“If anybody was going to get hit, I was going to take it,” said Archie.
His reflexes saved Lesa and Charli. But the devastating head-on collision nearly cost Archie his life, his legs and everything that made him whole.
‘A fate thing’
Archie and Lesa met during college at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.
Archie was finishing his last semester and was getting out of a long relationship. He had his eye on Lesa’s roommate, whom he worked with at an animal sciences lab on campus.
Then, he met Lesa.
She was a 20-year-old sophomore at the time. Archie was charmed that the first time he met her, she wore jeans with a turtleneck and a vest to a bar where the college girls usually wore skimpy outfits. She was a barrel racer for the University rodeo club. He could tell she had real ranching roots. He fell hard.
“It was love at first sight,” Archie says with a shy grin. “It was one of those fate things.”
Lesa had spotted Archie earlier and was glad her roommate wasn’t paying him any attention.
She remembers heading home for Christmas and telling her mom, “I met someone I’d like to marry someday.”
She liked his smarts and his charm.
“He’s a smooth talker and evidently, that worked on me,” Lesa said.
They understood each other right away.
“We both come from ranching families. She understood that when I went home to my family’s ranch, we’d be very isolated,” said Archie.
“We have a lot of respect for each other,” Lesa said. “It’s not a situation where he knows everything. I know just as much, if not more, about a lot of things. It’s a good relationship. We like to work hard.”
Archie and Lesa have been together since college. They married in 2014 and had Charli the next year. Everything was going fine until the horrible accident sent them on a painful detour.
‘Pinned and broken and bleeding’
Among the first people who came upon the accident scene were a truck driver and his wife. Thankfully she was a retired ER nurse. They pried open the back passenger door of the Chants’ pickup and found little Charli anchored safely in her car seat. Tiny shards of glass clung to her chubby cheeks. Aside from little cuts on her face, she seemed OK. The impact had knocked Lesa out momentarily, but as she came to, she seemed relatively unscathed as well.
Archie had protected his “girls,” but he was pinned in the truck. The force of the impact crushed his legs and slammed his seat all the way toward the back of the truck. Had Charli been riding behind her dad, his seat would have smashed right into her.
An ambulance crew arrived and rushed Lesa and Charli to the nearest hospital in Gillette. One of the rescuers found Lesa’s phone in the grass and dialed “Mom” in her contacts. Another grabbed Charli’s diaper bag. When Lesa opened it later at the hospital, the reality of the accident hit her again.
“It was plumb full of glass,” Lesa said.
‘You’re in a bad way’
Archie still remembers the moments just before the truck slammed into him.
“I started slowing down and getting off into the ditch,” he said.
“I thought to myself, ‘we might run into the creek and wreck, but that will be better than a head-on.’”
As he veered to the right, he thought he was just barely going to dodge the crash.
“I thought we were going to make it. Then right at the last minute, he jerked and t-boned the side of my pickup. I saw the big grill on his truck coming straight at me.”
Archie blacked out. He woke later during the complicated extraction and kept screaming, “Get me out of here.”
Wyoming is the least populated state in the country, with just over half a million people living throughout the entire state. While the towns and cities are spread out, people who live there sometimes describe Wyoming as a small town with long streets. That small-town feel proved true as both Archie and Lesa found family friends among their rescuers.
One of the emergency medical technicians on Lesa’s ambulance crew was married to a friend from Lesa’s hometown in South Dakota.
And the father of one of Archie’s friends happened to be working on a volunteer fire crew that arrived to help him.
“He asked if I knew who he was and I said, ‘Yeah, you’re Shane’s dad. My God. Tell me what happened. Where are Lesa and Charli?’”
“They’re fine. They’re OK,” the man said. “We’re going to get you out of here. Be patient.”
“Somebody was holding my neck,” Archie said. “I was pinned and broken and bleeding.”
The men wanted to pull him out.
But the former nurse blocked them.
“She stood between me and them and said, ‘Do not touch this guy or he’s going to die. We need blood.’”
She looked Archie square in the eyes and asked if he could move his feet. He could.
“That’s good,” she said.
“I’ve got to get out of here,” he pleaded.
“We’re going to get you out. Be patient,” she said. “The helicopter needs to get here because you’re in a bad way.”
Archie tried to move his legs again. Pain overwhelmed him and he passed out.
The nurse stayed with him, guarding him and saving his life.
“It took almost two hours to extract me. If she hadn’t been there, I would have died lying on the highway,” Archie said.
Cowboy doctor meets cowboy patient
The next time Archie woke, days had passed and he was a patient at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital.
From the accident scene, the helicopter pilot flew Archie to Casper in just 12 minutes. Still, during that short flight, the crew struggled to keep him alive. Doctors in Casper knew Archie needed much more help than they could provide, so they transferred him.
Once in Colorado, Archie faced a devastating tally of injuries. He had 17 broken bones, with severe damage to his ankles, patella, femur and quadriceps.
He had lost considerable bone, especially in his left leg and arm. His wounds gaped open as he lay paralyzed in his hospital bed.
“It’s absolutely amazing that he lived. His wife and infant baby barely had a scratch. He took the full force and brunt of everything,” said Dr. Jason Stoneback, Chief of Orthopedic Trauma and Fracture Surgery at University of Colorado Hospital and head of the UCHealth Limb Restoration Program.
“Putting him back together took a team. We had as many specialists as he had broken bones,” said Stoneback, who is also an assistant professor for the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
The Limb Restoration Program brings together a multidisciplinary group of doctors and other providers who strategize in weekly brainstorming sessions on how best to help patients like Archie, who are coping with complex injuries and bone loss.
In addition to suffering extreme pain, Archie found himself drowning in anger. The truck driver who had caused the accident either had fallen asleep or had been on his phone. The driver escaped the wreck without serious injuries and only got a minor citation. Yet, Archie felt like his entire life was ruined.
Even if his doctors could save his legs, would he ever stand again? Would he ride a horse again? How could he and Lesa possibly run their ranch? And could he ever again compete in his favorite rodeo event: team roping, a skill he and Lesa also used to round up and tend cattle on the ranch?
“It scared me,” Archie said. “The leg was the main thing. We ranch and ride and rope. You need your legs. Everybody needs their legs…but it’s very important that I have my legs.”
Lesa saw her husband descend into a dark place.
“He’s a very active person. In his mind, his life was gone. He didn’t know how he was going to provide for us,” Lesa said.
Teaming up to rope and recover
As Archie lay in pain, fearful about his future, he looked down one day and noticed one of his doctors was wearing cowboy boots. That was unusual at the urban, academic medical center.
The doctor was Jason Stoneback. He had heard that Archie was hauling horses and asked how they had fared in the accident.
Archie told him that one was injured pretty badly — a little like Archie himself — but all had survived.
The two men started trading stories and learned they had a great deal in common.
“We kind of hit it off,” Archie said. “He told me, ‘I rope,” and I’m like, ‘Hey, I rope too.’”
As a fifth-generation Wyoming rancher, Archie was practically born in a saddle.
Stoneback grew up around horses too and, while working his way through college at Middle Tennessee State University, he started competing on the rodeo circuit as a bull rider and saddle bronc rider. He also broke and trained horses to earn extra money. He kept competing through his first year of medical school.
These days, Stoneback has given up bull riding for the operating room. But, he volunteers as a doctor for events like Denver’s National Western Stock Show and Rodeo. And, he and his wife keep horses on their property north of Denver. They ride and compete together in team roping, the very same event that always has been Archie’s specialty.
It’s the only team event in rodeo. Partners race into an arena on horseback, side by side, chasing a steer. One is the “header,” who swings a rope through the air and within seconds, cinches it around the steer’s horns. The partner, who’s known as the “heeler,” then has to aim perfectly, twirl the rope, swing it and catch the steer’s feet. In rodeos, both style and speed count. Out on the ranch cowboys work together to catch steers that need vaccines or other care.
“If the yearling cattle get foot rot or pink eye, we can rope them and treat them,” Lesa said.
Competitions are a fun way to practice skills, socialize and win a little money. Ropers compete at various levels in events called “jackpots” or “ropings” to high-dollar professional rodeos.
Once Archie learned that his doctor understood the skills he’d need to get back to the life he loved, he asked Stoneback the questions that had been haunting him.
“Will I ever ride again? Will I ever rope again?”
A pact: ‘we will ride and rope together’
The medical outlook was bleak. Nonetheless, Stoneback offered Archie hope.
“We’re in the business of getting people back to what they do. You’re a rancher. You’re a cowboy. You’re going to ride again,” Stoneback said.
Then he made a pact with his patient: “We’re going to get you better and we’re going to rope together one day.”
The cowboy community is small and, like on branding days at the Chants’ place, ranchers and cowboys know they need each other.
Archie, who isn’t particularly religious, found himself incredibly grateful that from a lonely Wyoming highway, he had somehow found his way to the perfect person who could heal him.
“Of all the doctors, in all the hospitals, I get the one guy who can actually relate to me,” he said. “It was God’s will, I guess.”
Stoneback was equally grateful to head the team that tended to Archie.
“The connection was powerful. We’re cowboys and we’re team ropers,” Stoneback said.
“It’s beyond words. It’s such a privilege to take care of people like Archie. They’re just good folks who would give you the shirt off their backs. That’s the way cowboys are.”
With a clear goal in mind, Archie and his medical team began fighting to save his legs, getting him back on his horse, back to ranching, back to roping and back to being whole again.
Home for Christmas
Lesa and Charli had to stay at a hotel across the street from the hospital for weeks as Archie endured 13 surgeries over a nearly 2-month stay. Week after week, Lesa would strap Charli in a stroller and tromp across Aurora’s East Colfax Avenue in the snow, bringing blankets, toys and books to try to keep Charli busy in Archie’s hospital room.
Thankfully, because Archie was young and fit and used to high-altitude and physical labor before the accident, his body responded as well as possible to the extreme trauma. But, all the medication and surgeries made it hard for him to eat and he lost 45 pounds.
One of the nurses who cared for Archie throughout his stay was Julie Walker. She comforted him in both good times and bad.
“I tried to help him take one step at a time,” Walker said. “He kept getting infections and all the antibiotics made him really nauseous. We worked on what to eat and when to eat, so he could try to keep it down. He endured so much pain and at times, he was very, very angry.”
Walker recalled Archie once telling her, ‘What if I can’t play or dance? I want to run with my little girl. I can’t even hold her in my lap.’’
But then, a few days later, she was thrilled to see Lesa rolling Archie down the hall in a wheel chair with Charli is his lap.
“There was a little bit of hope,” Walker said.
Meanwhile, Archie kept thanking everyone on his team, including Walker.
“And, I’d say, ‘No, thank you,’” Julie recalled. “I am so inspired by him and his family and his recovery. He reminded me every day why I went into nursing.”
One of the biggest challenges Archie faced was a wound in his left leg that kept getting infected.
“They had fixed my right heel, my right ankle, my left tibia, my elbow, my wrist. Then it got down to my knee. My femur was broken and my knee was pretty much separated, exploded and sticking out and I lost a lot of bone. I had an infection from it being an open wound,” Archie said.
Multiple times, his providers cleaned out his wound. Still, the infection persisted.
“It was a complete nightmare,” Lesa said. “They had to clean it out six times. They told him that if it didn’t work that time, they’d have to cut the leg off.”
Remarkably, the infection finally cleared up and Archie got the go-ahead to leave the hospital just before Christmas.
Winters on the Chants’ Wyoming ranch are tough and cold. Deep drifts of snow pile up around their home.
Growing up, Archie and his family used to live during winters at lower elevation on the southern part of the ranch. But, after their dad passed away in 2012, Archie and his brother decided that Archie would take over the northern portion of the ranch, while his brother ran cattle on the southern part.
Over the years, Archie and Lesa had met ranchers and ropers who headed much further south for winter to a town near Phoenix, Ariz. called Wickenburg. The weather is mild. It’s easy to train horses there. And cowboys stay fit and socialize by roping together. As a result, cactus country has become the winter roping capital of the U.S., where cowboys hone their skills ride in roping competitions.
A couple of years before the accident, Archie and Lesa decided to pool their savings with another couple and buy a small house in Arizona.
“We were young. We’d run cattle at the ranch in the summer, go to Arizona in the winter and break and train horses to supplement our income. It worked out great for a while,” Archie said.
The Chants were planning to prepare their Wyoming place for winter, then head to Arizona when the crash sent them on an unwanted detour to the hospital.
Finally, on Dec. 20, doctors released Archie. He wasn’t exactly on his feet. Medical workers loaded him onto a gurney, stabilized his battered limbs and flew him to Arizona. An ambulance then drove Archie home, where the Chants had to set up a hospital bed in the living room.
For months, Archie had to use a wheel chair to get around, while Lesa tended to Charli and the horses that they keep in a barn and stables adjacent to the house. Slowly, Archie’s appetite returned. One day, when Lesa was running errands in town, Archie got a craving for McDonalds and asked Lesa to bring back a quarter pounder and fries. He gobbled down the meal, then immediately felt sick. But for a man who has spent his life raising cattle for beef, craving meat again felt great.
Archie flew back to University of Colorado Hospital for occasional follow-up appointments.
During one visit at the end of January, he experienced a milestone that gave him hope for the first time that his feet and legs might someday support him. Unable to stand at all before then, Archie got clearance to use a walker and crutches. With the help of Dan Ruedeman, a UCHealth athletic trainer, Archie rose from his wheelchair in an exam room as Adams hugged him and reassured him that he could rise again.
“It was the first time I had stood up since the accident,” he said. “It was a very emotional time for me.”
Little by little, Archie began shuffling around using crutches and a walker, but he still wasn’t in the clear.
His left leg, the limb most damaged in the crash, wasn’t healing well.
Stoneback said it’s impossible to overstate how complex Archie’s injuries were.
“He had ruptured both tendons in the left knee, both quadriceps and his knee cap was separated from the body. He had lost a significant portion of the femur bone at the accident scene,” Stoneback said. “If your knee cap is not connected, then your leg doesn’t work.
“We were teetering on the edge of amputation,” Stoneback said. “One bad move with Archie and he was going to end up with an above-the-knee amputation. And above-the-knee amputees don’t typically ride horses.”
The team had used a bone graft to reattach Archie’s thigh to his lower leg. They were hoping Archie’s bones could regenerate and heal themselves. But his leg had suffered so much trauma that the graft wasn’t working. Especially with younger patients, doctors try to use human bones and avoid joint replacements since manufactured parts rarely last more than 20 years.
But, it soon became clear that Archie would need another big surgery called a distal femur replacement. Stoneback connected Archie with a fellow Limb Restoration Program colleague who specializes in complex joint replacement, Dr. Craig Hogan.
The distal femur is like an upside-down funnel that connects the thigh to the knee, the largest weight-bearing joint in the human body.
Hogan performed the replacement surgery nearly one year after Archie’s accident and Archie’s hopes crystallized into reality.
“I didn’t walk for a year,” Archie said. “Then two weeks after the surgery, I carried my own weight for the first time.”
One of the sweetest signs of recovery for Lesa came when she saw Archie perform the simplest task.
“He picked up Charli and carried her for the first time,” Lesa said. “In the wheelchair, he couldn’t get her out of the crib or change her diaper. If she wanted to interact with him, he couldn’t pick her up off the floor.”
Finally, he could scoop up his little girl.
More good news came when Lesa learned she was pregnant with their second baby: a boy. Hudson arrived in January of 2017.
Along with bringing joy and hope, Hudson has given Archie a second chance to witness special moments he missed with Charli. She took her first steps while he was immobilized in a hospital bed. Not long ago, Archie got the chance to see Hudson walk for the first time.
‘I want to rope better than I ever did’
Following the distal femur replacement, Archie spent the winter swimming, cycling and working to get his strength and function back.
While he was getting much stronger, pain in his left leg persisted. He went back for a checkup in April of 2017 and it turned out that a rod holding his replacement in place had loosened and wasn’t adhering perfectly to the bone. That summer, Dr. Hogan did another surgery to replace the rod. This time, it held well and Archie could walk without significant pain.
The next step would be the one that mattered most. Could he get back on his horse?
Finally, over this past winter, Archie has been able to ride his horses regularly. He started off having to hold on to the saddle horn for extra stability. Gradually he got more and more comfortable in the saddle again. He practiced in the arena at their Arizona home. Then, just for fun, he entered some jackpot roping contests.
He’s not yet at the level he once was. But Archie’s big on setting goals.
“I want to rope better than I ever did.”
Ropers are classified on a numeric system with 1s at the lowest end and 9s at the highest. There are hardly any ropers at the bottom and top end. A lot of ropers who enjoy competitions like a form of cowboy golf are classified at about a 4 or a 5.
Before the accident, Archie was a 6+.
“I want to get at least to where I was before, or maybe to a 7 or so. I’m proud that I’ve gotten this far,” he said.
A promise kept
Soon after that, a very special day arrived.
Stoneback and his wife, Gin, spend as much of their winter vacation time as possible visiting Arizona to ride and rope. They compete in many of the same, small jackpot rodeos that Archie and Lesa attend.
So, one day during their Arizona trip, the Stonebacks brought their horses over to the Chants’ place.
“Dude, you’re looking great,” Stoneback said as he gave Archie a hug and unloaded his horse, Rex, from the trailer.
Both men wear distinctive, shiny belt buckles, trophies from past rodeo wins.
As Stoneback saddled his horse, Archie brought his horse, Zip, from the barn to the arena.
A couple of neighbors wandered over to help Lesa get the steers ready for some roping.
Like dogs itching for a walk, the steers pressed eagerly into the pens. They’re Corriente, the greyhounds of the cattle world.
“They’re bred to run,” Lesa explained as she wrapped pads around the steers’ horns to protect them from the ropes.
Archie climbed up on Zip, a seemingly simple maneuver that takes great strength in your legs. He once feared he would never climb on a horse again. But, he’s doing it again, albeit with a rod in his leg.
“This is what he loves,” Lesa says, looking up at her husband on his horse and smiling.
The couple has come a long way from the dark days in the hospital and the recovery time at home when Archie would scream out in pain and Lesa would run over to see if she could help.
Now, up on their horses, colorful ropes in their hands, Archie and Stoneback were just two cowboys — peers now, not patient and healer — enjoying a great western tradition.
They lined up, side-by side, ready to gallop the second the steer bolted from the chute.
By sheer coincidence, each had specialized in a different job. Stoneback’s a header. Archie’s a heeler: perfect partners.
Stoneback spun his orange rope first, swung it through the air, aimed and sunk it on the steer’s horns, then held tight as Archie swung his green rope and caught the steer’s hind legs. They roped together again and again, grinning as the horses kicked dirt up in the arena.
Charli played nearby and Hudson, who’s just over a year, watched his dad and held his pudgy little arm in the air, copying his dad, ready to rope himself someday.
The sky was bright blue with white billowy clouds, a little like the sky on that awful October day when a stranger nearly wrecked the Chants’ lives. The winds kicked up as Archie and Stoneback rode. Spiny saguaros perched in the distance like serene spectators. Archie grinned. He was doing what he loved again.
‘Lucky to be alive’
After roping, the two men got off their horses and talked about what the experience of roping together had meant to them.
Both wiped tears from their eyes.
“It’s guys like this that make me do what I do,” Stoneback said, overjoyed to see Archie moving, riding and living again.
“I was in a dark place,” Archie said. “I was mad at God and the world and everybody. Coming from a cowboy background, you’re very physical and independent.”
After the accident, he knew his life could have gone one way or another, like the water on the ranch. At first, Archie felt that he had lost everything. Then his team rallied around him and helped him see that he could ride and rope and be whole again.
“At some point, you just have to believe in them and believe you’re going to get better,” Archie said, looking over at his doctor. “He told me, ‘you’re going to ride again.’ And he got me here.”
Stoneback chimed in: “It’s the cowboy way. You get bucked off and you get back on. You do the work and you live again.”
“Yeah,” said Archie. “Some days, you forget you’re lucky to be alive. But you’ve got to live.
“Today was a special day.”