Whether he’s mowing lawns in Virginia on a zero-turn, hauling gear through the Rockies in a diesel Jetta wagon, busing from village to village in Ghana, cruising through Utah’s dunes on a Polaris RZR®, photographing Patagonia from an adapted Ford® 4x4 camping van, or heading to the kitchen for a snack in his wheelchair, Kirk Williams is going places. And he isn’t slowing down for anything.
Kirk’s first ride was a secondhand riding mower that a neighbor couldn’t figure out how to fix. Once he got it running, he never looked back. He drove it everywhere he could in his hometown in Virginia, tinkering with it, waxing it, earning extra money with it, and even taking his friends trick-or-treating on it.
“Growing up, we didn't have the money for me to have expensive toys. So the lawnmower was kind of my baby. It was something I could drive around. It went a whopping five miles an hour, but I loved it. It was my thing.”
After graduation, Kirk sold his beloved lawn care gear and headed out west to Colorado for college where he continued to pursue his passion for another kind of ride: the mountain bike. When not in class, Kirk was out on the trails, keeping up with and taking photos of his friends. He worked at a bike shop and was always hands-on, tinkering. Always going somewhere. He spent a semester in Ghana, and the world exploded with potential. Going places had a new, deeper meaning.
“That trip changed my life. It really hit home that I wanted to travel the world, take pictures, and tell meaningful stories. I wanted to do something to provoke change. After graduation, I had a job interview lined up, a dream gig. We’d be taking cameras to the middle of Antarctica to take time-lapse photos and tell the story of climate change through melting glaciers.”
Days before the interview, Kirk was going down a familiar path on his mountain bike. He ventured off-trail to make way for a rider on their way up, and then his tire met a rock the wrong way. He flew over the handlebars, and hit the ground.
The Builder's Mentality
In the rescue helicopter, Kirk had two thoughts running through his mind:
- Am I gonna make it to that interview? (He didn’t.)
- Am I gonna lose those headlights on eBay? (He did.)
Kirk lost a lot more than gently-used VW headlights that night. The injury cost him motor function in his legs, torso, and much of his arms and hands. It also introduced him to a new kind of ride: the wheelchair. No amount of inventive, hands-on, mechanic-minded tinkering could prepare someone for life after becoming wheelchair-bound. But those skills and the many hours that Kirk had spent working in garages throughout his life had taught him to think about his problems in terms of possible solutions. He didn’t have to find them alone.
“My family and friends all jumped on board to help. My brother quit his job and moved in with me for a year, which gave me the ability to have somebody there to help with the tough stuff. It took me two or three years to be able to shower by myself again.”
There’s a lot of time, trial, and error involved with learning how to live independently again after a spinal cord injury. You need patience, an inventive spirit, and some of MacGyver’s tricks up your sleeve. It’s kind of like bringing an old car back to life. Slowly, you obtain the right parts and the right tools. Then, the right skills. Every motorhead knows, with enough time and elbow grease, you can drive any old ride anywhere.
This builder’s mentality was something that Kirk understood long before his injury, and it’s served him very well. It’s helped him take his comfort zone — made very small by his accident — and slowly obtain the right parts, the right tools, and the right skills to grow it. Piece by piece, he regained the ability to not only shower and get dressed by himself again, but to travel the world again. To live independently on the road, to navigate foreign countries in a wheelchair, and to take impactful photos along the way. That takes more than patience. It takes guts. And an unbreakable drive.
Freedom to Roam
Kirk is still tinkering. These days, he works on Impact Overland, a travel blog and activism platform that empowers folks to see more of the world, whatever their ability. Through his storytelling work, Kirk raised the funds to design a 2017 Ford® T250 4x4 transit van with the adventure van pros at Benchmark Vehicles. From the BFGoodrich® All-Terrain T/A® KO2 tires (engineered for trekking through South American mountains) to the medium-height roof (just short enough to fit in an international shipping container), the van was custom-built to suit Kirk’s unique, travel-focused needs.
What’s inside Kirk’s Ford 4x4 Transit Van?
- A Superarm lift from Handicaps Inc. (gets him in the van without leaving his chair)
- An adapted steering wheel and gear shift system (so that Kirk can safely drive)
- A modified driver’s seat (easy to transfer into from the wheelchair)
- Titanium hooks! (For mugs, wheelchair steadiness, and more)
- Push-based light switches, cabinets, and drawers (Kirk has limited grip)
- Laptop/technology safe (to keep his stuff safe from banditos)
- A level (to keep his chair steady when the van’s parked)
- A full-size bed (complete with a dreamcatcher)
“The hardest part of travel in a wheelchair is transportation and lodging. If you can take those two things out of the equation, you can go just about anywhere. This build is every trick and tip I've learned in the last eleven years, packed into one vehicle. But it’s so much more than a vehicle to me. It's my freedom. Freedom to cruise over the beaches of Mexico, where I couldn't physically push my wheelchair. To go through snow. To cross rivers. And to photograph it all.”
Sitting high on his BFGoodrich® All-Terrain T/A® KO2 tires, Kirk’s world explodes with potential again. They say “your calling never stops calling you,” and Kirk’s is louder than ever. On hand bikes, RZR®s, adapted vans, riding mowers, airplanes, and more, he’s still going places. He’s not going alone.
“I'm very fortunate to have had the support and the scholarships I’ve received here in the US. But there are so many people in places I travel who don’t have access to the care and equipment that I do. At first, my priority with Impact Overland was just to be independent again. I wanted to find adventure. To feel alive. To do my own thing. Now, I want that for everyone. Adventure, independence, and mobility — for all walks of life.”
Whether he’s inspiring the crowd at one of his talks, taking unbelievable photos with his drone, uplifting accessibility businesses on Instagram, or partnering with the Walkabout Foundation to send wheelchairs to South America, Kirk is determined to share his adventures and his good fortune with people of all abilities. He’s now at the center of a budding accessible van life movement, complete with a network of companies, friends, and fellow MacGyvers who are ready to turn off-road, see the world, and never let anything slow them down.
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