Cody Ridenour was figuring out life. He had come up with a plan and had moved across the country to start living his dream.
But one misstep changed his life dramatically.
More than seven months after a hiking accident nearly cost the Hampstead native his life, Ridenour can't make himself a sandwich or get a drink on his own, and he's operating on a second-grade math level.
Still, compared to a dire early prognosis, Ridenour is defying medical odds, working hard as he attempts to regain what he used to take for granted.
"At the rate he is going, eventually, there is nothing he won't be able to do," his mother, Bridget Hyatt, said. She conceded, however, that "it may take years."
Ridenour graduated from North Carroll High School in 2009 and went on to attend college in Hawaii and Salisbury. He was a singer and played guitar in the band Danger Parker.
Last spring, he ventured to California to visit his older brother, Brady Ridenour. After that visit, he came home to Maryland, did some thinking and decided he was going to move to the West Coast to pursue a career in music.
So after only two weeks of being home, Ridenour and a bandmate drove cross-country, heading to a new home and a new life. Along the way he visited "touristy-type places," Ridenour said, such as the Grand Canyon.
After only six days in California, everything changed for him.
'A challenge that they've never seen before'
On June 8, Ridenour set out to explore, taking a walk along the steep Ho Chi Minh Trail in the San Diego area. The trail leads to Blacks Beach in La Jolla, California, and is considered an expert trail.
While hiking, he lost his footing and fell 40 to 50 feet, landing in a crevice.
"About 15 minutes before his fall, he had sent a Snapchat out that featured a video of the trail, and Cody said it was 'sketchy,'" Shane Hyatt, Ridenour's younger brother, recalled.
Another hiker happened to spot Ridenour and called 911. From that point, it took about an hour for medics, lifeguards and a helicopter crew to get Ridenour into a basket and move him to a stable, flat area for evaluation.
He was unconscious throughout and was then air-lifted to Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla.
The injuries he suffered from the fall were severe, though Ridenour doesn't remember the incident at all.
He suffered a broken orbital bone and a dislocated hip. He broke three vertebrae, as well as 10 out of 12 ribs on his left side. He suffered two collapsed lungs and a lacerated kidney, and cracked the roof of his mouth. He broke his left wrist and his nose, and had multiple skull fractures.
He went into a coma and slept through his 25th birthday. The skull fractures and two surgeries on his cranium allowed his brain, which had swollen, space to heal.
Hyatt said the doctors in California focused on keeping Ridenour alive and on his "horrendous" brain injuries. Some people might never have come out of the coma, she said.
During his time at Scripps, Ridenour had the support of his family and friends.
His mother spent all her time out there, while his stepfather, Mitch Hyatt, spent his time between California and home. Ridenour's close friend, Chris Martin, was with him for about half of the time he spent at Scripps.
For at least the first two weeks, Ridenour didn't move at all. He was still coming out of the coma, trying to fully wake up.
Once he was awake, "he didn't stop moving," Martin said. "He would keep kicking his legs, and not hold still."
While in California, in addition to surgeries, he underwent various therapies to help him in his recovery, including respiratory therapy — he had compression mechanisms on his legs to help with circulatory performance — and outside therapy, when they would take him outside occasionally for fresh air and sunshine.
After some two months at Scripps, he returned to Maryland in August aboard a private medical jet. He was still in poor condition, including eating through a feeding tube.
"The paperwork stated that he would probably have to be institutionalized for the rest of his life," Bridget Hyatt said.
Ridenour has been residing and continuing his rehabilitation at Golden LivingCenters in Westminster since. He said the head of the physical therapy team at the center initially said there was not much they could do.
"It was a challenge that they've never seen before," Ridenour recalled. "Way bigger than anything that they'd had before."
'Way beyond medical expectations'
To see Ridenour today is to see a happy and jovial young man who has come far but still has a long way to go.
"He forgot how to count money. He can't write. He needs help sitting and getting in and out of a car," his mother said. "He can't do a lot of simple tasks like using the remote and [has] trouble answering and hanging up a phone."
Still, considering where he was physically and cognitively last summer, those who know him are ecstatic with his improvement.
"He has gone way beyond medical expectations," Martin said, "and far above physical expectations."
Ridenour has not only been working on physical therapy at Golden Living, but has had to relearn the basics, including speech therapy. While he has a good long-term memory, excluding the accident, he is in the process of relearning simple things most take for granted, such as reading a clock. Because of the injuries, he has developed a stutter.
When the broken wrist was repaired, surgeons placed a metal plate and rods in it, which were removed Jan. 11. That was important to Ridenour.
"It was a mangled mess," he said. "That'll help with holding the guitar."
He will be leaning on friends to help him relearn how to play.
Melanie Connor, a physical therapy assistant at Golden Living for almost seven years, is one of the main PTAs working with Ridenour.
"He has a great support system with friends and family," she said. "He will be going home shortly, but will still need occupational and speech therapy when he leaves.
"He has brought life to our building with his great personality," Connor continued, "and is constantly making us laugh."
Ridenour's hard work, combined with the physical therapy, has helped him in exceeding expectations.
"The PT staff [at Golden Living] has been phenomenal," Martin said. "They go above and beyond. He may not spend all day doing physical therapy, but he is able to hang out with them, too."
Martin said Ridenour has "always been a gym buff," and being in good shape has helped in his recovery. Ridenour has taken his workouts to another level recently.
Ridenour has been working out for about a month with Dani Knight, owner of Dani K Gym & Wellness in Westminster. The two have known each other since Ridenour was in eighth grade. Knight used to do home training with Ridenour to prep him for football.
Working out twice a week, for about 2 1/2 hours each session with Knight, Ridenour is doing a potpourri of exercises to help him in his recovery, although just walking around the gym takes effort and he sometimes needs help to operate some of the machines.
"We work on machines doing chest press, flys, lat pull down …" Knight said via email. "I also do some life coaching with him … helping him stay in that right mindset, staying focused and persevere, and remind him that he's got this!
"He is funny, caring, sensitive, hardworking, never gives up, accepting all challenges. He is determined to 'defy all odds' and come back from this bigger, better, faster, stronger."
Keeping up that type of bravado and strength can take a toll.
"He did have his days that he said he wished he would have died. I think that is a typical statement after what he has been through," Knight continued.
She alluded to him feeling as if he is burdening his family and their finances, but said she reassures him that's not the case.
Part of the expenses for the private medical jet home from California were covered by a GoFundMe.com fundraiser and a benefit golf tournament, as well as a sale of Thirty-One Gifts products. All of that has helped defray the medical costs, though they are still mounting.
Ridenour has shown his passion for getting better just by demonstrating his strength and willpower in therapy and the work he's put into the recovery.
"He is getting stronger … it's helping him mentally, as well, as the working out releases endorphins and helps him release stress and frustrations," Knight said.
'No playbook to this'
Spending every day at rehab can be depressing. So Ridenour typically tries to spend weekends with his family.
"It's still a lot he can't do. When he comes home for the weekend, we have to keep an eye on him 24/7," Mitchell Hyatt said. "Though he is a grownup, it's also like he's a baby. He is learning all over again.
"We have a long road ahead. A lot of people may see a snapshot of him out and about. They don't understand how hard it is."
His stepfather said he expects Ridenour to come home for good in the next month or two.
For now, friends visit and have taken him out for lunch, a coffee, or just to drive around and enjoy a different perspective.
Holly Berry, a longtime family friend, is one person who has helped him in escaping from time to time. Ridenour went to school with her sons, AJ and Nick.
"They were always hanging out together," said Berry, the organizer of the benefit golf tournament. "We go out to Starbucks occasionally, to talk about how things are going. He is quickly picking up things that he has to relearn. He has always been smart."
Ridenour can't drive because his reflexes and vision both were affected by the accident. He knows he will never play sports again. He said he is scared he won't "be able to sing or play the guitar again."
Trying to assess Ridenour's needs and capabilities is challenging.
"There is no playbook to this," Martin said.
But he's a long way from the permanent vegetative state that was once a feared possible outcome. He is pondering a return to school at some point, possibly to learn more about the brain, and said he might like to one day be a motivational speaker.
"I believe he will eventually be able to live on his own, but it will be a while," Bridget Hyatt said.
Between the staff at Golden Living, his support system and his drive to get better, he is in the process of proving the experts wrong.
While the road ahead remains formidable, those who know him say what he is doing is astonishing.
But perhaps Ridenour, himself, said it best: "I'm a freakin' miracle."