After Brush With Death, Hutton's 'Life Wish' Pulls Her Through

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The bones in Lauren Hutton's right forearm and lower leg were shattered on impact. That was after she lost control of her motorcycle in a turn and careened off the road at 110 mph, but before she punctured a lung and skidded 170 feet on her face and chest in her first motorcycle accident, one year ago today.

Hutton doesn't remember any of this: Traumatic amnesia has wiped out her memory from two minutes before her crash up until 2 1/2 weeks afterward, when she awoke from a coma. Today, the 57-year-old model and actress has multiple scars, a titanium rod in her leg and 16 screws in her arm, but that hasn't stopped her from getting on with her life and back in the action--again on two wheels.

Last month she rode for the first time since her accident in a Tropicana orange juice commercial, navigating a curvy pass in a Malibu canyon. "I was scared to death," says the gap-toothed model who has graced Vogue's cover 25 times. "I didn't know what was going to happen."

But that's part of what has always appealed to her about riding. "Death is always riding right next to you," she says. "A lot of people think it's a death wish, but it's a life wish really. ... The biggest thing people don't understand is when everything [in daily life] is so safe, you don't know that you can die. In a way, you don't know what life is."

Last month Hutton also participated in a three-day ride along the California coast and across Death Valley to celebrate the opening exhibit of the new Guggenheim museum in Las Vegas--"The Art of the Motorcycle." This time she was a passenger, riding on the back of Dennis Hopper's BMW.

It was during last year's ride with the Guggenheim Motorcycle Club that she crashed.

"They didn't want me to ride," Hutton says of her friends and fellow club riders Hopper, Jeremy Irons, Laurence Fishburne and Guggenheim Foundation director Thomas Krens. All of them witnessed firsthand the accident that nearly took Hutton's life.

Two of them may also have saved it. On the day of the accident, during a break after 31/2 hours on the road, Irons noticed Hutton's eyes were tearing from the wind and insisted she switch to a helmet with a visor.

She also obliged Hopper's offer of a leather jacket. Hutton says she normally wears full leathers but was wearing only a cloth jacket with her leather pants, boots and gloves that day.

Shortly before the accident, she had been riding at the back of a pack of more than 100 motorcycles and was eager to catch up with Hopper, Irons and Fishburne at the front. Hoping for a quick start after a short break for water, she jumped on her bike to join them. But moments later, she hit gravel in a turn, went off the road and flew 20 feet in the air before skidding across the rocky desert floor in the Valley of Fire, about 25 miles outside of Las Vegas.

By the time she stopped, her foot was next to her knee--and backward, Hutton says, and her arm was doing "some other weird thing." The red BMW F650 she was riding had broken into pieces.

"If I hadn't had a visor, there were all these rocks coming three or four inches out of the ground, so during that skid, it would have gone in and taken out my eyes, my nose, my teeth ... " says Hutton, who, when talking about the accident misspeaks and says "when I died."

Indeed, most of the people on the scene that day thought Hutton was dead when a medical helicopter picked her up and flew her to a trauma hospital in Las Vegas.

Hutton was there for a month. After that she was in a wheelchair, eventually walking with a cane. Today, she gets around without those aids, but on days she's spent too much time on her legs, "the ankle feels like about 20 really good bees have hit it" and her knee like a raw wound.

Hutton has saved the helmet Irons gave her and plans to make a sculpture out of it, along with the steel rod that was recently extracted from her leg.

Until her accident made the news, almost no one knew Hutton rode motorcycles, but she has been riding since the early '60s. She was working as a cocktail waitress in New Orleans when she met Steve McQueen, who taught her how to ride.

Later, she honed her skills on the set of "Little Fauss and Big Halsy," a 1970 film about two motorcycle racers that starred Robert Redford. Hutton says that there were about 30 stuntmen working on the film and that she often rode dirt bikes with them in the Arizona desert. In 1977, she starred opposite Evel Knievel in "Viva Knievel!" She took the job "to learn something about motorcycle riding from Evel," Hutton says.

These days, she splits her time between New Mexico (where she has two Yamaha dirt bikes to "zoom around my little dirt roads") and New York (where she keeps a BMW F650 "to get out of town").

In the coming year, she plans to launch a new line of cosmetics (Lauren Hutton's Good Stuff) and take the trips she was forced to postpone because of her accident--ice diving in the Antarctic, dog sledding in Alaska, camel riding in Africa and on-and off-road motorcycling in Germany.

"To me, all these things are the same because you're out in nature and you're seeing everything," Hutton says. "There's not a lot of steel between you and the land and the sky. ... You realize how alive you are and what a miracle life is--what a gift it is, just the rich joy and juice of it."

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