The Dream Life of John Haines

Imagine the train rumbling through the Black Triangle of Czechoslovakia.

It’s the morning of November 10, 1999, the weak autumn light filtering through a tattered forest of skeletal branches, the gruesome toll of industrial coal mining and acid rain.

John Haines peers through the windows. His eyes are shadowed from lack of sleep, but he can see, and feel, life all around him. Green shoots pushing through the black earth. The pulse of life, the persistence of hope. And not just in the midst of this grim, dead forest.

There’s also the tentative peace in the wake of the Balkan war. The 10th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union, which inspired this train ride: Haines is heading to the celebration of the Berlin Wall’s collapse.

Ninety minutes outside of Prague the train stops in Usti nad Labem. And just like that Haines is on the move. He slips on his Adidas — not pausing to lace them — tells his girlfriend Jill he’ll be back with coffee, skips to the door and leaps into the air above the concrete platform.

And that’s where Haines’ memories end.

What happened next is a mystery. Maybe the specifics don’t matter. Because Haines was already off on his next adventure. An internal journey to the gates of death, all the way to where reality and fantasy reside. Where a dream of life is powerful enough to pull life from even the most poisonous soil.


Do his eyes look haunted? Is there an ineffable weight riding along in his wheelchair?

If you glimpse Haines in motion and sense his struggle, take a closer look. What you’ll notice is that his chair has no motorized parts — he uses his own hands to push his way through the world. Which says quite a bit, given that he’s a C-7 quadriplegic with the most limited muscle movement in his arms and no sensation beneath his nipples.

And yet he wields unlikely power. As the executive director of Mercy Corps Northwest, the regional branch of Portland’s global aid organization, Haines runs a multimillion-dollar program that uses small bursts of capital — micro-loans, officially — to help struggling entrepreneurs drive themselves out of the economic muck toward something like a living, sustainable future.

Many of these pivot from simple financial fixes. A thousand dollars to start a food cart, $5,000 to launch a child care center. Other MCNW programs require more creative solutions. Haines is particularly proud of the group’s work with the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, helping freed women prisoners adjust to ordinary life by giving them cameras and journals to record the often jarring transition.

“You could say he removes obstacles for other people,” says Mignon Mazique, the Mercy Corps exec who hired Haines in 2002. The real measure of his success, she continues, is that Haines has kept his branch of Mercy Corps alive and growing for nearly a decade, despite its risky economic mission, particularly in the midst of a devastating economic downturn.

But Haines, she continues, clearly has the emotional fortitude to keep his staff motivated and even inspired.

“Just think of what it must take for him to get out of bed every day,” Mazique says. “John’s spirit is indomitable.”


From that leap into the light of the train platform to … where? Haines had no idea. The next thing he knew the sky above him was smoky, the breeze thick with some toxic, metallic dust. A shaft of murky light revealed a herd of gray-faced men in Soviet-style uniforms. Haines pegged them as communist bureaucrats, marching joylessly to nowhere and back again. Then it was dark again and he was blind, seeing nothing, but sensing a dark and unknowable presence lurking in the shadows.

Haines was in a medically induced coma, his brain concocting images to go along with the dull sensations filtering through a broken body near the brink of death.

The visions played for the three weeks Haines was kept unconscious. A strange tangle of nightmares, memories and hallucinations. Landscapes and faces both real and imaginary.

Even now, he says, the dreams are every bit as vivid and meaningful as the real experiences that continue to shape his life and psyche. Particularly when he’s introduced to a stranger whose face he recalls from the shadow world of the coma.

In one vision, Haines found himself in a mountain cabin, surrounded by the friends he’s known in his life. The house rang with the voices of children laughing and running, jumping from a deck into the fresh, forgiving snow below.

Haines ached to feel the fresh air against his face, but something held him down. Instead, friend after friend drifted close to speak into his ear.

You’ll prove us right, one whispered.

Another, so close Haines could feel breath on his neck. It’ll be OK.

Then another beaming face. You’ll improve.

The doctors in his hospital room were far less hopeful. But Haines’ own subconscious knew better.


The alms to the battered. Haines had given them himself, plenty of times, during his childhood in Laramie, Wyo. A college town overflowing with opportunities for wilderness fun, adventure and grievous bodily harm, Laramie has been home to the Haines family for five generations. Disaster stories get passed down like heirlooms. Consider great-great Grandma and her pair of unlucky husbands. One drowned in the Mississippi River, the other died after a horse bucked him onto a fence.

The surviving Haines men tended to be bankers, which led Haines to study finance at the University of Wyoming. Maybe there was something comforting in the walled-in universe of numbers. Particularly for a youngster who eventually would pen memoirs titled “Freezing, Falling, Shooting and Snow” and “Driving and Crying.”

“We all know a lot of people who died from Laramie,” younger brother Doug says, as if their hometown was also a deadly virus. Given the mountainous terrain, severe weather and the risky highways, the vector of death is easy to follow.

“Recreation around our town,” Doug continues, “always carried an element of danger.”

John Haines was no “danger ranger,” but he was strong and fearless, which made it difficult for him to resist the urge to ski harder, climb the highest, bike and hike the fastest. “Every hike felt like the Bataan Death March.” Doug says. “There was no way to keep up.”

Particularly when Haines roved beyond the bounds of Laramie. He spent one summer wandering Europe, often sleeping in parks and eating wherever he could. After graduating college in 1981 he wandered Tibet, then taught skiing in Switzerland. At one point he followed a girlfriend to Eugene, and when that relationship ended he drifted north to Portland. Nearing 30, Haines took a job at a bank and limited his adventures to well-planned bursts. In 1991, for instance, he and some friends spent a few months in Africa to kayak the length of the (largely unexplored, unmapped, croc-filled) Niger.

Returning a few months later, Haines resumed his career, married and moved with his wife to Princeton University, where she pursued a graduate degree. While she studied, Haines used his financial expertise to help fund public interest projects in the grim corners of Trenton, N.J. Later the couple spent a year in Prague, where Haines did finance for a U.S. aid contractor and helped coordinate elections in the Balkans while his wife continued her studies.

And, she eventually would confess, became increasingly close to another grad student.

“Letting go of my vision for a durable marriage was impossible,” Haines wrote in a memoir juxtaposing the birth of Balkans democracy with the death of his marital union. “I cling to myth and what I can trust — being alone in my dreams, fighting for some dignity.”


Haines found himself on another train. He’s ridden rails all over the world, but this was like nothing he’d ever seen: The cars were rolling medical wards, the beds full of grievously injured victims. Haines had no money in his pockets; he shouldn’t have been on the train at all. At the last minute a nurse took pity and sneaked him into a closet, where he rested briefly before feeling a crushing weight collapsing upon his shoulders. A dead body had fallen through the blackness, pinning Haines to the floor, too overwhelmed to draw a breath. He felt himself slipping beneath the surface, going down for the last time.

The closet door flew open and Haines fell out onto a train platform. A doctor greeted him like an old friend. “Hello, John!” he called. “Your brother Doug said you were coming!”

Somewhere beyond his subconscious Haines was battling for life, his weakened body often sinking perilously close to extinction. One particularly grim moment came during an attempt to transport Haines from Czechoslovakia to England. The ventilator Haines needed to pump oxygen into his lungs failed somewhere between Usti and Leipzig. His heart stopped and resuscitation had not been easy. Nevertheless, the transport specialists were in the act of loading their barely living patient into an airplane for the next leg of his journey when another doctor glimpsed

Haines’ dimming vital signs and cried out in alarm.

This man will be dead before he leaves German air!, he sputtered. He requires emergency treatment right here, and right now!

Transferred to a specialized neurology hospital in Halle, Haines’ recovery was overseen by a German doctor who nursed him back to stable ground. When Haines was strong enough to be brought back to consciousness he drifted up slowly. He was surprised to find his brother Doug, a lawyer in Athens, Ga., at his bedside. And when Doug introduced his brother to the doctor who had done so much to nurse him back to health in Germany, Haines had the eerie sensation that they already had met. Indeed, the real doctor had the same smiling face that came to him on the train platform in his dreams.

And what of the mystery doctor in Leipzig who kept Haines from being flown off to his own midair doom? Haines never even knew of his existence until three years later when a jangling telephone startled him awake at 5 a.m. Portland time. The heavily accented voice on the other end belonged to a Dr. Ebert, from Leipzig.

“I cared of you when you grew critical,” the doctor insisted. “I am finding you for payment of bill.”

Doug Haines confirmed the man’s story was true: Ebert was the meandering doctor who had saved his life at the Leipzig airport. Now he wanted $350 for his services. Haines wrote the check himself and felt honored to apply the stamp and send it away. He now keeps Ebert’s original bill framed on his library wall at home.


The visions continued even after he awoke from his coma. Dosed with strong painkillers, Haines spent hours gazing through his hospital window at the whales swimming through the air outside. They all had the same bloody gash in their sides, but they were still moving, silently, onward.

He’ll probably never know exactly what happened between the instant he leaped toward the Usti train platform and the moment a bystander found his broken body lying on the railroad tracks. Haines suspects his search for coffee ended abruptly when the train pulled away without warning.

So what happened next? He must have leaped for the stairs. He must have slipped, or else his untied shoelaces got tangled on something. The next people who saw Haines found him in the wake of the departed train, unconscious and bleeding heavily. His leg was broken. His head was battered, as if it had been scraped down a length of railroad track. And his neck had snapped at the C-7 vertebrae.

This is all Haines knows. At this point, he’s pretty sure he doesn’t need, or want, to learn anything else. “Too traumatic,” he says.

There must be so many other questions to ask. Like, for instance, why? Why him? Why then? After a life of semi-cautious daredevilry spent everywhere from the tops of mountains to the depths of the Niger River, how could it all end amid a crowd of commuters in a suburban train station in Czechoslovakia?

Or maybe fate had been pulling him there for decades.

“I like going to places in transition,” Haines says, and suddenly the logic appears.

That’s what had drawn him to the Balkans in the first place. And also why he had decided so impulsively, and with such clear purpose, to help celebrate the fall of European communism.

It took him to the slowly reviving world beneath the dead trees of the Black Triangle. The financial work among the dispossessed in Trenton, N.J. It’s all dreams into action; action into deeds; deeds building upon themselves to spur a full-on transformation.

Haines took the same journey inside himself during his brush with death. And once his own transition from restless athleticism to all-but-stationary quadriplegic was complete, Haines projected his dream into Mercy Corps Northwest. Glimmers of life sparking in the new food trucks and warm storefronts pulling even more life into the region’s blighted streets.

The wheelchair, Haines insists, is not a living nightmare. Just surviving, and finding the strength and ingenuity to re-create his ambitious, on-the-go life, were such steep challenges he didn’t have time to miss the adventures of the slopes. Though after 11 years of growth and stability he has to admit that when he sees Mount Hood out there on the horizon, perfectly white and glistening in the sun, well …

“Now it kinda sucks that I can’t ski.”

There’s always something to dream about.

(published in The Oregonian, Nov 14, 2010)