K unho Kim remembers braving the chilly mountain air with friends on a ski trip in Montana in March 2010. They were taking turns snapping pictures of one another’s elaborate jumps and tricks.
Except when Kim finished showing off for the camera — a jump where pictures show him rendered nearly upside down — he landed on his back, fracturing his spine. He was paralyzed from the waist down.
“My friend told me he thought I was dead at first, because I wasn’t conscious for a few minutes,” Kim said, four years later, with an easy laugh. “But it was just a blur to me.”
Now a sophomore at Harvard University, the South Korea native’s mobility has improved. His paralysis is limited to the waist down, and he’s just beginning to be able to move his legs voluntarily. However, the spinal cord injury has left him dependent on a wheelchair, for now at least.
That has not stopped him.
After his accident, Kim traveled frequently between South Korea and Vietnam for high school, took a year off before college to help disabled students travel around Seoul, and then flew halfway across the world to attend Harvard.
This summer, Kim will take on one of the biggest travel challenges of his life. With three friends — including two classmates from Harvard — he will travel from Los Angeles to Boston in a wheelchair-accessible rental van, documenting the best and worst hotels, restaurants, and attractions in terms of accessibility, and then publish their findings. Let’s Go, the travel guide series written and edited entirely by Harvard students, will publish it online by the end of the year, Kim said.
“When we were planning this trip, we were looking for an accessible tour guide, but we couldn’t find any, other than individual websites for hotels,” Kim said recently on campus hours after finishing the semester’s last exams. “There was no comprehensive book. I felt like there’s a need, and it helps raise awareness on the issue that this is the state of accessibility information in the US.”
The foursome plans to take on 20 cities — including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Washington — in less than two months. It’s an ambitious trip that Kim said he has been itching to complete.
They will also keep a blog, updating it as they hop city to city.
“The whole spirit of this is to be spontaneous,” he said. “We’re thinking we’ll place more of an emphasis on the story of the trip. We can’t visit every hotel, so the tour guide will be limited.”
They will arrive back in Boston just days before the start of Harvard’s fall term. They hope to complete the book by the end of the year.
“Plus, we’ll have a long car ride with nothing to do but this,” said Brad Riew, one of Kim’s classmates. “We’re hoping it’ll be a New York Times best-seller,” he jested.
The main hurdle for the foursome — Kim, Riew, You-Myeong Kim, and Cynthia Cheung — is the price tag. The trip will cost, at the very least, $6,000 for the accessible van — which features hand controls so Kim can take his turn at the wheel — and gas. Kim said he expects it will cost about $15,000 total, after factoring in food, hotels, and activities.
So far, the group has raised just over $6,000 through the crowd-funding site Trevolta, and has received a deeply discounted accessible van through Hertz, a $1,000 gift card for food from Cambridge’s H Mart, and some sponsored rooms from Hampton Inn hotels. Friends and family back in South Korea have also banded together to wire money to the United States — no easy feat, Kim said.
But the group worries that the remaining $9,000 will be difficult to raise in the short period before they are set to leave on July 11.
Financing may prove the biggest challenge for now, but the mere thought of spending seven weeks with the same three people is enough to drive some people bonkers. Asked if he thought they would get sick of one another, Riew and Kim exchanged good-natured smiles and laughed.
“It’ll be a bonding experience,” Riew said.
Harvard College interim dean Donald Pfister mentioned Kim’s project in an April e-mail to students and staff.
“I am constantly reminded that you all are already hard at work to make the world a better place. Please take a moment to view a project led by Kunho Kim ’17,” Pfister wrote, inserting a link to Kim’s Trevolta page.