PARK COUNTY—Puddles dot the dirt road that leads to the 20-acre property Ashlee Lundvall shares with her husband, daughter and animals. Though the day is cloudy, the Absaroka Mountains are visible in the distance. These are the very mountains that ensnared Lundvall’s heart as a child. Her family drove west from Indiana on a road trip one summer, swinging through Cody. Lundvall was smitten.
“I felt like I was home,” she said. “I remember telling my parents, ‘I will eventually live here.’”
That much came true. But everything else Lundvall thought she knew about her future self would be upended by a fateful accident when she was a teenager.
When she shattered her body 24 years ago, everything changed. Doctors warned her that bad health outcomes would likely follow. However, that’s not what happened.
“To me, every time now that I hit another year, it’s a celebration of how far I’ve come and just the great opportunities I’ve been given and the fact that I’m still here and still really healthy and happy and just loving life,” said Lundvall, sitting at the kitchen island that’s been custom-built to match her height in a wheelchair.
This unexpected interpretation is exemplary of Lundvall’s outlook. The accident prompted her to redefine her expectations, get creative and devise ways to do the things she wants. Lundvall is an avid hunter, active outdoorswoman and devoted mom. She has explored backcountry landscapes, advocated for accessibility in the outdoors and written a book. The busy volunteer has mentored new hunters and served on the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness and Nutrition. In Wyoming, Lundvall is currently the lone woman on the Game and Fish Commission.
Fellow commissioner Ken Roberts has great admiration for her.
“She is a warrior,” he said. “If people had one ounce of the courage that that lady has, the world would be a better place.”
Lundvall credits her ability to accept what life throws at you and adapt. Her own path was long and windy, she said, but it’s shown her that “if you are brave enough to redefine your life, that will really open up some amazing opportunities for you.”
A fateful morning
Not long after that family road trip, a teenaged Lundvall had the opportunity to spend two weeks at a Cody-area ranch through a ministry program. She rode horses, mucked stalls and backpacked. Lundvall, who has large blue eyes and is quick to joke, said much of the program was cleverly disguised child labor, but “I absolutely loved it.”
Lundvall worked to save money for a second trip. She returned in 1999 at age 16 and fell back into the routine of ranch life.
She woke early one day and headed to the corrals. She climbed into a hayloft to pitch food to the cattle, and a flake of hay got caught on a bale. She reached to unlodge it with her pitchfork, but lost her balance.
It’s natural to comb over the details of an accident, obsess over the placement and timing of events and dwell on what may have been. Lundvall’s account went like this: When she realized she was falling from the loft, she tossed the pitchfork. Then she hit her head on the edge of the hayrack, and the momentum swung her body out so that she landed crossways on the pitchfork’s wooden handle.
The impact caused a blowout fracture of her T-12 vertebra, severely damaged her spinal cord and tore tendons and muscles away from her spine. When she came to, she couldn’t move her legs.
Despite two major surgeries and intensive therapy, the spinal cord damage was irreversible.
The 6-foot-tall athlete who understood life largely through her physical body — playing basketball, riding horses, running and jumping — now viewed it from a wheelchair.
Today, Lundvall makes it look natural to adjust to life’s punches. But it was a painful adjustment, she said.
When she returned to Indiana, she struggled with severe health setbacks. Familiar faces reminded her of the life she no longer lived. Reality set in as she was unable to master walking with braces. It was brutal. She grew apathetic, losing her appetite. A pastor’s daughter, Lundvall leaned into her faith to help her through.
Lundvall had always intended to be an orthopedic surgeon, and she forged on with that plan after graduating from high school. But as a pre-med biology major, she said, “I got slapped in the face everywhere I turned with the realization of what my life was now.” Leg tremors caused her body to shake, for example, and surgical sanitation involving a wheelchair was an ordeal.
Eventually, she said, “what I realized was — and this was definitely a process — that it takes more courage to let go of old dreams that you don’t recognize anymore so that you can move on to new dreams. And that’s what happened to me.
“And so that was probably the first time where I realized that I was going to have to redefine everything.”
It wasn’t the last time, she said. “I was just going to have to constantly be redefining things. If I wanted to find joy and find peace and be happy and have success in my life, I was gonna have to be flexible in that way. And it’s not easy.”
Another thing she’s realized, she said, is that these kinds of “pitchfork moments” are universal.
“I don’t think that necessarily has anything to do with my disability, that’s just how life goes,” she said.
Friend Beth Worthen marvels at Lundvall’s way of framing things.
“Ashlee’s perpetually positive about life,” Worthen said.
Lundvall switched her focus and ultimately earned a master’s in biblical counseling. She learned how to drive a hand-controlled vehicle and found a wheelchair-accessible apartment. Despite self-doubts, she met someone. Russ Lundvall, a Cody native, knew without asking how to unfold her wheelchair — his father uses a wheelchair because of multiple sclerosis. They married in 2006 and moved to Wyoming a year later.
Living in a landscape largely bereft of pavement initially spurred fear about not being able to get out and enjoy it, she said. “But it actually did just the opposite.”
Between her husband’s love of outdoor activities and her own competitive instinct that “oooh people think I can’t, so I’m going to see if I can,” she started to venture out. Soon the couple went four-wheeling all over the mountains. “The next thing I knew, that was my legs,” she said.
That led to fishing, kayaking and hand-cycling. She became involved in a disabled hunting group. Though not interesting in hunting, she ended up on a deer hunt with a borrowed crossbow, and she harvested an animal. “I just absolutely fell in love with it,” she said.
“The outdoors became my new competition, in a sense, against myself,” she said. “And against the boundaries that I kept running into, and having to figure out how to get around and things like that.”
In the early days, people helped push and drag her chair across all kinds of rugged terrain. Her first bull elk hunt entailed a gamut of “extreme wheelchairing” tactics and ended with Lundvall shooting a six-point bull at more than 500 yards away. As time went on, she gained access to adaptive tools, including a burly machine called an Action Trackchair that can access terrain she wouldn’t have dreamed of, and will even stand her up.
The more time she spent outdoors, she said, “it became really healing for me. And so then it just made sense to want to do whatever I could to share that with other people.”
Lundvall became an ambassador, writing columns, representing brands, acting as spokesperson for the Outdoor Ability Foundation and sitting on the NRA Disabled Shooting Sports Committee. She co-hosted a show called “Able Outdoors.” She was also crowned Miss Wheelchair USA, which gave her a whole new platform to advocate for better accessibility in the outdoors.
She volunteers for Wyoming Women’s Foundation, which puts on the Wyoming Women’s Antelope Hunt. She has mentored hunters and serves on the planning committee. During the hunt, she can most often be found at the “meat pole” — where hunters bring their harvest for dressing and processing.
Fellow volunteer Worthen, who shares the coveted meat pole position with Lundvall, enjoys spending the hours with her. “She always has been a leader as a woman in Wyoming, and so I am always excited to hear where that’s taking her.”
What’s really moving, Worthen said, is watching Lundvall mentor other hunters, including young and disabled hunters.
“She goes out and hunts with them and shows them in a very real and compassionate way how those limitations can be set to the side and how to make things work yourself,” she said. Many of these hunters “have had a transformative experience at the hunt, realizing a dream that they’ve had, and seeing what is possible because they see it embodied in Ashlee.”
Acquaintances also note that Lundvall has a way of diffusing the awkwardness that can ensue when people are unsure of how to act around disability. Part of that is her sense of humor.
“She’s really approachable and personable and I think she just makes other people feel comfortable around her,” Wyoming Women’s Foundation Director Rebekah Smith Hazelton said.
Sharing her lessons
Lundvall has continued to evolve through the years. She gave birth to her daughter in 2010 — which she said required a whole new level of bravery. She helped facilitate Wyoming’s first all-inclusive playground, in Cody. She traveled doing inspirational speaking.
Gov. Mark Gordon appointed her to the Game and Fish Commission in 2021, where she got a crash course in the regulatory side of wildlife.
She is a diligent commissioner who brings important perspectives to the board that might not be fully considered otherwise, Roberts said. “She can relate to disabilities and she can relate to ladies and she can relate to kids.”
Lundvall also serves on the board of First Lady Jenny Gordon’s Wyoming Hunger Initiative. Lundvall is supremely organized, dependable and thorough, Jenny Gordon said.
“She’s been invaluable in the skills she brings,” Gordon said. “She’s all-in when she’s on a board.”
And she’s on several. Worthen can’t figure out how Lundvall manages to do so much on top of her own hobbies, work and family life, she said.
Most recently, Lundvall has taken the mentoring role into her professional life as head of school at Veritas Academy, a private Christian school in Cody.
“She’s always looking for ways to make her community better and make our state better,” Gordon said.
Where life started
Rolling around her property near Powell, Lundvall points to her pygmy goats, chickens, cat and a large horse named King. She’s been trying for two years to figure out an adaptive saddle situation so she can ride him.
It’s an example of how she’s constantly trying to devise ways to still be active outdoors. It doesn’t always go well.
“I think people sometimes get this idea in their head that I’m out and doing everything I want to,” she said. “There are multiple things I’ve tried that I literally fell flat on my face.”
The point, she said, is to not sit back and be passive.
Many people may not want to return to the scene of a traumatic event. But her accident did not diminish Lundvall’s love for Wyoming.
“Strangely enough, I think I probably love it more now,” Lundvall said. “Wyoming has really been the place where, you know, I got to do all the things I never thought I would have been able to do … so really life kind of started here, where a lot of people might think it ended.”