Mitchell McCabe's latest work in progress is an abstract drawing of Three Buttes, a mountain west of Route 66 on the Fort Belknap Reservation where he grew up.

Three semi-abstract horses, riding a horizontal band of orange and yellow, stride through the center of the drawing. They represent the nearby Wild Horse Butte. He's filling in the land below the butte and the horses with a sunset array of orange, narrow lines drawn with a fine-tipped Micron pen clenched in his teeth.

His face is only inches from the paper when he's drawing. To work on different sections of the drawing, he can move the mount up or down, left or right with controls.

Sometimes the repetitive line work makes his eyes hurt. He's detail-oriented, and the slow progress can be frustrating.

"Sometimes I can see the picture done in my head and then it makes me mad that it's not done on the paper. I can see it," he said.

Nevertheless, he describes drawing as an escape. "It clears my mind, it gives me a sense of relief and a boost of confidence again. I just kind of get lost in it," he said.

Before the vehicle crash that paralyzed him, he was an athletic teenager. He ran, rode horses, boxed. When he re-discovered art, it gave him confidence and a sense of self.

"Once I was able to use my mouth to draw, it made me feel like I still fit in with my peers," he said.

Initially, he stayed with pencil drawings and took art classes just to see what he could do.

He started with landscapes dotted with trees that he rendered in meticulous, repeated line patterns. He moved on to animals, such as hawks and dogs with longer, looser lines. Now he's trying the ink pens, with abstractions and references to traditional dancers and the Montana landscape.

"I want it to be good, and I want it to stand aside and not be the same as everybody else. That's what I'm trying to work for right now."


On Aug. 9, 1998, McCabe was almost 16 years old. He was driving home from a powwow on Route 66 early in the morning when he fell asleep behind the wheel and rolled his van. Luckily, another car and an ambulance came upon the scene. His cousin escaped with only light bruises, but McCabe was paralyzed.

McCabe, who turns 35 this month, is considered a C4 quadriplegic. He can't move his hands, but he can move his bicep. "My arm works like a crank," he said. He uses his shoulder to steer it and his bicep to lift.

He wants to spend his career helping other people in recovery from injuries like his. Last year, he graduated with a bachelor's degree in psychology and forensic anthropology from the University of Montana. He's applying to graduate school to pursue a master's in clinical mental health counseling.

After he was injured, he was taught how to take care of himself and then went home to Fort Belknap. Eventually, he moved to Missoula — partly because he'd always wanted to live here, and partly because of the greater resources for independent living.

His mother always reminded him that he still has his mind, and to use it to pursue independence.

After he learned of all the resources available, he wished he'd had access earlier and been "overwhelmed" with it all, "because then I would understand I can still be independent. I always wanted to be independent."

He thinks he could be further along now with the right help, and wants to provide that extra help to others.


McCabe's drawing station, which was donated to him after a quadriplegic artist died, is set up in his third-floor apartment at Eagle Watch Estate, an accessible building off West Broadway. His corner windows and station have a view of the Hellgate Canyon, the "M" and the "L," and the Clark Fork River. The pedestrian trail runs along the building, and he can commute to downtown.

"During the summertime, I have a hard time being inside because the winters are so long, I just like to be strolling along the river and out and about," he said. He goes to the many festivals in Caras Park, including the weekly Downtown Tonight and Out to Lunch gatherings.

He's a boxing fan — he once entertained a career in sportswriting—  and is having friends over to watch the Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor fight on Saturday. A poster of Muhammad Ali hangs over his big-screen TV.

Since graduating, he's been interviewing for jobs and doing peer advising in hopes that it helps his grad school applications. He's not allowed to counsel yet, only to share his experiences and resources, or just to hang out and show them how accessible Missoula is.

His job coach convinced him to have a First Friday opening in September. He'll give a talk, too, an initial try at another aspect of his career: motivational speaking. People have told him that he motivates others.

With resources and technology and adaptive equipment, he said there's plenty of life to experience.

"You don't have to stop living your life just because you're injured," he said. 

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