The story below is a 3 day window into the first of my two cycling trips across America for and with wounded soldiers. Soldier Ride was a late night idea born out of the Amagansett bar The Stephen Talkhouse. With the help of some friends the effort revolutionized the way America rehabilitates its wounded soldiers and in the process helped shape the Wounded Warrior Project.
McCook, Nebraska to Colorado Springs, Colorado
Wind. Headwinds so strong I had to pedal hard to go downhill. My wheels vibrated from the crumbled road. Tek, my giant Polynesian rugby buddy drove an RV as a support vehicle. It was comical seeing America through his eyes. Tek would drive a few miles down the road and wait. He would let me ride by and get a few miles ahead, then repeat. We leapfrogged like this from Montauk to San Diego. One day in Nebraska I rode by him standing on the roof of the RV with binoculars in his hand, amazed at the 360 degree views of windblown grass. A couple of hours later I rolled into a dive bar. I was done and it was close to the hotel, this would be my watering hole for the next hour.
When I walked into the dark one room bar heads turned. Conversations came to a halt. I was a stranger and I was wearing spandex. I ordered a Budweiser and kept my eyes down till it was time to order another. By the middle of my third beer the patrons began speaking again. I saw Tek pull into the parking lot. It occurred to me that my 300 pound bodyguard had arrived. He casually strolled into the bar wearing a sarong and a Chicago Bulls Jersey, walked up next to me and asked the bartender for a beer. She stared back at him unable to decode his accent or the person in front of her.
A man walked in wearing overalls and a camouflaged hat, looked at me and shouted; “Tammy their drinks are on me!”
He had seen an interview I did on Fox News the day before and recognized the RV outside. It turned out every other guy in the bar had a cousin in Iraq or friend in Afghanistan. We stayed there for hours swapping stories and shooting pool.
The next day we triumphantly crossed into Colorado. Morale was high and our eyes were eager for something, anything to look at. To our surprise eastern Colorado was more esthetically barren than Nebraska. There wasn’t even the blowing tall grass to watch. Just dry cracked earth that resembled a post apocalyptic wasteland for 150 miles. At the same time the ominous outline of the Rocky Mountains appeared on the horizon so did signs of life. There were hundreds of prairie dogs. They scurried from the taller weeds along the side of the asphalt to their holes 20-30 feet away. Once they reached the safety of their burrows, which looked like giant ant holes, they would chirp and bark. They chattered at me for miles, and I enjoyed the company. Buffalo appeared on both sides of the highway held back by ridiculously thin wire. They looked at me in a strange sympathetic way, like I was a deformed anorexic cousin.
We received a call from the bar, the Talkhouse acted as our command center. Two wounded soldiers from Walter Reed Military Hospital were going to join us in Denver for the weekend. I was anxious but apprehensive. The owners of the Palm Steakhouse were from East Hampton and they offered us dinner while in Denver. I called and added two to our reservation.
I first met Heath and Ryan in the lobby of our hotel. They were both fresh faced young men in their early twenties. Heath was a double amputee above the knees and sat in a wheelchair. Ryan was a below the knee amputee and walked with a prosthetic leg. They both wore shorts. We introduced ourselves and quickly headed off to dinner. Tek helped Heath into the RV as if he had been doing it his entire life. He folded up his wheelchair and threw it in the back.
When we arrived at the bustling restaurant the host led us to our seats. As we snaked our way through crowded tables conversations fell silent. People tried not to stare but it was obvious and unavoidable. I wondered if Heath and Ryan noticed or cared. When seated we joked about the upcoming days of riding and what lay ahead. Once we concluded our meal and prepared to leave our table, the whole staff formed a column for us to exit through. They thanked the guys as we left. The entire restaurant followed suit, stood and applauded. What had started as an awkward moment turned into an experience I will never forget. It was just the beginning.
Heath rode a handcycle and cranked with his arms. Ryan rode a regular bike with a special prosthetic foot. The first few miles he fell over several times, his prosthetic kept getting stuck to his pedal. Heath rode until he puked. Tek threw him on his shoulders and popped him in the passenger seat of the RV. He rode shotgun while Ryan and I kept riding. After about an hour he rejoined us.
They settled in. The physical exhaustion seemed to rejuvenate them both. I think in some way that simple act of riding a bicycle brought them back to easier times. Days before their minds and bodies had been damaged by war. We finished the last 10 miles together riding straight south. The view was amazing with the edge of the Rocky Mountains to our immediate right and the endless flat land I had just crossed to our left. We finished strong together.
Tek picked out a Mexican restaurant. We changed quickly in the RV and sat down to eat tired and salty. After a few beers I asked Heath how he lost his legs. He was riding in the back of a truck that was stuck in traffic when someone from a trailing vehicle fired a RPG. The fin from the rocket severed his legs on it’s way to the cab of the truck. It exploded on impact killing the driver. Heath held up a bracelet with the driver’s name on his wrist. A passenger was severely wounded and burned. Heath called in support and passed out. The next thing he knew he was in the hospital without his legs. After dinner Tek and I loaded their bags in their rooms and said goodnight. I needed fresh air, another beer and privacy. I called my girlfriend back in East Hampton from the parking lot and broke down crying while attempting to retell Heath’s story.
During those couple of days we grew close enough to make fun of each other. Ryan was the class clown. His job in the Army was civil affairs. He won hearts and minds. He rebuilt schools and passed out candy in Iraq. Heath was a Ranger. Search and destroy, find bad guys and take them out. They were on polar sides of the military but became tight friends at the hospital.
In Colorado Springs we said our goodbyes. They had to fly back to the hospital to continue their occupational therapy. I had to bank west on Highway 50 and head into the mountains. Tek and I would be alone again, but not for long.
The following year in 2005 Heath, Ryan and myself reunited. This time we all cycled across the country, from Los Angeles to the Montauk Point Lighthouse, where it all started the previous year. Over 35 other wounded soldiers joined in at different points that ride, each with their own story. Tek of course drove the RV.