At a recent dinner for about 200 “Ride 2 Recovery” bicycle riders, every table had a story.
Each tale tugged at your heart, brought tears to your eyes and restored your faith in the resilience of humans. About 60 percent of the riders were recuperating military members, most who had been injured in combat.
They pedaled for 463 miles in seven days to help themselves mend and raise money so others like them also could heal from physical and mental wounds.
On Oct. 5, the warriors were here, at the halfway point between San Francisco and Santa Monica on a journey designed to prove what they could still do, despite the loss of limbs or other injuries.
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Among the veterans were:
Marine Luis Alejandro, 34, of Canoga Park, who suffered a traumatic brain injury while serving in Iraq. This road trip was his first time on a bicycle.
Rob Miller, 39, a former Army member and avid cyclist riding in support of his son, Navyman Nathan Dewalt, 22, restricted to a wheelchair by his wounds. Para-Olympian Dewalt also rode in the Ride 2 Recovery.
Caswell Matthew, an injured Army man based at the warrior transition unit at Ft. Campbell, Ky., began the race on a bike. Then 25 miles south of San Francisco, he was nudged off the road by an RV, and wound up with his arm in a cast.
Did Matthew give up and go home? Not a chance. He switched to a support vehicle, from which he urged on his compatriots. “And I’ll be back again next year, back on a bike,” he said.
Every story was amazing.
Husband Richard and I attended the dinner with nearly 150 other North Coast residents, welcoming the wounded warriors and letting them know how much they matter to us.
When the evening began, none of the locals knew the service members. But by dessert (lovingly baked by members of Cambria’s 4-H and the Coast Union High School-Rotary Interact Club), many were exchanging addresses with their tablemates, along with promises to keep in touch, and maybe to ride with them next year.
As Nancy Taylor, 4-H community service coordinator recalled, one of her young club members said simply of the servicewoman at their table, “She’s my friend now.” Taylor said the wounded warrior wants to be a pen pal for the kids.
Other youngsters also went home with special memories and provided poignant stories.
For instance, Grizzly Youth Academy students presented the colors. One young Grizzly told his Cambria tablemate shyly that “I've never been to a fancy dinner like this before.” (The meal provided by the Hanchett family of the Cavalier included salad, pasta and garlic bread.)
Before the event began, some forces had seemed to conspire against it.
“If it hadn’t been for the Hanchett family and their banquet manager John Raethke, we’d have been eating hotdogs and s’mores in the rain and over an open pit on the beach,” said Ron Waltman, among those who organized local events through American Legion Post No. 432 and other groups.
First, on Oct. 4, stiff winds blew down and damaged part of the heavy, 125-by-40-foot tent. (Hanchetts’ forklift and crew to the rescue!).
The next night, the rainstorm arrived about the same time as the dinner guests.
Wednesday morning, dozens of us stood in the rain beside a giant U.S. flag, cheering and waving to the bicyclists pedaling down Highway 1.
Soggy? Yes. But the cyclists were much wetter and colder than we were, and look what they’d gone through to be here. It was such a little thing for us to get wet, too, as we showed them how much we care.
Some warriors headed for Cambria Grammar School, where they delighted an assembly of more than 300 youngsters by riding right into the auditorium. One little girl threw her arms around the legs of a wounded warrior and exclaimed, “I love you!”
Moments later, I was driving down Highway 1 toward Burton Drive, delivering my photo disk to The Cambrian in time for the Oct. 7 issue.
I wish I could have photographed what I saw along the way, but traffic was backed up, and there was no place to park.
A soldier I’d met the night before was riding alongside a bicyclist with prosthetic limbs, who was laboring up the hill. The soldier had his hand at his injured friend’s back, lending support, sharing energy and giving a gentle, steady push.
In turn, his wounded compatriot was doing the same for another injured warrior, who was in a recumbent bicycle powered only by arm pedals.
Every table had a story
Thank-you note: We live in a town filled with wonderful people. Organizers are sending kudos to the Hanchett family and Cavalier crew, Tim Radecki (his truck displayed the big flag Wednesday morning), Community Emergency Rescue Team members, Harvey’s Honey Huts, Mary Lou and Gary Stemper from Eagle Castle who donated $10,000 and wine, the Barncastles from Taylor Rents, Louis Ortega, Grizzly Youth Academy, 4-H, Girl Scout Troop 651, Boy Scout Troop 217, Cub Scout Pack 217, Santa Lucia Middle School Leadership Group, CUHS Rotary Interact Club, school officials, eight local therapists who donated massages for 23 riders, resident sheriff’s Deputy Todd Steeb, American Legion/Auxiliary/Sons, American Legion Riders for shepherding the bicyclists for two days, the entire event committee, and of course, the Ride 2 Recovery riders and support group.