From Sea to Shining Sea
Biking Across America With Wounded Warriors: The 2010 Sea to Shining Sea Cross-Country Ride
Paul Bremer, a participant of World T.E.A.M.‘ 2010 Sea to Shining Sea cross-country bicycle ride, published in September 2011 a memoir of the epic ride, “From Sea to Shining Sea: Biking Across America With Wounded Warriors.” The digital format book, available online from Amazon and Barnes and Noble, provides a complete report of the cross-country journey. Beginning in California and ending in Virginia two months later, the team of 15 wounded warriors, accompanied with a few able-bodied riders such as Bremer, joined together as a team for the challenging cross-country journey.
With permission, here is an excerpt from the book’s first chapter, “California: The Music-Hearted Sea.”
On May 21, 2010, a small group of bike riders gathered at dusk at the edge of San Francisco Bay. It was cold and blowy, with scattered rain. The wind kicked up flecks of foam in the Bay which swirled and murmured. The Golden Gate Bridge loomed above in the grey sky. Seagulls circled and squawked over the beach. The only note of color was the bright yellow of the foul-weather jackets the riders wore as they leaned into the wind, struggling across the sand toward the water.
Curious onlookers stopped and noticed that several of the riders were being carried down to water’s edge, while others pushed their bicycles right into the frigid foam. The men and women on the beach were taking the first step in an epic journey of discovery of America, and of the power within themselves.
The Sea to Shining Sea ride had been organized by a not-for-profit organization, World T.E.A.M. Sports (WTS). For twenty years WTS had been organizing athletic events for disabled Americans to help them rebuild their physical and psychological strength and to give them the courage to live normal lives. Participating in these events, disabled athletes serve as an inspiration for other disabled citizens—and for able-bodied men and women as well. The deeper purpose of the ride that began this day was to honor the injured men and women of the American military by challenging eighteen of them to ride almost 4,000 miles from the Pacific Ocean in California to the Atlantic Ocean in Virginia.
The curious ritual witnessed by several dozen onlookers that cold May day was the traditional “wheel dip”. On a cross-America ride it is a prized ritual for a biker to dip the rear wheel in the Pacific before starting, and dip the front wheel in the Atlantic at the end of the ride. In this case, a number of riders had been so badly wounded that they could not walk and had to be carried to the waterside. Others had lost a leg and were slowly making their way across the sand on prosthetics. A puzzling variety of upright bikes, familiar to all Americans, plus bikes propelled by hand cranks, and recumbent bikes were ridden, pulled, or carried into the water.
The riding group consisted of disabled riders from all five branches of the military and several able-bodied riders, of which I was one. My involvement in the ride resulted from the respect and admiration I developed for the men and women of the American military when I served as Presidential Envoy to Iraq. When I later joined World T.E.A.M. Sports as a director, I helped organize the ride and was honored to be asked to join it. I knew the Sea to Shining Sea (S2SS) ride would be a difficult and rewarding undertaking; but I never could have imagined what lay ahead.
I was asked to say a few words to commemorate the start of this adventure. Standing up to my knees in the freezing water with the other riders, and mindful of the encircling darkness, I kept it short.
“We are here for three reasons: to realize a dream–riding across our great country; to meet a challenge– which the ride is sure to be for every one of us; and to redeem a promise. The promise is that we will end the ride as friends. What happens between now and then is the great unknown, but it will surely be both painful and entertaining.” How right I was.
After returning to our hotel to change into dry clothes, the riders, plus several hundred active duty military men and women, and representatives of our corporate sponsor, State Farm, attended a sendoff dinner at the Officers Club at the Presidio, the oldest building in San Francisco (built in 1776 when California was still part of Spain.)
As we stood around waiting to be to be seated, I recognized a man leaning against the wall, with a cane in his right hand, He was one of the riders who had gone down to the sea earlier that afternoon. I went over, introduced myself and suggested we take a seat. He said “I know you. We were in Iraq together.” This was Clay Rankin, US army retired, and destined to become one of the true heroes of the ride.
Clay put his left hand on my right shoulder, bracing himself for the short walk to the nearest dining table. “Thank you, brother,” he said as we worked our way to the table. I was to learn that these were Clay’s three favorite words. It was clear that even this short walk was painful. We were joined at the table by my son, Paul, who had flown out to San Francisco to see us off.
I asked Clay about his background. A 48 year old Army veteran, married with three children, he had joined the army as an MP right out of high school. After serving three years in the Army in the early 1980s, Clay became a policeman in his home town before being recalled to active duty in the first Gulf War. There he suffered physical and psychological damage from an explosion and was discharged from the Army. “I was recalled to duty for Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. So I was in Iraq when you were,” he added with a laugh.
In Iraq Clay served with an MP battalion and survived a bomb attack. But he suffered Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and severe damage to his back and so had difficulty walking. From 2004 to 2010, any form of physical exercise Clay tried made his injuries worse. But he had recently discovered that he could ride a recumbent bike. These are three-wheeled bikes where the rider sits low to the ground and propels himself with his legs straight out.
“I was just given a bike by World T.E.A.M. Sports yesterday, so I’ve only ridden it from the hotel to the beach and back,” he said. Since this entailed a ride of about 5 miles, he was understandably nervous about getting himself across America this way. But he was excited because at home he was entirely dependent on his wife and his trained service dog to get around. “When I got on that bike today, I had a sense of independence I thought I had lost forever.” His face glowed with excitement.
After dinner, Brigadier General Arnold Gordon-Bray, head of the Army Reserve Officer Training Corp (ROTC) programs, addressed the group. He asked if we had seen the guards at the airport when we arrived. “Did you see them along the roads into town? And the guards around our hotel and on the streets of San Francisco?” Like others, I was puzzled, trying to remember if I’d noticed any heightened security outside our hotel.
“No, you didn’t see them,” Bray explained,” because the guards are not here: they are the men and women in the armed services on watch all over the world as we eat dinner here in peaceful America.”
Later my son took me aside and said quietly, “I don’t see any way Clay can ride four thousand miles, do you, Dad?” I shook my head and replied that I couldn’t imagine what how he could do it.
On Saturday, May 22, we rose at 4:30 to meet a 5:30 baggage call. It was only 38 degrees outside, but the sky was clear. After scrounging a variety of riders’ breakfast food groups– granola bars, bread, fruit, and energy drinks, we were treated to a stirring rendition of the National Anthem by an Army sergeant, followed by a send-off prayer from an Army Chaplain.
A bit after 7 a.m. we started across America.