Monday, February 27, 2012

Day Six: Twentynine Palms “Day Off”

Photo: Arm patch right off of an Air Force general and a Coin of Excellence from a Marine Corps major. My treasures.

Thus far my sore throat hasn’t progressed very much.

Up and fully dressed by 8 a.m.—and I mean fully dressed by wearing a dress—business casual—for a pair of speaking engagements at Twentynine Palms Junior High and Twentynine Palms High School, followed by lunch at the officer’s club on base, another speaking engagement to newly-graduated from boot camp Marines, and then a “what do you want to see” tour of the base.

Jeremy spent time on base—specifically the semi-isolated, self-contained Ft. Nelson—before he was deployed to Iraq.

Kelly O’Sullivan, a civilian communications specialist for the base, met us in the motel parking lot. She was our personal chauffeur for the day—the base did not allow our vehicles of caravan on base, so Jeremy, Wesley, Heather and I climbed into Kelly’s borrowed mom van.

The first stop, at Twentynine Palms Junior High, was a group of students who were exploring the military as a career. The kids ranged from eager participants to kids who were put into the program because they’d gotten into trouble. Again the guys made their presentation, and then opened the floor for questions.

I was genuinely surprised at the football-related questions asked by some of the boys. It was as if all they’d heard of Jeremy’s talk was “NFL.” But Jeremy’s a trooper and answered the questions—no, I don’t know that guy, yes we beat that team.

Afterwards a line of kids asked Jeremy for his autograph, and he happily obliged.

Next, a quick trip to a mom-and-pop taqueria for breakfast burritos for the guys. Then we were off to the junior high—a group Jeremy most enjoys, at-risk kids.

As the kids entered the small classroom, you certainly could tell these kids needed plenty of guidance. Some of the girls dressed provocatively; the boys spoke loudly and schlepped in as if they’d rather be anyplace else.

After the talk Jeremy remarked about one girl in the audience who wore heavy make-up and a crop top. Part of Jeremy’s talk is directed to young women—you have more power and influence than you think: get your education, go to college, be self-sufficient and rely on no man. He could tell she was not only hearing but also listening, taking his words to heart. Perhaps she will be the one kid his talk saves on this day?

We were then off to the Combat Center at Twentynine Palms for lunch with the second-in-command major and base sergeant major, and the communications specialist. I was astonished at how nice the officer’s club was, and how good the food was. I had spicy shrimp tacos. Yum. The conversation was great and I learned lots about the military way. I also received my second on-the-road treasure.

When I was a kid, Ft. Hunter Liggett in south Monterey County and Ft. Ord in Marina/Seaside were both open. Both were Army bases; today Ft. Ord is a California State University location and Hunter Liggett is a minimally-active base. Located in the Santa Lucia Mountains at the edge of the Ventana Wilderness, Hunter Liggett is a dusty rural post—I don’t recall seeing the equipment being gleaming clean. At Twentynine Palms, also a dusty place, the equipment is clean—trucks, artillery, even parked tanks.

As we drove up to the next location, we noticed a group of around 100 young soldiers sitting on the asphalt in 80 degree weather. Jeremy called the group BOOTS—an acronym for Barely Out Of Training. This talk was slightly different—the message, take your training seriously, seize the opportunity and be proud of the family you now belong to, the USMC, a very selective family with a 250-year tradition. A short question-and-answer session followed, and off we went for a base tour.

Jeremy wanted to visit Ft. Nelson. He remarked that it had grown quite a bit since he’d been there. It’s build to resemble a military outpost in a desert environment. I am sure he felt pride and the eagerness of a child who gets an insider look at something that was important to him. Once a Marine, always a Marine.

We expected to be done early in the afternoon—best-laid plans but I wouldn’t have missed a minute. Back to uploading photos, and to bed in preparation for the 100-mile ride the next day.

Day Five: Barstow to Twentynine Palms

Eight a.m. comes early, and off we went toward Twentynine Palms, a 100 mile ride. It was already no-coat weather, so there was no doubt the day would be quite warm. We drove to where we ended the ride the day before—at the top of that “We’re not going there” hill. Jeremy and Wesley got onto their respective bikes, and headed on Route 247 toward Twentynine Palms. The van and I stuck with the guys for about half of the day. Right off the bat was a climb—naturally! The combination of the heat and the gentle hills sucked the hydration right out of the riders, and I was sent ahead to get fluids as they went through their usual day’s stock.

I am simply amazed by the amount of wide-open spaces in this part of California. I am reminded of the rugged individualism that abounded in the early California settlers. At first blush there is really a whole lot of nothing out here: monochromatic browns, tans and dusty greens. But there is also very clean air and deafening silence.

For those who have never been to Twentynine Palms, the “city limits” sign is pretty far away from the actual town center—it’s a stretched-out town build on gentle hills overlooking the Marine base which is obviously the city’s main industry. We had been instructed to set up at Luckie Park and there was a speaking engagement for Jeremy and Wesley at a town center.

Luckie Park is named for a Los Angeles physician who referred World War I veterans suffering from lung problems secondary to mustard gas exposure to the clean dry desert air. It’s a cute little place, with nice green lawns and shade trees scattered all over the park. There is a nice community swimming pool, too. We waited for a representative of the city to tell us where she wanted us to set up, but she never showed up. So the traveling circus set up, and visitors trickled by.

I’m not certain of the exact time, but as the agreed-upon time for the speaking engagement approached, it was clear there was no meeting hall nearby. There was a bit of a flurry and a scurry when the person who was supposed to meet us at the park came looking for us: she’d described the meeting hall as being “at the park” but the truth was it was above and across from the park—we did not see it. The guys of course knocked it out of the park, and the highlight of the event was when Jeremy shushed a man who was standing at the door and carrying on conversations during Wesley’s presentation. We later learned the shushed man was the city manager!

I managed to upload some photos but it was soon off to bed for a guided tour of the Twentynine Palms Marine Base, named the Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, tomorrow, our “off” day. So much for catching up with work.

Worst of all, I am getting a scratchy throat, typical for me when I’m exposed to extremes in weather.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Day Three: Anything But a Down Day

Our house while we were on Edwards Air Force Base. Sweet, huh?

Day three began with breakfast from Burger King—something we all really wanted to avoid. In the house the first night were two girls (Heather Haro, he operations director of the Jeremy Staat Foundation and moi) sharing a bedroom, Jason in one bedroom (single bed), Kevin (bike mechanic) in the master bedroom and Wesley on the hide-a-bed in the living room! When I went to bed I expected to have Jeremy in the master bedroom in the king-sized bed—don’t you agree that a 6’6” man deserves to be in a king-sized bed?—and I sure would have thought Wesley deserved to have a bedroom with an actual bed. But that man simply does not complain and he’s tough as nails. He’s breaking in a pair of new neoprene sleeves for his stumps, and he very matter-of-factly says breaking in new sleeves is tough, and that chafing and blistering is expected.

The first morning I learned Jeremy had slept in the motorhome. That’s where he wanted to be, too.

After inhaling breakfast, we went to the staging area to set up for the day’s festivities which consisted of making Jeremy and Wesley available for passerby. Unlike the day before when the commissary was closed for Presidents’ Day, the parking lot had plenty of activity and visitors to the Jeremy Staat Foundation’s information table, a traveling veterans’ center, and Healing Horses and Armed Forces (Charisse Rudolph and Penny the mini-horse).

There was work to be done though. The van has joined the caravan, and the three Foundation vehicles needed to be outfitted with CB radios. Because we had the luxury of a fully-equipped kitchen, I elected to volunteer to cook dinner and asked Wesley for his meal preference. He said he’d enjoy lasagna or spaghetti, so off I went to the commissary store to buy the ingredients for a green salad, lasagna and to bake a cake.

While I was cooking I took advantage of Edwards Air Force Base’s excellent Internet service. I still had photos to upload and plenty of other things to get done—like check over my media list and try to get information to some television stations, newspapers and radio stations along the way.

What I forgot to share with you all last night is that Dale left the house suddenly last night, saying he needed to check his house because a friend told him it had been broken into. He’d already claimed the sofa for sleeping, so God works in mysterious ways, giving the sofa and hide-a-bed to Wesley as his bedroom. I was not paying attention to what Dale was saying on the phone (he’d made numerous calls) and he suddenly just got up, grabbed his backpack and said “I’ll be back.”

Everyone converged on the house at about 7 p.m. Even Dale had returned. I had overestimated the eating ability of our party which consisted of the three riders, lead vehicle driver Jason, chase truck/bike mechanic Kevin, Dave the RV driver, Heather and myself. But everyone chowed down to their satisfaction and no one went to bed hungry.

Dale grabbed the sofa for sleep. We had a lot of work left to do; there was laundry and we needed to organize our first aid kits for each vehicle. It was a late night, and we finally went off to bed at around 11 p.m. I am pretty sure we are still running on adrenaline.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Day Two: Tehachapi to Edwards Air Force Base February 20, 2012

Wesley Leon-Barrientos (far left) and Jeremy Staat (far right) with the Edwards Air Force Base Fire Department, February 20, 2012.

Day Two started under gray skies but despite the early morning gloom, there was good news—after a quick breakfast at the Apple Shed (and if you ever find yourself in Tehachapi, you simply must stop there and have a meal or partake of the homemade baked goods or the bakery’s specialty fudge), Tehachapi Mayor Ed Grimes announced that $10,000 was raised for the Jeremy Staat Foundation as part of opening day’s citywide benefit events. He then presented the Keys to the City to Jeremy, Wesley and Dale, along with a special “Tehachapi” city pin. Around two hundred people were out on a gray morning to see the riders off.

It is surprising just how cold the high desert can be. More than one Tehachapi resident remarked that had the circus come through a week earlier, it would have encountered spring-like weather instead of the brisk 40 degrees from the day before. But the cold weather did not deter the five cyclists (two civilians elected to ride with Jeremy, Wesley and Dale) from donning their cycling gear and heading east on Highway 58 toward the first stop in the town of Mojave and a drive-through the former military base. With a quick snack and replenishing of beverages, the caravan headed toward Edwards Air Force Base and the final destination of the day and a docket of activities.

Because Edwards Air Force Base is an active military base, taking photographs is highly restricted. A one-day stopover is planned, with rest and recuperation for the cyclists, setting up our radios, impromptu visits to active-duty military who work and reside on base, and a day to catch up and send out media alerts! We are housed in a very cute 3-bedroom house on base with a fully-equipped kitchen, and I’m planning on making spaghetti & meat sauce for dinner tomorrow if Jeremy lets me get groceries—why not have home cooking while we can? A nice meal of pasta before Wednesday’s 78.1 mile ride will fit the bill perfectly for the riders and road crew!

A Beginning Under Grey Skies—To a Brisk Sunny Afternoon Filled with Love, Patriotism and Adventure

When most Californians think of Ken County, they think of row crops, orchards, vineyards and dairies. What most Californians don’t know about Kern County is its patriotism—the majority of its residents, regardless of country of origin, age or sex is very much in love with all that is good in the United States. Even though this area has suffered greatly thanks to the ongoing water wars, the residents of Kern County are generous to a fault. And you will have to work very hard to find a more patriotic people who want to do the right thing by our military, both active duty, honorably discharged and retired.

On a grey Sunday morning, February 19, 2012, the residents of Bakersfield, Lamont and Arvin gave Iraq war veterans Jeremy Staat and Wesley Barrientos, and Vietnam veteran Dale Porter a sendoff that is worth of their mission. The trio have accepted the challenge to ride across the southwestern and southeastern United States, passing through 13 states over a period of 100 days, with the journey culminating in Washington, D.C. on Memorial Day. The goal of the trip is to increase awareness of issues facing veterans today—the high suicide rate of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan; access to medical care; and assistance in seeing GI Bill education benefits.

Appropriately, the starting point was Kern Couny’s Wall of Valor, which is located near Bakersfield’s Amtrack station. Across from the Wall of Valor was “The Wall That Heals,” a half-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. It was right that those veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country were front-and-center and on the minds of everyone in attendance.

A bit about the main characters, though neither Jeremy, Wesley or Dale would say they are the main characters—the main characters are those veterans who have gone before them, any man or woman who fought for freedom in any of the armed forces—those who returned from their service with their lives intact, and those who lost their lives on the battlefield. Those veterans past need and deserve a voice, and this trio is speaking for those who cannot.

In an article for The Arizona Republic on January 19, Jeremy described the Wall-to-Wall ride as a “traveling circus.” And for the first day, it certainly was. Traveling with the cyclists are a pair of chase trucks emblazoned with a special paint scheme for the trip, and a motorhome as a place of rest along the route for the riders. From the Wall of Valor on Truxton Avenue in Bakersfield to the main drag of Tehachapi, police escorts from the cities of Bakersfield, Arvin and Tehachapi, along with the California Highway Patrol, ensured the riders’ safety and made it very clear to passersby that something special was heading east on the Purple Heart Trail and south on Highway 58 toward the Ride’s first overnight stop in the small town of Tehachapi.

About 100 cyclists left the Wall of Valor alongside Jeremy, Wesley and Dale. The route through Bakersfield, Lamont and Arvin was peppered with pedestrians and families who pulled off the road and waved flags and held homemade signs—pretty impressive for a Sunday morning!

In the tiny farming town of Arvin, several hundred people converged at the city’s Veteran’s Hall to honor the riders. Jeremy and Wesley have a special affinity for schoolchildren, and the children showed their love for the pair by holding up handmade signs; the mayor gave the riders a welcoming speech, and photo-takers abounded. After a quick refueling of Pedialyte and fruit, the cyclists approached the most challenging part of the day.

The first day is anticipated to be the most difficult ride-wise. Just out of Arvin is the newly-christened Purple Heart Trail, formerly known as State Route 223, complete with a seven-mile seven percent grade. From a distance the route doesn’t look terribly challenging, but there are no level spots or inclines whatsoever.

Tehachapi is a 102-year old city with a population of around 14,000 people that has not lost a bit of its small-town feel. Although the “circus” came through town on a Sunday, residents showed up by the thousands to enjoy special events sprinkled throughout the city’s main street. Three restaurants donated the day’s revenue to the Jeremy Staat Foundation, and residents eagerly purchased commemorative t–shirts and for the most part wore them immediately to show their support. People of all ages milled about waiting for the cyclists to make the last difficult uphill trek into the city.

Mayor Ed Grimes and his committee vowed that the Ride’s first stop and citywide celebration would be the gold standard by which all other stops will be judged. And that certainly will be the case. The riders managed to stop by each special event, posing for photos, accepting thanks and congratulations for a job well done and a successful ride. Jeremy, Wesley and Dale made the 50.7-mile ride from Bakersfield in about 8 hours. The only snafus, which were ever-so-minor, were rest stops (which were expected) along the Purple Heart Trail, and when a cable broke on Wesley’s hand crank. Fortunately there is a back-up hand-crank bike in the mobile bike repair shop that will shadow the riders all the way to Washington, D.C., and the bike was repaired by the next rest stop.

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