Monday, February 20, 2012

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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