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Walking Across America On His Hands

A quote.

“Courage is one thing.  A sense of purpose another.  When you put them together in one human being, the world can be changed.”

John Brown

That first morning, I pedaled through heavy traffic for the beginning of my coast-to-coast across America adventure.

After dipping my hand into the Pacific Ocean, I cranked the pedals east toward the Atlantic Ocean.  The Los Angeles smog irritated my lungs before I pedaled into the Mojave Desert.  After crossing the Colorado River, I breathed easier when the air pollution flowed south toward Phoenix.

Thankfully, I pedaled into cleaner air in the mountains.  Climbing steep grades took hours while coasting down the backside took 30 minutes.  Sweat dripped from my nose as it splashed onto the top tube.  A relentless sun beat down from a brilliant blue sky.  Onward into the desert I pedaled.

In New Mexico, I crossed the continental divide and descended into the desert on Route 380.

With a blazing sun overhead, I struggled along a two-lane highway that curled over the mountainous landscape.  Sweat dripped from my face and arms.  Salty rivulets drained down my backside.   Every breath crowded my mouth with what felt like dry, hot cotton balls.  Heat waves rippled over the pavement as I descended further into the barren landscape.   Boulders and cacti stood like indolent sentries guarding the land from intruders.  The thermometer hit 103 degrees by the time I pedaled to the outskirts of Roswell, New Mexico.

Ahead, a lone figure walked along the left side of the road.  I found it difficult imagining anyone walking down the highway in those torrid temperatures.

“I wonder what that guy’s doing walking in this heat?” I muttered to myself.

“Looks like he’s got a dog with him, too.”

A minute later:

“That’s not a dog!” I gasped, doubting my eyes, and straining harder to make out what I saw.

The smaller figure proved not to be a dog, but another man walking on his hands!  Within a few seconds, I found out why:  no legs!

Less than forty yards away, the lone figure walked and read a book while the other man walked on his hands.

A camper van awaited on the shoulder a half mile ahead.  I rode up even with the two men.  Something inside made me stop and drop my bike into the gravel.

I couldn’t help crossing the road, knowing that whoever this man was, he possessed inconceivable courage.  Why on Earth would anyone be walking on his hands, in this heat, along this road and in the middle of nowhere?  He saw me and stopped.  He lowered his body down to the ground, resting it on a leather pad that covered his two severed legs just below the groin.  His Paul Bunyan upper arms led down to his hands, which grasped two rubber pads.  Sweat soaked his T-shirt.  His dark hair framed a tanned, round face punctuated by a pair of clear brown eyes. He flashed a beautiful smile.

“Hi, how ya’ doin’?” I said approaching with my hand extended. “My name is Frosty.”

“Glad to meet you,” he said shaking my hand. “I’m Bob Wieland and this is my friend Paul.”

“Pleasure to meet you,” I said. “I gotta’ tell you Bob, I’m more than a bit curious seeing you out here in the desert.”

“The same could be said about you,” he said. “What are you doing out here?”

“I’m riding my bicycle across America.”

“That makes two of us,” Bob added. “I’m walking across.  I’d bike but my legs are too short for the pedals.”

I laughed.

His humor proved natural.  We bantered a few minutes about the weather.  Bob gave me a short history of his journey.  He started on the West Coast.   He crossed over many 6,000 to 8,000 foot passes.  His friend fixed meals, but often, people asked them into their homes for the night.   If no one offered a night’s lodging, both men slept in the back of the camper pickup.  His friend drove the vehicle ahead and came back to walk with him.  His companion read a book while guiding Bob down the left side of the highway.   While in Vietnam, Bob lost his legs in combat.  I asked him about his start time.

“I’ve been out 19 months and have completed 980 miles,” he said. “At my speed, I can finish this adventure in three more years, maybe less.”

“Why are you doing it?” I asked.

“There’s a lot of adventure out here on the road. I suppose I could sit back and get fat watching TV for the next fifty years, but I want to do something with my life.  I want to make a difference.  I have to make do with what I have left.  You know the old saying, you only go around once.”

“You have my greatest admiration,” I said, shaking his hand again.

It became one of those moments where you don’t quite know what to do or say, or how to act.  I just met the most incredibly courageous man in my whole life who looked up at me from the pavement.  He lost his legs in that terrible war.  While still a man, he stood only three feet high.  His hands had become his feet.  That gray leather pad protected his bottom like a baby diaper.  Those rubber pads on his hands gave him wheel tread for his arduous journey.  I gasped inside myself at the enormity of his quest.

“Guess I better get moving,” I said, reluctantly.

“Take care,” Bob said. “Have a good ride.  I’ll get there one of these days.”

“There’s no doubt that you will reach the Atlantic Ocean,” I said.

While turning away from that amazing human being, tears filled my eyes.

I started crying half way across the road.  What he attempted staggered my imagination.  My friends called me nuts for taking a transcontinental bicycle trip, but they had no understanding of how easy my task compared to Bob Wieland.

After crossing the highway, I pulled my bike out of the dirt.  I guzzled a half bottle of water.  I stepped onto the pedals.  I pressed my iron steed eastward into the hot morning sun.  I cried for miles at the senselessness of war.  I cried for Bob and I cried for humanity.  Miles and years down the road—that moment colors my mind as vividly as the day it happened.

Most human beings possess handicaps in one way or the other—physical or psychological.  Most importantly, it’s how they handle their limitations.  He concentrated on what he could do, not on what he couldn’t do.  Instead of giving up, Bob pushed forward into the unknown not only determined to succeed, but expecting to succeed.

George Bernard Shaw celebrated people like Wieland when he wrote, “This is the true joy of living, spending your years for a purpose recognized by yourself as a right one…to be used up when they throw you on the scrap heap of life.  To have been a force of nature instead of a selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

Bob Wieland pushed himself through 3,400 miles of hardship that few people could comprehend.  He gutted his way up mountains, sweated his way across deserts, and fought through raging storms.  Every labored breath drew him closer to his goal—the Atlantic Ocean.

Two years later, I listened to NPR radio while eating breakfast one morning. Bob Wieland reached the Atlantic Ocean thus succeeding in his quest to walk on his hands coast to coast across America.  It took him three years, eight months and six days.

In 1996, he completed a 6,200 mile bicycle circuit, using his hands, twice across America.  In 1994, People Magazine awarded him one of the six “Most Amazing Americans” in the past 100 years  He’s the only double amputee to complete the Ironman Triathlon in Kona, Hawaii without a wheelchair.  He ran and completed the New York, LA and Marine Marathons. The list continues to grow!

I sat at the breakfast table crying like a baby because that man gave me courage to face my own struggles from that one meeting in the New Mexico desert many years ago.  I’m sure he touched thousands more on his remarkable journey across America.  Here’s to you, Bob Wieland, to your courage, your humor, your passion and your life.

Frosty Wooldridge is a blogger for JenningsWire, a blogging community created by Annie Jennings.