(Photos courtesy Ray Wittmier, at right above with Gene Woodard)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle blog editor
Ray Wittmier has just returned home to West Seattle from a life-saving trip.
Not his life—but potentially thousands of others.
Wittmier and longtime friend Gene Woodard rode bicycles across the country – 3,428 miles, from Puget Sound to the Atlantic Ocean, raising money for childhood-cancer research (and they’re not done yet). Their inspiration: A girl named Maya.
Maya – for whom Woodard, a longtime family friend, and Wittmier are “honorary uncles” – was diagnosed with a Wilms tumor on her kidney at age 7. Wittmier says he and Woodard had long talked about the idea of riding cross-country, but to get it from idea to reality, they needed “one more thing to make it worth doing” – and raising money for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation turned out to be exactly that.
They made the trip in 49 days – an average of 70 miles a day – in “every kind of terrain,” from the Rockies to the Plains and beyond. Did we mention Wittmier is 67 years old, and Woodard 68?
They are thankful for good health throughout their ride; Wittmier jokes that they “never dipped into our Medicare benefits” along the way. Besides funding progress toward fighting childhood cancer, he hopes their ride also will inspire people their age to get up and get moving – whatever their challenges (within the past year, Wittmier had a knee replacement and Woodard had a hip replacement). He recalls that one day, Woodard complained mildly about a particularly hilly stretch – and a family member reminded them, “Think what Maya went through,” especially in her grueling early treatment … and they “never whined again.”
The family communication was done remotely, it should be noted. While many “epic journeys” like this are done with a support vehicle alongside, or some kind of entourage in tow, Wittmier and Woodard traveled entirely by themselves. A friend handled logistics from afar, plotting routes for them. “Like we were two little spaceships and he was Houston.” Otherwise, they had to be self-sufficient, with all their gear and supplies on their bikes.
That’s not to say they didn’t get support along the way. This is another major takeaway Wittmier has from the adventure: “It’s awesome to know how many great people there are in America.”
He has many stories to tell about people they encountered along the way and the kindnesses they were shown – traveling through 12 states, he says, they had “no bad encounters … people went out of their way to help us out.” He recalls, for example, people they met in Brookings, South Dakota, who were visiting for their 55th high-school reunion but residing in Madison, Wisconsin, a few days down the road for the riders, “When you go through Madison, you ‘re staying with us,’ they told Wittmier and Woodard – and they not only made good on their offer, they picked them up and delivered them back to their route. (Speaking of high school, Wittmier is WSHS Class of 1973.)
That route also took them through big cities, like Chicago and New York, and as they approached the end, Wittmier says, some riders joined them. His wife rallied a crowd to cheer as they rolled up to Coney Island last Thursday (July 7th), dipping their tires in the Atlantic to officially mark the end of that “epic journey.”
Neither of them had rode this far before; Wittmier says he did the 200-miles-in-a-day Seattle to Portland ride, but never anything like seven weeks of riding between 38 and 106 miles a day (the shorter day was amid thundershowers in Rapid City). They didn’t skip a single day, he says proudly.
The sweetest moment along the way wasn’t a riding milestone. While they were on the road, three weeks ago, they got word that Maya (who lives in Edmonds) had been declared cancer-free. “She is the sweetest 13-year-old you can imagine,” he declares. “A cool kid.” And one with a chance at a long, healthy life, perhaps more of a chance because of the research funding brought in by Wittmier and Woodard’s ride. (You can donate by going here. Every cent goes to St, Baldrick’s – Wittmier and Woodard personally covered all their expenses for the ride.)
But Wittmier’s last words in our exchange weren’t a pitch for donations. They were words of gratitude: “I want to thank all of the wonderful people in our country, and I’m happy to be home with the super-nice people of West Seattle – let’s keep making it better!”