Tom von Keanel’s trip to Juneau was 120 days and 5,800 bicycle miles in the making.
The 59-year-old Army veteran peddled from Key West, Fla., to Juneau, Alaska, stopping at the capital of each state in between to honor fallen service members of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His mission came to an end Thursday at the Capitol where a ceremony was held honoring Alaska’s fallen.
The journey was part of a bi-annual, cross-country bike ride with the objective of reaching all U.S. state capitals to honor the fallen service members, and ultimately installing a permanent Iraq/Afghanistan memorial in each state capital and in the nation’s capital.
As his journey came to an end, Keanel said he was mixed with feelings of both relief and sadness.
“It’s a relief I was able to do (this),” he said. “I set the bar very, very high. I knew it was the right goal, and everyone said, ‘You’re not going to make it to Alaska. You can’t make it up there. You might make it to Texas.’ I mean, I’m 59 years old. I’m not a spring chick but I’m determined.”
Keanel started the cross-country journey on March 2 in Clemson, S.C. Throughout the next 110-plus days, he rode though 14 states and parts of Canada. In each state, he led a ceremony and read the names of each fallen service member from that state. Keanel’s inspiration for the feat is a deeply personal one.
In September of 2009, while cycling through the Pyrenees Mountains in southern France, Keanel was in a “freak accident” that most probably wouldn’t have lived to tell about.
“It was considered a high impact accident,” said Keanel. “I fell off my bike and my left hip dislocated, smashing into my pelvis and breaking it into about 27 pieces.”
Keanel was taken to an intensive care facility in France, but his injuries were too extensive and “they didn’t have the tools to help.”
“They said I needed to find a world class surgeon if I wanted to walk again,” said Keanel. He was lucky enough to be picked up by the Air Force and “there was an emergency evacuation to Germany. I spent 18 days in the intensive care unit/service ward for soldiers. That experience changed my life, it saved my life. I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for them. I wouldn’t be walking and certainly not cycling.”
Keanel’s recovery wasn’t without its own problems.
“During my recovery, I got super bug infection, which put me back three of four months,” he said. “I learned to walk a couple of times and finally I got it right. I said I was going to get back on a bike to raise awareness for the service members.”
Since that time, Keanel started a non-profit in 2012 called Sea2Sea. Sea2Sea is a U.S. Military 501(c3) non-profit organization with the purpose to “give back to those who served,” while specifically highlighting the sacrifices that U.S. service members, veterans and their families have made since 9/11 and “turning this awareness into actions to benefit them.”
Keanel’s first cross-country ride through the organization was a 4,200-mile journey from Ocean Shores, Wash., to Arlington National Park in Washington, D.C. Keanel completed the ride in 74 days, arriving on July 4, 2012. Though it was an accomplishment, Keanel wanted more.
“I wanted to raise the bar this time,” said Keanel. “I had an RV (and a small group of people) who accompanied me the first time, but I said this time I’m not going to have a backup vehicle. It’s going to be totally self-funded.”
Through his 5,800-mile trip, Keanel relied on the people in the communities he passed through for moral support, housing, food and sometimes a riding companion, even if it was only for a few miles.
“I rode with Boomer’s Legacy (in Canada) and we honored 158 Canadians that had fallen, and they ended up riding with me for two days.”
Boomer’s Legacy is a Canadian group that has a similar objective to Keanel’s.
Since Keanel was completely self-funded through the trip, he took what he could from the people he met along the way.
“I had this grand plan when I started, because I have a sleeping bag, a tarp and a mattress. But after the second night, I realized it’s not a good plan when you’re going to do 75 to 85 miles per day, especially with a 59-year old body like mine,” Keanel said. “You need to do the personal hygiene stuff. So I stayed in motels, neighbors’ houses, churches, floors and couches.”
As for food, Keanel said he relied mostly on restaurants, grocery stores, fast food and donations.
“I have been eating mostly anything. I try to find fast food. I ate a lot of McDonald’s. I’m not a big fan of McDonald’s, (but) it has free WIFI and the dollar menu.”
Despite some road bumps along the way, such as angry, bike-chasing dogs in Louisiana, tornados in Texas and unforgiving 50-mph winds through the Mojave desert, Keanel said he’s physically and mentally in good shape.
“Physically, I have lost 25 to 30 pounds,” he said. “I haven’t shaved in 110 days, and I haven’t had a haircut in 100 days, but I’m feeling really good.”
Besides taking care of himself, Keanel said repairing the bike and finding supplies for it was one of the most challenging aspects.
“I have had five flats, three new tires, a new backrack, three chains and two rear wheels,” he said. “It was challenging trying to find where the bike shops were, and figuring out how much the bike can take. It only weighs about 75 pounds, and that bag holds my whole life. My existence is in there.”
Despite being a little sad this ride is over, Keanel reflected on his journey to Alaska and where the next Sea2Sea journey might take him.
“I have met so many wonderful people along the way,” he said. “There is an outpouring of people wanting to help. I find it so touching and so, so moving. I think the other bit of sadness is, there’s still a lot more to do. Maybe I can do a little bit more, but of course there’s got to be a start and stopping point to it. But we will have another cycling event in two years, maybe the bar will be even higher.”
For more information or to donate to Sea2Sea, visit www.sea2sea.org.