Do something that makes people think you are crazy.
Seeking a way to use his motorcycle to raise money for folks coping with cancer, that’s the advice Stephen Wilson received two years ago from one of the Columbus area’s best fundraisers, Country’s Barbecue co-owner Scott Ressmeyer, a fellow Harley-Davidson enthusiast who has led Scott’s Ride for Miracles, raising more than $1 million since 2009 for the Children’s Miracle Network at Midtown Medical Center.
Wilson decided to circumnavigate the United States by himself, which he did last October. He rode his 2015 Ultra Classic nearly 10,000 miles for 21 days, from Columbus to Miami, north to Maine, west to Washington state, south through California, then east back to Columbus.
The 53-year-old Harris County resident has dubbed this year’s ride “X Out Cancer” because he will crisscross the country – by himself again.
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Wilson was planning the first leg to be from Columbus to Key West, Fla., “but that ain’t happening,” he said, alluding to the damage from Hurricane Irma. So instead he will ride from Columbus northwest to Blaine, Wash., south to San Ysidro, Calif., northeast to Madawaska, Maine, and south to Florida.
“Hopefully, by that time, I will be able to get to Key West,” he said, acknowledging the uncertain amount of time that area will need to recover from Hurricane Irma. “If I can’t, I’ll go to Miami or Homestead.”
Asked why he’s planning to do a similar fundraising ride this year, Wilson said, “The need didn’t stop. That continues on.”
His inaugural ride raised approximately $5,000. “It was a little disappointing,” he said.
Wilson had hoped to raise double that amount. No wonder his goal this year is $10,000 – and he already is halfway there, he said.
Donations through Bikers Battling Cancer go to the Neighbors Helping Neighbors Cancer Assistance Fund at the West Central Georgia Cancer Coalition. The fund helps families with cancer patients pay for household bills, groceries, medicine and out-of-town lodging if required for treatment.
The public is invited to the Sept. 30 sendoff ceremony for Wilson, starting at 8:30 a.m., at Chattahoochee Harley-Davidson, 3230 Williams Road, in Columbus. Approximately 10,400 miles later, he plans to return Oct. 20, the date for another cancer benefit, the Paint the Town Pink Fun Run/Walk.
Wilson was teaching theology at Saint Joseph High School in South Bend, Ind., before he moved to the Columbus area in 1996 to live closer to his parents in south Georgia. He taught at St. Anne-Pacelli Catholic School until 2001, when, leery of burning out but not wanting to work in a cubicle, he started his own business, Professional Inspection Services LLC.
His wife, Karen, coordinates STEPS (Special Training for Exceptional Preschool Students) in the Muscogee County School District. Around 2008 or 2009, Wilson said, Karen got involved in the Susan G. Komen Walk for the Cure in Atlanta to honor a friend who was diagnosed with cancer. Wilson also helped with logistics for the fundraiser, but they decided to end their involvement three years ago as controversy emerged about the organization’s support of abortion.
“Both my wife and I are Catholic, and our Christian faith challenges us to reach out to those in need, but as Catholics it became difficult to support an organization that, even tangentially, made abortions possible,” Wilson said. “That was why we stopped working with Susan G. Komen, though we still believe it is a great organization and has and will continue to accomplish great things for those going through breast cancer, especially in those areas that are underserved.”
A year after they ended their involvement with that fundraiser, when October 2015 came around, they felt “something was missing” while not participating in Breast Cancer Awareness Month, he said.
His mother was diagnosed with cancer, so Wilson started thinking about another meaningful way to support the cause. That’s when Ressmeyer gave him this advice, Wilson recalled: “If I am going to do a motorcycle ride to raise money, I needed to do something that makes people think I am crazy. I decided at that time to circumnavigate the U.S. Making people think I am crazy is easy since most people who know me think I am crazy anyway.”
Wilson averages 500-600 miles per day on the trip, generally riding from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. He stays in mostly hotels but sometimes with relatives, and his day-to-day itinerary is subject to change.
“That’s one of the advantages of being alone; I ride until I get tired,” he said. “I do have it planned out, but if I’m feeling good and I want to do another hour, yeah, I can do that.”
His expenses for last year’s trip totaled around $3,500, all out of his pocket. The donations go to the cause, he said. “I never forget why I’m riding.”
How could he? When he prepares each morning for that day’s ride, he sees the 100-plus ribbons on his leather vest and chaps, each one with the name of someone diagnosed with cancer and being honored by a $20 donation.
All of which reminds Wilson, “I’m not alone in this. There’s a community that I’m with, even if they aren’t there.”
Chattahoochee Harley-Davidson, St. Anne-Pacelli and Buck Wild Saloon are the main sponsors for this year’s ride. The two ribbons on the front of his motorcycle honor women he works with at St. Anne-Pacelli, where he teaches Scripture part time. The two ribbons on the back honor a fellow biker and one of his wife’s coworkers.
The ribbons also connect him to folks he meets during the trip. While at a restaurant, his waitress pointed to her first name on one of the ribbons. Although the ribbon wasn’t really for her, she told Wilson, “That’s me. I had breast cancer.”
He marveled at the small gesture’s huge impact.
“She just said thanks,” he recalled.
The highs and lows
The highlight of last year’s ride, Wilson said, came after he crossed the Mackinac Bridge, linking the Upper and Lower Peninsulas in Michigan. When he stopped to get gas, a woman came up to him and hugged him. She and her husband had been following him for 10 miles after noticing Wilson’s ribbons.
“I guess she must have Googled the website,” he said with a smile, “and she gave me $20. She said her sister had just started chemotherapy.”
Wilson cherishes the memory.
“It’s easy to say the scenery was the highlight,” he said, “but it’s meeting people like that. … It didn’t matter the money I was raising was for Columbus, Georgia. She recognized there were people in need and helped out.”
The worst moment of the trip came in Montana, where it snowed in October. “Ice and motorcycles don’t mix,” he said.
Fortunately, ice didn’t materialize, but a snarky comment certainly did: While stopping for gas, another customer saw Wilson and his bike in the snow and told him, “You’re either the dumbest man or the bravest man in the state.”
Wilson, despite his all-weather gear keeping him warm and dry, chuckled and replied, “Dumbest.”
Then he had to deal with “remnants from a typhoon” all the way from Seattle down the West Coast.
“Highway 1, I’d been on it before and it’s beautiful,” he said, shaking his head, “but it was not beautiful last year. It was cold. It was wet and windy. There were landslides.”
Returning home, Wilson said, “It was relief, but it also was some real exhilaration that I had done it.”
At the Paint the Town Pink celebration that day, he was invited on stage to be welcomed back in grand style. “Looking out there, it was a true sense of, ‘It was not me who did this,’” he said.
Wilson wouldn’t be riding a motorcycle anywhere if Karen didn’t “finally give in,” he said with a laugh. He had been trying to convince her for eight years to let him buy a Harley, and she relented when he turned 50.
Asked what he likes about motorcycle riding, Wilson said, “It’s stereotypical, but I like the wind in the hair, the whole freedom, the exposure. And there is a certain risk. All of that is attractive.”
That’s why he doesn’t have support vehicle trailing him on the trip.
“It’s part of the risk,” he said with a smile.
Wilson did, however, stop at a Harley dealer midway through last year’s trip for a 5,000-mile service on his bike. And he stopped each Sunday to attend Mass wherever he happened to be then.
Between receiving spiritual insight each week, he gleaned this political insight traveling around the country one month before the 2016 presidential election: “I knew Trump was going to win,” he said. “The only place I saw Hillary signs was California.”
Beyond the politics, seeing pockets of the nation up close left him with this renewed appreciation: “We all are essentially the same. When it comes right down to it, we all have the same concerns, North, South, East and West. We express them differently, but the worries -- and what makes us happy -- are the same.”
How to donate
To help Stephen Wilson raise money for the Neighbors Helping Neighbors Cancer Assistance Fund at the West Central Georgia Cancer Coalition, mail checks payable to WCGCC, c/o Bikers Battling Cancer, 633 19th St., Suite B, Columbus, GA 31901. Or donate online at www.wcgcc.org/events/bikers-battling-cancer/. You can make a one-time donation or pledge a dollar amount per mile ridden. You also can honor someone who has been diagnosed with cancer by donating $20, resulting in Wilson wearing a ribbon with that name during the ride.
To contact Wilson, call him at his home inspection company, Professional Inspection Services LLC, 706-593-3407.