MOTORCYCLE BOB REVS UP FOR POLIOPLUS
A Rotarian polio survivor takes his message on the road.
by Cary Silver / The Rotarian October 1998
The pelting rain had obscured Rotarian Bob Mutchler's vision and soaked him to the skin. He gently eased off the throttle of his Honda Gold Wing motorcycle, alarmed that he could spin out of control on the flooded highway. "Only 5,000 miles to go," he could hear an inner voice encouraging him. The voice was small and sounded very far away, but it was enough to keep him going.
Several days later, he was greeted by Past R. I. President Clifford L. Dochterman and a group of cheering Rotarians at California's state capital of Sacramento, his point of origin. The 50-year-old Rotarian from Folsom, California, U.S.A, had just completed a cross-country motorcycle trek, stopping in 48 state capitals and Washington, D.C. His feat not only set a world record, but - more importantly to Bob - it raised funds and awareness for Rotary's most ambitious humanitarian effort to date, PolioPlus.
"I didn't do this to break a record," stresses Bob, a member of the Rotary Club of Rancho Cordova, California. "I did this because I made a personal pledge to PolioPlus."
Bob has made a special commitment to this program for a reason. When he was only nine months old, Bob was stricken by the polio virus. For three years, he was a virtual prisoner in the local hospital, confined to an iron lung. "My parents were told I had little hope of survival," he recalls.
Today, Bob is an accomplished musician and owns a successful piano tuning and restoration business. But the visible reminder of his ordeal is painfully apparent - he suffers from paralysis in his legs, and relies on crutches and leg braces to walk.
"I feel very fortunate to have survived," says Bob. "I live in a country where there are many resources. But in many developing countries, polio victims may not be so fortunate. They often don't have access to prosthetic devices or physical therapy.
"I have seen small children in regions like Africa called 'crawlers' because they have to crawl on their stomachs from one garbage pile to the next. They may become outcasts or abandoned by their families."
Bob was determined to help in some way. He came up with a novel idea several years ago to turn his love of marathon motorcycling into a campaign for polio awareness. "People in the United States don't realize that polio is a devastating disease that still exists in other countries," he says. "This is my attempt to make the public more aware of our need to wipe out disabling diseases and finish what the March of Dimes started back in the 50's."
Bob invested $10,000 of his own money and received support from corporate sponsors such as Hewlett Packard, AT & T Wireless, and McDonalds. On June 2nd, 1998, Bob revved up his motorcycle and sidecar and began his solo ride from Sacramento. Along the way, he braved torrential downpours, scorching heat, and unbearable humidity.
Ironically, Bob had chosen the month of June for its usually benevolent weather. "Unfortunately, it was the worst weather I have ever seen in June," says Bob. Temperatures ranged from a chilly 28 degrees Fahrenheit (-2.2 degrees Celsius) in snowy Helena, Montana, to a blistering 114 degrees Fahrenheit (45.5 degree Celsius) in El Paso, Texas.
"I was either freezing or unbearably hot. I was either dehydrated or soaked with rain," says Bob. Hi endured dangerous cross-winds in Oklahoma, blinding rain in Arkansas, and flash floods in Oregon. At one point, he nearly hit a herd of deer crossing a road in rural Texas. Despite these challenges, Bob stuck to his itinerary and remained on schedule.
"It was probably the most difficult thing I have ever done, both mentally and physically, but I felt I couldn't give up. And it was the support of Rotarians and other friends that made the difference," he says.
Along the route, scores of Rotarians cheered on Motorcycle Bob and hosted him in their homes. "The local Rotarians were fantastic. Many knew nothing about me except for the fact that I was a Rotarian," says Bob. "I was treated with great hospitality and kindness."
Many were waiting on the steps of their state Capitol when he pulled up, with club banners unfurled and ready to greet him. In Upstate New York, three Rotarians on their motorcycles braved a torrential rainstorm to escort Bob to the state capital of Albany. They were met by a group of 25 local Rotarians, who had waited for two hours in the downpour. One of Bob's biggest supporters was his wife, Patti, who kept in touch via the cellular phone and laptop computer stowed in his sidecar.
Bob estimates he gave interviews to at least 200 television and print journalists, and was a guest on 60 radio talk shows. The Washington Post even featured a photograph of Bob on the steps of the nation's Capitol in Washington, D. C. "The press was very accommodating and interested to learn about the humanitarian work of Rotary," adds Bob.
All around the country, Bob was moved by the little acts of kindness directed his way. At local restaurants, managers would give him a free meal when they asked about his motorcycle and learned about his ride for PolioPlus. At gas stations, some attendants offered him free gasoline. "People were very generous," says Bob. "When they learned about PolioPlus., they wanted to help."
Bob was also a quiet hero, who was able to assist in two serious traffic accidents. In Wyoming, a woman crashed her motorcycle 60 miles (97 kilometers) from the nearest town. As the first one on the scene, Bob used his cellular phone to call paramedics and administered first aid until the rescue crew arrived. Thanks to Bob's quick action, the woman survived. In another incident, Bob was nearly in an accident himself when a truck careened out of control and overturned directly in front of him. Once again, he was first on the scene and able to assist the injured driver. "I was just lucky to be able to help," says Bob.
At the halfway point, the California Rotarian spent two days at the 1998 R. I. Convention in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he gave incoming R. I. President James L. Lacy a spin on his motorcycle. Another highlight of his journey was meeting state governors George Bush of Texas and Paul Patton of Kentucky.
On June 29th, 1998, Bob completed his 48-state journey in 27 days - a new world record for a motorcycle with a sidecar. (The Guinness Book of World Records is considering a new category so that this feat can be included.) He logged a total of 15,993 miles (25,732 kilometers) and averaged 700 miles (1,126 kilometers) a day.
So will Bob be hanging up his helmet any time soon? "My next destination is Canada," he says. "I hope to ride to every province next year to spread the message of PolioPlus."
His other goal is to embark on a motorcycle trip that would coincide with the R. I. Convention in San Antonio, Texas, in 2001. He invites Rotarians to join him on the road in exchange for a contribution of $1,000 to Rotary's PolioPlus. Partners Program. "This would not be to set a record, but to meet with Rotarians and talk to clubs along the way. The trip would be done in 60 days, instead of 30. I invite any interested Rotarian to join me in this wonderful endeavor."
It may be a long road to conquer polio, but Bob Mutchler is helping to forge the way.
[cary Silver is managing editor of THE ROTARIAN.]