UWM student Chris Rupp took a bike ride this summer – from San Francisco to New York City.
He rode the 4,281 miles to raise money for charity and to honor those who died on Sept. 11, 2001.
Rupp is a volunteer firefighter in his hometown of Mount Horeb,Wis., who is majoring in nursing and biochemistry and working on his pre-med certificate, with the goal of becoming a trauma flight surgeon.
His cross-country ride was inspired both by his own recollection of seeing the twin towers fall as an eighth grader and by the selfless community spirit of his hometown fire chief, who passed away in 2010 after 44 years as a firefighter. “He always said putting the fire out was just part of the job,” says Rupp.
Rupp started his journey July 18 and arrived in New York in time for the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
An avid speed skater, his initial idea, he says, was to raise money crossing the country on inline skates, but he couldn’t figure out how to skate up mountains. After plotting a zigzag route across bike-able terrain from fire station to fire station across the United States, he contacted local fire departments to see if he could spend the night. “Every station that I contacted welcomed me.”
Along the way, he lost 19 pounds, had 28 flat tires, collected more than 9,000 supportive email messages and used eight bottles of sunscreen. He also collected hundreds of memories and poignant stories, and raised somewhere between $40,000 and $80,000 (they’re still counting the money) for the Fallen Firefighters Foundation and the Wounded Warriors Project.
Assembling the picture of America
“I thought of the ride as a puzzle,” he says, with experiences in different communities making up pieces of the picture of America. “When I got to New York, the whole picture came together.”
Rupp started the journey wearing the shirt of a San Francisco firefighter recently killed in the line of duty. The firefighter’s sister asked him to wear it. He did, but only at the beginning and end of the journey so he could keep it reasonably clean. Between greasy bike repairs and long days on the bike, “I looked pretty homeless a lot of the time.”
Another guy he met along the way gave Rupp the funeral card of his best friend, who’d joined the military after 9/11 and been killed in action, to carry with him. Rupp, who also talked with the soldier’s father, visited the grave in Arlington National Cemetery to pay their respects.
From Los Angeles to Chicago, he rode with Jason Teter, a firefighter who then joined up with Ride for 9/11, another group of firefighters on a separate ride from Los Angeles to New York. Rupp continued his ride alone.
Rupp didn’t really have a media plan, but a national firefighters magazine had done an article about his planned trip, and along the way fire stations contacted their local media, generating hundreds of interview requests and fueling donations. “At one station, the chief woke me at 5:45 and said a TV crew was going to be there in 15 minutes.”
His journey took him up and over the Rockies, across Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin and on to New York with stops including Shanksville, Penn., where Flight 93 crashed. There he visited with members of the Somerset Fire Department who had vivid memories of the plane that flew low over their town and then crashed into a field.
He stopped in Washington, D.C., where hundreds died at the Pentagon. While there, he visited Wisconsin Sens. Ron Johnson and Herb Kohl. Kohl took him to lunch and arranged for him to meet a number of other senators, including John McCain.
Amazingly, he finished the ride with only one minor injury – an elbow grazed by a rearview mirror in Wyoming; and one traffic ticket – for riding while texting. And he only got lost a few times. When his GPS unit led him astray by 60 miles in the desert, he tossed it.
Reaching New York in time to visit the new 9/11 Memorial was an incredible experience, he says. “It was so quiet and peaceful there. I felt like I was walking on hallowed ground.”
Rupp, who’d been excused from his first week of classes at UWM, flew back to Milwaukee Sept. 12 and sent his bike back via Amtrak, which took longer, but was cheaper than shipping it by air.
“I don’t think I’ll be taking another ride for a while.”