The 62-year-old Oxford native has bicycled about 5,800 miles since leaving the Children’s Wall of the Oklahoma City National Memorial in Oklahoma City April 1. It’s what he’s calling the “Across America: 10,000 Miles for Kids with Autism” cycling trip, which aims to raise money for The Learning Tree and awareness of autism.
Brimer co-founded The Learning Tree in 1983 with fellow retired school teacher Pat Murphy. The nonprofit operates seven programs that serve more than 200 children with severe developmental disabilities, including autism. The organization has a residential program, The Learning Tree, and a preschool, The Little Tree, both in Jacksonville. He retired as director in 2011 and lives in Mobile.
Brimer estimates he’ll finish the ride by Aug. 15. He’ll have crossed through 20 states in one great loop around the country, carrying more than 60 pounds of gear, before returning to finish where he started, at the Children’s Wall in Oklahoma City.
Now more than halfway through the trip, Brimer said he’s been touched by personal stories and selflessness he’s witnessed from those he’s met.
A young construction worker in Oklahoma spotted his shirt, which advertises the ride’s purpose, and pulled out a carefully folded $100 bill from his weathered wallet, handing it to Brimer. Brimer declined to take the donation but the young man insisted.
And then there was the woman in Oklahoma who came up to Brimer with tears in her eyes, handing him $4.
“She said her best friend had recently been killed in an auto accident, and she’d left her husband with a 10-year-old boy with autism,” Brimer said. “This was out in the middle of nowhere and she said, ‘We don’t know what we’re going to do. There are no services around here for him.’ It made me realize how many times that story would be repeated around the country in rural areas.”
He hopes that through donations and sponsors the trip will raise his goal of $250,000 for The Learning Tree. Brimer has already raised about $57,900 in several shorter trips dating back to 2006.
There was some worry in recent months that two of the organization’s preschool programs — one in Jacksonville and one in Auburn — would close due to lack of resources, but that didn’t happen.
Marc Williams, director of The Learning Tree, said both found partnerships with local organizations and school systems and will remain open.
Still, Williams said allocations from the Alabama Department of Education, where the organization gets most of its funding, is never guaranteed from year to year.
Organizers say Brimer is more than halfway to reaching his goal of $250,000.
A Woody Guthrie fan, Brimer named the organization’s Mobile preschool program, Woody’s Song, after the celebrated songwriter, novelist and artist.
Guthrie sang songs that advocated for social and economic justice, and is best known for his song “This Land is Your Land.”
Portions of the trip follow paths Guthrie took during his wandering years, like Brimer’s many days following the Columbia River. In a June 30 blog entry, Brimer writes of riding 85 miles from Walla Walla, Wash. to Boardman, Ore.
“I got my first view of the Columbia River today at about the 35 mile mark, and then followed it most of the remainder of the day. The mighty Columbia,” wrote Brimer, before quoting from a Guthrie song called “Roll on Columbia” that includes the lyrics “Green Douglas firs where the waters cut through, Down her wild mountains and canyons she flew. Canadian Northwest to the ocean so blue, Roll on, Columbia roll on!”
Brimer also visited Guthrie’s hometown of Okemah, Okla., Where he wondered how the prolific writer could have grown up in such a rural and isolated place.
“He worked on behalf of people who were disenfranchised and was always an advocate. His songs were meant to encourage people and to raise hope,” Brimer said.
That’s what he hopes his ride does for the staff at The Learning Tree, Brimer said.
“If Jerre’s willing to get out there and do this for the kids, maybe they can be creative and come up with things that they want to do to help the kids,” Brimer said.
He’s ridden through sleet and sweltering heat, stopping a few times to shelter in hotels. He hunkered down for several days when storms brought two deadly tornadoes through Oklahoma in late May and early June, but physically he’s doing very well, he said.
He’s not breaking any speed records, he said, but he’s putting in the miles.
To make a donation, visit Learning-tree.org. Follow Brimer’s ride by visiting his blog at crazyguyonabike.com/woodysroad.
Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.