WRITTEN BY MATTHEW NOJIRI
READING, PA — Ryan Lee Gehris could not help but feel the gravity of his visit to City Park on Thursday.
The 44-year-old has spent much of his adult life in California but Berks County was his first home.
Gehris remembers riding his Schwinn Scrambler through the streets of Muhlenberg.
At 12, he sold hats, pins and shirts to help raise money for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in City Park.
His maternal grandfather, Leon Charles Stein, is listed on the memorial, third from the top. He was killed while serving in the Navy during Vietnam.
On Thursday, Gehris was back in Reading, perched on his beach cruiser while thinking about what it all meant to him.
"I thought this would be a perfect place to stop first," he said. "It's wild to come back in this way, to be standing by this memorial, standing in this city."
Gehris is reaching the final leg of his 3,000-mile journey from his home in San Diego. He has made the trek on his beach cruiser, which has been outfitted to carry his camping gear, food and supplies. An American flag posted on the front of the cruiser rippled perfectly as he pedaled through the Reading park.
Dubbed "Pedaling for Pattie," the cross-country bike ride is a tribute to Gehris' mom, Pattie Stein, who died in 2001. It also serves as a fundraiser for the Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation, which helps provide college scholarships and educational counseling to all students who have lost a parent in the line of duty.
"My mother was 14 years old when she lost her dad on July 9, 1965, in Vietnam," Gehris said. "I felt like this idea hit home with me because my mother was a Gold Star kid."
Gehris dreamed up the trip about a year and a half ago, while trying to figure out the next step in his life. He said he felt "bored and complacent" and hoped to do something important.
Eventually, he settled on the journey across America.
"This is all in memory of my grandfather, my grandmother Betty and my mother, Pattie," he said.
He said he's had some assistance from a few dozen loyal supporters who are helping him make his way. He said he's received a lot of support from VFW posts, as well.
"At this point, I feel like I've never met a stranger," Gehris said. "People have come out of the woodwork to help me and support me and cheer me on."
The journey has been planned in 50-mile increments with a strong assist from Google Maps, he said. Gehris has stayed at some cheaper hotels, but lately he's been camping because funds are tight.
"I underestimated what it takes to go this distance," he said. "What it takes financially, mentally emotionally."
His cruiser, which weighs about 85 pounds with all the gear, has held up reasonably well, especially since it was made for the California boardwalks Gehris typically travels. He's had only three flat tires along the way.
He said he's been amazed at how receptive everyone is to his message and mission.
"They want to know what you're doing," he said. "When you tell them, they want to help you. They want to invite you to their house to sleep on their couch. They want to buy dinner for you and take you home to meet their family."
In about two weeks, the trek will end in New York City, where Gehris hopes to continue to spread his message.
"We shouldn't take our freedoms for granted," he said. "There's a high cost."
In Berks County, he planned to spend time with his dad, Daniel, and his siblings, Steven and Katie. For the entire trek, Gehris has carried the flag that was draped over his grandfather's coffin when he was killed. He plans to pass off his grandfather's military medals to his nieces and nephews.
After about 45 minutes at City Park, Gehris made his way down the hill, pedaling off for a reprieve from the heat, a cold drink and a chance to plot the rest of his day.
"It's a spiritual journey, a mission, a pilgrimage," he said.
Contact Matthew Nojiri: 610-371-5062 or firstname.lastname@example.org.