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Summer Challenge

to END BLINDNESS

A (Fundraising) Bicycle Built for Two

Two men on a tandem bike, one of them blind, is not something you see every day. And that’s the point. “Here’s an old guy and a blind guy riding across the country. What can you do?”

That’s Joe Shearer, a retired, and sighted, United States Air Force veteran who, along with Thomas Hyatt, who has retinitis pigmentosa, set out today on a 4,100-mile trek from Oregon to Virginia. Their goal is to raise awareness and funds for three nonprofit groups, including the Foundation Fighting Blindness, before they finish up in late August.

“We’re saying that people with disabilities can accomplish whatever they want, if they put their minds to it,” says Hyatt, who, at 52, has been completely blind for 26 years. Because he’s a dozen years Hyatt’s senior, Shearer may be the de facto “old guy,” but he’s no slouch. As captain of the bike, he’ll lead the pair through 10 states, elevations as high as 11,400 feet and weather that’ll include wind, rain, searing heat and, in the mountains, possibly snow.

“We’ll average 40 to 50 miles a day, and mostly camp at night,” Shearer says. They’re also accompanied by his wife, Susan, who’s driving a van equipped with anything they might need, including a First Aid kit.

Called Blind Ride 2015, the team has already raised $2,500, nearly $1,700 of that for the Foundation through its My Campaign to End Blindness page. The other two beneficiaries are the Covington VIP Lions Club and the Blinded Veterans Association. The trip began today, May 11, in Florence, Oregon, and will end in Yorktown, Virginia, August 23, via the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail. “It was established in 1976, as part of the bicentennial celebration,” Shearer explains. “It’s a complete interstate setup of bike routes.”

OK, but the question is, how did he and Hyatt, both residents of Niceville, Florida, come up with this idea?

Hyatt was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa in 1969, at age 7, when next to nothing was known about retinal diseases. He had nightblindness at first, then experienced loss of peripheral vision as a teen—though he saw well enough to drive and play varsity football. A well-disciplined son of an Air Force veteran, he also accepted that, eventually, he’d go blind. So after graduating from high school, he attended a 16-week training course at a center for the blind in Daytona Beach. “I wanted to find out everything I could about what it was like to live blind,” Hyatt recalls.

It paid off. He soon found full-time employment, first as a cafeteria manager, then as a telemarketer. He stopped working for a few years to care for his mother, who’d fallen ill and passed away in 2011. Since then, he’s worked as a dishwasher—or “bubble-buster,” as he calls it—at a restaurant.

Shearer, meanwhile, served in the Air Force for 27 years, as both a navigator and trainer, before retiring and doing contract work. He also happens to have a grandson who’s visually impaired. He crossed paths with Hyatt in 2006, when he and Susan, members of a local cycling club, got a club-wide email from Hyatt, saying he was brand-new to cycling and needed a partner to ride tandem. “I was taking care of my mother back then,” Hyatt explains, “and I needed a way to exercise outside.”

Shearer quickly sent a return email, and the pair began riding in early 2007. First, they rode locally, then took longer trips, including an annual jaunt through Ohio. “It’s a week-long ride, with up to 3,000 other riders,” Shearer says. “It’s a circular route within the state. We go from town to town.”

It was Shearer who suggested, years ago, that they cycle across the country. But it took some time to plan and save up for it, seeing as none of the money raised by Blind Ride 2015 pays for the team’s trip. “The beneficiaries are all organizations we feel strongly about,” Hyatt says. “They help those with disabilities, veterans especially.”

Having been blind half his life, Hyatt actually has no desire to get his sight back—“although,” he jokes, “I do miss driving.” Like Shearer, however, he does want to help ensure that future generations don’t lose their eyesight. Hence their support of FFB.

They’re also in agreement when it comes to riding tandem.

“We’re just getting started,” Hyatt says.

Pictured, top: Thomas Hyatt, left, and Joe Shearer, on the Oregon coast, just before starting their trip eastward. Above: A license plate attached to Thomas’ seat identifies him as a “blind co-pilot.”

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