Local vets advocate wheels across America

class=img_thumbleft>"Hang on, there's a big tractor going by," says the Dutchman, speaking over his cell phone from his electric wheelchair on Highway 12, somewhere between Eau Claire and Black River Falls, Wisconsin. In a journey that has so far resembled a cross between a walkathon and

The Straight Story

, the Dutchman (Robert William Van Vranken II) has been wheeling across Minnesota since June 1, raising money and awareness for injured war veterans through his


. He's headed for Chicago, and ultimately New York, pitching a tent at campsites along the way.

"I'm in Augusta, Wisconsin, and I'm cruising down the highway and you know what?" he says. "I've got the quietest vehicle on the road."

The Dutchman made it as far as Menomonee last month in a manual wheelchair before he gave up that business. "My foot looked like hamburger," he says. He's been using wheels since a city bus ran over him last year, and his left leg had to be amputated above the knee. A longtime local musician—he played the first guitar chord in the 7th St. Entry as part of Wilma and the Wilburs—the Dutchman got the idea for his trek from watching the news. "I see all these kids coming back that are missing an arm, missing a leg," he says, "These kids come home and they don't get nothing, and they gave everything."

The Dutchman bought his power chair last week at a thrift store in Eau Claire. "It may sound like cheating, but nobody could do it manual," he says. While in town, he made the local news, and was given a police escort to 4th of July fireworks. Though he has numbers to call in case of emergency, at the moment he's by himself on the road with his phone and two 12-volt batteries lasting six hours each. "I don't want to be caught in some Stephen King cornfield," he says.

"Hey, before you go, what do you say to a one-legged hitchhiker?" He pauses for the punch line. "Hop in." UPDATE Monday: Leader-Telegram story in Eau Claire.

UPDATES: Watch this space for links to periodic updates at Complicatedfun.com.

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