Dan Zimmerman and Catherine Brubaker are headed to Margaritaville, even if singing icon Jimmy Buffett isn’t there to greet them at his trademark location.
Zimmerman and Brubaker left Washington State earlier this summer on a biking trek to Key West, Fla., and the Margaritaville Café. They pulled into Yankton Friday, setting a goal of finishing their 5,200-mile journey by Nov. 29.
The Phoenix natives share more than a passion for cycling—they are both recovering from brain injuries. Zimmerman suffered a stroke in 2005, the day after Thanksgiving. Brubaker suffered traumatic brain injuries caused by a 2010 assault and a 2011 head-on vehicle collision.
Zimmerman remained unresponsive while hospitalized after his stroke, which is where the Jimmy Buffett connection played a key role.
“Dan was down and out, in a coma. His family was at his bedside, feeling helpless,” said friend Bill Brown, also biking on the current trip. “The doctor said scientists believe that listening to music will stimulate consciousness. Dan was a big Jimmy Buffett fan, a real Parrot Head, so they put on Dan’s CDs—and he came to. Now, he feels a real connection to Jimmy Buffett.”
As a tribute, Zimmerman incorporated the Buffett connection into the cross-country ride raising both funds and awareness.
“When we lined up this trip, Dan asked where it was ending in Florida,” Brown said. “I said St. Augustine, and he asked if we could make it Key West and call the trip ‘Road To Margaritaville.’”
Zimmerman proudly showed off his T-shirt sporting the “Road To Margaritaville” logo. The T-shirt also bears the website address www.spokesfightingstrokes.org, promoting stroke and brain injury awareness.
Zimmerman and Brubaker have found an ally in Carson Cooper, host of “Radio Margaritaville” on SiriusXM satellite radio. They are hoping Cooper not only keeps the spotlight focused on their awareness campaign but may also connect with Buffett.
A Long Journey
For Zimmerman, the current bike ride seems light years removed from the terror of awakening after his stroke.
“My right side was paralyzed all the way. I had no voice, but I was screaming in my head,” he said. “The nurses put a journal in my hand (to write messages). I felt useless. I had forgotten how to speak. I felt trapped in my own body.”
Now, Zimmerman can perform daily tasks, although he still finds difficulty speaking and performing math skills.
He suffers from Hereditary Hemorrhagic Telangiectasis (HHT), which caused blood clots on the brain and set up his stroke. One of his two sons has HHT, spurring on this awareness campaign.
HHT advocates are seeking $10 million annually in federal funds for research, Brown said. The research could not only cure but prevent strokes, he said.
Congress has considered HHT bills but shows reluctance to fund research, Brown said. However, the nation would receive economic benefits from solving HHT, he said.
“Dan was a cabinet maker and had 12 employees, but now the business is gone and the employees are elsewhere,” Brown said. “If people like Dan were helped, they would remain productive people who would be paying taxes.”
In contrast to Zimmerman’s disease, Brubaker’s strokes resulted from incidents – twice. After her 2010 assault, she was fitted for a pacemaker. After a year of rehab, she was involved in the head-on collision and suffered another setback.
“I had to start all over,” she said. “I had to learn to walk and talk again. It took the wind out of my sails.”
Both Zimmerman and Brubaker turned to bicycling – or in this case, low-ride tricycling – which produced tremendous benefits.
“My life has changed by riding,” Zimmerman said. “The first month, I could walk and talk better. I have lost 70 pounds. It has helped my circulation, but I still have a problem where I wear hose to keep my blood from pooling (in my legs).”
Brubaker has gained mobility in the past year. However, her brother drives her to work, and she cannot perform routine daily tasks. She continues to experience problems with balance.
“Even when I go into (the store), I have to hold on to my cart for balance. If I stand up, I would be disoriented,” she said. “But here, I’m riding across America on my trike.”
When in public, Brubaker runs into numerous misconceptions.
“One of the big issues for Catherine, she doesn’t drive anymore, and so she has a handicap sticker,” Brown said. “She walks into a store, and people ask, ‘What’s the deal? She looks spry to me.’ But her handicap is invisible, and it still exists. People can’t see it.”
Bystanders don’t realize that disabilities aren’t necessarily visible, Brubaker said.
“You look normal,” she said. “People don’t understand the challenge of living with a brain injury.”
Making The Trek
Brown held deep doubts about embarking on a cross-country ride when Zimmerman proposed it 18 months ago, before meeting Brubaker.
“I said to Dan, if your doctor thinks it’s a good idea, I’ll set it up for you,” Brown said. “The doctor not only gave his blessing but donated $800 for expenses.”
To gain experience and build up endurance, Zimmerman and Brown rode in major bike rallies across the nation. Zimmerman traveled 6,280 miles in the past year, including RAGBRAI in Iowa.
In September 2013, Zimmerman met Brubaker on a bike path in Scottsdale, Arizona. When she learned of Zimmerman’s plans for a cross-country ride, she expressed interest in joining the venture.
Brown was skeptical that Brubaker, who was still using a walker, possessed the endurance for such a trek. However, she completed a 60-mile ride, which convinced him of her ability.
Brubaker said she isn’t riding just for herself.
“I’m riding for those who don’t have a voice,” she said. “I want to raise hope for people with brain injuries, that they can have their freedom.”
Zimmerman is riding a Catrike 700 with brakes connected to a lever on his left side. He can shift and brake with his left hand. He isn’t strong enough yet with his right hand, although he can use it to help steer.
The low-lying trikes offset balance issues, particularly for Brubaker. Because of her disorientation and difficulty with directions, Brown built a Global Positioning System (GPS) into her trike. He programs the next day’s route so the GPS processes the information.
During early July, the trikers traveled through the Pacific Northwest. They waited for the mountain snowmelt, eventually traveling over five passes in the Cascade Mountains. They spent five days in Glacier National Park.
At one point, Brubaker got ahead of the pack and encountered an unwelcome visitor – a grizzly bear.
“The bear was posturing and slobbering in front of her,” Brown said. “She tried to use her phone, but there was no signal. Then, a car pulled up and soon there were other cars. Finally, the bear got tired of it and left.”
The trikers have traveled through South Dakota, enjoying Mount Rushmore, Custer and the Badlands. Moving eastward, they passed through Pierre, Pickstown, Springfield and Niobrara, Neb., before reaching Yankton for a two-day rest.
The travelers have encountered tremendous hospitality across the Rushmore State, Brown said.
“South Dakota has been fantastic. The people are so incredibly friendly,” he said. “We have met really caring, interesting people. They have provided us with vegetables, donated money anonymously and even given us pumpkin bread.”
With about half of this trip still remaining, the travelers are already planning fundraisers to purchase trikes for stroke and brain injury patients.
In particular, they want to help soldiers suffering traumatic brain injuries (TBI). They were interested to learn about retired Yankton soldier Corey Briest, who suffered TBI and other combat injuries from a roadside bomb in Iraq.
“We want to help the wounded warriors who are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan,” Brubaker said. “They suffer brain injuries and receive physical therapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy. But after that, the government doesn’t take care of them. (The soldiers) get depressed, suffer from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), and many commit suicide.”
The trikes represent freedom, Brubaker said. “We would love to get trikes to people with brain injuries,” she said.
Zimmerman pointed to his tremendous life changes. “When I started (triking) four years ago, I could hardly walk and talk. This has given me my life back,” he said.
The traveling party looks forward to the second half of the trip. Will Buffett be on hand to greet the visitors when they arrive in Key West?
“Jimmy is in France this month, but his tour ends in October,” Brown said, hoping something can be arranged.
No matter, a celebration is planned, Zimmerman said.
“If Jimmy’s a no-show, we’ll drink a toast to him,” he said with a laugh.
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For more information about the cross-country trip, visit online at www.spokesfightingstrokes.org.
You can follow Randy Dockendorf on Twitter at twitter.com/RDockendorf. Discuss this story at yankton.net.