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Robert Van Vranken poses for a photo near the Mississippi River in Hastings.

2,000-mile motorized wheelchair journey brings man through Hastings

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On June 1, the back tires of Robert Van Vranken II's motorized wheelchair were resting in the headwaters of the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca. By November, Van Vranken hopes the front tires of his wheelchair will touch the waters of the Gulf of Mexico near where the Mississippi's route ends in New Orleans.

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Between the two points of his 2,000 mile journey, Van Vranken is doing everything he can to thank our country's veterans and, hopefully, raise some money for the Disabled American Veterans.

On Tuesday, Van Vranken rolled into Hastings. He spent the night sleeping in a tent at Hub's Marine and before leaving Wednesday, he planned to stop at A+ Tattoo here to have another piece of his journey tattooed on his leg.

He planned to travel to Red Wing once the tattoo was added.

At nine miles per hour in his wheelchair, getting all the way to New Orleans will be anything but a short trip. That said, he's definitely taking time to stop in communities like Hastings. He does, after all, have to charge the batteries on his wheelchair nightly.

"If I see a sign that says 'World's largest ice cube, two miles,' I'll go see it before it melts," he said. "Or if I'm in a nice town like Hastings, I might stay an extra night."

Van Vranken is not a veteran himself. He said his father and brother both served.

In 2006 he was in a tragic traffic accident and lost his left leg below the knee. While in support groups to deal with the injury, he met a number of veterans. Their stories moved him, and he felt compelled to help. Riding his wheelchair across the country seemed like one way he could help, so in 2007 he got moving and hasn't stopped much since. His first trip took him from Minneapolis to New York City.

"I'm just an advocate for veterans," he said. "Somebody needs to get out there and say thanks."

Van Vranken pulls a small trailer behind his wheelchair. The trailer carries with it everything he needs for his journey: a coffee percolator, a tent, a sleeping bag, an inflatable mattress and a large United States of America flag.

He said he simply enjoys listening to people's stories along the way, and appreciates the random acts of kindness that are paid to him.

His whereabouts are tracked online through his website and through a fan page on Facebook. All that work is carried out by his close friend Vicki Hawkes, who calls ahead to law enforcement officials to let them know he is approaching.

He typically covers 15 to 40 miles per day, depending on how well his batteries are holding their charge.

Once he makes it to New Orleans, he plans to play in a blues festival there with his band. He'll take a train back to Minnesota and planning will likely begin shortly thereafter for his next big excursion.

Van Vranken thanked the providers of his wheelchair, the Pride Mobility Corporation, for helping him on his journey.

To donate

For more information on Van Vranken, or to donate to the Disabled American Veterans, visit www.thankthevets.com.

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Chad Richardson
Chad Richardson is the publisher and editor at the Hastings Star Gazette. He was the general manager of the Farmington Independent and Rosemount Town Pages from 2000 to 2007. He previously worked at the Star Gazette from 1996 to 2000 as a photographer and reporter. He also worked as a photographer and writer at the Pope County Tribune in Glenwood.
(651) 319-4500
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