'Rolling Dutchman' heads south for disabled vetsRobert William Van Vranken II goes by many names. There's his given name, of course, but few use it. Friends call him Dutch, but he often refers to himself as the "Rolling Dutchman."
Robert William Van Vranken II goes by many names. There's his given name, of course, but few use it. Friends call him Dutch, but he often refers to himself as the "Rolling Dutchman."
People he meets on the road know him simply as "that guy."
"As in, 'hey, you're that guy,'" he says.
Since leaving Lake Itasca for Louisiana in his electric wheelchair more than a month ago, Van Vranken -- who came through Red Wing Thursday -- has been featured by more than 10 Minnesota news outlets. People are beginning to recognize him and his less than typical mode of transportation, even if they can't exactly put a name to the face.
But Van Vranken says the journey, and the publicity, isn't about him. He's working to build awareness of disabled veterans and their lack of mobility, and rolling all the way to the Gulf of Mexico at 9 miles per hour to do it.
"Many people don't realize what these men and women go through every day," he said. "This is my way of saying thanks."
His wheelchair and the bicycle trailer he tows behind are covered in stickers expressing gratitude to veterans. He gives veterans he meets on the road a small card thanking them for their service. For many, he says, it's a small token of appreciation that carries a lot of weight.
"Some tell me that it's the first time anyone ever said 'thank you,'" he said.
Van Vranken points people he meets on the road to his website, www.thankthevets.com, where they can find links to donate to disabled veteran organizations.
While not a veteran himself, Van Vranken said he became intimately acquainted with the plight of wounded veterans after losing his leg in a vehicle accident in 2006.
At support groups, he met disabled veterans who shared their stories. It inspired him to take off on his first journey in 2007, rolling to New York City from his home near Minneapolis.
This year, he says he got "itchy feet" and decided to hit the road once again, this time headed south along the Mississippi River. He left the headwaters of Lake Itasca on Memorial Day, and has documented his trip so far with a tattoo of the river that snakes down his leg, with each major stop depicted by a different tattoo artist along the way.
Though Van Vranken's trip has barely gotten started -- it will take months for him to get to Louisiana -- he says the journey so far has been an eventful one. He traveled through northern Minnesota when major thunderstorms were hitting the region -- with hail storms and high winds knocking his tent around at night. Along with campgrounds, he said he has stayed in barns, at people's homes, and, more recently, in a man's boat in Hastings.
"I've met so many people and they all have stories to tell," he said. "I'm learning so much about America on this journey."
He plans to hug the river most of the way south, traveling mostly on Highway 61 while avoiding major metro areas for places "where airplanes don't go."
While he says he looks forward to taking in the river towns along the Mississippi, he acknowledged that the months on the road will likely take their toll.
"When I get to the coast, I'll let out a sigh that you'll be able to hear up in Red Wing," he said.