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Veteran, peace activist Brian Willson embarks on 1,100 mile handcycle tour

Brian Willson on his Varna handcycle.
(Photos: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

Southeast Portland resident Brian Willson is a prominent anti-war activist and veteran of the Vietnam War. Tomorrow morning, he’ll embark on an 1,100 mile handcycle journey that will take him through Oregon and California. Willson, who will turn 70 on July 4th, is promoting his new book, Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson (PM Press, 2011), and plans to ride to book signings and speaking gigs.

I met Willson a few weeks ago at Woodstock Park to learn more about his life and how handcycling has helped him gain perspective and keep his sanity in a confusing world.

After becoming “radicalized” while serving as a commander in the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, Willson got heavily involved in the anti-war movement and has spent his life speaking out against U.S. foreign policy. During a demonstration in California in 1987, he was intentionally run over by a US Navy munitions train en route to Nicaragua. Willson told me he expected the train to stop and that he’d be arrested, like had happened before.

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I made the mistake of calling the incident an “accident” during our chat. “It wasn’t an accident,” he interjected, “It was assault. It was attempted murder.” The collision resulted in a fractured skull and the loss of both of his legs below the knee.

10 years later he discovered handcycling. “It was like, aaaaahhh liberation,” is how Willson described his first rides. Now he rides about 100 miles a week and credits it with saving his life. His book isn’t about cycling at all, but cycling is definitely part of who Brian Willson is.

I asked him how his life would be different without his handcycle. “I don’t know,” he replied, “I’d probably be struggling with depression. It’s been a big plus in my mental, physical and emotional life.” He likes the analogy of revolution as it pertains to both a spinning bike wheel and a transformation of consciousness. Willson had these shirts made up just for his trip…

Willson moved to Portland (from Arcata, California) with his wife three years ago. He said they wanted Amtrak, “quick access to a VA Hospital” and a “cycling community.” “Those were the three main reasons we moved here.”

Willson relishes the chance to be a symbol of what cycling stands for and says one of reasons for the tour is to promote cycling as transportation policy and to show people that he can get around on his power. “I like modeling it to people, showing them, ‘this is how I’m getting around!'”

Cycling at about 10 mph, Willson’s preferred speed, allows him to interact with other people and the natural world around him at what he calls a “human-scale” speed.

“Cars have artificially enabled us to think we can move fast and go wherever we want instantaneously without any impact on our psyche, on the earth, or on our relationships. I like going 10 mph, that’s the speed at which I believe my human genetics are designed for… that’s a human scale. A bicycle begins to recover that feeling of a pace that is more human that enables you to be able to reflect and see more around you… To me, it’s thrilling almost, to be on my handcycle.”

But his slow speed has made it hard for him to find riding buddies, so one of his favorite things to do is Sunday Parkways. “It’s a blast being out there with all those people.”

On his 1,100 mile journey, Willson will ride with his friend Joel Finkelstein. The two have been training together and prepping for months. Finkelstein tells me it’s been “an honor” to get to know Willson and he’s looking forward to the adventure.

You can meet Willson tonight for the official book launch party at People’s Food Co-op (3029 SE 21st Ave) at 7:00 pm. Brian and Joel would also love some company for the kickoff of their tour this Saturday at PSU. Meet at the South Park Blocks behind Lincoln Hall (between SW Mill and Market) at 8:00 am and join them for part of their ride down to Newberg where Brian is due at a book signing by 2:00 pm.

— View more photos of Willson in the gallery.
— Read reviews of Willson’s book, including praise from Noam Chomsky, Daniel Ellsberg (he wrote the intro), and others at the publisher’s website.
— Learn more about Brian Willson on Wikipedia and stay updated on the tour via Bloodonthetracks.info.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter or jonathan@bikeportland.org. — Get our headlines delivered to your inbox. — Please support this independent community media outlet with a one-time contribution or monthly subscription.
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