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'Story of a brother's love': Former Nipomo firefighter documents bike ride across country to help his sister
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‘Lauren’s Ride’

'Story of a brother's love': Former Nipomo firefighter documents bike ride across country to help his sister

From the What you need to know for Tuesday, September 8 series
  • Updated

John Byrne pedaled his bike 3,600 miles through Southwestern desert heat, over the Rocky Mountains, against Midwestern winds and through East Coast crowded cities, but perhaps nothing was more grueling than the eight-year journey to publishing “Lauren’s Ride.”

The paperback, which was released Sept. 9, focuses on the people along the way who made the fundraising effort an overwhelming success.

“The world is incredible. If you look for it, you’ll find beauty and people willing to work together when you have a vision and a goal and you believe in you and they believe in you,” John said.

John, an avid cyclist, was a Cal Fire engineer working out of the Nipomo station when a chain of events led him to one wild idea: to pedal across the country on a 36-day, 3,600-mile fundraising effort to purchase a specialized vehicle for his sister, Lauren Byrne of Newark.

Lauren was 15 years old when she injured her spine and nearly drowned after jumping into a pool. Her injury moved her from the playing field to a wheelchair with limited mobility in her arms, but she continued to inspire her brother as she ventured into college, onto the wheelchair rugby field and toward her goals.

“It’s all happening because of Lauren’s positiveness. No matter what happens in your life, you can always decide to keep positive,” John said while pedaling against the wind in Kansas.

On Sept. 9, 2012, John lifted his bike at the Golden Gate Bridge, hugged family and friends and pedaled east with Tony Hernandez, training captain for Cal Fire San Diego, driving support vehicle driver.

On Oct. 14, he lifted his bike again on Brooklyn Bridge where family and friends from across the country and overseas joined him in celebration.

“What I experienced was unbelievable. It was like the best day every day. I feel like it’s really important to remember, especially as divided as our country is right now, that when you get down to it, everyone is there for each other,” John said.

Over the years, John has worked on the story, its edits and the publishing process while working his way up the chain of command. He was promoted to Grass Valley, then to a command center in Santa Cruz and currently serves as fire captain with Cal Fire in Stevens Creek. He’s also become actively involved in the firefighters union to support his peers and recently became engaged to Courtney Sarkisian.

“I started the book before the ride, in a sense. Taking the notes on the ride was a lot of extra work, and the book got delayed because of fire seasons; we’ve had five years of mega fires and I spent most of my summers on those incidents. It’s extremely hard, especially if you have ADD, to spend 12 hours writing one day and being on a fire the next,” he explained.

But his focus was always clear: the book would not be about him, not even about his baby sister. He makes it clear in his foreword, too.

“Many people have ridden bicycles across our great nation. My ride is different,” he writes. “It’s the story of a brother’s love for his sister. It’s a tale of firefighters everywhere bonded by brotherly love, faithfulness, a desire to serve and a willingness to work together. It’s a young man’s search for his roots ending at his grandfather’s firehouse on the other side of the continent. It’s a demonstration of everyday Americans willing to help and give — in any way they can.”

With the support of fire associations across the nation, John and Hernandez attended spaghetti feeds and pancake feeds, were hosted and served as entertainment. Children donated the contents of their piggy banks. A boy’s donated quarter was taped to John’s bike as a constant reminder of all the support he found along the way.

“It doesn’t matter how physically able you are; anything is possible,” John said. “There are people who will believe in your dreams if you believe in your own dreams. Look what can happen when everyone works together. Look how great humans are.”

Hernandez and John had their fair share of challenges: mapping issues, flat tires on the chase vehicle and the bike, unexpected weather, last-minute lodging challenges. But communities and individuals always stepped up from firehouses that provided shelter, food, fundraising events and publicity to the Diné people of Navajo Nation who provided John a recuperative sweat lodge experience.

John and Tony took impeccable notes along the way, including names and details about each of their supporters down to a guy who stopped along the side of the road to loan them a jack when theirs broke.

John re-read every e-mail, every blog entry and every piece of news coverage they had gathered along the way to pen his first book.

“John’s book is about people coming together, helping each other, helping someone they don’t even know,” Lauren said. “Everywhere you go, every step you take across the U.S., there are people there who want to help you. You don’t even have to know them. You don’t have to have the same abilities or disabilities, be the same color or background.”

The Byrnes and their supporters said their success was also about their outlook.

“It’s also about what you put out, and I believe what John puts out to the world comes back to him. He works to serve people every day. He works so hard on himself so he can better serve other people that he also creates this magic that comes back to him,” Lauren said.

John gifted Lauren that wheelchair accessible vehicle on Christmas morning 2012.

“I love my car so much. It’s completely changed my life. I’ve been able to drive myself to every single class, earned my bachelor’s degree, drove myself to rugby practices and tournaments in San Diego, L.A., Reno, Vegas. I’ve driven to visit my best friend in Idaho. It gives me such a sense of independence and freedom,” Lauren said.

As COVID-19 shutdowns kicked in, she had begun putting time into classrooms.

“But life is crazy and takes you different places,” Lauren said.

Now she’s tutoring online and looking toward a master’s degree with her eyes still set on teaching.

And John intends to help get her there. She’s driven her first car into the ground. It’s time for another. Proceeds from “Lauren’s Ride” will go toward that purchase.

“This whole thing has really changed my life and my sister’s life. I see everyone differently because of the people I met on that ride, how good people can be if you give them the time and talk to them,” John said.

“John is one of the most compassionate and communicative people I’ve ever come across. I’m glad people are seeing that in him because that’s who he is, whether he’s documenting it or not,” Lauren said.

For more information about the ride, the book or to order a copy, visit laurensride.org.

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