Suzette Wanninkhof’s voice was even-keeled and particularly intentional — the kind of tone someone uses to discuss an unimaginably delicate topic.
She had just finished babysitting near her home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she works full time for Google. But rather than taking a well-deserved seat after a rushed, busy day, she took a nearly hour-long walk during the course of our phone call.
She told Dearly how strange it is to be living a seemingly normal “adult” life — working a corporate job, having a Monday through Friday schedule, and not needing to triple-check where she’ll be sleeping that night. “The stability is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,” she said.
Not long ago, the self-described “non-outdoorsy” girl was focused on things such as finding enough privacy in nature to go to the bathroom and making sure she had enough food. She was making her way from Alaska to Key West, Florida, on an 8,000-mile cycling journey alongside several others who either knew her brother Patrick personally or, at the very least, knew of him.
Patrick was killed by a distracted driver on July 30, 2015. He, along with nearly 30 other individuals, were thousands of miles into a cross-country cycling trip with an organization called Bike and Build.
Their mission was to raise money and awareness for affordable housing in the U.S. However, Patrick, who was often mistaken for Suzette’s twin, was killed before he could reach the finish line — the Pacific Ocean.
He was 25 years old.Suzette Wanninkhof
The driver, Sarah Morris, was reportedly checking three notifications on her phone when she hit Patrick and another rider, Bridget Anderson, on State Highway 152 in western Oklahoma. Anderson suffered damaged nerves and a spinal fracture, but survived the impact. Patrick passed away at the scene.
According to Suzette, her brother had a certain way of making people feel. When asked what she would want others to know about him, she didn’t elaborate on his many accomplishments, his engineering degree, or even his bright, brown curly hair. Instead, she spoke about what he did for others — specifically, how he made them feel:
“You talk to him for 10 minutes, not only would you like him, but you would like yourself so much more. He’d ask you more and more about yourself in a way that made you feel valued. I think that’s a quality in a person that’s very under appreciated. He won teacher of the year — he was an incredible teacher and scientist and person — but just the way he made you feel, I don’t think anyone would be able to forget it.”
Her Alaska-to-Florida journey, which she named “Patrick Rides On 8000,” was no “Eat Pray Love” kind of trek, nor was it any lifelong dream come to fruition; it was the only thing she felt she could do to honor her brother’s life.
She grew up in a relatively normal, American household. She and Patrick, who was four years her senior, were raised in Miami, Florida, by two loving parents, Debbie and Rik.
Suzette and her brother would grow up to inherit their father’s love of cycling, and in the summer of 2014, Suzette was the first of her immediate family to embark on a cross-country cycling trip. Patrick followed suit the next year.Patrick Wanninkhof/Facebook
They both rode from east to west, dipping their back wheels in the Atlantic Ocean before hopping on their bikes with the goal of dipping their front wheels in the Pacific — something that only one of them would go on to do.
Now, two years after her brother’s death, Suzette said she, quite frankly, has no interest in re-living the day she received the worst news of her life, saying, “There’s so much more to Patrick’s life than the 30 seconds he was killed.” A brief silence encircled that sentence, giving it a firm, hard landing in my ears — the ears of yet another person asking her to discuss it.
Before our call, she sent me several old articles written immediately after Patrick’s death about the accident and her subsequent in memoriam journey. They were filled with photographs of the then-younger siblings smiling and laughing together. However, Suzette feels the stories focused mostly on the morbid, unnecessarily graphic details of it all.
This was a subject she teetered gracefully on. She told me she was grateful for the coverage of Patrick’s death — that it’s given her a platform on which to discuss the dangers of distracted driving along with the beauty of her brother’s life — but her voice lowered, as if restraining her anger, when she pointed out people seemed to crave a painful, gut-wrenching narrative of his story.
Her words — “There’s so much more to Patrick’s life than the 30 seconds he was killed” —continued to echo.Greg Powell/PRO 8000
Skimming through those articles was something she hadn’t done in quite some time, and it’s something she probably won’t do again for a while:
“Looking at pictures, which I kind of avoid doing, it kind of brought back that intensity again. But I would say my day-to-day is unlike how I ever thought it would be. I was struggling to stay afloat, and now I’m living this adult life.”
“In terms of the grieving process,” she told me, “things definitely don’t become better, but they become easier. I can go a few days where I’ll think about him in a nice way, not the horrific tragedy of a death. I can appreciate his life a little bit more.”
But again, “there’s so much more” than his death and the stories that revolved around it. In fact, thanks to her, there were 8,000 miles more — miles through which Patrick rode on.
She and a handful of others began the Patrick Rides On 8000 trip on July 31, 2016, one year and a day after Patrick’s death, and they rode until March 11, 2017.
Their sleeping arrangements consisted of camping in tents — which Suzette said they sometimes couldn’t pitch until after dusk because of restrictive camping laws — or strangers’ floors. Meals would sometimes be donated, and, for the stretches of country they knew wouldn’t hold any signs of civilization. They had to pack several days’ worth of food.
If any of their bikes had mechanical issues, they needed to either hitch a ride to the nearest bike shop or get creative.Greg Powell/PRO 8000
Her explanation of the extent to which she planned the trip made it clear that not only is touring 8,000 miles an extremely physically demanding challenge, but it can also become a logistical nightmare.
Though it wasn’t just a nightmare for planning purposes — for Suzette’s parents, the trip was, at first, a living, breathing nightmare:
“I broke the idea to my parents, and they were absolutely hysterical about it — so upset. My mom said, ‘If you leave, it will destroy me.’ That was valid; you can’t blame her. My dad was resistant to the idea, but not on the same level of hysterics about it. I think as time went on and they realized how serious I was about it and how much I needed this, they grew more and more comfortable with the idea — especially after seeing the degree of how well we planned it. We had GPS trackers and everything.”
Suzette said she never did gain their explicit permission, but she recalled when she felt they finally understood. “Fortunately they came to Alaska with me. They met the team, and they followed us from mile one to mile 400,” Suzette explained. “Them being there and seeing us and it all come together … I wouldn’t say I had their blessing, but their acceptance.”
From there, the Patrick Rides On 8000 was on its way — Patrick was indeed riding on.
When asked if she felt her brother’s spirit alongside her through those undoubtedly long days, she said she wishes that was the case, but it wasn’t:
“I think a lot of the time when on a [cycling] tour, I have this grandiose idea of reflection and grief, but a lot of it is day to day, ‘I’m hungry. I’m cold. Where do I put my tent?’ I thought I would have this end moment like in [the book] ‘Wild,’ but in a way that was OK. I think the year after he died, I felt just so helpless and so worthless, so worthless, and so sad and guilty. And then on the trip, being able to feel like you accomplished something, and did something well, is so important in a time where you feel so worthless.”
She paused before softly saying, “It was more of a memory of him than just a feeling of a spirit.”
Nevertheless, she, and Patrick, rode on. Around 2,000 strangers listened to either Suzette or one of her teammates relay Patrick’s story and the dangers of distracted driving, and all 2,000 of them were handed a PRO 8000 business card.Greg Powell/PRO 8000
In the U.S., there are still some states where texting and driving isn’t explicitly banned, despite the continuously rising fatality rate of the past 10 years.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nine people are killed and over 1,000 people are injured every day by distracted drivers. In 2015, the year Patrick was killed, 3,477 people died in crashes with distracted drivers, while 391,000 sustained at least one injury.
As it relates to cyclists specifically, the CDC reported in 2015 that more than 1,000 cyclists were killed by motor vehicles and nearly 467,000 cyclists were injured.
Though the numbers of distracted driving cases are said to be severely underestimated.
According to the National Safety Council, there were approximately 5,687,000 motor vehicle crashes in 2013. A later study found that 1.1 million of those crashed were caused by cellphones. In other words, a minimum of 26 percent of car accidents in the U.S. is a result of distracted driving.
Distracted driving wreaks havoc on the most vulnerable people on the road.
Aside from distracted drivers, drivers under the influence, and other inherently dangerous driving practices, Suzette — like most cyclists — believes that the majority of “safe” drivers in the U.S. aren’t even aware of bicycling laws. She informed me she commutes to and from work via bike, and, to this day, drivers yell out their windows phrases such as “Get off the road” or “Move to the side!”
For someone who is well-versed in her rights as a cyclist, those kinds of statements are beyond frustrating to Suzette:
“I want to say, ‘Sir, you sir are misinformed.’ But getting mad at someone doesn’t work. I just want people to see what they’re doing. I think most normal, good people look at their phones, so I think a calm conversation is what should take place. I want them to know it’s just not worth it.”
Looking back at how Patrick’s case was handled, however, Suzette’s patient demeanor vanished almost instantly. The driver who killed her brother, Sarah Morris, pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter and was sentenced to 10 months in jail — something Suzette described as a “nice gesture.”
Though Morris’s sentencing was the harshest punishment ever granted at the time in a distracted driving case, it was not enough. “All we asked was for her license to be revoked, and they couldn’t even do that,” she said. “That’s a very small thing to ask for after she killed someone you love, and we didn’t even get that.”Patrick Wanninkhof/Facebook
According to Suzette, Morris was involved in another car accident no more than six months later, hitting a vehicle rather than two unsuspecting cyclists. “She just shouldn’t be allowed to drive anymore,” Suzette reasoned.
The fact that Morris is still on the road noticeably frustrated Suzette, and understandably so. The woman who killed her brother in sheer recklessness continues to endanger other lives — the notion sounds maddening to any reasonable human being, let alone someone affected by it.
Yet, Suzette quickly composed herself, and it became clear she deals with this internal struggle on a daily basis.
The Wanninkhof family, along with countless others, have to wake up each morning knowing their loved one is no longer there — there is no law, no prison sentence, and no article that could change that fact.
But now there is more than just death: Thanks to Suzette, there is the PRO 8000. There’s more than just those 30 tragic seconds — there are 8,000 beautifully painful miles, there are more than 2,000 individuals who have now heard Patrick’s story, and there is a future ahead.
Though the future might not include Patrick in the way his family and loved ones would prefer, it includes him nonetheless.
Thanks to the unbelievable strength of the Wanninkhofs, Patrick does, in fact, ride on.
Thanks to them, he lives on.Suzette Wanninkhof