By Lynn Olanoff
COOPERSBURG, Pa. (AP) — Tauru Chaw decided he wanted to see the world before he lost his vision entirely.
His girlfriend, Coopersburg native Christi Bruchok, decided to be his traveling companion. Fully blind in her right eye since age 19, her left eye also is visually impaired, providing her with 20/200 vision.
They spent 14 months in 2007 and 2008 traveling Asia. But Chaw's vision was gradually deteriorating due to his Retinitis Pigmentosa, so they realized that they could no longer see the world via car.
That didn't stop the couple, however, from taking an 18-month trip starting in January 2012 from the southern tip of Argentina to the northern tip of Alaska. They just changed their mode of transportation — to tandem bicycle.
Chaw and Bruchok say their 16,000-mile bike trip turned out not only to be a great way to further experience the world but a lesson for others with disabilities to test their limits. They especially sought out schools for the blind and other organizations for the visually impaired during their trip.
It was disheartening to see at many schools for the blind in Central and South America, children aren't encouraged to think about their future opportunities, said Bruchok, who attended school in the Southern Lehigh School District. Seeing two visually impaired people ride up on a tandem bike was especially shocking to many of the blind children they encountered on their trip, which wrapped up in July, Bruchok said.
Bruchok had never biked before their journey began, and with Chaw being able to see out of both eyes, he took the front position on their bike. But even with being able to see out of both eyes, riding a bike for Chaw is far more difficult than for most people. He has severe tunnel vision and can really only see out of a small central circle in each eye.
During a test ride in 2009 from California to North Carolina, he learned following a road's fog line helped him greatly. But what the couple quickly learned on their 15-country bike trip is that fog lines are far less prevalent outside of the United States.
So at times they fell over — in fact they did so a total of seven times on their trip.
"Because we can't see well, we don't go too fast, so falling isn't too bad," Chaw said.
While they didn't see every bump in the road, Chaw and Bruchok were still able to see amazing things on their trip. One of their favorite sights were king penguins in the wilds of Argentina.
"When you're traveling by bike, you get to see thing you wouldn't otherwise see as a tourist," Bruchok said.
Bruchok and Chaw last week told their story to a large group of congregants at Cathedral Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the church of Bruchok's parents, Gary and Tina, and also her church in her youth.
"Isn't it amazing? I don't think I could stay on my bike for 10 feet," the Very Rev. Anthony Pompa, the church's dean and rector said to congregants. "I told you that you'd be inspired."
Pompa said some of his favorite memories of Bruchok included her playing softball at church picnics.
"From the beginning, Christi did everything," he said.
Everything for Bruchok now includes solo bike riding. Chaw's vision progressively deteriorated during the 18-month journey and during their leg in Canada, they worried if they'd be able to finish their trip.
That's when Bruchok learned how to steer their tandem bike and also ride a bike by herself. In Fairbanks, Alaska, they donated their tandem bike to a visually impaired assistance agency and bought two single bikes to take on their last leg to Deadhorse, on Alaska's North Slope.
Learning how to bike not only benefited Bruchok on her trip but has been a big help since she returned to Phoenix. She previously had to rely on public transit or friends with cars to get around.
"Now if I want to go to the store and no one else is around, I can up and go on my bike," she said. "It's kind of a life-changing thing for me."
Bruchok, 32, and Chaw, 43, both worked for a technology company before taking their trip. They plan to pursue writing a book about their bike adventure before going back to work — or heading out on another trek.
"We hope there will be other adventures, too, though probably not 18-month adventures," Chaw said.