Sunday, May 13, 2001

Unicycling across country

Westwood magician to help 10-year-old girl

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Phil Dalton
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
        Phil Dalton's goal is visibility. Well, let's see: He's perched 7 feet above the highway, pedaling a unicycle from Los Angeles to Cincinnati.

        He's wearing bright reds, oranges and yellows.

        He's handing out cards saying, “You wonder why this nut's here?”

        Yeah, he'll be visible.

        Mr. Dalton, a 24-year-old professional magician from Westwood, will fly to LA in late May and start his 60-day, 2,200 mile journey.

        Uh, why?

        “I really have two reasons. One, I want to raise money for Courtney. Two, I want to raise awareness of Dr. (Stanislaw) Burzynski and his Houston clinic.”

        “Courtney” is 10-year-old Courtney Hennessey, suffering from an inoperable brain stem tumor and receiving Dr. Burzynski's $7,200 a month treatment. It's considered alternative, so insurance doesn't help.

        Mr. Dalton's brother Mark had the same treatment last year and his tumor was nearly gone when he had to go off the medication. He died in March 2000.

        “Courtney's doing amazingly well. After her chemo and her radiation, doctors told her she had six weeks to live. But now, with this treatment, her tumor has gone from a golf ball size to just a speck.
       ×deck Experience helps

        “People keep telling me I'm crazy for doing this, riding across deserts and mountains. For awhile, I kind of wondered myself, but then one of my skydiving buddies said, "Cool! Why not'?”

        Oh yeah, skydiving. The unicycle trip isn't Mr. Dalton's first slightly off-center fund-raiser. In 1999 he did a skydive marathon — 103 jumps in 12 hours — to raise money for brother Mark's treatment.

        “It was amazing. We made $11,000. People just came out of the woodwork with donations. That's what I want for Courtney.”

        The unicycle ride will be a little more taxing. Airplanes, after all, have engines to do the grunt work.

        Not so on a unicycle: “People think balance is the problem, but it isn't. The hard part is that the pedals are attached directly to the wheels, so when you pedal you move; when you don't, you stop. You never coast.”

        He'll also be lugging around his whole world for 60 days: Small tent, sleeping bag, tarp for the cycle, water, food, a couple of clean shirts, first aid kit, tire patch kit and a lot of sunscreen.

        He's going to need it. Although he's trying to get a couple of hotel chains to kick in some freebies — showers after pedaling eight hours are a good thing, Martha — he'll mostly camp outdoors to keep expenses down. Some equipment donations from Benchmark Outfitters will help him keep expenses to about $1,000.

        “My uncle's a machinist and he's rigging up a bar to mount on the cycle so I don't have to carry a pack on my back. But I'm still traveling as light as I can.”

        Good thing, because he's already staring at some major discomfort: “You'd think your legs would hurt from all the pedaling, but they don't. It's your backside that gets sore. The unicycle seat is more like a saddle, and it's rough sitting there for hours. On a bike you lean forward, so that disperses the weight. On a unicycle, you sit straight up, with all the weight in one place.

        “And hit a pothole or curb? You're talking big pain.”

Setting goals
               He knows about this stuff. He's been riding casually for six years and seriously since January, training in ice, snow, all temperatures, 10-15 miles a day around Westwood, Mount Healthy and Colerain Township.

        His cross-country goal is 30-35 miles a day.

        His other goal is to launch the trip from Jay Leno's Burbank studio. “There have been faxes and we've made contact, but it's all preliminary. I think it would be a great start.”

        With or without Leno, the media will hear about the trip. Mr. Dalton plans to call radio stations and TV news crews as he approaches cities and hope they take the bait.

        It's that visibility thing again. “I just wanted to do something really goofy, something people have to look at, and that would get attention for Courtney.

        “But I'm also doing something serious. I'll be visiting churches every Sunday, asking congregations to put Courtney on their prayer list. She needs that as much as money.”

        All this means the rest of his life goes on hold for 60 days.

        Personally, that means leaving behind his menagerie: Iguanas named Floyd and Elvis; a boa constrictor named Darla; two pythons, Bert and King; a caiman (like a crocodile) name of Kay. “I'm a true reptile fanatic. They don't bark, they don't make a mess, they don't even know you're gone.

        “Elvis is a big boy — 4 foot, 11 inches and 30 pounds. I don't pull him out of a hat or anything, but I do produce him unexpectedly in my magic act. He's a great co-star.”

Free-fall planned
               It also means leaving behind Paula, with whom “I'm happily involved. But she's going to drive up and meet me in Quincy (Ill.), when I take a detour so we can spend a few days at the World Free-Fall Convention.”

        Falling? “It's one of those things you just can't get enough of. But after that week, I'll only have two or three more weeks, then I'll be home and back to work.”

        That would be performing at Fairfield's Abracadabra Cafe, private parties, corporate events, working toward his goal of entertaining on cruise ships.

        “It's really a great job because I can drop it anytime, like I'm doing now, then come home and pick up where I left off.

        “I'm doing this because I can. Because I'm in a position to do it without hurting my career. Besides, I think it will be a fun. I'm itching to take off.

        “I don't feel at all heroic or anything. I just feel like you should do what you can for people and I have the opportunity. So why not?”

        Donations to Mr. Dalton's Courtney-a-thon can be made to the Courtney Hennessey Trust Fund at any Fifth-Third bank or by calling (513) 574-0775.


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