Tyler Droeger loved adventure.
After graduating from Little Wolf High School in Manawa in 2012, Droeger planned to spend 10 years exploring the country and following his passions before settling down. His nomadic lifestyle took him west to Arizona, Colorado, and Utah, and occasionally to Wisconsin. Droeger has had a variety of jobs over the years, including teaching snowboarding, working at Phantom Ranch in the Grand Canyon, leading a team with the Wisconsin Conservation Corps, and coaching mountain biking.
In July 2021, at age 27, Droeger embarked on a journey that his mother, Jill Diederich, called “the end of his 10-year adventure.” Afterwards, Droeger promised his mother, who lives in Manawa, that he would settle down and find a stable job.
Droeger’s big trip was a bike ride of about 4,000 miles through the American Southwest. He has shared his travels publicly, in an effort to use his platform to raise awareness of the food crisis affecting the Navajo Nation, and has created a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to help native kids in Flagstaff, Arizona get involved in mountain biking. He set the fundraising goal at $4,000, the same number of miles he planned to cycle.
In September, while on the last leg of his bike ride, Droeger was hit by an SUV and killed.
At the time of Droeger’s death, his GoFundMe had raised around $1,600. Diederich recalls hoping that the donations that would pour in after people learned of his death would hit the $4,000 mark.
Within days of his death, Droeger’s GoFundMe campaign had topped $10,000. By Saturday, he had raised $21,270.
“It was absolutely overwhelming,” Diederich said. People Diederich had never heard of contacted his family to find out how much Droeger meant to them.
Droeger set up his GoFundMe campaign via Flagstaff Young Ridersa non-profit organization located in Flagstaff, Arizona that runs mountain biking programs for children and teens ages 2-18. Droeger worked there as a bike trainer during the summer and fall of 2020.
Flagstaff Youth Riders executive director Tyler Nelson said Droeger approached him with the idea of raising money to help create some kind of scholarship for Navajo children. At the time, Nelson said, they didn’t know exactly what it would look like.
Navajo Nation represents over 27,000 miles of desert in the Four Corners region, spanning the southeast corner of Utah, the northwest corner of New Mexico, and the northeast corner of Arizona. With more than 180,000 members, the Navajo Nation is the largest native reservation in the United States, but also one of the poorest. According to 2010 census datamore than half of the people of the Navajo Nation lived at or below the poverty line.
While living in Arizona, Droeger became aware of the inequalities Navajo people face. According to New York Timesthere are fewer than 15 grocery stores across the entire 27,000-mile reservation, forcing people to travel many miles across the desert — sometimes on foot — to buy fresh food.
After Droeger’s death and the influx of donations, Nelson said the organization decided to create a comprehensive program in Droeger’s name.
All proceeds from Droeger’s GoFundMe go to the Flagstaff Youth Riders Tyler Droeger Fund, which is used to launch a free after-school program for third- through fifth-grade students at Leupp Elementary, a school located about an hour east. east of Flagstaff on the Navajo. Nation. Nelson said the program will begin in April and include about 12 children in a spring session and another 12 in the fall.
Flagstaff Youth Riders has similar after-school programs at other Flagstaff-area schools, all with the goal of getting “more underrepresented youth on bikes who otherwise might not be able to get on the bike,” Nelson said. The programs target low-income students and students of color.
Additionally, Flagstaff Youth Riders is in the process of construction of a bicycle park at the Puente de Hózhó primary schoola trilingual school in Flagstaff, and will name a park feature after Droeger: the Droeger Drop.
Nelson coached alongside Droeger at Flagstaff Youth Riders from August to October 2020 in a program for 4 and 5 year olds. He said Droeger is exactly the kind of bike trainer the program is looking for.
“He was a coach who really resonated with the kids in a way that all the other coaches don’t,” Nelson said. “There were a number of times where kids would show up and they would give him stickers, they would give him cards. … He was understandably well looked up to by the kids in our program.”
On his GoFundMe page, Droeger wrote his plans for the trip: start in Colorado, ride the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route to Route 66, take the Pacific Coast to San Francisco, then complete the loop in Pueblo, Colorado. Along the way, he wrote updates on how the trip was going.
Droeger’s last update was September 23, four days before his death. At that time he was 2,826 miles into his journey, with 1,075 miles to go.
“It was truly the experience of a lifetime,” he wrote. “I’m ready to finish but I know I won’t want to stop once I get to the finish line.”
At the end of his written update, Droeger wrote advice for those following his journey: “Be good to strangers you meet. No matter their situation, it might as well have been you in those shoes.”
Diederich said those words exemplified the type of person his son was.
“He just cared about everyone,” Diederich said. “He was a minimalist, but if he had something you needed, he would give it to you.”
Those interested in donating to the Tyler Droeger Fund can do so on the Flagstaff Youth Riders website at flyrsaz.com/donate.