Though the cycling mishap occurred more than a decade ago, its alarming image still invades Deeanna (Roberts ’79) Shidler’s thoughts and replays in her mind’s eye.
The good pace she enjoyed on the paved highway; the biker close in front of her serving as windbreak; the bridge they approach on an eight-foot shoulder; his sudden yell, “Hole!” and the jump of his front wheel over the cavity; the rough drag of his rear wheel through it; her forceful squeeze on the brake handles and then the crash.
“It was probably the worst thing to do,” she recalls, “but I had no other choice.”
Deeanna fell hard. The blow split her helmet through, and she slid out into the highway lanes. Thankfully, it was a traffic-free moment. Thankfully, she wore a strong helmet. Thankfully, though bruised and battered, she emerged from the accident able to ride again. And ride again she did, thankfully.
Eight years later in 2011, Deeanna biked from San Diego, California, to St. Augustine, Florida. She celebrated more than her recent retirement with the transcontinental trek. She checked off another bike route on her “bucket list” and added the crowning achievement to a tally of hiking and biking ventures that have taken her far beyond her home in Pana, Illinois, to Switzerland, Paris and many U.S. national parks.
Deeanna followed a route mapped out by the Adventure Cycling Association that skirted the southern boundaries of the U.S. She traveled with companions from her bike club and also with wisdom gleaned from hundreds of previous rides. In all of the miles she has biked and backpacked, no scare or close call has overpowered her love for exploring places new to her, explorations free from the confines of a motorized vehicle.
Ernest Hemingway wrote, “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.” Deeanna remembers some contours for the unflinching focus they required, like the mountain pass out of California where her speedometer registered 47 frightening miles per hour. The only way through is on the interstate, and bicyclists are free to take it.
“Coming down, we flew along that shoulder,” she said. “The trucks whizzed by at high speeds because they were going downhill too. At times, I was going down so steep and so fast that tears streamed from my eyes.”
And to think, just a short time before, she had slogged up hill and up hill and up hill at barely four miles per hour.
On the easier stretches, when the pavement rolled out straight before her like a ribbon, Deeanna’s thoughts drifted from daydreams to her family to wonder over the variety of life manifested in God’s creation. She studied biology at Greenville College and now marveled mile after mile over the remarkable fit of nature’s details, like the white sand of the rivers she crossed in western Louisiana and the white, blue-eyed alligators she saw at zoos in Florida. “Having seen these rivers, it was easy to understand how the albino alligators could conceal themselves on a river bank,” she observed.
The beauty of the passing landscape humbled Deeanna, and thankfulness often overwhelmed her. “I’d find myself breaking out singing at times. Every day I was thankful for our safety and thankful to be alive, thankful that I was able to do this.”
Some cyclists say the best routes are the ones they have not yet ridden. They would rather follow their curiosity down unexplored roads than loop the familiar. Deeanna knows that feeling. She grew up on a farm in Lawrence County, Illinois, and recalls riding her pony down every deer trail in the woods. “When bike riding, I would go down every road just to see where it went.”
Routes she’s not yet traveled intrigue her, like the River-to-River Trail in the Shawnee National Forest and the Mississippi River Trail. She has already planned her approach to Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail, 1,000 miles that highlight Wisconsin’s ice age heritage. Each day, she will place her bicycle at a point on the trail, drive her van back to the place where she will start hiking, hike to her bicycle and then bike back to her van. She estimates completing the trail would take four months of hiking every day. “Since I can’t do that much, I will break it into small segments; it may take 10 years to do it all.”
For those who dismiss the idea as improbable, surely they don’t know Deeanna Shidler’s track record for realizing her adventure dreams. And surely they don’t know the deep satisfaction she gains from discovery along the ride.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2014 edition of The RECORD.