Hanna Elshoff was in Riverside on July 23. She says, “Thanks.”
Now, no one in Riverside knew the 72-year-old Elshoff before Thursday and she had never heard of the village before she sort of stumbled into Riverside’s downtown due to a GPS glitch.
Elshoff was actually on her way from Oak Brook to far south suburban Lansing, where she had planned to stop for the night on July 23 — almost three months into a what she hopes is a two-year trek to Georgia on a solar-powered tricycle she calls her “ELF” (Electric. Light. Fun.).
“I don’t have a very good sense of direction,” said Elshoff, a wiry, fit woman with wire-rim glasses and a shock of short gray hair, who wore a white neckerchief, blue jeans and a purple V-neck shirt emblazoned with the crest of Lions Club International.
Despite that lack of directional sense, Elshoff had made it all the way to the Chicago suburbs after leaving her hometown of Chatfield, Minnesota on May 1. Traveling mainly rural roads and urban bike paths, she had pedaled through Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois before ending up in Riverside last Thursday.
By Friday, she was hoping to be in Schererville, Indiana, where someone at the Lions Club International headquarters in Oak Brook had made a hotel reservation for her.
Eventually, she wants to make it all the way to Plains, Georgia. She wants President Jimmy Carter’s autograph, and she’s had a hard time getting it.
It’s a long story.
Elshoff was born in northern Germany in 1942, the youngest of four children. Her family were independent Lutherans, and as such were looked upon with some suspicion by the local Nazi officials, she said. In 1945, her village was occupied by the U.S. Army.
Many years later, her father was called to the deathbed of a neighbor who had something to confess. The neighbor told her father that he was an SS man, and that he had gotten orders to put her family on a truck and take them to a concentration camp.
The Americans, the man told her father, saved them that fate.
At the age of 18, in 1961, Elshoff immigrated to the United States, sponsored by a family in Fort Dodge, Iowa. She had one possession.
“All I had was a bike,” Elshoff said.
Being, as she called it, “footloose and fancy free,” Elshoff proposed to ride her bike from Iowa to Texas, where she knew someone. But that didn’t go over well with her sponsors, so she scrapped the idea.
In the meantime, Elshoff embarked on her life in the U.S. Eventually, her father bought a farm in Chatfield, Minnesota with money he’d made selling land he owned in Germany. For the past 20 years she worked two jobs, doing an overnight shift at a nursing home and working as a nanny during the day.
She also joined the local Toastmasters Club and the Lions Club, where she acquired a large social circle. For her 60th birthday, 150 people turned out to celebrate. When she turned 70, she drew a crowd of 250.
“I collect people, I decided,” she said.
And she also began to think back about her long-delayed bike trip. On her 70th birthday, she thought she might embark on the trip when she was 75.
But when she found a place that sold solar-powered bikes online, she flew to the manufacturer in Durham, North Carolina, to inspect it personally. Her egg-shaped ELF, powered by pedals and by two batteries located under the seat, was delivered July 3, 2014.
At that point, she decided, why wait? She targeted May 1, 2015. May Day is a holiday in Germany and bike riding is a tradition on that day.
Using her connections with the Lions Club, she was able to make connections with people along her circuitous route — no straight lines for Elshoff. She also chose the Lions Club’s Leader Dog Program as a charity she’s raising money for during the trip.
But the main purpose of the trip, she said, is to meet Americans and pass along a simple message:
“I don’t have much to give to the American people,” Elshoff said. “I wanted to go around and say, ‘Thank you.’ That was my main purpose.”
Elshoff summed up her feelings in a letter to the editor thanking American World War II veterans, which she wrote to her local paper in 1999. She carries photocopies of the letter with her, which she passes out to anyone wanting to know her story.
“Not only did you save my life,” she wrote, “I had the privilege in 1961 to immigrate to this country and enjoy living among the greatest and kindest people in the world. I will be forever indebted to you.”
Oh, about the Jimmy Carter autograph?
After coming to the U.S., Elshoff was happy to live in the country as a legal alien and hadn’t thought much about obtaining citizenship. Then one day she heard a farmer was running for president. Having grown up on a farm, she thought, “I have to vote for that man.”
The trouble was, she couldn’t. It turns out she was granted citizenship after the 1976 presidential election and was momentarily thrilled when in her citizenship packet she received a signed letter from the president.
Except the letter was signed, “Gerald R. Ford.”
After several failed attempts to get Carter’s signature since then, Elshoff decided to fold that goal in with the bike ride.
“That thing is going to Plains, Georgia,” said Elshoff, pointing to her ELF. “If I don’t get it, I give up.”
You can follow Elshoff’s progress on her Facebook page “Hanna’s Dream Ride.”