Well, she did it.
On Sunday, Jan. 31, Hanna Elshoff pedaled her solar-powered bike into the parking lot of the Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia, and after security giving the egg-shaped bike the once over, she got to meet President Jimmy Carter, in person. And she got the autograph she’d sought since becoming a U.S. citizen in 1976, the year he was elected president.
Beginning in May 2015, the 73-year-old Elshoff spent about seven months pedaling her ELF (Electric. Light. Fun) bike from Chatfield, Minnesota, toward Plains. The Lions Club International member and German immigrant had conceived the bike ride as a combination quest to meet the first presidential candidate she ever voted for and as a way to say “thank you” to America, the country whose Army interrupted a Gestapo plan to send her family to a concentration camp during World War II.
She immigrated to the U.S. in 1961 and settled in Chatfield, Minnesota, where her father purchased land. When Carter announced his bid for the presidency, Elshoff said she was inspired to become a U.S. citizen because she wanted to vote for him. After all, Elshoff was raised on a farm in Germany and Carter was a farmer, too.
When her citizenship papers arrived, Elshoff was excited, anticipating that while she wasn’t able to vote for Carter his signature would be on her papers. But the signature she found on the documents was Gerald Ford’s.
At the end of July 2015, she found herself in downtown Riverside — lost, on her way from the Lions International headquarters in Oak Brook to Lansing. She spent a couple of hours in Riverside before getting her bearings and moving on.
By Thanksgiving, Elshoff was about 40 miles away from Plains, in Columbus, Georgia. When she learned it’d take six weeks to secure an appointment with Carter, she called an audible. She left her bike in Columbus and drove back to Minnesota, where she spent the next two months.
On Jan. 27, she flew back to Columbus and on Jan. 29 got back on the ELF and rode to Plains, where a Carter family friend had set up a meeting between Elshoff and the 91-year-old former president.
Elshoff rode to Plains in time to be there for Carter’s Sunday school class and her scheduled meeting with Carter. After the Sunday school session, Elshoff found herself seated for dinner with the former president at the home of a woman who went to school with him and had arranged the meeting after hearing Elshoff’s story.
At dinner, Elshoff told Carter the story too.
“Mostly, I wanted to thank him for inspiring me to become a citizen,” Elshoff said,. “It changed my life.”
And, Carter signed a book she’d bought about the former president at a gift shop the previous day.
Reunited with her bike, Elshoff is currently continuing on her two-year adventure and heading south towards Florida. When the weather up north warms up, she’ll begin to head up to Durham, North Carolina, where she plans on visiting the company that manufactured the bike that has ferried her across a large part of the country.