It started with a dip in the Pacific and ended with a dip in the Atlantic.
"We began the ride by dipping the back tires of our bikes in the water at Half Moon Bay in California," said Kirsten Pufahl. "When we got to the Atlantic Ocean we put the front tires in and then jumped in ourselves"
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After bicycling through 21 states, enduring the heat of the desert and the challenges of mountain ranges, not to mention a swarm of grasshoppers, Pufahl was glad to accomplish her goal of riding across the country. The 4,500-mile race was organized to support FACE AIDS, a national student organization founded to assist those afflicted with AIDS in rural Rwanda.
Pufahl, a recent graduate of Illinois Wesleyan University, spent four months in Ghana during college as part of an educational experience to learn about the African culture. She felt a connection to the people of Ghana and decided to do this ride not just for the challenge but also to help the people of Africa.
"Having the experience of living in Africa really kept me motivated on the ride." she said. "It gave me something to focus on. It was a constant reminder of why I was doing it."
Focus would have to be important when riding 100 or more miles a day. Even though Pufahl, a runner for Wesleyan, didn't do a lot of bike training for the ride, her legs were strong and she was able to handle the physical challenge.
The early challenges were route difficulties, bike repairs and crashes.
"One of our riders was hit by a car in Nevada," she said. "He was airlifted to a hospital in Reno. We had already pot in 113 miles that day so we all got into the van and drove four hours to the hospital."
There were six other riders from Stanford and the University of Wyoming.
Of course group dynamics and establishing leadership is always a challenge when dealing with people who have no connection other than the event.
"We all had different reasons for doing the ride," said Pufahl. "Some just wanted to ride across the country. Others were there to fight AIDS. Everyone had their own idea of how the ride should go. We ended up dividing the responsibilities and each person was in charge of one area, such as finances, housing, etc."
The group stayed with families along the way that were connected either to the ride or the universities where the students attended.
"The families that were connected were absolutely awesome," Pufahl said. "They were so welcoming. We had a lot of back yard barbecues with neighbors and friends and that gave us the opportunity to talk about FACE AIDS."
Kirsten Pufahl didn't just learn about the geography of America; she also learned about the people.
"There were some in rural communities who didn't really understand why we were doing a fundraiser for the people of Africa," she said. "They really thought we should be doing the ride for people here."
Along the way, the group was able to visit historic sites such as Mount Rushmore and other national parks. They also made visits to large cities to see the sights there as well.
'We planned our rest days in the cities," she said. "We got to spend time in Chicago, Toledo, Washington D.C., Philadelphia and New York City. That was great to have those breaks."
Perhaps the greatest city was Boston where the group was met by members of the FACE AIDS staff who joined them for the last seven miles.
"They brought us champagne and we biked to the finish just like in the Tour de France," she said. "When we put our front tires in the water of the Atlantic, it was such a big moment. So we all jumped in to celebrate."
Not only did the group meet the physical challenge of doing the cross country ride; it also met its financial goals. Through personal fundraising and by stopping along the way and talking with churches, Rotary Clubs schools and radio stations, the group raised awareness and $50,000 for FACE AIDS.
Sometimes, on those long straight roads that cross our nations plains, it's hard to imagine an end in sight. Kirsten Pufahl did it, and she should be so proud of all that she accomplished.