Fredonia Native, After Battle With MS, Completes Ride
Fredonia native and Florida resident Karen DeJoe was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis while living in New Hampshire working at a hospital. The condition took away her ability to walk and sometimes even speak, forcing her to give up her medical practice.
While the hospital she worked at allowed her to continue working as a medical director, DeJoe worked to get out of her wheelchair. Eventually, when she was able, she took up bike riding. She was able to ride in a few events in New York and Massachusetts, but her symptoms still loomed large.
Leaving the hospital certainly helped DeJoe, but her biggest benefit was moving to Florida, where the increase in Vitamin D helped her symptoms go away. And with more opportunities for DeJoe to be mobile, she decided she wanted to challenge herself.
“When I got down here, I felt like a new woman,” DeJoe said. “I could walk and all my symptoms just started to go away. There was a lot of biking to be done down here and I decided I needed to challenge myself.”
With that goal in mind, DeJoe started to search online for long bike tours. One she was particularly interested in was the Natchez Trace Parkway, which extends all the way from Nashville, Tennessee to the coast of Mississippi. DeJoe tried to find people to go with her, but no one was up for that kind of adventure, and organizations who hold trips demanded too much of a cost.
DeJoe started to give up on her idea, but because she had been searching so much for different events, the Fuller Center Bike Adventure popped up to her in her searches. The Fuller Center Bike Adventure does several rides all across the country, and DeJoe figured this would be one of her only opportunities to do such a ride. Nervously, she began preparing for what would end up being a 3,800-mile journey.
“Prior to training for this ride, my longest ride was 50 miles,” DeJoe said. “The typical mileage I would do in a day is 40, and I would definitely feel it. Biking across the country was one part foolish, and another part hopeful.”
DeJoe’s husband was hesitant she’d be able to do it, saying she was taking the entire pie, rather than a whole slice. With that hesitation in mind, DeJoe went to her neurologist, who gave her his blessing to go ahead and from there she just started riding. DeJoe put 2,000 miles on the road in Florida to build up leg strength, though one big obstacle is that Florida is mostly flat, while her journey would include heavy elevation. Despite the elevation, only one outcome would be deemed a success in DeJoe’s mind.
“With 2,000 miles underneath me, I felt I could at least give it a go,” DeJoe said. “But with how flat Florida is, how much training can you do? I only considered finishing on the pacific coast successful. That was my mindset from the get go.”
So DeJoe raised money, in total around $9,500 thanks to the support of her family and friends, and DeJoe was set to start. The trail started at Amelia Island in Florida, and went all the way to Florence, Ore. In total, the trip would last 10 weeks, and along the way, they had to make six stops to help rebuild homes for people along the way, as part of the Fuller Center’s mission. Helping people along the way is part of why DeJoe wanted to make the trip in the first place.
“People asked me why I was doing it,” DeJoe said. “I said it was because this country has been so divisive. I wanted something where people didn’t walk about politics, and we just talked about helping one another and getting back to the humanity of mankind. I thought that if I could help people along the way, it would lift my heart.”
DeJoe had eight other people with her for the entire journey, with some individuals participating in a handful of the weeks of the journey. DeJoe, 58, initially thought she’d be the oldest participant, but upon arrival, she was one of the youngest.
“I was expecting everyone on the ride to be very young, but I was told I would likely be the youngest,” DeJoe said. “We had one rider who was 26 and another in his 40s, but most of the riders were older than me and they were incredible cyclists. They left me in the dust.”
Once they were on the trip, conditions weren’t exactly luxurious. The Fuller Center limited funds to $2 per person, per day, meaning they had to do a good job of rationing. Luckily for them, they relied on the generosity of churches and high schools in towns they went through for food and sleeping arrangements.
“We slept on the floors of churches mostly,” DeJoe said. “We had sleeping bags and little Therm-a-rest mattresses. It took a while to get used to that. Occasionally a high school would let us stay in their gym, which worked out well because they had locker rooms where we could shower. We bought our own stuff and did our own cooking, but many times local congregations would cook for us. The Fuller Center warned us this wasn’t a luxurious trip.”
But with what the trip lacked in luxury, it made up for in moments DeJoe would never forget. For starters, DeJoe said she was in tears at points just looking at the beautiful country scape she got to see on the way. Other moments though came from helping and interacting with the individuals they met along the way.
“One that sticks out the most was a house rebuild we did just shy of the Alabama border in Westport, Georgia,” De Joe said. “There was a gentleman there who had stage 4 liver cancer that metastasized to his kidney. A pastor had gone to him and asked if there was anything he could do. He didn’t want to die with his house in disarray. He had a hole in the kitchen floor, electrical connections that didn’t always work, and leaking in his bedroom.
“So, his pastor called the Fuller Center and they stepped in and gave him all new appliances and when we got there, we did electrical repair work and more of the flooring work,” DeJoe continued. “We painted the exterior of his home. I stepped away from painting and asked to speak to the couple and I told them I was a physician and asked if he had any questions he hadn’t been able to ask a healthcare provider. He grabbed my hand and said no physician has ever prayed with him before. That was one of the most touching moments of the trip. That’s what the trip was about.”
While helping people along the way, DeJoe also got a moment very personal to her. DeJoe’s dad had passed away in 2016, and had always wanted to see Mount Rushmore. Though he was never able to make the trip himself, DeJoe made sure that a part of him was with her when she got there.
“When my mom heard we’d be stopping there, she wanted me to have something to take,” DeJoe said. “I had already had his dog tags in my bike bag so he was always with me.”
DeJoe finished the trip on time, but not without challenges along the way. On top of wildfires brutalizing the Pacific Coast, causing heavy smoke for the last part of the journey, DeJoe also flipped over her handlebars, suffering a mild concussion plus some shoulder damage that caused her to stop for a steroid injection in Wyoming to allow her to finish. DeJoe is having orthopedic surgery in the next couple weeks.
“In the words of my orthopedic surgeon, I’m one tough cookie,” DeJoe said. “He had no idea how I was able to finish the ride with the damage to my shoulder.”
Upon finishing the race, DeJoe was able to visit with some family in the Northwest before going back home to Florida with her adventure completed. What started off as DeJoe challenging herself ended with a scenic tour of the United States that is everything DeJoe had wanted from the ride.
“There were multiple times on the trip I cried like a baby because I couldn’t get over the good fortune I had or just being in awe of this magnificent country,” DeJoe said. “I met so many people along the way. The ride was everything I had hoped for and more.”
More information about the Fuller Project can be found at https://fullercenter.org/, while information about the Fuller Center Bike Adventure can be found at https://www.fullercenterbikeadventure.org/florida-to-florence/. Information about DeJoe’s adventure specifically can be found at my.fullercenterbikeadventure.org/kdejoe.