Hanna Elshoff is going on the road to pursue her dream in an ELF solar bicycle. GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS
Hanna Elshoff is going on the road to pursue her dream in an ELF solar bicycle. GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS

Hanna Elshoff’s a Lion pedaling her dogs for puppies.

That tail-twister’s got her solar dream on wheels…headed trans-America in an ELF.

 “I’m the club’s ‘tail-twister,’ so it’s my job to come up with ridiculous reasons for members to have to give me money for the club,” said Chatfield Lions Club member Elshoff.

Her dream story is expansive, but she hopes it’s one that ends with a tale of a tail – the German immigrant and naturalized American citizen has plans to cross the country by putting her feet, or her “dogs,” to the pedals of a solar-powered Electric Light Fun (ELF) bicycle. She is taking the journey to raise funds for Leader Dogs for the Blind through her role as a Lions tail-twister.

She pointed out she first must recount how she got to the United States as an 18-year-old.

“In 1961, I was 18 years old, and I told my dad I wanted to come to America. He said, ‘You should wait until you’re 21.’ But I knew that if I waited until I was 21, it would be too late – I’d be too old and…probably too smart,” she joked.

Elshoff was sponsored by some people in Fort Dodge, Iowa, and all she had for a mode of transportation, to get from one place to the next, was a bike she bought with her own money.

“After about two years, I had some connections in Texas, and I kept thinking, ‘I want to ride my bike to Texas, from one little town to another,’” she explained.

The idea made sense to her since that’s how things can be done in Germany, but her sponsor mother, Clarabelle, was far from impressed and told her “You can’t do that – it’s too dangerous!”

Then 20-year-old Hanna wasn’t brave enough to stand up and just take off, so she didn’t follow her dream. It was a decision she has regretted ever since.

Elshoff didn’t get to pedal to Texas, but she did live – enough to “be taken through lots of hills and valleys, get married and unmarried.” She had children, became a foster parent and a nanny, ran a dairy farm and worked nights for nearly a quarter century. Then, she came to decide that her “seemingly impossible dream” could still be her dream.

“I always thought that by the time I was 80, everything would be out of my way again, and I should be footloose and fancy-free like I was in the 1960s,” Elshoff said. “In the meantime, I joined the Toastmasters. They’ve given me self-confidence and self-worth, all the things you need to be vibrant. I would never have been in the Lions if I hadn’t joined Toastmasters.”

One of the Lions’ missions is to promote better eyesight, or if a person is blind, help provide a leader dog. However, finding families to raise the puppies who become leader dogs is difficult because it’s so very hard not to become attached to the animals.

Elshoff had the opportunity to travel back to Fort Dodge with the Lions to witness how prisoners had been entrusted with the work of raising leader dogs during their first year of life – the program provides the Leader Dogs for the Blind organization with “puppy raisers” who in turn are rewarded with unconditional doggy admiration and love.

“At one time, it was the worst prison in the United States, but the puppies have changed the Fort Dodge prison…it’s now called the ‘puppy prison’,” Elshoff explained. “A dog has to be a year old before it can be trained and sent to Rochester, Mich., and to sponsor a puppy, it’s $500 for that year. The dogs themselves cost $40,000, but they’re given to the recipient free of charge.”

She also explained that some of the prisoners who raise these puppies are “lifers” and they love the dogs so much that when they have to give them up, they hand them over and run away so the program directors don’t see them crying.

“They prepared a festival with treats and a theme each year. Last year was a ‘circus’ theme, and the prisoners dressed as circus people and showed off their dogs in about an hour’s show,” Elshoff said. “It was so touching and extremely amazing. Afterwards, we got to visit with the prisoners…the puppies give them purpose.”

Elshoff, 72, stated that raising money for prisoners to have puppies to train became “a main focus” of her own and the Lions’ missions.

Also, she attended the international Lions Club convention in Hamburg, Germany, last year because she “doesn’t travel unless there’s a convention to go to,” and at that convention, the new international Lions Club president was named – a president whose motto is “Follow Your Dream.”

On the way home, during a layover at the Amsterdam airport, Elshoff was privileged to muster her courage to ask some of the international Lions officers what they thought of her actually following her dream of getting on a bicycle and riding across the United States. She explained to them that she felt the president’s motto, given in her home country, was a sign to get pedaling.

Their positive response sent her back to her farm on the edge of Chatfield all revved up.

“The dream never left my mind,” she admitted. “As I advanced in age, it was getting clearer and clearer that my life was getting freer so I could think more and more about my dream and get more serious about it. I moved it forward to 75 instead of 80, and since my 70th birthday, I’ve been making plans.”

Elshoff said she saw a bike at Menards with a motor…just a standard bike, and she decided she would want a bike with a motor to follow her dream journey. So, she thought she would get a little trailer that one might haul kids in so she can keep all her gear.

“Since I’m a Lion, I didn’t want to just frivolously pedal through rural America,” she said, so decided, “I might as well make it a fundraiser for Leader Dogs for the Blind.”

She’s spent the past year thinking about and working out the logistics of how to travel safely and happily across the countryside on a motorized bicycle, too excited about her own plan to even sleep well when she was home from work during the day.

The most vexatious problem was how to find a bicycle that would suit her needs, so she started Googling “solar powered bicycle” and came up with results recommending the ELF, a product of a two-year-old Durham, N.C., company, Organic Transit.

“Some friends were here and thought that was great, so three days later, I was at Organic Transit. The company is very small and unable to sponsor someone, but the employees came up and talked with me about their product and treated me like they’d known me forever,” she said. “That was so great and I even got to test-ride an ELF. I got so excited I could hardly stand it, and I ordered one right then and there. It was delivered to me about a month ago, and since then, I came home from North Carolina and decided I would start my journey on May 1, 2015.”

Elshoff explained that day is special because May 1 is a holiday in Germany where people traditionally go on bike tours – people from companies, families and church groups.

At present, she’s still working out the logistics.

The bubble-shaped recumbent bicycle has a solar panel on the roof, storage and a motor in the back and Elshoff has decked out the fiberglass interior with photos of her grandchildren and child care charges, a sprig of flowers on the right side of the windshield and a digital clock on the floor.

While she most often simply pedals her bicycle, the power-assist button on the right handlebar grip lends a push up long hills when she’s facing them, and the solar panel recharges the 13-mile battery quickly enough that she doesn’t have to rest very long before it’s ready to go again.

As for her food and accommodations, she plans on leaving home with a peanut butter sandwich, an apple and a bottle of water, pedaling to the first Lions-occupied town on her itinerary, presenting her speech about her gratitude for what the United States has done for her – entitled “America Saved My Life, Toastmasters Saved My Soul, Lions Gave Me Purpose.”

Then she will continue on, phoning ahead to the next town and hopefully being accompanied by a volunteer from the previous town. “If I get tired, sick, or if it’s just time to come home again, I can always call my family to come and get me, or I can fly home, then go out again when I’m ready,” she said.

She’s determined to visit various specific cities on her journey, including Milwaukee, Wis., Fort Dodge, Iowa, – of course - and Chicago and Atlanta. She also plans to make a stop in Plains, Ga., because she still hopes to meet former president Jimmy Carter to have him sign her naturalization certificate.

She explained, “I plan on going to Plains because when I got my certificate, I became a citizen because I wanted to vote for Jimmy Carter, a farmer who ran for president. I thought that if a farmer could run for president, anything was possible, but when I got my certificate, it was signed by Gerald Ford. I have everything covered, though…maybe I’ll go to New York and be on the ‘Today’ show.”

For now, the destinations are simply black marker dots on a map pinned to her computer room wall, but over the next two years, she’s going to turn them into her dream by putting her “dogs” to the pedals to bring home funds for a leader puppy.

“If you think a dream is impossible, just do it,” she concluded.