When you spend a summer riding a bicycle across the U.S., you learn to appreciate the little things.
This was the case for University of North Dakota sophomore Mariah Salfer, a junior from Sleepy Eye, Minn., studying medical laboratory science. She recently returned from The “4k for Cancer,” a cross-country bike ride hosted by the Ulman Cancer Fund (UCF), a group that, among other things, strives to raise awareness of cancers prevalent in young adult.
The group also provides transportation services to hospitals, financial assistance with fertility preservation and is currently building a UCF house for patients and families to stay while a family member is undergoing treatment.
After spending months on the road, sleeping at host homes and eating food donated by local businesses, Salfer is finding it strange to have more control over those decisions. Now that she’s back at UND and tackling a full course load, she appreciates the little things like being able to do her own laundry or use an actual restroom facility.
“It was kind of weird getting back to normal actually,” Salfer reflects. “Going into it I didn’t think it would be that big of a transition to come back to life because I don’t think I really had to transition that much on the trip, but it was huge coming back. So many things were different.”
While Salfer is relieved she is able to decide what she wants to eat and not have to rely on the kindness of strangers, she’s not quite as relieved as you might think.
“It’s kind of nice but also kind of sucky because I’m really bad at making decisions,” Salfer jokes. “So when I go to a place and I actually get to choose what I want to eat it’s like ‘oh wow, I don’t know now.’”
A particularly difficult transition Salfer is experiencing is the amount of alone time she faces now. After spending every waking hour on the road with 22 newfound friends, Salfer finds herself missing her team more every day. Although, they make every attempt to stay in touch to this day.
“We have a group message that were all talking on and constantly posting dumb stuff,” Salfer laughs. “Commenting on each other’s old Facebook pictures and snapping each other; we keep in contact pretty well.”
Two down, 68 to go
Even though a person may spend months completing a specific task, the memories tend to dwindle down to one or two that stick out the most, and this is certainly the case for Salfer.
“Day two was probably one of the most memorable days for me,” Salfer said. “It was the first day we climbed the Appalachians and that’s the first time I’d ever climbed a mountain, or even a hill, because here we don’t have anything like that to practice on.”
Along with climbing a mountain for the first time, Salfer and her teammates began breaking the ice on day two, laughing and joking with each other while they looked toward the west and imagined the miles ahead of them. The daunting task of their ride notwithstanding, the group shared the miserable moments together, bringing them closer.
“I think the hardest days are the most memorable, because we actually grow and learn and experience that together,” Salfer said.
Another experience that stuck out to Salfer took place in a random yard along the way. Wanting to take a few moments to rest and drink some water, Salfer and her team stopped at a lone house along a 20-mile stretch and asked the owners if they could use their yard to rest for a moment. The couple that owned the house agreed.
While the riders were resting, it was brought to their attention that the woman who lived in the house had recently been diagnosed with cancer, and was to start her chemotherapy the next day. The couple believed Salfer and her team’s presence to be a sign that everything would be all right.
The woman’s husband later sent the team a message, where he called them “23 angels.” The message also stated that a photo that had been taken of the riders and the couple had been hung up in their house to serve as a reminder that no matter how bad life may become, there is always hope.
Salfer grins as she searches for the right words to explain the impact the experience had on her. Remaining humble, as always, she reflects on the bravery of those battling cancer and how her riding across the country is nothing compared to their struggles.
“I don’t think what we do is that spectacular compared to battling cancer and dealing with all of that,” Salfer says.
Salfer currently is considering taking part in “Relay for Life,” a major cancer awareness event that happens in places such as Grand Forks, planning events with “Love Your Melon” and actively reminding her friends to wear sunscreen.
Love Your Melon is a nationwide organization whose goal is to donate funds to pediatric cancer research. The UND chapter of Love Your Melon is currently looking for new members, if you’re interested and wish to fill out an application, you can visit their Facebook page.
When asked if Salfer would consider taking on The 4k for Cancer ride again next year, she smiles as she reflects on the experience she’s already completed, and shakes her head “no.”
“I just think the one experience was what I needed, I wouldn’t want to do anything else to overshadow the first experience,” Salfer said. “I had such an awesome time that I think that’s something that will be with me forever. It was really amazing.”
University and Public Affairs student writer