In May, Uli Schackmann quit her job, sold her car, rented out her house and caught a plane from Florida to Alaska — only to bike all the way back with her service dog, Jackson, raising awareness and money for HIV and AIDS. Her goal is to help find a cure by 2020.
"Right now, the disease has become a silent disease," Schackmann said. "Nobody is really talking about it. Everybody is on medication, so it's not discussed at all."
Schackmann said she's been involved in advocating for people affected by this disease since 1996, and was inspired by an annual event called The Smart Ride, where bikers raise $1,250 minimum for the cause and then bike 165 miles from Miami to Key West, Florida.
That's where she met longtime Williamsburg residents Don and Carole LaRuffa, who she's staying with to rest from the most recent leg of her journey. Schackmann's route would be challenging even if she wasn't pulling her food, water, tent and dog behind her bicycle.
"I did train a little bit to make sure he (Jackson) gets in and out of the trailer, he follows the commands, because we're on the roads, there are cars," Schackmann said. "Didn't prepare me for it. I'm in Florida, it's flat. Didn't prepare me for Alaska, Denali, the Rocky Mountains. There's no way you can train for it. There was more pushing than bicycling — I have great upper body strength again."
From Anchorage, Alaska, Schakmann bought some bear spray and a long knife, and then departed for her route, which took her through parts of Canada, Minnesota, Wisconson, Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia and now Virginia. The LaRuffas answered her request for a pickup from Elkins, West Virginia, and she was resting with them on Thursday, after visiting Colonial Williamsburg. The LaRuffas participate in The Smart Ride to support a longtime friend who has HIV.
"The amount of cheering and love, it's just unbelievable," Don LaRuffa said.
From Williamsburg, it's a straight shot down the coast to her final destination, and Schackmann's looking forward to the flat ride.
So far, she's raised more than $8,000 and spent more than $7,000 out of pocket, experiencing the best and worst of circumstances along the way.
"I know I will never, ever do this again," Schackmann said. "And knowing I have done this, it's amazing. There's a sense of accomplishment, making a difference, inspiring others, motivating others."
Her goal is to raise $50,000 for the organization amfAR, which shares her goal of finding a cure in the next three years. According to HIV.gov, more than 1.1 million people in the United States are affected by HIV.
Between layering up to sleep in a tent in Alaska in the spring, climbing mountains and learning to face fears of wild animals, Schackmann said she's had people express overwhelming kindness towards her.
She's had a man who was giving her a ride turn around to find her dog's trailer when it fell off his truck, restaurants pick up tabs for her meals, and one man at a Denny's give her an iPhone 6 — all without so much as a request.
Schackmann didn't know she was talking to a manager at the time.
"I said, 'Man I've had a really rough day. I'm riding this bicycle from Alaska to Key West, and the wind and the roads, and then on top of everything I lost my phone and I can't communicate with anybody.' I said, 'Bring me a big wine. I think I need it now,'" Schackmann said. "He did. Then he came back and said, 'You know what, I have two phones. I will give you my phone.'"
She's also encountered black, brown and grizzly bears, and has learned to scream and make noise as she bikes in the wilderness to let them know someone is coming.
She aims to be back in Miami by November, so she can meet up with the beginning of The Smart Ride and complete her transnational journey with them.
Williams can be reached by phone at 804-824-8289.
Support and follow Schackmann