Heart of Treasure Valley: Where the magic happens

Shelley Pursell sees the world by bike, challenges herself and gets outside her comfort zone

May 18, 2014 

heart, winter wildlands, bike touring, bike

For Shelley Pursell, 45, of Boise, the world is best experienced on the seat of a bike. “When you’re in a car, you’re isolated ... I think the bike just creates a conversation,” she says. She’s pedaled through South America, Europe and the United States — and wouldn’t travel any other way now. “I always think we always go out and seek adventure. But what we find is ourselves.”

KATHERINE JONES — kjones@idahostatesman.com Buy Photo

  • FILM FESTIVAL

    Mark your calendar for the 10th annual Winter Wildlands Alliance Backcountry Film Festival in early November at the Egyptian Theater. The festival premiers in Boise then travels to more than 100 locations worldwide. It raises more than $140,000 each year for organizations working on advocacy, snow safety, outdoor education and SnowSchool programs.

  • Shelley Pursell encourages people to do bike trips, both locally and internationally. But it's a different way to travel, she says.

    "It's about quality, not quantity. You're not going to see a lot, but you're going to experience a lot."

    She also advises a philosophy of "not knowing."

    "Everything I need is on my bike, so when you're going down that road and you see a sign that looks intriguing, you can turn and go. There's nothing to stop you. …

    "It's part of the adventure. … I learned really quickly that if I have a plan, then that means other things can't happen. … The fun part about traveling is meeting somebody and them telling you, 'Oh, you've got to go do this coffee plantation over here,' or 'You've got to go to this beach,' or 'That beach was fun but we had a way better experience here' and 'We met this little family,' or 'We went to this cafe. … '

    "You meet people and they kind of steer you off your path and if you're stuck on that path, (if) you have this pre-set idea, then maybe you're not going to be open to this other thing. … "

The ride was 500 miles long, from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Sure, she'd ridden a bike before - hasn't everyone? And how hard could it be? Thousands of other bicycle riders would be doing it.

She says: "I had never ridden my bike more than 20 miles at one time. To ride 500 miles seemed kind of impossible. Or (really) big."

It was a five-day supported ride for AIDS, and Shelley Pursell rode in memory of two very close uncles who had died, back in the day when researchers were still trying to understand the disease; back in the day when being gay carried a powerful social stigma as well.

"I remember (parts) of that trip being very uncomfortable. … I remember thinking, you're doing this for Mark and Joe. They taught you so much about living life and life and being brave. And yet - sometimes that means not being comfortable."

Those 500 miles weren't easy - just like her uncles' lives and deaths. Some of the miles were downright uncomfortable, indeed. But she rode them all. She rode to honor her uncles - and then she rode for herself. And that was just the beginning.

The wheels were spinning, you might say.

Eight years later, she and her husband sold their house in Tahoe, sold her antique store business, quit his construction job. They packed up the bikes and spent two years touring South America (including a spontaneous, because-they-could, four-month sail to New Zealand and Southeast Asia).

"Things like that give you a bigger sense of yourself and a bigger sense of the world."

The experience left them hungry for more; they went to Europe and toured with their bikes. Before they moved to Boise three years later, they went on another trip; this time, a six-month ride the length of the Andes, from Quito to Patagonia.

For Shelley, the world was now measured by how she experienced it from a bicycle seat.

"You're very connected to the land. You smell everything: the coffee brewing, the bacon frying, everything. …

"You're going fast enough you feel like you're making progress - you feel good about that, you can go 100 miles a day - but still slow enough to see all kinds of crazy things, meet all kinds of crazy people."

Wherever they went, people were friendly, curious and excited.

"It makes you really vulnerable. No - it doesn't make you vulnerable. Because you're vulnerable, people are willing to approach you. You're non-threatening. I think people see a bike and they instantly understand. …

"I don't care if it's the poorest country, everybody understands what it means to ride a bike, and everybody understands that freedom and feeling and exhilaration. …

"They know you're going on an adventure that they probably can never go on, but they can still imagine what it's like."

In Peru, they visited a friend who was very concerned for their safety and shocked that they hadn't been robbed, because he had been several times just living there. He rode with Shelley and her husband for a few days.

"(One day), a little old man with his cart on the side of the road puts everything down and comes running across the highway to come shake our hands and talk to us … just so excited. …

"It was a neat experience for our friend to see: This is your country, these are your people, and this is how they're treating us."

As powerful as the cultural interchanges are, though, the internal strength that biking brings is even more empowering.

"I think, for me, (biking) makes me a stronger person. I think about that when I'm struggling in my regular life. …

"Life (can be) uncomfortable. And I think it's supposed to be uncomfortable sometimes; it's supposed to be hard. It's supposed to be outside your comfort zone. You're supposed to be scared (to death) sometimes.

"And biking is all those things.

"So when I get to the top of that hill, when I get to the end of a hard day riding, I can think: I did that. And I should be able to transfer that into anything I'm doing that's hard, that's uncomfortable.

"At the same time, there's so much joy being on that bike seat - and that transfers to life. ... 'You know, I did something one time that was really hard and I did it and I got through it.'

"Sometimes it's just putting your head down and grinding through it. Sometimes, it's hands-off-the-handlebars and whoo!"

Shelley is one of those high-energy women who can be seen whooping and hollering down hills. But she's sensitive that life isn't always that way. One of her uncles, for instance, was part of a drug trial even when it was too late to help him; he did it for others.

"I remember thinking he was so brave to do that. …

"They're (never) far away. On that 50-mile run (my first, that I did recently) there were times that were uncomfortable and I was like, 'Come on, run with me.' I always feel they're with me when I'm doing something uncomfortable or difficult or hard."

Her uncles also modeled strength and dignity in a time that was very harsh toward gay men and women.

"I'm going to be true to myself. And sometimes that's hard to do. Sometimes it's so much easier to go with the flow of what society wants you to be. …

"Don't make a choice because it's easy and you know you could just get by. Sometimes that's fine, but sometimes it just doesn't cut it, either."

As Shelley tells her stories, there's also an underlying sense of urgency.

"Going back to my uncles, realizing they were young; I had a friend die unexpectedly in a paragliding accident. I just remember (thinking): You better be doing what you want to be doing, every single day.

"I just want to experience so much. I want those experiences, I want those interactions with people, and it's more - I don't know if it's a thirst or a hunger. …

"This is it. (She laughs.)

"Lift up your skirt and go for it. I'm only going to live once."

Shelley embodies that energy. As the events and outreach coordinator for Winter Wildlands Alliance, Shelley organizes (among other things) an annual film festival celebrating the outdoors, winter and the human-powered experience.

"I am happiest when I'm outside. Whether that's running in the trails or out skiing, I feel connected to the world. I feel connected to people and I feel connected to nature. And that makes me feel like a real person. …

"The traveling and - I don't want to say 'taking risks,' - but going outside my comfort zone. … You have to be outside your comfort zone to learn something about yourself."

Shelley has a little cartoon drawing that shows the words "your comfort zone" inside a little circle. Way outside the circle is a bigger circle labeled "where the magic happens." Getting outside of the circle of safety, however, is both scary and, she repeats, uncomfortable.

Nowhere was that lesson more true than during her divorce.

"Not that you couldn't do (life) on your own, but I hadn't. I've always had that hand to hold. … (It felt like) there's no safety net. I knew I could do it; it was just scary.

"And at the same time, it should be scary. You need to scare yourself every now and then."

But you also need to find the magic. So Shelley got back on her bike, this time and for the first time, alone. She rode 1,200 miles for two weeks along California Highway 1, with the ocean on her right and the mountains on her left. She called it the "Pedal Your Heart Out Tour."

"There was some crying going on. … I was grieving for sure.

"I was scared and nervous. My friend drove me out to the coast and I got on my bike and started pedaling. It was within the first mile that I was like, everything's been lifted. I can see clearly; this is exactly what I'm supposed to be doing. Just (keep my) head down and keep pedaling."

She thought a lot of thoughts on that trip by herself: grief and gratitude, letting go and looking forward.

"About who I wanted to be, about what I wanted my life to look like. How was I going to get there? How was I going to get through the tough times? I thought, this is a great opportunity for you to start over. This is an opportunity to reinvent yourself. …

"I realized that being on the bike for that long - and running is that way for me, nine hours (in the 50-mile race) - you're just by yourself, in your head. And all kinds of (good) things happen."

It was biking that reminded her.

"Knowing that I've done something that's hard and I've weathered through it and I've persevered. I know I can do scary things. Sometimes. Most of the time. (She laughs.)

"You forget. You have to remind yourself: 'That was me on - whatever it was - that bike seat. That was me, running down the road. I did that.'

"So every year, I try to do something outside my comfort zone. Usually it is biking, but a lot of times it is other things, too, just to keep me on track. … "

This spring, if you happen to see a bicyclist with panniers, riding alone or maybe with a friend, headed toward Missoula, Mont., or back to Boise on the side of the Lochsa, slow down. It might be Shelley.

"If you have friends to lean on, a hand to hold, or you're by yourself - you're fine.

"Take a deep breath. … (I) remind myself. …

"You are going to live this life that you love living."

Know someone living "from the heart"? Idaho Statesman photojournalist Katherine Jones spotlights someone in the Treasure Valley who influences our lives not only by what they do, but how and why they do it. Do you know someone we should know? Call 377-6414 or email kjones@idahostatesman.com.

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