Miles short of cross country goal, cyclist learns her Blue Island home destroyed by fire
BY DONNA VICKROY email@example.com August 22, 2012 6:00PM
Guadelupe Fernandez, 20, was within a few hundred miles of her 2,900-mile cross country bicycle trek when she learned her Blue Island home had burned down. | Donna Vickroy~Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 24, 2012 7:14AM
Guadalupe Fernandez realized the true meaning of the phrase “Life is more about the journey than the destination” when she neared the end of a cross country bicycle trek only to learn that her family home in Blue Island had been gutted by fire.
Fernandez, on a fundraising and memorial trip, was riding through Little Orleans, Md., on the Allegheny Trail, just 200 miles from the end of a planned 3,900-mile journey, when the call came on Aug. 8.
“Your house is in flames,” the caller said.
“I didn’t know what to do,” said Fernandez, 20. “I wanted to go home but I felt I should stay.”
She and three friends, all graduates of Eisenhower High School, left San Francisco on June 1 on a 21/2-month odyssey that had them pushing it up mountains, sweating across deserts and eating ramen noodles around campfires. At one point, Fernandez suffered heatstroke.
David Henry, 19, organized the ride in memory of his mother and to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Antonia “Momma” Henry died in November after a yearlong battle with lymphoma.
David decided a monthslong trek from coast to coast would be a touching way to memorialize his mom while helping an organization that had been a big help to his family during her illness. The riders raised more than $10,000 for the cause.
Along the way, the group, which included Johnathon Henry, 21, and Carlos Salgado, 21, learned a lot about America and each other, not to mention the value of family. Back home in Blue Island this week, David Henry said, “It was kind of surreal to finish. We got so used to life on the road that we couldn’t grasp what it was like to finally be done — to finally have a definite place to lay our head.”
Just days before they were to reach their stopping point, Fernandez learned of the tragedy back home.
After long hours of waiting and a flurry of phone calls, Fernandez learned her family was OK and staying in a nearby motel.
Nevertheless, she made the decision to leave the group and head for home. Although her parents encouraged her to continue, she believed she was needed at home. Her father had just started a new job and wouldn’t be able to take time off to handle the paperwork and talk with contractors.
She rode the next day and a half alone, darting a hailstorm and spending the night at the home of a kind woman she’d met in a restaurant.
She woke up the next morning at 4 o’clock and rode all the way to the campus of Georgetown University, where she is a student. From his apartment at Yale University, her older brother, Salvador, mapped her route and arranged her flight to Chicago.
At the scholarship office where her friends worked, she was welcomed with open arms. They also stowed her bike and helped her get to Dulles International Airport.
She made it to the airport just in time to board.
“I didn’t even take a shower; I was soaking wet from riding through the rain,” she said.
By the evening of Aug. 10, she was back on Highland Avenue, surveying the damage. Meanwhile, the guys pedaled on, reaching the final destination of York, Va., on Aug. 12.
Officials believe the fire, which broke out around lunchtime the previous Wednesday, was caused by faulty wiring in an air conditioning unit. No one was home at the time, but many of the family’s belongings were destroyed. Insurance adjusters expect it to take four to five months for contractors to rebuild the structure.
“Our living room basically melted,” Fernandez said.
Everything in the kitchen was lost, too.
Miraculously, the family’s doves and fish survived, although the aquarium broke into pieces. A subsequent explosion blew a pet turtle from the living room to 10-year-old Angel Fernandez’s bedroom. It survived, as well.
“This experience really showed me what’s important and who’s important in life,” Guadelupe Fernandez said.
As much of a hassle as the paperwork and decision-making are, they are minor inconveniences, she said.
“If we had lost a family member, no amount of headaches or paperwork could bring them back,” she said.
Fernandez said her parents have been astounded by the outpouring of help. Friends and relatives have come to the rescue from across the Chicago area.
“My mom says the kindness has been the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen,” Fernandez said.
Though she regrets not being able to finish Momma Henry’s Trek Across America, she said making it all the way to Washington, D.C., will have to be good enough.
“I think she’s really brave,” Angel said.
“Sometimes I look at my house all destroyed and feel helpless,” Guadelupe said. “But then I think, ‘Hey, I biked across this country; I can do anything.’ ”