Long-distance endurance cyclist Lael Wilcox ’08 is an unexpected champion. Now, she’s helping to build a culture of adventure and perseverance among girls in Alaska.

Lael Wilcox pedaled into Deadhorse, a dusty industrial outpost on Alaska’s northern coast, at 6 a.m. on an early July day in 2017. Midsummer in the Arctic, the sun doesn’t set; it just skids along the horizon to the north before rebounding to make a wide halo across the sky. Lael had ridden through the night to the end of the state’s most northern highway—the “Haul Road”—the thoroughfare by which 18-wheelers (driven by the famed “ice road truckers” in winter) supply Alaska’s North Slope oil fields.

Having toured and raced across the world, Lael wanted to explore her own state. She took on the mission of riding all of Alaska’s major roads—some 4,000 miles. The ride to Deadhorse had taken Lael past Denali’s snowy peak, over the Brooks Range, and across Alaska’s coastal plain: 520 miles in three and a half days. Lael was tired and hungry. She walked into the low-slung Prudhoe Bay Hotel, where she took off her bicycle shoes and tucked into a $12 buffet of pancakes, hash browns, sausage, fruit, and coffee.

The Alaska Heart Lines project, as Lael calls it, has been a homecoming of sorts for this 31-year-old who has spent much of the last decade exploring the world from a bike saddle. Lael is a fourth-generation Alaskan, a rare thing in a place where more than half the population was born someplace else, fetched up in this huge state for a job, a military post, or an adventure. Her great-grandfather, a Lithuanian immigrant, settled in a rough little town wedged in the foothills of Alaska’s mighty Wrangell Mountains, where he opened a clothing store in 1916 and set out to convince men who traveled by dog team and spent their days mucking about for gold and copper that they were in need of fine menswear. And he succeeded.

With only one person per square mile in this state, Alaska’s roads feel like big, empty bike trails to Lael. She’s seen bears, moose, caribou, foxes, and a group of musk ox—like a herd of brown couches—on her rides. And she’s been welcomed everywhere. In the tiny community of Wiseman, where there’s no cellphone or electrical service, locals invited Lael to join a weekend-long folk festival where musicians huddled in a tent to escape the mosquitos, and a kind stranger provided a shower and a sandwich to go. In Nome, she pedaled by a massive offshore dredge, and gold miners invited her to join them for a beer. People have offered places to stay and return rides in cars, trucks, and airplanes. As she rides across this expansive state, she’s inspiring other people to get out and adventure by bringing “life to the map,” she says.