Story by Emma Castleberry | Photo by Lynne Harty
Hannah Siler has had a hard year. An Asheville native, Siler had been living out west for a while when she decided to move back to her hometown for some quality family time. Shortly after Siler’s return last summer, her father passed away. “It was very sudden and unexpected,” she says. “It’s been good to be around family, but it’s also been hard.”
Siler and her father, Marshall Siler, shared a close relationship, fueled in part by a mutual love for the outdoors. Siler has carried that passion into her post-college career: she currently works as a resident wilderness educator at the Outdoor Academy in Pisgah Forest, where she lives with a group of teenaged students and leads backpacking, paddling and climbing trips for them.
But this love of the outdoors wasn’t inherent in Siler—it was something that had to be nurtured. When Siler was a student at Asheville Middle School, she attended a weeklong, introductory outdoor program at North Carolina Outward Bound School (NCOBS). “If anyone knew me at that age, they were surprised that I wanted to go,” she says. “It was the opening stage of those interests.” Siler so enjoyed her first week of outdoor adventure at NCOBS that she decided to attend a full-year program at the Outdoor Academy the following year.
NCOBS not only sparked a love for the outdoors in Siler but also in her father and grandparents. “The whole family has gone to NCOBS,” Siler says. “My grandparents were so transformed by the adult program they took that they offered to send all of their kids to NCOBS. My dad took them up on it, did a semester course in college and got hooked, just like I did.”
In 2012, Siler’s father biked 2,000 miles along the Lewis and Clark Trail to raise money for Asheville City Schools. This inspired Siler to participate in a cross-country bike ride the following summer with Bike and Build, which raised money and awareness for affordable housing. “We had both done separate, big rides and wanted to do a father-daughter ride, a big beautiful ride somewhere, that raised money for something we cared about,” says Siler.
While the father-daughter ride is no longer possible, Siler has decided to pursue their mutual dream on her own. On June 7, Siler will leave Asheville with her cousin, Walton Siler Jones, who is also her Support And Gear (SAG) driver. They will travel to Vancouver, where Siler will depart on her bike on June 13, the anniversary of her father’s death. Together, Siler on her bike and Jones in the SAG vehicle, the pair will travel 4,700 miles back to Asheville. “I’ve biked a bunch before, so the physical challenge isn’t what I’m worried about,” Siler says. “The hardest part is going to be the emotional challenge. The hardest part will be not sharing it with my dad.”
Siler’s ride is raising money to start the Marshall M. Siler Scholarship Endowment Fund through North Carolina Outward Bound School, which will support students from Western North Carolina who qualify on the basis of financial need to attend NCOBS wilderness courses. “Marshall always said his NCOBS course played a pivotal role in his life,” says Whitney Montgomery, executive director of NCOBS. “Now Hannah is making that life-changing opportunity available to others.”
Siler’s fundraising goal is $21,000. Less expenses for the incidentals of the ride—gas and campsites—and with the addition of $7,000 from the memorial Siler Fund, this brings the total goal to $25,000, the minimum donation required to start an endowment fund for NCOBS. Siler hopes to have this amount (or more) raised by September 1, when she plans to arrive at Craggy Gardens on the Blue Ridge Parkway, her father’s favorite cycling destination. “It doesn’t surprise me that Hannah is tackling this significant journey in honor of her father,” says Montgomery. “Hannah is a remarkable young woman who lives her life based on a commitment to others through service.”
Siler is unsure of where this journey of grief and healing will leave her. Her job at Outdoor Academy is on a one-year contract, so it is likely that the fall will bring a change of some kind. “It’s unusual for me because I always have the next thing planned,” she says. “I have no idea what I want to do and where I’ll be when this ride ends. I’m intentionally leaving it open.”
In addition to fundraising for NCOBS and personal development, Siler says her ride has a tertiary purpose. “Anyone who is struggling through grief and loss knows you are somehow desperate to keep the person alive and in people’s minds,” she says. “I’m trying to do what he would have done if the tables were turned. I think that’s my driving force.”
To make a donation to the Marshall M. Siler Scholarship Endowment Fund, visit gofundme.com/panpy-peddling-with-papa. Siler’s journey can be followed on Instagram @pedalingwithpapa.