After working 30 years for the CIA, Jane Schnell was looking for a little adventure.

At 55, she set out on a 12,000 mile bicycle-camping tour through the 31 states that border Canada, Mexico, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and into what she considers the heart of America.

The trip took 13 months, and after celebrating her 56th and 57th birthdays on the road she is the oldest person and only woman known to have toured the U.S. perimeter on a bike.

"I had such a restricted life in working," she explained; "I wanted to do something wild and crazy."

Why would anyone want to undertake such a grueling adventure?

Having heard that question in probably each of the states she traversed, she is apt to reel off a variety of answers, including: to get in shape, to live outdoors, to get away from air conditioning, to prove that an old-timer can do it, and to escape routine and responsibility.

"Finally," she says in the book she wrote about her journey, "Changing Gears: Bicycling America's Perimeter" (Milner Press, 1990), "I realized I didn't need to know why I was doing the trip; I just really wanted to do it. And I did."

She left Detroit with a female companion in mid-July of 1986 and headed west. Having biked seriously only since 1985, her bicycling experience consisted mainly of commuting to and from work.

The women carried panniers stuffed with about 50 pounds of gear on their 30-pound bikes, making uphill pedaling tough.

"I did not do what every bike touring book I've ever read tells you to do -- to put all your things on your bike and ride with them to test it out," Schnell said. "It was kind of on purpose because I was worried I wouldn't like it as much."

She didn't. Daunted but committed, she continued, finding she adjusted to the awkward vehicle with time.

"Once you get moving out on the road, it doesn't matter how heavy your bike is. After you get the pedals going and attain the speed you want, you're fine. In town it's difficult because of all the stop and go."

The women camped mainly, spending occasional nights in economy motels or with friends.

"I had never camped in America before, other than weekend hikes on the Appalachian Trail," Schnell said. "I really wanted to see America. I wanted to see and be in nature."

Following a course that she had charted using AAA and state-issued maps, the riders averaged about 50 miles a day, five days a week, avoiding weekend and holiday traffic when possible. They rode along rivers or train tracks often because those routes are flattest.

In preparation, Schnell cycled 1,800 miles in the three months before starting her trip. She had anticipated an average of 1,000 miles per month on her Centurion Pro Tour bicycle, quite a feat for someone who doesn't consider herself an athlete.

"I've always been athletic, but I'm not an athlete," she said. "Athletes are people who compete. People can be athletic for recreation."

One thing she is is courageous. Especially since she completed over half of the journey alone after her partner gave up in Tucson.

Schnell is quick to discount that assessment of her persona as well. As she writes in her book: "I have no courage. Anybody could do what I'm doing.

"Discipline, whether external or self, is one of the things that give a person the ability to do something -- if it's physical, mental, emotional, any kind. People have to learn discipline."

She admits that she was lacking the necessary guts when she began. But that changed as the journey progressed.

"I gained a lot of confidence in myself," she says, adding that she now believes that traveling across America is "no more unsafe than going to the local grocery store. Being safe is a matter of alertness and awareness and being careful in a place that doesn't seem very friendly."

According to her, it's how one perceives oneself that makes the difference.

"I think a lot of people get what they expect from life," she said. "If you expect things to go well then they are more likely to go well. If you go around frightened then somebody might realize it and take you for a pushover. Attitude is very important."

Schnell, who is a member of a dozen cycling organizations (including the Washington Area Bicycling Association, Potomac Pedalers Touring Club and the Baltimore Bicycling Club), recommends that prospective riders join a bike club. She also recommends talking to experienced cyclists about selecting a bike to fit specific needs.

What does she suggest -- other than wearing reflective clothing and a helmet -- for tour biking? Get in the best physical condition possible, preferably by cycling. And, "if you think you are not in good enough shape, go anyway."

That's what she did, making the trip around the U.S. perimeter and back to Detroit in 8 1/2 months of actual cycling. The other 4 1/2 months she spent observing nature, studying American history and getting to know people across the country.

"The people were the trip," she said. "In a sense I went out to find the real America, and I found it."