Through the Desert, Desolate Departure

You know how people will tell you that something is going to change you, and you will believe it, and imagine it… and then it does. And it is just not anything you imagined?

In Columbus, Ohio (what feels like years ago, not weeks), two Bike & Build alumni chortled at the prospects of us biking to 29 Palms, California. “It’s ganna change ya,” they insisted between pints of beer. Our only comfort then was that the experience was so far away.

Four days before our trip ends, Andy and I sweep into 29 palms. Indeed, it was a journey. He had asked me casually the night before to join him. For those of you who do not know what sweep is, it is the final two riders that follow the group at the very behind, carrying a small first aid kit and an extra tube. They are on the road the longest. Sweep will signify that everyone made it in.
Patrick and Bridget were sweep the day they got hit.

The thing is, I agreed without missing a beat- call me delusional. Days previous I had confidently asserted that sweep would not make it through the desert without being vanned [definition: to have your ass saved by the van]. One hundred thirteen degrees, are you kidding? Vanned. But that morning, after we gave our crew the appropriate head start, it did not occur to me once that we would not finish our ride.
To this moment I cannot tell you where we found the strength. I think in the weeks to come the story will be less believable to my ears. Many who read this cannot fathom and will never undergo the heat we biked through and experienced for twelve hours. For a hundred miles there was no service station. We passed through an abandoned town that was decorated with shoes, peoples’ names written in stone next to an unserviced railroad track. Nothing and no one comes out here enough to move anything.
Honestly, the two of us maintained high spirits and consistent energy for most of the way. I don’t know what it is about that guy, but I owe it to Andy Short to making it through to 29 Palms. And not just me. When we happened upon three dehydrated riders ten miles from second lunch, he acted quickly. He flagged down a car to carry them the last ten miles, and volunteered to wait with their bikes. In the time it took for him to explain our situation to the French-Canadians, I had really only dismounted my bike. Our pal Abbie had shoved herself beneath a bush (I just add that because there was shade conveniently located about ten feet away that she passed up). There is more to the story, but really our delusional plottings sound more exciting to us who lived through it than to any reader. The real surprise was that Short was able to pull Andy Gorman and I through the last thirty miles of the dessert without hesitation. Sure, the heat and adrenaline probably pressed our minds into a weird kind of high, but I truly felt like the journey was in some way spiritual.
As the trip begins to tie itself up, there is a strong sense of homesickness, of identity crisis. “I’m afraid because I know I am no logger the person who left home, and I cannot change that,” Lauren admitted. I also dread the day when I won’t share gym floors and church basements with these people. Abbie says that we are all cookies that no longer fit the cookie cutters that shaped us back home. Only time will tell how we can respond to that.

The night in Wrightwood, Arizona was cool- 64 degrees. Crickets and toads created a constant blanket hymn. An owl called in the distant. Yesterday we were in a city, crowded by fast food chains and choked with cars. The day before we were in the desert- dry, unpopulated, barely touched. That night we were on a mountain, embraced by forest.

I wrote, “I am overwhelmed with emotions that feel like they are from ten years ago.” For some reason when things get so emotionally charged I habitually equate it to the years of puberty. Puberty is the emotional threshold for everyone, right? “Tonight beneath these tall pines on a mountain, I feel small. I feel like a bump in the earth, young and old. I could be here for ever.” Bike & Build time is compacting weeks into a day, years into three months. At 24 years old, I have aged a decade on this trip.

We stayed at an empty bible camp. The outdoor amphitheater allowed us to finally implement the long-awaited talent show. I was, again, taken by the wealth of qualities my team had to offer. The same people who approached every physical, mental and emotional challenge with a serious determination, took the stage with creativity, charisma, and hilarity that had me sprinting to the forest to relieve myself. I have written that through them I have learned of myself. Now I am inspired to be more than who I am. I left the talent show early, not because I did not have fun. It just hurt to imagine saying goodbye to these people.

I realize I don’t know how to not fall in love with people. With places. With small items. Habits. Every time I leave it feels like heart break, inevitable. I have no choice. It is hard not to fixate on the comfort I will loose. Brittany and I agreed that it feels like a breakup. We know what has to be done and just hate saying the words.
Our dear friends Maddy and Nate rejoined us for our coming wheel dip.Having them there reminded us that we were missing two special riders- Bridget and Patrick. Maddy’s quick, pointed wisdoms have reminded me how much we changed since her departure, and how much we missed her. She talked about the effects of this trip when we return to our lives. Maddy cleaned out her closet upon returning to her life left behind, unattached to the abundance of material after living from an 18 gallon bin for a few months. She said “just knowing what y’all accomplished each day reminded me why I chose to be in grad school learning public policy.” We feel like we need to create change. I wonder how this trip will change my day-to-day life back home.

Two days before the trip I lost my yellow moleskin planner. For those who were with me on the leg leading up to this journey know that I had become fiercely reliant on the little book. I mapped every hour of my day, forgetting to leave time to eat or rest, allowing the never-ending todo list to roll into the next day, just enough so that I felt never accomplished. It was a control issue, a coping mechanism.
The coincidences of this trip have the uncanny ability to push better change. This trip has forced me to allow a natural flow to my day, to give way to the unpredictability, to let good habit become instinct, to not always need a list to show how productive I am. Time management has never mattered less, yet some how each day we manage to bike between 60 and 100 miles, take care of our equipment, pack and unpack and, again, pack away our things, tend to group-benefitting chores, and, more often than not, explore a completely new and alien town.
I feel like this trip is a text book where I have only read the spark notes. It is going to take me a long time to figure out what it is I learned.

Perhaps the scariest change we anticipated was meeting the loved ones of the leader we lost. We have been joined by Rachel, Patrick’s comforting, wise girlfriend, and Suzette, his fiery, passionate sister. There was a kind of inherent shyness from our party and there’s, to be total strangers but feel a connection- them who were the people to shape and share the Patrick who taught us, and us, the people who created the lifestyle he lived for his last two and a half months. In many ways it was what we expected- Suzette’s sharp eyes, her quick curiosity, her bold statements and intent mannerisms were so much like Patrick’s it hurt. Rachel’s level responses, encouraging remarks, and open personality matched Patrick’s description. These were the people Patrick cited most during our travels, and it was clear in person why they had such a lasting affect on his life.

Their presence felt so right. I cannot imagine this trip ending any other way. I can see why these two women were an important part of Patrick’s life and I am amazed to continue finding so many people who astound me. Yes, it was sad. Even though we joined this trip to become more engaged with the affordable housing cause, the loss of Patrick has become integral to our journey and what we will bring into our future lives, so I am happy to end it right.

For me, as trips, journeys, major-life-events, etc, come to an end, the hardest part is always packing up before moving on. Cleaning out the coolers and bins with bleach makes me wonder about the lives of the next people who will use these. Next summer whose hands will hastily pull the yellow tops off the snack bins during lunch? How will their summer compare to mine? Again, I think about the paths of strangers, mine and someone else’s, crossing. I think about how my life, how Patrick’s life, how all the lives of the people on this trip, will some how influence another’s.

  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  

  
  

  
  
  
  
  
  
  

Against the Headwinds

The town of Williams, Arizona was once a primary stop for Route 66 travelers. However, along with many Route 66 towns, the village was tossed into the past with the introduction of Interstate 40. How is it that a highway can have such a profound effect on a town? We had our second to last build day there. Our task, assigned by Habitat, was to clean a graveyard. Due to town budget cuts, it had not received maintenance since Bike and Build had last rolled into town a year ago, and who knows when before that.
Raking through the tombstones, death heavy on our minds, we also combed through our thoughts. The work was methodical, cathartic, and heavy. Tombstones are not memories, they are a memorial intended to outlast ourselves. We weeded through the styrofoam circles with plastic flowers, the faded flags, the flaking crosses, the ponderosa pines shading worn stone faces, blankets of pine needles. We thought about who we were before Bike and Build, who we are in our team, who we would be after.

The neglectful treatment of the dead was sad. But the tombstones reminded me of all the peoples whose lives I have touched without meeting.

The previous build site, refurbishing a home of an elderly woman in Flagstaff, AZ the site leader approached me saying I had a phone call. The woman calling (already forgot her name, though I promised I wouldn’t) had hosted another Bike and Build team and read my blog. She said she had hosted Bike and Build for years, and four years earlier a rider had an accident which kept him in the hospital for a week. She spent the week visiting him. Reading my blog had moved her enough to seek me out and personally thank me. It was astounding to hear a stranger so inlfienced by our experience. I felt like we were, in some ways, making an impact. More than that, the phone call left me with a sense of responsibility.

Much of this route, though, feels as if nothing could change it- tied back in time. We pass through as tourists like dust on a breeze, outsiders peering in. Route 66 has the nostalgic tourist charm that I am familiar with from Cooperstown, NY. But there is a twinge of sadness intertwined, the glory and fame not what it used to look like. It is clear that the advertisements and paraphanial are no longer retro, just retired. The shops smell of mildew, and the signs are missing letters. The Burma Shave signs that line the highways have dark rhymes that no longer read as humorous to those of us who have experienced loss and are acutely aware of the risk we run on the road.

The trip is so loaded in lessons that it is hard to process in the moment, but once again I am struck with the sense that it was “meant to be.” We are simultaneously caught in the charm and horrified by the white-washed, sexist, and very closed-minded mentality of the rural areas off Route 66. In many small towns there is a clear issue with education and poverty. I felt as if people were stuck playing the roles the trickle of tourists wanted to see because it is the only life they knew. Route 66 became a reminder of how America left behind it’s slow moving charm for the fast highways, and left behind the people in them as well. It is good to see the part of America we did not expect to see.

You can look at a group of people and tell right away how, superficially, they are different. We are trained for that since the beginning, just like the ispy in the old Highlights magazines. This picture has a cat in the tree and this one doesn’t. From the get go we had those clear extroverts and the quiet introverts, the competitive and complacent. Less obvious are the ways people process and view the world differently.

We all love the summer sidewalk sits against the host building at night, though. Every time I seek this quiet corner I find that another has beat me there, which, in turn, has lead to thought provoking conversations. It’s the time and place to turn over the rock and peek at critters of someone’s headspace.

A few of these occasions my peers have admitted “I don’t feel like I have changed,” or “I don’t feel the change yet.” Given all the feets we have overcome, it is hard to believe. When so many people are enduring the same trial, it is easy to normalize the experience and be blinded to change.

Grace pointed out that while people work hard to visualize the change they want to be, they forget all the hard work it takes to get there.

A member of our team had to make an early departure, again. The last night, before I retired to my thermarest, I caught her figure, a punch-out silhouette, hunched on the sidewalk of our church, cigarette in hand and a plane ticket. The absence of her vibrant, eclectic personality is a loss, and a reminder, again, to be grateful for the unique characteristics people have to offer.

Just to reiterate- learning is hard.

There’s a constant sense of intense change and I just wonder how I am able to keep responding to that need. It is the trial of Johnstown, PA (our introduction to steep climbing) all over again, amplified ten fold. “Had you asked me before if I could do it, I would have said no.” Yet here I am.

It is also hard to remember to take care of yourself. I confided in Abby on a ride into Kingston, Arizona that I worried I was unable to be there for my team mates as much as I wished to. We had stopped at a field of horses, probably thirty of them. When we ducked under the barb wire they nuzzled for food, and our pause among the heard took us back five weeks earlier, when the trip was in lighter spirits. Abby, always with a clear mind for her friend’s emotions, responded, “Maybe your lesson here was not to take care of other people, but to take care of yourself.”

The lessons do not seem to end, they only become more challenging as they farther leave the physical realm and enter the deeper questions of self, purpose. I think of Kim, our crazy, ambitious friend leaving. Her decisions was one of bravery and maturity. We have realized that what is best for us as individuals may not be best for the group.

Describe to me the Grand Canyon. If you have never seen it, you have a pretty specific image in your head, based on google images, some post card you received, or an old national geographic magazine. You’ll say simple things like “it’s big, it is red, it is deep.” But you just don’t have the vocabulary to portray the soft blue glow of early morning light carpeting the bottom as slowly the tip top rocks glow gold, the hot neon orb climbs the eastern sky. You don’t have the words to convey the sensation of hiking, just you and a friend, alone into the canyon- wind picking up, dust staining ankles red. And then, you cannot speak of the urgency as the sun sets, casting long purple shadows rolling dusk in. Well, now I do.

Similarly, anyone can talk about loss without experiencing it, anyone can imagine a bike trip, speak of the sites we’d see, but phrases can barely signify this greater experience. I have found I am growing numb. I don’t know how I should feel. I am still in it. But I know that this bike trip was never about us.
Andy had a lot to say as we hiked out of the canyon, lit only with the light of a dying cell phone and scrambling in the wind.

“We can’t see it because we are in it, but I am a big believer in positive thinking, and I think that we will continue to be affected by Patrick in positive ways. His lessons are practically branded to us.”
We have so many people invested in us, supporting us, and we have been given a significant privilege. It is our responsibility to be the change we hope for, and to work hard for it.


  
 Q


  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  

Back on the Bike

Someone asked me how I thought our lives would be different if we had been on another Bike & Build route.

It is weird seeing  pictures of friends back home doing normal people things- cookouts, music shows, snaps of their random, day-to-day habits.  But even stranger is seeing pictures from other Bike & Build trips doing exciting activities, or maybe even the same activities, and feeling a divide. They do not carry the weight of loss like we do. I say this not in resentment but rather in acknowledgement, because for some reason I don’t wish to be anyone different than the person who is here- with this team, learning to overcome.

Tragedy is like poetry- everything pauses to breathe and the specifics, the still, quiet notes, become clear and rhythmic. Like a beat we remember- the single muddy puddle with twenty frogs off the side of Route 66, the feeling like we traveled back in time, so much so that a passing Fed Ex truck is startlingly out of place, the way the back of your left leg taps your bike lock, coiled beneath your seat, with every down pedal stroke.

Everything now has been divided into before and after.

How do we resume our trip? Even though we put on a brave face, we are all a little scared. I don’t know how many of us are actually afraid of being hit, so much as afraid to acknowledge the hurt, to feel the vacancy.
We are more than mourning a single moment in time. This is now the lense through which we experience our world.

Our first bike ride was into the Vally of Fires in Socorro, New Mexico. There was something epic and necessary for the return to be through this desert stone. The black rock of a long dormant volcano is beautiful in it’s scarcity. 

The preceding night, beneath the naked Milky Way in a humble church, we went around the table to tell the host about what we had learned on the trip. It was the first time we presented since the accident. Everyone chose their words very carefully, as if trying to tell each other and ourselves our gathered wisdoms more than the host. I realized that this ritual would never be the same to us.

“You can choose your family,” Abby said looking across the table, past the little yellow church, over the empty thin streets.

I have been thinking a lot about spirituality. I didn’t grow up with a strong religious upbringing or education. In fact, I had a pretty confusing spiritual background, having briefly attended a Catholic school, while simultaneously attending the Jewish community center for after school programs. Staying in churches for seven weeks prickled my curiosity, but in lieu of recent events, the theme has become a constant itch, a blossomed contemplation.
That day of the accident was like a chess game, every detail leading to a factor. What if we had left earlier, or later? What if Brenna’s ride group was not at the restaraunt when the man came in who heard the news? What if Roger and Cathy had not been behind the driver that hit our friends- would Bridget have made it? How would we be if the accident had happened three weeks earlier- would we resume? 

The climb into Pietown, New Mexico just had that feeling of… connectedness. It could not have come sooner and could not have come later. Timing this trip has a consistent sense of irony. The cliffs were sharp, red, plateoing. Some distant mountains almost looked like clouds. Climate literally changed beneath our tires. We biked through miles of yellow daisy feilds. We watched six enormous satellites approach, and as we passed they turned to face us. We later learned their purpose was to find life on other planets. 

As the air cooled,  the vegetation grew, and we closed the distance between us and the sky, we crossed the continental divide. Elk crossing signs punctuated the curving, climbing road. The rivers changed directions, and in many ways, so did we.

The red barked trees lining the way are called the Ponderosa Pines. Andy says they smell like vanilla. Their trunks are fat, tall, strong and red. Their presence is a shock and comfort after biking through the Valley of Fires. Just the pine smell reminds me of home, and some how their strength makes me feel brave to face the climb. 

Strong. I have been thinking about the word “strong.” It has been tossed around a lot through recent events, a word I fumbled with myself when lending a shoulder to friends. Lately I don’t feel strong. How does existing through this make you strong? I feel more like a passenger in the back seat of a bus, or like a log carried by the floods we experienced in Missouri. This is just how it is, and here I am.

They call Pietown the land of entrapment, but Nita, our bubbling host, insisted it is the land of enchantment. We were welcomed with pie and brought to the toaster house. 

Nita bought the house after being bewitched by Pietown. One day a hiker came by asking for water and she discovered her home was on the path of the continental divide. From thst day on she became a hostel and a celebrated stop for those passing through the little town. Over two hundred travelers walking or biking across the country have come together at the toaster house this season alone

. The fence that borders the remarkable place is littered with toasters. At a strange moment the foreign site triggered a memory.

My father has been gone a long time now. But when I look back on him, I see him in the garage. His work table is messy with screw drivers, saws, scattered nails, but most noticeably covered in broken toasters. It was something that drove my mom crazy, and later in life, when she was especially cross with me, she would say “just like your father- you can never follow through.” I didn’t see it that way though; to me, the determination to fix a thing, and the loyalty to the object was charming.
 Nita explained that her toaster broke one day, and, not wanting to throw it out, she stuck it on the fence. From there on out, people started giving her their own toasters, some even mailing them. She said she didn’t know where half of them came from- they just showed up. It felt like a sign, too much a reflection of a memory she knew nothing of.

Nita raised her family in the little home.  She said “I didn’t teach my children not to speak to strangers. You can find a friend in everyone- sometimes you are glad to see them go, but you are still able to take away a lesson.”

Pietown, despite it’s small size and remote area, actually reminded us of the vastness of the world but the scope to which we can effect people. The interconnectedness of lives sometimes feels too perfect to be random.

Emotions are as thin as wax paper. Our first town hall meeting was tough. The circle we sat in was noticeably smaller. Usually we talk about our highs and lows for the week; we chose to leave out our lows since the low was obvious. Then we move on to what you are grateful for and I just felt like I had so much to say. I thanked Ben for sitting with me while I cried on the stoop, and Andy for his patience when I wanted to give up biking. I wanted to say more, perhaps I wanted to spend the whole evening thanking people, thanking Abby for collecting my emotions, to Jamie for being a rock, to Claire for flying out to support us. It was as if I had only that moment to thank everyone and suddenly I had so much to say. The sensation was overwhelming, choking.

In reflection I realize that I was responding to my regret for not expressing my gratitude to Patrick- for every day he worked to lead us, went out of his way to teach me a lesson, or even just for his way of being completely and honestly himself. More than that, I regret that I did not feel more appreciation for the “pre-accident” days, when my lessons were simpler ones to conquer. 

The funny (not haha funny) thing is that we all came on this trip to overcome something, or, some would argue, to run from something. Yes, we care about the affordable housing cause, but we could have confronted it countless other ways. There was something in each of ourselves that we sought to better. The sadness of this trip is just a larger challenge to overcome.

Our hearts are all letters

Our wisdoms a song

Our feet are on a train

   
    
    
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The Hardest Post I’ll Ever Write

Sleeping in, free range to the snacks all night, a day without schedule- these are luxuries we have dreamt about for weeks, but this morning they are a bitter reminder of the friend we have lost.

There are no words to describe the depth of this tragedy. I won’t bother with the “where I was when it happened”- we were all somewhere, on our bikes. We all saw the ambulance, the police. We got the vague, firm texts. We were terrified.

Instead imagine that morning-at 4:30 am it was still dark. The moon was full, fat, and sitting close to the horizon. Bridget let me use her diaper rash cream, because that is how we Bike&Builders roll. Patrick was making us all laugh. He was such a morning person, probably since he sleeps with his eye mask on, or due to his superior coffee beans for his little French press (both of which his girlfriend, he proudly stated, had gifted him). The day before we had laughed about that eyemask, Patrick admitting that his dad always wore one and he used to find it silly.

Readers, it was a beautiful morning to ride. The sunrise was at our back like any classic westward adventure. Feilds of little sunflowers turned their heads to us, rings of yellow pedals mimicking our backlit ascent. Only just yesterday we had begun to see the red clay cliffs jut from the rolling landscape. Today marked our first tumbleweed, our first cactus. 

If you have followed my writing, perhaps you have an idea at how triumphant we felt at this moment. Our bodies are changed, the bruises are fading. By now we have faced the freezing rains of Maine, the potholes of Massachusetts, the semis of Ohio, the mountains of Pennsylvania, the humidity of Missouri, and the headwinds of Oklahoma. We have learned to sense each other’s weak moments, to give before another needs, to share space and step back. We crossed our first time zone, we crossed our halfway mark.

We ached, but we knew we were almost in Texas, and we biked  all the way here from Maine.

It rained is Sayre, Oklahoma later that morning when our leaders, Brittany and Tyler, drove our van and painted trailer to where we waited. How fitting that it would rain then, after we have been waiting for rain since crossing into Oklahoma. Sam’s face still as stone, her voice remained level as she hearded us into a small cafe, directed us and our bikes and our gear. Most of us were already crying at that point, having some idea of how bad the news would be.

The next moments are too painful to retell. Bridget and Patrick were hit by a car. The driver had been texting.

Acts of heroism bloomed between Cordell, Oklahoma and Wheeler, Texas that day. A couple witnessing the accident (for lack of a better word) stayed with our friend Bridget while they waited for the ambulance, contacted her parents and, when they weren’t able to join her in the helicopter, drove three hours to Oklahoma City just to make sure she was not alone. They were total strangers. Our three leaders, Sam, Tyler, and Britney not only shouldered the weight of loosing their friend and coleader, but they expertly handled a situation nothing could prepare anyone for, and organized our safe transportation into Wheeler.
The best thing about Patrick on this trip is how hard he worked to better himself in the past five weeks. It takes a big person to do that, and here at Bike & Build, pride is no small thing to overcome. Honestly, it is important to recognize, at first we riders were not having it with his teacher-tricks. We rolled our eyes, decidedly annoyed. We insisted we were too old, that doesn’t work on us. The sentiment turned into a running joke, though, and there’s no question of the respect he earned.

He told Matt, “I’m addicted to leading.” Unless you have done this trip, you cannot imagine all the physical and emotional obstacles we have  overcome to get here. But in addition to the rider hardships, Patrick focused on bettering himself as a leader, on reaching out to us in a way we would respond to. He made a point of biking with different riders, asking probing questions to better understand who we each were, encouraging us to explore and see the land we traversed.  He was our peer, mentor, teacher. He was bubbling after his leader review at the clear turn around he had made- what a success.

“It feels like 1,000 invisible hands from the universe are propping me upright,” Brittany finally remarked in response to the onslaught of social media concerns. “People keep telling us what big hearts we have and I feel every cubic inch- aching, amplified.” This trip- this trip we each worked months training for, fundraising money for, learning about affordable housing curriculum- had already taught me how amazing people can be in coming out to support you. But in tragedy their stength is so much bigger, stronger. Tyler said “you will now witness the best and worst of bike and build,” and he did not say the words lightly.

The first baptist church of Cordell met us in Sayre to mobilize our crew and get us and our bikes to our destination. What we had waiting for us was not just the people of the Wheeler Church of Christ, but also members of three sepperate churches. For two days we were given a home, showered in food and comfort. Everything we needed was donated. I mean everything-a church woman drove me to the local pharmacy and bought my yeast infection medication, which is just about as personal as it gets.

The days following felt like purgatory, like a sickness, like a fever. We were exhausted but too ill to sleep, or unable to stay awake. I walked in circles just to sit for a few minutes. We go in and out of recovery. The unimaginable has happened. Still, the Church parking lot felt like safety, and parts of me didn’t want to leave. How can I face the hollowness of Patrick’s absense?

As the numbness began to fade, we noticed encouraging messages exploding throughout Facebook and on Instagram. A whole nation of Bike & Builders know our struggle and want to support. The same people who donated to our cause reached out pleading for some way to help us through this hard time. It feels like we have fallen, but a enormous and tightly woven net of people has caught us and won’t let us hit the gravel below.

It is a strange sensation to wake up crying. I keep waiting to be okay, sitting there and thinking “okay now I am fine.”

Wheeler has rescued us and we all have different ways to cope. For instance Abby and Rachel embarked on a quest they dubbed their “spirit journey” where they visited every gas station in Wheeler for junk food.  Katie Judge planned “spa day.” She went to the one convenience store in town (Buck Dollar) and had lotions, nail polish, and those little foam things that go between your toes donated. I ate a bunch of gum.

I can’t express more how blessed I feel to have this strong team of people and these very remarkable leaders here with me for this.

I keep running through the scenes with Patrick in them that I had taken for granted- how quick he was to notice when I did something for the group, his friendly teasing of my clumsy mistakes, his determined optimism despite weather or riding conditions.

Our bikes are now stored in a trailer. The pedals have been removed and wrapped in plastic wrap. Our front wheels are labeled in blue painters tape. Our helmets and shoes are in trash bags, stored away until we are ready to return to them.

Driving the route we should have ridden, all 32 of us, really hurts. We can’t help but examine the shoulder, noting how wide it is, mentally bookmarking gas stations and other shelters from the sun. But also we are suddenly aware the magnitude of the miles we bike each day, the true geographical scope of our journey. 

We all knew this endeavor would be hard… we just couldn’t imagine how hard. But to label this trip as “bad,” to let tragedy overshadow all our growth, would be a disservice to Patrick’s name. The end of or trip will be challenging in ways that none of us can imagine, and each of us will have to address these next few weeks in different ways. The truth is that we will not all complete the same passage to recovery. Patrick has already taught us so much. His final lesson will be that as a team, no matter where we are or how we do it, we will overcome together.

Thank you to Bridget Anderson’s family for all the support and enthusiasm they have always shown, but especially for the past few days as our friend recovers.

Thank you Sam, Tyler, and Brittany. You have carved a team that is strong, caring, and courageous. You have been our rocks.

Thank you Bridgette. How can you be so collected and rational even in a hospital bed?

Thank you to the whole town of Wheeler, to the habitat team of Amarillo, and to other community members who have fed us, housed us, and kept us busy.

Thank you Monica, the greif counselor who has helped us all find clarity.

Thank you Claire, for flying out here to be our mama bear and give this big, continuous collective hug.

Thank you Bike & Builders across the world who have chalked in Patrick’s, Bridget’s, and our name. It is still hard for us to digest the enormity of your support, but evidently it is welcomed.

Thank you to all the family and friends of us who are on this trip. I know it’s hard to watch go through this.

Thank you Patrick. You continue to teach us to be good stewards of the world, and your impact will only grow from here.

2,000 Miles

There is a Springfield in every state, but this bar in Springfield, Missouri feels like it could be straight from Burlington. For our first free evening in a week, we flock to the closest local bar with our safety triangles hanging from our back packs. The whiskey gingers, dim lighting, mustached-bartenders and Abby singing to Derek’s guitar makes me feel like I’m just down the block from King Street.

Our walk there says different- the kids playing by the rail yard, dogs running rouge between squat houses, the humid hills and wide skies,  the cockroaches and the sad graffiti on lamp posts- it all reminds me I am far from home. 

The trip has been a series of these stills, very cliche moving snapshots of moments where we all look at each other and know we are living in that specific frame of time.

In Vanita,  Oklahoma, home of the world’s largest McDonalds and biggest calffry festival in America (festival of fried cow balls from recently neutered steers), Yuto and I are among the first to skid into town. After our brisk 65 mile ride in, we duck into the only apparent ice cream stop, a chain named Braums. Yuto and I are approached by literally every person in the shop- seriously, everyone had something to ask or remark upon. True, we were a sight to see, decked out in spandex, dripping sweat, and each topped with a helmet like the cherry on their featured cheesecake sunday. Very quickly we learned of the local pool, the sites to see (again, largest mcdonalds) and that Braums is the place to work and hang out for the higschoolers.

Two weeks ago I wrote in my journal that we, riders, know each other by our highs and lows- who we are when we fall apart, or crack under stress, or celebrate a personal victory; the person who made it up the mountain and the person who fell off the bike. But we do not know each other by the way we enjoy a quiet cup of coffee in the morning, how we spend an hour alone after work, or what dish we would cook for a potluc. 

I am starting to see glimpses of this other side in my team mates, the person they are without bike and build.

But I am also seeing the characters being forged that will return in their places.

From Vanita we traveled through Kentucky to Missouri.

The new territory has brought new challenges.

The heat. 

Overcoming the heat has fostered fresh gratitude. During our build day in Tulsa, between brushstrokes of grey paint, Maddy does what she does best: she planted a digging question for us to ponder.

“What are y’all truly grateful for on this trip?”

Abby’s answer feels especially relevant.

“Water,” she says. “That it’s so accessible to us and so clean. That it is what we are made of and revitalizes us. Even just bodies of water- lakes, rivers, oceans.

“Isn’t it interesting that we start on water and end on water?”
Build days always offer a lot of learning opportunities, and not always in the way you would expect. Yes, there are the technical skills (framing, fosset, caulking, siding etc.) , but more than that, there is the community’s impact on us. 

Chad was one of the habitat site leaders, and he had a lot to say. He was a big guy with a long beard. He retired from the military because he wanted to “help not hurt,” and then later left his job as an adjunct professor to work in Tulsa for habitat.

His goal, he asserted, was to connect the past and the future, to bring the good old values to present (not a huge fan of social media). He said he is “looking for the good in America.” I asked him why Tulsa, and he responded that it’s where his feet took him. “And look! I found you guys who want to paint this man’s home without asking for a cent.”
How ironic that, to him  we are an affirmation of his search for the eternal good in America. But to me, we found him in searching for our own good in this country.

“Opportunity,” Maddy responds confidently when her own question is returned to her. “Both the opportunities within this trip and that we have the opportunity to bike across the country. But also that in this country it is celebrated for a young single young woman to do this.”

I am grateful for the people I have throughout this journey- not just for what they teach me but for what they teach me about myself. Watching them overcome their own personal challenges has taught me to recognize the negative reactions I sometimes have- which is so easy to resort to on a daily basis. 

I am grateful for my body.  it’s nice when you like are able to identify what your body is asking you to do.
I am grateful for full body laughs-so essential on this trip, and lately, so freely gifted to me.
Thank you grace for the Diddy while we doodied.

Thank you mothers who are reading this! Particularly Ann, who has been an avid follower, but also Abby’s mom, and now all the aunts who follow too, and to Bridget’s mom who has enough enthusiasm for this trip to inspire all 32 riders.

Thank you to my team here, whose support and enthusiasm for my posts have been inspiring.

   
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
   
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
   

Strange Roadkill

Last night I sat in the back of an empty school parking lot in Belle, Missouri. I idled beside Abby and Henry and we watched in awe as a thunderstorm shook a distant town, the clouds looking like a Titan battle. It was hot, and after 10pm which is late for us early risers. The small town was quiet when we rolled in, with no one in the streets.

Missouri has proven to be very true to it’s geographical cliches: wide skies, mosquitos, armidillos (so far only in the form of an absurd amount of roadkill), and flooding. But living the cliches is a word-stealing experience that I hadn’t anticipated.Three days prior we had a very Louis-and-Clark adventure into Saint Charles (where their trip began) for our first century ride (over 100 miles in 90 degree weather). The wide Mississippi had flooded the Katy trail, and after ignoring road closed signs on three sepperate occasions, half our crew found themselves knee deep in mud while the other half tried to yell to them through the woods. We were caught in a moment of panic, a sensation  once unfamiliar before this trip.

 The highschool we stayed in would be bursting with 1,000 kids next season (in a town that only is home to 3,000). Now that’s it’s summer, however, the desks are piled, computers stacked, filters from air conditions are pulled to expose clumps of dust, and the hallways are cluttered with large vacuums and boxes instead of students. 

Walking through the highschool solicated intense nostalgia. I was swept back seven years- the sunny afternoon after graduating highschool when I went back to get my artwork. I remember the sadness of an era ending, of a space that was no longer mine, of people who would not be part of my daily routine any longer. Twenty four years old and standing in someone else’s school on my trip across the country, I was acutely aware of feeling displaced. Here on bike and build our queue sheets tell us where to go, but some how one can still feel so lost.

I want to address loneliness, which is kind of a dense subject hard to bring up in the scheme of such an insane and amazing trip.

I’ve said it before. It takes a certain kind of person to decide to do “good” in the form of taking on this physically excruciating trip. Yes, we all care a lot about housing inequality, but there is a reason why we chose to address affordable housing cause through this means.

Earlier that night our trip leaders , who are roughly our age- young adults who left their lives behind to help create this community where people learn, grow, and help others- expressed regret at being used a a resource rather than being approached as friends. The confession was crushing.

It’s hard to believe that one can be surrounded by 32 people literally 24/7 and still feel lonely.

Sitting in the parking lot that night, baffled by the distant storm and watched by the low hanging moon, Abby, Henry and I talked about this desire to be understood- not pushed into a boxed stereo type, not assumed to be a certain preconceived person. Abby said to me, “I feel like I still have a lot to learn about you, and I like that.”

On a trip like this you are broken down and built up. Time is so structured and sparse that it is hard to process what is happening around you and to you. The thing is that when you are hungry and tired, it’s hard enough to remember to use your utensils, or where you put your shoes. When emotion comes into play, so quickly your mind closes to others and you ignore the possibility that someone else could be feeling the same way.

I have been lonely. It is hard not to have the people you know so well around to remind you of who you are. I wonder about my roll here, who to reach out to and how, how to take away as much as I can from these excellent people, and what it is that I have to give to them.

It is taking a lot of work to overcome these internal obstacles, perhaps as much work as it took us to dig our riders from the mud and climb the cobbled hill to Saint Charles that day. But just as without the encouragement on the rides we won’t make it up the hills, without the shoulders and ears the following afternoons we won’t have the strength to mount our bikes the next day.

Maddy, who seems to always have something eloquent to say, reflected “I used to be able to flip off a diving board, but now I can’t. I’m too scared. Where did that fear come from?”

This trip seems to be a gift for the lost, the people lacking direction. We can literally measure our progress in miles, in degrees. The progress is marked and obvious.

I think there is a reason why we chose to be here. And part of it is to remember who we are when are not defined by the people, things, and habitats from where we hail. We are all overcoming a fear that we learned with age.

Abby says that years from now, we will remember the beginning of the trip and the end, but we won’t remember that night in Missouri when we watched the lightning. I am determined to, though, or at least have this written reminder.

Thank you for reading, Ann. Brittany moved three whole trees for us riders to leave Saint Charles the next day.

Thank you Michael for making the four hour drive to show your love and support.

   
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
  

    
 

Day to Dayton

Did you know that the tool we are using to ride across the country is the very same that began flight? “Airplanes liberated man from the limitations of land and sea,” proclaims a quote at the front of the National Airforce Museum in Dayton, Ohio. But today I feel like our bicycles are liberating us from something bigger than land or sea- something I can’t quite place a name to.

Such an amazing, small piece of technology.

Dayton- home of the Wright Brothers. What a surprising city. It is so unlike the poping college city of Columbus, or the small hippy village- Yellow Springs- that we rode through to get here. Dayton is marked by it’s vacancy, it’s empty parking garages and the blank stares of boarded up sky scrapers .

We were welcomed by the aggressive spray of water. My first thought: “oh, the dam is fooding!” My second was “That’s their sewer spraying into the river!” but really the pleasant bike path that brought us here is part of an elaborate water display- a huge fountain- and we were in the middle.
I went into the museum with a closed mind. Already I had been turned off by billboards boasting “long range missile attacks” that dotted our journey in.

While at the Airforce museum I found myself less interested in the technology and more captured by the bodies that once occupied the spaces tucked inside uniforms and seats on old planes. Quietly I felt a kinship  with the lost souls who once wore the clothes and flew this equipment.

When I inspect their uniforms I think of our own, despite theirs being leather and canvas and ours synthetic, quick-dry fabric. Sure, the similarities between a WWI pilot and a volunteer cyclist are few, but I imagine they felt the same bond to their planes as I do to my bike- responsibility coupled with gratitude. I look at the broken propellor a and I think of our bent derailers, snapped chains, and greased fingers.

Because Some how our team feels like a unit. We depend on each other to overcome those impossible odds that cannot be described- only felt.

There’s a kind of comfort in our regemented lifestyle. It’s strange to admit that I enjoy the fewer food choices, the curfew, the 5 am to 10:30 pm schedule.
The nice thing about living in scarcity is that each item is imbued with more meaning. On display is a cigarette case of one of the soldiers signed by his mates. Such a simple object signified so much to one man. I think about our few things- my cleats that I wear everyday, my red helmet, my sleeping pad. We are all issued that same sleeping pad (thermarest), but one of the girls recently admitted she was afraid to mix hers up with someone else’s. We don’t have a lot, but in an environment that is always changing, what we do have constitutes our home.

Something about being displaced makes me understand how crucial it is that people have a dependable home.
I appreciate how surprisingly diverse the landscape of Ohio proved to be. Each place we stopped from Cadiz to Dayton were entirely unique and shared very few characteristic. The thing is, I really liked Dayton. It has a very meat and potatoes, “this is how I am” feel. The people we met of Dayton seemed to be honest in who they were. One of my co-riders claimed of our habitat site leaders (we had a build day in Dayton) “they were my first rednecks” which, to be fair, was a term our pals Tim and Keith readily embraced. Our hosts secured us tickets to a baseball game which was a welcoming introduction to their city. We had two presenters- one local land trust organization and one bike share group- which promises improvement and really shows some hard working optimism in this small city.

At the orientation of this trip three weeks ago (time flies!) we had a conversation of why we each chose to do this. While we have answered the question many times since, and the answers seem to evolve with experience, one of my friends had a very unique response. He said “We are all trying to find our America.”

To see America this way, the bigger perspective, or perhaps smaller depending on how you look at it, helps to stop polarizing the country. We have a tendency to focus on the bad or good. Racism, poverty, scarcity of resources, lack of jobs. Or we focus on the good- progress- and loose interest in the towns that continue to fail in the periphery.

Rarely do we take the time to appreciate the elegance of the dissonance. America is the the hardworking, the privileged, the humble, the boisterous. It’s not Dayton verses Columbus, it’s the two beside each other and the bike path between.
Beauty of this trip is everyone has a personal fight. No sane person chooses such an epic challenge without some personal battle they are trying to overcome. And here, where 32 people share an all-day-affair schedule and sleep in the same room,

There is no hiding it.

Part of overcoming challenge is first succumbing to the fear. One of my leaders asked me what the hardest part of the trip was for me so far. I responded confidently, “the hills of Pennsylvania.” He replied, “But the hills are in your legs now.”

Pieces of our inner selves fall out in front of one another like underwear dropped on the way back from the laundry mat.

Maddy told me, mostly in jest “you are my leader,” and I realized that we all lead each other. Sure, it’s corny, but we all have so much to learn and each have a chance to share and take a lesson.

Thanks for reading Ann, Pastor Jan , and all you family members of my bike-mates.