Biking and Building Across America
By Meira Shuman
In the summer of 2009, I rode a bicycle across the United States from Jacksonville, Florida to San Francisco, California. Whenever I see a map of the USA, it blows my mind how far away those two cities are. At the time however, I remember that it didn’t feel so epic; back then it felt like one baby step after another, one hill at a time, one day at a time.
My decision to pedal 4,000 miles across the country stemmed from two major desires: (a) engage in a physically challenging adventure, and (b) make the world a better place. Simple enough, right? (Right!) I have become a firm believer in serendipity; a few weeks after I started researching possibilities, I bumped into an old friend who told me about Bike & Build.
Bike & Build is a non-profit organization arranging cross-country bicycle trips for young adults with the purpose of raising money and awareness for affordable housing. There are eight trips each summer with about thirty participants each. The groups zig-zag westward across the country solely through pedal power, resting occasionally for a day or two (or seven, as we did in New Orleans) to volunteer with local affordable housing groups such as Habitat for Humanity. In exchange for our sweat and blood, each rider is fed an unlimited amount of peanut butter and exposed to enough sun to acquire a delightful Jersey Shore tan (although the tan lines created by bike shorts and fingerless gloves aren’t exactly what would be considered “stylish” by the average guido). We also bulk up our quads and learn how to use a variety of power tools, meet some amazing people, swim with manatees, and get to exist in a completely surreal disconnected world that makes it hard to go back to “real” life – because when else will your daily grind involve peeing on cactuses, sticking your hand in your shorts every few hours to reapply chamois butter, or using chalk to write notes and draw pictures for your friends all along the side of a highway?
The only real requirement for a Bike & Build trip is that each participant must fundraise $4000, volunteer once or twice with an affordable housing group, and train by riding a certain number of miles before the start of the summer. I honestly think that fundraising was more challenging than the ride itself. With biking, it was simple: I knew that I had ‘x’ amount of time to get from point A to point B. The only way to get there was to pedal. Physically it wasn’t easy, but logistically, it was cakewalk.
Fundraising was a different ball game. I had no idea where to start, no guarantee I could finish. It took a good bit of bake sales, raffles, and begging every person I knew (or bumped into on the street) to raise that much money. Every little bit helped. I was so surprised and grateful for all the financial and verbal support that poured in from my community in Gainesville, Florida. My parents and my amazing friend Emi were my #1 cheerleaders, even when I doubted myself. I felt like a vessel of everyone else who contributed to and cared about this cause. Through the process of fundraising, I experienced strength in numbers, saw that real change in the world can only come about when we join together.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead.
The money my Bike & Build cohort fundraised was pooled with all the money we continued to raise along our ride as we met folks who were touched by our mission. This helped supply us with three months of peanut butter, while also allowing us to make generous donations to the multiple affordable housing groups we worked with. One of the most significant days of our trip was discussing as a group how much and where we wanted to donate the money we had all had a hand in raising. (I sometimes wonder if government officials feel the same sense of pride and joy when they discuss budgeting for education programs versus presidential vacations or military research.) I felt part of something greater than myself, and how often can I say that?
Bicycling across the country was a journey physically, mentally, and emotionally. Before I started the trip, I felt like a child of 23 years old. When I ended the trip I was still a child. Did I learn anything? Did I grow at all? I’d love to say that I had an intense “aha” moment where I discovered the meaning of life, but my realizations were more subtle. Whenever I experience intangible personal growth in my life, I find myself referring to Robert Frost’s poem “Into My Own.” It’s a story of a man who steals away into the vast dark woods, I imagine with an air of seeking whatever it is that we humans so often seem to seek. When his loved ones find him again, he says that “They would not find me changed from him they knew – Only more sure of all I thought was true.”
I think of the person I was before my trip and see how much more capable and confident I am now. In the beginning, it didn’t seem possible to climb mountains. Now I know it is. Finding myself at the foot of a steep hill with nowhere to go but up, I discovered sources of strength I never knew I had. The mind is the toughest muscle and with it we can will our bodies to do incredible things. There are so many experiences I have missed out on in life because I told myself I wasn’t [_____] enough. Fill in the blank with smart or strong or attractive or whatever suits your fancy. I still have this voice in my head telling me that I “can’t” do things, but now I have another voice that sounds like a combination of Xena’s “LI-LI-LI-LI-LI-LI-LI!” and Ms. Frizzle’s “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!” I like this voice. Listening to it the past two years has been a lot of fun despite all the mistakes and messiness.
Speaking of messiness, imagine being stuck with a group of strangers 24/7 for three months. Now imagine not sleeping enough, eating enough, and always being physically exhausted. If you don’t get along with someone, you still have to sleep on the same cold hard floor and shower with the same hose. Alone time was a luxury. Considering all this, I am so impressed by how well we all got along and worked together on tasks. We took turns cooking dinner, laundering each others’ disgustingly dirty bike shorts, and making sure that every space we slept in was restored to its former glory after being hit by a tornado of sweaty bikers.
I watched the fascinating microcosm of social dynamics unfold. My own hilarious patterns emerged – within the first month I had a small group of close female friends, a hippie boyfriend, the folks I was friendly towards yet never seemed to have a real conversation with, and despite my best intentions, a hostile interaction or two with our male authority figures. How can I hope for world peace and expect countries to stop fighting if I can’t even break out of my own patterns to find unconditional love for a group of thirty-three peers who share my passion for social action? I sit with this question and can only cross my fingers that people wiser and more compassionate than myself end up in places of power.
Rumi knew what was up: “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”
In the middle of a desert with 100 miles of unforgiving sun, thoughts sizzled out of my head like water on a hot frying pan. In the absence of thoughts, I was more present than I’d ever been in my life. At times I felt so completely present that it brushed on insanity. I found myself talking to the trees, singing to the clouds, howling with the wind. I felt the giddiness tingling up my whole body and into my face when I saw such breathtaking beauty. The national anthem is not lying: America is beautiful. There are plenty of spacious skies, amber waves of grain, and purple mountain majesties. There are magical orange-red plateaus so staggering that I believed dinosaurs must still exist. There are icy crystal blue rivers just begging for a skinny dip session. There are fields of sunflowers and fields of recently rolled bales of hay. There are blackberries and blueberries and apples waiting to be picked on the side of the road. There are thick green forests bursting with life, and forests like cemeteries with just the skinny black skeletons of burnt trees standing tall and rigid. America is a land of beauty and ugliness. I saw so much trash and roadkill on the sides of the road that I finally stopped caring. A group of teenage boys in Texas leaned out their window and tried to punch my friend off her bike. People spat at us, but so did the camels we saw in Oklahoma. More often than not, we were treated with such kindness and generosity. After riding alongside a pair of bicyclists in Napa Valley for ten minutes, they showed up at our campsite with a dozen pizzas. The churches and families we stayed with always treated us like long-lost children. I remember Lella who came around with a dessert cart and tried to get us to eat more more more. Restaurants gave us free food, cafes gave us free coffee, museums gave us free entrance – who knew trying to make the world a better place had its perqs?
I’ve always wavered on the fence of whether I believed that humans were innately good or bad. After this trip… I guess I still do. But I have a renewed faith in humanity. I know that, no matter what, we will be okay. Two steps forward, one step back, and we’ll eventually make our way out of the mess that we have created and are still creating. Everyone has their own vision of paradise. Sometimes I wish I could wave a magic wand and wake everyone up to a world of love and light, puppy dogs and rainbows. I can get so overwhelmed by all the suffering in the world that it’s paralyzing, not productive. I can feel so helpless and limited. And maybe I won’t change the big-picture, but right here, right now, I can do something. With our own two hands, we can do so so much. In just two days working at one Habitat for Humanity site, I found out that we saved a family about $10,000.
So if there is an issue in this world bothering you, do something about it! Anything! Even if it’s small. A field of wildflowers begins with a single seed.
Meira Shuman is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Appalachian State University. She is on the hunt for an Expressive Arts Therapy internship, where she hopes to combine her passions of art-making, community-building and outdoor-adventuring. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.