Sunday, November 2

A Constructive Summer: Hammers, Hardhats, and Hilarity

Followers of this blog have surely noticed that I've been on a bit of a hiatus lately. This is because during the months of June, July, and August, I was participating in a cross-country cycling trip through the amazing organization Bike & Build. Together with 28 other young adults I rode my bike from Providence to Seattle, stopping along the way to build with Habitat for Humanity and learn about America's affordable housing crisis. During the trip access to a robust internet connection was rare, and time to write posts was even rarer. So now from the comfort of my home wifi network, I plan to finally compose a few reflective essays about my summer adventures. And then hopefully resume posting on a regular basis.

In my last two posts I addressed the bicycling aspect of the trip and the traveling aspect of the trip. This will be the final post in this reflective series and will be about the community service I completed during the trip, i.e. the "Build" part of Bike & Build. So without further ado, enjoy my ruminations.

A Constructive Summer: Hammers, Hardhats, and Hilarity

As a bookish woman with unreasonably inadequate upper body strength, construction work is not the first thing I think of when brainstorming what to do with my weekend. But volunteering is always an option, and you can't volunteer for long without hearing about an organization that is incredibly effective at mobilizing volunteer labor: Habitat for Humanity. For those who don't know, Habitat for Humanity is an international nonprofit that builds houses for low-income families. The chosen family then purchases the house and receives a zero-interest mortgage to ensure that it remains affordable for them over the 25, 50, or 100 years they live in the house. How can Habitat afford to provide housing at such a low rate? Two words: donations and volunteers. Municipal governments, building supply stores, and interior decorating stores are often on board with Habitat's projects and provide supplies at a discount or for free. And volunteers of all ages and backgrounds build the houses from the ground up, some experienced construction workers, plumbers, and electricians, others decidedly not. I fall into the latter category, but I find the concept of learning to build a house through volunteer work to be empowering, so when I signed up for Bike & Build I was pretty excited for the "Build" part in addition to the "Bike" part.

Before beginning my summer trip, I had to complete 10 hours of "sweat equity." This is a term employed by Habitat to describe the hours of service that a family must complete with their local Habitat chapter before they can receive their own Habitat home. Most chapters mandate about 300 hours of sweat equity, and some require that a portion of that labor be dedicated to other Habitat projects (not the family's own house). But in our case, sweat equity had more to do with putting in the time to familiarize ourselves with construction work and the affordable housing cause before dedicating the entire summer to it. In order to meet my requirement, I decided to participate in one of my university's Alternative Spring Break trips. So instead of heading to the beach or my parents' house on March 9th, I piled into one of two rental vans with about 10 other students and headed to Jackson, Mississippi.

The Mississippi Capital Area Habitat for Humanity affiliate couldn't have provided a better introduction to residential construction and maintenance. Under the guidance of Dan, our weird but lovable site supervisor who occasionally sported a fake rattail, we cleaned, caulked, primed, and painted two old houses in Jackson. At the end of the week, I didn't exactly feel competent in home repair, but I did feel a lot less apprehensive. And I had completed my sweat equity, paving the way for plenty more Habitat experiences during Bike & Build.

One of the most unique aspects of working with Habitat affiliates across the country with Bike & Build was the opportunity to see how individual they each are. For example, Habitat is a Christian organization, and this was pretty evident when I was working Jackson, where most build days started with a prayer. But my friend Louise, who had built primarily in San Francisco prior to the trip, said the religious element was almost entirely absent from her affiliate. While there was no surefire way to predict how concerned with religion a particular affiliate would be, I noticed that those in major metropolitan areas tended to present themselves as more secular, perhaps to appeal to wider volunteer base.

The level of organization and funding also varied widely, with older affiliates in larger cities tending to have things figured out a bit more. In some cases, we worked under site supervisors who had clearly managed a large group of volunteers before and knew what tasks would be appropriate for our group, how long they would take, and how much supervision and quality control would be needed. In other cases, we found that our assigned tasks were either too numerous to complete in one day or (more often) too few. At more poorly managed sites, the "too many cooks in the kitchen" phenomenon was common, with a few people actually doing work while a small crowd hung around and offered commentary.

Habitat affiliates that had been around for awhile were likely to have multiple houses under construction at once and to have a ReStore, the Habitat version of Goodwill, where community members and building supply stores can donate construction materials and furniture for discounted resale. On occasion we worked in the ReStore instead of at a construction site, performing tasks such as organizing supplies, pricing goods for sale, or even helping to remodel the building itself. (Many of the ReStores were still in the process of launching and needed carpet ripped out, electrical wired, or insulation sprayed.) Newer Habitat affiliates rarely had a ReStore and were lucky to obtain enough funding to complete one house in a year.

I learned quite a lot by working with Habitat for Humanity. And the work was a rewarding challenge, because it was so different from anything I'd done in school. I was a beginner, so I was able to watch my skills improve tangibly and dramatically. While I certainly can't draw up the plans for a house and construct it from start to finish just yet, I have a much better idea of how a house is built than I ever did before. I learned the basic stages of residential construction: foundation, flooring, framing, wrapping, roofing, installing windows, siding, carpentry, plumbing, electrical, insulation, sheetrock, priming, painting, and adding trim/cabinets/decor. I started seeing homes differently, noticing the individual parts much more, and gained an appreciation for how long and complicated each step can be, especially if something goes wrong. And I learned how to use a lot of tools more competently than ever before, including paint rollers, caulk guns, hammers, crowbars, circular saws, nail guns, and extensions ladders (my favorite construction toy).

Along the way, there were definitely some struggles. Learning to wield a hammer well is much harder than it appears, and since many Habitat chapters prefer to give green volunteers hammers instead of nail guns, we spent a lot of time pulling out bent or poorly placed nails and trying again. We came to curse soft nails, which were sometimes the only (or the best) option at a construction site, but which almost always bent into unrecognizable shapes if not nailed in with a few confident, forceful, and well placed blows of the hammer. We also were occasionally given incredibly tedious work, such as cleaning up concrete spills or washing walls. Luckily our team was creative and goofy, so even the most exhausting tasks were often fun and engaging once the right people got involved. Working one incredibly hot day in Casper, Wyoming, we rapidly moved a mountain of dirt into a nearby ditch that needed filling, spurred on by the sometimes encouraging, sometimes deprecating yells of a few team members pretending to be drill sergeants.

Occasionally we were set back by factors beyond our control. Heat was one of the biggest challenges; it's hard to do manual labor with the sun beating down on you, and staying hydrated became key. Sometimes we were so tired - from cycling all the time, from the heat, from the lack of endorphins during build days - that we spontaneously fell asleep at Habitat sites. This was bound to happen if there were couches or chairs of any kind nearby, and napping became an unavoidable constant of build days. At once build site I found myself correcting the mistakes of previous volunteers. Perched on an extension ladder painting the gable of a house, I wondered aloud why the old paint seemed to be in such good shape. The site supervisor apologetically told me that it had been painted the wrong color a week earlier by a group of high school students, and I was covering their error with the correct color. These frustrations were real, but they were relatively minor compared to the challenges we faced on riding days, so it wasn't too hard to stay positive and feel the good vibes that always accompany volunteer work.

In addition to the volunteerism vibes, I also learned to feel good about working with my hands. I've always enjoyed projects like repairing my bikes, staining my bedframe, and restringing my guitar. Construction work took it to the next level, and I found that, while it was strenuous, I enjoyed it. The goal of a task was always very clear, and once one thing was finished, there was another thing to be done. It was satisfying to watch a house slowly progress toward the end product and to very clearly see the impact we could have with a day of labor. Most of the construction jobs I took on were simple, required precision, and had a definite start and end. Therefore, construction work was pretty much the opposite of the complicated, often sloppy, and neverending academic work I'd been saturated with for four years. It was gratifying to watch my skills improve as I worked on repetitive jobs. At times, the importance of teamwork became obvious; for example, when painting it would have been easy to become frustrated by the time required to cover the entire exterior of a house with one coat, let alone two. But with everyone working together it went surprisingly fast and was a great reminder of how futile it can be to try and take on a big challenge without the support of others.

Overall, I think that an increased sense of confidence was the greatest gift that Bike & Build gave me. Confidence in my cycling ability, in my people skills, and in my construction competence. If someone asked me to volunteer with a new Habitat affiliate tomorrow, I would say yes without batting an eye. And I wouldn't be nervous; I would be excited. I know I can be useful in that context. I've already put this newfound confidence to use with the Austin Habitat for Humanity. With extra time on my hands thanks to unemployment, I've taken to volunteering at least once a week at their Barteny Cove build site. This has proved a great way to network, make friends, continue to live Bike & Build, and get those volunteerism vibes. It has also been enlightening to work with a giant affiliate that has the resources to build many houses at once; the Barteny Cove build site is a neighborhood of at least 10 Habitat houses in various stages of completion. Everyone is pumped to be there, and the positive energy is contagious.

Bike & Build is a cycling trip. And it's a volunteering trip. And it's a fundraiser. But there's one part of its mission that is often overlooked: "Bike & Build envisions future generations who are committed to a lifetime of civic engagement." This is the reason for the age restrictions on Bike & Build trips; the ultimate goal is to attract young people to community service. And I have to hand it to Bike & Build, because it worked. I may have showed up for the cycling, but I stayed for the service. And I am staying for good.

Hardhats are sexy...
...and so is painting!

Tuesday, September 30

From Bay to Shining Sound: America's Transformative Landscape

Followers of this blog have surely noticed that I've been on a bit of a hiatus lately. This is because during the months of June, July, and August, I was participating in a cross-country cycling trip through the amazing organization Bike & Build. Together with 28 other young adults I rode my bike from Providence to Seattle, stopping along the way to build with Habitat for Humanity and learn about America's affordable housing crisis. During the trip access to a robust internet connection was rare, and time to write posts was even rarer. So now from the comfort of my home wifi network, I plan to finally compose a few reflective essays about my summer adventures. And then hopefully resume posting on a regular basis.

Previously I wrote about my experience bicycling all summer long. This post will address the travel aspect of my adventure. So without further ado, enjoy my ruminations.

From Bay to Shining Sound: America's Transformative Landscape

Ernest Hemingway wrote, "It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them." It's a cool quote, but traveling by bicycle seems almost counterintuitive. It is certainly not a very efficient way to see the country. As I bicycled across America this summer I often saw signs advertising museums, restaurants, or other interesting attractions. "Just 10 miles off the highway!" But 10 miles was much too far, considering I had a destination to get to, and biking the extra 20 miles there and back would add over an hour to my transit time. I tried not to think about how much more accessible everything would have been via car or how much more I could have seen and done in two and a half months.

But I think Hemingway's endorsement of bicycle travel had nothing to do with efficiency. It wasn't about checking all the boxes on your tourist to-do list. Instead, he was pointing out that biking across a country is an intimate activity. A bike moving slowly across the landscape much like a hand down a lover's back. And you riding and remembering every minute, because of the effort required to travel this way. It is precisely because you move so slowly that biking is such a unique and valuable way to travel. There is plenty of time for observation and reflection about landscapes, people, cultures, history, and economy. The journey becomes less about getting from point A to point B and a lot more about the open road between the two.

All of Bike & Build's cross-country cycling trips begin on the East Coast and end on the West Coast. Even someone relatively new to touring by bicycle knows that is the "wrong" way. The winds favor the cyclist who travels from west to east, and if I had a dollar for every time someone pointed that out to us this summer, I wouldn't be quite so worried about finding a job right now. But while there were moments when I cursed the headwinds, there was also something historically interesting about travelling from east to west. We were essentially following the progression of American settlers, and because our route crossed the northern part of the country, we frequently encountered signs designating the Lewis and Clark trail. It was also interesting that the historical markers we saw on the side of the road moved more or less in chronological order.

The East Coast, a.k.a. New England

Unimpressed by the Grand Canyon of the East
I'm fairly certain that the Pilgrims who first settled New England still live there today. Or at least their ancestors retained their dourness, determination, and giant brick houses. New Englanders, as I knew already from previous trips, are keen to mind their own business and make their interactions as succinct as possible. Sometimes my Central Texas instincts took over, and I tried to make casual conversation with the other folks waiting in the Starbucks line, but it seems that's a bit out of the ordinary in New England. The weather mirrored the inhabitants' disposition: It was gray and rainy. I was able to put my raincoat to good use both on and off my bike during those first few weeks. After a few days in Providence, Rhode Island, our starting point, I remember thinking that it had rained more during those few days than it usually did in a whole year in Texas. And that was probably true.

Everything in New England was old and historical. There were so many old houses in Providence that the city had simply tacked a placard to each one indicating its year of construction, rather than actually create a historical marker with information. The roads were also old and historical. And incredibly narrow. After training in Dallas, where a four-lane road is considered small, I was confused and angered by the two- (or one-!) lane roads that crisscrossed New England. There isn't even room for two cars here, I thought, let alone my bicycle. The temptation to take up a whole lane with my bicycle proved easy to resist when doing so resulted in a mile-long traffic jam and a lot of cursing from nearby motorists. And God forbid that an 18-wheeler had to pass; I was pretty sure that whatever grizzled mountain man built these ancient roads had no idea that such a beastly vehicle would ever exist.

I also noticed that roads in New England often lacked signs, even in cities. This added an additional challenge to our rides, as we attempted to follow our rather complicated cue sheets across these tiny states. I developed a theory that New Englanders abhor signage, because it might allow passerby to locate their Walden-style cabins in the woods. After all, the signs we did see were mostly about trespassing. As a Texan used to navigating open spaces (private property, but still fair game for travel), this baffled me. Who cares if someone walks along your land? But they did. One very intense property owner in New York even yelled at us while we were volunteering at a Habitat site, because she was worried that in pruning a shrub on the property's boundary, we might have lopped off some branches a little too close to her side. So much for volunteering.

New England wasn't all bad though. If I hate on it, it's only because I've been there plenty of times to visit family, and it's easy to hate on the familiar. And I did have one wonderful moment of revelation while biking along heavily wooded state highways amidst the drizzle and the 18-wheelers. Insignificant though it may seem, while journeying through New England, I finally came to understand what a brook is. Now don't get me wrong; I could have given a dictionary definition of a brook before the trip, but I had no emotional connection to the topic. But after biking by several beautiful Connecticut brooks and hearing that distinctive babbling noise for the first time, I finally understood why these adorable bodies of water are the stuff of poems and nature documentaries.

New York/Pennsylvania/Ohio


Feeding Duncan the horse my apple
I'm not sure there's a good name for this part of the country, but it was my favorite region that we biked through. Rolling hills dotted with cute, red farmhouses and giant, old trees were the norm, and the sun seemed to hit everything just right. In spite of rainy weather and a rough night camping in the Catskills, I found New York quite beautiful. I'll always remember the incredible descent into Ithaca, past local shops and beautifully landscaped parks with Cornell University towering above. I worried about whether I could brake fast enough to stop for the many traffic lights placed along the hill into the town and hoped they would stay green, so I could continue the exhilarating and gorgeous descent.

Everything in this region seemed picture perfect. I often felt like I was biking through a children's storybook, and we stopped frequently to feed and pet horses and cows encountered along the way. On one hot afternoon I watched a mother cow slowly lick her newborn calf to life while I changed a flat tire. Even after I finished, I stuck around for awhile, hoping he would take his first steps, but it seems that standing up is a big challenge for a young calf. I also distinctly remember a beautiful day riding through a scenic valley with my friend, Susie. As we rounded a bend, a stopped train filled with passengers began to move. At first, we were biking much faster than the train, a welcome change from being constantly outpaced by anything with a motor. Then, for a few beautiful seconds, we moved at the exact same speed as the train, as if the whole landscape were in unison. And then of course, the train picked up speed, and the cars began to pass us. I laughed and waved at the passengers, who seemed to be just as enthralled by the scene as we were, and waved enthusiastically back.

Another interesting feature of this region was the presence of Amish communities. We often found that bike trails were split into two lanes and designed to be shared with buggies. Most of the Amish we saw were reluctant to interact with us; they seemed content to live their very separate lives and didn't even seem curious about our trip. There were a few exceptions of course, and the people who did want to talk to us were friendly and inspired by our cause. It was exciting to witness in person a community I had previously only read about, even if they weren't as outgoing as I hoped.

The Midwest


Biking with a stalk of corn is normal, right?
Infamous for being the most boring place in America, the Midwest definitely lived up to its reputation, with a few pleasant surprises. This was one of the most distinct regions we passed through thanks to the constant presence of America's favorite crop: Corn! Unfortunately, far from being awed by the bounty of our agricultural production, I was actually just disturbed by the never-ending fields of sameness we biked through.

As we reflected on the massive amounts of corn being produced in Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa, we concluded that most of it was not being grown for human consumption and was instead going to be used for industrial purposes or animal feed. High fructose corn syrup, anyone? This made the corn farms of the Midwest significantly less romantic than the small family farms we had seen in previous states. And there were a few things about the cornfields that made them downright eerie! First of all, as far as I could tell, no one seemed to live near them; we never saw a home or town near the expansive fields. Additionally, genetic modification was a constant and blatant feature of the fields. Many of them were overshadowed by signs advertising the seed company that the farmers had selected. Sometimes we would pass entire fields that seemed to be being grown entirely for experimental purposes. Each row of corn would be headed by a small sign with a number indicating which seed sample had been used for that row. While I don't necessarily believe that all genetic modification of crops is bad, in this case I was concerned about the possibility of overproduction and wasted resources. The corn lobby has obtained hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to facilitate corn production. But I wonder if that spending is entirely necessary and wish Congress would consider the endgame for these massive amounts of genetically modified corn before casually earmarking that money.

Aside from the corn, the Midwest actually was notable for its food.  At every host site there were at least three casseroles to choose from, usually milk or cheese based. I had no idea this typical Midwestern dish could be done in so many different ways. In addition, I was able to experience Frog Eye Salad for the first time. I'm still not entirely sure what this strange dessert contains, although it usually involves coconut shreds, miniature marshmallows, maraschino cherries, and small round pieces of pasta from which it gets its somewhat unappetizing name. I'm not going to lie; I definitely was not a huge fan of Frog Eye Salad, but I'm glad I was able to try it, and it was certainly one of the more interesting things I encountered in the Midwest.

There was one state in the Midwest that did completely defy my expectations, and I would be remiss if I failed to write a little bit about my experience biking through Iowa. While corn was still a prominent feature of the scenery at times, Iowa proved to be one of the more beautiful states we traversed. Similar to Pennsylvania, the landscape consisted primarily of grassy, rolling hills, and there was plenty of livestock along the road to keep us entertained. In addition, the cities we visited were far more lively than I expected. In particular, I will always have fond memories of Ames, which was a remarkably fun college town with a burgeoning street musician scene, cheap beer, and very cute caf├ęs.

The Great Plains, a.k.a. the American West


This bike basically makes me a cowgirl
The Great Plains were one of the more romantic geographic features we encountered on the trip. This had little to do with actual beauty; the land was dusty, covered in scrub brush, and predominantly brown in color. But since it was a change from corn, to us it was breathtakingly gorgeous. Additionally, this new landscape was romantic because of its history. We felt as though we had finally reached America's frontier; it represented a challenge, but also a new beginning, just as it had for settlers over a hundred years ago. And I can't emphasize enough that it wasn't corn.

When I first began biking through the prairie I remember feeling nostalgic. It looked just like Texas to me with a few more yucca plants. And it fulfilled all the stereotypes that the American West ought to fulfill. I saw at least three tumbleweeds along the way, and my friend, Juan, adopted a tumbleweed as a pet and rode with it strapped to his back for over a day. I even saw two large dirt devils, which I had previously believed existed only in storybooks and in Australia.

The isolation of the prairies could be frightening at times, especially because we rarely encountered towns on our routes. This meant being extra prepared with food and water for the day and being willing to spend a lot of time with your own thoughts. I remember reflecting on how terrifying it must have been for early settlers, who were not simply passing through on to the next town, but were actually building the next town from the ground up. I wonder how they avoided insanity, but then again, I suppose many of them did not. Our routes through this part of the country became remarkably simplistic. In Nebraska, we took US 20 across the entire state! It was quite a contrast to the confusing and indirect routes of the East Coast.

As we traveled through the American West I increasingly began to realize that the cowboy culture I'd grown up with was a complete farce. Don't get me wrong; there are plenty of Texans who own large cattle ranches and ride horses on a regular basis. But there was an air of necessity (almost desperation) to ranch life in the American West. The ranchers we met in Nebraska and Wyoming were completely dependent on their land and livestock for their living. These ranches were not a side business or a place to escape, and they were much larger than the ones I had encountered in Texas. I soon realized that the people I saw wearing cowboy boots were not doing it as a fashion statement. It all seemed much more serious than what I grew up around, though perhaps this reflects more on the location of my childhood (a city halfway between two bigger cities) than on any real differences between the two ranching economies.

As we progressed across the West we were constantly aware of the presence of the Rockies on our horizon. More specifically, the Tetons. While they seemed an insurmountable challenge, we also knew that we were well prepared. Plus every Bike & Build alum had told us that biking over these mountain passes had been one of their favorite segments of the trip. The views were breathtaking, and the sense of accomplishment felt at the top only added to the exhilaration. If there's one physical feat I care to brag about from the trip, it's biking up Teton Pass. We began our ascent at the same time as a group of French cyclists, all wearing unreasonably short shorts and mumbling incomprehensible French words to each other. I let my patriotism take the handlebars and determined from the beginning that no French man in shorty shorts would beat me to the top of Teton Pass. My competitive nature kept me going, and while a few of the French cyclists did reach the top before me, I felt redeemed when I witnessed one of them topple over mid-climb as he failed to unclip from his pedals quickly enough.

I could dedicate a whole post to the state of Montana, which was quite possibly my favorite state of the trip. But I'll try to condense my thoughts into one paragraph. Montana is appropriately named; there is a constant sense of either climbing up or down a mountain, and they are always present on the horizon, snow-capped and beautiful. The state is also heavily wooded, and it was in this state that I decided that forest is by far my favorite terrain to bike through. The trees provide shade and make for a beautiful vista whenever you reach an outlook. In addition, Montana was crisscrossed by incredibly picturesque rivers, which were filled with fishermen braving the whitewater in their waders in an attempt to snag the perfect trout. I've always loved the sound of running water, and while the roads were narrow and dangerous, I enjoyed biking on them, because they almost always followed the route (and sound) of the river.

The Pacific Northwest

Braving the cold was worth it to see Diablo Lake
By the time we arrived in Washington and entered the PNW region, I was so excited (and tired) that I almost missed the beauty around me in my feverish race toward Seattle. Luckily the PNW was so stunning that it was impossible to ignore for long.

After the dry and dusty West, it was a relief to enter a wet climate again. And as we progressed into the Northern Cascades, it become wetter and wetter and wetter. I finally understood what is meant when this portion of the country is described as a rain forest. Thanks to the constant moisture in the air and on the ground, every living thing was covered in an inch-thick coating of soft, green moss. It made everything look mysterious, and I half expected Edward Cullen to emerge from the forest as I rode by.

Perhaps the biggest challenge we faced while biking through Washington was the cold. We were unprepared to bike past still-unmelted ice and feel the snap of icy air in our lungs as we ascended Washington Pass and Rainy Pass. No one had packed cold weather gear for that ride, and after riding through a constant drizzle all morning, the descent through the cold air was brutal. Whatever thermal properties our spandex cycling clothes usually had were completely lost in the wet, and moving at over 30 mph down the side of a mountain could have been chilly even without the misty weather. Therefore, many riders abandoned their bikes in favor of penguin-style huddles on the side of the road. The van driver had a full-time job picking up shivering cyclists and shuttling them to the evening's campground, and those who did decide to continue riding were pretty miserable for about two hours. As I descended toward our lunch spot for the day, I remember worrying that my muscles would become so chilled and stiff that I would be unable to successfully navigate turns or unclip from my pedals, but luckily I made it to the trailer successfully and closed myself inside the tiny space along with four other riders who had sought refuge from the cold and a meager lunch inside.

In the end, I decided to continue riding, rather than opt for shuttle service from the van, and I am so glad that I did. There were some desperate moments in the rain and the wet, but that ride was also one of the most beautiful of the whole trip. In addition to the miniature glacial waterfalls that covered the Northern Cascades, I also rode by Diablo Lake, the most incredible body of water I've ever seen. At a conveniently placed lookout I surveyed the unbelievably blue-green lake and the misty mountains that surrounded it. Formed from glacial water pooled by a power-generating dam, this lake is truly too exceptional for words.

In Conclusion...

These five regions of the country were all starkly different. They had different landscapes, foods, economies, customs, to the point that I began to wonder if such a thing as "American" culture even existed. I marveled: How on earth do we make this country work?! But then again, the political scientist in me retorted that it doesn't always work. At least not well. Regardless of politics, the important thing was that everywhere we rode, we were welcomed by wonderfully generous churches and community groups, always excited to see us, learn about our cause, and tell us their own stories. And if I had to pick one unifying feature for my country, I couldn't think of a better one.

As we crossed the US, I often thought of the old hymn "America the Beautiful." The lyrics were surprisingly relevant; we encountered spacious skies, amber waves of grain, purple mountain majesties, and fruited plains. But in our case, the song was a bit ironic: We technically weren't biking from sea to shining sea. We started our trip in Providence, Rhode Island, where we dipped our back tires in the Narragansett Bay. (Not the Atlantic Ocean. Not the same thing.) We concluded our trip in Seattle, Washington, where we dipped our front tires, or rather our whole bikes, in the Peugeot Sound. (Once again, not the Pacific Ocean.) There were no seas involved. But like Hemingway's reference to the contours of a country, I think the writer of this song also wanted us to focus less on the start and end points of our journey and more on the incredibly beauty in between. So that is exactly what I did.

**Thanks to my Bike & Build friends who took the photos associated with this post.**

Sunday, September 28

Two Wheels, One Schlup: Learning to Bike Across the Country

Followers of this blog have surely noticed that I've been on a bit of a hiatus lately. This is because during the months of June, July, and August, I was participating in a cross-country cycling trip through the amazing organization Bike & Build. Together with 28 other young adults I rode my bike from Providence to Seattle, stopping along the way to build with Habitat for Humanity and learn about America's affordable housing crisis. During the trip access to a robust internet connection was rare, and time to write posts was even rarer. So now from the comfort of my home wifi network, I plan to finally compose a few reflective essays about my summer adventures. And then hopefully resume posting on a regular basis.

I'm going to begin with a post about cycling. It was cycling that first attracted me to Bike & Build, and it was cycling that took up the bulk of my time as a participant. So without further ado, enjoy my ruminations.

Two Wheels, One Schlup: Learning to Bike Across the Country

When someone says they biked across the country, that can mean a lot of things. The first question most people are tempted to ask is: Wait...on a motorcycle? And I suppose that's one way to do it, but it's not the way we did it. The next slough of questions are a little less obvious unless you're a cyclist, and those are whether the trip was supported (by a motor vehicle) and whether the riders were loaded (with their luggage on their persons or on their bikes). The answers in our case were yes and no, respectively. We rode about 72 miles per day on road bikes wearing backpack-style hydration packs, which allowed us to store snacks, rain gear, repair supplies, and of course water. We were supported by a 15-passenger van with a trailer in tow, filled with the bulk of our luggage, as well as water and food supplies for lunch each day.

72 miles is a lot, especially considering we had only three rest days for the entire two-and-a-half-month trip. It meant that our bodies had zero recovery time after a difficult ride. This mattered a lot more toward the beginning of the trip, when we were still acclimating to the constant physical activity and attempting to conquer the hills of Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York. People asked me frequently if I felt sore, and interestingly the answer to that was no. I've been biking my whole life, and I trained fairly rigorously for the trip, so it wasn't as if I was building muscles where I didn't have them. But I did feel extremely fatigued. There were moments on my bike when my legs felt like jello or when I couldn't really feel them at all. And there were moments when I got off my bike and found I couldn't remember how to walk. And every single night I sank into the deep and wonderful sleep of utter exhaustion, never mind that I was sleeping on the floor or on a narrow church pew in an extremely hot room with at least three people snoring loudly nearby.

The questions people asked us were often humbling though, because just as they revealed the rigors of our trip, they also revealed how much more rigorous it could have been. At least once a week we encountered other cyclists who were doing the same trip as us but in a much more adventurous way. We met people who were doing it alone, drenched in sweat and clearly thrilled to spend a moment resting and talking to fellow cyclists. I thought a lot about how the main thing keeping me sane was the presence of other people who were positive, encouraging, and going through the exact same hardships I was. We also met people who were doing it loaded. One memorable duo was travelling with a small dog named Petunia. I lifted one of their bikes and found my upper-body workout for the day; it was covered in panniers and racks of all kinds and must have weighed about 45 pounds. I couldn't imagine trying to climb a mountain like that, but they were doing it. Meeting these people kept me humble: Sure, I was biking across the country, and that was impressive, but my setup was pretty cushy, considering.

The effects on my body were incredible. We all came to love the post-ride endorphin rush that somehow makes you forget that you're tired and that you fixed three flats today and that it rained and instead makes you want to run around and yell and dance and talk to everyone in sight. There's no good way to describe it; perhaps the best analogy is that of a drug coursing through your veins, and the feeling is certainly addicting. Thanks to our endorphins, we didn't need to drink to get crazy, though sometimes we still did. It was beautiful in a way to know that we had survived one more day, especially when the rides were physically challenging or dangerous. Most people had moments when they felt lucky to be alive, after a car passed by close enough to touch at 70 mph or after descending a steep hill in the rain, swerving round the corners and trying not to lock the brakes. There was reason to celebrate every evening, and there were endorphins to fuel the celebration, so celebrate we did.

My eating habits also changed. Cycling 72 miles a day means effectively doubling your daily calorie consumption, so we had to eat a lot. A big breakfast in the morning, plenty of Clif bars to keep us going during the ride, at least one (sometimes two) lunch stops prepared by the van driver, and then a giant dinner at our host site. Some people tried to stick to a healthy diet during the trip by avoiding sugary products and desserts, but most of us just went whole hog, because our metabolisms were working so fast that crappy food had very little effect on our bodies. I remember eating at least one lunch in which every item I ate had been dipped in Nutella spread. Sometimes it felt like the best strategy was simply to ingest as many calories as possible during the time allotted for lunch, so lunch could be a bit crazy. Everyone enjoyed coming up with weird food combinations and following the age-old Bike & Build adage that a sandwich can be made out of anything.

Not all my bodily changes were so positive. The girls (and a few unlucky boys) had to deal pretty regularly with rashes and saddle sores. Consider the stress of sitting on a bike seat for over six hours a day, every day, for two and a half months. Consider the chafing. Consider the sweat and bacteria that build up in a pair of spandex cycling shorts and slowly fester in the heat of a summer day. The result is an adult cyclist version of diaper rash that is treatable with the baby version of diaper cream, because it is essentially the same thing. Diaper cream and baby powder became hot commodities in the fight to stay clean, dry, and booty rash free as we traversed the country. Saddle sores, a.k.a. butt pimples, were harder to treat and more painful. Luckily I only had to deal with these once or twice, and they never hurt badly enough to prevent me from riding entirely, though they sometimes forced me to take frequent breaks to readjust my chamois and sitting position on the bike.

As you can imagine, continuing to ride on days like these took a great deal of mental stamina, and if there's one thing I took away from my summer adventure, it's a much greater mental strength and a real understanding of the concept of zen. We encountered all sorts of obstacles on the trip. Distance and bad weather were the two we were most able to prepare for mentally, because at the beginning of the day we were briefed on the approximate ride distance (assuming we didn't get lost) and on how hot or cold or rainy it would be. However, other than that, we were generally given very little information about what our day would look like, which is partially because there was no real way to know. Some people preferred to take initiative and look up the day's wind forecast or the number of towns we would see along the route. But I belonged to what I like to refer to as the zen camp, i.e. the riders who preferred to have as little information as possible and simply address problems as they arose. I didn't even keep an odometer on my bike, because I found it unnecessary and enjoyed the uncertainty of finding the next turn and of not really knowing how far from the host site I was. It was a good exercise in flexibility for me, considering I usually try to plan so thoroughly.

That being said, there were a few things that were hard for me. A week or so before the trip started I had been in a pretty scary wipe-out on my bike while riding a century in South Dallas. The culprit was a small patch of gravel on the side of the road that I hit at a weird angle while making a turn. I lost traction completely and ended up with some pretty bad road rash on my left knee. What I didn't know before starting the trip was that gravel was going to be a fairly constant feature of my cycling adventure; there were days when presumably the safest road was an unpaved road, and we found ourselves bumping along trying not to ride too fast and risk toppling over. Thanks to my previous experience falling, I was terrified of riding on gravel. I happily would have gone an extra 15 miles or ridden on an extremely busy highway to avoid having to ride on gravel. But it was safest to stick to the prescribed route, so I sucked it up and tried to find some ways to cope. I had to stop frequently to allow my heartbeat to slow down and my body to relax. I also had to focus on my destination and look ahead of me at all times rather than down at my front tire in an attempt to avoid every little bump. I remember lamenting the stress I was putting on my road bike, which I had named Molly, and thinking: Well, she probably hates this too, so we're in it together. And luckily the further west we rode, the less we rode on gravel.

I also faced an intense struggle with flat tires that taught me a lot about perseverance. Thanks to a small metal shaving inside my rear wheel rim, I had two days of constant flat tires in Ohio. By "constant" I mean at least every ten miles, which is ridiculous and frustrating when you're trying to go over 70. Luckily I was pretty good at changing flats, but even I started to become really discouraged when they systematically occurred, and yet I wasn't able to diagnose the problem and find a systematic solution. I finally had a complete breakdown on the second day of tire woes after walking my bike over a mile to lunch. All I wanted to do was bicycle, but it had become practically impossible. Luckily an extremely competent bike mechanic at the local Trek Bicycle Store in Westerville, Ohio, discovered the metal shaving and fixed me up. I felt so liberated and happy to be back on my bicycle, worry-free. And after that breakdown, I was never bothered by a flat tire again, which was good because I had a lot of them. I started to view flats as a natural part of my rides: This is just something you do when you ride a bike a lot. That equanimity was wonderful; I knew nothing could be as bad as those two days in Ohio, and sometimes I honestly felt glad to be fixing a regular old flat, knowing I would be done in 15 minutes and (hopefully) wouldn't have to fix another for another 300 miles.

So what motivated me to put up with all this? Well, I've always loved cycling. I'd been riding hybrid and mountain bikes since I was a kid, and cycling was my primary form of transportation in high school, thanks to my resistance to obtaining a driver's license and my hometown's overall bike-ability. But I had never spent time on a road bike or biked with clipless pedals or gone for distances longer than about 20 miles. I owned only one pair of chamois and wore it rarely. I wanted to try something new and take my cycling to the next level in the process. And I learned so much along the way. After a few ridiculous falls, I more or less got the hang of clipping in and out of my pedals. By the end of the trip, it felt second nature to me, and I was glad to be clipped in when climbing mountain passes in Wyoming and Washington. Thanks to Bike & Build's safety requirements, I also became good at signaling everything from right turns to upcoming potholes while riding. Communication with fellow riders became key, both because of the many hazards we faced and because of the need to pass the time on rides which were often boring. We did this by writing messages or indicating directions on the road using sidewalk chalk and also by riding two abreast and simply talking. Sometimes if it was too noisy or if the shoulder was too narrow to allow this, we would pass messages between each other, narrating what another person was saying so no one missed out on a good story or game.

I also improved dramatically when it came to navigating dangerous situations with automobile traffic. After training for over three months in Dallas, a city where motorists are incredibly unfriendly to cyclists, I was a rather aggressive rider. I always preferred to take up an entire lane of the road rather than attempt to ride on a narrow shoulder with cars constantly passing by. I preferred for a motorist to clearly see me, be stymied by my presence, and have to make a decision about how to pass me safely, rather then lurk along the side of the road and risk not being seen at all or having a motorist misjudge how much room there was between the edge of the right lane and the shoulder. But I found I had to adjust my approach, because there were times when it really was safer to ride in the shoulder and when the constant aggression necessary to ride in a lane along with the cars was just too much effort. I became good at finding space for my bike even on narrow and crowded roads, and I forced myself to think consciously about safety every day, because I knew that the more I thought about it, the more prepared I would be when something terrifying did happen.

As I navigated busy streets and steep hills on my bicycle, I also couldn't help but think about physics a lot. Most relevant was the idea of momentum, because I soon discovered that changing gears had less to do with hard and fast rules about gradient or wind speed and more to do with how fast my bike was already moving and how hard I was willing to work to keep it moving at the same speed. At the beginning of the trip, when I was still building strength, going uphill was generally a gradual process of shifting into a lower and lower gear and moving slower and slower until I reached the top and could coast down. Or sometimes if I was already in my lowest gear, my only option was to snake the rest of the way up, pulling my handlebars back and forth rapidly or riding in tiny "S" shapes to gain enough power to make it to the top. But after gaining strength I soon realized that often the energy lost while transitioning from a higher to a lower gear simply wasn't worth it, and if there was a way to power up a hill using momentum (perhaps from a previous downhill) that would be infinitely more effective. Even switching gears early, before I really felt the gradient, proved to be advantageous, as opposed to trying to switch mid-hill. By switching early, I could get a quick rhythm going in my legs and then simply slow down as necessary while climbing (though towards the end I sometimes didn't even have to).

I also learned some important skills for descending, which is significantly easier but also significantly scarier (and more dangerous) than ascending. These proved important in the Tetons and the Cascades, when we often found ourselves sharing narrow roads with cars who were legally required to move at a slower speed than our bikes wanted to go. While my summer trip has by no means made me an expert, in my experience the key to descending lies in minimal and strategic braking and in planning ahead. From the beginning we were taught to feather our brakes during descents rather than all-out clamping them so as to avoid locking our wheels and wearing out the brake pads. Also important was to avoid breaking mid-turn, which might result in skidding or wiping out. I focused a great deal on making sure to brake during straightaways until I was moving at a comfortable speed to make any upcoming turn. Finally, I read up on cornering tactics a bit before the trip, and this proved invaluable for the curvy mountain roads of the American West. Basically cornering involves planning a turn so as to minimize the centripetal force you experience and leaning into the turn in order to move with (not against) the force you do feel. There were a few times when cornering correctly meant cycling quite close to oncoming traffic so as to give myself the most space possible to execute the turn, but the feeling of being in control of my bike was far more important to me than the possibility of angering or scaring a motorist. And usually motorists were considerate, as it was clear that we were moving at high speeds and doing something pretty daring and impressive on our bikes.

One final story can serve to illustrate the zen I learned over the course of the trip. One of our most challenging rides was a century from Casper to Shoshoni (Wyoming). All day we faced headwinds of over 30 mph, with gusts up to 40 mph. It left most of us crawling along at under 10 mph, and I found I had to dedicate most of my energy to keeping my bike upright, let alone actually going anywhere. To top it off, the wind was continuously howling in my ears, making it impossible to hear my own thoughts, let alone have a conversation with someone, and the occasional gust of sand and dirt would hit my body full force. My first instinct on that brutal day was of course to be angry and frustrated, but as I paused to consider my emotional response I was struck by its complete futility. My anger would do nothing to change the wind; I was an utterly inconsequential pawn in the great game that nature had decided to play that day. I didn't want to give up; I had already come too far and overcome too many obstacles for this to phase me. So the only option was to keep pedaling. Calmly. Slowly. At under 10 mph. This for me was the ultimate exercise in zen. I had a very, very simple task: Just keep pedaling. And yet it had become extremely frustrating due to something completely beyond my control: Wind. But, I thought, wasn't it presumptuous of me to consider this wind so outrageous? Couldn't every day of the trip have been like this? Haven't I been extremely lucky that it hasn't been? It was a rough day, but with my goal in mind and my thoughts waxing philosophical, I powered through. One pedal stroke at a time.

And in the end, that is what life is about. Recognizing how lucky I am, even in the midst of giant challenges, and simply keeping on moving. I remember realizing at some point while we were in Connecticut that the hills always looked bigger as I approached them than they actually were. A hill that seemed unreasonably steep from afar would turn out to be a feasible challenge once I had switched gears and adjusted my mindset. It was all about continuing to spin: Even if I moved slowly, I would eventually get to the top. And the analogy seemed so fitting as I was about to embark on the quest for a post-college job and face the challenge of building an adult life for myself. The hills looked huge, but once I arrived I knew I would be able to get to the top. Even if it took forever.

This is how I felt at the top of Teton Pass. This is also how we should all feel about our precious, unique, and exciting lives.

Monday, June 2

Feats of Endurance

My First Century
The first part of this post is about my first ever century (100-mile) ride. I completed it this past Thursday in Dallas, and it was the culmination of more than two months of training on my bicycle for Bike & Build this summer.

I can't emphasize enough how lucky I am to be able to incorporate technology into my training. I've used Strava on my Android phone for several years now to track my running and cycling routes, but I've recently begun to use it more socially. Strava proved invaluable in planning my century route; all I had to do was search for previous century routes used by other Strava members and use Google Maps and common sense to craft my own. The route I designed started at Valley View Park, where the White Rock Trail begins, and wound its way into South Dallas as far as DeSoto.

My century ride proved eventful from the start, because I was riding through areas of Dallas that were pretty unfamiliar to me. The first interesting new sight was Mountain Creek Lake, where a breeze off the water helped me cool down. I also passed Dallas Baptist University, a campus dominated by a giant, white church steeple and heavy, Southern-style architecture. As I continued, I began to encounter my first legitimate hills. My training so far has been concentrated in North Dallas, which is incredibly flat, so while the ascents weren't particularly steep, they were still a challenge. At one point I found myself struggling up a steep road, sweating bullets as the sun beat down on me. Spray-painted on the asphalt by my tire, I saw the word "DIG." I decided it had been left there by a construction crew and disregarded it until a few pedal strokes later when my front tire rolled over the word "DEEP," as well as a giant smiley face. This made me laugh and gave me just the motivation I needed to make it up the hill, knowing that someone (probably many people) had been in my exact position before, had struggled, but had made it to the top.

The next point of interest on my trip occurred when I turned onto Sleepy Hollow Drive and discovered a weird neighborhood, perfectly landscaped with tropical plants and clearly designed to look like something out of a fairy tale. How they get those plants to grow in Texas is beyond me, but I stopped in the shade for a quick lunch and breather. After a few more hills, my ride became pretty uneventful for awhile, as I rode through a relatively rural area on two lane roads and even through some cornfields at one point.

The next big event occurred in Hutchins, Texas, a South Dallas suburb that seemed very poor to me. After passing the Hutchins State Jail, I attempted to make a left onto Langdon Road. Unfortunately I took the turn a little too fast, hit a patch of sand with my tires, and was going down before I knew what hit me. Luckily the fall was not bad. I was able to stand up immediately, and a friendly police officer who had seen the whole thing pulled over to make sure I was okay. With a bloody knee and a lot of dust on my bike, I sat on the side of the road for awhile to collect myself. The bad news was that I didn't have the materials to clean and bandage my knee, but the good news was that both my bicycle and I were still in good enough shape to complete the ride. After washing off the wound and eating a Three Musketeeers bar for moral support, I continued my journey, looking extra hardcore with my scraped-up knee.

Luckily the rest of my ride was uneventful. I passed through a very industrial area of Dallas and then rejoined the Dallas trail system to arrive back at my car. The ride, in total, took just over 7.5 hours and was a distance of 98.9 miles. Considering my longest ride before this had been only 70 miles, I was super proud of myself for finishing and experienced a post-century, endorphin-filled "high" for the rest of the evening.

The mangled cue cards from my century ride, covered in sweat, bike grease, saliva, and blood.

Bike & Build Fundraising
The second part of this post is about raising money for Bike & Build. This has been simultaneously a frustrating and incredibly rewarding process. As you can see from the fundraising thermometer on the upper right, as well as from my bio page, I have officially not only met, but exceeded, my $4500 fundraising goal for the summer.

I can't thank everyone who donated enough. You are all making a big difference for those without adequate housing. You are also making it possible for me to dedicate my summer to that cause through the vehicle of cycling. I've wanted to do Bike & Build for over two years, and it's hard to believe that it's finally happening, but I am so excited and so thrilled (and so terrified!) that it actually is.

I've asked a lot of people for support over the past six months. There were some people who I knew from the beginning would donate; there were others whose donations came as a complete surprise to me. If there's one thing I've taken away from the process, it's to never rule someone out as a sponsor and to always be your own most enthusiastic supporter. I always received the most donations during the moments I was most enthusiastic; I guess that excitement is contagious!

Exceeded my goal! Thanks, everyone!
There were times when I thought I might not meet my goal. I hovered at the 76% mark for a week or two in May, nervous and too busy with graduation to really throw myself into fundraising. But then, at the end of May an incredible number of donations started pouring in. Between May 28th and June 1st, 15 new people donated a total of $1150! It was during this period that I met my goal, thanks to a large and unexpected donation from a family friend.


This is the largest fundraiser in which I've ever participated, and I've learned a lot from the process. It's not easy, but in my case it was truly amazing how all my friends, family, and mentors came together to support me. From the $10 donations of fellow college students to the incredibly generous donations over $100, every little bit has helped make my summer possible, and I appreciate it all so much!

Bike & Build 2014, here I come!

Sunday, May 25

Graduation

Posing with the fog log after graduation.
Somehow I didn't fall in those heels.
Graduation. It happened. I don't actually feel like I have a lot to say about it. I've had so many rich life experiences, many outside the context of UT Dallas (i.e. travel, internships), that graduation almost seems like a weird and irrelevant formality. On the other hand, I experienced enough emotions during the ceremony to know that it wasn't. I'm proud of myself for successfully completing my four years, especially as part of the McDermott Scholars Program, which held me to a pretty high standard in terms of grades, community service, and campus involvement. It was stressful at times, but now I'm a university grad with no debt, an impressive resume, and so many awesome memories. I am incredibly thankful for that.

In the end, I earned a B.S. in International Political Economy, which I like to describe as political science with more math. I had the opportunity to study Arabic, both at UT Dallas and abroad, and found my niche on campus working as an editor for the opinion paper, A Modest Proposal, and competing around the country with the moot court team. It's been an amazing four years, and I know I will miss the college student lifestyle, as well as the unique and nerdy culture at UT Dallas.

Thanks to my family (including those not pictured here) for their wonderful
support at graduation and throughout my four years of college.