Saturday, August 7, 2010

Champs Elysees!

After a grueling stretch of cycling through the endless mountains, headwinds, and deserts of Northern Nevada, our rides up to Lake Tahoe and wicked descents down through the Sierra Nevada (cruising for 3 miles at 50+ MPH -- yeah!!) have felt like a victory lap of sorts. We had our last build day in Yuba City, where we put a fresh coat of paint on the exterior of a home built by the Yuba-Sutter H4H nearly 15 years ago, to make good on their commitment to housing that is not just affordable but of the quality that all working Americans want for themselves and their families.

Now our group is enjoying a day off in Napa, California, after what was probably our last hard day of riding. We put in 92 miles of riding from Yuba City, with some wicked climbing up steep grades from mile 68-85. Professional riders climb these hills for the Tour of California, and while it was tough going up we were rewarded with some good descents and sharp curves on banked road.

We will sight the Pacific tomorrow when we ride to Point Reyes, and then on to San Francisco on the 9th. It is difficult to imagine an end to this experience and its unique lifestyle, and with the growing sense of achievement I think we're all feeling a bit woozy. Looking back over our first rides in Florida and all the very challenging moments of our long ride it feels like much more than one summer has gone by. We will have a chance to recap in San Francisco at a celebration planned for us by the San Francisco Planning and Urban Renewal board (SPUR), and we are working now to put together a presentation that will give them a chance to learn about Bike and Build, the tremendous work we've done, and what the experience has been like. Still, I find it challenging enough to sum up in my own head the totality of this experience, and to convey it all to others seems almost hopeless. I know I've been able to capture and convey some of the significance by keeping this blog, but I should say that I'll be thinking this all through for the rest of my days and will likely never have my head around it fully!

Thanks to all of you who have supported this trip through donating, sending prayers and good wishes, and following our route!

I also want to give a special thanks to my former VC rugby teammate Matt "intense" Wise!

Monday, July 26, 2010

A weight on our shoulders, a mountain up ahead

Difficult to believe that it's been two weeks since I've been able to post an update --- my apologies! Cell phone service, let alone internet, has been difficult to come by since we left Farmington, New Mexico and trekked west across the desert and the Navajo Nation in Northern Arizona. Such sparse population may frustrate communication and my need for frequent snack stops, but it's made for a kind of beautiful desolation. That, coupled with the sometimes Martian landscape, makes it hard to believe that this terrain is a part of the same earth where elsewhere trees grow green and abundant water laps at shores.

I wish I could share the host of amazing experiences we've had over the last two weeks, from flying down a gravel road to swim Lake Powell after 101 miles to hiking down to a waterfall-fed swimming hole in the Grand Canyon, but for us a pall has been cast over even these wonderful days by the death of Paige Hicks. Paige was a leader on Bike and Build's Providence to Seattle route, and on July 20 was struck and killed by a tractor-trailer while stopped on the shoulder of a road in South Dakota. More information about the accident and the course of action that Bike and Build has taken in response can be found at I would ask especially that you think about sending a note to Paige's family or the riders on her route, P2S (mail drops can be found on the website). We're working hard to let them know that they are being thought of with sympathy and kindness, and they sure can't have too much of that right now.

This has been a heavy blow to everyone in our organization, but it is one that can only reinforce our commitment to the value of what we are doing, despite the inherent risk. It is difficult to acknowledge, but each of us understood that an awful accident like this is well within the realm of possibility out there on the road. Our route has been fortunate to proceed so far without major accidents, but we've seen these things too many times to recount: motorists have brushed or forced our riders off the road, hung out of windows to shout or even swing at us, oncoming drivers have chosen to pass in our lane even as several of us cyclists are coming up a shoulderless road, drivers suddenly turn right without any signal or regard for our cyclists coming up on the shoulder, drivers and trailers have passed us within a foot or two and blared their horn just as they come alongside us.

We understand that it is often difficult to share the road, but it is a right that cyclists deserve and, fortunately, legally possess on all of the roads we ride. The difference between allowing a narrow but relatively safe berth of three feet and choosing to try and scoot by with only several inches is, for us, life and death. It is disturbing to see how many drivers are willing to roll the dice on our lives to save a few seconds of their time. Each year, nearly 700 hundred U.S. cyclists lose that gamble and pay with their lives, and tens of thousands face serious injuries.

We know that cyclists often endanger themselves when they fail to be careful and vigilant, but all of Bike and Build's riders have been drilled on practices to keep us safe and let traffic move freely. Paige's accident is an extra exhortation to us to stick to those religiously. I hope that it is also a wake up call for motorists to be more mindful of cyclists, and, when passing cyclists, to allow a margin of error greater than the drift of a foot in the wrong direction. I would also urge you, if you see a driver endangering or menacing cyclists, to please get the license plate and report the incident to the police. It shouldn't have to be a death or serious injury that teaches a likely well-intentioned driver to be more careful.

Paige was a 21-year old student at Brown University, who hailed from St. Louis, Missouri. I had never met her, but I know that she possessed the tremendous ambition, determination, and goodwill necessary to undertake this trip (for a second time, even). Many, many people would go to the ends of the earth to have her back.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Land of Enchantment!

We've enjoyed a day off in Santa Fe today, an incredibly picturesque city situated beneath the Sangre de Christos Mountains. Bike shops here were especially generous to us as we loaded up on supplies, tires, and new chains before setting off into the desert. A special thanks goes out to Mellow Velo, for the discount they offered and the care package of clif bars and electrolyte chews!

I spent some time today working with the church hosting us here to prepare the free meal, frito pie, they provide to those in need, particularly the city's immigrant day laborers. Speaking with the people there quickly gave me insight into the flip-side of the city's attractive aesthetics and major art markets. Because so many people of means are eager to live in Santa Fe, property values go up. For low-income home owners, this can be a boon as it increases the value of their major asset and investment, their home. But this also means that property taxes increase, and over the past decade in Santa Fe many locals have had to sell their homes and move miles away into the nearest city. So much for any "trickle down effect" from the concentration of the affluent here!

Here's my bit for the trip journal from July 10:

Today was just our second full ride day in New Mexico, but the rolling grasslands, red sandstone ridges, and classic canyons have made for what I would say is the most amazing landscape we’ve seen yet. We started our warm-up for the Grand Canyon back in Texas at Palo Duro (my favorite off the bike experience, hands-down), but I am each time amazed as an otherwise flat and featureless plain suddenly opens up beneath us to reveal what color and what texture water (given a few thousand millennia) can coax from the rock under the earth.

After our first 20 miles to Las Vegas we hit a few nice downhills, but a significant headwind prevented us from reaping the full fruits of that momentum. Around one sweeping curve a sign appeared to warn of an impending 8% downgrade and I, separated from a group, pulled up to wait for some company on what I hoped would be one of our faster descents. As I turned back to catch some riders changing a flat, Colin came around the curve by himself. He sighted the 8% sign, we exchanged a grin, shifted up, and started mashing towards the drop. The slope and our speed increased gradually, but after a second warning sign the road suddenly dropped like a stone towards the floor of a surprise canyon (!) carved by the Canadian River. Colin’s heavier frame and slicker wheel hubs had him rolling further ahead of me, but wide sweeps in the road let us both pedal the straights and turns to approach and, in Colin’s case, exceed 50 MPH.

We screamed the mile down to the canyon floor in about 75 thrilling seconds, and stopped there for a few war whoops and a glance up at the steep stone walls now rising around us. Other riders descending gave us an additional thrill, but that excitement was soon tempered by the acknowledgement that canyons are, in a certain sense, just inverse mountains. So we had a serious climb ahead of us! Still, there were no low spirits on the 2 miles up (at a slighter grade, thankfully), and had it not been for the near-century set on our plate that day I think more than a few of us would have turned around and, added climbing notwithstanding, taken another trip from rim to floor for a second shot at a speed record!

I wish there were more to say about the other 94 miles ridden today, but I suppose it says something about what we’re doing and about cycling generally that a 6-hour ride can pack all of its energy, adrenaline and amazement into that one stunning minute!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Everything is ________ in Texas

Unlike Louisiana and Mississippi, there was no guesswork involved in determining whether we'd crossed into Texas. An enormous "Welcome to Texas" sign and dozens of Lone Star flags both flying and painted onto barns, curbs, and storefronts made it all quite clear. With just 3 ride days from the border to Dallas, our ambitious schedule had us zooming 90 miles across the surprisingly steep and verdant rolling hills of East Texas, through Carthage, Athens, and then Sunnyvale. Today we ticked off 90 miles from Dallas to Decatur, and, with the aid of blistering tailwind spun from a disintegrating hurricane, myself and another rider covered the last 40 miles in about 1 hour 45 min. I'd swear there was smoke coming off the road!

Though our impression has been that the folks in Louisiana were the kindest, Texans have served up some singularly impressive hospitality. Rick and Elaine in Carthage welcomed, for the fifth year, all 33 of us to sleep on their floor, swim in their pool, and stuff ourselves silly with a slow-smoked beef brisket. Pete and Sally in Sunnyvale for three straight days took it upon themselves to ensure that we never went more than a few hours without a lavish and generous meal, a debt I hope we at least partially repaid by framing and raising the exterior and interior walls for a new home built by the Garland County Habitat for Humanity affiliate.

Our second night at Pete and Sallys, we were treated to some Texas-sized burgers and ate with several folks who had earned Habitat homes. I spoke for sometime with Julia, who works for the Stetson hat company. She recalled applying for a home and, shortly before the list for that year would be cut, received a raise. Worried that it might compromise her eligibility but determined to act honestly, she reported the raise straightaway. As it turned out, it was the raise that made her eligible, without which she would have fallen below H4H's minimum income for managing her mortgage. 2 and a half years later, she and her two children moved in, and she spoke movingly about the impact that it has had on her son and daughter. For both children, she said, having the home has boosted their sense of security and stability, but she noticed the most profound impact for them emotionally was the boost it gave to their self-esteem. Julia explained that having a home didn't just provide a sense of worth, but a sense that there were opportunities for them that they could work to realize. Those insights were, for me, probably the most significant affirmation of our work's worth!

So the rolling hills have evened out to a characteristically flat landscape, but with the increasing July heat we can feel the moisture disappearing from the air as we chug west. Not far from the deserts and canyonlands of old west now...

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Drop me off in New Orleans . . .

We are just now rolling off our week in New Orleans, and making our way north and west through Baton Rouge and rural Louisiana. It will be difficult to say enough about our experience in New Orleans, but impossible to keep quiet!

We came into the city at a blistering pace, averaging better than 22 MPH and cycling like we could outpace the heat and humidity. We couldn't, of course, but after 70 odd miles we found in the French Quarter some great seafood and hospitality, and an opportunity to get a good rest and watch the USA's first World Cup Match. After personally putting down a big bowl of seafood gumbo and two shrimp po'boys, I and our small group wound our way through the French Quarter. Decked out in our Bike and Build kits and accelerating with every break the traffic, we drew more than a few shouts and quizzical looks; with a few war whoops it came to me that this was the closest I might ever get to what American GIs felt as they marched into Paris. On Sunday we had a day off to soak up the city, take in its wooden street cars and brass bands, and ask each other whether we had crossed some invisible border into country unmarked on any map or globe. [The best answer to that, of course, is that, singular as it is, a city like New Orleans belongs only in the good ol' US of A]

From that experience of the city's unique character and jazz-driven energy, our first build day in the Ninth Ward was something of a shock. Driving over the bridge into the city, it's easy to see where the levees broke and floated homes for blocks and blocks. What had been a bustling part of the city remains a checkerboard wasteland of abandoned homes and bulldozed lots overgrown with thick grass. Even those that are being slowly renovated and reinhabitated still bear the spray paint marking of the National Guard sweeps after Katrina, with the date, TFW for toxic flood water, and the number of bodies found there.

The 9th ward, impoverished though it was, acutally had a 95% home ownership rate before Katrina. From an affordable housing standpoint, this would be a major success story for any low-income community. Though the media may have focused on the more destitute families affected by the storm, the neighborhood contained in reality a high number of working people earning enough to own their own home, and realizing that opportunity. After the storm, these people not only lost their single major investment but often had to find and pay for new housing while budgeting mortgage payments and taxes on a home that was underwater for three months. Road Home, a federal program designed to give $150k grants to hurricane victims to held them rebuild and return home, saw most of the funds designated for New Orleans residents ferreted away by corrupt contractors. Less than 25% of 9th Ward residents have returned to their homes, and among all of the storm survivors there is an unnaturally high death rate, as the stress and trauma of evacuation and the ongoing dislocation in their lives and among their families continues to take a toll. This was related to us by Mac, a 9th Ward resident who returned and poured his resources and his time into created the 9th Ward Village, a community center designed to give residents a unified voice, and bring people home. Mac was one of the more inspiring we spoke with. He spoke of losing the home he had worked to purchase, and over a dozen antique cars which he worked to refurbish and kept. These things were his pride and joy, and he described for us the crisis of identity and feelings of worthlessness he fought after they were literally all washed away. Still, he, like others we spoke to, called Katrina the best thing that ever happened to him, the kind of eye-opening experience which, though destructive, is also powerful enough to radically re-orient one's life. He described his work at the community center as fulfilling the purpose he had not yet found, and his words will stick with me: "The higher power don't make no mistakes, and you do have a purpose. It's like a light that you've seen your whole life, but that has only just then come on for the first time."

We spent just two days building in the 9th ward before being shifted to another site in East New Orleans, helping a guy we knew as Jeff rebuild the interior of a home he had purchased just 12 days before Katrina, which hit days before his homeowner's insurance could take effect. He wanted to move to East New Orleans after one of his twin sons was killed by a stray bullet in the 9th Ward, and was when we met him working six days as week to manage a Dollar General while supporting an extended family, and putting himself through college to teach elementary school. Because the organization we were volunteering with, the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana, had lost funding to continue their rebuilding program, Jeff did not have a site supervisor who could help provide the tools and supplies needed to get all the sheetrock up and prepped for painting, not to mention handle installation of cabinets and appliances that Jeff has to purchase with the little income he can spare.

Those circumstances made our work frustrating, since without sufficient tools and organization our energy and willingness to work felt wasted, though we knew the need for those things was so great. Still, it did highlight why it is we ride. If the attention, resources, and organization to tackle the affordable housing crisis and the effort to rebuild the Gulf Coast from Katrina already existed, there would be no reason for us to do cycle. We'd just drive from build to build.

What we are trying to do, though, is first to let people know that these problems exist, and that even though national attention has receded the Gulf Coast will be rebuilding from Katrina for the next two decades, despite recession-drained under-funding and a new environmental and economic disaster creeping along their shores. That these people have to face these twin disasters is almost beyond comprehension, and as our site supervisor in the 9th Ward (donating his time and materials to help his childhood friend's mother get her home back) showed us photos of his weekend fishing haul (probably 100lbs of catfish and saltwater stock) it was apparent that, for many in New Orleans and along the coast, the oil crisis will be just as painful as Katrina. He had related to us without flinching how he fled with his family, lost all their possessions but their clothes, and spent several months working full time to make both housing payments, and then working at his own home into the wee hours of each morning so that his family could move back in and they could return to something like a normal budget. But when I asked him whether he thought enough was being done to stop the spill and face the clean up, his face twisted: "If they wanted to plug up that well they coulda done it. We put a man on the moon 40 years ago. But they know if they cap it then they can't get at it, and there's a lot of money there. A lot of money, so they'll just make people suffer."

For us New Orleans was a city of extremes, with more excitement that we are likely to get all trip, an indefatigable joy that floats on its vibrant musical culture, and a deep and painful wound that will now see more salt than care. If that seems a hard place to leave it, then I would say the same about our departure from that wondrous place.

Love from the road,

**This post goes out to Heather McGuiness, a good friend in DC who supported my participation on this trip! Thanks Heather, and to all of you who have donated!**

Monday, June 14, 2010

Like walkin' down Dauphine Street

It's not been so long since we left Panama City, but in Bike and Build time it might as well be a month. A quick run-down of recent highlights include watching dolphins jump and hunt fish in the Gulf, savoring the best shrimp creole on either side, bayou, or delta of the MIssissippi, and visiting Beauvoir, the last home of Jefferson Davis, where the staff granted myself and new best friends Zhi, Caroline, and Chelsea not only free admission but a generous dollar donation. It might have felt odd to receive such warmth and support from an organization that parades the stars and bars, but I already believe that our commitment to the USA as a single community and the inspiration spread around by what we are doing cuts across even the most entrenched political divide!

Two recent experiences, though, stand out, and help to highlight just how wonderful this experience is. The first came as we left Pensacola for Mobile, Alabama (the city which offered up the title for this post, which was apparently a 20's, make that 1820's, phrase denoting a thing of exceptional quality). Myself and frequent riding partner Zhi, who races for NYU, were going along at a good clip when he suffered another one of what has proved a despicable streak of flats. With a sigh we pulled off to change the tube, itching to get back on the road and knock out as many miles as we could before the heat rose. Zhi set to work, but an abnormally loud rumble of a jet engine drew my eyes skyward. Suddenly a Navy jet adorned with the blue and yellow of the Blue Angels came screaming over the tree tops, just a few hundred yards over our heads. We could read all the markings clearly for a few seconds, before the pilot pulled into a steep climb and a seemingly effortless flip turn to join 3 of his comrades for some supremely excellent formation flying. Poor Zhi tried hard to quickly change his deflated tube, but my shouts of "Whoaa" and exhortations to look up as the jets looped, turned and barrel-rolled just over our heads, probably complicated matters for him. Other riders rolled by as we all exchanged amazed looks, and we were back on the road as the impromptu air show seemed to subside. This is one of the many wonders encountered when cycling across the country!

Another unique experience came in our ride into New Orleans. The day was impressively hot, with a heat index into the 110s, and we rode hard to get into the city to beat the heat and arrive in time for the USA v. England World Cup match. We made it, found an a/c restaurant in which to watch the game, and were treated to deeply discounted local fare. I ate more gumbo and shrimp po'boys than even I had thought possible, and after my comrades slept through the second half we rolled down Bourbon Street to our host. That experience, riding through the French quarter and drawing stares in our Bike and Build jerseys, is probably the closest I'll get to what American GIs felt when they liberated Paris.

I'll have a great deal more to say about our first few days in New Orleans soon. Sunday we explored the city, listened to street music, found two festivals, and generally enjoyed ourselves to the extreme. Today was our first build day, and we spent it in the lower 9th ward spackling drywall and speaking with folks who lost all they owned, and many of them close family members. Those two dimensions of my experience in this city has made for quite a bit to digest, but I feel already that this is the most unique and compellingly interesting city I've yet set foot in.

"I didn't know that a home could float, before Katrina"

Mac, a lifelong resident of the 9th ward who has returned and poured all of his energy and resources into a nascent community center for the neighborhood. "I sometimes say that Katrina was the best thing that happened to me. I ain't never been so happy, or so broke."

“Life. Is. Difficult!”

Here's the bit I wrote for our trip journal, which you can follow here. Also look for some photos there!

Luke's Journal, Day 7

Today was probably our toughest to date. We put in nearly 90 miles to get from DeFuniak Springs, Florida (which boasts one of only two perfectly circular natural lakes in the world, and yes, we [unnecessarily] cycled the circumference) to Gulf Breeze, just outside Pensacola. We knew the day would be hot, and so got off to an early start, up at 0500 and rolling out on our bikes before 7AM. In the morning the wind was with us; I and a few others averaged a cool 20 mph and even with a couple stops (free coffee, used book store . . . yes!) put in almost 40 miles before stopping for lunch around 10:30.

Heading out from lunch we felt the heat building fast. Though the air temperature hovered in the mid-90s, the heat index approached 110, and we felt it. To compound our difficulties, we were pedaling an especially un-scenic, high-traffic, and gravel-ridden stretch of pavement re-radiating the noonday heat like a bed of hot coals. Agitated and saddle-sore, we regrouped for a water break and opted to cross the intra-coastal waterway and reroute across the thin spit of land between the waterway and the Gulf. It proved a good decision, as immediately the traffic died down and a broad and beautiful view of sand and sea opened up before us.

Still, the sun was on top of us and our hoped-for breeze came in the form of a bruising headwind. Our average speed sank and our legs soon felt like we were spinning our wheels in sand. As we made our way through the eerily deserted town of Navarre Beach, we noticed not just the dearth of beach-goers but a few dozen men in reflective vests patrolling the shore, looking for washed-up oil and tar balls.

If this was something of a desolate and depressing scene on an already draining day, I quickly reminded myself that in a matter of weeks our group would be facing longer rides through deserts hotter, drier, and emptier. There will still be sand, I thought, but no sign of water or wind or beach huts selling cold drinks.

We battled onward, but the strength faded from our bodies as the afternoon wore past four o’ clock. Finally, we sighted the high bridge which we knew would bring us just a few short blocks from our host, and with a burst of energy I mashed my gears to get to the top. It was at that point that the bit of adversity we had faced for the day came into perspective against the reason why we ride: we faced some unfavorable winds and weather, but suffered nothing like the troubles of those against whom our social order and prevailing economic conditions have stacked the odds and shorted their hand.

More than a few people have already responded to us with sneers and a diatribe against handouts for people “who need to do for themselves.” What they fail to realize (and what we try, respectfully, to point out) is that, first, the playing field is not level. More importantly, and to use a favorite Habitat catch phrase, what we’re aiming to accomplish is not a hand out but a hand up. The recipients of Habitat homes (funded more and more frequently with Bike and Build donations!), after a long and grueling application process, perform up to 400 hours of what is aptly termed “sweat equity.” This takes the form of labor at the construction site itself, volunteering on other H4H sites, and attending classes on financial management and the basics of home ownership. In short, the sweat expended by our 33 team members today (and that’s no small figure when every person rode every mile despite the heat, the distance, flat tires, etc.) is a drop in the bucket compared to the commitment of those who receive the “charity” we are working to offer.

As I learned on the playing fields of the Vassar College Rugby Football Club (many members of which have donated generously to this cause), “Life is Difficult!” (insert a Briton’s accent and emphasis.) Even if that is so, it is by overcoming its difficulties that we manifest life’s finer fruits, and we do it best when it’s done not just for ourselves.

A special thank you goes out to Sheryl and the Gulf Breeze United Methodist Church, which with their incredibly generous accommodations and provisions brought us like the Israelites out of the desert and into the land of milk and honey (and pleasantly raging a/c)!