By Sarah OíLeary
Sarah O’Leary, a Science Hill High School and University of Tennessee-Knoxville graduate, is pursuing multiple passions of hers this year. O’Leary is cycling across the northern U.S. while helping advance the cause of affordable housing with “Bike & Build.” The non-profit group organizes and supports multiple cross-country rides each summer, during which participants help raise awareness and funding for affordable housing. She and a group of riders departed Portsmouth, N.H. on June 15. They had reached Madison, Wisc. Friday, and spent Saturday and Sunday as “build days” in Madison. They’re due to complete their roughly 4,000-mile trip Sept. 1 in Bellingham, Wash. Below, O’Leary writes of her motivation for participating this year, and what she’s experienced and learned so far.
After arriving in Portsmouth, the days before we began riding were exhausting and overwhelming, filled with meeting 30 other people, lots of information, and making final preparations. The community of Portsmouth welcomed us with open arms.
The day we began our trip, we gathered at a beach for a Wheel Dip ceremony and a blessing from a local pastor. Members of the community were there to see us off, and during our first 30 miles multiple people along the way called out well wishes.
Since then, we have traveled 1,500 miles to Madison, Wisc., biking through New Hampshire, struggling over the Green Mountains of Vermont, across rural New York, down into Pennsylvania, up into flat Ohio, through Michigan and Illinois, then Indiana, and now Wisconsin. We wake up at 5 a.m. (sometimes as early as 4) and spend almost the entire day on our bikes. At night, we usually stay at churches that graciously offer us a space to sleep and often a meal or two, usually sleeping on church floors or between pews.
Every week or so, we stop in a city for one or two days to work with an affordable affiliate. Usually, we work with Habitat for Humanity, but occasionally we work with a local non-profit. In Grand Rapids, Mich., we spent two days with a community organization called Well House. I love everything about the mission and work they do.
Well House operates upon the principle of “Housing First,” which works to place people in housing regardless of addiction or felonies. I believe housing is a basic human right, and after having the stability that a home provides, one can much more easily work to overcome other issues. The Director of Sustainability of Well House, Danny McGee, is a Bike & Build alum. Meeting him and learning about the work he does made me wonder how this summer is going to influence the path my life takes.
Biking across the country has led to interactions with people from many walks of life: a former Secret Service agent receiving a Habitat home; a couple who hosted me in their home on what happened to be the fifth anniversary of their son’s death; a pastor who became an advocate for affordable housing after a Bike & Build group stayed at her church six years ago.
We’ve stayed in cities as large as Chicago, and towns with only 400 people, biked through downtowns that clearly have not recovered from the recession, and met multiple people who have inspired us with their own stories of biking across country.
When the trip started, I struggled to adjust with living around so many other people. But over the past 32 days, the 31 of us have gone from strangers to a sort of weird family. We are biking the Northern United States route, but there are eight other cross-country routes, and two three-week coastal routes. Although I have not met the other riders, we are all part of the same community.
Last week a woman on the Central United States route, Anne Davis, was hit by a car from behind and died.
Another woman, Laura Stark, was injured and is currently hospitalized. My team got the news around 10:30 at night, and in that moment there was a shift in our group. Starting the trip, we were all aware of the dangers that distracted drivers place on cyclists, but that event made it much more real. Our team bond became much closer, and my paramount priority became ensuring the safety of each person on my team.
It makes me very sad that one distracted driver can end the life of a cyclist who is doing her best to be safe and follow the rules of the road. Biking every day has given me a new appreciation for drivers who respect cyclists, and will definitely make me a better driver when I return home.
Since this event, we have taken time off riding. We have reviewed bike safety, and had a group discussion about our concerns and what our group can do to be even safer. We start riding again in a few days, and I am ready to keep pedaling. There are more miles to go, houses to build, conversations to be had, and hills to climb. We are about a third of the way through, and I’m ready to take on 2,500 more miles.