PEDALING NATIONALLY: To some, a 3,800 mile cross-country trek by bike sounds excruciating. But for two Vassar students, the trip was not only a personal challenge, but also a chance to help others along the way. As part of Bike and Build, a national nonprofit organization, Lindsay Magida ’10 and Willa Conway ’10 spent last summer pedaling 40-100 miles a day, then traded bikes for hammers, stopping once a week to assist in a Habitat for Humanity build.
“I wanted to do something for the community this summer, but I also wanted to be outside,” says Conway. “This was perfect.” Instead of returning to her home in New Mexico, Conway joined a group of 30 riders in Providence, Rhode Island, where they dipped their rear tires in the Atlantic Ocean and began their 60-day journey to Seattle. With seven routes to choose from, Magida rode from Boston to Santa Barbara.
Formed in 2002 as a way to raise money and awareness for affordable housing, Bike and Build awards grant money to local Habitat for Humanity projects, and riders participate in the builds as they travel across the country. Participants raise money beforehand and then collectively decide which projects recieve the money. Over the past five seasons, Bike and Build has awarded more than a million dollars to housing projects, while raising awareness of the need for more affordable housing in America. This summer, the two routes that kicked off in Providence raised enough money to build an entire house. “We actually get to decide where the money we raised goes,” says Magida. “This is one of the coolest parts because you really get to have a hand in deciding who you get to help.”
This summer, the riders were not only cycling to raise awareness, but also to pay tribute to the memory of program director Chris Webber ’05, a Vassar grad who died unexpectedly in 2007. “Our route was in his honor,” reflects Magida. “We stayed in Andover where he was from and had dinner at his parents’ house. They kept sending us cookies throughout the trip, and we sent them postcards. It was really cool to ride in his honor, and you could tell the impact that he had on both the community where he grew up and at Vassar.” All of the riders wore the letters “CW” on their jerseys in Webber’s honor.
For nearly 10 weeks, the riders pedaled on, passing through countless small towns and stopping to spend the night at schools, churches, YMCAs, and at the occasional motel. “We ate at a lot of church potlucks for dinner,” recalls Conway. “The community members were very supportive, and it was interesting talking to them about how they ended up living there and the work they do. I’m majoring in American culture and this may have been the best thing I did all semester because it provided a different perspective on what I’ve been studying.”
“I got to see places and meet people I never would have interacted with,” adds Magida. “Going abroad is a very important way to understand global culture, but it’s hard to understand the rest of the world if I can’t understand my own country.”
“The kindness that we kept experiencing across the nation was amazing,” Magida says, explaining how after two Bike and Build riders crashed in Rushville, Indiana, a car pulled over to help the injured rider get to the hospital and to ensure that the other biker was unhurt. “People were extremely generous and helpful. It was pretty heartwarming and made me feel better about the state of our country.”
When it came to the trip’s nearly constant physical exertion, both of the riders were unprepared to tackle the country’s roughest terrain. “It’s hard, and you’re tired – sometimes you want to cry because you don’t think you can do it,” admits Conway. “Every day was hard, but every day was equally amazing, and I never doubted that I could do it, even though it did sound like a crazy idea.” She recalls a grueling day spent climbing up one of the first mountain passes between Dubois and Jackson, Wyoming, and how on the way down, the Tetons suddenly appeared before them.
For Magida, a day of climbing over 80 miles across the Continental Divide paid off when they arrived along Route 66 in Pie Town, New Mexico, to find that the town’s 60 residents had prepared a meal for them, complete with over a dozen pies. “It was amazing passing through the Western states and seeing how far we’d traveled,” she says. “When we finally reached Santa Barbara, it was very surreal. We all biked in to the beach together and our families and friends were there. Before dipping our rear tires in the Pacific Ocean, we ditched our bikes and ran for the water. It’s a moment I’ll never forget.”