A Letter of Gratitude

The memories I hold from this trip stand on many shoulders, especially those of my donors. Some of you were friends, family, coaches, or teachers. Thank you for believing in me and for believing in this cause. Others, I have never met in person. A special thank you for taking a chance on me. None of these experiences would have been possible without your generosity and support.

To the people I met along the way–from churches, at build sites, in gas stations, and on the road, thank you for your time, your kindness, and your genuine stories. Mary from Parsons, West Virginia, I can’t thank you enough for your words of wisdom, sadness, and hilarity. That hot shower was great, too. Robert from Moab, Utah, your warm-hearted smile will not be forgotten. Payton from Kansas, keep it real with those boots, little man. 

Thank you, drivers who gave us 3+ feet when passing on the road.

To my teammates, I can’t imagine sharing those dance moves, emotions, sunsets, digestive hardships, and physical challenges with another group of nuts. We might not see or speak to each other for a long time. But we will always have these 10 weeks to look back on, whether with fond warmth or dramatized harshness. Either way, it was 70-something days of summer when our lives crossed paths and we did something that was incredibly unique. Our collection of oddities, traditions, and strange events might never be understood by anyone else. 

And to you, dear reader, thank you for joining me on this adventure. It was a pleasure to share this thrilling experience with you.

You all make my heart swell.

With love and endless appreciation,

Michelle

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One Last Sunset Together

Hello, everyone. If you’re wondering, I’m mostly OK right now, with some slight symptoms of withdrawal. I don’t know if you noticed, but I have been trying hard to avoid writing this post. Because it really does put me in an anxious place. Maybe it’s too soon to be talking about the end of this journey, especially since it ended so quickly, and in such an unexpected way. But I figure I should do this as soon as possible, even if my emotions are still in a weird place. I figure this will be interesting for my family, friends, and future self, to read.

In my current state of anxiety, I have started and deleted the first sentence of this post about 10 times, cut off the same number of inches from my almost-dreadlocked hair, and had countless solo dance parties in my room to all the summer tunes I’ve missed while on the road.* I also find a pile of Lindt chocolate truffle wrappers in front of me, and I simply do not know how they got there.

I’m sitting here, consulting the frenzied scribbles in my personal journal, trying to decide what I want to give away, and what I want to keep for myself.

I’ll go back to Stockton first. We had our last build day of the trip in Stockton, California. When we got to the build site, we met George, a man who clearly had a lot of experience with building and wore his Carhartt overalls with deserved pride. He told us about the Habitat for Humanity in Stockton, as well as the importance of location and orientation of homes. George talked about some of the green building methods that the Stockton chapter uses in order to make homes more cost efficient. “Minimize to maximize, maximize to minimize,” he’d say. We were then directed by Rene, a charismatic, and interesting, build manager. As a reader of this blog, Rene was already familiar with some of our team and the shenanigans that we engage in on this trip. We were split up and put to work roofing, fencing, and digging holes. It was great to work with a Habitat affiliate that, days earlier, after our deliberations, we had decided to give a grant to.

The next morning, we set our sights on Palo Alto. My tire had reached the end of its life, and by mile 20, I had a flat and found several large slashes in my tire. I decided to wait for sweep while taking a nap underneath a tree by the road. When Trevor and Stephen pulled up, they had red, white, and blue stripes in their hair and a matching patriotic tire, that had been donated by “Dan from Central”. I set off in high spirits, with a new tire and war paint on my face.** We rode through a pass that was surrounded by hills of dry yellow grass, wind mills, and solar panels. This, to me, was proof that we were, in fact, in California. Lunch, at mile 50, was at Todd’s house, where his parents and siblings greeted us with kindness and delicious food. After lunch, I was still the last person before sweep, so I set off on my own, but rode with Grace and Kelsey for a while before riding on by myself. I was glad to catch up with Cindy and Emily, because we hit a windy and busy one-lane road. Then, things became a little blurry.

The last thing I remember with any clarity, after the accident, was being in an ambulance with a friendly, young guy who was telling me about his life as an EMT. Once at the hospital, I felt a bit woozy, but generally well. Besides some road rash and a bruise on my cheek and lips, I was physically fine. I later found out that I had lost consciousness for quite a while. There was also a conversation or two that I had had, and now have no memory of.

At the hospital, I was given a CAT scan and IV. The doc recommended that I stay at the hospital for at least 12 hours, in case the concussion was more serious than they had initially thought. I was hesitant to stay the night and potentially miss our last day of riding, but I was also too tired and dizzy to really question his advice. Stan, one of our leaders, came to visit me at the hospital and talk out the options. In the end, I decided to stay in the hospital, which would mean I would miss our last day of riding to the shore. I felt disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to finish this journey the way I thought I would, and knew I could. Even so, I felt more relieved than sad about the whole situation. Concussions (I’ve had one in the past) scare me to no end, and the idea of losing memories is one of my biggest fears. I began to rack my brain, making sure that all the sunsets, inside jokes, valuable conversations, dance moves, and silly moments were still there. I hoped to keep these memories safe and locked up in my brain for a long time, and I was so thankful that they were still intact and lucid in my mind.

That night, Stan left me with an amazing bar of Godiva dark chocolate and a not-so-amazing styrofoam box of chinese food. Then my phone started to buzz. I received so many positive messages, silly photos, and funny videos from my teammates. It felt great to smile, even though it hurt my bruised face pretty badly. There are some gems from Kaitlyn, Beth, and Sarah that really made me laugh.

The next morning, after I was cleared for discharge from the hospital, I met Mr. and Mrs. Huntley, May’s parents, in the lobby. They had kindly offered to pick me up from the hospital, which was a 40-minute drive from Half Moon Bay. The Huntley’s are such a positive and energetic family, and even though I would have rather been on my bike, I am glad I got the chance to ride to the bay in the car with them.

Moments later, I was standing next to my teammates, just yards from the Pacific Ocean, still in my paper scrubs. It was a sunny and clear day, one of the best days I have seen in the bay area. The waves were huge, both threatening and hypnotically inviting at the same time. We ran into the water together. Since I was still not feeling that well, I retreated pretty quickly to the sand while everyone played and swam in the ocean. I found a spot to sit in the sand, and video-called Melissa, one of our riders who left the trip early to start her job in Ohio. I’m glad I got to share that moment of joy and accomplishment with a teammate, even though she was thousands of miles away.

Watching my teammates play in the ocean was a moment I won’t forget. I thought about how we had met just 10 weeks ago, as strangers, eager to embark on a grand adventure that was not yet grand nor yet an adventure. Though there have been other Bike and Build trips, the unique memories that we created, both as individuals and as a family, make #P2C14 so special.

After the wheel dip, we headed back to the church, where I began dealing out some early goodbyes. The initial plan was for me to figure out my own way of getting back home, probably by greyhound or the train, but my worried parents had driven up from Southern California earlier that morning because of the accident. I was sitting at a table when someone tapped me. I turned around to find my mom standing there. I felt a bunch of indecipherable sensations in my stomach, and for a moment, I thought indigestion was the culprit, considering the mess of foods I had stuffed in my mouth earlier that afternoon. I hugged my mom. I don’t remember how long it lasted, but it was so nice to be in such a familiar embrace. My dad joined us in the church, and I could see the concern and relief on both of their faces.

We met later that night on the beach. My parents drove me, Rob, and Cindy back to the shore, where we found some Bike and Build alum working a grill. The sun was beginning to set. We were bathed in California’s golden light, and it was surreal. Everyone was enjoying the view, the food, and the drinks that were thoughtfully provided and planned by our alum. There was a certain satisfied sadness, knowing that this would be the last sunset we would watch together. The Pacific Ocean was a goal, a motivating force, that we had been talking about since Providence, but now that we were finally here, it didn’t seem real. It was romantically melancholy to think that the Pacific was not just a goal, but also an endpoint to this journey. Someone started a bonfire, and s’mores popped out of nowhere because that’s what happens. A cop came and made us put out the fire, because that’s the law.

After the party, we drove back to the church, and after some more extended goodbyes, I parted ways with the strangers that had become my friends and family over the past two months.

*If you know me, you know that I’m just playing that new Taylor Swift song on repeat.
**Bike grease from my dirty chain

Relaxing and Reflecting in Tahoe

Yesterday was our third (and last) rest day of the trip. We were lucky enough to get to spend it in South Lake Tahoe. It’s a bustling tourist town, so unlike the ghost towns we have been staying in for the past week in Nevada. Oh–almost forgot to mention–we made it to California! The day that we rode into town, everyone dispersed to explore the exciting city. Some went to cafés and souvenir stores, others to get food or bike stuff. A lot of people chose to nap. I joined this last group and took a satisfying siesta on the floor of the Grace Center’s stage. Afterwards, a few of us went to the beach, less than a mile up the road, for a quick dip before the sun set.

Even on off days, I find it hard to sleep in, no matter how tired I feel. This time though, I woke up with a mission to see the sun rise over North America’s largest alpine lake. Rob and I found a spot by the same beach we swam in the day before, and sat there, watching the sun’s glow grow out of the mountains. I listened to the ducks and the seagulls and the waves, all singing their distinct morning tunes. It was otherwise silent. So different from the later hours, when cars would constantly be whizzing by.

When the sun finally came out, it put on a magnificent and complex show. Facing the light in the east, the colors in the sky were vibrant and dazzling. Looking towards the west, they were pastel and calm. Both were breathtaking in their own way.

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The day was filled with fun and relaxing activities, including browsing the fruit and veggie selection at a local farmer’s market (have you ever tried an undried prune? They’re delicious!) and sipping mint tea at a cafe. In the afternoon, Adriel, Rob, Todd, and I sat at the beach again, this time with a grill. Todd grilled some chicken, while Rob cooked squash and udon noodles. I took this time to lay on the grass, alternating between reading my book and staring off at the cloudless sky.

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Some of our other teammates joined us by the grill after their cliff diving/jumping excursion. By this time, people had crowded out the water with paddle boards and kayaks. The place was buzzing with human activity.

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With only 4 days left on the road, I realize how much this journey has taught me. Watching the sun rise on the water, I made a promise to be humble to the vastness and beauty of this world. The brevity of our stay here asks us to decide what we want to do and how we want to do it. Some days, you do well. Other days, you can’t wait for the setting sun to erase the records, allowing you to start anew in the morning. Among many other things, I have learned to appreciate the fact that things don’t last forever.

Snapshots

I know what you’re thinking. I have been seriously neglecting this whole blogging thing. Big time. And I just want to say that I apologize for the long hiatus. But I can’t apologize for the things I have been doing with my time instead. These are some moments. They’re the snapshots that flash in front of my eyeballs before I fall asleep. They are the things I am extremely grateful to have witnessed and experienced. The good and the bad.

  • Watching the sun set at Colorado National Monument. It was our first night camping out, and everyone was still smelly and exhausted from the ride. We found a spot that looked down into the canyon and about half of our team sat there to stare at the setting sun. Cindy, Adriel, and Ben sat at the ledge, casting picturesque shadows on stone. The guitar and ukulele played softly until the sun was completely obscured by the rock formations in front of us.Watching the sun setSinging at sunset
  • Working with Habitat for Humanity in Salida and Montrose. We learned how to install windows, and worked with precision and resolve for the entire day.
  • Crossing the Colorado-Utah border with Cindy and (leader) Michelle. We had been in Colorado for almost two weeks, and it had felt like home. Colorado had punished and nurtured us. It showed us what we were made of, and what we could accomplish. It introduced us to smells and colors and insights we had never experienced before. It was sad to leave, but it also felt like a natural progression. Like growing up. That day, Cindy received news that her grandfather had passed away. I didn’t know how to react, just like I didn’t know how to react to my own grandparent’s passing. Every once in a while, something like this flips back us back to actual life, threatening the simple and surreal bubble that we live in now. Utah
  • Building with, and learning from, affordable housing groups besides Habitat for Humanity. In Moab, we had the chance to spend a day with Community Rebuilds, an organization that promotes affordable housing through natural, green building materials. We learned about straw bale homes, which are an alternative to the standard homes that we have been constructing with Habitat. In Green River, our team had a build day with Epicenter, which is a resource center that promotes affordable housing and small businesses in the small Utah town. After a productive day with our build manager, Steph, we were rewarded with some delicious Indian food. Then, we loaded up a truck and van, and made our way down to the river. It was extremely muddy, like most rivers are, but this one also had fine sand the color of straw. Jagged rocks framed the backdrop. Michelle and I lay near the shore, bellies in the sand, and had a wonderful conversation. I got out of the water in time for the setting sun to dry me off. May and I played a couple of tunes on the ukulele while some of our teammates learned yoga positions and karate moves from our new Epicenter friends.Green River, Utah
  • Sitting on a big rock in Torrey, Utah, after Barbara and Bob graciously welcomed 31 hungry and smelly kids into their home. Rob joined me, and we watched the sun paint some amazing colors onto the landscape. Typically, it’s only been in private moments that I have felt so close to the earth. This was one of the first instances in a long time that I have experienced the clarity of solitude with a companion. The natural splendor around us asked for nothing more than for us to embrace its gifts.Torrey, Utah 10501811_10152345281402423_3261558709398412000_n
  • Riding with Grace as my sweep partner. We struggled the entire way, but managed to take several naps, have dance parties, and grunt our way to Salina. Somewhere along the way, we were attacked by bloodsucking leeches. Like I said, good and bad.
  • Solo cycling to Delta, Utah. Clearing my mind and singing songs from Les Mis the whole way through.
  • Finally crossing into Nevada today. We are currently staying in Baker, NV, a tiny but big-hearted town of 68 residents. It was so exciting to call my mom and know that we are finally in the same time zone!Nevada!

Thoughts on Riding Alone

After the organized frenzy of chores and route meeting in the morning, those who haven’t made previous arrangements already will begin to scout out people to ride with for the day. Lately, I have been riding alone a lot. I even earned the esteemed nickname “the lone she-wolf” by Ben. I value solitude, and tend to be more introspective and quiet than most. Interestingly enough, my alternate persona shimmies on the side of the road and challenges Jill to gobble-offs. Make of that what you will. I’m a pile of contradictions.

When you’re surrounded by 30 nutty people at all other hours of the day, it’s nice to get some time alone on the road. When I’m alone, I am more aware of how I carry myself, and how softly and intentionally I move upon the landscape. I am more aware of the patterns of life around me. The din of my doubts becomes superseded by the hush of the trees, the sound of sweet spring water rippling out of vividly-colored rocks, the peripheral view of a hawk flying over the mountain’s crests. I am gazing at that graceful buck instead of staring at someone’s back wheel.

But sometimes solitude turns into grim loneliness. In those moments, I realize just how lucky I am to be surrounded by my 30 nutty teammates. No matter how much I enjoy being alone, I am always grateful for the invitations, and the laughs and conversations that follow.

Early in the morning, en route to Gunnison, I bumped into May when she got a flat. I was having a sluggish day, and couldn’t seem to motivate myself to go faster than at a perambulatory pace. Luckily, May’s humor, energy, and amazing lung capacity was just what I needed to get through Monarch Pass. Talking about the world, our communities, and our inner selves, encouraged me to think in a different way while challenging me to put those thoughts into words. As I get to know more people on this trip at a deeper level, I am reminded, again and again, how good simple companionship can be.