For the 15th year in a row, a crew of young adults on bikes pulled into Portland Wednesday almost ready to finish a cross-country bike trip designed to change the way they see their country.
Thursday’s time painting part of a new Habitat for Humanity house in the Cully neighborhood was one of 10 “build days” for the 24-person crew affiliated with the national organization Bike and Build. Part charity bike tour and part Americorps, Bike and Build’s mission is to “benefit affordable housing and empower young adults for a lifetime of service and civic engagement.”
Habitat for Humanity and similar home-building organizations rarely lack for volunteers. But as they finished up work near Northeast 60th and Killingsworth Thursday, Bike and Build participants said their person-hours aren’t really the point.
“A lot of it is about kind of opening up people’s eyes to what’s going on across the country,” said Kelsey Oesmann, 25, a Washington D.C. resident. “In some places the land cost is really high; in others it’s policy restrictions.”
Each participant raises $4,500 for their tour, much of which is donated to affordable housing organizations and other Bike and Build partners. Riders can self-direct $500 to any affordable-housing organization.
But why the bikes?
“I think when you tell somebody that you’re biking across the country, it gets their attention,” Oesmann said. “A road trip wouldn’t.”
Carmen Kuan of Athens, Georgia, said the 4,000-mile bike trip helps participants “develop grit and stamina” and gives them a physical connection to the country.
“You hear the wind whistling through the trees, you hear the hum of the tires on the pavement,” said Kuan, 25, who’s on leave from a research assistant internship. “You become so much more in tune with the environment around you.”
The crew that headed west out of Portland Friday morning was on Day 76 of a trip that started May 21 in Yorktown, Virginia. On July 13, two of their teammates, Anne Davis and Laura Stark, were struck by a woman driving a car on U.S. Highway 26 outside Idaho Falls, Idaho. Davis was killed and Stark remains hospitalized. The cause of the crash is still under investigation.
“Distracted driving is extremely dangerous to both yourself and to others,” said Kuan, speaking carefully after being asked about the incident. She described it as “a collision, not an accident.”
Bike and Build saw no rider fatalities from 2002 until 2010. Since 2010 there have been four.
More than 3,000 riders have participated over the years; each must complete 500 miles of personal training and a skills course before leaving. Many, including Kuan and Oesmann, are already bike commuters in their home towns.
There are 11 Bike and Build routes: eight cross-country and three shorter coastal ones. The Central United States route currently runs through Portland.
“They were great,” said Jake Antles, a construction crew leader for the Portland-area Habitat organization who helped supervise the build day Thursday. “Hard workers.”
Next week, the 24 active members of the team expect to finish their cross-country trip with a ceremonial front-wheel dip in the Pacific Ocean on Cannon Beach. Despite the long journey, the traumatic loss of a teammate and Thursday’s blistering heat, Oesmann said she isn’t eager for the trip to end.
“I’m not sure where my next steps will take me,” she said. “But this has definitely been a transformative experience.”
— Michael Andersen, (503) 333-7824 – firstname.lastname@example.org
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Michael Andersen was news editor of BikePortland.org from 2013 to 2016 and still pops up occasionally.