2006 PFIG Recipient Matthew Burnham

UVA Career Center – August 1st, 2006

Matthew Burnham
School of Engineering and Applied Science
Systems Engineering Major
2008 Graduation Year

Internship: Bike and Build

Notes on the first week

About two weeks ago, I joined 27 other college students in Jacksonville, Florida, to begin my summer internship with Bike and Build. My experiences since that day have been some of the most exciting and rewarding of my life. The past two weeks, combined with the next 8 weeks, will (hopefully) result in all 28 of us bicycling across the United States to raise money and awareness for the affordable housing problem afflicting every community in the nation. On our way from Jacksonville to San Francisco, we will build with local Habitat for Humanity projects in four locations, including a week long stop in Slidell, LA, to help with Hurricane rebuilding efforts. Each rider must raise $4000 for Bike and Build, which is directly distributed as grant money to local Habitat chapters and other affordable housing organizations.

On June 16, we served with Habitat of Jacksonville, and Saturday June 17, after dipping our wheels in the Atlantic Ocean, we began our monumental ride. Two weeks later, we have averaged 75 miles of riding a day, through the most humid environments I have ever experienced. We have ridden through the panhandle of Florida, covered Alabama and Mississippi in a day each, and have now landed in Slidell, outside of New Orleans. We have talked to innumerable people along our way, telling them about our trip and our cause. Everyone is excited to offer their support and to be a part of the solution. We have given community presentations about Bike and Build and about the affordable housing cause to many communities in which we stayed. The churches, YMCAs, and community centers in which we stay have been more than gracious, some of them even providing dinner and/or breakfast for us.

Since we have rode for 9 days in a row, and I feel like the routine of a riding day is permanently ingrained in my mind, I’ll share with you a typical riding day: A wake-up call at 4 AM stirs our exhausted bodies out of our sleeping bags and ‘Therma-rest’ foam pads. Everyone dons matching biking apparel as the breakfast crew sets out a quick meal of cereal and fruit. After packing our water, extra tubes, energy bars and sunscreen, we hit the road. After 40 miles we have our first lunch, which usually consists of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a refill of our water and Gatorade. If the ride is longer than 85 miles, we can look forward to a second lunch at the 70 mile marker. Though we haven’t hit a 100-mile day yet (otherwise known as a ‘century’), we have had 3 days above 93 miles, usually in weather approaching 100 degrees. By 4 PM, everyone has normally arrived at our destination, and the showering and napping rituals begin. After dinner, there is generally more napping or cards, and occasionally something as exciting as a quick trip to Sonic. Sleep comes early for all – by 11 PM, we are all asleep and dreaming of biking again in the morning. Since Sunday, we have stayed in a church in Slidell, alongside hundreds of volunteers from all over the country. Each day we travel to a Habitat worksite, where five homes are being built. We work from 6:50 AM to 3:30 PM alongside other volunteers from all over the world, as well as Habitat staff and Americorps volunteers. Yesterday we raised trusses on a house, giving it a roof and a great look – quite an exciting project! Next Monday, we will hit the road again, heading West toward the grueling Texas roads and onward. To learn more about Bike and Build, or to follow my route (SUS), please visit www.bikeandbuild.org.

Midway

The week with Habitat for Humanity in Slidell was a lot of fun, but VERY hot — around 120 degrees on the roof — my assignment for the week. The tar on the shingles liquefied and everything — our shoes, our clothes and our nail guns — stuck to it. It was a very rewarding week, and many of us were able to talk with the homeowners — giving the experience a much more personal touch. They were so appreciative and excited, it really made all of us proud to make a difference.

After our week of building in Slidell, Louisiana, it was back on the road for the longest week yet — 7 straight days of riding, covering an average of 95+ miles a day. One day we rode 104 miles in one day — our longest yet. The terrain started to change finally in East Texas — with more rolling hills and a more arid climate. We saw many long horned bulls and many cows instead of the swampy marshes and bayou of Louisiana and Mississippi. Texas presented us with the best roads we have seen all summer — wide shoulders and smooth pavement. To quell the rumors, everything is indeed bigger in Texas — from the gigantic sign on the state line to the aforementioned shoulders to the pick up trucks and even the high temperatures — Texas welcomed us with great big open arms. The hospitality across Texas was also larger than life — with the hosts of each town bending over backward to provide us with all the essentials for a night's stay. Although we don't require much — simply a floor, showers and ice water — many of our hosts provided delicious food in the evening and in the mornings before we left. After biking 90-100 miles a day, it is wonderful to arrive to the aromas of a home cooked meal.

One thing that hasn't changed at all, however, is the heat. Although it switched from the sweltering humidity of the Deep South to the intense dry heat of the Southwest, it remains forefront in our mind each day, with temperatures on the pavement threatening our tires and our bodies. We stay as hydrated as possible — drinking 7-11 liters of water a day on the road. We took a day off in Farmersville, Texas — a quaint town which embodied the image of the Old West.

Back on the bikes, and after 7 days of intense riding, we have a day off here, the *original* Las Vegas, the home of TR's rough riders, delightful hot springs, friendly people, and of Patrick Swayze. After leaving Farmersville, Texas, last week, we traveled northwest, reaching Dalhart, Texas, 4 days ago.

From Dalhart, we headed into New Mexico, where we were stared down by the desolation of the American Southwest! We biked 204+ miles in two days through the epitome of the phrase “the middle of nowhere”. The only towns we encountered were our start and end points each day. The road from Dalhart to Mosquero, NM was so remote, we actually had to bike on 16 miles of unpaved roads with no signs of civilization in sight. We are not technically in the desert yet, though we've encountered a fair amount of snakes, cactus, cloudless skies, sunburn, and even a tarantula and a roadrunner! When towns are 102 miles apart, and when all these towns are undergoing, according to a local Habitat volunteer, “a dry spell in the middle of a drought in the middle of the desert,” water is a precious commodity. On average, I drink 7-11 liters of water a day, which, multiplied by 27 riders, means the support van is driving far and wide every day to find enough water and deliver it to all the riders on the road.

We also are leaving the utopia of flatness we have enjoyed up thus far. The past two rides have each included a “hard” climb of 3 miles at a 12-15% grade — both to climb one of the many mesas which are now on all sides. Hard is in quotations because although half our riders walked parts of both hills, we are now located at the rear end of the Rockies, and will get thrown into “real” climbs very shortly. One nice feature of the changing terrain, however, is that once in a while, we get a great descent. Yesterday, Kevin and I rode ahead and tackled one of the best descent either of us had ever ridden. For about 2 miles, we followed switchbacks down into a canyon, reaching 47.4 mph, a new personal best. Though Kevin and I finished the ride at 2:30 PM yesterday, we had riders on the road until 7 PM, who were pounded by a violent storm with hail, etc. We are all glad to have a day off to recuperate, and tomorrow we will ride to Espanola, NM. It's great to be in a new state after 8 days in Texas.

I am having a wonderful time and learning so much about the needs of the fabric of people who make up our nation. At every gas station, church and town in which we stop, everyone is excited to be a part of this movement for positive change in our world. I'm excited to have another build day in Farmington, NM, for the first time since Slidell, LA.

As we head into the Rocky Mountains, thanks for your continued support and interest of the trip — Bike and Build 2006 — pedaling to end poverty housing.

As always, look for updates, including journal entries and photos from our route (SUS), on the website, www.bikeandbuild.org.

Final Reflections

We made it! Although we always knew we would see San Francisco, the sense of accomplishment and joy I felt from actually rolling across the Golden Gate right into the ocean is beyond anything I could have anticipated. As we all try to integrate back into “normal” life — i.e. lives without diets of PB&J, wake-up calls at 4 AM, 9 hours of daily biking, or races to county lines — we can’t help but reminisce about this past summer, which already feels like a distant dream to many of us.

After 2 months on the road, it is exceedingly difficult to convey the Bike & Build experience to a well-wishing classmate or friend in any semblance of a compressed elevator speech. If someone asks what I did this summer, it’s almost necessary to find a comfortable place to sit down for half an hour, while I attempt to explain the trip in its entirety. It seems, however, that regardless of what I begin to talk about, I ultimately end up speaking again and again about the people of the trip. The 27 of us who biked and laughed and cried and served and trekked over 3740 miles across the Southern US became the best of friends. By living together, day in and day out, we became a family. We shared life experiences and wisdom, our hopes, plans and dreams for the future and each minute of each day with each other. Aside from this team, we came in contact with hundreds of people over the course of 10 states, each with their own story and struggles. From the churches and families who provided food and shelter for us, to the partner families of the different Habitat for Humanity work sites at which we built, my own perspective and life experience was widely broadened by sharing a day or even an evening with individuals across our nation. Chiefly, my motivation to serve humanity was profoundly deepened by experiencing both the generosity of our hosts and the impact we made on the lives of the people we, in turn, served.

Although we beheld many amazing sights, and accomplished a great feat, the meaning of the trip lies solely in each individual biker’s experience. In those experiences lies the greatest potential of future service to humanity the world has ever known — the capable and committed heart of today’s youth — made steadfast by experiences like those had on Bike and Build 2006.