On the long road, strangers became neighbors
An Illinois Wesleyan professor reflects on his cross-country trek to raise funds for
Habitat for Humanity.
Story by Greg Shaw, Associate Professor of Political Science
Among the desolate yet stunning vistas Shaw faced was the stretch of old Highway 66
that winds through New Mexico’s Navajo reservation. Throughout his trip, he encountered
the bleakness of rural poverty that had turned many towns that he passed “into little
more than dots on the map.”
Shaw had his picture taken at Coney Island in Brooklyn, N.Y., where his 37-day, 3,300-mile
odyssey came to a conclusion.
The advice on the road ahead seemed incongruous: “You’ll want to make sure your low
gears are working. It’s really hilly through there.” This was Kansas, after all. How
hilly could it be?
Riding a bicycle from San Diego to New York City this spring, raising money for Habitat
for Humanity, taught me much. Two important lessons relate to the earnest warning
about steep grades in the heart of the Midwest. The Kansan’s comment evidences a couple
of points at once. Localism is the lens through which most people, I suspect, see
the world. For Kansans, those are big hills. Second, concern for a stranger’s well-being
is just tempting enough to lead many people, unbidden, to do some wonderful things.
Shelter in a storm. A ride to a grocery store 10 miles off the route. Good directions
to a free campground. Localism and kindness to strangers played out repeatedly on
my 37-day, 3,300-mile journey. These principles underlie the work of Habitat for Humanity
About a year ago I sat down with the executive director of our local Habitat office
to discuss a cross-country fundraising ride. Joining an already very successful team
is a real pleasure. This project would help finance the 11th house to be built by
students at Illinois Wesleyan University and Illinois State University in as many
years. Ours is the most prolific collegiate chapter in the nation. So far, so good.
But when he asked me to name a fundraising goal, I nervously sputtered something about
$5,000. Five thousand dollars. How in the world was I going to do that? I could plot
the route, ride the miles, tolerate the weather, and so on. But raise five grand?
That seemed ambitious.
Despite the initial uncertainty, this odyssey saw many delightful days on the road
punctuated by loneliness, exultation, a little discouragement, many doses of humor,
and several profoundly satisfying moments. I was sorry to witness yet again the decline
of small-town America along the way, but the lessons about hospitality and localism
were important. These five weeks of the simple life — up with the sun, lots of exercise,
carrying only the necessities, early to bed — turned out to be an emotionally complicated
but rewarding experience.
After months of trip planning and a thousand miles of training rides, I found myself
at the San Diego International Airport on May 2 with my bike in a box, arms loaded
with about 25 pounds of gear, and full of nervous excitement. The first five days
would take me across mountains, through 300 miles of desert, and up onto the Colorado
Plateau at Flagstaff, Ariz., just over 7,000 feet above sea level. After that, heading
east across the Navajo Reservation and following old Route 66 through northern New
Mexico provided a break from the heat but also time to reflect on rural poverty and
dwindling populations in small communities along the way.
It’s no surprise that more than a few towns through the middle part of the country
have launched a new homesteading movement. Cheap land is plentiful in lots of small
towns where one can linger in the middle of Main Street at mid-day chatting with a
local and pay no mind to traffic. The only catch there is finding a way to make a
These are towns that used to be. Half the businesses on Main Street in Tucumcari,
N.M. (pop. 5,700), are boarded up. The others are mostly payday loan sharks, liquor
stores, and used car lots. The habit of asking locals to confirm the existence of
the next burg up ahead came quickly. One never knows if the mass exodus to the bigger
cities has reduced the next spot of civilization to little more than a dot on the
map. Lunch in a small-town caf north of Amarillo gave me the chance to soak up laments
of how things used to be there in Channing, Texas, and to take in a debate about available
amenities 25 miles up the road, in the town (if you want to call it that) of Four
Way. Was the convenience store still open, or not? The waitress’ money was on “no.”
Others insisted “yes.” The waitress was right. Another night of primitive camping.
Another town that used to be.
The Plains states made for good traveling — and a whole range of emotions. Crossing
the Mississippi River not only meant that two-thirds of the continent lay behind me,
but it also marked a temporary reprieve from the loneliness of the road, as my good
friend and IWU political science colleague Jim Simeone joined me there for five days
of riding, through to Cincinnati. We spent our first night camped beside a factory
in Hamel, Ill., at the plant manager’s invitation. Our host wondered out loud over
our peculiar sense of how to vacation – we must have looked odd indeed, dressed in
our spandex, funny shoes, and helmets. But taking in a mediocre Elvis impersonator
in town that evening renewed my perspective, kind of in the way watching people air
their dirty laundry on day-time TV talk shows makes you feel normal and on-track by
comparison. A few days later — parting again from my family after meeting them in
Cincinnati for a night — shifted the perspective yet again, this time reawakening
Climbing the high parts of the Appalachians for two days drenched in a too-cool rain,
especially through eastern West Virginia where trailer homes are thick on the land,
once again illustrated the sorry state of low-income housing in the U.S. One family,
ready to bail out of impoverished Preston County, W. Va., had hand-lettered a plywood
sign in the front yard: “ALL CONTENTS OF HOUSE: $450.” Apparently no takers there,
on the flip-side of the American Dream. Farther on, crossing the Mason-Dixon Line
into the prosperous and beautiful farm country of Pennsylvania, raised my spirits
as the hills flattened out. Rolling into New Jersey and initially finding no place
to stay on my last night out marked another low point. But riding on ahead of that
evening’s thunderstorm and finally being taken in at a Presbyterian church in the
nick of time not only kept me dry, but, more importantly, reinforced my faith in the
kindness of strangers.
With the crossing reaching an end, thoughts turned to the tension that accompanies
any significant travel. Specifically, the point of the journey is not to arrive, but
arrival is still sweet, especially when it involves a ferry ride across New York Harbor
on an absolutely perfect June day.
Arriving home via train, I learned that the steady stream of pledges continued apace.
In the next two weeks the amount raised reached the goal and kept climbing, finally
topping $8,000. (This year’s Habitat houses will cost about $60,000 each to build.)
Local people had committed to a local project, and our students would be on their
way to putting a roof over the heads of yet another family.
But here’s the rub: a shortage of decent, affordable housing still plagues many, perhaps
most, communities in this country, and that is unlikely to end any time soon. Economic
markets simply don’t follow our more benevolent urges. High-visibility efforts to
build houses for and with families in need just might fool us into thinking we’re
actually effecting a fundamental change regarding affordable housing in America, but
that’s a chance I’m more than willing to take. While it’s true that the landscape
of public policy-making is thickly littered with attempts to placate in lieu of comprehensive
solutions, good work still counts. Building more than 90 houses in McLean County over
the past two decades, as Habitat for Humanity has done, won’t put our area’s homeless
shelters out of business, but it sure matters in a very tangible way to those 90-plus
home-owning families who are our neighbors.
The gifts we give through this effort come around to repay us in surprising and wonderful
ways. Better neighborhoods. Families busy building equity in their own houses rather
than in those of their landlords. Healthy places for kids to grow. It’s about local
people extending a hand to others in our own communities. These new homeowners, initially
unknown but who become friends through shared labor, are our newly empowered neighbors.
As I learned on my trek across America, there are blessings to receive when we regard
the people we encounter not as strangers, but as neighbors. The kindness I received
from people who didn’t even know me, in places that may have been financially impoverished
but maintained a generosity of spirit, strengthened my confidence in the persistently
stubborn goodness of people. Striving to be the most generous person you know pays
very interesting dividends. The lesson reinforced for me — a modern take on a passage
from the 11th chapter of Ecclesiastes — is that if you cast your bread upon the water,
it comes back buttered.
Editor’s Note: To learn more about Habitat for Humanity, including a listing of local
affiliates, go to www.habitat.org